SOJC media studies professor dives deep into adult film history

By Andra Brichacek

UO School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC) Assistant Professor Peter Alilunas, BA ’06, is used to being called “the porn guy.”

“It doesn’t bother me,” he said. “I’m used to it — and I’m glad for any opportunity to show people that adult film can be treated seriously, like any other topic.”

It all started when he was a grad student at the University of Michigan. “I was hired to be a research assistant on a cultural study of the remaining video stores in the United States,” Alilunas said. “When I read all the literature written on home video histories, I immediately noticed a gap: There was remarkably little discussion of pornography. And yet, having worked in video rental stores in the ’90s, I knew that was an important part of that business.”

When it came time to declare his own research interests, Alilunas, who now heads up the SOJC’s Media Studies program and is a program faculty member in the Cinema Studies department, realized he had stumbled upon an area in critical need of study.

“Pornography is a multibillion-dollar industry, but there’s very little work done on it,” he said. “Most of the attention it gets is in the realm of whether it’s good or bad for society, and that’s a separate debate from what I do. I’m trying to figure out the history of it and get a feel for the landscape — who did what, when they did it and how they did it. Those are all really basic questions we’ve answered about every other type of media and culture.”

It all adds up to a significant but largely uninvestigated area of research that Alilunas feels is a missing piece in media studies.

Peter Alilunas“There’s very little attention paid to pornography for a variety of reasons in academia, including the fear of doing something so provocative, which might affect getting hired and tenured,” he said. “I’m extremely fortunate and grateful that there is so much support for my work from the administrators and other faculty members here at the SOJC and across the UO.”

Alilunas’ work has been supported and recognized in the field as well: His doctoral dissertation received the award of distinction from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.

A window into culture

According to Alilunas, in addition to holding a significant — and unique — place in both media history and American culture, pornography provides a frame for investigating some of the most important and controversial issues of our time.

“As a media scholar interested in gender and sexuality, I believe pornography is an ideal place to examine those issues,” said Alilunas. “It’s the ‘limit’ of how humans can visually represent those characteristics, so it’s a perfect laboratory to raise and examine big questions.”

That’s exactly what Alilunas does in the recently released “Smutty Little Movies: The Creation and Regulation of Adult Video,” published by University of California Press. His new book tells two stories: The first is the history of adult video as it transitioned from theaters to home video beginning in the late 1970s. The second is the story of its consequences.

“What the book adds to the conversation, first and foremost, is a history that has been hidden and unexplored,” he said. “One of my goals was to treat this as a piece of film history, not something that’s different or secret. It’s not. The creation of adult video is the story of one of the most significant media transformations of the 20th century. But those adult video pioneers laid the foundation for more than just pornography. There was no Hollywood product on video at that time. Adult video was first and very successful.”

In addition to filling a considerable gap in the media studies literature, “Smutty Little Movies” tells some fascinating stories from the “Boogie Nights” era, many of which have never been told in detail before. Among others, the book includes the tale of Martin Hodis, who bought up 1940s-era Panoram machines to use as peepshow kiosks in Times Square in the 1970s. It delves into the previously unknown dealings of George Atkinson, founder of the nation’s first video rental store and a central figure in Los Angeles’ underground adult film economy. And it gives the account of “David Jennings” (not his real name), the man who shot the first adult video, an artifact that’s now lost to history.

“But the really interesting thing about adult video’s history is that it happened at a point in American history when cultural regulation was really boiling over,” Alilunas said. “You had this sudden mix of pornography and privacy, because adult movies could leave the theater and go right into the home.”

The book has so far been well received in academic circles and beyond. In fact, Linda Williams, author of the groundbreaking “Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the ‘Frenzy of the Visible’” — widely regarded as the “bible” of pornography studies — called “Smutty Little Movies” the “best book on pornography” she has ever read.

The story of media and its regulation

Alilunas chose his area of research, in part, because so few other scholars were investigating the adult film industry. The downside of that, he has since learned, is a major dearth of primary source material.

“I discovered that one of the reasons so much of this history hasn’t been written is because it’s so difficult to find any historical evidence,” he said. “So what I’ve done, with the help of some other scholars and historians, is start to develop what will be an online archive of the ‘stuff’ — the documents, ephemera, everything but the films, that can help scholars and historians around the world do this work.”

The resulting site, the Adult Film History Project, is set to launch in 2017, and he has had conversations with both the UO Library and the Internet Archive about hosting what will be the world’s first online archive devoted to the topic. “With the help of some SOJC grants, we’re just starting to scan in materials and build an interface,” he said.

Alilunas, who teaches two courses in the SOJC on "media sexualities," has also started work on a follow-up volume to “Smutty Little Movies” that will zero in on the intersection of the adult film industry with urban renewal and zoning laws in the 1970s. “It will be a history of how American cities were physically transformed by the regulation of pornography,” he said.

Pornography and sexuality are not Alilunas’ only subjects of research interest. He is also working with Matthew Payne, an expert in video game studies at the University of Notre Dame, on a book about the history of the regulation of video games.

“What I’m really interested in is how culture regulates media,” Alilunas said. “How do people limit, contain, regulate and monitor pleasure, desire and the depictions of those things? Media surrounds us — and so do its regulations.”

Andra Brichacek is the SOJC Communication team’s writer and editor. She has nearly 20 years’ experience creating content for print and online media and has specialized in education since 2008. Follow her on Twitter @andramere.

Emma Oravecz currently works as the events and social media manager for the SOJC Communication team. With a master's in folklore, they specialize in community engagement, digital ethnography, and visual story production.