Illegally made and exhibited, featuring hardcore sex images and acts, stag films were vital stepping stones toward the sexual revolution of the 1960s. As much teaching tools as turn-ons for early viewers, stags were instrumental in modifying attitudes toward sex over the course of the 20th century. The Museum of Sex in New York offers a fascinating peep at the history of stags, from the earliest days of silent cinema to the 1960s, replete with mock 1930s movie theater and titillating artifacts and footage. PKM’s Erika Blair speaks with Kelsey Brewer, the curator of STAG.
I sat in a mock 1930s movie theater chair, in the dark, and felt myself getting turned on. Strangers filled the seats next to mine, all of us staring straight ahead as a large black and white projection of vaginal penetration flickered across the screen. We were all here for STAG: The Illicit Origins of Pornographic Film, The Museum of Sex’s enticing current exhibition (through October 29, 2019). As I felt the plush velvet seat brushing against my bare thighs, a man’s disembodied voice loomed over us, his pretend audience, telling stories about attending stag parties of the past…long before the legion halls and brothels that housed them had been torn down. The overflowing ashtrays emptied and pawned off.
“I’m sure glad it was dark in there,” the nameless voice quips. “I was holding off getting a hard on. There was nervous laughter, but everyone secretly had boners.”
New York City tourists laughed uncomfortably and wandered between small dimly-lit movie screens behind us. I overheard a couple talk about finding their parent’s porn collections as kids. Between awkward jokes and glances, most seemed eager to learn more and, much to my delight, were actually reading the museum wall texts.
After meeting with the resident-curator Lissa Rivera, and bonding over our love of filth, freedom of speech and ‘70s punk, I knew that I was going to really, really enjoy this exhibition. As Rivera guided me through her exhibit, I kept thinking about how I was there for research, but everywhere I turned, a menagerie of wayward nurses, angry headmasters, garter belts, nude Marilyn Monroe lookalikes, and punished schoolgirls flashed their distractions. Even in their silent, jumpy, black-and-white forms, I found myself both aroused and fascinated.
Scene after shaky scene reveals the nervousness these amateur filmmakers must have felt, or is it their own arousal, too, that we’re seeing? A personal favorite was an American stag called The Dentist(1947). A dentist slowly undresses and fondles an unconscious patient while looking directly at the camera. I liked the raw nature of the whole thing; the amateurish aspect was highlighted instead of downplayed. This made it seem all the more real…to find out what happens next, you’ll have to go see the show.
STAG: The Illicit Origins of Pornographic Film is comprehensive and rousing. The show covers not only a detailed history on the age of stags (1908 until 1968) for the unfamiliar, but also offers a chance to reflect on what stags did wrong, right, and everything in that seductive gray area in-between. I had a conversation with the guest-curator of the show, Kelsey Brewer, that ranged from the history of stags and film censorship to the JFK assassination.
PKM: How did you get involved in curating this show?
Kelsey Brewer: I met Lissa Rivera [Curator, Museum of Sex] through a previous show and we hit it off. My background is in film and I’m an interdisciplinary artist that deals with the hands-on making of things. She reached out a few weeks after we met and asked if I’d be interested in curating this show because it would fit [my] skill set. I’m interested in doing this type of research and going down these rabbit holes and this related to filmmaking and the history of film.
PKM: The films stayed black and white throughout the history of stag films, despite the fact that film advances and new technology were available. Was there a reason for that?
Kelsey Brewer: That’s actually one of the more interesting things about stag. The earliest films that we consider actual stags—which means that they were illegal to make, and they showed hardcore sex images and acts—happened around 1908. At that time there was no sound and color in film, but the stag era continued until the 1960s, which at that point color and sound were mainstays in film for decades. So, as that technological progression happened through the decades, at first stags were often made by people already in the mainstream film industry. They were trained in the current technology and they were shooting them often in the same studios that mainstream films came out of. So, you see a lot of the same filmmaking and storytelling techniques that you see in mainstream films at that time. And then in the 1930s those professionals started to leave the genre in the hands of amateur producers. Those producers had less of an interest in storytelling and more of an interest in getting to the point and showing the sex. Part of the point of them being intentionally retrograde in that technology (remaining in black and white, not being well-shot or well-lit, actors looking directly at the camera, the camera shaking, no sound)…and the point of that was to make it seem more illicit. This made it seem more of an underground activity and was cheaper and easier to produce.
The show covers not only a detailed history on the age of stags (1908 until 1968) for the unfamiliar, but also offers a chance to reflect on what stags did wrong, right, and everything in that seductive gray area in-between.
PKM: Why where they made in the first place? Were they passion projects, for money? For kicks? For fetishes? Were perverts just making films for other perverts?
Kelsey Brewer: I’m sure that people had different motivations—but the main thing was that this was their livelihood. The producers of these films were often also the exhibitors. Organizations that wanted to host stag screenings or stag parties would pay them to rent the film and the projector and screen the films for their audience. Obviously, they were drawn to making money, but I’m sure they were aware that they were making subversive content on some level. Maybe it had something to do with their own particular fetishes; it’s hard to say. They also had to cater to the whims of their audience which was very cis white male, middle-class, homophobic, and not very educated in sex or sexual practices, so what that audience was comfortable with was pretty limited—so the producers had to keep that in mind. If they showed anything that would freak their audience out (such as same sex between males) that film was not going to go over well.
PKM: I’ve heard of stag parties before—what seems bizarre is the fact that they would theoretically be the last place that a homophobic man would want to go—saturated in machismo…and getting turned on in the presence of your friends. It’s a pretty [homoerotic] activity. I’m curious about your choice to have [the exhibit] staged like an old 1930s movie theater. This was pretty underground, but a fairly common [group] activity amongst middle-class men. In my research for this interview, I came across anecdotes of people hearing about their grandpas going to see stag films, etc. It wasn’t something completely radical or unheard of.
Kelsey Brewer: Yeah! It was more or less an everyman type of thing to do. You wouldn’t have had actual theater seats. For the sake of the exhibition we installed them, but it most commonly would have been a legion hall set-up with run down wood chairs. Everyone chain smoking…That was definitely more of the atmosphere in these places. People were very chummy, raucous, they made jokes and yelled at the screen…they teased each other. And that is also actually another reason why sound didn’t get added to stags; you wouldn’t have been able to hear it, anyway.
The earliest films that we consider actual stags—which means that they were illegal to make, and they showed hardcore sex images and acts—happened around 1908.
PKM: Were these prints ever sold as one-offs to the real sickos that wanted to get off on them in private? Or were these only viewed collectively?
Kelsey Brewer: I don’t doubt that some truly devoted fetishists got their hands on some, but this technology and a way to screen film wasn’t readily accessible to everyone. The people who mainly owned these films were the producers. As time has gone on, they have landed in personal collections but they are hard to accurately archive because they were illegal to have (during the stag era) and not something that prudish people would necessarily be proud to have in their collection. Also, in Europe during WWII bombings, many stags were destroyed—due to the highly flammable nature of nitrate film.
PKM: What was it like researching and curating this show? What’s the strangest and most shocking thing you came across? Give me the filthy details.
Kelsey Brewer: I mean…it was really fun to spend hours watching hundreds of pornographic films!
PKM: Dream job!
Kelsey Brewer: There was a bell curve from it being interesting and titillating to eventually just dropping off and being boring again…like I’ve seen this before…as far as finding the bizarre…that’s definitely what I was seeking. You got an idea of what imagery was common and accepted, so the fun part was trying to find examples that broke the mold—not only with different fetishes and behaviors, but also with alternative sex practices and nationalities. Some intense things I saw…anal pops up now and then (like in this film called Busy Girl in the exhibition) this girl is bending over and this guy penetrates her with a light bulb that is plugged in and turned on.
PKM: Oh god.
Kelsey Brewer: It was pretty interesting. It was from 1940…it was an American film. There’s an example of fisting, several examples of pussy shaving. That was an early fetish. One of the earliest stag films from France in 1908—At the Golden Inn—shows a maid pleasuring herself with a vacuum cleaner hose attachments. Vacuum cleaners had only just been invented.
It most commonly would have been a legion hall set-up with run down wood chairs. Everyone chain smoking…That was definitely more of the atmosphere in these places. People were very chummy, raucous, they made jokes and yelled at the screen…they teased each other.
PKM: Doesn’t that then become a display of class—since it shows that she was in a household that could afford the newest technology?
Kelsey Brewer: Yeah! This is actually a common trope in stag…having new technologies pop up. Cars, airplanes, etc. There’s all sorts of weird things. There’s a film where a gigolo flips a woman upside down and starts giving her oral. It was pretty radical for that time.
PKM: Sadly, eating a woman out is still considered pretty radical…
Kelsey Brewer: That’s definitely true! A lot of the fetishes shown were the same things that you see today…they didn’t restrict themselves as much as you would think coming from the time period that they were made.
PKM: It seems like it allowed the people viewing them—the white men viewing them—to let loose and created an air of acceptability and welcoming when they were so stifled by everything else. Especially sexually.
Kelsey Brewer: Exactly. Especially at the beginning of the stag era. It’s the turn of the century and the Victorian ideas of morality were still at play. There was such a taboo about speaking of sex or even having sex. Also, there were legal deterrents to frank sexual expression. These films also really served as education tools, too.
PKM: I didn’t think about that. This literally was the first time many people were seeing each other have sex.
Kelsey Brewer: Not even that, many people still only had sex in the dark and while still wearing nightgowns or something…for some, this was the first time they were seeing a fully nude woman—even the married men. Showing positions other than missionary was also rare.
One of the earliest stag films from France in 1908—At the Golden Inn—shows a maid pleasuring herself with a vacuum cleaner hose attachments.
PKM: That does not sound like a world that I want to live in.
Kelsey Brewer: Right?
PKM: In the ‘60s, hardcore porn became more prevalent—porn was less about this fantasy experience and a back story and more about quickly watching the explicit act so you could cum. I assume this is why stag films were phased out. People wanted to get to the point. Is that accurate?
Kelsey Brewer: That’s right. I think that loss of interest speaks to a larger cultural shift that happened. You’re talking about the beginning of the 1900s to 1968—you’re covering a huge amount of technological innovation and history (women entering the workforce, the civil rights movement) and as those things happened, the views of what should be permissible sexually were changing along with that…like the rise of sexploitation in the early 60s. With people being able to buy Super 8 cameras and shoot their own amateur porn movies—there became less of a need for stag films to exist. Also, people’s sense of morality on it shifted. It became less and less taboo and the laws changed, making it legal. The MPAA also created their rating system in 1968, and allowed films formerly censored by the Hays Code to have X and XXX ratings. Of course, having an X rating was used as an advertisement for porn producers. Also, in 1968, there was a court case involving the Swedish film, I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967) by Vilgot Sjöman. The court ruled that the sexual expression in the film was not obscene and was protected by the First Amendment. That put the final nail in the coffin as far as keeping porn illegal and caused the Golden Age of Porn.
PKM: Isn’t this fun? I love it.
Kelsey Brewer: So fun. My favorite.
PKM: In my own thesis work on the Playboy Club—the ‘60s commodification and cultural obsession with sexual fantasy—I just can’t figure out what that specific shift was in 1960s’ American consciousness that made us collectively not want that fantasy element coupled with sex. It’s like we regressed to this primal need to watch the act. I’ll watch porn and quickly skip to a part I like, get off, and go about my business. I don’t need the big build-up and storyline. The surrounding elements are unnecessary. What changed? Is it because sex permeates every part of our culture now?
Kelsey Brewer: That’s a great question. Have you seen any of the Playboy stag films? They were later stags, in the early ‘60s. Playboy didn’t directly license them, but many ex-Playmates and Bunnies later starred in them and they used that to draw attention to the films. They were really interesting…they merged that typical Playboy aspect of idolizing the perfect woman and putting her on a pedestal with the typical hardcore sexploitation themes…so she’d be beautiful and elegant but also pregnant and getting double penetration.
Many people still only had sex in the dark and while still wearing nightgowns or something…for some, this was the first time they were seeing a fully nude woman—even the married men.
PKM: No! That’s awesome. Please send them my way.
Kelsey Brewer: Maybe the Playboy gentlemen were not such gentlemen after all.
PKM: In the digital age it seems like you can’t do anything online without indirectly referencing porn. We’re constantly in the place of the voyeur. Do you think that there’s a missing aspect to all of this now that things are no longer underground and illicit? Did we lose an element of sexiness now that porn is everywhere? I think about how peep shows and grimy sex shops are so embedded in New York City’s history.
Kelsey Brewer: Yeah! I’ve been thinking about that, actually, it’s hard for me to directly speak to a nostalgia for a time when sex was more regulated—and I wasn’t alive during that time period…but I wonder if there was a sense of excitement and inherent awkwardness about watching porn films in front of your friends in a communal setting. Not only because it’s erotic, but also because you’re having to pretend that you were well versed in the acts shown—often you weren’t—and act “cool” in front of your friends…all while being turned on. The private aspect of online porn allows people to safely explore new fetishes and sexual interests without embarrassment.
PKM: Yeah, it’s definitely a softer introduction to sex rather than being thrown to the wolves and weird horny men.
Kelsey Brewer: I’m hopeful. I hope that helps us encourage a more sex-positive culture even in regards to culture and erotic activity. We have things like local erotic film festivals and screenings that are very inclusive and if that’s the direction public sexual activities are heading, I’m here for it.
PKM: Definitely. It’s exciting. It’s like it’s come full circle but had to make that journey–as far screening porn that now shows all types of bodies and sexual preferences—made by all sorts of people.
Thank you so much for speaking with me. It’s exciting to talk to another young woman equally invested in sexual history and smut.
Kelsey Brewer: Totally. I’m happy to have people like you thinking about this with me. That was a major reason doing the show. I wanted to highlight that much of this content is extremely sexist and racist, but there is something valuable to looking at it with open eyes and acknowledging what about that history has changed—and what hasn’t—sparking conversation.
PKM: What are the most notorious stag films someone should start with? We need a “stag film 101” primer for our perverted readers.
Kelsey Brewer’s Stag Primer
1896 – The May Irwin Kiss
This is pre-stag era, but it’s a crucial landmark. It is an Edison film, and features a close up of a man and woman’s heads and shoulders. The kiss each other in a very stagy way for under a minute. The action was an adaptation of a stage kiss from a popular play, but the film version sparked huge public outrage. The Catholic church called for more censorship in film, and newspaper editorials called for police action. You can see from this kind of Victorian-informed moral attitude how stag, years later, became what it was – it necessarily had to start off underground.
1908 – A L’Ecu d’Or ou la Bonne Auberge (At the Golden Inn)
One of the earliest known films that could be considered a stag, because it shows penetration, made in France. Featuring a maid masturbating with a vacuum cleaner attachment.
1913 – El Satario
An Argentinian early stag made by a German producer . The date is not certain, some people think it is more like c. 1907.
1915 – A Free Ride / A Grass Sandwich. The earliest datable American Stag film, featuring a car, which would have been exciting new technology at the time
1930 – Everready Hardon in Buried Treasure
This is perhaps the only animated stag film. It’s brilliant, and it was made by a bunch of top animators at the time for an event honoring a colleague.
1951 – Smart Alec
This is the wildly popular stag film featuring 16 year old Candy Barr. It may be the most widely viewed film of the Stag era, although this is fairly impossible to quantify. Candy Barr’s allegations that she was forced into shooting the film are given some credence by a scene in the film where she resists giving a blow job while being physically forced towards the man’s penis.