Notes on Porn

Andrew Holleran. The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide. Volume 22, Issue 5. Sep/Oct 2015.

Andy Warhol said that when he was in high school he wanted a friend, but then he got a television and he didn’t need a friend anymore.

The size of the pornographic film industry is debated, with one authoritative source pegging the figure at fourteen billion dollars last year. Of course, the gay porn industry is a small segment of that. But there is so much gay porn on the Internet now that it has destroyed almost all other forms of porn.

There is nothing stranger than looking at the old issues of Mandate, Inches, Honcho, et cetera, that you kept in your closet-not just because of the time-capsule quality, or the imagery that was considered hot back in those days, but the fact that the men on the pages of the magazine cannot move.

When porn was in magazines, one had to go to a “dirty movie theater”-the Adonis or the Bijou, say, in New York-to see porn on film. But now you can watch porn films by yourself at home: another instance of the way in which the computer isolates us, since in the movie houses, one usually went there to have sex with real people while ignoring the images on screen.

Now one has sex with four men in a hotel room somewhere in New York in the middle of the afternoon. Through the window you can see the Empire State Building, but the rest of the skyline is so unfamiliar it’s hard to figure out just where you are-in Long Island City, or the Lower East Side. Down below you can see trucks going by, and the normal traffic of the day; inside the room, however, three men, like doctors performing surgery, are stuffing a muscle bottom. Who are they? How did they meet? Where is the room? What day is it? This is the magic of movies, or at least the magic of sex, or perhaps of New York.

There are so many porn sites that one is always being told of another; but two we can discuss are xtube.com and pornmd.com. The latter is like a library in which you look things up by typing in a topic. The first is an endless stream of porn films, constantly replenished, so that the scene you watch on Page 1 before you go to bed may be on Page 10 when you get up the next morning if you go looking for it, as you may well do. Xtube.com is like a river of film that is flowing even as you sleep, a vast conveyor belt moving images forward, so that you really must make a mental note of where the film was when you first saw it if you want to find it again.

Porn films invade our lives in a way “legitimate” movies do not; rarely do we want to watch “real” movies every day, in the morning and evening, or know that when we go home we can watch more; but with porn we can and do. Having porn on your laptop is like having someone waiting for you when you get home. Pathetic, but true.

The line between “legitimate” film and pornographic movies is constantly being negotiated. For instance, the television show Oz found a big gay following a few years ago when it showed naked men in showers; but a brief scene in the new movie Saint Laurent-when the lead actor walks stark naked toward the camera with a schlong so immense that, if his career in “legitimate” film ever fades, he could always do porn-is jarring.

The porn film industry has stars just the way Hollywood does, though most porn actors are the equivalent of extras. And what extras! It is astonishing that so many attractive people are willing to perform sex with a camera flitting about them like a fly. But it is a supply that apparently never runs out. There will always be someone willing to perform on camera acts you would not want anyone to see you doing, not even your sex partner, if you have one. As Gore Vidal pointed out in his essay “On Pornography,” in real life we are often too embarrassed to ask our sex partners for what we really want.

Sometimes you find an actor who so embodies what you desire that you start searching for him on other porn sites, like Swann searching for Odette in the cafés of Paris, which can eat up a lot of time. (But what is time when you’re watching porn?) These infatuations come and go, but they mimic almost exactly the way Desire crystallizes on a single person in real life. Eventually you form a pantheon of porn actors you consider the very best. As Emily Dickinson wrote, “The soul selects its own society.”

In porn, one is always searching for the real-the non-acted, non-contrived, non-professional, genuine exchange of feeling and desire between two human beings. Sometimes these are professional porn stars-it can happen-but mostly it’s two “civilians” in a hotel room or someone’s house.

Shows like Str8BoyzSeduced, for instance, are the porn equivalent of cinema vérité. This site takes you into the apartment of a certain Vinnie, who somehow gets young working-class guys to agree to be fellated. Vinnie is like a good barber who wraps a cloth around your neck and dusts you off when the haircut is over. A towel is always handed to the guy who has come, and the young man wipes his groin, and then he immediately gets dressed, putting the whole experience behind him. Vinnie spends almost as much time making sure the bedspread is covered with a towel as he does giving head; and often he interrupts the blow job to do something off screen (whose nature we never know). This makes him a master at building suspense. Sometimes he exposes his own penis and, most thrilling, if rare, the man being blown reciprocates.

This last event is what happens in a film in which Vinnie’s visitor is a young man so out of it as to seem either sleep-deprived or stoned, a film that led viewers to comment that Vinnie pays these guys to do this (another film does show a cash payment) or trades on their confusion about their sexual orientation. Whatever the explanation, the young man ends up blowing Vinnie in a way that makes all other blow jobs seem slick and heartless in comparison, leaving the viewer not so much with a hard-on as the realization that under the influence of whatever drug he is on, the young man has now revealed something about himself: that he can come only with Vinnie’s cock in his mouth. At this moment the film leaves the realm of the pornographic and gives us the pathos of self-revelation. That’s right-on Str8BoyzSeduced! When it’s over, he sits on the edge of the bed, as if waking up, yawns before getting up and dressing, pulls on his pants, and goes into the bathroom-just the way sex ends in real life as it walks out of our lives.

In contrast with “legitimate” movies that involve scenery, sets, special effects, and gorgeous cinematography, you might say there are only two elements in gay porn: the anus and the phallus, although nothing is duller than a close-up of the one going into the other. Why directors waste time on this shot I don’t know. Even worse are those moments when, after much sex, the actors are left to their own devices in order to ejaculate-a process that can produce anxiety in both the performers and the viewer. If the sex was so hot up until now, why are they alone at the end?

Despite porn’s emphasis on the anus and the phallus, a good guide to watching porn is simply to follow people’s hands. Nothing is more evocative than the way a hand lies on someone’s body, or fingers are inserted into someone’s mouth, or other non-phallic moments, like the way in which a person kisses so that it resembles someone spreading his legs.

Some directors start by conducting interviews with the young men about to perform, such as the ostensibly “straight” young men who are doing this because they’re “broke.” Or the film is set in a prison, or an apartment house, or even ancient Rome. Rarely do these things lead to suspension of disbelief. Mostly one doesn’t want plots, situations, introductions to the action. On the other hand, porn films that begin with no foreplay are terribly cold. Nothing, indeed, is so uninteresting as a penis going into an asshole in close-up; it lacks the human element, the individuals and their relationships, which brings us to one of Joe Gage’s films that I happened upon by accident one night: Ex-Military.

Joe Gage (most famous for Kansas City Trucking Co.) is one of the auteurs of gay porn, known for concentrating on working-class, masculine men who do not fit into the top-bottom, butch-femme categories. Instead, his actors seem to regard each other standing apart, watching others have sex, or masturbating in the same room, which is what happens in the first, electrifying scene of Ex-Military. The tension arises from the men not touching, not embracing, not expressing affection. It’s more of a grudging respect given to one another’s butch affect. So, after being so stand-offish, the moment when the two men do make contact is more powerful than all the anonymous pistonlike fucking of ordinary porn films.

When asked in an interview for Butt magazine, “Do you enjoy watching porn?” Gage replied: “I do, I watch porn all the time, I love it and watch it and collect it, and have it. I live it, I live with porn, porn is my life.” And when asked, “Do you like the work of other directors?” he replied: “I like amateur porn the best, because it’s real. It’s real sex.”

The search for the “real” is the mark of the porn aficionado-though amateur films can be just as dull as any others. But in general amateur is best. Amateur threesomes, in particular, can be as suspenseful as a good thriller: not knowing how it’s going to go-who desires whom, who is going to end up doing what. Plus there is the physical luxury of it all-the abundance of body parts. There’s no more sincere sex on film than this category. Sometimes in a porn film the illusion is broken by the careless entrance of the camera into the frame, or an actor glancing at the lens; although in amateur threesomes, the players often keep looking at the camera throughout, they are so delighted with the fact that their obscene acts are being recorded.

Studies have been made of so-called addiction to porn; it’s even been determined that a person must stop watching porn for a certain minimum number of weeks before he can return to “normal” sexual desire. If, as Vidal points out in his essay, a lot of people are thinking of someone other than their sex partner when they do it, porn supplies all too many alternative images to the person you are with, which may make the sex you’re having in actuality pale by comparison, or your own attributes seem meager. So we are back to the age-old problem of the movies versus real life.

The need for porn seems to be related to other things in one’s life-depression, elation, despair, hope, loneliness, a weariness with social life, horniness, or boredom. Porn can keep you up, or help you sleep. Porn can help you start the day, or end it. Porn is also, in a way, self-regulating: when you’re watching too much, you’ll know.

If, say, you are at a lecture on spectrographic analysis of Fragonard’s Young Girl Reading at the National Gallery in Washington, listening to two conservators describe how they discerned the image of another head beneath the one we see on the canvas, and you feel a sudden urge to be back in your apartment watching a skinny young man with a hairline so low he looks like a badger or muskrat getting blown on Raw and Rough, you might ask yourself whether you’re addicted to porn or offended by excessive analysis of what is not in the end susceptible to analysis: great art.

Whether porn movies can ever be great art is debatable, but what is not is that occasionally you will see images of great beauty-often fleeting and accidental; though with a mere click you can freeze the image and contemplate it that way-as a painting, or a fine photograph.

Nevertheless, we still think of watching porn as something that denotes weakness, the way the 19th century used to think of masturbation. Of course, porn is masturbation. It is also safe sex.

One might think of watching porn as giving up- though there is one case in which the argument no longer applies, since the real thing is out of your reach anyway. The best argument for pornography may have to do with age. If pneumonia is considered “the old person’s friend” (because it carries you off), the same may be said of porn. It lets you, at an advanced age, have sex with people you would never be able to in real life. In fact, it lets you have sex with people you could not have had sex with when you were young.

But what does it mean “to have sex with someone” when the someone is a person in a pornographic film?

It means you can have sex with that person only as a voyeur, which means you can have sex without all the things that can go wrong during sex- smells, shit, disillusionment, erectile failure, a sudden wrong note that ruins things, the fact that the soufflé of Lust can collapse in a single unforeseen and irreversible instant.

At the same time, sex as a voyeur means you will never be touched, except by your own hand, nor experience the thrills, the catharsis, the rosy afterglow of sex in real life when it succeeds; and nothing will come of your sex with this person, who may live thousands of miles away, or several years away in time. In short, you are as alone after sex with someone in a porn film as you were when you began. Depending on your age or temperament or circumstances, this may be a good or a bad thing.

Of course, you could argue that porn is a total waste of time, time that you would use, if you were sane, looking for sex in real life. And time is all we have.

The more you watch porn, the more you may wonder: Why go to the grocery store? Why write your novel? Why not just stay home and watch Bareback Threesomes on pornmd.com?

Michel Houellbecq said sex is like capitalism: some people have too little, others too much. Porn lets everyone have equal access-which cuts down on the sexual inequality that real life seems to foster.

Group sex on film is almost always brutal and piggish. The men are hot, the bodies great, and usually pierced, but what should be arousing just seems industrial and exhausting.

The Germans seem to make the most brutal porn. Eastern European porn can be quite cheesy. The French seem to have the best models; Keumgay supplies us with one stunner after another, though there is a curious distancing quality to filming handsome young Arabs being masturbated by a hand intruding from off screen, like a robotic arm in a car wash.

“Shortly after Osama bin Laden was killed four years ago,” according to a column in The Washington Post (June 11, 2015), “SEAL Team Six found a ‘stash of pornography’ in his library of ‘modern’ videos that was ‘fairly extensive.’ But the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which has released much of bin Laden’s library files and books … nixed putting out the porn.” The reason given was that the CIA is “prohibited by federal law” from “mailing obscene matter.” The Post suggested a group of reporters drive out to Langley and view it that way. I suspect something like this will happen. Don’t we all want to know what kind of porn bin Laden watched while waging “holy war”?

It’s at moments like this that one misses Boyd McDonald, RIP. (Boyd McDonald, who used to write for Christopher Street magazine, viewed mainstream movies as porn.)

Never answer the telephone while you’re watching a porn film; you will only resent whoever called for interrupting something much more important than whatever it is they are calling about.