Grey Room

The Ontology of the Pornographic Image: The Meese Commission and the Rise of Sexual Media

Steven Niedbala

List of magazines from United States Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography, Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography: Final Report (1986).


In October 2015 the editors of Playboy announced that the magazine would no longer feature images of nude women. The managers of Playboy’s multimedia empire, credited with “tak[ing] sex in America from furtive to ubiquitous” by the New York Times, claimed that the publication was a victim of its own success. As executive Scott Flanders told the Times, “[The] battle has been fought and won… . You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free.” The editors’ requiem, which traces a direct line from Playboy to Internet pornography, begs critical scrutiny. One need not speak exclusively of the Internet to determine the grounds for Playboy’s decline. As early as the 1980s, pornography had abandoned the limitations of Playboy’s carefully curated Bildung for the nascent sexual imaginary of videocassette and broadcast media. To grasp the wider relevance of Playboy’s legal and financial woes since the 1980s, one must revisit the history of sexual media and its antagonists.