Interview: Larry Flynt, porn mogul, on the stigma around sex, that assassination attempt, and born-again Christianity

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Awaiting the arrival of the porn world’s top dog, a mid-afternoon G&T in the Union bar felt like a good move. The powerhouse behind America’s unsurpassably explicit mag Hustler, countless porn films, and Hustler Casino, Larry Flynt has topped the porn hierarchy since the 70s. Dutch courage seemed wise. Hence my later surprise to find myself back in the bar with the man himself jovially suggesting I give him a call if ever I happen to be in LA: “I know all the best restaurants.” Virgin Airlines on speed-dial, anyone?

Nor would we have expected this giant of the porn industry’s blank expression at a Kama Sutra-related question during his hour-long talk. The ensuing hilarity of the Union President describing the sex manual amidst the crowded cluster of attendees was worth the membership fee in itself. Banter aside, Flynt had a lot to say about free speech and liberties. Predictably enough, he’s not a fan of the stigma around sex, and criticised the tendency of some to impose their own values on others. If sex is our second strongest desire after survival, he asked: “Don’t you think we’d try to understand it a little better?” Flynt contrasted the unending stream of violent images plastered across the media with the outcry that would arise if a sexual picture made a newspaper’s front cover: “We live in a society that condemns sex but condones violence.” Not escaping critics in the audience, he was then challenged by a student who saw war photography as emphasising the value of life as opposed to what he regarded as the demeaning, damaging porn industry.

Flynt was, unsurprisingly, not to be budged from dismissing any downsides to his business (“porn and obscenity are not synonymous”), but his resolution wavered when his family was dropped into discussion. After one listener stood to ask whether children should be shielded from sex if it isn’t a toxic subject, Flynt hesitated. His daughter is forty now, he said, and “one of the biggest squareheads I’ve ever met”, but when she was five she used to play on the pages of Hustler. Flynt added: “I often wondered if this was good or bad”, but ventured no further.

While under no illusions about his adversaries in feminist circles, Flynt nonetheless remains unmoved by criticism: “Everyone is speaking for everyone else.” Drawing a line between male and female attitudes, he said: “Women never know when to give it up – men always know. That’s a problem to reconcile.” His thoughts on LA’s recent move to make condoms obligatory in pornos likewise may jar with many: “Nobody will buy a porn film where the actors are wearing condoms.” Convinced that his actors’ sexual health compares favourably to a one-night stand in Glendale, Flynt was satisfied with bi-monthly STD tests for his employees.

Politics came into the ring more than once: “For two hundred years the government has had its hand on our crotch, cause if they can control that they can control us.” Flynt’s preoccupation with the First Amendment was plain to all from the word ‘go’. Freedom of speech belongs to everyone, he said, not just the New York Times or Washington Post, but it comes at the price of toleration: “For example, I have to tolerate Fox News.” His self-labelling as a “civil libertarian to the core” in 2013 fitted his vocal support for a laissez-faire governmental approach. In rounding off his speech Flynt declared that he was about to give the most profound statement we’d ever hear. One dramatic pause later, he continued: “The greatest right that any nation can afford its people is the right to be left alone.”

On top of politics, the introduction of religion into the talk might have erred on solemnity. Yet Flynt’s flippancy when it came to his year of evangelical Christianity sent the room roaring with laughter: “Oh! My born-again experience – I got over that. Just stop hearing voices and seeing visions and everything will be great.” More comedy gold came with his advice on how to get ahead in the porn industry after one student lamented his repeated failures to penetrate Goldman Sachs: “Endurance, my friend, endurance.” As we turned to whether sex itself had much room for humour, Flynt nodded: “Yes, when you get it wrong.”

It wasn’t all light-hearted banter, however. A white supremacist’s assassination attempt in 1978 (after a Hustler interracial photoshoot) left the porn mogul paralysed from the waist down. After his attacker’s arrest nine years later, Flynt opposed the death sentence given to this serial killer. “Family members sit in the courtroom not for justice but for vengeance”, he said, and the idea of the US being grouped with other death sentence proponents like Korea and Iran was not one that sat well with Flynt. He supplemented this with an historical anecdote about pickpockets working their way through crowds at convicted pickpockets’ public hangings.

Larry Flynt’s rags-to-riches life has certainly roller-coastered since his desperate bootlegging days in America’s 1920s Prohibition Era. His initial admission of hoping to deliver “a kernel of truth” in his talk seemed strikingly sincere, and while his X-rated business could never be of universal appeal, nor did he assume the alien character of my expectations.