Caroline West talks us through the ins and outs of Peep Shows (pun intended!)
The development of pornography experienced a pivotal moment in its history with the creation of photography in 1827. For the first time, a real person was depicted in the nude, allowing the viewer to gaze as long as he- as they were intended for male audiences only- wanted to. The idealised flesh of Renaissance art was replaced with the real body, imperfections and all.
The next great invention that changed pornography irreversibly was the invention of the camera and moving pictures in the 1880’s, Thomas Edison developed what would become the first peep show booth- the kinetoscope. Dubbed ‘nickelodeons’ due to their entry price, these booths sprung up around America showing a variety of films. Initially showing non-pornographic films, it took a mere three months for the first claims of obscenity to occur, with the release of ‘Dolorita’s Passion Dance‘ which featured a woman performing a provocative, yet fully clothed dance.
At the end of the nineteenth century, countries such as France, Germany and Argentina began to produce ‘stag films’- crudely made looped films that featured anonymous performers enjoying penetrative sex. These early films were originally produced for display in brothels and men only clubs, as a tool to whet the appetite for customers of the brothels. The performances were not rehearsed and as film was so expensive glitches were not edited out, while acts like anal sex and double penetration were rarely depicted.
Seizing upon the gap in the market left by the decline of the road shows following the invention of the home projector, American entrepreneur Reuben Sturman singlehandedly built up a multi-million dollar peep show industry in the 1960’s, feeding a seemingly insatiable demand for new pornographic material. Franchising peep show booths showing stags across the country, Sturman made accessing adult material easy and cheap for customers who paid with nickels or tokens.
Another huge boost to the development of the industry came from an unexpected source: U.S. soldiers. These young men had patronised the brothels of France during the war, during which they were exposed to a huge variety of stags and noting the higher quality, they began making their own films upon their return.
These booths were usually located at the back of adult stores, with curtains at the entrance to each booth. They often included bins for tissues as it was accepted that customers would masturbate. Some customers also used the booths for gay cruising, as they were generally safe places for discrete exploration of gay sex. Glory holes were also a common feature- holes cut into the wall where men could insert their penis in and the person on the other side could engage in oral sex or give a hand job. Later, ‘buddy booths’ offered space for more than one person and men would hover around outside waiting for a companion to join them inside for sex.
Sturman bought loops from Europe which meant a constant supply of new, European porn films that helped expose customers to a more liberal approach to sex that carried through to the late 1960’s and the rise of the hippie movement in California. Sturman also exposed his audience to sexual practices such as double penetration in the film Delphi in Greece.
Peep shows graduated to live strip shows where your nickels got you a couple of minutes of a live girl performing behind plexiglass, and a screen would come down when your coins ran out. Customers would often feed buckets of coins (and later, dollars) into the machines and stay for hours, or make arrangements with the performer for sexual acts after their shift ended. The netflix show Pose has a great depiction of the realities of working these booths.
Peep shows declined across America and Europe once home VHS tapes and DVDs arrived in the 1980s and people could watch porn in their own homes. However, places like Times Square in New York feature a range of adult stores which all hosted peep shows. The area had a reputation for being seedy as it was a place where sex could be watched or sold. Opened in 1977, the notorious venue The Show World Center earned the nickname ‘the McDonalds of sex’ as it featured 4 stories of peep show booths, merchandise, sex shows, and adult books.
Everything that shimmers runs the risk of losing its shine, and in the 1990s mayor Rudy Giuliani- yes, that Rudy- cracked down on the adult stores and successfully put most of them out of business.
Today, you can still find tokens from old peep shows across the world such as the ones in these pictures, and places in Europe still have peep show booths. In Ireland, private cinemas in sex shops have existed for decades across the country. Sex shops first arrived in the Republic of Ireland in the 1990s, and generated some public outrage and people protesting by holding prayer sessions outside the shops.
Some of these Irish cinemas are used as meeting points for people on online forums to meet up and have sex, others host themed nights such as fetish parties. These generally don’t use tokens but instead members pay a flat fee to enter. Some, like the cinema in Glam World on Mary Street have a lounge as well as booths with glory holes showing hardcore porn, and welcome people of all genders. Others like Basic Instincts in Temple Bar cater more for men who have sex with men.
One user of these customers, a man from Dublin, spoke to me and stated that they enjoy these spaces, as being an exhibitionist they enjoy the public nature of sex, although they did express disappointment over the cleanliness of the spaces. Safety was also a concern as they suggest that ‘ideally these places could be cool and safe in theory but I just feel that’s really hard to police in a patriarchal society. I’d love to have sex with someone and be watched safely by others who are just being voyeurs’.
The tokens are an interesting reminder of a time when consuming sexual content had to be done in public places like peep show booths, and mediated by store clerks who dished out the tokens. They show the long history of the desire to watch sex on screen, a desire that isnt going anywhere anytime soon.
Just don’t touch the walls!