From Pamela Anderson to Tonya Harding: The Decade That Turned the Sex Tape Mainstream

From Pamela Anderson to Tonya Harding: The Decade That Turned the Sex Tape Mainstream

“Sex tape” became a household phrase via a portrait of domesticity, even if Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee comprised no ordinary couple. For anyone even vaguely cognizant of the happenings in pop culture, the 1996 release of Pam & Tommy Lee: Hardcore and Uncensored was impossible to ignore. Few adult releases since the industry-defining 1972 flick Deep Throat came close to having its impact. As a result, sex on film became a topic of regular mainstream conversation (and talk-show hosts’ punch lines) and stayed there because of a prolonged legal battle that Anderson and Lee launched to halt the tape’s release and distribution.

But there was a key difference between Pam & Tommy Lee: Hardcore and Uncensored and almost all the high-profile adult releases that preceded it: Pam & Tommy Lee: Hardcore and Uncensored was never intended for public release. Its footage had been stolen. Despite—or quite possibly because of that—it sold like crazy. In 1998, City News Service printed that it was reportedly the best-selling adult video ever. A 2015 roundup at Die-Screaming (site NSFW) reported that Pam & Tommy Lee: Hardcore and Uncensored remained the best-selling celebrity sex tape of all time—no mean feat given the popularity of publicly available unauthorized footage featuring Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian.

But before the advent of the sex tape as we now know it—an amateur recording of a sexual encounter putatively intended for private use and typically featuring one or more celebrities—the term “sex tape” had a variety of meanings in the press. In the ’80s and even into the ’90s, when the home video boom rendered anyone with enough money and tech-savvy a potential amateur pornographer, “sex tape” could refer to a phone-sex line or a taped conversation between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles (in which he famously fantasized about being her tampon). For a time, arguably the most famous “sex tape” was the work of John Sasso, a staffer on Michael Dukakis’s campaign for Massachusetts Governor. Sasso had played a recording of Dukakis’s rival (and eventual victor) Edward King and his wife, edited to include heavy breathing. For a while, that was the sex tape.

But in the ’90s, the “sex tape” became synonymous with celebrity skin. To label this time when Western culture was still acclimating to the technological possibilities and their attendant moral dilemmas as merely “naive” would be to paint a distorted portrait of innocence. Perhaps some ethical stumbling was inevitable as culture weighed just how much privacy it would afford to those who traded in publicity, but make no mistake: There was an enthusiasm for watching stars get caught with their pants down and then waiting to see just what came next. It would take a solid two decades for the notion of revenge porn to become commonplace. Prior to that, the nonconsensual trading of sexual material lived in an ethical ambiguity that made it all the more irresistible to an increasingly voyeuristic public.

While it wasn’t until the ’90s that the celebrity sex tape became a pop cultural fixture, the genre’s first defining entry was released to the public in 1989. In May of that year, news broke that the then 24-year-old Brat Pack actor Rob Lowe had been caught on tape in an “orgy.” In reality, it was a threesome featuring two younger partners, one of them a 16-year-old girl. She was above the age of consent in Atlanta, where Lowe had been campaigning for, go figure, Dukakis. A federal law codified in 1988 stipulated, however, that visual depictions of sexual activity cannot feature anyone under the age of 18. (Lowe reportedly was not charged with a crime.) In his 2011 memoir, Stories I Only Tell My Friends, Lowe takes pains to contend that he never suspected one of his partners was so young. Nonetheless, in 2019, Lowe controversially deemed the tape “the best thing that ever happened to me,” for prompting him to get sober, which in turn he credited to leading to his marriage. (There is no record that the girl has since spoken publicly about the tape or Lowe.)

Lowe’s tape hit a market that had hardly seen anything like it, though that did nothing to impede distribution. In early June 1989, Screw publisher and porno discourse figurehead Al Goldstein aired the tape on his Manhattan public-access show Midnight Blue. Goldstein told Newsday he had purchased it for $15,000 from “a law enforcement officer from a federal agency who had one.” Goldstein began selling copies of the video to the public for $29.95. Lowe’s attorney at the time, Dale Kinsella, claimed that the mother of the 16-year-old in the tape had, through her lawyer, demanded money from Lowe. (It allegedly varied from $300,000 to half of Lowe’s net worth.) “An affidavit from a friend of the 16-year-old’s said the girl bragged about the film and said that she was going to use the film to blackmail Rob Lowe for $2 million,” the Los Angeles Times reported. Lowe agreed to perform 20 hours of community service in Los Angeles to avoid prosecution. According to People, Lowe settled a lawsuit with the girl’s family.

“Sometimes being a trailblazer is overrated,” Lowe wrote in his memoir. “If the Kim Kardashians and Colin Farrells and all the like had let their video oeuvre out into the zeitgeist before me, mine may have been met with a mere titillated shrug.” Mind you, Kardashian and Farrell were not depicted having sex with teenagers in their tapes.

Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, the legal system and greater culture grappled with the rights of private citizens who had been taped having sex and/or had that footage screened to a wider audience. In June 1989, a 23-year-old named Susan Kerr was awarded $1 million for mental anguish after she learned her college boyfriend secretly filmed them having sex and then showed others the tape. The ruling was overturned in 1992 by the Texas Supreme Court, which proclaimed that Texas law “cannot and should not attempt to provide redress for every instance of rude, insensitive or distasteful behavior, even though it may result in hurt feelings, embarrassment or even humiliation.” The ruling was overturned again in 1993.

Massachusetts Rep. John C. McNeil pled guilty to filming his 15-year-old godson having sex with a 19-year-old nanny and in June 1993 was sentenced to 10 to 12 years in prison (his sentence was to run concurrently with other sentences he was serving on unrelated state and federal charges). According to the Boston Globe, he was paroled in 1996. A man named Gary Offenburg died by suicide in 1992 after the tabloid show A Current Affair broadcast footage of him having sex with a woman who was not his wife in his pickup truck. “I’m angry about A Current Affair,” said his wife. “I’m angry about the local newspaper. I realize it was news, but they didn’t have to keep pushing it.”

Multiple cops (so many, really), an NHL player, and a college football player were among those accused of nonconsensual recording and/or distribution of sexual material as the local stories involving sex tapes piled up in the ‘90s. One of the most bizarre tabloid sensations of the early ’90s, Florida couple Kathy and Jeff Willets, were charged with prostitution and wire-tapping when police discovered that they had been charging men money to have sex with Kathy in their home and recording the calls to orchestrate the sex trade. The couple claimed that the frequent sex with strangers was treatment for Kathy’s “nymphomania,” which she blamed on Prozac. Guy Rubin, the son of the couple’s lawyer, Ellis Rubin, attempted to sell a video of Fort Lauderdale Vice Mayor Doug Danzinger and Kathy Willets to Inside Edition. As if the story didn’t have enough head-spinning layers already, Inside Edition then broadcast secretly filmed footage of Guy Rubin attempting to broker the deal.

“It’s a National Enquirer story happening in real life, and it’s all true,” said Fort Lauderdale Police Department spokesman Ott Seskin at the time. “It’s sleazy, and the way attorneys have been posturing makes it more sleazy. And we’re all just sitting around and waiting for the other shoe to drop. And wondering whose foot it will come off of.”

Upon pleading guilty, the Willetses turned over the tape featuring Danzinger to the court. In 1993, the Broward state attorney’s office released a copy of the tape (sans audio) in adherence with the state’s public record laws. As the Miami Herald put it in 1994, “Just file a formal request, swear you’re 18 or older, mail in the $30, and you’ve got a copy of the most famous piece of Fort Lauderdale footage since Where the Boys Are.” The state was, effectively, sanctioning the distribution of a sex tape—the Fort Lauderdale video duplication company told the Herald it had made about 40 of them in a year’s time, “mostly for media.” Similarly, in 1995, a hidden-camera video shot at the Tampa police headquarters depicting a patrol sergeant and dispatcher having sex in a cubicle was released to the public. And in 1999, a judge allowed the release of a three-hour tape featuring an alleged rape by stripper Lisa Gier King at a University of Florida frat party. After making the claim, King was charged with filing false charges. Footage from the tape ended up in the documentary Raw Deal: A Question of Consent, which played Sundance in 2001.

By March 1996 the culture was primed for what would become the most discussed sex tape of the decade, yet nothing could have adequately prepared anyone for Pam & Tommy Lee: Hardcore and Uncensored. For a time, it seemed that the unauthorized release would define the legacies of the two celebrities depicted, actor/model Pamela Anderson Lee (one of the world’s most famous people, thanks to the global success of Baywatch) and musician Tommy Lee, drummer for the most quintessential of ’80s hair bands, Mötley Crüe. The hourlong tape, which featured private home videos of the couple and about five minutes of footage of them having sex, was a relic of its time. It was stolen from the couple’s home and impossible to suppress, both legally and culturally. It’s as though all anyone could do was watch agog as the decidedly ’90s technological psychodrama unspooled.

Anderson and Lee sued Penthouse over the magazine’s plans to publish stills from the video. Their suit, according to the New York Daily News, alleged that a man bought the tape from a worker who had done renovations in their home during the fall of 1995. The Daily News reported that construction worker John Pulford confessed to swiping the tape from the couple’s VCR. “Photographers outside the house were always asking us if we could get them pictures or film. After I got fired I thought, ‘Why not?’” the paper quoted him as saying.

“Why not?” was not a moral question, but a reasoned assessment of a culture that was playing it fast and loose with the privacy and personal space of its effective royalty

The paparazzi wave had yet to crest (the VHS was purloined about two years before Princess Diana died in a car crash while being chased by photographers) and the pap monsoon of the aughts was still about a decade away, but nonetheless, in the mid-’90s swarms of flashbulbs were an increasing presence in the lives of celebrities and their spectators. “Why not?” was not a moral question, but a reasoned assessment of a culture that was playing it fast and loose with the privacy and personal space of its effective royalty, during a time when sex tapes were as much of a fixture of the cultural climate as the ozone layer itself.

Little ink was spilled and few hands were wrung over Anderson and Lee’s adamance that they had been violated. “With the intention of it remaining entirely private, plaintiffs created a videotape recording depicting themselves, in part, in explicit sexual and intimate relations,” read their initial suit. According to the Miami Herald, Anderson described the tape’s potential consumers as “people with no lives” in USA Today. Late-night hosts joked about it. In February 1998, Anderson called out Jay Leno specifically when she appeared on his show for “jumping on the bandwagon” and mocking her and Lee. Howard Stern reportedly called it “the greatest tape I have ever seen in my life.” Decades later, Andy Cohen would tell Anderson to her face on Watch What Happens Live that the stolen footage was “fantastic.” In 1999, Pam & Tommy Lee: Hardcore and Uncensored were named Best-Renting and Best-Selling Tape of the Year at the AVN Awards.

In August 1996, a judge denied the Lees’ motion to bar Penthouse from distributing the tape with the rationale that “the tape was, however, evidently made, in part, in settings which are not truly private.” (The tape depicted the couple having sex in a car on a public highway and in a boat.) They followed up their Penthouse suits with one in November 1997 against the Internet Entertainment Group, which released the tape on the internet on November 7, 1997. According to Newsday:

The company’s legal argument was that the Lees had forfeited their right to privacy by talking about the tape in the media, specifically on the Howard Stern show. This essentially boosted its news value, IEG argued. That argument appears to have won.

Newsday also interviewed an intellectual property lawyer, whose quotes in retrospect underline the Wild West nature of the internet at the time. Said Charles Guttman of Lippe, Goldstein, Wolf & Schlissel, P.C.:

These are public figures, so they give up a lot of their privacy. The case also runs into the First Amendment right of freedom of the press and expression. The Internet is just a medium for disseminating information. It’s not unlike the situation that would arise if a newspaper were to obtain copies of pictures of them…She’s known to appear in soft-core pictures, so it’s hard for her to draw the line: “You can show me naked but not engaging in sexual acts.”

Guttman illustrated the general public opinion that a Playboy model was somehow deserving of having her sex life exposed. By December 1997, Anderson and Lee had settled with IEG. The terms of the settlement were, in a word, bizarre. The agreement made its way onto the internet the following March, as a result of ongoing legal battles between the Lees and IEG. By then, the Lees had filed another lawsuit claiming that IEG had not been granted rights to sell their sex tape in stores, and only distribute it online. “It was my and Tommy’s clear understanding, after reading the settlement agreement and mutual release, that it only covered a few minutes of the tape on the Internet,” Anderson said in a signed declaration March 3, according to City News Service. But in a follow-up story written after reviewing the settlement, CNS reported: “Nowhere in the eight-page document, posted on IEG’s Website, does it state what Anderson and Lee would get in return for allowing the tape to be made available.” Curious!

According to the deal, the Lees “expressly waive and release any and all claims” to the tape. But in court papers filed March 3, Lee says she and her husband “could not find anywhere in said document permission for IEG to merchandise’’ the tape.

Then in April 1998, IEG sued Anderson and Lee for breach of contract, as their settlement had included a stipulation that Anderson and Lee would not sue IEG for selling the tape. The Lees had all along claimed that they had never received a dime for the tape, which made their settlement that much more confusing (especially since they claimed they’d turned down $5 million for it, and it was released anyway). CNS pointed to some vague wording in the settlement highlighted in IEG’s lawsuit:

Its lawsuit includes a copy of the confidential agreement the parties signed in November. It doesn’t spell out how much, if any, money changed hands, but a phrase in the preamble seemed to hint some did.
‘’… And for other good and valuable consideration, receipt of which is hereby acknowledged, the parties agree as follows…,’’ a copy of the agreement states.

Almost 20 years later, on a 2015 episode of Watch What Happens Live, Anderson repeated that she’d made no money from the tape. Her reason for dropping the lawsuit, she explained was that she didn’t feel like being deposed by “these horny weird lawyer men” any further, and that she feared the ongoing legal battle would affect her pregnancy. In May 1998, Anderson and Lee settled with the National Enquirer, which they had sued for printing that they’d taken an $8 million deal to secretly profit off the tape. In 1998, Lee told Fox News that he had made “absolutely zero” money from the release of the tape.

Adding to the circus was the news of yet another tape featuring Anderson, this time with ex-boyfriend Bret Michaels, the lead singer of a different hair band, Poison. The tape was purported to have been filmed in 1994, and murmurs of its existence started in May of 1996, just months after the release of the footage featuring Anderson and Lee.

In January 1998, IEG announced (via press release, no less) that it had obtained the Anderson-Michaels tape, described by IEG spokesperson Heather Dalton as “all sex and is going to be a collector’s item for the true voyeur.” The 45 minutes of footage would be posted on IEG’s website in its entirety, the release promised, though separate $40 million lawsuits from Anderson and Michaels thwarted that plan for a time. A years-long legal battle stretched out and finally in 2001, Anderson and Michaels settled with IEG. “Although specific terms of the settlement weren’t disclosed, lawyers for both Anderson and Michaels confirmed Wednesday that IEG will pay the pair a seven-figure sum and destroy all copies of the video,” reported E! News. “In addition, IEG’s president, Seth Warshavsky, apologized to Michaels for claiming the rocker actually gave IEG the video. (It’s still not clear how the company acquired the camcorder goods.)” The footage of Anderson and Michaels remains widely available online.

As the lawsuits dragged on and the attendant controversies raged, Anderson and Lee split. In February 1998, Lee was jailed and charged with spousal and child abuse. After pleading no contest, he was sentenced to six months in jail. He and Anderson divorced later that year. They’d reconcile a few times and ultimately split for good. The relationship ended, but their tape was forever. That footage, too, remains a few keystrokes away.

“Amateur porno videos are hot,” read the lede of a December 10, 1997, Newsday feature about the legal row between Anderson/Lee and IEG. By the end of the decade, a gaggle of celebrities had been either featured having sex on camera, or were rumored to have been. Rock and roll pioneer Chuck Berry was sued in a class-action suit filed by dozens of women who alleged he’d filmed them in the bathroom of his Missouri restaurant called Southern Aire. In 1994, he reportedly settled the class-action suit for $830,000, and another similar suit with a sole plaintiff for $310,000. The 2 Live Crew leader/First Amendment crusader Luther Campbell shrugged publicly when footage of women performing oral sex on him on stage in Japan began to circulate. “In Japan, they’re not as hung up as America when it comes to sex,” he told USA Today. A video of a 17-year-old girl (who was above the age of consent) performing oral sex on Tupac Shakur in a hotel room was found during a search of another hotel room, where Shakur allegedly sexually abused several women.

Frank Gifford (husband of Kathie Lee), Jerry Springer, Jane’s Addiction frontman/Lollapalooza mastermind Perry Ferrell, Kevin Costner, and Kelsey Grammer were all said to be featured in tapes on the cusp of public release. Grammer reportedly filed a preemptive lawsuit against IEG, which in turn said, according to the Los Angeles Times, that “it has no Kelsey Grammer tapes and can’t figure out what all the fuss is about.” USA Today reported that Grammer said on the burgeoning scandal that never was: “I have no idea what’s happening, except it’s nice to be thought of as such a sex star.” Uh, sure.

As if not to be outdone by Tommy Lee, Mötley Crüe lead singer Vince Neil appeared in his own sex tape, after cutting a deal with IEG, according to Montreal’s The Gazette. Neil may have orchestrated the release of his own “sex tape,” but he was far from a pioneer in that endeavor. That distinction belonged to none other than scandal magnet Tonya Harding.

In February 1994, a little after a month after Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was attacked by the husband of her competitor Tanya Harding, A Current Affair announced plans to air, “videotape tonight that shows Harding partially nude.” ‘The video shows Tonya Harding at a Halloween party, wearing a wedding dress… and at one point she drops the dress to her waist and is topless,’ said spokesman Ed Burns,” according to the Seattle Times. The footage was a precursor to Tonya and Jeff’s Wedding Night, a 35-minute tape marketed by Penthouse featuring, according to the Chicago Tribune’s, er, review of the video: “Tonya Harding and her former husband Jeff Gillooly, naked, in color, engaged in pre-Olympics exercise.”

“The real problem here—beyond the shoddy production and the unappealing performers—is that this video is a betrayal. The sex is consensual, but the publication is not,” read the Tribune with a rare emphasis on consent. And so it seemed. Harding’s manager said in July 1994 that Harding was considering taking legal action to prevent Penthouse from printing stills from the video. “She has been offered upwards of $600,000 to pose nude and she has totally rejected the idea,” claimed Merrill Eichenberger.

Later, however, a contract signed by Harding and Gillooly dated June 1, 1994, surfaced. It granted Penthouse exclusive rights to “a videotape by Harding and Gillooly… running 35 minutes in length taken by Harding and Gillooly during the months of March and October 1991, containing scenes of explicit nudity and intimate lovemaking involving only Harding and Gillooly.” They were each paid $200,000 advances, with residuals to follow.

Tonya and Jeff’s Wedding Night has largely faded from memory, despite the recent reassessment of Harding’s legacy fostered by the Oscar-winning 2017 film I, Tonya. And yet, that sex tape, more than any other, predicted how the medium would be considered in the following decade: as an orchestrated, even savvy career move, through which its participants could profit not just via publicity but monetarily, a bang for one’s buck and buck for one’s bang in one fell swoop.

In the following decade, the sex tape was credited with helping launch careers. Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian were two examples of celebrities who saw their profiles rise after footage of them engaged in sex was released to the public under questionable consent. Because the sex tape could serve as a marketing tool, there was widespread speculation about whether these rising stars leaked their own sex footage, more often than not to the detriment of consideration of consent. What may appear to be logical inference, though, belies a cultural mindset that had already normalized the sex tape medium. For a period of time in the ’90s, with the high profile of the sex tape came a fight over consent as evidenced by the smirking responses to Pamela Anderson (that continue even today). Other than those depicted in the footage, the public didn’t seem particularly concerned over the thorny issue of consent and consumption, but at least the argument was visible all the same. By the aughts, though, consent fully gave way to spectacle.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin