Every month for the last 36 years, a plain manila envelope containing a special surprise has arrived at the Washington D.C. offices of all 535 members of Congress. It comes with the rest of the day’s mail, nestled inconspicuously amongst a mess of legislative correspondence and constituent letters where it waits patiently for some unsuspecting intern or staffer to stumble across it.
The more seasoned ones know to avoid it. Many dispose of it as quickly as possible, afraid to be caught red-handed with its contents in their grasp. Rarely does what’s inside the envelope see the light of day, and even more rarely does it wind up on the desk of the Congress member it was intended for.
But every so often, someone’ll open it up. Whether by accident or intention, a staffer not in on the joke will tear the envelope with the same rote swish of the hand they use on every other piece of mail, innocently expecting to pull a nice trade magazine or some routine paperwork out from inside.
Instead, they’re met with tits. Tits and ass.
Huge ones. Glossy ones. Bulbous, airbrushed lady parts slathered in oil. Coquettish young things posing spread-eagle under headlines like “How to Be a Porn Stud: Tips From the Pros.” Full bush. Shaved bush. Half bush. Labia. Fingerbanging. This year’s “Top Ten Brunettes.” It’s porn — full-on porn — and it’s right there on display, in the beating heart of America’s legislative branch.
This surprise, of course, is none other than the latest edition of Hustler, Larry Flynt’s long-running magazine, the likes of which he’s been sending to Congress monthly since 1983. According to a 2011 interview he gave with The Hill, he originally started sending them as a joke so Congress could “keep up on current events” but has kept it up ever since because he found the fact that only about 20 percent of its members actually canceled their subscriptions to be “hilarious.”
“What came out of it was something phenomenal that we had never really dreamed of,” he said, referring to the sheer absurdity that so many Congressmen would actually choose to stay subscribed. “We got a big majority of both houses.” (When I ask Flynt why this is still funny to him nearly 40 years later, his response is as simple and enigmatic as expected: “I wanted to keep them informed.”)
In 2006, Utah Democrat Jim Matheson called the on-the-house Hustler “insulting behavior on the part of the publisher, but not surprising,” and according to former congressional intern and staff assistant Ted (name changed for privacy reasons), the never-ending subscriptions are little more than a routine annoyance for policymakers who have long since ceased trying to get Flynt to stop. For the staffers who work for these policymakers, though, they’re the brightest part of their month; an ongoing practical joke that reminds the normally stuffy offices that even the driest political hard-asses and most annoyingly earnest interns can be sidelined by a phenomenal rack and some less-than-stellar musings on “bigger boners and better orgasms.”
“It’s a beautiful and awkward moment when an intern opens his or her first Hustler,” laughs Ted, who worked for a California congressman from 2007 to 2009 but won’t say who because he still works on the Hill. “It comes in a completely unassuming envelope, and you have all these college interns and 22-year-old staff assistants opening it and trying to figure out what the hell to do.”
Ted says interns who open the mail cycle through every two or three months. Some are warned about Flynt’s little surprise when they start; others are purposefully kept in the dark for entertainment’s sake. “It really depends on the office,” he explains. “Some teams are like, ‘Eh, whatever,’ but others like to pretend it doesn’t exist just to fuck with the new kids.” In any case, he remembers it was usually the “sexually repressed Republicans” who treated it like a bigger deal than it actually was.
“One office used to have the interns deliver the magazine to the same Republican staffer every month because he’d always freak out and make the biggest scene about how he didn’t want it,” he explains. “He protested a little too loudly, I think.” There were also stories of staffers clamoring to get their hands on the Hustlers before they got tossed out, but Ted never saw that happen himself. At any rate, he adds, it was a welcomed way to break the monotony of sorting through the “boatload of defense and pharma-industry trade papers” he was charged with looking over every day. “I thought it was hilarious,” he says. “It made the job less high-stress.”
In 1984, Congress tried to get Flynt to stop by taking him to court, but the U.S. District Court for D.C. ruled that his monthly deliveries were protected under the First Amendment, which grants citizens the right to petition the government (even with porn). According to James Weinstein, a free speech expert and professor of constitutional law at Arizona State University, this is because Hustler’s particular brand of porn isn’t considered to be legally “obscene.” If it were — meaning it would be so graphic and devoid of cultural value that it wouldn’t be protected by the First Amendment — it would be illegal to send through the U.S. mail, and Congress could put an end to its infinite subscription.
No dice for them there, though: The court ruled that all the boobs, butts and beautiful faces gracing Hustler’s pages were culturally valuable enough to merit protection, a surprisingly lax decision amidst the Reagan administration’s well-documented efforts to censor and abolish the “hazardous waste” of porn. That, and the court just didn’t think it was that big of a deal. “Receiving Hustler once each month would not unduly burden a Member of Congress,” the court decided. “Members are not forced to read the magazine or the other mail they receive in volume. We cannot imagine that congressional offices all lack wastebaskets.”
A few years later, the U.S. Postal Service tried to settle the score with its own 1986 lawsuit against Flynt, but the “smut peddler who cares” came out on top again. The federal court where he was tried held that he was free to send porn to whoever he wanted, reinforcing the dictum that congressional offices cannot refuse mail from their constituents. Flynt still takes advantage of this ruling to this day — in 2016, he sent the magazine to every member of the Utah Legislature after they declared porn a “public health hazard,” saying in a statement, “[T]he Utah Legislature is obviously confused about what constitutes a public health crisis, so I’ll send them our latest issue and they can see for themselves that we’re no danger to the public, only to the repressed.”
Back in present-day D.C., Ted imagines Flynt is still simmering with a similar sentiment. “‘Fuck you hypocrite prudes’ is what he’s probably thinking when he sends these mags to us every month,” says Ted. “He’s obviously a true believer when it comes to free speech, and I like to think he sees it as a reminder to Congress of how far he’ll take the fight. I almost think he wants to fight, even if his industry is no longer under the threat of censorship in the same way it used to be.”
Flynt echoed that sentiment his interview with The Hill. “Moses freed the Jews, Lincoln freed the slaves and I just wanted to free all the neurotics,” he said. “I’ve always said that my attitude from the beginning is if we made a little bit more of an effort to understand the medium we communicate with more than anything else, which is sex, then everybody would get along a lot better.”
It’s unclear whether Hustler is leading to any such kumbaya moments for Ted and the rest of the Hill, but one thing’s for sure: The fact that Congress has been constantly bombarded by constitutionally-protected porn for almost 40 years and can’t do anything about it is one of the few endearing aspects of the U.S. government.
There are few things as blatantly democratic as that.