From filth peddler to filthy rich: the life and times of Larry Flynt

Larry Claxton Flynt Jr.
1 November 1942 to 10 February 2021

The recent death of American porn king Larry Flynt offers an opportunity to reassess the disastrous consequences of his lucrative industry. He built an empire selling even cruder material than Playboy, digging ever deeper down, to the lowest common denominator: lust.  

Born in 1942 into poverty in Kentucky, he enriched himself by exploiting male weakness. Flynt opened his first Hustler Club in 1968. By 1971 there were Hustler clubs all over Ohio.

In 1972 Flynt launched Hustler magazine. This was followed by Hustler clubs and TV channels, sex-themed products and spin-off publications like Barely Legal, featuring nude women allegedly aged 18 and over, but looking younger.  

In 1976 he was convicted of publishing obscene material, but a jail sentence was overturned on appeal. In 1983 Hustler allegedly libelled televangelist Jerry Falwell. A Virginia court fined him US$100,000 in punitive damages and a further $100,000 for hurting Falwell’s feelings. Flynt appealed and in a landmark decision in 1988, the Court decided in his favour. It ruled unanimously that freedom of speech was more important than the feelings of public figures.

Flynt hailed the SCOTUS ruling as the most important First Amendment victory since the ban on James Joyce’s Ulysses was overturned in 1933. He boasted: “If the First Amendment will protect a scumbag like me, then it will protect all of you.”

Paralysed and confined to a gold-plated wheelchair after an assassination attempt in 1978, Flynt came to be seen as a heroic defender of speech, an image projected in the 1996 film The People vs Larry Flynt.

Feminists hated it and despite praise from civil liberties groups and Oscar nominations, it was a box office flop. Gloria Steinem’s National Organisation of Women called a press conference featuring Flynt’s daughter Tonya, a Christian anti-pornography activist, who publicly accused him of sexually abusing her. Flynt responded that she was an “habitual liar who would do anything to get attention”.

Flynt was also active in politics. A Democrat, he offered a $1 million reward for dirt on leading Republicans while President Bill Clinton was being impeached. In 2017 he ran a full-page advertisement in The Washington Post offering $10 million for information which would lead to the impeachment of President Trump.

He stood as an independent against Ronald Reagan for President in 1984 and in 2003 campaigned for the governorship of California with the slogan “Vote for a smut-peddler who cares”. He promised to legalise prostitution, keep out immigrants and liberalise gambling laws; he finished seventh out of 135 candidates.

Inside Larry Flynt’s mind

In life Flynt was treated by the media a bit like an embarrassing rich uncle, a genial black sheep.  

After his death last month from heart failure, the brutal truth emerged in the obituaries. According to The Guardian, in his heyday, Flynt, five-times-wed, “lived a life that could have made Caligula blush”; Hustler “came to be infamous for featuring explicit photos that made its competitor Playboy seem mild. Virtually nothing was off limits on Hustler’s pages.”

A 2011 interview with British journalist Johann Hari, “Larry Flynt: Freedom fighter, pornographer, monster?”, was very revealing. Flynt had “been lauded as a crusader for free speech,” wrote Hari. “But he got rich by depicting women being raped in concentration camps”. He even boasted: “Moses freed the Jews. Lincoln freed the slaves. I freed the neurotics”.

When Hari challenged him about a Hustler feature entitled “The Naked and the Dead”, which had depicted a woman being “forcibly shaved, raped, and apparently killed in a concentration camp”, Flynt was adamant. He responded: “That is satire. That’s what I went to the United States Supreme Court for. It was a landmark judgment. It was a unanimous decision. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist, one of the most conservative justices, said sometimes things are done under the name of the First Amendment that are less than admirable but that doesn’t give the government the right to suppress it.”

“I support your right to say it,” said Hari, but “I have a right to respond by saying it’s vile and asking you why you did it … what’s it satirising?” Flynt responds: “It’s satirising the whole idea of a pretty girl being executed.” Hari’s response is devastating: “how is that a concept that needs satirising? How is that even a concept at all?”

Like other pornographers, Flynt posed as a feminist in the easiest way possible – by supporting abortion. Ugly as that position was, he uglified it even further. His comments to Hari about Sarah Palin’s son Trig, who has Down’s syndrome, were appalling.

“Sarah Palin is the dumbest thing ... She did a disservice to every woman in America. She knew from the first month of pregnancy that kid was going to be Down’s Syndrome. It’s brain dead. A virtual vegetable ... How long is it going to live? Another 12, 15 years? Doesn’t even know it’s in this world. So what kind of compassionate conservative is she? I don’t think anybody will want her near the White House.”

Hari was left speechless.

Larry Flynt, cultural icon

After being shot and disabled, the smut peddler became a martyr for unfettered freedom of expression. The 1996 movie gave his halo an extra polish. He was another reason for baby boomers to canonise free speech as the highest of human rights.

But now, in the era of #MeToo, #EnoughIsEnough and #RapeCulture, were they right? Was Larry Flynt a hero, a flawed hero, but a hero nonetheless?

Every day, more reasons pile up to say No.

Instead of ushering in an era of peace, love and freedom, Larry Flynt helped create a society disfigured by violence, lust and lack of freedom.

It didn’t have to be this way. Mary Whitehouse, the British anti-pornography campaigner, warned in 1971: ‘“Those who control the channels of communication will hold history, and progress, by the throat”. And in 1985 she wisely observed: “Whether or not we switch off the television set, we cannot switch off from the society in which it exists and helps to create.”

Unfortunately, Mrs Whitehouse turned out to be one of “history’s losers”. But as journalist Louise Perry observed last year, “in retrospect, it is indeed clear that while Whitehouse got a lot wrong, she also got a lot right.”

Against all Freudian assumptions, giving in to the sin of lust leads to the sin of anger, paradoxically even more so when it is indulged than when it is frustrated. In a world where porn is normalised, male customers on internet dating sites insist that prospective partners engage in degrading and violent sexual acts.

The #MeToo movement against sexual harassment promised to stop such horrors. Hollywood found a work-around so that it could continue depicting sex: producers are commissioning quasi-pornographic dramas written and directed by women.

Laws which ignore pornography will fail to stop the rise in sexual violence. In the UK, threating to share revenge porn on the internet and misogyny will be made hate crimes.

However, misogynistic pornography remains legal, and when parents fret about the problem of premature sexualisation, authorities suggest counter-productively that children be taught about it in school.

Larry Flynt’s pornography fuelled the sexual revolution. And it has become blindly obvious that this leads straight to misogynistic violence. After so-called sexual freedom killed love, porn transformed women into throwaway objects only fit to be destroyed.

Porn degrades both men and women by reducing men to abusers and women, at best, to helpless victims and, at worst, to pieces of meat. If Man is made in the image and likeness of God, porn distorts that image, with men, women and even children -- God’s most beautiful creation – dehumanised, as sex is redefined as a personal hobby rather than as the means of generating new life.

But even if we reject the theological view, the elimination of self-control via obscenity and woke censorship has created a hideous amalgam of Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984. History shows that a society composed of isolated individuals obsessed with their sexual egos is not a society and cannot endure. In the UK nowadays, one in 50 people – around 1 million – do not know who their biological father is, there are 100,000 children in care, the birth rate is declining, and the abortion rate is soaring.

Paradoxically, we need limits in order to be free; without them, we have become so used to seeing pornography that we no longer see it for what it is – a way of commercialising our basest instincts.  

To civil libertarians, Larry Flynt was embarrassingly crude, but on balance he was an heroic foot soldier in the fight for freedom of speech. But the truly embarrassing thing is that our elites applauded while Flynt became filthy rich by purveying filth. Far from freeing the world, he enslaved it. That is his legacy to us and to our children and our children’s children.


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