2013, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 55, fall 2013
The gay-for-pay gaze in gay male pornography
by Kevin John Bozelka
The existence of gay-for-pay performers (men who do not identify as homosexual but who perform sexual acts with and/or for other men on camera) complicates even the most basic assumptions and analyses of gay male pornography. [open endnotes in new window] For instance, in his 1985 essay “Men’s Pornography: Gay vs. Straight,” Thomas Waugh schematically marks out sharp distinctions between gay and straight male pornography. The first element of gay male pornography listed, under a consideration of “Relations of Production,” reads “gay male producer employs gay male models” (Waugh, 315). Similarly, Richard Dyer (1985) describes both the performers in gay porn and the audience members who watch them as “all gay men participating in a gay subculture, a situation that does not hold with heterosexual porn” (29). Since the publication of these essays, however, the increased attention to gay-for-pay performers calls for more finely-tuned definitions. The employment of non-gay-identified men in gay male pornography dates at least as far back as Bob Mizer’s Athletic Model Guild photographs of the mid-1940s in America if not the earliest stag films. But the practice became more openly acknowledged in the mid-1980s with the rise to stardom of gay-for-pay actor Jeff Stryker, probably the most famous performer in American gay porn history. By 1997 critic Mickey Skee could claim in Shooting Porn, a documentary about the gay porn industry, that the three biggest superstars in gay pornography (Jeff Stryker, Ryan Idol, and Rex Chandler) were all heterosexual. [open filmography in new window]
Gay-for-pay performers also unsettle the frequently noted liberating properties of gay male porn. For many scholars, gay pornography not only helps reduce the shame surrounding sex acts between men but also contributes to the very creation of homosexual identities. To choose just one example for now, Rich Cante and Angelo Restivo suggest that the post-Stonewall gay male subject is
“thoroughly shot through with pornography’s possibilities for rethinking the dominant (and dominantly frustrating) positings of the public/private divide in post-1950s America” (163).
But with some estimates setting the number of gay-for-pay performers in gay pornography as high as sixty percent, do these performers compromise those alternative world-making possibilities? Is there something at the heart of gay male porn that might taint the forging of homosexual identities?
My attempt to answer these questions here depends on a conception of gay male pornography as a deployment of the scientia sexualis – a modern Western form of producing and managing knowledge of sexuality. In her pioneering work on pornography, Linda Williams defines the scientia sexualis, after Michel Foucault, by opposing it to earlier, non-Western forms of knowledge production, the ars erotica,
“aimed at passing general knowledge from the experienced to the initiate without specifying or classifying the details of this knowledge” (Williams, 34).
Where many scholars conceive of gay male pornography more along the lines of an ars erotica, I view it equally as a method of specifying or classifying gay male sexuality from the perspective of the gay-for-pay performer. The latter will observe and detail gay male sexual behavior often in an attempt to affirm his own sexuality.
Thus below I analyze the remarkable similarities across the complete gay porn filmographies of four popular gay-for-pay performers – Rex Chandler, Ryan Idol, Jeremy Penn, and, of course, Jeff Stryker. Although the history of gay-for-pay is nearly, if not necessarily, coextensive with that of gay pornography, I have narrowed my focus to the era in which these performers enjoyed their greatest popularity, roughly the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, bracketed by AIDS and the VCR on one end and safe sex and the Internet on the other. AIDS influenced the creation of a gay-for-pay superstar persona in the mid-1980s – aloof, never to be anally penetrated, usually avoiding intimacy. The gay-for-pay superstar maintained a prophylactic distance from his sexual partners on screen and fulfilled a disease-free fantasy as gay men themselves were increasingly avoiding intimacy with the help of their VCRs. These superstars were the self-conscious creations of producers like John Travis and David Forest, who invested a great deal of time and money in fashioning this gay-for-pay image. But as their popularity waned, a new crop of porn stars emerged, epitomized by Kurt Young, who exhibited the 1990s norm of safe sex on gay porn sets with an ease and sexual versatility absent in the gay-for-pay porn stars. And as the Internet has increased the points of entry into the gay porn business, superstar status has become difficult to achieve. So one reason I focus on Stryker and his ilk is due to their extreme popularity, enjoyed by no performer since.
In my analysis of their filmographies, I look at both sexual and filmic conventions that not only mark the non-homosexuality of the gay-for-pay performer but also produce and organize the homosexuality of other performers for his eyes. The first section outlines how the sexual acts performed in these films conform to the traditional characterization of what gay-for-pay performers will and will not do. However, most discussions of gay-for-pay performers stop at cataloguing their sexual activity while ignoring the filmic conventions that create the framing storyline. In the second section, then, I maintain that the narrative portions of these films signal the non-homosexuality of the gay-for-pay performer just as much, if not more, than the sex numbers by framing the latter via his investigative gaze. In short, the scientia sexualis of gay male pornography manifests itself as an unequal relay of looks that privileges the gay-for-pay performer. But always he remains susceptible to the gaze of the spectator. Therefore, the final section augments this analysis with a glimpse into how modes of reception transform the act of viewing these films into a gay epistemological project.
Before delving into the scientia sexualis, however, it would prove beneficial to demonstrate briefly how contemporary queer scholarship has theorized the gay-for-pay performer. Jeffrey Escoffier, for instance, has discussed gay-for-pay performers in terms of Gagnon and Simon’s work on social scripts (2003). For Escoffier, the appeal of their approach lies in its
“conception of sexual behavior as a learned process, one that is possible not because of instinctual drives or physiological requirements, but because it is embedded in complex social scripts that are specific to particular locations in culture and history” (538).
The value of Escoffier’s application of this concept to gay-for-pay performers lies in his clarification of how non-homosexual men organize their sexual interactions with men via dynamic social scripts. These scripts guide the performer much like a film script with cues, dialogue, and cultural justifications for sexual behavior. The theory of social scripts conceives of sexuality purely as a product of social construction rather than biological drives. Under this conception, the gay-for-pay performer evokes a free-floating homosexuality without identity, born from
“individual agency and cultural symbols…(in) an arena of social initiative and symbolic action” (538).
Thus, social scripts construct a situational homosexuality for the gay-for-pay performer that allows him to engage in sex with men but
“does not always result in long-lasting social psychological commitment to any one form of sexual activity” (552).
This impulse mirrors earlier justifications in gay erotic fantasy. As Waugh has shown, the pre-Stonewall physique movement used the alibis of sports, arts, and nature to channel gay consciousness under a disapproving heterosexist gaze, an imaging system that “would leave an indelible mark on subsequent gay culture” (1996, 219).
One of the myriad achievements of Linda Williams’ epochal study Hard Core lies in her articulation of moving image pornography as an effective instantiation of the scientia sexualis – a mode of knowledge/power that aims to amass an ever-expanding data bank on sexuality. Gaining steam in late-nineteenth-century techniques of information circulation, the scientia sexualis launches an era in which juridical, criminal, medical, scientific, etc. discourses conspire to fix sexuality as a demonstrable truth of bodies and populations. Under this regime of knowledge, sexuality becomes a series of confessions, which then circulate throughout various institutions in an attempt to monitor, catalog, correct, and sometimes punish bodies and behaviors. Foucault calls this process “the implantation of perversions” which solidifies sexualities and creates normative notions of behavior (37). Pornography contributes to this regime in that part of its appeal lies in its illusion of offering
“the visual evidence of the mechanical ‘truth’ of bodily pleasure caught in involuntary spasm; the ultimate and uncontrollable – ultimate because uncontrollable – confession of sexual pleasure in the climax of orgasm” (Williams, 101).
In light of the scientia sexualis, gay male pornography displays certain sexual acts that cannot help but confess the sexuality of a performer. Taxonomy has emerged which fixes receiving a penis in the mouth or anus as incontrovertible evidence of homosexuality, especially the latter activity. Thus a gay-for-pay performer who never bottoms (i.e., receives anal sex) nor bestows oral sex in a film, whether through direction or flat-out refusal, will enjoy a non-homosexual identity attached to him if only to aid in the maintenance of a pleasurable fantasy concerning the heterosexual male and his narrative trajectories as objects of desire. Gay-for-pay performers, then, reveal the pliability of the scientia sexualis in that even the absence of sexual activity can become a decisive truth-bearing mechanism. Part of the pleasure in watching these performers inheres in anticipating that they will eventually participate in these acts, either at the end of the film or in a later film as they attempt to boost a sagging career by, for example, finally bottoming.
Of course, none of these signifying practices work in the same way for all viewers of gay male porn. For some, any sex act committed with another man, or even for another man, provides raw visual evidence of a gay-for-pay actor’s actual homosexuality despite any intimation to the contrary. And this conclusion will obtain regardless of how a porn film situates sex acts in a visual and narrative schema. As Earl Jackson, Jr. writes:
“In a porn film…whether or not the actor appears as himself, the sex acts he performs are real… No matter how complex the plot or character involvement in which a sexual event is embedded, the extradiegetic actor experiences the same real orgasm as the intradiegetic character, and the coincidence (or internal division?) is realized in the profilmic image of the ejaculation…Sex in the porn film is en-visioned not as “significance” but as evidence.” (Jackson, Jr. 147)
But like so much commentary on pornography, this analysis ignores the contradiction between the “real” sex acts and their en-visioning. Certainly, filmmakers create plots and characters at whatever level of complexity in order to construct a particular meaning. However, they spend just as much if not more time and energy shaping the sex scenes to produce evidentiary effects with an assiduousness that should come as no surprise to those who would claim that pornography’s raison d’être lies in precisely the en-visioning of sexual activity. Directors will foreground these evidentiary effects in their constructions of “real” sex scenes even, or especially, when faced with the need to fake penetration and/or money shots or edit in a body double for performers who cannot retain an erection. Given that the sex scenes are no less constructed than the narrative portions, it therefore makes little sense to privilege the evidentiary effects of one type of scene in pornographic films over another. The narrative scenes tell truths too or, more precisely, they aid in the perception of pornography as an apparatus that confesses sexual truths.
In the textual analyses below, I outline a pattern in the looking relations that help construct the narrative portions of each film. In scene after scene, the gay-for-pay performer looks at a gay performer (or performers) as if to produce knowledge of homosexuality, if not the thing itself given pornography’s truth claims. The gay performers rarely look first and often do not, indeed cannot, look back. Instead, they appear as objects of fascination, something requiring analysis and categorization. Within the context of a single pornographic film, this particular instantiation of the scientia sexualis seems benign enough, rarely coming to the fore in any dialogue or narrative event and almost never deadly or even violent (although I will note some exceptions below). And, in fact, at least one critic would view such erotic spying and voyeurism as one of several of pornography’s “unwritten rules of representation,” as indispensable as rigidly assigned sexual roles and the cum shot (Thomas, 80). But the unwritten nature of these rules makes them all the riper for critique. Across multiple films or complete filmographies of gay-for-pay porn stars, the sheer inequality of looks and their one-way circuits take on ominous tones.
I explore how, on one level at least, the gay-for-pay performer compromises the alternative world-making possibilities of gay pornography by analyzing the filmographies of Rex Chandler, Ryan Idol, Jeremy Penn, and Jeff Stryker. Apart from their immense popularity, I chose these particular gay-for-pay performers not because they have proclaimed their non-homosexuality in interviews (although all except Penn have) but because non-homosexuality has become part of their star text. I have taken into consideration interviews, gossip on web forums, mailing lists or in magazine columns, and filmographies, all of which collude to form a star text. This holds true for the gay performers as well although much less extradiegetic information exists on them given that their popularity pales in comparison to their gay-for-pay costars. But the extradiegetic information interests me less in its status as confession than for how it creates a flow of signification with the films. Producers use this aspect of a performer’s star text to heighten the evidentiary effects of the activities of the intradiegetic character he portrays. Thus in the filmographies analyzed below, the consistent avoidance (or deferral until a later film) of bottoming or performing oral sex helps undergird a non-homosexual star text for the gay-for-pay performer. But, more to the point, so does the investigative gaze that remains constant throughout these films.
In California Kings, Jeremy Penn drives a pickup truck with two buddies played by Dale Rhodes and Dean Edwards. They see an abandoned mattress while driving through a rural town and Penn pulls over so they can put the mattress in the back of the truck. The next shot occurs after a dissolve and reveals Edwards suddenly in the middle of fellating Rhodes. Penn does not appear in the shot. Eventually (and inexplicably), he enters the scene from in front of the truck and walks over to the duo engaged in oral sex. They seem completely oblivious to his presence as he watches the scene for a few moments. Penn then joins the action and proceeds to be fellated and rimmed, eventually topping both.
This brief moment of Penn watching seems utterly tangential, hardly worth mentioning. But viewed within the context of his filmography in which such moments become conventions, it takes on deeper significance. Upon closer inspection, the dissolve that occurs immediately before stands in place for narrative motivation via dialogue or even event. Instead, it has the effect of naturalizing the performers’ respective positions. It gives the illusion that the camera just happened to catch the gay performers in medias res doing what comes naturally to them just as looking comes naturally to Penn. The sex acts Penn then performs conform to those that mark non-homosexuality by convention. And while cinematic techniques try to naturalize the sexuality of all three performers, Penn serves as a potentially counterfeit surrogate for the gay male viewer, offering a subject position that looks on a gay male sexual encounter as an object of inquiry.
The instances of looking in these filmographies range from elemental activity such as in the Penn moment above to more complex iterations that make clear the ideological implications of looking. Sometimes the gay-for-pay performer will watch a sex scene at a remove from it entirely (Chandler in scene two of A View to a Thrill Part 2: Man with the Golden Rod; Stryker in several scenes of Jeff Stryker’s Underground and scene two of Powertool; Idol all throughout Idol Eyes and scene six of Idol Thoughts). Or he will observe it before joining in (scene three of A View to a Thrill; scene three of Jeff Stryker Does Hard Time; scene four of Idol in the Sky). Close-ups of their eyes affirm their gaze (Chandler in Heat in the Night; Stryker Force; Idol Worship), which becomes further reinforced by direct looks into the camera either in the first shot of the film (Idol in Score 10) or the last (J.S. Big Time and In Hot Pursuit). None of these films invest the gay performer with anything approaching such looking privileges.
The dialogue accompanying these scenes draws out the significance of their status as watchers. In Jeff Stryker’s Underground, Stryker recounts his experience in the gay underground visiting orgies and sex clubs. His voiceover frames every scene as a memory of observing sexual activity but rarely taking part in it. As he talks about watching men fucking and sucking each other at a sex club, he allows that
“they tried to hit on me but I just wanted to watch…It was such a turn on just to watch.”
He does get rimmed briefly. But when the rimmer motions to him to move to another part of the club, he tells him (in voiceover)
“I’m not ready. I’ll sit up here and watch you guys.”
Subsequent scenes evolve without Stryker’s involvement while his voiceover states that he watched the events unfold. For instance, Stryker does not appear in the penultimate scene that occurs at a series of glory holes. But his voiceover reassures us that he “just stood there and watched.”
Idol Eyes works in a strikingly similar fashion. Ryan Idol plays a lifeguard, which affords him the opportunity to observe the happenings in a beach community. Each sex scene is intercut with shots of Idol looking usually accompanied by a voiceover testifying to his constant observation, e.g., “Once again my attention was captured by two young men.” Only in the final scene does Idol sexually engage with another man after admitting that “watching others was no longer enough.”
Other performers do watch. But the gay-for-pay performer will explicitly acknowledge or even direct their voyeurism thus lessening the voyeur’s power of achieving pleasure in looking from an unobserved vantage point. Stryker exemplifies this tendency most often in his trademark, “You like (blank), don’t you?” constructions. For instance, in Powertool, a cop inspects new inmate Stryker for prison contraband to which Stryker replies,
“I bet you like looking at that asshole, don’t you?”
By contrast, in Idol Worship, Ryan Idol plays the captain of a submarine who directs his ensigns not to look during a training maneuver. They must keep their eyes forward on their instruments while Idol masturbates unwatched. He repeatedly commands, “eyes forward” with an extreme close-up of his eyes cementing his looking privileges.
This scene also points to another aspect of the overall imbalance in looking relations – the construction of an inability to look as a trick or a joke at the gay performer’s expense. Idol not only masturbates and achieves orgasm unwatched but he also revels in the fact that his ensigns cannot see him. “I remind you, gentlemen, your focus must be completely on your instrument,” he jokes while a medium shot reveals Idol intently focused on his own erect instrument. He tells them to move starboard and a close-up shows Idol moving his penis in a starboard direction.
Similarly, in The Look, Stryker plays a body shop worker annoyed by two young men (Ricky Turner and Kevin Wiles) playing ball outside his garage. When they accidentally throw the ball into the garage, Stryker decides to teach them a lesson. He forces them into the garage and tells them that they have broken a windshield. But the young men could not see that the windshield was already broken and that Stryker has been hired to fix it. Stryker refuses money for the damage and instead forces them to pay it off by having sex with him. Only after the sex scene, while Stryker talks to his client on the phone, do the young men realize that a trick has been played on them. The last shot of Stryker shows a smug, satisfied smirk on his face.
Far from affirming gay identity, these looking relations ultimately convey the gay-for-pay performer’s attempt to know himself. For instance, Idol’s narration in Idol Eyes frames the entire film as just such a journey of self discovery. He sets the tone of the film by revealing,
“I would learn much about the island and even more about myself.”
And the final scene allows him time for reflection about the sex scenes he has witnessed:
“Each had given me a better understanding of myself. I had begun to know who I was, what I wanted.”
But throughout the film, he wards off any intimations of homosexuality by constantly looking at himself in the mirror and falling for his own image:
“I was suddenly aware that I had been attracted to my own image, turned on by the sight of a man’s naked body.”
In essence, then, some of the most popular gay pornographic films testify to a trajectory powered by non-homosexual desires and regimes of knowledge.
This trajectory does not necessarily foreclose the possibility of fantasy for the gay spectator. As Jacob Gaboury notes, these narratives mirror the social scripts of passing and coming out so common to the homosexual experience. For once, though, gay viewers can find pleasure in how these scripts attach themselves to heterosexual men, no longer constituting a homosexual destiny. In Gaboury’s estimation, this transference accounts for why gay viewers may be willing to accept as reality the fictionalization of gay-for-pay performers as heterosexual:
“There seems here a blatant disavowal of the constructed nature of these narratives, or at the very least a desire to believe them due to the social function they serve in affirming and even universalizing sexual passing through heterosexual bodies, and naturalizing the process of outing through sexual scripts and conversion narratives which take the emotional trauma of The Secret and reinscribe it as sexual pleasure.” (23)
And these coming out stories usually unfold in a milieu and/or a regime of knowledge that weakens the voyeuristic heterosexual gaze reinforced by mainstream coming out films. Chris Straayer has noted how the latter focus on a lone homosexual couple to the exclusion of a wider subculture, which has the effect of maintaining an unquestioned normalcy for the heterosexual domain (33-35). In the films analyzed above, however, the gay-for-pay performers encounter not only a series of gay men but also large gay subcultures at sex clubs (Underground), live performances, Mardi Gras (J.S. Big Time), etc. These subcultural visions suggest an ars erotica operating successfully apart from the heterosexual gaze and perfectly capable of returning the gaze as will be discussed later.
Nevertheless, Gaboury is justified in questioning
“why such fantasies must be played out through an exclusive engagement with those that could be seen as the very sites of sexual oppression” (25).
The close resemblance of the visual schematic outlined above to Laura Mulvey’s formulation of classical Hollywood looking relations in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” suggests that while the gay-for-pay performer looks in gay pornography, the gay performer becomes the feminized bearer of that look. Recipient of a scopophilic investigation that sometimes slips into sadism, the gay performer cannot return the look without serious consequences. High Tide, featuring Jeremy Penn, functions as a de facto parable about this form of visual pleasure in gay pornography. Matthew Anders plays a straight man who has been experiencing flashes that repeatedly put him in a momentary daze. Images within these flashes become increasingly clearer as the film progresses. Eventually, they reveal that he is in fact a gay man suffering from amnesia. He was dancing at a gay club with his boyfriend (Tom Chase) when someone spiked his drink causing him to stumble into the alley outside. Three homophobic thugs kidnap him and bring him to a forest where they proceed to rape him. Anders wakes up from the ordeal not remembering anything until the memories come at him in flashes.
At every turn of the film, Anders is shown deprived of vision. The flashes stop him in his tracks but he is able to recover within a few seconds. When the thugs discover him in the alley outside of the club, however, he is completely passed out (as he is when a police officer discovers him in the trunk of a car after the rape). In a previous scene, Penn spots Anders lying on a beach and catches him typically dazed coming out of a deep daydream. A low angle shot shows Penn looming over and looking at Anders that then cuts to Anders blinded by the sun. Penn invites him to a party and Anders groggily accepts.
In the following scene at the party, a medium shot reveals Anders again struggling to see. He moves towards the camera and places his hands above his eyes, shielding his eyes from the sun in order to find Penn at the pool. But before his looking pays off, a voice is heard off screen left. “Hey Matthew!” shouts Jeremy. The camera pans to the left to reveal Penn coming down the stairs of a bungalow to greet Anders. Penn sees Anders before Anders can see him. Yet again, a seemingly innocuous shot takes on more foreboding connotations in the context of Anders’ persistent vision deprivation.
Even when Anders’ boyfriend Tom rediscovers him towards the end of the film, he catches Anders unaware. Again, the camera is in front of Anders as he looks forward. But we soon see Tom appear in the distance and then walk up behind Matthew. He places his hand on Anders’ shoulder and startles him. Matthew’s concentration has been broken and his own forward vision is shown to be deficient or, at best, incorrectly directed. On the surface, the scene marks their sweet reconciliation after many years. But within the unequal visual economics of the film, Tom’s gesture comes across as ominous.
High Tide demonstrates that erections and money shots offer evidence of only one kind of pleasure in gay male pornography. The narrative casing provides another pleasure in the scientia sexualis act of observing. That such a putatively affirmative and libratory genre as gay male pornography inscribes this act as largely the province of heterosexual males becomes even clearer in Trade Off. Heterosexual looking privileges prove so powerful in this film, in fact, that they raise the specter of a gay pornography without homosexuality. Much like how the buddy films of the late 1960s/early 1970s ignored female characters in de facto love stories between men, Trade Off diminishes the role of gay men for a tale of heterosexual self-discovery. To paraphrase Molly Haskell, the closer gay men come to claiming their rights and achieving independence in real life, the more loudly and stridently films tell us it’s a heterosexual man’s world (363).
Trade Off pits two gay-for-pay actors against one another in what amounts to an extended erotic staring contest. Ryan Idol lives across from Axel Garret and both have opened their blinds so that each can watch the other masturbate to the same issue of Playboy, a hyperbolic assertion of their heterosexuality. Neither man orgasms. Instead, they put on running shorts and go for a jog with Garret lagging behind Idol. Idol stops by a phone booth in anticipation of a call. When the call comes through, an anonymous voice talks to Idol throughout the scene while Garret watches from a distance in the bushes. The voice begins:
“You’re late today. Have you figured out which house we’re in?...You know we’re watching you, both of us. Taking turns with the binoculars.”
Idol looks around but cannot determine the source of the phone call. Nevertheless, the voice entices him to strip and masturbate “for us.” After he ejaculates, the voice hangs up after saying, “Damn good show. See you tomorrow.” At this point, the film reverses the typical looking relations by situating a major gay-for-pay porn star as the object of observation.
Two men (played by gay actors Lon Flexx and Danny Sommers) drive up in a convertible. They ask Idol to take their picture. He takes their camera and snaps a few photos of them with their penises out. They ask him if he wants to take more in a secluded place up the road but he just walks away. They park and take pictures of one another while having sex. Both men bottom and both perform fellatio. Idol appears and watches the action unseen sitting against the side of the car and masturbating. He peers up then ducks back down periodically to remain unseen. The camera soon reveals that Garret is doing the same. Even though Garret and Idol are sitting in close proximity at the rear of the car, at no point do they see one another. This scene resets the gay-for-pay looking privileges. As if in retaliation for being watched, Idol takes up the position of the unobserved observers occupied by the anonymous voice in the previous scene. And while Garret seems to retain the most power, he fails to notice Idol’s presence in this scene, which has the effect of leveling the playing field between the two of them. Both are equal in power in terms of looking relations.
After two solo scenes, Garret and Idol go jogging again. Idol passes by the same phone booth and picks up the phone when it rings. The voice informs him that “we decided to let you watch us today.” Idol then goes up to the house. Garret jogs by and the phone rings. He answers and the voice engages his status as a watcher:
“You like to watch too, don’t you? Of course if you’re really into watching, we can put on one hell of a show for you. One you’d never forget. Matter of fact, we’re both so damn turned already; we’ve decided to let you watch us today. What do you say?”
Garret responds with “Fuckin’ fag!” and then suddenly a woman gets on the phone:
“Don’t call my husband a faggot. Not when he’s got his hard dick so deep inside me. Would you like to see him fuck me? Would you like to see him eat my pussy? Would you like to see me deep throat that big ole dick of his? Sure you would. Come on over. Just look for the house with the pair of binoculars on the window ledge.”
Intrigued, Garret proceeds to locate the house.
Once there, Idol and Garret watch the husband and wife have sex in a hot tub. They undress and look at each other intently, arms folded. The husband hands both Idol and Garret video cameras so that they can tape him penetrating his wife. The scene is intercut with the black and white footage that the duo is shooting. When the husband ejaculates, he tells them that the show is over and collects the cameras. Where once this could have been a gay man watching a gay-for-pay actor, the film now confirms that it was a heterosexual couple watching all along. And just to balance out the looking relations, Idol and Garret are given equal looking privileges by videotaping the scene.
The penultimate scene occurs immediately afterward as Idol and Garret jog to a secluded part of the woods and masturbate directly across from one another sitting on large rocks with only their shoes touching. They either stare into each other’s eyes, almost as if daring the other to flinch, or at their own penises. Several closeups of their eyes confirm their intent gazing. After they ejaculate, they exchange shorts and stare at each other one last time before jogging off in opposite directions. The final scene takes place one year later and briefly shows Idol and Garret videotaping one another masturbating through their respective apartment windows.
Trade Off does more than highlight the reluctance of gay-for-pay actors to relinquish their looking privileges. It invokes a gay public that self-actualizes through the creation and viewing of pornography only to redirect those activities back towards a heterosexual province. The scene with Flexx and Sommers as de facto pornographers becomes quickly monitored by the gay-for-pay duo and arrives early enough in the film to be corrected by Idol and Garret’s own forays into pornography (videotaping first the heterosexual voyeurs and then each other). Furthermore, Garret’s “fuckin’ fag!” speaks to a disgust that gay men may be watching (perhaps this very film). But the film fails to deflect his homophobia and instead asserts all the more strongly that a “fag” cannot look.
If any of the above analyses have come across as too abstract or compromised by the suggestion that gay-for-pay performers are simply denying their homosexuality, then I would like to discuss briefly one final film in an attempt to demonstrate how these looking relations remain intact with a performer whose heterosexuality is not only unquestioned but widely celebrated. Ron Jeremy is heterosexual porn’s most recognized star and, in over 2,000 films, has never had sex with a male performer. In 1989, he starred in the bisexual film Never Say Good-Bi and his performance concretizes some of the stakes in heterosexual looking. In keeping with his bumbling, everyman image, Jeremy plays a man who observes a great deal of sex but rarely gets to participate. He witnesses two sex scenes between men (former college buddies during a reunion) and provides comic relief by making goofy facial gestures on the side lines, e.g., prying his eyes open in astonishment and rolling them in exasperation at yet another encounter. In voice-over, he admits that he “can’t believe Tony and Neil do that stuff.” After one such incident, he talks with the participants asking,
“How long have you guys been, um…were you like this back in college?...I didn't even know.”
The end of the film finds him alone lamenting the fact that everyone is having sex except him. Fun and good-natured though these scenes may be, I find that Jeremy gives voice to some of the impulses behind the surveillance discussed above: a desire to understand the “stuff” that is sex between men; sexual frustration on the part of heterosexuals compounded by the discovery that men are experiencing sexual pleasures with one another; and a one-way street in which heterosexuals are never asked if they “do that stuff.”
The investigative gaze structures the narratives of these films such that it forces a reconsideration of the specificity of gay pornography. For Cante and Restivo, a redolent sense of space distinguishes gay pornography from other forms. Space is never neutral in all-male moving image pornography; it always exists in relation to some sort of iteration of the public sphere:
“Specific to all-male porn, inherent in both its aesthetic terms and its sociocultural functions, is the necessity of a passage through an imagined public gaze where what is at stake in the encounter is precisely one’s position within the greater socius, something never at stake in the same way in heterosexual porn.” (Cante and Restivo, 162)
To exemplify this point, the authors analyze A Night at the Adonis, a self-referential gay porn film from 1978 about New York’s Adonis Theater, which exhibited gay porn films as a backdrop to sexual encounters between men. But the film is also testament to a self-sustaining gay community in the wake of Stonewall. In A Night at the Adonis, gay men catch Fassbinder films, pass around copies of Jonathan Katz’s Gay American History, and stop in at The Adonis to have sex, all of which allow the authors to posit the greater socius of gay pornography as an urban one, if not Manhattan specifically. This socius speaks to a gay public sphere brought into existence by the circulation and impersonal address of texts, a circuit so effective that one young character in the film has a major in Gay Businesses and gets a job at The Adonis in order to start putting it to use. Gay men recognize, and celebrate, themselves as a minority through an awareness of themselves as part of an anonymous mass addressed by various media including art films, history books, and gay pornography. Thus, Cante and Restivo find utopian possibility in gay pornography’s ability to redeploy the public sphere of a movie theater like The Adonis towards queer ends:
“In its continual reinscription of the spaces surrounding us, all-male pornography at some point becomes the field for the (utopian) reinvention of the world eternally promised by identity politics” (143).
Framed by the gaze of the gay-for-pay performer, however, it can also become the field for an oppressive instantiation of the scientia sexualis. In this respect, gay men recognize their minority status via a public gaze that posits them as objects needed to be understood and/or deployed for the self-actualization of others. And when they attempt to assert their gaze, they are punished for their transgression and deemed “fuckin’ fag(s).” This conclusion does not invalidate Cante and Restivo’s theory that space plays a much more significant role in gay pornography. But they downplay the peculiarity of A Night at the Adonis and its Manhattan setting as a unique precondition for such utopian world-making capacities. Not all spaces are charged with that potential, including the mostly nondescript, non-urban spaces of the films analyzed above. So while I agree that space in gay pornography is decidedly not neutral, that defining feature plays out in different ways across different films and eras and does not always result in utopian redeployments of the public sphere.
But by virtue of appearing in a pornographic film, the gay-for-pay star is still subject to the vision of others, if not the characters in the film then those viewers watching it. Or as Jackson puts it, “the mere appearance on screen in the porn film is already an act of negating affirmation, in deliberately surrendering one’s body to the desiring gaze of the other” (139). So in this effort to move closer toward an understanding of the specificities of gay pornography, I have until now ignored the gaze of gay spectators. Gay spectators look too and since the heyday of the porn stars discussed above, attempts to profit from those looks have increased alongside a widespread acknowledgement of gay-for-pay performers as a workaday element of gay pornography. Where once the idea of a major in Gay Businesses might have sounded ludicrous, now courting the gay dollar has long since become a standard marketing practice. In gay porn’s digital era, producers of pornography have successfully marketed to gay spectators in part by presenting the gay-for-pay performer as the center of attraction in a variety of series: Amateur Straight Guys, Broke Straight Boys, Down Low Brothas, Gay Revenge, New York Straight Men, PapiThugz, Project City Bus, Real Urban Stories, Straight Fraternity, Unglory Hole, etc. Interactive sites such as Rate These Guys and areas of the popular Cam4 feature straight-identified performers engaging in activities to the direct specifications of gay spectators. Next Door Studios has a twelve-volume series bluntly titled Gay For Pay. Gay-for-pay performers have even crossed over into mainstream media such as a 2009 episode of The Tyra Banks Show featuring interviews with straight-identified gay porn stars Kurt Wild, Aaron James, and Dean Coxx. And, perhaps most redolently of all, a recent heterosexual porn series called Straight Guys for Gay Eyes offers generous head-to-toe close-ups of the straight guy’s body and moves his anus closer to the center of activity via rimming and sometimes fingering by a woman.
Furthermore, the influence of reality television and digital filmmaking’s capacity for what Zabet Patterson calls “the abolition of the spectacular” have increased gay pornography’s reality claims with respect to gay-for-pay performers (116). Filmmakers strive to prove not only that the sex is real but also that some of the performers are really heterosexual, the “proof” relying on various cinematic and sexual conventions. The ease of using a digital camera in a variety of locations, especially outdoors, for unbroken lengths of time has given rise to reality porn which documents “real” heterosexual men engaging in sex with men because they are offered money (Czech Hunter, Broke Straight Boys), tricked into it (Bait Bus, Gay Revenge, Unglory Hole), forced into it during hazing rituals (Haze Him, Fraternity X), etc. More polished series such as Porn Team, Sean Cody, Frat Pad, Corbin Fisher, Active Duty, etc. begin with interviews establishing a performer’s heterosexuality and attempting to assure the viewer that this will be his first foray into sex with men. Often the participants will designate any subsequent endeavors as strictly for money. An inability to maintain an erection or a palpable degree of nervousness exhibited on the part of the performer can boost the credibility of these pretenses as evidence of heterosexuality for some viewers while others can enjoy them as a convenient fiction for first time fantasies.
But the reality effect of many of these films is significantly diminished when other films reveal a random straight guy caught on the street or in a frat house to be a career gay porn star. Gay viewers encode films with their unique spectatorial history by linking together a chain of titles starring a particular gay-for-pay performer in what Patricia White calls retrospectatorship (205-6). In this conception, gay viewers do not passively decode films in their “to-be-looked-at-ness” but rather they actively encode them in their “always-hanging-around-ness,” their status as spectators who have ingested a wide variety of texts that informs a shrewd, industrious cultural memory (205). Thus, the increased presence and open acknowledgement of gay-for-pay performers speak to a gay scientia sexualis in which homosexual men take advantage of digital cinema’s greater capacity for cataloguing and information retrieval to become observers and documenters of heterosexual men.
But from William E. Jones’ Tearoom, which appropriates police surveillance footage of male-to-male sexual activity, to the webcam spying on Tyler Clementi, the monitoring of gay men remains an oppressive mode of knowledge and power. So the impulse in conclusion would be to condemn films starring gay-for-pay performers for indulging in a
“fascination with the sexuality of one’s oppressors (while) refus(ing) an acknowledgement of the politics of oppression” (Gaboury, 25).
I would contend, however, that gay-for-pay performers offer the spectacle of heterosexuality as an unstable category dependent on homosexuality for self-definition. Or, more precisely, they realize the instability that has always been inherent in heterosexuality. Furthermore, rather than ignoring the politics of oppression, these films put them baldly on display. As such, they provide a kind of training for gay spectators in monitoring the environments around them. In watching watching, gay spectators of gay-for-pay performers receive instruction on how to scan the spaces they inhabit and assess them for dangers as much as for pleasures. We can cruise public spheres for sex more sensitized to the potential gaze of law enforcement or gay bashers who would punish us for our “inappropriate” use of these spaces. And especially as the digital gaze grants us unprecedented access, we can observe ever closer, ever longer, our “always-hanging-around-ness” allowing us to rebut heterosexual voyeurism not only, to borrow Straayer’s words, with an aggressive exhibitionism (213) but an equally aggressive voyeurism. In this respect, we can attempt to realize those utopian potentials held forth by gay pornography in a more equal and fluid relay of looks.
1. Throughout this essay, I use the terms “gay” and “homosexual” to denote men who self-identify as someone who desires intimacy and/or sexual relations with other men. Thus, unlike gay-for-pay performers, they do not require financial compensation in order to engage in sex with other men. Furthermore, they can engage in a variety of sexual relations with men which applies to, for instance, topping (inserting a penis into a man’s anus) as well as bottoming (receiving a penis in a man’s anus). [reurn to text]
2. Jeffrey Escoffier (2003) attributes the sixty percent figure to prolific gay porn director Chi Chi Larue (535). His own figure (2009) is between thirty-five and forty-five percent (216).
3. For a more detailed account of this historical trajectory, see Chapter Ten of Escoffier, 2009.
4. Though it must be noted that several social scripts compete with one another and create a tension which charges the space of gay pornography in precisely the “dominantly frustrating” ways in which Cante and Restivo maintain. As I will demonstrate, the gay-for-pay performer relies on a social script that constructs homosexuality as an object of inquiry thus placing him in privileged position of looking. One can better grasp the power inherent in this status when considering the difficulty, if not sheer absurdity in some estimations, of discussing a heterosexuality without identity or situational heterosexuality. For heterosexuality situates itself everywhere and nowhere. It just exists whereas homosexuality creates situations.
5. For commentary on definitions of homosexuality that center on anal sex, see Miller, 134.
6. In 2008, two University of Nebraska wrestlers, Kenny Jordan and Paul Donahoe, appeared in solo masturbation videos for gay porn website Fratmen.tv. Both were kicked off the team and Donahoe sometimes received homophobic insults at his new school for having appeared in the video even though neither had sex with another man. See Grossfeld.
7. Richard Dyer makes a similar point in his essay “Idol Thoughts”: “Powertool (1986) is not about a character meeting other characters in a prison cell and having sex; it is about well-known professional sex performers (notably, Jeff Stryker) on a set with cameras and crew around them; it’s the thought and evidence (the video) of this that is exciting” (187). See Dyer, 2002.
8. For an interview in which Chandler self-identifies as heterosexual, see Karvoski.
9. Idol began his gay porn career as a heterosexual man. See Lambert.
10. Several members of various Jeremy Penn fan sites attest to his heterosexuality. His Yahoo groups have long since been overrun by porn spam. But Jeremy Penn Online was the most active source for this gossip. Penn did appear fully clothed under his real name Scott Daly in the teenage girl's magazine YM. The caption underneath the photo reads: "Guy Talk: How do you make long-distance love work? I send her tons of letters with cute phrases that only the two of us know. And when I visit, I never go empty-handed.”
11. There is no poverty of information on Stryker. See Escoffier, 205-226 for a comprehensive account of his career within the context of gay-for-pay performance.
12. Christopher Pinney has shown how the flow of signification of images can be arrested via captions or their placement within a syntagmatic chain of other images. Interviews, gossip, etc. can aid in this arresting. See also Barthes.
13. The final scene reveals his dialogue to have been an interview although we never see or hear an interviewer.
14. Although Idol did not top Joey Stefano. He was replaced in penetration close-ups with David Ashfield.
15. In Jeff Stryker’s Underground, he addresses the sex club participants immediately before his money shot: “All of you guys watch. Watch me.”
16. See also the final scene in Hot Wheels with Penn. This negation of the gay gaze via a joke has echoes in Mary Ann Doane’s discussion of the masculinization of the spectatorial gaze in classical Hollywood cinema. Doane uses Robert Doisneau’s jokey photograph Un Regard Oblique as an allegory for the negation of the female gaze.
17. Stryker reveals a similar fascination with his mirrored self in J.S. Big Time.
18. Also, gay-for-pay performers are often the “author” of certain sex scenes if not the entire film via dreaming the action. See Heat in the Night, Powerfull II, and Bigger than Life. In Hot Pursuit stars Stryker as an artist whose sketches morph into the film’s sex scenes.
19. For an interview with the openly gay Anders, see Lambert, 1999.
20. See also the final scene in Powerful II in which Stryker watches his lover (Alex Stone) sleep before waking him up for sex.
21. See Gio for an interview with Rick Ford who first filmed Garret, “a straight marine.” See also the film A Day in the Life of Axel Garret which features a lengthy interview with the performer.
22. It should come as no surprise to discover that the husband is played by gay-for-pay performer Mark Brandon. Bionca portrays the wife.
23. In the sequel, Kiss-Off, Garret portrays a policeman assigned to arrest gay men who have sex with public. But here, he works against a corrupt and closeted cop who has been blackmailing the men he busts. In the end, Garret thwarts a sting operation and saves many gay men from prosecution.
24. He has, however, fellated himself in several films including Olympic Fever (Phillip Marshak, 1979). Even this act, though, has raised the spectre of homosexuality for some viewers. For instance, Gene Ross repeats the mantra “keep convincing yourself that sucking one's own dick is not a gay act” throughout his review of Olympic Fever.
25. For more on Jeremy and this film in particular, see Shelton.
26. See Harris for a mournful account of this process.
27. Certainly, interactive cams do not possess the same kind of narrative thrust as the films analyzed above. Nevertheless, Cam4, for one, has quickly monetized their platform so that a star system has evolved and along with it a set of narrative-like expectations. The cams feature a button below the image which allows a viewer to send the performer(s) a tip in the form of tokens that the viewer must purchase with the money split between the site and the performer(s). In a window next to the tip button, the performer(s) designate a token amount for certain acts or revelations (e.g., “show cock at 50 tokens” or “dildo in my pussy at 200”). They also set a goal amount of tokens, which a counter tracks, presumably for the most valuable acts (“anal sex at goal!”). The most popular performers encounter much less difficulties than others in reaching their goals. Obviously, this platform differs greatly from scripted narratives but its system of goals and premiums set on certain acts offers a variation on the scientia sexualis regime of the glossier feature-length films.
28. Again, see Pinney and Barthes on how multiple texts (in this case, films) can create an intertextual chain of signification that compromises intended effects.
29. This situation counters the notion advanced by some theorists that close readings of pornographic films distort our understanding of pornography since the films are always received in a distracted state (see Champagne) and that pornography remains “an extremely social text” (Gaboury, 24). But some viewers watch these films with all the attentiveness of a film theorist trained in close textual analysis, an activity in full bloom on various online forums such as the ATKOL Gay Video website. See Ikkko’s post detailing a scene with Jeremy Penn from Defined which Falcon Studios advertised as the first time Penn bottoms. Ikkko concludes that the scene was faked. His analysis comes across at least as detailed as the one that activist and writer Cindy Patton describes at the beginning of her essay “Safe Sex and the Pornographic Vernacular.” Both analyses attest to the fact that close readings are, in fact, one of the social functions of pornography.
30. The footage was shot by the Mansfield, Ohio Police Department in 1962 and was used to prosecute the public sex participants for sodomy. For more on this footage, see Waugh, 1996, p. 372-4.
31. Tyler Clementi was a Rutgers University undergraduate who committed suicide in 2010 shortly after fellow students Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei used a webcam to view Clementi kissing another man.
32. Which can then lead to an increased panic surrounding the need to define heterosexuality via absolute, “scientific” methods, e.g., the Gay Porn Viagra Boner Challenge on the comedy show Tosh 2.0 in which several heterosexual men, including host Daniel Tosh, take Viagra, watch gay pornography, and prove their heterosexuality by not attaining erections. Tosh does, however, poke fun at the endeavor, pointing out the queerness of the homosocial scene setting out to prove heterosexuality. That this and Ron Jeremy’s work discussed above are comical manifestations of the scientia sexualis suggests a willingness to embrace instability of heterosexuality. See the clip here: http://tosh.comedycentral.com/video-clips/gay-porn-viagra-boner-challenge Accessed September 20, 2012.
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