X-Rated, by David McCumber

X-Rated

Brothers Jim and Artie Mitchell were among the most successful pornographers of all time. Partly that was fortunate timing—they came on the scene in the late ’60s and early ’70s, coming off the free love sexual liberation peak and carrying over into the explosion of pornography in various forms. Among other things, it was a time when it was extraordinarily easy to get gorgeous, naïve, uninhibited, often stoned, hippie girls to take off their clothes and dance nude or appear in porno movies for little money. Then not long after that, videocassette recorders brought another porn boom, and the Mitchells cashed in on that as well.

Not all of it was timing, though, otherwise everyone who went into porn at about that same time would have hit it as big as the Mitchells. They also were savvy in their decisionmaking and just good at making money. From strip clubs to porn shorts to full length porn movies, they had the magic touch.

They had a knack for publicity too. Like Larry Flynt, they fought the civil libertarian fight in front of the cameras whenever possible, battling cops, prosecutors, and politicians for decades, and pretty much always coming out on top. (There were some minor setbacks, but they proved to be temporary.) They hung out with celebrities—mostly of a counterculture or radical nature, such as Hunter Thompson, Black Panther Huey Newton, and various alternative cartoonists like Robert Crumb. They—mostly Jim—ran an antiwar newspaper during the first Gulf War that included material from the likes of Daniel Ellsberg, Paul Krassner, and Michael Moore. They used charitable work and political contributions to make themselves more acceptable to the San Francisco elite, eventually forming alliances with many big name politicians.

In some ways they worked well together and had a very good relationship, but they both had fiery tempers and at times had some ferocious battles. They very much lived the lifestyle of high profile pornographers—lots of partying, drugs, casual sex with strippers, etc.

They must have taken in a massive amount of money in the early to middle years, because eventually the Midas touch left them yet they continued to spend money hand over fist. The business end of things became more and more a mess, with mostly their long time cronies—some from as far back as childhood—running a lot of their operations, or really failing to run them.

They sank a huge amount of money into a safe sex film of all things during the AIDS era. No doubt they thought they saw another opportunity to be porn innovators, to seize the moment with a topical porn film, but what an awful idea. Porn is fantasy; it’s not a proper vehicle for a public service announcement. Who the hell wants to watch porn with condoms and lectures about spermicides? This is supposed to be a turn-on? This is supposed to be the next blockbuster porn movie?

As they got older, the brothers moved in very different directions. Jim matured. He got off drugs. He settled into a stable relationship with a long term girlfriend and raised the kids from his two marriages. He gave their various porn businesses whatever stability they retained.

Meanwhile younger brother Artie got more and more out of control. He was addicted to alcohol, drugs, and sex. His temper got even worse, he became more violent, he became more obsessed with guns. He constantly made trouble at work at their main strip club the O’Farrell. He routinely caused public scenes wherever he went.

Over and over, Artie made messes, and Jim cleaned them up.

Finally when Artie became even more abusive and threatening to everyone around him, including Jim and his girlfriend, Jim went over to his house and shot him dead.

X-Rated is the story of the Mitchell Brothers and their porn empire, and the killing of Artie by Jim.

It reads much more as the story of Artie than of Jim. I don’t know if that’s because the author had a lot more information about Artie, or found Artie’s story far more compelling and worth telling, or what, but Artie is very much the focus of the book. There is page after page about his lifestyle in general, and especially about his relationships with his various wives and girlfriends. Jim doesn’t get more than minimal attention until Artie’s dead and he’s the only Mitchell brother left.

At that point there’s a detailed, engaging account of Jim’s murder trial. That Jim killed Artie is revealed at the beginning of the book, but other than that the author does a good job of not giving away the end. He doesn’t say, or imply, how the trial turned out until he gets to the end of it.

Nor for that matter does he reveal in advance how the trial should have come out, i.e., whether Jim was guilty and of what.

It turns out there were many questions, many theories to fight over in court as to what really happened that night. Was Jim alone or with someone when he went to Artie’s house? What was the last straw, or what were the multiple factors, that compelled him to grab a gun and go to Artie’s house that night? Did he intend to kill him all along, or did he intend an intervention to help his brother, and brought the gun only for self-defense? Did he simply walk in and shoot Artie in cold blood, or did they confront each other, both armed, and he got off the first shot to avoid being killed himself?

There was one key witness—Artie’s current girlfriend, who was with him that night—who should have been able to help greatly with many of these questions, but, one, she was evidently cowering in a closet for much of the time Jim was in the house, which limited what she saw and heard, and, two, she was an utterly unreliable witness who kept changing her story as to what little she did see and hear.

But as I say, the bulk of the book is about Artie and his lifestyle.

Artie is presented as some kind of sex god, both physically (allegedly virtually superhuman stamina and such), but also in terms of having a style that was extraordinarily powerful in arousing sexual desire in women.

His style was forceful, domineering, disrespectful. He often referred to his lovers as “slaves,” and that wasn’t far from being literally true. The worse he treated them, the more devoted they became to him. Sex with Artie was physically and emotionally rough, in kinky and consensual ways, but beyond sex he was a garden variety, abusive, brute. It didn’t help that he was nearly always drunk. He knew just how to push their buttons to get them competing for him, jealous of each other, panicked that they were about to lose him, etc.

Of course it’s politically incorrect to say that women respond favorably to such treatment, and 99% of them will furiously deny it and denounce anyone who would suggest such a thing.

And taken to the Artie extreme, there are plenty of women who certainly don’t respond favorably to it. Probably the percentage of women who work in strip clubs (it sounds like virtually all of Artie’s wives, girlfriends, and lovers worked at the O’Farrell) who find that an irresistible approach is higher than that of women in the general population, but it’s far short of 100% even for those women. Some of the dancers that Artie pressured for sex turned him down, and one beat him half to death with one of her stiletto heels when he got a little too fresh.

But if you broaden the approach from the blatantly abusive Artie version to include more sophisticated and mainstream versions of “take charge” guys who are dominant without drunken beatings, then the vast majority of women will respond favorably, stripper or not. And a sliver of them will even admit it—“Well, yeah, I like a man to be a man…”

So Artie knew what he was doing. He didn’t have some uncanny ability to get any and every woman he wanted, but he certainly was unusually successful at attracting women and keeping them loyal to him.

You’ll never meet an abusive Artie-type who has trouble getting women, including women with very high dating market value (though again, you’re not supposed to say that regardless of its truth).

Most of the women he had serious relationships with seem pretty pathetic. Most of them are vicious toward each other.

My choice for the worst one is his second wife Karen. With most of them it’s just creepy the way they take abuse from him, and the way to some extent the abuse just makes him all the more irresistible to them. But Karen is such a mean-spirited bitch, a gold digger to a caricatured degree, and probably a liar to boot (whenever multiple people are involved in a story, her account is always the outlier), that she achieves the seemingly impossible in making Artie into a sympathetic underdog.

By the way, on looks alone, and based just on the few photos in the book, I’ll take Missy Manners hands down of all his women. Great tits. She’s described as “overweight” in Wikipedia. Yeah right.

So as wild a lifestyle as Artie had, and as abusive and ill-tempered as he could be, what caused him to fall apart at the end, to become even more out of control, irrational, unpredictable, and violent?

It appears there were multiple factors. One could have been just the cumulative effect of all those years of alcohol and drug abuse on his brain, making him more and more mentally ill and paranoid. Another was likely the fact that about a year before he died, he very nearly drowned—as did Jim in the same incident—and it adversely affected his health in a way that was depressing to him. Another was probably the constant battles with Karen, and the fact that recently she had started to win some victories over him in the courts and seemed poised to win more, which had the potential to cost him a fortune, as well as affect him in more personal ways such as by limiting or ending his access to his children.

But in any case, by the end he was contributing little or nothing to the businesses anymore, and his erratic behavior—waving guns around and such—was scaring the bejesus out of everybody. If he hadn’t been killed, it’s not at all far-fetched that he soon would have killed someone himself.

It’s at least moderately interesting following Artie’s deterioration, and then the trial that would decide Jim’s fate. But the book also provoked reflection in me about the general topic of strip clubs and related matters.

Mostly I felt sadness reading about that world.

I find women extraordinarily attractive and sexually desirable. My reaction to the female body is basically the same as that of the typical horny 15 year old boy. So clearly I’m heterosexual and male enough to be a horrible person and sexist and all that, so you’d think strip clubs and other “sex work” would be right up my alley. But they aren’t.

It’s not that I disapprove of such things in a moral sense, at least not in the routine, religious taboo-based, anti-sex way that most people who toss around terms like “moral” would disapprove of them. I think it’s more that things like strip clubs have, in my perception, taken possibly the most awesome, wonderful phenomenon in the world—attractive young women with no clothes on—and made it stunningly unsexy.

Pretty much everything associated with the women in that world that supposedly makes them more sexy—loud pounding music, drug and alcohol use, flashing lights, blatant (and blatantly insincere) flirting, etc. drives me in precisely the opposite of the intended direction.

These places create an illusion that you’re “partying” with hot women, up to but not including the actual sex. Whereas I have little or no interest in those trappings even when they’re real (except the sex, which you’re not getting). I don’t want to get drunk with women I’m attracted to, or dance and listen to super loud, conversation-preventing, top 40 music with them, or whoop it up with them in a crowd. I want to connect with them, be friends with them, be real with them and have them be real with me, listen to them, get to know them as human beings. And, yes, if it’s available, have sex with them.

I like sex as a form of intimacy, and I like non-sexual forms of intimacy. The accouterments, the attempted titillation, of strip clubs, are anti-intimacy. It’s people being phony for money, engaging in ritualistic behavior meant to suggest the sexual that isn’t at all sexual, keeping you out rather than letting you in.

So I love the up close looks at anatomical areas I normally would never get to see any more on young and hot women, but other than that the atmosphere as a whole at those places is mostly a downer to me.

I do seem to have a real fascination with women in sex-related occupations, though—I guess more of an intellectual curiosity than a sexual interest. The handful of time in my life I’ve had serious conversations with women who were or previously in their life had been strippers or prostitutes are disproportionately conversations that have stayed with me. I still routinely cite bits of trivia that I was told by such women decades ago. I love to question them and listen to them about the pros and cons of their work, the bizarre experiences, the emotional impact it had on them, etc.

Rather than look down on them, it’s as if I see women in sex-related occupations as having a kind of celebrity status, or doing something so exotic that I’m drawn in. Or maybe it’s just that I so much associate their work with phoniness and lack of genuine connection, that the novelty of their opening up to me conversationally—which is a form of intimacy even though it’s not sexual—is very appealing to me.

Then again, that can be phony too. I’m sure experienced strippers and such are very perceptive about the different “types” of men, and they pick up on it when they encounter one who fits the “I don’t get much out of the usual titillation stuff you do with other customers, because I’d rather get to know you as a real person and have a genuine conversation with you” type, and then they fake that, telling the person whatever will create the illusion that they’re opening up to him.

At least if they’re “on duty” there’s always a good chance that that’s what’s going on. But luckily most of the time I’ve connected to whatever degree with such people conversationally they no longer were in that line of work, or I met them in “real life.”

In any case, the fact that strip clubs and other forms of sex work tend not to fit me and my values doesn’t mean I want such things to be illegal, nor that I judge sex workers negatively. Nor for that matter that I necessarily judge their customers negatively. For my tastes, I find that such things aren’t desirable substitutes for real sex and real intimacy, so I rarely if ever partake. But it’s a close enough call—I adore naked women after all—that I wouldn’t rule out getting into it more in the future, and I’m certainly not going to condemn those whose tastes are more compatible with these forms of interaction.

Though I’ve typically very much enjoyed conversing with sex workers of various types and learning more about them and the world they inhabit, I don’t have the same degree of fascination with, say, reading about the same topics, as in X-Rated. I still find it somewhat interesting, but not like talking about it in person with someone experienced in that area of life. Reading about the world of strip clubs and pornographic films and such in this book was at least as sad as interesting to me.

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