From The Tyra Banks Show:
Tyra Banks teases her audience about this episode’s subject matter. They look like ordinary men, she tells us, but they are not. This episode features straight men who have gone gay-for-pay.
Much of the episode consists of Tyra Banks grilling her guests for their identification as straight rather than bisexual or gay. Banks’s incredulity aligns with the common held belief that sexual identities are static categories.
Tyra Banks’ first guest, Kurt Wild, recounts being fired from his job at Subway, after he was discovered to be a performer in gay porn. Wild goes on to tell Banks he has a fiancé and several children, but that he prefers the submissive role when it comes to filming anal sex scenes with other men. This admission initially confuses Banks, who appears to believe bottoming is a gayer sexual act than topping.
The studio audience for The Tyra Banks Show consists largely of young women. The audience answers in unison “no,” when Tyra Banks asks if they have ever heard of gay-for-pay prior to the show.
This profile of a straight-identified cammer gives biographical and physical descriptions.
This essay explores the conventions of contemporary online gay-for-pay pornography to examine the specificity of this genre not just aesthetically and narratively but also technologically. In the process, I seek to apprehend the reeducation of gay male desire that gay-for-pay elicits for its viewers through its conventions but also to locate the unique feedback loop it instantiates with and through its online mediation. Here is a pornography constituted by a narrative of purported straight men engaging in so-called gay sex acts that proliferates online but has not yet adequately been accounted for as a cultural object. The alignment of this proliferating narrative structure with amateur online mediation constitutes a unique gay male erotic, one that disorganizes the authenticity of narrative identity and simultaneously validates the authenticity of image. In the process of interpreting this pornography, the role of technological medium specificity must be elevated, then, to an equal and integrated status with performance and narrative, as it is now a constitutive component of the desiring body. In this complex manner, gay-for-pay pornography educates, disciplines, and ultimately complicates received notions of homosexuality and heterosexuality both through the pornography itself and its delivery mechanism.
Banks’s provocation invites surprise and implies a certain novelty in the intersection of straight identity and gay sexuality, but soft- and hard-core gay pornographies have long undermined hyper-masculinity and conventional renderings of heterosexuality. For instance, gay pornography has frequently appropriated the stereotypical sites of straightness for its backdrop, such as military barracks, college fraternities, and gym locker rooms. The tension of the hetero/homo binary in online gay-for-pay carries forward this trope. Without acknowledging this tradition, Banks overestimates the novelty of this pornography and assumes its import for an audience largely unfamiliar with it. In the process, she not only fails to articulate its specificity and historical context, but more troublesomely she relies on heteronormativity and a spectacularization of the gay sex act to propel her inquiry. Gay-for-pay pornography is significant not because it actually threatens heterosexuality, nor because it is a new genre of pornography. Rather, what marks it significance is its current popularity in the cultural imaginary as a pornography that disrupts received notions of sexual identity.
This episode of The Tyra Banks Show reveals the conflicted position of gay-for-pay pornography in U.S. culture that simultaneously exhibits interest in and repulsion to gay sex. In the hour-long program, Banks interviews three well-known gay porn stars—each of whom identifies as straight—ostensibly to shed light on the gay-for-pay phenomenon. However, Banks’s line of questioning quickly turns indignant when it becomes apparent these so-called straight men refuse typical categorization. Porn star Aaron diagnoses Banks’s and the studio audience’s discomfort as follows:
An audience member lends credibility to Aaron’s allegation, telling Tyra he, “ain’t gonna do no nothing strange for a piece of change.” As stated above, these and other heated exchanges in this episode suggest gay-for-pay pornography poses a threat to and deviation from the monogamous heterosexual couple. So it is the gay male figure that becomes the show’s unspoken menace.
While the specter of the gay male produces much of Banks’s and her audience’s anxiety, it is precisely this figure that Banks fails adequately to take into account. Rather than pursue the viewer’s desire that mobilizes this genre of pornography—or what I suggest constitutes its gay male erotic—the Banks episode fixates on a failed endeavor to reconstitute these gay-for-pay porn stars as “true” straight men. It is this failure to consider the gay male viewer’s relation to and investment in gay-for-pay pornography that propels my own inquiry.
As I have suggested, The Tyra Banks Show develops a conflicted relationship to gay-for-pay. On the one hand, the episode validates gay-for-pay pornography as a significant contemporary pornography worthy of mainstream media scrutiny, but on the other, it neutralizes the perceived threat to heterosexual identity through moralism and homophobia. The show’s refusal to move beyond the supposed threat to heterosexuality limits its insight. Hereafter, I focus on this question of why gay-for-pay pornography compels the gay viewer’s gaze. Considering gay male desire helps us to overcome the limitations of Banks’s analysis and allows us to ask how that desire shapes the pornography in question and how the pornography in return reeducates gay desire. In asking these questions, we will need to examine in what ways its recording and online dissemination, or its medium specificity, have altered and facilitated this genre. As a result, this inquiry will offer a more expansive—although by no means comprehensive—exploration of contemporary gay-for-pay pornography before closely attending to particular examples, both to reveal the diversities of and, more importantly, to develop provisionally an underlying logic to the genre. In this pursuit, I posit a classification for gay-for-pay pornography that brings its narratives, aesthetics, and medium specificity to bear on what I see as a gay male erotic that honors a conflicted alliance between identity-thwarting sex acts and supposedly authentic mediation.
The following definition of gay-for-pay pornography concerns this genre's deployment online within the last decade, with the knowledge that this definition must necessarily evolve as we examine our examples. This narrow approach allows us to locate its current specificity, rather than explore the broader and more complicated genealogy of its pornographic production. Tentatively, gay-for-pay can be said to be a contemporary genre of gay pornography that foregrounds the alleged real-life straightness—itself a site of contestation—of its performer(s) as an integral component to the form’s grammar. In its narrative, one or more of the performers self-discloses as straight, yet he agrees to engage in gay sex for the camera (typically, though not always, he takes on the sex role of the active penetrator in anal sex or the passive recipient of fellatio). This genre of pornography normally begins with a narrative gesture, often a scene or an interview that establishes the performer’s straightness. If the burden to prove swiftly one’s own alleged heterosexuality seems an odd introduction to gay pornography, the narrative provides various explanatory strategies for why the performer might be willing to engage in gay sex. The most frequent explanation, as suggested by the genre’s name, includes monetary reimbursement, but other explanations include being tricked into the act or losing a bet or game. In each of these instances there’s a displacement of what typically compels—desire—and the gay identity often ascribed to such acts is bracketed. It may be assumed that the viewer derives some kind of pleasure from the disjuncture between the so-called real identity and performed sex acts, although this assumption itself should be pursued further.
Although monetary reimbursement putatively serves as a strong motivation for performers of this pornography, the economics of gay-for-pay are less generative a consideration than how money comes to operate as a narrative strategy that displaces desire. While the performers on the Tyra Banks Show claim to have made a great deal of money through gay-for-pay, the evidence as to just how much more than straight porn remains unclear, and the likelihood that less well-known performers make an equivalent amount is even less certain. I contend that amateurism, harkened by DIY technologies like smart phones, flip cameras, and webcams, dominates online pornography, and gay-for-pay has largely adopted this model of recording and its consequences. As a result, everyday and unknown users feature heavily. So the question of how money operates outside of studio-produced pornography becomes crucial.
Amateur gay-for-pay pornographies flourish on websites like cam4, which do not simply transfer money to performers upon completion of the pornography. Rather, cam4 facilitates the democratized purchase and dissemination of tokens to webcam viewers who then gift them to performers, who must in a final transaction exchange them back into money following the act, but only if the site’s administrators deem that the performance has met expectations (meaning it has not resulted in complaints from viewers). The incentive here has a policing effect, both for the performer to the website and the performer to the viewer, and it requires a series of conversions to deliver remuneration. The viewer does not always know whether a performer is paid and if so, at what amount. But as a narrative device, money serves an explanatory function as a form of willful coercion. It is as though these straight men could not refuse money, that in a post-recession United States, the precarity of daily life makes it unethical to turn down any work. So unsurprisingly the amateur performer is commonly depicted in dire straits, barely making ends meet. Gay-for-pay encodes itself nominally in the logic of poverty, and in the process substitutes money for desire, making thinly veiled prostitutes of its performers. With the fantasy of mutual lust swept away, the fantasy of prohibition takes up shop, replacing reciprocity with an uneven power dynamic of straight men in compromising situations.
With this register in mind, perhaps it should not surprise us that The Tyra Banks Show focused so heavily on the economics of gay-for-pay pornography while failing to recognize the eroticization of poverty. Despite this shortcoming, by looking at the definition Banks’s show provides, we can further clarify the determining logic of this genre. Near the end of the episode, Sean Kennedy, at the time an editor of the U.S.-based LGBT news magazine The Advocate, defines gay-for-pay as follows:
Kennedy forecloses the possibility that the straight man too might get something out of the scenario other than financial gain, but he also inadequately describes the straight man as performing a kind of “gayface.” Would it not be possible that a gay man might want—or indeed desire—a straight man who participates in sex with other men without identifying as gay?
Kennedy misapprehends the critical structural tension inherent in gay-for-pay. Performance gains prominence in the act of the straight man negotiating the terms of the sex—even as DIY and amateur renditions of porn replace performance with something closer to documentation. But this emphasis on performance should not be viewed simply as an enactment of gayness. Rather, gay-for-pay puts gay and straight identities into tension with one another when viewed through what Foucault famously termed bodies and pleasures. Kennedy reduces this notion to “pretending to be gay,” which for our purpose is too reductive. To claim the viewer of gay-for-pay fools himself into thinking the performers are indeed gay fails to consider how the narrative structure complicates the performance of the so-called gay sex act with an overlaid performance of straight identity. There is an intentional confusion of performance and documentation at play.
I insist that the actor is crucially not pretending to be gay; it is his identification as a straight man that he performs. The pornography here dismantles gay identity from what is thought of as gay sex acts. This pornography raises the viewer’s consciousness to a level not typically demanded by pornography, so that the viewer must constantly weigh the “real” sexual identity of the actor, which is its own performance, against the audio-visual performance of sex. The question we are left with is rudimentary, but pivotal: what constitutes gay identity, if not the gay sex act? Gay-for-pay deconstructs a key link between identity and act, positing the gay subject as primarily an identity-formation rather than a set of acts. In the process, it also complicates our knowledge of straight identity, which it implicates in the gay sex act. It is this untethering of act and identity that I wish here to grapple with, not because such an untethering can be substantiated outside of pornographic representation—although it may exist in certain instances—but rather because pornography represents the space of fantasy. The question of the viewer’s desire for such an untethering of identity and act deserves consideration. What does it mean for the gay viewer to desire and indeed to get off on the fantasy of sex with straight men and the fantasy of sexual identity’s resistance to sexual acts? What does it say about both gay and straight identity formations, and why has this fantasy proliferated so widely and rapidly in its online instantiation?
The question of performance helps to clarify the definition of gay-for-pay I have put forth but also provides an important objection to consider. One could easily argue that all pornography is performed, and as such, the actors’ lives outside of the production are of little to no consequence to the performance. However, we must consider the ways gay-for-pay pornography differs from mainstream cinema and conventional studio pornography in its conceptualization and deployment of performativity. I am arguing that what renders gay-for-pay unique from the aforementioned modes of performance is a juxtaposition of meta- and realist techniques. The classical Hollywood film aims for verisimilitude in representation and unobtrusiveness in access. Furthermore its diegesis—or the representational world within which the narrative occurs—is closed, hermetic. The viewer of such films should have an immersive experience of a fictional world that is richly imagined but not reflexive of its own status as film. Much classical and pre-Internet pornography subscribed to this ethos.
As I suggested above, contemporary gay-for-pay pornography typically fuses meta-narrative and realist techniques. A meta-narrative draws attention—much like the amateur format of gonzo porn highlights the performer as camera operator—to its own status as porn. A realist technique, however, strives for authenticity and unobtrusiveness. Gay-for-pay porn makes use of both. The amateur DIY recording technologies strive for authentic, realist representation—often mirroring the documentary genre. At the same time, the meta-narrative highlights a second storyline that undermines the performance of the first, suggesting another reality beyond the pornographic representation. Similar to how Bertolt Brecht’s alienation effect would break the fourth wall in theater through various techniques, online gay-for-pay pornography breaks the immersive quality of pornography by making the reality outside of it a part of its performance. Combining the two forges a simultaneous dissonance. Brecht’s purpose in alienating his viewer was to bring awareness to the circumstances ordering society and to bring about the potential for a change in them, but it is unclear whether gay-for-pay’s reflexivity offers any substantial payout beyond irony. Just how the viewer makes sense of these two competing forces determines whether one finds gay-for-pay to be disconcerting or liberatory, a binary we will return to later.
Gay-for-pay pornography presents a complex argument. It relies upon standard societal notions of sexual identity at the same time that it disrupts these categories. I hypothesize that the disruption of traditional categorization garners this pornography its compelling status. If we take as true the supposition that homosexuals and heterosexuals are oppositional categories required to define the other against, then gay-for-pay challenges this seemingly necessary division by bringing these two categories into direct contact and contention. In addition, this pornography contests the idea that the signifiers of arousal verify sexual truth or pleasure. Gay-for-pay upends the claim that the body unlike the mind cannot lie. The logic follows that for a straight man to maintain an erection and climax with another man would disprove heterosexual identity. But gay-for-pay insists on the suspension of that assumption. There are any number of props and supplements a performer might use to elicit an erection or orgasm, ranging from the use of erectile-inducing pharmaceuticals like Viagra to the viewing of offscreen pornography. While conventional pornographies might shirk at the idea of revealing such accompaniments to arousal, these erectile technologies, though by no means staples, play soundly into the narrative logic of gay-for-pay explanation strategies.
This last point is evidenced when early in the Tyra Banks Show Kurt Wild reveals that he prefers to perform the role of the “bottom” during gay-for-pay sex shoots. Tyra Banks reacts as if she has finally caught the culprit red-handed; this man could not possibly be straight. Her disbelief that Wild could still claim straightness in performing the submissive role in anal sex reinforces the commonplace assumption in the rubric of homosexuality that the penetrated partner is more effeminate, and so gayer, than the penetrator. Wild counters that the submissive role requires almost no arousal on his behalf and so is in fact easier to perform than that of the top. To be submissive and “receive the gift,” as Banks euphemistically refers to it, does not even require an erection. From this example, we see that gay-for-pay challenges the assumed naturalization and inviolability of sex roles. There is a very intricate orchestration about which sex act a performer undertakes when, if at all, and in what order. For instance, a performer typically would not jump right into bottoming—or being “broken in,” as it is sometimes referred to for the uninitiated—because to do so would raise suspicions that the performer was not actually straight from the outset. And yet a performer like Wild, who—having completed his fair share of penetrating—now prefers to bottom almost exclusively due to the passivity of this role, counterintuitively reaffirms his heterosexuality because passivity can be performed without arousal. Within pornography, the signs of arousal do not necessarily substantiate desire or pleasure.