“[Gay] pornography has become one of our privileged cultural forms, the expression of that quality for which we are stigmatized, queer-bashed, fired, evicted, jailed, hospitalized, electroshocked, disinherited, raped in prison, refused at the U.S. border, silenced, and ghettoized — that quality being our sexuality.”
— Tom Waugh, Men’s Pornography: Gay vs. Straight (1985)
Indisputably, gay pornography has played a fundamental role in the politics of sexual liberation. While anti-pornography feminist movements may rightfully denounce the broader medium’s commodification of the female body, these critiques ignore that gay pornography does not feature gender-defined sexual roles by definition and, as a result, is largely devoid of problematic power imbalances; rather, gay pornography — produced by and for gay men — both draws from and simultaneously challenges hegemonic constructions of masculinity and suggests, contrary to anti-pornography feminist discourse, that sexual penetration needn’t be a symbolic form of sociopolitical oppression.
Encouraging sex-positive values and defending non-conformist sexuality — publicly conceptualized as “sodomy” — early gay pornography in particular functioned to destigmatize homosexuality and reaffirm the dignity of gay men, perhaps most importantly in the eyes of inhibited gay men themselves. Not coincidentally, many of these pioneering films were produced throughout the socio-sexual revolutions of the 1960s and 70s, which precipitated the emergence of gay ghettos throughout the United States as queer havens in reaction to heterosexual repression, particularly as manifest in the Stonewall police raids of 1969 and even Harvey Milk’s assassination in 1978. Queer voices of resistance ballooned over the course of a single decade, but internalized oppression endured, especially for queer men outside the San Francisco and New York spheres of influence. For those at the margins, the widening availability of gay pornography fostered reflexive sexual exploration, embodiment, and acceptance, ultimately furthering the legitimization of liberated queer discourse.
In this very historical context, Foucault introduced the term “counter-conduct” to designate resistance against prescriptive state-sanctioned moralities. If we accept Foucault’s terms, then his theory of “devenir homosexuel” — which rejects static constructions of sexuality by focusing instead on relational typologies — posits a characteristically queer counter-conduct, emerging from a subversive social matrix that rejects normative gendered relationships and roles, thereby disrupting the functioning of conductive power. But queer counter-conduct needn’t be limited to relational ambiguation; gay pornography — and the celebration thereof — may also represent liberating insurrection.
Consider, for example, Fox Studios’s gay pornographic film Afternooners (1982), the soundtrack of which was produced by electronic dance music pioneer Patrick Cowley. The seemingly innocuous film’s sociopolitical context is revelatory: it’s the Age of Reagan, and a federal investigation has encouraged a gratuitous crackdown on pornography just as the government refuses to address the AIDS crisis that has taken countless queer lives across the country. In San Francisco — where Cowley had lived — 1 out of every 100 gay men had AIDS by 1984, and sadly, Cowley himself died of an undiagnosed case only two years prior. Surely, pornographic times call for pornographic measures, and perhaps there’s no better way to protest institutionalized homophobia than revolutionary fucking. And that’s what Afternooners and other gay pornographic material represents: indulgent, irreverent satire of normative masculinity that operates by deconstructing and reconstructing its every term. And if that’s true, then archival record label Dark Entries’ release of Cowley’s Afternooners soundtrack represents a subversive statement that commemorates a forgotten martyr and celebrates a martyred medium.
To be sure, pornographic films from the 1970s and 80s communicate particular modalities of queer embodiment that reflect largely white narratives from the gay ghetto, from San Francisco to New York. (On the record’s album art, Cowley himself appears handsomely dressed in typical working-class “Castro clone” getup.) Importantly, however, these films’ narratives subvert the public-private partition of sexuality by transforming the public sphere into settings for gay sex, occupying contested territory otherwise secured by the heteropatriarchy. The validating power of these materials is best captured by the stronger mail-order pornography markets of sexually repressive regions of the United States, otherwise alienated from the liberated experience of metropolitan homosexuality. Additionally, the substantial consumption of “artisanal” materials like Boyd McDonald’s widely-popular Straight to Hell zine — which rigorously documents public and private sexual encounters between ordinary men, submitted by readers — suggests the extent to which these materials shattered the façade of straight “respectability,” underscoring the fluidity of same-sex attractions, normalizing queerness, and thereby giving way to modes of socio-sexual liberation. It’s quite fascinating to note, moreover, McDonald’s recognition of the Foucauldian dichotomy of “gayness” as abstract embodiment versus “homosexuality” as empirical practice, claiming that “to be publicly gay, [men] have to be closet homosexuals […] gay is what they are in public, and homosexual is what they are in private;” the distinction hints at the taboo of intermale sex (see: “as long as they don’t shove it down my throat”) that endures despite civil rights victories for queer folk — precisely what McDonald sought to subvert.
The claim that pornographic material offers reflexive spaces for “the education of desire” and the expression thereof is hardly revolutionary. In avant-garde filmographer Curt McDowell’s erotic short film Loads — which, meaningfully, is only available on PornHub — the director thoroughly contemplates his sexual attraction toward heterosexual men through the film’s stunningly vulnerable, intimate voiceover. Although its goals are not “pornographic” in the traditional sense, the film’s brief narrative captures what is otherwise implicit in mainstream gay pornography: the four-step method of sociocultural deconstruction/reconstruction that procedurally (1) relishes, (2) celebrates, (3) validates, and (4) legitimizes repressed gay sexualities, traversing each social node from the internal (1 + 2) to the external (3 + 4); the transformative process, mediated by the phenomenological experience of sexual pleasure, begins (1) triggering the visceral “id” to (2) transform the “super-ego” — the locus of internalized homophobia — until (3) the aroused body is publicly transformed into the aroused community that, when legitimized, cannot but (4) transform society — the matrix of institutional homophobia — obliterating conductive power with its uninhibited assertion of queer sexuality.
By embodying this process, Loads does not fundamentally differ from the social project of gay pornography, the space in which Afternooners the film — and Afternooners the soundtrack, by extension — exists. Nor does Straight to Hell, for that matter; or Love & Lust in New Orleans, or Alpine Wood, or Provoked at Work by the Boss, or Antonio Molinas Fist Fucked and Barebacked, or Hot daddy fuck he’s neighbour, or prisoners need fuck, or Frat weight bench sex HOT or even HAIRY TEEN FUCKED HARD AND BAREBACK BY THREE MEN IN A FOURSOME.
By which I mean to say: these representations aren’t grotesque or shameful or debased. Rather, they are radically transformative and marvelously sublime.
(1950 - 1982)
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