Reflections on Gay Male Porn

Alan Helms. The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide. Volume X, Issue 4. Jul/Aug 2003.

If prostitution is the world’s oldest profession, pornography is surely one of its oldest pleasures. The Greeks and Romans were certainly aficionados, as Greek vase painting and the frescos at Pompeii attest. Imagine offering a guest a cup of wine which, once drained, showed a couple in flagrante delicto (male-male as well as male-female), or inviting a dozen guests for dinner in a dining room whose walls were covered with paintings of copulation (mostly male-female, but not always). Pornographic images also appeared on Greek and Roman vases, mirrors, dishes, lamps, door chimes, and other domestic objects, which meant they were visible to men, women, and children on a daily basis. Throughout both civilizations, columns crowned by busts (originally of Hermes, which is why they’re called “herms”) and sporting a phallus were used as milestones, boundary markers, and guardians of the home designed to ward off trespassers and thieves. Over time they came to be venerated as sacred objects with magical powers. In Greece, the phalluses were erect; in Rome, flaccid—so now you know what else we lost when the glory that was Greece fell to the grandeur that was Rome.

For over three millennia in India, the god Shiva has been symbolized by an erect phallus that sits in a vagina, symbol of his consort Parvati, and the Hindu gods are just as randy as their Greek and Roman counterparts. One could easily add more cultures to the list of those less sexually squeamish than our own—Holland, France, Japan, Scandinavia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Brazil, etc.—which means that writing about pornography in the sexually confused and repressed United States is….difficult? perplexing? Highly charged? What else could it be in a culture so anti-body and anti-sex, one that still subscribes to the erotophobic values of Saints Paul and Augustine? This is, after all, the only advanced country on earth in which high school boys refuse to shower after gym class and won’t join the swim team because of those shocking Speedos, and where major publications still refuse to print the word “fuck,” and where a movie producer has a harder time showing a man fondling a woman’s breast than cutting it off with a chain saw, and where men are serving life sentences for having had consensual sex with 17-year-olds. (The age of sexual consent in Canada is 14; in Holland, 12. Try suggesting a modest 16 to your Congressman and see how far you get. As Gore Vidal keeps pointing out, our sexual mores have made us the laughing stock of the civilized world.)

America is also a culture hell-bent on denying the fact of death—by ignoring, cosmeticizing, or euphemizing it—and, like it or not, death is intimately involved with sex: Eros and Thanatos, the perennial couple. Since life expectancy for the Greeks and Romans was roughly thirty years, death was an ever-present reality for them. And whenever death is present, sex is powerful, for sex is the irrefutable proof that one is still alive. If you can get it up or get wet, you’re definitely among the living. Could it be then that AIDS has contributed to the proliferation of porn in gay male culture?

That’s a difficult question. When porn videos and the VCR appeared in the mid- to late-1970’s, gay men could suddenly watch porn in the privacy of their homes, and it’s hardly surprising that most preferred doing so to heading out for a seedy part of town with their collars turned up for the dubious pleasure of masturbating standing up in a booth with a sticky floor while praying that they wouldn’t run into neighbors. Video rentals were also inexpensive and came with the inspired invention of the replay. But all that was true for straight consumers of porn as well as gay. When AIDS hit in the early 1980’s, telephone sex lines soon followed. Now that interpersonal sex for gay men was potentially dangerous, many gay men presumably chose the telephone and videos over the perils of sex with a stranger. Then is AIDS the explanation for the fact that gay porn accounts for a much larger proportion of the porn market than the percentage of gay men would warrant? Or is it because, according to received wisdom, once we’re out of the closet and free of the constraints of conventional morality, we’re more inclined to explore our sexuality than our straight peers, and thus resort to videos more than others?

But before proceeding, I should tackle that vexed word, “pornography.” My dictionary defines it as “writings, pictures, etc. intended to arouse sexual desire”—a useless definition since it includes Caravaggio and Calvin Klein ads as well as Falcon videos. The confusion comes from defining it according to the perceiver rather than the thing itself, which produces the hopeless muddle in the case of, say, Robert Mapplethorpe, who’s pornographic for Jack but not for Jill. I’m proceeding on the assumption that “pornography” is any visual or verbal depiction of explicit sex—solo, dual, bestial, or otherwise—whereas erotica, although also designed to excite sexual interest, stops short of literally depicting sexual acts.

Because I’m 66, my experience with pornography has been radically different from that of today’s young gay men. These days, the young of all persuasions come to consciousness of their sexuality in a world replete with pornography. Grade school and high school kids who used to devote their after-school hours to hobbies and television and sports now hurry home to log onto Internet porn sites, and their choices, already abundant, increase daily. I have no idea what it must be like to be plunged into a world saturated with porn at such an early age, for my initiation occurred over a period of three decades and very gradually from erotic pictures to hard-core videos.

My first experience with images of men who aroused me occurred thanks to the comic books of the early 1940’s, especially Superman and Spiderman since they wore skintight costumes—and Superman even had a basket, albeit an amorphous one. Then I discovered the men’s underwear ads in the Sears and Roebuck catalogue, pictures that actually showed male flesh, though of course the baskets were airbrushed out. At the age of eight or nine I round even more erotic images during visits to my grandparents in Elkhart, Indiana. My grandmother subscribed to several homemaker magazines that contained mattress ads featuring lean, muscular men in their early twenties wearing only pajama bottoms and lying face down on the mattresses. Such shoulders and arms and backs and waists and tight asses showing through the thin pajamas—wow! I memorized the images, and once the house settled down each night I used them to perform the Princeton rub. God only knows how I maneuvered the men in my imagination, for at that tender age I had no notion of what “sex” involved. My guess is that I employed them in a version of my reigning erotic fantasy at the time: Batman would overwhelm the evil men who’d kidnapped me (Robin was helpfully absent), then untie me from a tree, stroking me tenderly and murmuring “It’s all right, Alan; now that I’m here, everything’s going to be all right,” whereupon I achieved my dry rub, semen-less orgasm. I probably did the same with the men in the mattress ads. (A dime-store psychologist would tell you that I suffered from the lack of a strong male authority figure, and she’d be right. Dad was a mean, violent alcoholic, so I yearned for a strong, tender, dependable father figure. Batman took up some of the slack, along with the men in the mattress ads.)

A friend recently gave me a video called Gay Erotica from the Past #1, a compilation of silent film clips from the 1940’s to the late 50’s. It’s an archival treasure for anyone who wants a glimpse of the origins of today’s gay male porn: lots of Roman centurion and sailor costumes, a bewildering variety of g-strings, and action consisting largely of good-natured wrestling. There are no erections and we only see an inert dick in one scene and feigned kissing in another. The plots are as dumb and contrived as those of today, but the dialogue is more entertaining, as in this sample from a scene in which a kid who’s passed a bad check is thrown into a jail cell with an older guy:

Guy: My name’s Cal. What’s your name? You’re pretty, baby.

Kid: Bob. I’ve never been in jail before. I called a lawyer but he wasn’t in.

Guy: I know a lawyer who’ll get you out. I’ll take care of you, baby.

Kid: I never should have left Maryland in the first place.

Guy: Don’t take it to heart. Do push-ups, man. Relieves the tension. Take off your pants. Save them for court. Gotta look good for the judge.

The whole thing is so innocent by today’s standards that it recalled my first post-pubescent sexual fantasies in the early 1950’s when, as a teenager in Indianapolis, I began to obsess on images of men in bodybuilding magazines, back when the bodies weren’t hideously overdeveloped. I even subscribed to a couple out of my meager savings. Along with the early movies, there were more suggestive publications at the time, but I didn’t know that as a Hoosier kid slowly realizing I was more turned on by boys than girls.

When I moved to New York to attend college in 1955, I met Bill, a senior, and we became lovers for two years. I still didn’t think I was “gay,” simply “different,” still going through a “phase,” though one that was turning out to be oddly persistent. I was intrigued by the guys on the Columbia campus who sent lingering looks my way, but what could that possibly mean? I somehow knew there were men who wore dresses and women’s make-up and lurked in dark alleys, but such unspeakable perversion didn’t describe Bill and me. I was absolutely convinced that there were no other men on earth like us—masculine men who were attracted to one another—and it was clear to me that after loving each other madly and having sex for a few years, we would both settle down and marry, have children, and devote ourselves to a conventional heterosexual life. It was only when Bill ended our relationship by telling me he was “going straight” (which even then sounded more like a road sign than a way of life) that I finally faced facts and realized I was permanently, irrevocably attracted to men.

Convinced that I was beyond the pale of all things human, I nevertheless began coming out in my junior year (1957-58), and that’s when I was introduced to the subterranean worlds of gay Manhattan and to the magazines that catered to gay men’s sexual fantasies: Physique Pictorial, Vim, Trim, Athletic Model Guild, and publications by Brace of Hollywood and Tom of Finland. You could only find them if you knew the out-of-the-way stores where they were sold.

Today, gay porn mostly means videos, but when I was coming out in the late 1950’s there was nothing but soft-core erotica, though the soft kept encroaching on the hard. First the magazines featured “athletes” posing in g-strings, then two “athletes” in g-strings pretending to wrestle, then guys naked but solo, until porn finally reared its alluring head in photographs of naked men working their hard-ons. A year after I graduated from Columbia (1960), I acquired some of the magazines of the day. I didn’t use them much since I was 23, good-looking, horny, and popular, but now and then they guaranteed a good night’s sleep. Yet I always felt guilty about owning them, for I thought there was something demeaning about porn, just as I thought there was about the baths. If you were decent-looking and sociable and had a reasonably successful sex life, why would you need to resort to such things? It never occurred to me that one might have a satisfying sex life that also incorporated porn and the baths. In fact, I harbored disdain for people who used porn and the baths for sexual satisfaction: Surely they were sad, desperate, unfulfilled people unlike myself. But why, then, did I occasionally pore over these magazines for sexual inspiration? I had no answer. Still, I held on to my judgmental views while continuing to accumulate soft core magazines.

I kept the pile carefully hidden under my bed, and I’ll never forget the afternoon when I returned to my apartment and discovered that the cleaning woman had moved it all while vacuuming. I was mortified, though she clearly wasn’t since she kept coming back and never said a word. But I was so embarrassed and ashamed that I dumped the magazines into a shopping bag, walked to the 59th Street Bridge, and dropped them into the East River—a pointless gesture, for I immediately regretted losing some of the images that had turned me on, whereupon I began acquiring a new batch of magazines.

Around the same time I met a rich voyeur, a Seagram’s heir whose family paid him to live outside the country but allowed him an occasional brief visit to New York. Whenever he arrived, he checked in at the Plaza and headed for the military trade bar on West 47th Street, where he picked up a sailor or marine so gorgeous and sexy that words fail me. He then called me to come and have sex with the guy while he watched, and each time I performed, he paid me a hundred dollars, which in those days was two months’ rent. I arrived one time to discover that the trade of the night was Jim Stryker, the reigning sex god of Physique Pictorial. There I was confronted with the living image of my sexual dreams, the guy who inspired ninety percent of gay men’s masturbatory fantasies in those days; but I’m sorry to report that the experience was so unnerving, I wasn’t able to perform. I was of course deeply disappointed, and the Seagram’s heir was too, for when I left the Plaza that night I was toting a bottle of whisky in lieu of my usual payment.

In my early thirties I had a brief affair with Cal Culver, a.k.a. “Casey Donovan,” America’s first gay male porn star. When we met, I fortunately hadn’t yet seen him in Boys in the Sand, the first major gay male porn movie, which begins with Casey emerging naked from the ocean at Fire Island Pines and walking up to a guy lying on the beach, whereupon they go off into the scrub pine underbrush. If I had seen the film, I might have been disabled when, one sunny, deserted August weekday in the Pines, Cal/Casey walked out of the surf in a Speedo, made a bee-line for me, and we retired to my place just off the boardwalk. Everything worked out so well that we kept seeing each other, but once I’d seen his movie, whenever we had sex I felt like one of his partners in Boys in the Sand, and the feeling soon mined the sex for me. Nevertheless, since Cal/Casey desired me and most of gay America desired him, I figured that I mattered and that my life had meaning.

For me, the best porn videos are the ones from the mid-1970’s to the early 80’s—all pre-condom sex—the ones that featured guys like Kip Knoll (later Noll), Tim Kramer, Brazilian Peter, Lee Ryder, and the young Joe Dallesandro being fucked into a blind ecstasy in a grainy video made from a movie called Little Joe. On the increasingly rare occasions when I rent videos these days, I favor black or Hispanic or European or straight porn, the kinds in which the performers manage to forget the camera and enjoy themselves. I’m not a fan of the toys and fetishes increasingly featured in today’s videos: the dildos, heavy leather, S/M, double penetrations, shaved privates, enemas, and fist-fucking (which increasingly should be called “arm-fucking”).

But my principal gripe against contemporary videos is that they’re so choreographed you can almost hear the director barking out the orders: “Stand up and take your clothes off. Now get an erection, c’mon guy, work it! That’s it, good. Okay, now turn around and bend over and spread those cheeks. C’mon man, spread ’em wide like you’re hungry for it…” The current fare is completely plastic and scripted, so much standardized product being ground out by a lucrative porn industry which has turned the performers, once the embodiments of Eros, into commodities, sex workers for mass consumption. It’s gotten so bad that you can usually count on the familiar formula: five minutes of oral, five of anal, switched positions, a dildo or two, then the next pair goes through the same sequence. The guys aren’t so much having sex as performing sex, which is pretty much the death of sex itself.

In the early years of porn videos, which I now think of as the Golden Age, porn was far less choreographed. There was little pretense of plot or dialogue, and the setting was usually an æsthetically-challenged bedroom in Laguna Beach or an equally hideous motel in Sacramento, both of which served perfectly well and far better than the elaborate, lush settings employed these days. The producers collected a few sexy guys who turned each other on and let them go in front of the camera. Today, reams of credits precede the nitty-gritty: credits for screenwriters, hairdressers, lighting consultants, costumers, make-up artists, composers of background music. The more highly produced these videos become, the more they reek of a self-consciousness that is the antithesis of the sexy. For men are at their sexiest when they’re being themselves—when they’re being a waiter or a carpenter or a teacher absorbed in their job. When an attractive gay guy like that leaves work and heads to the gym to pump his tits before going home to an elaborate toilette and just the right outfit so he can head out to parade himself on the local meat market in the hope of scoring, he loses at least 95 percent of his sexual allure.

The vast majority of gay men are either in a relationship or yearning for one, so when they watch porn they are looking at the antithesis of their romantic ambitions. Yet this kind of cognitive dissonance reflects the culture at large and is as true of heterosexual porn as of gay porn. If you could transform the United States into a person, you’d probably end up with a middle-aged white male, overweight, deeply in debt, in thrall to at least one addiction (booze, TV, drugs, sports, food, sex, etc.), working at a job he hates, married to a woman he no longer loves with whom he’s had two to three children that he doesn’t understand. He gets up one morning, looks in the mirror, and wonders how he’s ended up with such a miserable life. The solution? Disneyland! Americans’ favorite vacation spot is a place of pure fantasy and illusion with no pretense of reality. Gay or straight, the average American solves his problems by way of consumption and dissociating from reality. You’re fired? Eat two pecan pies and a quart of vanilla ice cream. Your significant other just dropped you? Buy a new suit, car, or condo. You got a C- on that philosophy paper you worked on for an entire week? Watch six nonstop hours of network TV.

Porn serves this kind of function for many gay men, for whom it’s a form of compensatory consumption—solace for the lack of a lover, or material success, or of growing older and finding it increasingly hard to find sex (without paying for it). On the other hand, since porn is a form of fantasy and fantasy functions largely as compensation, maybe the notion of cognitive dissonance is beside the point. Fantasy certainly plays a central role in most intimate relationships, for if you could have a nickel every time people employ fantasy while having sex, you’d soon be rich. Yet we hear a lot about how harmful the sources of these fantasies are, especially from the Christian Right, whose proponents can barely speak about porn without foaming at the mouth. Given the power, they would ban all forms of pornography, and they find odd bedfellows among strident, anti-porn feminists like Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, who argue that pornography objectifies and degrades women and leads men to commit violence against them. Yet the ancient Greeks were surrounded by porn and didn’t become sex-crazed rapists, while in our own day, countries with liberal views about porn have much lower rates of violence toward women than we have in the U.S.

It seems to me that by definition and intent, pornography is necessarily asocial, aggressive, and manipulative, for it’s based on the chance encounter and the quick trick, thus reducing sex to its bare physical minimum of groping, rubbing, penetrating, and ejaculating—which is to say, to the level of pure animal appetite. That’s at least one version of it, and if you can entertain that version and also trust the First Amendment, then porn becomes merely a common feature of American life, one that’s far less objectionable than more common features like child abuse and failing schools, gun violence and corrupt politicians, inadequate social benefits and stupid drug laws. In fact, at a time when our civil liberties are threatened by a cabal of right-wing politicians led by an anti-porn President and his more anti-porn Attorney General (neither legitimately elected), standing up for pornography is one way of striking a blow for freedom.