Adult Empire looks at the Penthouse Letters.

Let’s Take a Moment to Salute the Penthouse Letters

Dear Penthouse, I’ve never done anything like this before, writing to a magazine to confess something, but this was too wicked and delicious not to.”

 

There’s been this one fantasy I’ve had for as long as I can remember . . . ”

 

I’ve been married for going on four years now. I would say I have a good marriage . . . just because of the nasty things I do behind his back.”

Real or fake, corny or erotic, old or new, the Penthouse Letters have been a touchstone of adult entertainment for over five decades.

Just ask Maitland Ward, for whom the famous letters represented a sexual awakening. According to her book Rated X, an early boyfriend phoned her to say he’d found a copy of the notorious men’s magazine, complete with a slew of the naughty erotic stories known as the Penthouse Letters. As Ward listened, he “read the raunchiest, nastiest letter, with the most descriptive sexual vocabulary I had never heard. Fucking and sucking and so much coming.” For Ward, it kicked off a sexual journey that continues to this day.

Ward is far from the only person to be profoundly influenced by this long-running Penthouse feature. Australian superstar Angela White told XBIZ in 2015 that the Penthouse Letters were some of the first erotica she ever encountered. In a 2023 Adult Empire interview, Tanya Tate counted the letters as one of her influences in becoming the “Queen of Dirty Talk.”

They’ve also had a surprisingly far-reaching cultural influence. When newspaper columnist Lewis Grizzard needed a handy reference to condemn the vulgarity of 1980s rock and roll, he likened it to “Penthouse letters set to music.” Grizzard’s widely syndicated words needed no further explanation, even in the context of the family-friendly local daily. Funny or Die spoofed the letters in 2012. Musician Ryjan Kidwell modeled the liner notes for his album Actual Fucking on typical Penthouse Letters.

The feature itself came about almost by accident as an offshoot of Penthouse Forum, itself a spinoff of popular men’s magazine Penthouse. Penthouse’s then-editor Eric Danville explained the origins of the concept to XBIZ in 2015: “People would write in and ask other readers what they thought about certain topics or would offer their own tips that others might find helpful. The letters evolved into the reader experiences and fantasies that people know today, and the magazine started to add more personal topics addressed by commissioned writers in columns and features.”

In the classic Penthouse letter, a seemingly everyday person finds themselves swept up in an improbable, glorious sexual adventure, bursting with evocative, erotic details.Penthouse Forum is truly a celebration of sexuality. The letters it contains represent the magic moment when fantasy becomes reality,” said one-time Penthouse Senior Editor Rachel Stokoe in the introduction to Penthouse: Naughty by Nature. The opening line of a typical Penthouse letter has often been parodied as “I never thought it could happen to me.” Whether it was the seduction of a hot neighbor, a first-time threesome, exhibitionism, or same-sex experimentation, these escapades helped legions of readers explore and expand their sexual selves. Interestingly, the formula of a typical Penthouse Letter prefigures the formula for much of contemporary plot-oriented studio porn.

Naturally, it is debated how real these “real-life” reader letters actually are. “Penthouse Letters are all fake,” said musician Kidwelll when discussing his liner-note project. In Naughty by Nature, Penthouse’s Stokoe noted that this was the number-one question people asked her, although she remained coy about her answer. In a 2007 interview with The Observer, Mark Healy, former Penthouse editor-in-chief, supposedly produced a stack of actual handwritten letters in an attempt to disprove the idea the feature was fake.

As the brand evolved, it eventually inspired a series of Letter-themed porn videos, complete with breathy narration accompanying explicit recorded illustrations of the stories. It was a logical extension of the concept, inspiring such AE bestsellers as Bad Wives and Busty Blondes. Unsurprisingly, they have been popular sellers on Adult Empire, in DVD and digital incarnations. Over the past decade, web searches for “Penthouse Letters” have sloped consistently downward, indicating a diminishment of the brand name that aligns with broader industry trends.

But history has an odd way of repeating itself, of finding its way back to its starting point. Porn now confronts itself with tech innovations as dazzling as AI and virtual reality, but much of it still harkens to simpler modes of yesteryear. What are XXX GIFs if not just digital versions of peepshow loops, the naughty glimpses of sex that tantalized older generations? The recent trend of audio porn and ASMR represents a similar reversion. The stripped-down simplicity of a sexy voice giving you a few cues to let your imagination run wild is the spiritual descendant of the Penthouse Letters.

In 2024, porn can deliver an immersive erotic experience that’s only a few inches from your eyeballs. The Penthouse Letters arrived in an era when the content delivery system was still a stack of paper with a few staples. “I was so turned on by words and by erotic dirty talk [ . . . ] It was amazing. It opened up a whole new world,” Maitland Ward told us in 2022. In one form or another, that new world lives on, even if, in the words of so many letters, you never thought it could happen to you.


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