Ask the Doctors: What Do I Do With This Porn Collection?

I recently bought a house from an elderly friend, who sold it to me furnished. While cleaning out his apartment after he moved to an assisted living facility, I came across his porn collection from the 70s and 80s. I haven’t counted how many magazines there are, but they fill a big drawer.

I’m trying to figure out the best thing to do with the collection. It doesn’t seem right to sell it, and it doesn’t seem right to destroy it. After a quick look, some of it has a feel that is exploitative (the people look out of it, or like they’re not having such a good time). Some of it seems celebratory. The collection includes gay, straight, and bi images, for lack of a more elegant way to describe them. None of the people that I saw looked under age. I don’t want to keep it, and I feel like there are people out there who’d appreciate it, but I want to be thoughtful about what happens next. It would be nice if any exploitation that went into the process of making the images stopped now — maybe that would mean donating it to research, or selling it and giving proceeds to a group that supports sex workers. Something different from just destroying it. I don’t know. I also don’t know if there are any legal considerations.

I’ve been to a couple of events at the Center for Sex and Culture and read one of your books, and thought you’d be the perfect person to ask. Thanks for any thoughts you might have about this.
— Unprepared Porn Guardian

Thank you for being so very thoughtful in considering this collection’s future. I note in your letter both a sensitivity to the politics, for lack of a more precise term, of this material, but also a respect for what the magazines may have represented to your elderly friend. As you probably know, not everyone accords pornography the value they’d show to other cultural material, so it is truly a form of ephemera, more likely to be discarded or destroyed from one generation to another than Playbill magazines brought home from the theatre.

There are probably no legal considerations with this collection, apart from not moving the magazines on into the hands of under-18 youth — much as young people are curious about sex and often quite interested in looking at illustrated material (which, let’s face it, is one way to describe porn), there are stringent laws to keep so-called “harmful material” out of the hands of minors.

The Center for Sex & Culture maintains an archive of porn (and pretty much everything else sex-related), as does the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, and you could donate the magazines to either place. Researchers could see them, but they’d be mostly out of circulation. There are likely a few other archives around the country that will accept at least some of them: possibly the Kinsey Institute, and the BDSM/fetish material, if any, might be relevant to the Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago.

If you do decide to sell the magazines to donate the proceeds, you might be able to do it at The Magazine, a shop on Larkin Street in San Francisco, which often buys old mags. If you have the time, you might want to get a table at the quarterly Kinky Flea Market (a.k.a. Lady Thorn’s SM Flea), where you can sell the mags individually. (Both of these resources are in San Francisco; other cities might have bookstores that would buy them, and online sales are also possible.) The most logical recipients of donated funds in San Francisco would be the St James Infirmary, probably. Or CSC again, which offers free-to-cheap sex worker writing classes and support networking which such a donation could help support.

Outside the Bay Area there are terrific sex worker-supportive organizations like HIPS (Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive) and Different Avenues, providing sex worker-inclusive reproductive justice for women and girls of color — both in Washington DC; the Desiree Alliance, a national group which puts on conferences for sex workers and academics who study relevant issues; and SWOP, the Sex Workers’ Outreach Project, has branches in many US cities. A supportive organization specifically for sex workers who make porn is AIM (formerly known as Adult Industry Medical, now called AIM Medical Associates P.C.).

Finally, it’s possible that erotic artists would make good use of these, particularly if you have magazines that are in bad condition. They can be collage fodder or can be drawn or painted from.

Why is it important to preserve old porn? Because it’s an artifact of its time, sexologically significant and helping current and future scholars to understand the sexual mores, discourses, and biases of any given time. Thank you for taking the time to consider how to dispose of your unexpected collection.


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Dr. Carol Queen

Carol Queen has a PhD in sexology; she calls herself a "cultural sexologist" because her earlier academic degree is in sociology: while she addresses individual issues and couple's sexual concerns, her overarching interest is in cultural issues (gender, shame, access to education, etc.). Queen has worked at Good Vibrations, the woman-founded sexuality company based in San Francisco that turned 35 years old in 2012, since 1990. Her current position is Staff Sexologist and Good Vibrations Historian; her roles include representing the company to the press and the public; overseeing educational programming for staff and others; and scripting/hosting a line of sex education videos, the Pleasure-Ed series, for GV’s sister company Good Releasing. She also curates the company's Antique Vibrator Museum. She is also the founding director of the Center for Sex & Culture, a non-profit sex ed and arts center San Francisco, and is a frequent lecturer at colleges, universities, and community-based organizations. Her dozen books include a Lambda Literary Award winner, PoMoSexuals, and Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture, which are used as texts in some college classes. She blogs at the Good Vibes Magazine and at SFGate's City Brights bloggers page and contributes to the Boston Dig. For more about her at carolqueen.com.

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