(presented at the World Pornography
Conference, LA, Summer 1998)
I’m a pornographer. Part of the job is
trying to stay in touch with what’s going on in sex. One of the
things I do regularly is to interview men who define their lives
according to sexual practices. Recently I’ve been focusing on
men who self-identity as “bottoms” who submit to the dominance
of other men. Here’s a fragment from an interview with a 35 year-old
man who calls himself a total bottom, who is exclusively submissive.
He’s connected with “Gainers and Encouragers”, a national
group of men exploring the sexual connections between submission
and obesity. I asked how large he hopes to become. He currently
weighs around 200 pounds. “Frankly,” he responded,
I’m considering five-hundred to six-hundred
pounds. There’s something very sensual about being fed by another
man. Something very nurturing and sexual. And there’s something
incredibly erotic for me about the idea of eating a lot, eating
with the idea that I am getting fatter. And I like on occasion
to eat very large amounts of food. Enough for five or six meals.
Getting myself stuffed to the point that literally I cannot eat
another bite: there is simply no more room left. Being force-fed
is very tender, very slow love-making. In the end I can’t move.
I can’t respond. I’m absolutely immobilized. A point of negotiation
with a top is whether to move into and beyond that weight where
the bottom literally can’t move on his own, where he’s absolutely
and permanently dependent on the top to take care of him. He
becomes an extravagant possession, not a man but a thing to be
Another man I interviewed is a successful
businessman, remarkably intelligent and well-educated. Also a
“total bottom”, he talked about diminishing his mental
capacity for sexual reasons:
“If I could seriously diminish
my intelligence I would do it. I’ve had very serious conversations
about this in the past several weeks. By letting someone reduce
your mental capacity–through drugs or surgery or brainwashing–you’re
giving over a tremendous amount of responsibility to someone
else. And he is willing to take it. This is love, I think. That’s
what this is all about: I’m searching for a new type of love.
It would involve my mental incapacitation. And physical mutilation.
The grafting of a ten-inch cow tongue flap of flesh into my mouth.
Having my nose modified so it’s a snout. I would be unacceptable
in public, except that I wouldn’t know that I’m unacceptable
in public. I’ve found a place where they actually do tongue-grafts.”
Later, the same man continued:
“We had just been going at it for
hours, my mouth and his sloppy butt-hole so connected that they
made up one perfect sexual organ, one connected thing, this big
wet sloppy organ. It was continual orgasm, for over an hour at
one point. A little machine, one organ coming together there.
A pleasure level far above what I had always thought of as orgasm.
So that I thought my body or my mind would just blow up. And
he [the top] turns around in the middle of it and leans down
over me and pukes all over me. We’d never talked about it. And
I threw myself back on the floor, threw my arms back on the floor
and collapsed and cried out “Thank you! Thank you! I love
you!” And he looked down at me and said “I did it because
I love you.”
These two examples may seem extreme.
And in some ways they are. But I’ve been conducting interviews
steadily over the last four years and find that while these men
are somewhat extreme, they and the things they are exploring are
not exceptional or isolated. They represent two particular points
on a very broad spectrum of an exploration of possible ways to
interconnect serious sexual practice and everyday life.
In order to consider the meaning and
the role of pornography in this context of sexual experimentation,
I think it’s helpful to hold in mind several generalizable characteristics
of the American character. It’s important to recognize that sex
and porn are immutably informed by the basic behavioral rules
that determine how we, as Americans, perform in every other aspect
of our lives. There are traditional and unchanging elements in
the American character that impact directly on the development
of porn and our sexual culture.
One such element is a love of adventure,
of danger and of violence. This probably needs no elaboration:
it’s celebrated nightly on the evening news, and in every movie
theater in the country.
Secondly, we distrust the intellectual
overview and the logical conclusions that derive from it. Ours
is a “hands-on” culture: “hands-on know-how”
is more believable and real to us than elegant and coherent theory.
We are pragmatic, first-person, step-by-step experimentalists
by whom academic analyses are distrusted. Unless, of course, they’re
seen on Jerry Springer.
Third, we have a nearly religious trust
that we will triumph, that we as Americans are “chosen”
and that in the end some lucky stroke will rescue us. The Cavalry,
constantly morphing to suit the times, lives deep in our hearts.
So: American men are fond of adventure
and are reckless. American men privilege experience over intellect.
American men will be rescued or will rescue themselves. American
men are lucky, chosen, correct in their gutlevel impulses.
These character elements are instrumental
in determining our day-to-day behavior. Whether or not the beliefs
they embody are true isn’t important in this context: they are
believed at a level where national character finds individual
expression. And they inform the current surge of experimentalism
and risk-taking vitality in sexual practice.
Because we are living in a cultural and
historical moment in which such basic concepts as identity and
subjectivity are necessarily undergoing reconceptualizing, there
is a concomitantly even greater need for and dependence on inventiveness
and choice. We are creating ourselves, as Americans, with the
attitudes I listed above, in a context of post-modern refraction,
a time of de-centeredness and destabilized subjectivity.
In part due to alienation from the larger
processes of the politicization of gay life in America, unapologetically
specific and often “extreme” sexual behaviors in the
gay or queer male world are becoming more important as elements
in the building of personal identity. That is, as homosexual men
become alienated from the political program of the movement, as
one mode of experiencing personal meaning and engagement evanesces,
they enter into a more fundamental, individualistic and physical
relationship with the social and sexual spheres.
But what does porn have to do with this?
And what about the dangers of life today? I think it’s a job of
porn to reflect the experience and the character of the people
who watch it. Since danger and risk are so much a part of the
sexual experience, it’s necessary that dangerous activities be
represented, and that the danger be at least occasionally real
and shocking. Danger and death, not surprisingly, have always
been themes in male porn: rituals or rites of passage that threaten
one’s identity, sanity or life are found in Wakefield Poole’s
“Bijou” or Michael Zen’s “Falconhead”. Mutual
suicide, vampirism and necrophilia in the work of Brad Braverman.
Snuff, bashings, drugs and radical submission in Christopher Rage’s
work. Through the last several decades of male porn, the models
are often escaping from the law, falling in love while hiding
out or in jail, getting caught while committing burglary and getting
lavishly fucked as a “punishment”. Christopher Rage,
in his unpublished autobiography, wrote that at the heart of his
experience of sex from the age of nine on was the fact that “it
threatens everything. Cruising, letting a stranger know you want
him, is hot because you know you can lose, you can get arrested,
injured, killed.” This knowledge informed his work.
But in the last ten to fifteen years,
representation of dangerous or even just unusual practices have
all but disappeared and porn has been dominated by a nearly universal
acceptance of broad strictures that allow not only for very little
danger, but also set stringent limits on the types of acts that
can be depicted and the types of people who will be allowed to
perform. And today, while gay sex is in the midst of a second
1970s, porn is mired in the strict conformity and conservativism
of a new 1950s.
In his paper “Pornography, Ethnography,
and the Discourse of Power” Bill Nichols, a professor of
film studies at S.F. State, has written about the documentary
or ethnographic function of porn. He writes that “If truth
stands as a cultural ideal or myth within a larger ideological
system that attaches it to matters of power and control, it also
stands in close proximity to documentary.” He also states
that “Both (ethnography and pornography] rely on a documentary
impulse, a guarantee that we will behold ‘the thing itself,’ caught
in the indexical grain of sound and image.” This “documentary
impulse” is the basis for a representational meeting point
for the recognition of truth and the utilization of depicted truth
in the functioning of power and the control of desire. Porn depicts
sexual practice, and a uniformity of sex in porn is indicative
of submission of the subculture to larger power. The careful porn
of the gay mainstream allows a strictly policed repertory of acts
and styles that represent not who we are but what we seem to believe
we should be. Among other things, this can’t make for a productive
relationship with power. Danger, accident and specificity in porn
insofar as they are honestly depicted (i.e. documentary), enhance
the possibility of a more complex, demanding and therefore productive
relationship with power.
“Documentary truth” stands
as a central element not only, as Nichols points out, in the representation
and recognition of reality, but also in the constitution of social
and individual identity. We not only see ourselves in ethnographic
or pornographic documentation, we also build ourselves from what
we see and believe. It is our sexual self represented for us.
At issue, then, is whether these images constitute a valuable
rendering or a restraining caricature. And this depends in part
on whether we link porn to the function of directed education
(i.e. control) or accurate representation.
This is a central element in the social
contract that enables and sustains porn. It must excite, yes.
And it must be commercially viable. But in addition to the necessity
of commercial viability, it must also accurately point toward–be
indexical to–“the thing itself.” But who defines the
nature of “the thing itself”? What is our sexual nature?
In this case, the thing itself is the range of complex and specific
knowledge and communion that is available for experience between
or among men through sexual connection, a broad territory that
is being created and explored by men such as those I quoted earlier.
The representation not only of the truth but also of the complexity
of the truth–the tangled and individual realities of practice
and identity–is a responsibility of porn, the sexually indexical
While all porn participates in and benefits
from the accepted sense that there’s an element of the “documentary
impulse” at work in it, not all porn producers are equally
concerned with the issues this brings up. I’m reminded of the
recent non-porn movie “Krippendorf’s Tribe” in which
an unethical academic, in danger of losing his funding, fakes
documentary videos of a bogus tribe. Because the tribe–the invented
faux-culture–is created by a single man it becomes a meaningless
but fascinating caricature, a conglomerate of rituals, costumes
and signs that are indexical not to anthropological truth but
to Krippendorf’s hyperreal fantasy.
This hyperreality, while entertaining
and exciting is dangerous when taken as representative of anything
other than disconnected fantasy. If Krippendorf were “real”,
an actual academic at an actual University, his work would be
seen as scandalous and irresponsible. In porn, when the same sort
of duplicity occurs, there is no censuring.
In a Titan or a Falcon fantasy there
is very little truth-content, very little that can be associated
even distantly with documenting anything other than an unreal
world. These videos, for the most part, are about sex in exactly
the way that Krippendorf’s studies are about serious Anthro, or
Bruce Webber’s photographs are about male sensuality. All three
(Titan, Krippendorf, Webber) are primarily about exclusion, inaccessibility,
the delineation not of true or real worlds but in each case of
a single man’s manufactured fantasy of a world that has many of
the signs of reality but is in fact able to function because it
is perfectly unattainable yet terribly attractive. In these
cases, the erotic connection is primarily masochistic and teaches
the observer that eros is something only those in the inaccessible
worlds can experience fully.
This is an odd and unfortunate dovetailing
of the nearly universal gay confusion of masochism with eros on
the one hand and on the other hand the response of a new generation
of porn makers to the safe-sex imperative. The positing of sex
and eros as things that occur in hyperreal worlds removes them
from the mess of viruses, germs, test-results, imperfections and
real intimacy (physical or emotional). Sexworlds like those of
Falcon and Titan are arid paradises that are inhabited by unexcited
actors who move through tableaux that call for replications of
sex. The “safety” that is enabled through the creation
of other worlds for perfect sex is a safety of relative lifelessness
for the viewer. I don’t know how a video that enhances disconnection
and a masochistic relationship to eros can be called safe.
Let me talk about barebacking. As you
know, barebacking is fucking without a rubber. The term itself,
with its horsey allusion, links to the same American mythic construct
that, say, the Marlboro man is meant to connect with and exploit.
The difference is that it wasn’t an advertising agency that made
the link but the general population of gay men. Gay men who bareback
are called “bug chasers” or “bug-friendly”.
They are also called “gift givers”, with a virus being
In interviewing gay men, I have found
that barebacking is far more generally practiced (and tacitly
accepted) than I had suspected. It is in a sense an element of
a new closet: it is one of those things that gay men don’t usually
discuss even among themselves. Yet I would estimate that more
than fifty percent of the men I have spoken with engage in bareback
sex with strangers regularly. Some perhaps once a month. Many
on a weekly or daily basis. Some love it because it is raunchy.
Some love it because it is a sign of unlimited intimacy. Some
men who fuck without a condom are wild and compulsive. Others
are balanced, healthy.
In San Francisco there are weekly parties
in homes and rented play spaces; bars, clubs and organizations
enable and support barebacking among large numbers of men. There
are on-line encouragement groups for barebackers around the world–including
groups specifically for those most trusting and optimistic of
men, HIV-negative barebackers. There are at least three porn production
companies that specialize in barebacking scenes, mine being one
I had coffee a few days ago with a young
man who calmly and cheerfully told me about his Wednesday night:
he had snorted a bump of crystal, gone to a sex-bar South of Market,
and been fucked by so many men that, as he put it, “I lost
count at 20 of the hot loads that I took up my ass.” He fucked
there until the bar closed, at which point he walked to a nearby
sex club, Mack, with cum dripping down his pants legs. At the
sex club he was fucked by a half-dozen other men. I asked him
why he was doing this. He responded, “My diagnosis was a
wake-up call. My life is limited. I want to be happy.”
In no sense does this young man feel
unusual when you speak with him. He is not rabid, not crazed,
not stupid. He is level-headed, quite brilliant and works at a
high level in the Gap organization, making a great deal more than
I do. Yet in the context of the larger culture–and certainly
in the context of the medical/epidemiological culture–this is
irresponsible behavior, a fact argued with intelligent futility
by Gabriel Rotello.
In the context of a sexually-based American
male sub-culture, however, “unsafe sex” is not only
insane, it is also essential. For a subculture to be sustained,
there must be those who engage in central and defining activities
with little regard for anything else, including life itself. In
a sense, not only the nature but also the coherence of the subculture
is determined and maintained by passionate devotees who serve
a contextually heroic purpose in their relationship with danger,
death and communion.
At the heart of every culture is a set
of experiences which members hold not only to be worth practicing,
but also necessary to maintain and transmit to those who follow.
In the case of a sexual subculture, one often has only one way
to do this: by embodying the traditions. Within the complex system
of beliefs and practices of an American male sexual subculture,
there can be little that is more defining than the communion and
connections that are made possible through these central practices.
The everyday identity evanesces and the individual becomes an
agent through which a darker and more fragile tradition is enabled
to continue. Irresponsibility to the everyday persona and to the
general culture is necessary for allegiance to the sexual subculture,
and this allegiance takes the gay male directly to the hot and
central point where what is at stake isn’t the survival of the
individual, but the survival of the practices and patterns which
are the discoveries and properties of the subculture. In this
context, danger is allegiance to hard-won knowledge.
This is a nexus, a heart of our problem:
the subculture and the virus require the same processes for transmission.
In such a situation, how does one balance the struggle between
the needs of the survival of the body and the needs within the
body for the survival of traditions, truths and practices? This
is a problem that pornography not only documents but also defines.
One way this manifests is in the equation
today of spunk with truth and death. The viscous fluid jetting
from all the cocks on screen is at once the documentary proof
that Bill Nichols speaks of, the documentary evidence that we
are watching “the thing itself”; and at the same time
it is a lethal agent, the sign of being in harm’s way. In a sense,
all other elements of porn today have become ancillary to this
central factor: the moment of greatest excitement and commitment,
the moment of communion, is also the moment of greatest physical
In the 80s, porn culture turned to straight
men and bisexual scenes in order to move away from this vertiginous
point–the ejaculatory consummation–while still maintaining the
rote and perfunctory porn genre mechanics. We watched beautiful
straight men, shaved to look more innocent and healthy (i.e. too
young and too straight to have been infected) engaging in the
mechanics of sex with none of the damning heat of passion that
might lead one to slip up and either ingest semen or take it up
the ass. These men didn’t like semen, didn’t live for it. Medieval
European alchemists believed that it was the passionate heat of
the mutual orgasm that was as responsible for fertilization as
the semen. It was the passing into the womb of the quinta essentia.
Straight–“gay for pay”–porn actors were in no danger
of losing their essence in their porn sex, no matter how much
sperm they squandered safely on the backs or bellies of their
passive partners. There was no passion involved. And the lack
of passion in itself seemed to remove the action one step away
from danger. This quality of industrial dispassion acted then
and continues to act as a behavioral condom: if one fucks with
dispassion, there is little point in taking the risk that fluid
exchange entails. This has become an implicit message in much
porn, again equating gay sex with disconnection.
In the 90s, maverick video producers
reintroduced semen worship and the lust for ingestion as an element
in their sex scenes. In “Diamond Stud”(1992), for instance,
young men keep their mouths wide open as their partners ejaculate
onto their faces. These videos were remarkable for the fact that
the viewer was sure that he was watching gay men having sex not
only for money, but also for the passion and hunger of it. For
the most part, however, the style of the late 80’s had become
too successfully commodified for most companies to risk change.
Although efforts were also made to code saliva as a substitute
for semen, using it to denote passion, spit has associations of
its own. Spitting into another man’s mouth isn’t the same as coming
in his mouth.
Let me jump here, and bring in for comparison
another American physically-based male subculture–skateboarding–and
compare elements of their representative videos. The following
are several simple points of similarity between the two:
1) Both skateboard videos and gay pornography
emphasize the contextualization of the creative and erotic act
in everyday life.
I experienced a nice coincidence that
illustrated this. I interviewed a couple of young skateboarders
several months ago. They told me that they came up with some of
their best tricks on the way to the local 7-11 a few blocks away.
That night I happened to watch a male porn video in which the
central character met his first trick on the way to a convenience
store. This is more than simply playing with the word “trick”.
In both cases, the practices that are peculiar to the subculture
occur in the context of everyday life and are given a heightened
meaning through the contrasting uses of these public spaces. They
take place within but apart from the mainstream world.
2) The videos in both cases connect isolated
members to the subculture. They show the viewers what people are
doing, how these things are done and what they mean.
3) Both focus on places or situations
in which the denizens of the subculture predominate and the conditions
for their optimal functioning are readily available. These are
videos that tacitly imply that “We are everywhere”.
4) Both represent acts that are essential
to the subculture because they are on the edge, because they are
dangerous and illegal. Some skateboard and skateboard video company
names I’ve encountered are Death, Danger, Watch Me Masturbate,
Skull, Numbskull, Boner, Gloryhole.
In a remarkable skateboard video called
“Radioactive Throwup”, boarders not only skate, they
also juggle while they skate over and off the roofs of houses.
In many skateboard videos, unpleasant encounters with cops are
shown, and risks are taken that are exhilarating, beautiful and
Let me footnote this–taking myself further
afield–with a story about surfing, a sport that is obviously
related in many ways to skateboarding. I spend a good deal of
time in Santa Cruz and around the Monterey Bay and have many friends
who surf and skateboard. As you know, the Monterey Bay is a favored
habitat for Great White sharks. A few years ago, a young surfer
was killed by a Great White, literally bitten in half. The next
day–the very next day–I watched young friends of mine surfing
in the same spot. When I talked with them about this, about risk
and fear, they said that this is what often makes it best. This
was the point of surfing: to experience not only of the proximity
of danger and death, but also to feel a kind of species humility
in being shunted down to a low point in the food chain, animals
again. It’s a practice of exploring the wilder animal self in
the restrictive context of a neurotic society. That the price
of admission includes the real possibility of death serves to
point out the seriousness of their commitment as well as the ultimate
expendableness of what they experience as self. Danger is the
boundary that demarcates their cultural territory.
There was recently a controversy in the
world of skateboarding videos. The controversy was due to the
fact that larger companies such as Transworld had been making
skateboarding videos that were slicker, more expensive and more
polished than most. Many skateboard videos are made by the boarders
themselves. The Transworld videos, in contrast, were designed
not only to represent the practices of the culture and sport,
but also to promote the sport to novices in order to encourage
the purchase of merchandise being sold by sponsoring companies.
In these videos, the “best” skateboarders (a term which
rankles the sensibility of the street skater) performed extraordinarily
difficult tricks. And they did them beautifully, perfectly.
I was fortunate enough to be “on
set” for the shooting of one of the Transworld videos. The
location was an outdoor staircase near the gym at UC Irvine. One
boy was to ride down the banister of the staircase. He did the
trick over and over. I counted fifteen tries. He got it right
two or three times. He got it perfect once. By the end of the
shoot he was bloody. The perfect take was the only one that made
it into the video, with no blood in evidence.
This sanitizing of the performance of
the trick epitomizes commercial duplicity and irresponsibility.
These videos sell well across the country. Newbie boarders try
incredibly difficult tricks and are seriously injured. Important
information–information about desire and danger–is being excised.
The problem wasn’t the dangerousness of the tricks. The problem
was the way in which they were depicted, a basic dishonesty that
is linked to the needs of merchandising.
The corporate skateboard video producers
are presenting an image of skateboarding that is more saleable
to the general public because it is buffered from the dangers
the sport actually entails. The producers carefully remove images
of either physical mishap or conflict with the law. These videos
lead to a misunderstanding by the viewer of the nature not only
of the “sport”, but also of the culture that has developed
about the sport. They also set the idea that only “special”
or especially talented young men skate–young men such as those
chosen for the videos, young men who seem able to perform the
impossible trick perfectly in a single try. This allows the creation
of a competitive elite among skateboarders which in turn enables
the development of a lucrative system of sponsored competitions,
sponsorship of marketable skaters and intracultural celebrity.
I think of male porn videos that are
currently being made by companies like Falcon. There is a parallel
elite world that has developed, that of the “porn stars”,
and there is a parallel irresponsibility in not accurately representing
the world that makes the porn videos possible. The viewer is never
told, for instance, that Caverject is used by the models during
production. Caverject is a drug that is injected directly into
the cocks of the models, insuring perfect hard-ons for hours–with
or without sexual excitement. Several studios include money in
their video budgets for supplies of Caverject and/or Viagra (often
for men in their late teens or early 20’s). Other companies place
the responsibility on the models by stipulating in their contract
that an erection must be maintained during the hours of the shoot
or the model will not be paid in full.
The world of slick porn is a stylized
and damaged representation of the drive men feel to experience
physical communion. The connections among the men are represented
as being so purely sexualized and hot that there is, in the simplicity
of acts and images and in the directness of the drive to satisfaction,
a sterility that has become in itself a trademark, if not a stigma,
of several of the larger companies. The videos are constructs
of pure and impossible sexual energy, carefully directed and edited,
into which the director ultimately inserts a nearly invisible
but definitely present nod to political responsibility: a condom.
Never has an object been so physically actual yet so representational
ly unreal. It is as if a surfing video might show a surfer catching
a perfect wave in the Monterey Bay, but at various crucial moments
would edit in close-up shots of a shot-gun in his hand for any
possible sharks. It’s not only dishonest, but more importantly,
it misses the point. And in both cases editing toward a commodifiable
safety is a betrayal of the population that is supporting the
making of the videos.
This style of porn is an irresponsible
representation of crucial information about who we are, and why
we do what we do. Condoms in this context–a context of stylized
and commercially driven political correctness–actually say little
about safe sex or personal responsibility. They become instead
the final sign for the absolute unavailability to the viewer of
the communion and connection that the entire well-practiced language
of the video had promised. It’s as though we are being punished
for our impunity in watching these “hot” men in their
“hot” videos by the stupidly inevitable intrusion of
the rubber which seems to remind the viewer that he is too spineless
to be trusted to decide on his own what constitutes adequate responsibility
for his own body. These beautiful men must be called upon–quashing
their stylized passion–to act at the critical moment of their
intimacy as teachers and good influences for us. The audiences
are either trained to a docile acquiescence, or, if they are of
a different dispositional cast, they are moved to anger at the
duplicity. I have met more than one man who cited frustration
with such nearly universal imagery as having been a factor in
their decision to bareback.
In a recent issue of Adult Video News,
a gay editor wrote that he feared that barebacking in gay porn
was probably an inevitability. In an editorial entitled “The
Bareback Nightmare Wakes Up in the Porn World”, Mickey Skee
writes that he’s “had this nightmare before: what if they
stopped using condoms in gay porn?”. He goes on to write
“the porn world is a fragile ecosystem. It only takes one
company, one video, one director to make it crumble.”
The entire editorial is wrong-headed
and full of misinformation. Rather than an editorial called “The
Bareback Nightmare Wakes Up in the Porn World”, I would have
preferred one called “Barebacking May Wake Up the Porn World
from a Nightmare of Dishonesty.” The porn world is far from
a “fragile ecosystem”: it is a robust and flexible industry.
And while Skee’s attitude toward barebacking in porn–wary and
frightened yet wearily resigned–seems at first to be reasonable
and responsible, it’s my sense that it’s focusing on the issue
in a perfectly counterproductive way.
The editors of Adult Video News are misreading
the structure of the current sexual world as badly as the makers
of slick porn are misrepresenting it. They are both locked in
to the merchandising of particular and formulaic representations
of male connection as being somehow quintessential. These acts,
portrayed by this type of man, shot in this setting with these
camera angles: this is enough. This is Sex. Worse, the industry
presents the porn world as being separate from rather than integrated
with the everyday world. Just as Bruce Webber created a make-believe
world inhabited by pretty look-but-don’t-touch models, porn makers
populate their world with “pornstars” who are chosen
and groomed to be caricatures of sexually driven men. By setting
up an impossible discontinuity between the porn world and the
world of the viewer, they create the possibility of commercially
exploiting the basic hunger we all feel for connection with ones
own sexual culture.
Unlike mainstream porn, the sexual renaissance
I spoke of at the beginning of this paper is not organized in
its development according to “safe” or “unsafe”.
Nor is it organized according to the needs or dictates of the
law or the market. It is organized by passion and need in the
real world. Safety and risk are weighed and negotiated as an integral
element of each individual’s path of personal exploration. Porn,
however, continues to work along the lines of an erotic that is
defined on the one hand by an abstracted concentration of barren
sexual energy and on the other by frustration and fear, by the
perceived political and commercial necessity of a denial of the
nature of sexual experience and a privileging of medical and social
terror over the deep necessities of the life-experience of the
It’s perhaps sad but it’s true: we cannot
be trained not to do things because they are unsafe. We smoke,
we drink, we eat wrong, we drive faster than we should, we leap
from airplanes, we bungee jump, we skateboard, we have sex. It
isn’t that we must do these things, it’s just that they must be
This is one of Gabriel Rotello’s errors:
in our world, safety cannot be mandated, particularly where the
passions at the heart of our identities are concerned. As a people,
we do believe in miracles. We are optimistic and irrational. We
believe that we can be saved if we will just be ourselves. We
smoke, drink, fuck and play because this is what we are and this
is what we do. It is this depth, this complexity and this eloquent
and tragic irrationality that porn has the responsibility to represent
and represent accurately and honestly. That is its job. An avoidance
of unsafeness doesn’t work as an anti-AlDS strategy, and it has
been bastardized by the slicker elements of porn in ways that
have only exacerbated the problem, promoting not a culture of
sex and sexuality, but a perfectly tantalizing world of vapid
heat and “sexiness”.
Let me close with three brief and tentative
suggestions regarding porn today.
First, a conceptual reframing of the
situation would be helpful. The problem must not be defined–particularly
in porn-according to a posited need to restrain male sexuality
and the male sexual impulse. This will never work, and has already
caused terrific damage. By defining practices as “safe”
or “unsafe,” we force the creation of a dichotomy that-again
particularly in porn– inevitably magnifies the allure of danger.
Disastrously, erotic specificity and creativity become the provenance
of recklessness when everything is divided and categorized according
to these two labels that derive from a context of terror. The
process of developing and fulfilling one’s sexual and erotic individuality
is seen too easily as a relinquishment of the bounds of good sense,
an unequivocal lapse into “unsafeness”. What greater
error could we be making than representing the totality of queer
sexual experience through an equation that places all sexual acts
on one side and “safe/unsafe” or “good/bad”
on the other? This can only result in a representational semiotic
of physical communion that derives not from strength, curiosity
or exuberance but from fear, disconnection, prurience and ultimately
Secondly, all acts of queer sex should
be represented on screen with equal honesty. The entire spectrum
of behavior from innocent to depraved, from life-affirming to
death-enhancing should be available for the viewers.
And third, in order to develop porn toward
a greater eloquence and inclusivity–and toward possibilities
more creative than worn-out concepts like “safe” and
“unsafe” have allowed–the practice of porn should veer
away from the directed film and toward the more straightforward
and generous practice of real documentation. Rather than fulfilling
the career-based, industry-bound vision of porn directors who
aspire to make “meaningful film,” pornmakers might turn
with honest curiosity to the wider community of their queer peers,
investigating with a less ambitious eye the explorations and inventions
that are sprouting like wildflowers everywhere. As long as we
have an industry dominated by porn directors who want to make
“films”, directors who are intent on promulgating either
a commercial or philosophical point, porn will continue to function
in a crabbed and politicized discourse that disables the possibility
of direct documentary honesty. How can those who work and prosper
in the world of sex today have any job more important and timely
than the accurate, detailed and truthful depiction of this creative
world, a world of men who are risking life itself in pursuit of
the possibility of cultural survival and personal happiness?