From Rags to Riches — the Heretical Success of Larry Flynt

Melissa Gonzalez

From Rags to Riches — the Heretical Success of Larry Flynt


Born Larry Claxton Flynt in Kentucky, in the year 1942, Larry Flynt quickly embodied the classic American tale of rags to riches. His early life acquainted him with poverty, and so he enlisted in the Army in his early teens. After a year of service, Flynt was forced to leave the army as a result of low test scores and made a move to Indiana, with his mother, upon the separation of his parents. Here, he enlisted into the Navy, in which he served for five years. Once he returned home, Flynt opened up a strip club, the first of many that he would come to own. With an increasingly growing clientele, he took the opportunity to expand his business and in lieu of a newsletter he was accustomed to sending out to his clients, he decided to create the first issue of what he called Hustler magazine.  From the very first issue, Flynt managed to outrage anti-porn activists and a wide variety of people with his obscene pornographic images of a woman being fed into a meat grinder, nude pictures of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and much more. Throughout the many years of his career, Flynt was forced to face litigation, charges, and harsh criticism from many people for his crude and vulgar portrayal of women through the publishing of Hustler magazine.

Two - Hustler Mag Cover June78

Hustler, a Larry Flynt Publication. Image Courtesy of Hustler Magazine, June 1978                                  

Safe is the assumption that front covers of magazines and other such periodicals are meant to entice and engage the public, not so much disturb them. Here, on the front cover of Hustler’s June 1978 issue, we see the depiction of a woman being fed through a meat grinder. The image serves to prove the overarching theme of the publication from a feminist perspective: that the female body was irrelevant, worthless, and for the mere pleasure of the man.


A Brief History of Pornography

In the late 1960s, and throughout the 1970s, America witnessed a shocking turn of events that would set the stage for emotional out roar and political action for years to come. Sexually, it was a much more carefree time than today, before HIV/AIDS.  Sexual freedom was glorified  in a way that had not been seen before, or since then. In the 1970’s, the release of Deep Throat and other adult films to the public, seemed to launch a great wave of interactions between advocates of pornography and feminists of all kinds. This became a gateway to many other adult films into mainstream consciousness, with viewings of these films available in movie houses all across the country, in the same way that any ordinary movie would be displayed – without shame, guilt, or second thoughts.

Not only did the film industry boom during this time, but other moneymaking prospects arose as well. It was around this time that Larry Flynt had returned from his service in the Navy to open a strip club, which would consequently lead to his production of the very first issue of Hustler magazine in 1974. Flynt’s goal was to reach the average-working man in a way that was more attainable than what he considered to be the implausible portrayals of women in magazines such as Playboy and Penthouse.

The Opposition

These newly found freedoms were not met without opposition. Many feminists opposed the industry of pornography for its vulgar depictions of women in a way that degraded their image. At first, the sensual, erotic nature of adult films shown in public drive-in theaters and movie houses everywhere seemed fun, carefree, and almost natural as people all over the country gave in to desires of the flesh and thought less and less of the moral implications of their actions. Acceptable, for example, was the viewing of “snuff” films that were allegedly snuck into the country from South America. In these films, women engaged in sexual acts with anonymous men, and then, for no reason at all, wound up brutally murdered on screen. Taking this phenomenon as a lucrative opportunity, a movie titled Snuff was released in 1976. The idea behind it was to pass it off as an actual snuff film, depicting actual murders of innocent women after sexual encounters. The marketing strategies that introduced the film led many viewers to believe that the film was real, although it was not. Despite the fact that Snuff was not a pornographic film, it made Americans conscious of the way females were being depicted in all films (including pornographic ones), and, ironically paved the way for the anti-pornographic movement.

The movement against pornography was rooted deeply in the belief that pornography was a tool of oppression for women with its degrading and violent portrayals of the submissive roles women should be expected to fulfill. In large part, the feminist movement at the time was lead by two women by the names of Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. Allied with other women feminists, MacKinnon and Dworkin strongly opposed pornography, deeming that it was “… a form of forced sex…an institution of gender inequality … pornography, with the rape and prostitution in which it participates, institutionalizes the sexuality of male supremacy” (MacKinnon, 1984, p. 325). The anti-pornography movement landed Larry Flynt and Hustler right in the middle of courtrooms on charges of obscenity.

Flynt’s Battles

In 1978, Flynt was attacked personally, a clear demonstration of the disdain that existed against him. This resulted in the permanent paralysis of both of his legs, as well as a speech impediment that he sustains to this day. After the shooting, Flynt retreated to living in what has been described as a “lavish Bel Air suite” (, with his wife Athea (who managed the erotic dancers in his night clubs). Because of the injuries sustained after the shooting, Flynt grew dependent on painkillers and his wife developed an addiction to heroin.

To further prove his waywardness, Flynt committed a variety of acts that showed just how unconventional he was outside of the realm of just Hustler magazine and his other pornographic escapades. In 1983 he went so far as to threaten the U.S. government with the exposure of surveillance tapes that would be detrimental to the reputation of the FBI. In refusing to reveal the sources of such evidence, Flynt was charged with a fine of $10,000 daily, which he delivered wearing the American flag as a diaper. This landed him six months in jail for desecration of the flag.

Later that year, Larry Flynt published a controversial cartoon in Hustler, suggesting that Jerry Falwell, who was publicly known as a reverend and commentator on political issues at the time, sustained incestuous sexual relations with his own mother. This cartoon lead Flynt straight to the courtroom.

One - Jerry Falwell Cartoon

“Jerry Falwell talks about his first time.” Image Courtesy of Hustler Magazine, November 1983.

The infamous cartoon that started the legal battle between evangelist Jerry Falwell and Larry Flynt was published in the November issue of Hustler magazine in the year 1983. Here, we see a parody on the advertisement for Campari Liquer, whose actual ads at the time included interviews with famous figures about their “first time” with Campari, though it was clearly meant to carry a sexual innuendo as well. In the cartoon, Falwell describes his first time — with his mother. 

The Supreme Court overturned the lower courts, which had awarded Falwell money for the emotional distress Hustler had caused, on the grounds that as a public figure, Falwell could not appeal to standards of decency in order to bar Flynt’s First Amendment right to engage in satiric and political free speech. As Chief Justice Rehnquist noted in his decision:

 There is no doubt that the caricature of respondent and his mother published in Hustler is at best a distant cousin of the political cartoons described above, and a rather poor relation at that. If it were possible by laying down a principled standard to separate the one from the other, public discourse would probably suffer little or no harm. But we doubt that there is any such standard, and we are quite sure that the pejorative description “outrageous” does not supply one. “Outrageousness” in the area of political and social discourse has an inherent subjectiveness about it which would allow a jury to impose liability on the basis of the jurors’ tastes or views, or perhaps on the basis of their dislike of a particular expression. An “outrageousness” standard thus runs afoul of our longstanding refusal to allow damages to be awarded because the speech in question may have an adverse emotional impact on the audience (485 U.S. 46).

Three - Article Flynt

Excerpt from “‘Lolita’, My mother-in-law, the Marquis de Sade, and Larry Flynt” by Norman Podhoretz, 1997


Around the same time, Athea was diagnosed with AIDS, leading her into deep depression and her eventual death. Saddened, but somehow motivated to do something more with himself, Flynt was thrilled that his case had led the Court to protect offensive free speech directed at public figures. This left a lasting positive legacy in great contrast to his excessively wayward career.


Norman Podhoretz writes an article in which he analyzes the portrayal of Larry Flynt’s character (as a person) in the film The People vs. Flynt, versus the actuality of Flynt’s morality through actions and statements of his own. In this excerpt, Podhoretz quotes an article in the New York Times that graphically but truthfully illustrates the crude, grotesque and excessively wayward nature of Flynt’s publications. 

For further consideration, follow the link below to an interview with Flynt:

Suggested Readings

“Articles/Biographies/Other/Flynt, Larry.” FIS RSS. Free Information Society, n.d. Web. Dec. 2012.

Barnes, Brooks. “SCENE STEALERS; Pornography and Politics.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 21 Oct. 2012. Web. Nov. 2012.

Bartow, Ann. “Pornography, Coercion and Copyright Law 2.0.” Vadnerbilt Journal of Entertainment and Technology Law 10.4 (2008): n. pag. Print.

Bronstein, Carolyn. Battling Pornography: The American Feminist Anti-pornography Movement, 1976-1986. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011. Print.

Falwell v. Flynt. United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit. 4 Nov. 1986. Print.

Falwell v. Flynt. United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit. 5 Aug. 1986. Print.

“The History of Modern Pornography.” History of Pornography. N.p., 2010. Web. Dec. 2012.

Hudson, David L., Jr. “ Analysis.” Analysis. First Amendment Center, 22 May 1998. Web. Dec. 2012. <;.

“Larry Flynt Biography.” A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. Nov. 2012.

MacKinnon, C.A. (1984). Not a Moral Issue. Yale Law & Policy Review.

Podhoretz, Norman. “”Lolita”, My Mother-in-Law, the Marquis De Sade, and Larry Flynt.” Commentary Apr. 1997: n. pag. Print.

Strub, Whitney. Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right. New York: Columbia UP, 2011. Print.

“This Side of the Pond | The Origins of Anti-Pornography Feminism by Carolyn Bronstein.” This Side of the Pond RSS. Cambridge University Press, 10 Aug. 2011. Web. Dec. 2012. <;.

This entry was posted by meg046.

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