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Can we talk about porn? I mean, we do talk about porn, all the time – we acknowledge that it exists and that maybe we watch it, or we wring our hands over who is watching it and how much and whether it's warping their brains. But can we talk about it the way we talk about all the other media we consume? Do we have any idea what kind of porn our friends watch, or how they feel about it?

If anyone can talk about porn, it's John Waters, who is hosting Playboy TV's Groundbreakers, a series of classic skin flicks including Deep Throat (1972), The Devil in Miss Jones (1973), Tell Them Johnny Wadd Is Here (1976), Debbie Does Dallas (1978) and Candy Stripers (1978), which airs on Saturday. "I thought, this is perfect," he says, over the phone from San Francisco. "Vintage porn, which now means film history." Which is true, of course, but also contains a startling idea: not that porn is culture – that's a given – but that not too long ago we were all watching the same pornos.

Waters remembers seeing Deep Throat in theatres, as well as Miss Jones, which "was the arty one, the first one that was Bergmanesque. A good deal because Bergman films were shown as sex movies in Baltimore when I was young. They would cut a lot of dialogue out and leave the breasts in." Waters's interest is in how these films shifted social mores, defied obscenity laws and goaded Hollywood into showing full frontal.

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Porn never did merge with Hollywood, as its makers may once have hoped, back when Deep Throat screenings drew the likes of Jack Nicholson and Jackie O. But it definitely influenced Hollywood; as porn became more mainstream, and fought through the courts, the "legitimate" film industry followed its lead. "I watched the censorship laws change from the very beginning," Waters says. "First you could see women's breasts. Then women's asses. Then men's asses, then men's penises, and then real sex. Hetero sex. And then gay sex … and now Hollywood almost does all those things."

Porn's mainstream ascendency turned a twist with the advent of home video in the late seventies and early eighties: Porn got bigger, and more widespread, but it was consumed more privately. According to the documentary Inside Deep Throat, in 1990, the number of adult theatres had declined from 1,500 to 250, while, by 2002, 11,303 adult films were released against 467 Hollywood films. Then came the Internet. Now porn is ubiquitous, mindbogglingly diverse and highly random. Maybe the seventies nostalgia is partly for a time when porn was something significant, and shared.

It's not like there's anything utopian about the idea of sexual monoculture, or the seventies porn industry was anything like utopia. Interesting people were involved – Annie Sprinkle is a feminist icon – but so was the Mob. The actors, many of whom aspired to non-pornographic acting careers, were stigmatized more than they were celebrated, and stigma is a lot more dangerous than sex. Then there's the abuse, most famously of Linda Lovelace by her husband Chuck Traynor, under whose coercion she performed. "When you see the movie Deep Throat, you are watching me being raped," she said famously, but viewers ever since have found excuses to disregard this.

Porn's visibility helped eliminate taboos around sex in general, and that's largely a good thing. But it didn't necessarily make us more thoughtful, responsible or ethical about sex. (Consider the harassment, and the death threats, that Duke University student Miriam Weeks received after classmates learned about her career as porn actress Belle Knox.) Obviously, porn sex is not sex any more than Hollywood romance is relationships. The difference is that we know how movies are. We watch them together. We talk about them. (I have a general distaste for "kids these days" gripes, but it disturbs me to think that an eight-year-old boy could access Max Hardcore clips on his iPhone without being taught at school about consent.) Waters's Groundbreakers isn't porn studies in the critical sense, but it does offer context, which porn needs a lot more of.

If there's any icon of seventies porn culture worth reviving for modern general audiences, it might be the porn theatre. Not that these were ever salons, but it's a nice fantasy, at least, to think of watching porn like we did in the golden era, with some insight and general decency. Baltimore's last porn theatre, the Apex, closed in 2013, going the way of the Rex and the Earle. "They all became churches," Waters says.

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