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Mainstreaming Gay Porn

Not so long ago, gay porn was something of an embarrassment. I am not saying it was exactly unpopular, but only a few cognoscenti really talked about it and even when discussions got technical or even intellectual, it was all very hush hush.

Why now?

One looked at it, maybe formed an opinion, elicited a reaction, and then did not mention it. There was no analysis, no discussion, only our response to it counted and it seemed to be enough. It seemed right that it was kept that way: after all, porn was about fantasy and fantasies were best kept private. Then the Age of Sean Cody arrived and gay porn became, well, fashionable. I suddenly became aware of this a couple of years ago at SCMS, a big Media Studies conference, when one could spend long stretches going from one session on porn to another and not having to do anything else. But even out of academia, gay porn is becoming popular. Last year’s King Cobra and the forthcoming Tom of Finland epic are inequivocal signs that gay porn is now, well, sexy.

It is not just that the internet made all kinds of images widely available. The interest may also have to do with a process of re-shaping the whole idea of fantasy in our culture. Our innermost thoughts used to be secret and it seemed to us they needed to stay that way. We were educated to be discreet. Now calling attention on oneself through tweets or Facebook posts is becoming more and more central to social interaction and privacy seems a thing of the past: being shocking is one way to call attention, and our fantasies, ordinary to us, can be shocking to other people. How this will affect the psychic and the social in the future is not easy to tell. Old style moralists will see it as a sign of social decadence, whereas for libertarians it might seem like the final blow to sexual repression. But in relation to the past, something very radical has happened.

To begin with, once shocking things are repeated, they become ordinary, boring and normal. And they become part of the repertoire of normal choices for people. I am not saying this has happened to gay porn, but if the amount of young men out there doing homemade porn or behaving, even for a few fleeting minutes, like porn stars, something is changing in the configurations of sexuality in our culture. Unlike straight porn, gay porn has been kept so much out of normal discourse that there are few mythologies, therefore reservations don’t seem to have the same strength; there are also few concerns expressed on the industry, and expressing concern about sex nowadays is not cool. Straight sex seems to reinforce fantasies that, socialized into culture, have proved damaging to women, and so far it has been hard to introduce changes in its imaginary, but what about gay porn?

Sean Cody

Surely, one watershed in the mainstreaming of gay porn was the website Sean Cody. It made the whole thing so untrheatening and accessible. Like other sites from the late 1990s, this started as a cottage industry: a man and his camera, and lots of young white men who seemed to come largely from rural America. To me, the secret weapon of the Sean Cody formula was not the lighting, the production values, the talent, or the fact that the boys somehow hit on popular gay fantasies, it was the brief interviews at the start of the solos and the somewhat naive smile the boys sported. There was indeed someting engagingly camp in those boys who had sex in front of millions in order to buy some kind of bracelet for their girlfriends. And I fondly remember the guy from Alaska, where it’s so cold that he had never really been naked, especially in front of people. Somehow it was assumed being naked in front of people was his mission in life, and he left Alaska just to fulfill it.

There had been smiling porn stars before (even serene, gentle ones: look at Casey Donovan in Wakefield Poole’s 1971 Boys in the Sand), but somehow if one follows porn in the 1980s or 1990s there is this ridiculous attempt to support certain fantasies of masculinity that need to convey toughness, brutality, inarticulateness. A masculine attitude seemed to be a central alibi for audiences: “OK, I’m watching gay porn but I’m all man and so’s my porn”. For the Sean Cody boys, there was no conflict between sex and a cool demeanor and therefore this particular alibi seems unnecessary. They were not effeminate, but they did not need to overdo butchness or show how painful this was for them. So they became available and the kind of guys who might in the right circumstances make good boyfriends (some of them did: in the early 2000s Sean Cody boys might be spotted with gay executive and celebrities).

Gay porn before the internet: Athletic Model Guild

Actually, what the Sean Cody films resembled most was not the dangerous, urban, butch films of he eighties and nineties set in prisons, trucks or military barracks (favourite settings for the gay porn imagination), but the campier, naive images and videos of the Athletic Model Guild (AMG). Granted, they did not do camp or dressing up, they did not go for the cowboy or hellenic fantasies that were convenient alibis in the 1950s, but something about it seemed to recall a pre 1968 age. And it is quite fitting that one of the earliest signs of the mainstreaming of gay porn was Beefcake (1998) a film directed by Tom Fitzgerald thad documented the life of Bob Mizer and, by extension, the AMG sessions. The film is quite sweet and it does present a somewhat rosy, utopian version of Mizer’s studio. A lot is made of the campy set ups and the dynamics among the models smack of Dynasty-style bitchiness. Actual hardcore pornography is just hinted, and in terms of representation it keeps it relatively prudish: this recreation was made before the time when full frontal nudity was normal and the distinctions between porn and mainstream were strong. The film was distributed in the Gay Festival circuit, as it was clearly assumed non gay audiences would be resistant to this kind of story. Again, distribution in the 90s was more dependent on niches and it did not cross over beyond the gay interest section in video stores.

Everybody’s Doing It: Gay porn goes mainstream

Recent films engage differently with the Sean Cody legacy. I’m a Porn Star (2013) follows the lives of a group of young men who want to work on porn. The contributor to the storyline in the IMDB actually provides the promotional line for the film: “There are an estimated 370 million pornographic websites on-line. Porn is now a thirteen billion dollar business. So who’s doing all this moonlighting? Turns out — probably some people you know”. Fair point. We used not to care too much about the lives of gay porn stars, we accepted that they just came alive in the videos and did not care what they did out of the studio. Now it turns out they are around us, they are “normal” people. This description underlines the fact that gay porn is becoming a type of film that provokes curiosity. “We” are now interested and “we” are all invited to consider the facts, the stories, the lifestyles. Although obviously salaciousness is counted on, and many of the film’s consumers will overlap with pornography consumers, and although the video was distributed by the gay company TLA Productions, there is an attempt to deal with the background seriously and one can see an element of general interest.

The Magic Mike films (2012, 2015) are also a sign of such mainstreaming. In a way this is a re-thread of the enormously popular The Full Monty (1997), which featured a group of working class men who stripped to survive. But the differences are interesting: the Magic Mike guys are “professionals”, they take their work seriously, they are not embarrassed, they don’t feel it is somehow humiliating to be in that position. And they are shockingly attractive. In The Full Monty the whole plot hinged on the fact that no one would really get too excited just seeing these guys naked. The film was about something else. One reads the reactions to Magic Mike and it’s all about that fleshly gorgeousness to be gazed at, no matter your sex. Granted, male strippers are not porn actors. And they were covered in the dirty 1980s at least twice in TV movies: the Chris Atkins A Night in Heaven (1983) and the Gregory Harrison For Ladies Only. But the popularization of men who earn a living by showing off their bodies, the fact that they are also into show business and are entitled to stardom, is certainly a new trend and a sign of change in our attitudes towards the display of male flesh. Male bodies are at the center of media interest.

And then there are all those Disney boys. One fascinating (maybe not very significant, but fascinating) narrative of recent times is how boys who start in the Disney channel end up building their coming of age careers on their bodies. This happened to Zac Efron. Ryan Gosling almost went that route about then years ago. Nick Jonas if following up a past in a christian boy band with a gay friendly body centered career. And last year Garrett Clayton starred in King Cobra, the story of an actual performer of Sean Cody-like porn site. Interestingly for a gay porn epic, the film is pretty tame. The hysterical gory details of the story are emphasized and there is little concern for the implications of gay porn. The facts may be close to the truth, but they are shot with a certain restraint. And one might wonder what’s the point of having gay porn as a selling point if one takes away what makes the genre exciting and distinctive. So, is this all about the absence of penises? Well, no, not really. But consider this: King Cobra is a film about the kind of entertainment whose distinction is showing certain parts of the male anatomy, made at a time when not only everybody can see penises everywhere, and everybody is into showing theirs and they are being shown, fleetingly but conspicuously, in some TV series. Is it not fair to expect King Cobra should tell the story with a bit more, er, detail?

Porn is here to stay, so how about the future of sex?

So what does this all mean? At the very least it means that sharp distinctions between porn and mainstream are becoming a thing of the past, and also that the old mystique surrounding gay porn is now less strong. That we can now think in terms which do not need to be labeled as porn to be very close to porn. Taboos on watching attractive guys showing off their bodies are falling: it does not seem to bother the guys anymore, and it seems uncool to show their discomfort about it. Male nudity is everwhere and the shame porn suggested has been overcome.

And there is a paradox here: is the function of fantasy fulfilled when fantasies are in fact public and freely circulating? This issue has always been at heart in calls for stronger censorship. Now it is a fact that censorship is impossible and we shall just have to live in the new situation. What shall we do about it? Was the shock actually what we were going for? What happens if simple porn does not shock us anymore? How shall we be thrilled sexually? Some answers suggests themselves, although I am not going into them now. Yet, consider this: can it be that the porn that is being mainstreamed is becoming another form of repression? Is gay porn only allowed to break out in certain conditions? Are fantasies acceptable only because they are widely marketeable? So, white, curly, cute, toned boys can be porn stars but others who may need it more are frowned upon. The final question is about the future: has the mainstreaming of gay porn reached its limit? Was it just an opening up to support big corporations? Or is this the beginning of a process in which everything we thought about the experience of sex is about to change? Well, the future can’t be that far away now.

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