The Bill Gates of Porn
How Reuben Sturman shaped the sex industry
Although Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt are household names, the man who played a far more pivotal role in developing the American sex industry has remained largely unknown to the public. Until a few years ago, a secretive Cleveland businessman named Reuben Sturman dominated the production and distribution of porn not only in the United States but also throughout most of the world. A business rival once complained that Sturman did not simply control the adult-entertainment industry; he was the industry. While other porn magnates courted publicity, Sturman fiercely guarded his privacy, employing at least 20 different aliases, rarely speaking to reporters, and frequently hiding his face behind a mask during courtroom appearances.
To his defenders in the sex industry, Sturman was a marketing genius and a champion of free speech, an entrepreneur whose toughness, intelligence, and boundless self-confidence were responsible for his success. But to antipornography activists and Justice Department officials, Sturman was the head of a vast criminal organization whose companies enjoyed an unfair competitive advantage: protection and support from the highest levels of the Cosa Nostra.
Reuben Sturman was born in 1924 and raised in Cleveland's East Side, where his parents ran a small grocery. After serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II, he attended Western Reserve University, got married, and started his own business. Using the garage at his home as a warehouse, Sturman drove through the neighborhoods of Cleveland, visiting local candy stores and selling bundles of comic books from the trunk of his old Dodge. By the late 1950s, the business had grown into a wholesale magazine company with warehouses in eight major cities.
Yes, sex sells. At the suggestion of an employee, the company began to sell a few sex magazines. Once Sturman realized that they produced at least 20 times the revenue of comic books, he wanted to stock every sex publication ever printed. He began publishing his own sex magazines and opening retail stores. He wasn't obsessed with sex; it just seemed like a good business. By the end of the 1960s, Sturman was one of the largest publishers, and perhaps the largest distributor, of sex magazines.
Sturman is credited with inventing a simple contraption that proved extraordinarily lucrative: the peep booth. By enclosing coin-operated projectors in a small booth with a screen and a door that could be locked, Sturman gave his customers the opportunity to view sex films in private. The invention was an immediate success. Sturman put peep booths into all of his stores. He supplied the booths to other adult-bookstore owners, free of charge, in return for half of the receipts. He started a company to manufacture peep booths and another company to service them. The huge demand for sex films to show in these booths helped establish the nation's adult-film industry. During the 1970s, the public exhibition of hard-core films, such as Deep Throat, attracted a great deal of attention in the media. But the annual revenues of the nation's peep booths were much larger--four times larger, by some estimates--than those of adult theaters.