by Gloria Steinem
[This essay "The Real Linda Lovelace" was written by Gloria Steinem in 1983; It was republished in Making Violence Sexy: Feminist Views on Pornography, edited by Diana E.H. Russell (1993); printed with permission of Diana Russell, in memory of Linda Marchiano -- née Linda Boreman -- (1949 - 2002).]
Remember "Deep Throat"? It was the porn movie that made porn movies chic; the first stag film to reach beyond the bounds of X-rated theaters and into much bigger audiences. Though it was created as a cheap feature that took only forty thousand dollars and a few days to make, it ended the [70's] decade with an estimated gross income of six hundred million dollars from paying customers for the film itself plus its subindustry of sequels, cassettes, T-shirts, bumper stickers, and sexual aids. In fact, so much of the media rewarded it with amusement or approval that "Deep Throat" entered our language and our consciousness, whether we ever saw the film or not. From the serious Watergate journalists of the Washington Post who immortalized "Deep Throat" by bestowing that title on their top-secret news resource, to the sleazy pornocrats of Screw magazine -- a range that may be, on a scale of male supremacy, the distance from A to B -- strange media bedfellows turned this cheap feature into a universal dirty joke and an international profit center.
At the heart of this dirty joke was Linda Lovelace (née Linda Boreman) whose innocent face and unjaded manner was credited with much of the film's success. She offered moviegoers the titillating thought that even the girl next door might love to be the object of porn-style sex.
Using Linda had been the idea of Gerry Damiano, the director-writer of "Deep Throat". "The most amazing thing about Linda, the truly amazing thing," she remembers him saying enthusiastically to Lou Peraino, who bankrolled the movie, "is that she still looks sweet and innocent." Nonetheless, Peraino (who was later arrested by the FBI as a figure in alleged organized-crime activities in the illicit-film industry) complained that Linda wasn't the "blond with big boobs" that he had in mind for his first porn flick. He continued to complain, even after she had been ordered to service him sexually.
In fact, watching Linda perform in public as a prostitute had given Damiano the idea for "Deep Throat" in the first place. He had been at a party where the men lined up to be the beneficiaries of the sexual sword-swallower trick Linda had been taught by her husband and keeper, Chuck Traynor. By relaxing her throat muscles, she learned to receive the full-length plunge of a penis without choking; a desperate survival technique for her, but a constant source of amusement and novelty for clients. Thus creatively inspired, Damiano had thought up a movie gimmick, one that was second only to Freud's complete elimination of the clitoris as a proper source of female pleasure and invention of the vaginal orgasm. Damiano decided to tell a story of a woman whose clitoris was in her throat and who was constantly eager for oral sex with men.
Though this physiological fiction about ONE woman was far less ambitious than Freud's fiction about ALL women, his porn movie had a whammo audiovisual impact; a teaching device that Freudian theory had lacked.
Literally millions of women seem to have been taken to "Deep Throat" by their boyfriends or husbands (not to mention prostitutes who were taken by their pimps) so that each one might learn what a woman could do to please a man "if she really wanted to." This instructive value seems to have been a major reason for the movie's popularity and its reach beyond the usual male-only viewers.
Of course, if the female viewer were really a spoilsport, she might identify with the woman on screen and sense her humiliation, danger, and pain -- but the smiling, happy face of Linda Lovelace could serve to cut off empathy, too. "She's there because she wants to be." " Who's forcing her?" "See how she's smiling?" "See how a real woman enjoys this?"
Eight years later, Linda told us the humiliating and painful answer in Ordeal, her autobiography. She described years as a sexual prisoner during which she was tortured and restricted from all normal human contact.
Nonetheless, it's important to understand how difficult it would have been at the time (and probably still is, in the case of other victims) to know the truth.
At the height of "Deep Throat"'s popularity, for instance, Nora Ephron wrote an essay about going to see it. She was determined not to react like those "crazy feminists carrying on, criticizing nonpolitical films in political terms." Nonetheless, she sat terrified through a scene in which a hollow glass dildo is inserted in Linda Lovelace's vagina and then filled with Coca-Cola, which is drunk through a surgical straw. ("All I could think about," she confessed, "was what would happen if the glass broke.") Feeling humiliated and angry, but told by her male friends that she was "overreacting", that the Coca-Cola scene was "hilarious", she used her license as a writer to get a telephone interview with Linda Lovelace. "I totally enjoyed myself making the movie", she was told by Linda. "I don't have any inhibitions about sex. I just hope that everybody who goes to see the film... loses some of their inhibitions."
So Nora wrote an article that assumed Linda to be a happy and willing porn queen who was enjoying "... $250 a week... and a piece of the profits." And she wrote off her own reaction as that of a "puritanical feminist who lost her sense of humor at a skin flick."
What she did not know (how could any interviewer know?) was that Linda would later list these and other answers as being dictated by Chuck Traynor for just such journalistic occasions; that he punished her for showing any unacceptable emotion (when, for instance, she cried while being gang-banged by five men in a motel room, thus causing one customer to refuse to pay); in fact, that she had been beaten and raped so severely and regularly that she suffered rectal damage plus permanent injury to the blood vessels in her legs.
What Nora did not know was that Linda would also write of her three escape attempts and three forcible returns to this life of sexual servitude: first by the betrayal of another prostitute; then by her own mother who was charmed by Chuck Traynor's protestations of remorse and innocence into telling him where her daughter was hiding; and finally by Linda's fears for the lives of two friends who had sheltered her after hearing that she had been made to do a sex film with a dog, and outside whose home Traynor had parked a van that contained, Linda believed, his collection of hand grenades and a machine gun.
Even Now, these and other facts about Traynor must be read with the word "alleged" in front of them. Because of Linda's long period of fear and hiding after she escaped, the time limitations of the law, and the fact that Traynor forced her to marry him, legal charges are difficult to bring. Linda's book [Ordeal] documents her account of more than two years of fear, sadism, and forced prostitution. Traynor has been quoted as calling these charges "so ridiculous I can't take them seriously." He has also been quoted as saying: "when I first dated her she was so shy, it shocked her to be seen nude by a man... I CREATED LINDA LOVELACE."
Linda's account of being "created" includes guns put to her head, turning tricks while being watched through a peephole to make sure she couldn't escape, and having water forced up her rectum with a garden hose if she refused to offer such amusements as exposing herself in restaurants or to passing drivers on the highway.
Ordeal is a very difficult book to read. It must have been far more difficult to write. But Linda says she wanted to purge forever the idea that she had become "Linda Lovelace" of her own free will.
Was profit a motive for this book? Certainly she badly needs money for herself, her three-year-old son, her imminently expected second baby, and her husband, a childhood friend named Larry Marchiano, whose work as a TV cable installer has been jeopardized by his co-workers' discovery of Linda's past. For a while, they were living partially on welfare. But Linda points out that she has refused offers of more than three million dollars to do another porn movie like "Deep Throat". (For that filming, Linda was paid twelve hundred dollars; a sum that, like her fees for turning tricks as a prostitute, she says she never saw.) (1) "I wouldn't do any of that again," she says, "even if I could get fifty million dollars."
A different motive for writing Ordeal is clear from Linda's response to a postcard written by a young woman who had been coerced into prostitution, a woman who said she got the courage to escape after seeing Linda on television. "Women have to be given the courage to try to escape, and to know that you CAN get your self-respect back," she says. "It meant the whole world to me to get that postcard."
Ironically, her own hope to escape came with the surprising success of "Deep Throat". She had become a valuable property. She had to be brought into contact with outsiders occasionally, with a world that she says had been denied to her, even in the form of radio or newspapers. Now, she says soberly, "I thank god today that they weren't making snuff movies back then..."
She says she escaped by feigning trustworthiness for ten minutes, then a little longer each time, until, six months later, she was left unguarded during rehearsals for a stage version of "Linda Lovelace". Even then, she spent weeks hiding out in hotels alone, convinced she might be beaten or killed for this fourth try at escape, but feeling stronger this time for having only her own life to worry about. It took a long period of hiding, with help and disguises supplied by a sympathetic secretary from Traynor's newly successful Linda Lovelace Enterprises (but no help from police, who said they could do nothing to protect her "until the man with the gun is in the room with you"), before the terror finally dwindled into a nagging fear. Traynor continued to issue calls and entreaties for her return. He filed a lawsuit against her for breach of contract. But he had also found another woman to star in his porn films - Marilyn Chambers, the model who appeared in a comparatively nonviolent porn movie called "Behind the Green Door".
And then suddenly, she got word through a lawyer that Traynor was willing to sign divorce papers. The threats and entreaties to return just stopped.
Free of hiding and disguises at last, she tried to turn her created identity into real acting by filming "Linda Lovelace for President", a comedy that was supposed to have no explicit sex, but she discovered that producers who offered her roles always expected nudity in return. She went to a Cannes Film Festival but was depressed by her very acceptance among celebrities she respected. "I had been in a disgusting film with disgusting people... What were they doing watching a movie like that in the first place?"
Once she started giving her own answers to questions and trying to explain her years of coercion, she discovered that reporters were reluctant to rush into print. Her story was depressing, not glamorous or titillating at all. Because she had been passed around like a sexual trading coin, sometimes to men who were famous, there was also fear of lawsuits.
Only in 1978, when she was interviewed by Mike McGrady, a respected newspaper reporter on Long Island where she had moved with her new husband, did her story begin the long process of reaching the public. McGrady believed her. In order to convince publishers, he also put her through an eleven-hour lie-detector test with the former chief polygraphist of the New York district attorney's office, a test that included great detail and brutal cross-questioning. But even with those results and with McGrady himself as a collaborator, several major book publishers turned down the manuscript. It was finally believed and accepted by Lyle Stuart, a maverick in the world of publishing who often takes on sensational or controversial subjects.
One wonders: Would a male political prisoner or hostage telling a similar story have been so disbelieved? Ordeal attacks the myth of female masochism that insists women enjoy sexual domination and even pain, but prostitution and pornography are big businesses built on that myth. When challenged about her inability to escape earlier, Linda wrote: "I can understand why some people have such trouble accepting the truth. When I was younger, when I heard about a woman being raped, my secret feeling was "that could never happen to me", I would never "permit" it to happen. Now I realize that can be about as meaningful as saying I won't permit an avalanche."
There are other, nameless victims of sexual servitude: the young blonds from the Minnesota Pipeline, runaways from the Scandinavian farming towns of Minnesota, who are given drugs and "seasoned" by pimps and set up in Times Square; the welfare mothers who are pressured to get off welfare and into prostitution; the "exotic" dancers imported from poorer countries for porn films and topless bars; the torture victims whose murders were filmed in Latin America for snuff movies popular here, or others whose bodies were found buried around a California filmmaker's shack; the body of a prostitute found headless and handless in a Times Square hotel, a lesson to her sisters. Perhaps some of their number will be the next voiceless, much-blamed women to speak out and begin placing the blame where it belongs. Perhaps Linda's example will give them hope that, if they return, some of society will accept them. Right now, however, they are just as disbelieved as rape victims and battered women were a few years ago.
To publicize her book, Linda is sitting quiet and soft-spoken on TV's "Phil Donahue Show." Under her slacks she wears surgical stockings to shield the veins that were damaged by the beatings in which she curled up, fetuslike, to protect her stomach and breasts from kicks and blows: this she explains under Donahue's questioning. Probably, she will need surgery after her baby is born. The silicone injected in her breasts by a doctor (who, like many other professionals to whom she was taken, was paid by Linda's sexual services) has shifted painfully, and surgery may be necessary there too.
Yet Donahue, usually a sensitive interviewer, is asking her psychological questions about her background: How did she get along with her parents? What did they tell her about sex? Didn't her fate have something to do with the fact that she had been pregnant when she was nineteen and had given birth to a baby that Linda's mother put up for adoption?
Some of the women in the audience take up this line of questioning, too. THEY had been poor. THEY had strict and authoritarian parents; yet THEY didn't end up as part of the pornographic underground. The air is thick with self-congratulation. Donahue talks on about the tragedy of teenage pregnancy, and what parents can do to keep their children from a Linda-like fate.
Because Traynor did have a marriage ceremony performed somewhere along the way (Linda says this was to make sure she couldn't testify against him on drug charges), she has to nod when he is referred to as "your husband." On her own, however, she refers to him as "Mr Traynor."
Linda listens patiently to doubts and objections, but she never gives up trying to make the audience understand. If another women had met a man of violence and sadism who "got off on pain," as Linda has described in her book, SHE MIGHT HAVE ENDED UP EXACTLY THE SAME WAY. No, she never loved him: he was the object of her hatred and terror. Yes, he was very nice, very gentlemanly when they first met. They had no sexual relationship at all. He had just offered an apartment as a refuge from her strict childlike regime at home. AND THEN HE DID A 180-DEGREE TURN. She became, she says quietly, a prisoner. A prisoner of immediate violence and the fear of much more.
She describes being so isolated and controlled that she was not allowed to speak in public or to go to the bathroom without Traynor's permission. THERE WAS NO CHOICE. IT COULD HAPPEN TO ANYONE. She says this simply, over and over again, and to many women in the audience the point finally comes through. But to some, it never does. Donahue continues to ask questions about her childhood, her background. What attracted her to this fate? How can we raise our daughters to avoid it? If you accept the truth of Linda's story, the questions are enraging, like saying, "What in your background led you to a concentration camp?"
No one asks how we can stop raising men who fit Linda's terrified description of Chuck Traynor. Or what attracted the millions of people who went to "Deep Throat". Or what to do about the millions of "normal" men who assume that some violence and aggression in sex are quite okay.
A woman in the audience asks if this isn't an issue for feminism. Linda says that yes, she has heard there are anti-pornography groups, she is getting in touch with Susan Brownmiller who wrote Against Our Will. That definitive book on rape has led Brownmiller to attack other pornographic violence against women.
But it's clear that, for Linda, this is a new hope and new connection.
For women who want to support Linda now and to save others being used sexually against their will, this may be the greatest sadness. At no time during those months of suffering and dreams of escape, not even during the years of silence that followed, was Linda aware of any signal from the world around her that strong women as a group or feminists or something called the women's movement might be there to help her.
Surely, a victim of anti-Semitism would know the Jewish community was there to help, or a victim of racism would look to the civil rights movement. But feminist groups are not yet strong enough to be a public presence in the world of pornography, prostitution, and gynocide; or in the world of welfare and the working poor that Linda then joined. Even now, most of her help and support come from sympathetic men: from McGrady who believed her life story, from her husband who loses jobs in defense of her honor, from the male God of her obedient Catholic girlhood to whom she prayed as a sexual prisoner and prays now in her daily life as homemaker and mother.
Even her feelings of betrayal are attached to her father, not her mother. During her long lie-detector test, the only time she cried and completely broke down was over an innocious mention of his name. "I was watching that movie "Hardcore", she explained, "where George C. Scott searches and searches for his daughter. Why didn't my father come looking for me? He saw "Deep Throat". He should've known... He should've done something. Anything!"
After all, who among us had mothers with the power to rescue us, to DO SOMETHING? We don't expect it. In mythology, Demeter rescued her daughter who had been abducted and raped by the King of the Underworld. She was a strong and raging mother who turned the earth to winter in anger at her daughter's fate. Could a powerful mother now rescue her daughter from the underworld of pornography? Not even Hollywood can fantasize that plot.
But Linda has begun to uncover her own rage, if only when talking about her fears for other women as pornography becomes more violent. "Next," she says quietly, as if to herself, "they're going to be selling women's skins by the side of the road."
And women have at least begun to bond together to rescue each other as sisters. There are centers for battered women, with publicized phone numbers for the victims but private shelters where they cannot be followed. It's a system that might work for victims of prostitution and pornography as well, if it existed, and if women knew it was there.
In the meantime, Linda takes time out from cleaning her tiny house on long Island ("I clean it twice a day," she says proudly) to do interviews, to send out her message of hope and strength to other women who may be living in sexual servitude right now, and to lecture against pornography with other women, who are now her friends. She keeps answering questions, most of them from interviewers who are far less sympathetic than Donahue.
How could she write such a book when her son will someday read it? "I've already explained to him," she says firmly, "that some people hurt Mommy -- a long time ago." How can her husband stand to have a wife with such a sexual past? ("It wasn't sexual. I never experienced any sexual pleasure, not one orgasm, nothing. I learned how to fake pleasure so I wouldn't get punished for doing a bad job.") And the most popular doubt of all: "If she really wanted to, couldn't she have escaped sooner?"
Linda explains as best she can. As I watch her, I come to believe the question should be different: "Where did she find the courage to escape at all?"
Inside the patience with which she answers these questions -- the result of childhood training to be a "good girl" that may make victims of us all -- there is some core of strength and stubbornness that is itself the answer. She WILL make people understand. She will NOT give up.
In the microcosm of this one woman, there is a familiar miracle: the way in which women survive -- and fight back.
And a fight there must be.
"Deep Throat" plays continuously in a New York theater and probably in many other cities of the world. Bruises are visible on Linda's legs in the film itself, supporting her testimony that she was a prisoner while she made it. Do viewers see the bruises or only her smile?
So far, no invasion of privacy or legal means has been found to stop this film. Money continues to be made.
"Deep Throat" has popularized a whole new genre of pornography. Added to all the familiar varieties of rape, there is now an ambition to rape the throat. Porn novels treat this theme endlessly. Some emergency-room doctors believe that victims of suffocation are on the increase.
As for Chuck Traynor himself, he is still the husband and manager of Marilyn Chambers.
Larry Fields, a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, remembers interviewing them both for his column a few years ago when Marilyn was performing a song-and-dance act in a local nightclub. Traynor bragged that he had taught Linda Lovelace everything she knew, but that "Marilyn's got what Linda never had -- talent."
While Traynor was answering questions on Marilyn's behalf, she asked him for permission to go to the bathroom. Permission was refused. "Not right now," Fields remembers him saying to her. And when she objected that she was about to appear onstage: "Just sit there and shut up."
When Fields also objected, Traynor was adamant. "I don't tell you how to write your column," he said angrily. "Don't tell me how to treat my broads."
(1) Since this writing, a judgement had been brought against Linda for "contract failure" during what she says was her period of imprisonment, and her payments for "Ordeal" have been attached. The book may end by financially benefiting Traynor's former lawyer. The punishment goes on.
Gloria Steinem is a feminist writer, journalist and activist, who has been very prominent in the women's movement in the 1970's and 1980's. She wrote this piece "The Real Linda Lovelace" in 1983. Later, in 1986, She wrote the introduction to Linda Marchiano's second book Out of Bondage.