Dian Hanson: Taschen’s Pornographer-in-Chief

The sexy-books editor for the world’s leading art publisher gets down and dirty about fetishes, sex cults and how to get ahead in publishing.

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Author and publishing maven Dian Hanson, 60, is that rare combination – a cerebral, feminist, soft-spoken and arty pornographer. As the Sexy Book editor at hip art-house publisher Taschen, Hanson is one of few women in the world who can skillfully segue from psychology to squirters in the same sentence. She’s living proof that you can’t judge a book by its cover.

Born into an “uncool” Christian sex cult in 1950s Seattle, the shy but oversexed young Hanson rode out an awkward childhood by immersing herself in filth and Freud. After a brief stint in medicine that gave her a taste for “the giblets of it all,” she moved to New York in the early 1970s and broke into the booming hippie porn scene.

The self-styled first-wave feminist spent the next 25 years building a successful career out of giving men exactly what they wanted, cranking out a string of cult fetish magazines such as Juggs, Leg Show, Bust Out! and Tight. Brainy, ballsy and fiercely commercial, Hanson also has a good sense of humor, which is essential if you’re going to hang out with hustlers, date Robert Crumb and helm a hardcore title called Puritan.

It’s this wry, edgy intellect and eye for what sells that caught the attention of renegade publisher and longtime Leg Show fan Benedikt Taschen. In 2001 he asked Hanson to develop a Sexy Book list out of Taschen’s Los Angeles office. Never one to pass up on a golden opportunity, she agreed. After teasing us with the likes of America Swings and Tom of Finland XXL, she followed with the bawdy body part series, which channels her genius for specialization. Cue The Big Book of Breasts, The Big Book of Legs, The Big Butt Book, The Big Penis Book and last November, her irreverent homage to the vagina, The Big Book of Pussy.

She says she was a gawky little girl who “just wanted to fit in,” and yet she wound up at the top of the brash world of adult publishing. How did it happen?  

Note: The lead picture of Hanson was shot by Helmut Newton

The Dian Hanson Interiew

Your parents were members of a Christian mystic sex cult. Do go on.

My father was the Supreme Grand Master of the Rosicrucians. So from the age of 10 or so, I was sneaking around in the family library and looking at his sex books. My parents believed in sex magic as a powerful force that can help you accomplish things through the energy released during the sex act, but it had to be very regimented – just the missionary position. Oral, anal, masturbation and everything else was prohibited so it wasn’t open or bohemian in any way. And you’re supposed to concentrate on what you want to accomplish while you’re having sex. So it’s not a very interesting sex cult.

It sounds quite strict.

Yes, my father was very domineering, and my mother was his cheerleader. They believed that women were pre-ordained by God to be wives and mothers. So men have all the artistic talent and women get to have babies – great! It was this backwards paternalistic attitude that made me the feminist I am.

But feminism and pornography make strange bedfellows. What sort of a feminist are you?

I was part of that first wave of sex-positive feminism, which is long gone – the feminists who were on the side of sex workers and women having orgasms, who sought an equality that was not just monetary but an equality of lifestyle. A kind of old-fashioned sisterhood.

Yet you went into a very sexist, male-dominated industry.

It may seem that way from the outside, but pornography really wasn’t any more male-dominated than any other career. Yes, the people at the top were all male but that’s still the case with most businesses. In the creative ranks, where my talents lay, there were always a lot of women. Often I’d be directing a shoot and the photographer, make-up artist and model would all be women…and we’d be making guys hard! There was a lot of interest in female editors because women understood men’s needs better and could therefore increase magazine sales.

In The Big Book of Pussy, your opening words are: “Pity poor pussy, so loved, hated and feared.” Why feared?

Sexuality is powerful, and powerful things are frightening. Men feel powerless in the face of the pussy. There’s that ancient fear of blood – ‘Don’t trust anything that bleeds for a week and doesn’t die.’ There’s also the notion that it is insatiable, and that there could be anything lurking up there in the dark. I know a chef in New York who identifies as heterosexual but he’s over 50 now and he’s never had vaginal intercourse because it’s just too scary for him. In a lot of ways it explains the popularity of anal sex in pornography.

Why is that any less feared?

Men know everything there is to know about assholes because they’re an owner. As for breasts, they are the “clean” part of the body, and they protrude, so they are the equivalent of the penis. The pussy, on the other hand, is this alien thing. There is nothing on the man that corresponds to it. And it can own them.

It’s about control, then, on a physiological and evolutionary level?

Women control the heredity of the human race. They are the ones who get to say ‘I’m not going with the 5’4” bald guy, I’m going with the 6’4’ guy with the big john and the full head of hair.’

Do you have any fetishes?

No. Women almost never do. They think they have fetishes, but they don’t know what they’re talking about. When a real fetishist, say a shoe guy, sees a woman in a shoe he’s attracted to, his eyes dilate, his jaw goes slack and he starts walking behind the woman in the street. He doesn’t even know what he’s doing. He’s helpless.

Is that down to biology?

Men’s brains are formed differently in the womb by the presence of testosterone. I know women who have taken testosterone, like Vanessa del Rio (the super-augmented porn star who is profiled in The Big Book of Pussy.) They all say the same thing. They thought they knew about sex, and what it was to be horny, until they took testosterone. Some have told me that they can’t believe men are able to restrain themselves.

You seem to have a particular talent for understanding your audience. “Give them what they want” could be your motto.

Exactly. Give them what they want without contempt or resentment. Listen to them. They really do know what’s right. I don’t have that arrogant need to impress my own tastes on the world. I want to be liked, and I used this to great advantage in my career.

What other advice would appear on the Hanson blueprint for success?

Be fluid. I was willing to move, change, leave one person or job and go to another. And treat everyone in the building with respect, from top to bottom. Be nice to the receptionist. It comes back almost every day. There are a lot of women in publishing who think they have to be harsh to compete with men but I found that it’s best to call on your maternal instincts. Men and women alike respond better if you’re kind to them. Be mom. So many people have called me mom throughout my career.

And are you actually a mom?

I’m not very interested in children. I like to work, I like having a career, I like to be free and unencumbered. I’m a child of the 60s and didn’t want to follow that traditional path.

Sexuality is powerful, and powerful things are frightening.Dian Hanson

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