ROSE AND THORN: NOTES ON PORN (a mixed review)

My ex-boyfriend Harvey is an artist and illustrator. One of the first presents he ever gave me was a copy of an illustration he drew for one of the slick porn magazines, Honcho or Inches. In the picture, a prisoner crouches naked at the feet of a prison guard in thigh-high boots, seen from the waist down. They both have huge erections. Underneath the picture, Harvey hand-wrote a loving inscription that cemented our bond. It said, “Suck my big dick you filthy scumbag.” I immediately taped this treasure over my desk, where it remains to this day. It turns me on and it makes me laugh.

Here are some things I love about gay-male porn:

1. Unlike all the movies and TV shows I watched when I was growing up, pornography depicts a world where everyone is enthusiastically, unapologetically gay. When I came out into a full-blown gay community, as part of the first post-Stonewall generation, that was the most basic, innocent, and liberating aspect of gay porn.

2. I love the fact that everyone is sexually available. No matter what they look like or what their occupation is, any character that shows up in pornography -- whether poolboy or postman or airline pilot -- will end up sucking or getting sucked, fucking or getting fucked. That’s automatically attractive to me. I have little patience with the hard-to-get.

3. In gay porn, most people enjoy having sex.

4. They show everything, every inch of their bodies and every imaginable sex act. In doing so, they defy encrusted psychosocial inhibitions. In The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, Anna Freud wrote,

“There is in human nature a disposition to repudiate certain instincts, in particular the sexual instincts, indiscriminately and independently of individual experience. This disposition appears to be a phylogenetic inheritance, a kind of deposit accumulated from acts of repression practiced by many generations, and merely continued, not initiated, by individuals.”

I think I know exactly what she means. No matter how much we love and enjoy sex and naked bodies, looking at them and licking them and inhabiting them -- in other words, no matter what a slutty sacred sex-pig I am -- still when we see depictions of sex something inside of us goes, “That’s bad! That’s wrong!” One night years ago I was flipping through the cable TV stations in New York and landed on an excerpt of a William Higgins screen test in which a bland blond Southern California boy stripped naked and perched on a bed with his butt in the air while the director’s assistant efficiently and matter-of-factly shaved the hair around his butthole. Part of me thought, “They shouldn’t be showing this on TV.” That’s the “phylogenetic inheritance” Anna Freud talks about. The other part of me was absolutely riveted. I love how pornography categorically and systematically rejects mindless obedience to generations of sexual repression.

5. Most het porn I’ve witnessed buys into patriarchal and sexist dynamics lock-stock-and-barrel. Gay porn models a sexual egalitarianism that I prize. Even when scenes pivot on power struggles, the power dynamic is usually more fluid and flexible. I still remember my amazement and then joy watching a classic porn film called Hothouse when the studly star Jack Wrangler, whose humongous dick was usually the object of other guys’ ministrations, leaned over and went down on someone else, thereby demolishing the myth that hot guys can only be serviced and never reciprocate.

6. In his book The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life, Thomas Moore talks about pornography as a contemporary representation of religious traditions in which certain days are set aside for complete release from all sexual inhibitions and loyalties.

“Over half the American population, according to some studies, engage in extramarital sex, and so one is tempted to conclude that something in the most dedicated people desires sex outside marriage . . . Pornography often shows a similar interest in group sex, so that sexually explicit magazines echo certain ancient religious practices, and pornography casts its spell as carnival too, a release from the constraints of civilized mores.”

I don’t know if that’s true -- it could be utter bullshit -- but I always like reasonable-sounding arguments that connect sex with spiritual practice. Keith Hennessy and I had an email exchange about the ubiquity of porn images in gay male photocollage art. I know that Keith looks down on that phenomenon, so I suggested that it’s related to religious kitsch: “Just as in Catholic society or in Hindu society images of deities are everywhere, unquestioned, often in ridiculous manifestations (those “3-D” postcards of Christ on the cross). That’s what pictures of naked men are to queers -- objects of worship, almost indiscriminately worshipped.” On reflection, I prefer Moore’s analysis of porn images as “spell-binding” rather than simply kitschy. In addition to “Suck my big dick you filthy scumbag,” I’ve kept on my bulletin board other pornographic images -- another drawing by Harvey of a crewcut guy on his back with his legs in the air (V for Victory) displaying his star-like butthole, and a color picture from a magazine of a rather blank-faced hunk sporting an impressive boner -- that have on numerous occasions helped re-energize me (re-enchant me) when I’m stuck on some writing problem.

7. Another thing I like about gay male porn is that it gives me new ideas about sex practices beyond my usual patterns. For instance, as a baby fag I was revolted by the very idea of rimming. Lick where someone poops? Ugh! No way! Then I saw a porn film in which a really handsome mustachioed performer so lovingly and passionately applied his lips to another guy’s butthole that I suddenly made the connection to kissing. Now it’s practically my favorite expression of intimacy. Time and time again, porn has spurred me to recognize and embrace what really turns me on. A hard dick doesn’t lie. Reading stylized stories about daddy-boy scenes made me realize how much that dynamic is a part of my erotic imagination. I guess I’ve learned a lot about myself from responding to taboo stuff like violence, coercion, and masochism. It disturbs me to recognize how much rape scenes turn me on, for instance. (The male rape scene in the basement of the pawnshop in Pulp Fiction, for instance, or even the gruesome hotel-room gang-bang in Leaving Las Vegas.) Just the opposite of Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon’s assertions, I believe that gay porn has taught me I don’t have to act on these desires/impulses. I’m glad to know I have violent sexual fantasies, and I believe the knowledge means I’m less likely to act them out unconsciously, as either perpetrator or victim.

Here are some things I don’t love about gay male porn:

1. I don’t love the alienated, heartless culture that has grown up around gay porn -- the peep shows, the video booths, the phone lines, the personal ads where we reduce each other to body parts and physical descriptions. Some might say that this disconnectednes is simply a reflection of the attitude portrayed in porn itself, which leads me to....

2. I don’t love porn as a guideline for real sexual encounters. In porn the people barely say two words to one another before falling into the most intimate sexual encounters. In my experience that’s rarely a recipe for satisfying sex. For one thing, in this time when we’re trying to have sex without spreading diseases, some negotiation around levels of protection is a good idea. It’s not just a medical consideration, though. We need to talk to each other about what we like and don’t like, what we want and don’t want in sexual encounters. Porn models silence in the place of speaking desire, which can be soul-deadening.

3. Just as bad as silence is the macho grunting that passes for verbal communication in porn films. In films, it can be stylized, and it’s laughable. When the same ridiculous minimal poverty-stricken dialogue (“Yehhhh, suck that cock . . . tighten that ass . . . yeah, get your dick off in me”) shows up in the bedroom or in the midst of some otherwise torrid sexual encounter, it makes my heart sink.

4. Let’s face it, porn has had a bad influence on gay male sexual etiquette. One of my pet peeves is the lack of after-care in our sexual encounters. In porn, once the guys shoot their creamy loads, the scene is basically over -- we almost never see any cuddling, any wiping up, any showering, any making tea, any falling asleep in each other’s arms, any sharing of snacks. So in life, at the baths or any place guys congregate for sex these days, come-and-go is the name of the game. I’ve had encounters at the baths where literally, less than 60 seconds after squirting, the guy is out the door, and I’m left thinking: what was that all about?

5. I really don’t love the privileging of certain body types in gay male porn. There’s not nearly enough variety for my taste. Ninety per cent of porn features smooth blond hairless/shaved skinny boys aged 20-24. Look around you. How many people do you know who look like that? It pains me to meet otherwise intelligent grown men who have developed severe body shame because they don’t look like the guys in porn films and magazines. Hello? But my selfish reason for disliking this aspect of gay porn is that I’m not AT ALL turned on by those skinny blond boys. I’ve always had a thing for older guys with male-pattern baldness, salt-and-pepper hair, a slight paunch. I guess that’s why I often prefer written porn to visual porn -- that way I can eternally be the idealistic young man looking for love from the big hairy gruff but loving daddy of my dreams.

As a consumer of gaymale porn, I'm pretty easily satisfied. Harvey's drawing showed it doesn't take much to get me going. I don't need porn to match my reality (whatever that is), or to live up to my utopian political expectations, or to solve my self-esteem problems, or anybody else's. Porn has nothing to prove to me. The best thing it can do is unleash my rage to live one more day -- to suck dick like the filthy scumbag I am. Is that too much to ask?

First published in “Re/Porn: a zine about fag porn,” assembled by Keith Hennessy for 848 Community Space, San Francisco, November 1997.

Revised for publication on the website, November 2001.

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