Jessanne Collins on Editing America's Most Infamous Porn Mag — for Women

In 2007, determined to trade in her stable marketing job to follow her passion for journalism, Mental Floss’ Jessanne Collins seized the best career opportunity the recession had to offer: an editing job at Playgirl magazine.

In her new mini-memoir How to be a Playgirl , Collins bares all about her stint as a editor during the closing years of a publication described at once as as “ridiculous,” “one of America’s most iconic,” and “the magazine most women would never admit to having snuck a peak at.” Steamy, comic, confessional, and profound, the book addresses desire in multiple ways, from erotic fiction, porn sets, and blowup dolls, to how far out of her comfort zone a girl might go to achieve her career goals. We talked to Collins about the book, some Playgirl history, and yes, a lesson or two learned from the porn industry.

BUSTLE: Since you’ve done a lot of thinking about Playgirl in the context of the feminist revolution, can you start off by explaining the trajectory of the magazine and why the huge following it enjoyed in its initial decade of 1.5 million readers tapered off in the '80s and '90s?

JESSANNE COLLINS: We think of the '70s as a time when modern feminism was new, and charging out full force into the world, and people were spending a lot of time and energy defining what it meant. Throughout all of Western history it’s not OK for women to look at porn, and then all of a sudden, not only is feminism a powerful political movement, but it also opens up this commercial space where it now seems potentially profitable to have a mainstream magazine, aimed at women, filled with penises.

One way that feminism functioned in the ‘70s was that women were going out and claiming things that men had for themselves, like, “Oh, you’re playboys? Well we’re going to be playgirls.” In some ways, equivalency was the first project, and that’s the role I see the magazine filling. I think things changed for women in the '80s and beyond. We don’t really think anymore that “equality” necessarily means “sameness.”

In the '80s, I think there was a cultural shift that Playgirl may not have responded to as well as it could have. There’s this harshening reality where women have claimed this on-paper equality, and yet, there’s still a lot of frustration in their personal lives as they go out and become earners, and still have to pick up the second shift at home. Maybe the aspirational idea Playgirl was selling (“We can all have this good life that’s powerful and independent and sexy!”) at a certain point just didn’t reflect women’s realities enough.

Had you ever looked at Playgirl before you became an editor?

Not until I picked up a copy to study before pitching them a story. At that point I thought, “Woah, this is not fooling around.” But by the time I applied for the editing job, I knew exactly what I was signing up for.

In the beginning of the memoir, as you’re starting out at Playgirl, you seem to be dubious that women could actual be turned on by the magazine’s aesthetic. Were any of your notions about feminine desire challenged after working there?

Yes. I went in thinking, “No one actually reads this and cares.” But there were so many interactions with so many people who really did have opinions and deep — er, make that heartfelt — thoughts about the magazine that they shared. A lot... Like being a Cosmo girl or a New Yorker reader, they identified with the Playgirl brand.

… The [magazine’s] look had been established before my time, and I think it was very much a part of the broader company Playgirl was a part of, which is this porn empire cranking out publications with lots of skin. So the aesthetic was this mimicry of these other titles that were aimed at men. In the memoir, I kind of question the effectiveness of that. Subbing in male bodies for female bodies and saying, “OK, this will appeal to women,” in my view, doesn’t exactly work.

In the memoir, after you’ve told your parents you’re going to write at Playgirl, you say, “Nobody grows up aspiring to edit a magazine whose topic is naked dudes. At least no one I know yet.” Has being involved with the title and the porn industry changed your opinion on that?

I was the last person that I, or anyone else, thought would end up in that world. Some of the people I met along the way were more the “up for anything,” “down for the ride,” “life is an adventure,” types — but that wasn’t my personality at all. So it was good for me to learn from those types of perspectives while there. Part of the story I wanted to tell was of finding myself relating to aspects of people’s experience that I would have never in a million years imagined I would relate to. Identifying common kernels of ambition and interest with people wildly different from me.

You say in the book that you approached working at Playgirl with “awkwardness and humor.” Do you think that’s the attitude that a lot of people who work in porn bring to it?

In my experience, you had to laugh, and people definitely did. There’s this idea that porn is shady and scary, that people are being manipulated, and obviously I can’t speak for the entire industry, but at Playgirl, on the shoots and in the production capacities, the people I was working with were interesting, funny, smart, and above all warmly professional. There was this level of normalcy that maybe is one of the misconceptions. And in the book I try to get at how nuanced the power dynamics were [between the people behind the camera and those in front of it].

Is there anything you miss about Playgirl?

Sometimes I miss the adventure aspect of it, the element of fun. It was this very unique, weird environment; there were only three of us running the magazine at the end. So to have almost total control and responsibility at a young age was crazy.

In the memoir, you talk about how you took the job at Playgirl as a means of disrupting the comfortable but unsatisfying career trajectory you were on. At the time you weren’t sure whether the risk would pay off? Has it?

An important thing I had to learn in my 20s is that you don’t always get everything you want right away, and that’s not a bad thing. When you aren’t where you want to be, in your career or whatever, it can be easy to waffle around feeling dissatisfied rather than taking concrete steps forward, even if they are weird steps or missteps. There’s nothing wrong with weird steps! They can lead interesting places. The value of being able to identify what stepping stones are available to get yourself on the path you want to be on, even if they don’t seem ideal, is something I learned at Playgirl. It worked out well for me, and even if it hadn’t, I think it would have still been a worthwhile detour, just to shake things up, because as I get at in the story, the path I was on previously wasn’t the right one.

At the end of the book, you wonder if ambition ever truly goes away. Do you still feel that pang or do you feel you’ve arrived where you belong?

I think it evolves and shifts. As soon as you have some sort of satisfaction in one area of your life, something else pops up somewhere else. I don’t think that’s a bad thing or a condition to be overcome. Wanting a little more keeps you engaged with being alive. The point, for me, is to see the constructive and creative possibilities of less-than-total satisfaction.

You seem to hint that that same lack of fulfillment is part of erotic desire as well…

Right, it’s built into that. How boring would it be if we got everything we wanted exactly when we wanted it? (Or everybody!) There’s a balance between being grateful for what you have and relaxing, and being hungry for more and working on evolving, whatever that means for you.

You can find How to be a Playgirl on Kindle, Kobo, or Barnes and Noble’s Nook Press.

Photo by Jason Merrell