World’s Largest Collection of Pornography

A visit to San Francisco’s Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, and a portion of its 22 warehouses stuffed with pornography from all over the world.

The World’s Biggest Stash

‘The clip we’re about to see is from a film called Make Mine Milk,’ says a film archivist named Paul Potocky. ‘The gal who stars in it is lactating. It’s one of my favorites, filmed right here in San Francisco.’ He pushes play on a video recorder, and the audience is treated to a grainy, five-foot image of greasy hippies having sex. For the next two hours, similar clips roll past, from Maxine’s Dating Service to Miss Kinsey’s Report, Starship Eros, Hitler’s Harlot, and Reckless Claudia. All examples from the dawn of America’s adult film industry, and featuring the genre’s requisite dirty feet, hairy bellies, pink faces, stoned expressions, and wretched acting. But we’re not sitting in a sticky-floor theater with peeling wallpaper. We’re actually in a meeting room of San Francisco’s Cathedral Hill convention hotel. This is the 25th anniversary gala weekend of a state-accredited institution of higher learning. And we’ve just had lunch.

More than just retro raunch, these skin flicks represent a tiny nugget of pornography’s Mother Lode, the world’s largest repository of porn and erotica—3 million items, including 400,000 films, which fill 22 warehouses throughout Northern California. The sex and porn industries know about The Archive. It belongs to the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. This specialised school has been squiring away such materials for nearly three decades, valiantly cataloging what it refers to as America’s ‘erotic heritage.’ Everyone knows of it, but few have ever seen it.

The Archive arrives to the Institute primarily in the form of tax-deductible donations, from retired film producers, erotica collectors, even other museums and libraries. Policy is never to throw away anything, and so warehouses fill with a never-ending stream of porn films, books, magazines, sex toys, virtually anything related to sex and pornography. I’m sitting in this hotel, crashing the Institute’s anniversary weekend celebration, to catch a glimpse of this fabled historical repository. Which means, at the moment, a snip from the classic title Hungry Hypnotist.

This afternoon is not without its educational side. We learn that in the industry’s infancy, low-budget directors would flash the lights on and off to simulate a strobe effect. To avoid prosecution, producers often added scenes of ‘redeeming quality’ to their efforts, such as travel or documentary footage, or in the case of Black is Beautiful, an actor in a suit at a desk, painstakingly explaining the marriage rituals of an African family. So-called ‘loop carrier’ films began with a 10-minute loop of porn footage, and then plot and characters were added around it. Soundtracks ranged from stolen rock and funk tunes, to original music recorded by Blues Project guitarist Mike Bloomfield, who did the gigs to finance his heroin habit.

Our host introduces another film, also one of his favorites, he says, entitled The Rites of Uranus. We watch the footage of guys in satanic robes, chanting ‘Hail to your anus!’ while masturbating to a gyrating woman, who sports a lit candle sticking out of her rear. After an hour or so, it all sort of blends together in a sweaty collage of slapdash hippie lust. As I walk out, the noisy satanic chants still echoing behind me, I notice an elderly woman, one of the Institute’s faculty, sitting in a wheelchair in the middle of the room, fast asleep.

(Versions of this were published in Arena and San Francisco magazines)