In California Kings (1997), Jeremy Penn, Dale Rhodes, and Dean Edwards load a mattress in the back of their pickup truck. Gay-for-pay performer Penn will inexplicably disappear in the next shot.
After a dissolve, Rhodes and Edwards engage in oral sex. The dissolve stands in for narrative event and naturalizes the performers’ activity.
Soon, Penn appears in the background, watching Rhodes and Edwards who are oblivious to his gaze. This visual schematic suggests that voyeurism comes naturally to gay-for-pay performers.
Rex Chandler watches undetected in A View to a Thrill Part 2: Man with the Golden Rod (1991).
Even through prison bars, Jeff Stryker watches undetected in Powertool (1986).
In Idol Thoughts (1993), Shawn Justice films Rob Cryston.
The next shot seems to be from Justice’s point of view.
But a cut reveals that Ryan Idol is watching the scene on a monitor in a remote location. Sex between men is triangulated via the gaze of the gay-for-pay performer.
Idol eyes in Idol Worship (1991).
A cut to a close-up of Jeff Stryker’s eyes occurs immediately after Steve Hammond comes out to him as gay in Stryker Force (1987).
Stryker is nowhere to be seen in this glory hole sequence from Jeff Stryker’s Underground (1997). But his voiceover assures us that he was there.
Submarine captain Idol commands “eyes forward!” to his ensigns in Idol Worship. He jokes about their inability to look.
In The Look (1987), mechanic Stryker sees what Ricky Turner and Kevin Wiles cannot…
…the windshield was already broken. The primacy of Stryker’s gaze constructs the scene as a trick played on the other performers.
Far from affirming gay identity, the looking relations in Idol Eyes (1990) ultimately convey Idol’s attempt to know himself.
A sex club in Jeff Stryker’s Underground suggests an ars erotica operating successfully apart from the heterosexual gaze.
A gay socius at a club in J. S. Big Time (1995).
Revelers descend upon gay bar OZ during Mardi Gras in J. S. Big Time.
Matthew Anders portrays a heterosexual man who suffers periodic flashes in High Tide (1997).
Brief flashbacks eventually reveal that he is in fact a gay man suffering from amnesia.
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
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,
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
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
Thus, social scripts construct a situational homosexuality for the gay-for-pay performer that allows him to engage in sex with men but
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
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:
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
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)
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,
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,
And the final scene allows him time for reflection about the sex scenes he has witnessed:
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:
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:
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
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.