The Four Lessons I Learned From Working At Europe’s Largest Porn Publishers

In the great British tradition, “obscene” material likely to “deprave and corrupt” left plenty of leeway for interpretation.

May 14, 2020

Maxine Page
PulpTrade
micadew


ack in the early 1990s, I worked for (what was then) the largest porn publishers in Europe and it taught me a whole lot about the sex industry, pushing boundaries, fetishes, interior decor, and well, people in general.

I stumbled across my new career pretty much by accident, after seeing an advertisement to work on a “radical” new magazine a company called Northern & Shell was launching . It was a porn mag for women, titled, imaginatively, “For Women”, which was purchased primarily — and not all that surprisingly — by gay men.

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I grew up in a town called Maidstone, which is located in Kent, about an hour outside of London. I attended the local girls’ grammar school where at that time their primary aim was to prepare students for an unremarkable office-based career in insurance or banking — so it’s safe to say that porn maven wasn’t on the curriculum, but then I was never one to play by the rules.

Photograph of clothed young blonde woman posing for Penthouse magazine
Back in the Day // author Maxine Samantha Page

After acing the interview, I joined the company in 1992 — it was my first foray into the world of publishing having previously held a number of bizarre and somewhat random jobs — including a two-year stint as a residential social worker in a “care” home for troubled girls, a brief career as a sanitary towel disposal unit salesperson and a markedly unsuccessful run at selling BMWs.

For any non-Brits, before he became a “respectable” newspaper publisher and owner of the national TV station Channel 5, Northern & Shell’s CEO, Richard Desmond was a porn peddler — on a massive scale.

Incidentally, Desmond started out by publishing a little music industry trade magazine called “International Musician and Recording World” back in 1974, but quickly zoned in on where the major bang for your buck — so to speak — was to be made.

At that time, Great Britain was one of the few liberalized democracies in the Western world that refused to legalize hardcore porn, and the Obscene Publications Act (which was passed in 1959) helped make the country’s obscenity laws some of the strictest in Europe.

However, in the great British tradition, the law’s wording was somewhat vague, defining obscene material as that which is likely to “deprave and corrupt” leaving plenty of leeway for interpretation.

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Publishing houses had started producing adult magazines at the beginning of the 20th century, often featuring burlesque models posing semi-nude under the guise of “art magazines”. The scene changed in 1975 when Bob Guccione launched the British edition of “Penthouse”, featuring full-frontal nudes and pubic hair for the first time; the magazine pushed the boundaries of what was viewed as obscene, and it spurred a number of rival titles such as “Mayfair” “Knave” and “Fiesta”.

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Northern & Shell (or, Northern & Hell as most employees came to call it at some point during their tenure) entered the adult market in 1983 when it started publishing “Penthouse” under license from Guccione and their porn empire grew to a whopping 45 titles in total, including such subtlety-named magazines as “Big Ones International”, “Asian Babes”, “Pregnant Asian Babes”, “40 Plus”, “50 Plus”, “Electric Blue”, “Black and Blue” and “Real Wives” amongst others.

They later launched yet another “female” porn magazine, called “Women Only”, which, once again, was purchased predominantly by gay men.

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In the dim and distant early ’90s, there wasn’t such a thing as internet porn yet — YouPorn wasn’t launched until 2006 and PornHub followed a year later in 2007, so adult magazines, VHS tapes, and gloriously seedy little Soho theaters with disturbingly sticky seats, were pretty much the only options available when it came to obtaining some visual stimulation.

It wasn’t all about the visual though, it was also big business when it came to the aural — yes, aural, not oral. 0898 phone numbers—which gave access to an array of pre-recorded sex lines—were a huge moneymaker back then, and they catered for every conceivable fetish and desire you can think of.

All you had to do was choose your niche, dial the number, and for an extortionate premium phone charge you could sit back, listen, and get your rocks off. (Cue many a pissed-off teenage boy’s parents receiving a £400 phone bill shocker.)

So that’s the background. Here’s what I learned.

1. The vast majority of “Real Wives” have really bad taste in decor.

It didn’t take a genius to work out that magazines full of naked men were being consumed mainly by gay men, and that when they wanted to actually “read” something they would buy “GQ” or such like.

Myself and a close friend, who was also a co-worker (that sadly passed away last year, R.I.P. Debbie Cunningham) came up with the idea of publishing a consumer magazine for gay men — basically a GQ style publication, not porn — that was actually officially for gay men, dealing with issues they could relate to, and including articles and interviews specifically targeted at the male gay market.

To our surprise, the person we pitched it to was actually interested, and in 1994 Northern & Shell published the first issue of “Attitude” magazine.

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In truth, it was kind of a bastardized version of what we had envisioned, the majority of the advertising was still phone sex and adult industry related, and it was a tad more “adult” than “consumer” in content, but it was something. (Meanwhile, of course, Debbie and I got absolutely no credit whatsoever for coming up with the idea.)

N & S hired a whole gay editorial team and over the years the magazine became more mainstream, and they’ve run some genuinely cool interviews and editorials since their launch. But, forget all that — the strongest memory I have of that time was dissecting each new issue of the “hetero” porn mags when they arrived in the office fresh off the printing press.

Looking at “straight” man porn as a woman with gay men really was an eye-opener. Especially when it came to “Real Wives,” which tended to adhere more to the Terry Richardson style bright-light-and-seedy photoshoot aesthetic rather than the “higher quality” porn pictorials.

I remember opening up an issue of “Real Wives” and the first thing I noticed was that one of the model wives was portrayed in all of her full naked glory, legs akimbo, with a tampon string hanging down in full view.

Mary Millington and the yellow bedspread.

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However, the first thing my gay compadres from the “Attitude” team noticed was how bloody awful the 1970s era floral bedspread and clashing striped polyester curtains were; they didn’t even glance at her vagina or the cotton string.

But it was kind of like white privilege; once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it, so sure enough from then on, the first thing I would notice was that everybody had the worst taste in interior decor.

Like, literally, everybody had polyester bedspreads and the grossest wallpaper ever. Where’s Nate Burkus when you need him?

2. The porn industry is consistently pushing employees to cross boundaries — and they push hard.

As I said, the big money maker back in the early 1990s was the 0898 numbers. Pre-recorded sex lines that people called, at an extortionate cost per minute, to jack off to. Obviously, the longer they stayed on the phone, the more money that was made, and these weren’t interactive lines, in that there weren’t two people talking to each other, it was simply a pre-recorded scripted dialogue that somebody would call and listen to.

I somehow accidentally fell into writing phone sex scripts for one of the largest companies at the time, as a side hustle. It paid really really well and I discovered that I had a remarkable aptitude for it. I wrote for all genres and fetishes, but for some bizarre reason, I was particularly good at writing hardcore bondage scripts for the gay male audience.

Go figure.

As technology evolved, there was a growing demand for more interactive phone sex, and the company I was working for on the side started pressuring me to do live talk calls. I couldn’t care less about knocking out scripts left, right and center, but actually talking one on one with a real live person was really not my bag. Still, the pressure continued, and eventually, I caved. I was in my early twenties at the time so I was easily manipulated, and again, it was really good money.

I managed to perform one call in total, and it ended pretty damn quick, which leads me to the conclusion that either I was really good at it, or really, really bad — I suspect the latter. Either way, I had no desire to find out which it was, and as scripted phone lines began to dry up, I started to accept I’d lost my “side hustle.”

However, despite the fact that I was over it, the company I’d been writing for certainly wasn’t.

They began pressuring me — hard and persistently — to participate in “at home” “sexy” videos — which basically meant hanging out at a camera-rigged stage house clad in a sexy negligee type number, phoning a plumber for an emergency house call, then bending over in front of him, letting the strap of my negligee slip down, sitting seductively on the kitchen counter, and so on… you get the idea.

They kept insisting it wasn’t porn, there would be no sex involved, it was all good-hearted harmless fun, it was simply about capturing his reaction — kind of like “Candid Camera” crossed with “To Catch a Predator,” but without Chris Hanson and involving a totally innocent workman.

Funnily enough, I said no. I didn’t even need to take a minute to think about it. But, they kept on pushing me and pushing me to do it. *

3. Used “Sexy schoolgirl” panties very likely do not come from “sexy schoolgirls”:

The secretary for the N & S classified advertising department was an older lady, from South London, probably around 60-years-old or so. I’ll call her “Margaret” for the sake of this article.

“Margaret” was a grandma of twelve, had an opinion on absolutely everything, and was probably one of the most judgemental people I’ve ever met in my life. Funnily enough, though, she also had a side hustle, and it was running ads in the classified pages of the adult mags selling used “sexy schoolgirl” panties — that were actually hers.

“Margaret” used an (obviously) fake photo of some young girl, and wrote an ad in the style of a 14- or 15-year-old. She had a P.O. box for payments to go to and had set up some kind of shady company to cash the checks in to. The market may have peaked by now, but let me tell you, back in 1992–1994, the used panties business was positively bullish.

Now, credit where credit’s due, “Margaret” would never try and trick her customers — any used panty aficionado would sniff out a fake immediately — and she really knew her market. Oh yes, she knew about the three different smell “zones” (clitoral, vaginal, and anal) and she would happily cater to even the grossest and most bizarre client requests.

As “Margaret” once told me, she had to support her son’s kids because he was in prison for nearly beating to death his “baby momma”…..

A grandma’s gotta do, what a grandma’s gotta do.

4. Your parents could very likely be the kinkiest MoFos out there…

Pretty much nobody (well nobody I know anyway) wants to think about their parents having sex — and as a society, we tend to label “kinky” people as being a certain type of way, in addition to completely desexualizing the elderly. But, just a short period of working on the Forum letters page, taught me that even your good old sweet and lovely Auntie Sarah could be letting her freak flag fly very regularly and very openly.

One of the most shocking aspects of opening up the mountains of letters we received daily was the content of the polaroid photos that were enclosed (yes, I am that old). To this day one image is still burned eternally into my mind, and it just will not leave. An avid Forum reader — the demo of which, interestingly tends to be of a much higher socio-economic and educational background than the average Joe — sent a series of polaroids to us of his wife, erm…in flagrante?

The lady looked just like the nicest, regular, run of the mill mid-Western grandma, she even had a broad smile on her face and nicely permed grey hair. However, she just so happened to be spread-eagled on her (polyester bedspread covered) mattress, with wooden clothes pegs attached all over her genitals and nipples.

Her husband went on to tell us in his accompanying letter that he just loved to drink her urine. He was somewhat of a urine connoisseur and waxed lyrical about how the taste would be changed by what was consumed beforehand. He went into disturbingly deep detail about how one food would result in urine that was like a fine “Chablis” whereas another would be more “Pinot Grigio” (He was clearly a urine connoisseur and a wine snob.)

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He went on to describe how he liked to store his wife’s urine in a cut-glass decanter, that he kept chilled in the fridge, so he could sip on it during the evening while relaxing in his favorite armchair and watching “Antiques Roadshow”.

Trust me, you don’t always need — or want — to know the “secret recipe”

What was most disturbing to me though — and still occasionally crosses my mind right up until this day — is that the piss-loving hubby also confessed that he was fond of holding regular dinner parties for all of the couple’s closest friends and serve them his “special” brisket, which everybody always raved about and begged to know the “secret recipe” for.

Oh come on now, you know where this is going, right?

Yep. Sure enough, he would marinate the meat for 24 hours in his wife’s “unique juices” to “tenderize” it before cooking and then serving it to his unwitting friends.

I learned one hell of a lot from working at Europe’s largest porn publishers, and that’s just the tip of the spear, so to speak.

*No, I never did, in case you were wondering.

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