In the rapidly shrinking world of softcore porn, the split beaver pic is the closest thing to the money shot. It's fairly simple to take, as it requires nothing more than a woman lying on her back (or sitting with her knees up) and spreading her legs. As she moves her legs apart, the outer lips of her vulva slowly open, revealing the intricate folds of her inner lips. The inner lips may part as well, exposing the small dark mouth of her vagina. Zoom in, push the shutter, and you've got it--a lifesize picture of a woman's secret parts.

I can clearly remember when I saw my first split beaver shot. I was 14 years old, well into puberty, when I finally scraped up the courage to try purchasing a Penthouse from the local Waldenbooks. I picked the magazine off the rack and, heart pounding, went up to the cashier (who must've been either blind or very understanding--I certainly didn't look 18). I forked over the mag and two weeks' allowance; he handed me a brown bag and my change. I tucked it into the inside pocket of my trench coat, and headed for a secure location. I flipped to a random page, where a woman with her legs apart gazed back at me with a faint, sultry smile.

My first reaction was not arousal, not fascination, but shock--I didn't know they could show that! Then I was entranced--it was so beautiful, so wonderfully detailed. (My third reaction need not be made public.)

It's hard to say when the first split beaver pictures appeared in the world. No doubt Urk the Caveman sketched a crotch shot on the wall of his cave, though somehow I doubt you'll ever see National Geographic do a story on it. As for more modern times, the history of porn is a bit muddy, but I'm sure you could find what you were looking for if you found the right back alley in Paris; civilization's good like that. In fact, the Rotenberg Collection contains any number of pictures that are just as explicit as the stuff on the racks today.

But if we're talking about mainstream--by which I mean a regular publication that was legal, that you could buy through normal channels--then the credit goes to the Scandinavians, as it so often does in matters of sex. According to Luke Ford's History of X, a Swedish car salesman by the name of Berth Milton founded Private magazine in 1965; the second issue contained a shot of a woman with her legs spread wide. (Milton, who was years ahead of his time and apparently quite a sicko, soon moved on to hardcore penetration and cumshots.)

So Private was the first magazine to legally publish a split beaver shot. That doesn't matter to Larry Flynt, of course, who thinks he deserves all the credit. You might recall a scene from The People vs. Larry Flynt in which a photographer is telling a model how he wants her to pose. When she opens her legs too wide, revealing her inner labia, he chuckles and tells her to pull her knees together. Flynt, who has been watching the proceedings, jumps in. "No," he says, "that's just what we want." The photographer protests, saying that you just can't take such pictures. "Why not?" Flynt asks. "A girl's vagina has just as much personality as her face." The photographer shrugs his shoulders, the picture is taken, and eventually appears in the magazine.

In real life, that was the December 1974 issue of Hustler, and, to give Flynt credit where credit is due, he may have been the first person to publish such a picture in a general-circulation magazine in the United States. Then again, maybe not: Both the Principia Discordia (published in 1970) and Kurt Vonnegut's book Breakfast of Champions (published in 1973) refer to split-beaver magazines, suggesting that they were floating around years before Flynt even started Hustler. Still, it's impossible to tell whether they were referring to a Swedish import, a skin mag with local circulation, or something else entirely.

The split beaver shot was far more tantalizing in the old days, when mags were mainly softcore and adult models were actually allowed to have pubic hair. The pubic hair hid the labia most of the time, meaning that the split beaver shot required a deliberate pose on the part of the model, a conscious decision to spread her legs wide and show you a moist pink line amidst a forest of thick, dark hair. If you suspended your disbelief, you could look into her eyes and dream that she was talking to you and you alone: "It's okay--you can look. I want to show you everything, from my eyes and my lips to my most secret parts. I want you to see all there is to see, all of it, and it's all for you." It was the high point of every pictorial, a wonderful release after a series of teasing, tantalizing pics that almost but didn't quite show you what you wanted to see. (Sure, you could skip ahead to the good parts--but that'd be cheating.)

Today, this pose seems quite tame, and in fact the term is a bit out-of-date. Once shaving pubic hair became de rigueur in the industry, the labia were visible in almost any nude shot (and in any case, the term "beaver" slowly went out of use, as it generally referred specifically to private parts with pubic hair.) Moreover, once porno mags started using hardcore photo sets, the split beaver shot is no longer the pinnacle of most pictorials; instead, it's been replaced by the cumshot in guy-girl pictorials or the distended-labia-with-large-inserted-object pic in solo shoots.

And it’s a shame. I miss the old days sometimes, when it was just me and a woman, without anybody (or anything) to get in the way. There are a few softer mags out there—Tight, for one. But on the whole, softcore is a dying breed.

Ford, L. (1999). A History of X: 100 Years of Sex in Film. Amherst, New York: Prometheus.

Malaclypse the Younger. (1970). Principia Discordia. Port Townsend, WA: Loompanics.

Rotenberg, M., & Mirsky, L. (2000). The Rotenberg Collection: Forbidden Erotica. New York, NY: Taschen.

Vonnegut, K. (1973). Breakfast of Champions. New York, NY: Delacorte Press.

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