Men's pornography: gay vs. straight, page 2
by Tom Waugh


Relations of Representation:
Common Narrative Formulae

Gay Male Pornography

  1. Five common elements:
    (Kathleen Barry's list quoted from Kronhausen can be applied):[4]
    a. seduction (often of straight man)
    b. profanation (Straight to Hell is full of clerical motifs, but in post-clerical society the more common rendition is simple anti-authority — e.g., coach rims star athlete, sailor fucks officer)
    c. incest (Straight to Hell is full of father and older brother fantasies; less omnipresent in commercial porn but still very common)
    d. permissive-seductive parent (one film, title forgotten, depicts furtive father coming out at same time as teenage sons).
    e. defloration (in gay porn one version of this is initiation, another is the converse of the term — being deflowered).
  2. element unique to gay porn is "coming-out," gay male assumption of gay identity and sexual practice; shedding of straight male identity or conversion of straight male can be part of this (Joe Gages KANSAS CITY TRUCKING COMPANY).
  3. intra-narrative voyeur or photographer is common
  4. doctor or sex researcher as narrative mediator
  5. straight-identified institutional setting, e.g. ranch, hospital, school, military, construction site (of 110 STH anecdotes, 30 are situated in this way); military settings especially common.
  6. sex-for-pay, especially straight hustlers and rough trade
  7. subversive humor (penile salute from Marine's uniform in Jean-Claude von Italie's AMERICAN CREAM).
  8. back-to-nature, fucking in the forest or posing in the desert.
  9. documentary gimmick, e.g. Peter de Rome's Super 8 sex on the subway, or location shooting and nonprofessional actors in Toby Ross's BOYS OF THE SLUMS with acne and failed erections.
  10.  public sexuality a common element, e.g. glory holes of TAXI ZUM KLO a frequent formula. 24 of 110 STH anecdotes take place in toilets and 38 in other public spaces such as parks, cars, and rest stops.
  11. violence/rape as vengeance (at least one example, Joe Gage's HEATSTROKES)
  12. rape of unconscious (Curt McDowell's NUDES) or of bound victim. Gang rape, passive fantasies of rape are common in STH, often with straight perpetrators
  13. rape victim comes to like it
  14. SM, fisting, gadgets, fetishes (boots most common, followed by jock straps: rapid escalation of these motifs in seventies hardcore has apparently leveled off; a recurring minor presence in mainstream glossies (Blueboy), dominant in other specialized mags (Drum the most common SM glossy)
  15. take-offs of legit media, especially with film titles e.g. LAST TANGO IN HOLLYWOOD
  16. racial difference as narrative angle: rare in hardcore features where nonwhite men often appear without racial enunciation. Subgenre of beefcake and hardcore mags specializing in racial difference presumably for white clientele (but question of race of producers and consumers is for future research), e.g. "Boys of Puerto Rico." 22 of 110 STH anecdotes had some kind of racial enunciation, frequently with black narrator.
  17. class enunciation relatively common, e.g. BOYS OF THE SLUMS; blue-collar fantasies are omnipresent.
  18. cock-size narrative gimmicks constructed around certain stars and in titles, e.g. THE BIG SURPRISE.
  19. as a general rule, theatrical films have a more important narrative content than straight equivalents (Wakefield Poole's BIJOU flopped because it was criticized for "too much story.")

Straight Male Pornography

  1. These 5 elements are still basic to much straight male narrative porn, though capitalist competition has tended to expand the repertory. Profanation is less important, nuns having all but disappeared. Insatiable nymphomaniac seems to be a new formula, whether comic (DEEP THROAT) or moralistic (DEVIL AND MISS JONES).
  2. remote equivalent without the distinct ideological tenor might be woman's realization of her true desire (EMMANUELLE, DEEP THROAT) or young male protagonist's assumption of his patriarchal sexual prerogatives (mostly in softcore such as PRIVATE LESSONS, PORKY'S or SPRING BREAK). Conversion formulae also present: lesbian is often converted by a good fuck; in ROOMMATES, gay man is similarly converted.
  3. same reliance on intra-narrative voyeur or photographer as above.
  4. same formula of doctor or sex researcher as narrative mediator.
  5. straight male interest in all-women institutions such as convents and brothels is related but has different ideological tenor and is now less common.
  6. shares gay interest in sex-for-pay same, especially brothels, though now less common than in classical stag films; recent twist is suburban housewife who has sex to pay bills.
  7. humor not so evident, either prurient (guttoral clitoris is DEEP THROAT) or flat (GONE WITH THE WIND-style chorus-line rape production number in porno musical BLOND AMBITION)
  8. common in softcore (EMMANUELLE, LADY CHATTERLEY), less so in hardcore. Cheesecake, unlike beefcake, is usually interior.
  9. not common; exceptions include French feature on porn star EXHIBITION, or Vietnam brothel sequence of HEARTS AND MINDS.
  10. no straight equivalent since straight public sexuality is accepted social norm
  11.  violence/rape as vengeance relatively common e.g. Russ Meyer's VIXEN; an exception is THOSE NAUGHTY VICTORIANS where the rapist-protagonist is raped himself at the end by a (black) assailant hired by his earlier victims.
  12. same narrative formula around sexual assault (woman hitchhiker trapped by car window and raped from behind); gang rape relatively less common because of intermale taboo.
  13. extremely common in legit media as well as softcore and hardcore films
  14. SM motifs more and more common in mainstream glossies (Hustler) as well as stable minority proportion of hardcore magazines, arcade materials and films; some osmosis of iconography into legit media, punk culture, high fashion, etc. Women usually bottom (e.g. SWEPT AWAY …, THE NIGHT PORTER) but not always (MAITRESSE).
  15. same pleasure in taking off on legit media, especially with film titles.
  16. several racist subgenres of hardcore and softcore films and other categories where women and men are enunciated racially, e.g. "mixed combos, dozens of Thai EMMANUELLE-spinoffs. Mainstream glossies are very white.
  17. probably less explicit, though no less prevalent through implicit and documentary codes, especially in cheaper mags and films. Maids are much less common than in classical and European films, often replaced now by secretary fantasies.
  18. is straight male breast size fetishism equivalent to gay male cock size gimmickry?.
  19. narrative content relatively less important

Relations of Representation:
Extracting Some Ideological Essences

Gay Male Pornography

  1. phallus obsession, the closeup a metaphor of corporal fragmentation and alienation; phallocentrism however not an explicit text in this fantasy universe where people not divided according to presence or absence of cock — everyone has one.
  2. self-hatred, gay eroticization of victimization of self (some STH anecdotes eroticize abusive homophobic "dirty talk")
  3.  racism: third world beefcake constructs spectator-object relation that is exact parallel of racist organization of society
  4. ideology of gay liberation: sex-positive attitudes, valorization of "coming out," acceptance of gay identity and community, challenge to masculinism; sex industry as economic base of autonomous, prosperous ghetto and therefore of political clout.
  5. ideology of the closet: valorization of straight image reflect internalized homophobia, self-oppression.

Straight Male Pornography

  1. phallocentrism: women as universally available caterers to pleasure of phallus
  2. woman-hatred: women as deserving and willing victims, whose victimization is eroticized
  3. racism: nonwhite women as exaggeratedly sexual slaves, nonwhite men as instruments of patriarchal revenge.
  4. ideology of sexual liberation? view of straight porn as therapeutic social safety valve, as vehicle of sex-positive values, espoused by straight male apologists and profiteers, by some social scientists, by some women pro-sex or libertarian feminists.
  5. closest equivalent of self-oppression here is not in straight male pornography, which has no significant female audience, but women's romance pulp (Harlequins); men's lib line emphasizes straight male porn's oppression of men as well as of women.

Towards a Summary:
Porn as Index/Echo/Prop of Political Context

Gay Male Pornography

PLUS: Unlike straight male porn, gay porn does not directly and systematically replicate the heterosexist patriarchal order in its relations of production, exhibition, consumption, or representation. Kathleen Barry's assertion, "Homosexual pornography acts out the same dominant and subordinate roles of heterosexual pornography,"[5] cannot be shown to be true of any of these terms. Produced by, depicting, and consumed exclusively by gay men, the fantasy universe of gay porn resembles the gay ghetto in its hermeticism as well as in its contradictory mix of progressive and regressive values, in its occupancy of a defensible enclave within heterosexist society. It subverts the patriarchal order by challenging masculinist values, providing a protected space for non-conformist, non-reproductive and non-familial sexuality, encouraging many sex-positive values and declaring the dignity of gay people.

MINUS. At the same time, the ghetto is part of as well as separate from heterosexist society. The patriarchal privilege of male sexual expression and occupancy of public space is perpetuated. The patriarchy is propped up equally by the reinforcement of the gay male spectator's self-oppression, by his ghettoization. Finally, capitalism's usurpation and commoditization of the private sphere is extended not threatened by gay commercia1 porn.

Slraight Male Pornography

PLUS: Porn as "liberated zone," social safety valve, as visualization of women's desire, as vehicle of the sexual revolution?

MINUS. Gender-defined sexual roles and power imbalances, both within the narrative (woman as insertee, active or passive, woman as victim, woman as fetishized object of the camera) and outside of the narrative (woman as spectator), replicate the power relations of patriarchal capitalism and are thereby both its symptom and its reinforcement.


"I love the fact that I can't understand my films when I first make them. It feels like I'm making them out of a real raw place."[6]

Curt McDowell's LOADS (1980) is a 19-minute black-and-white gay porn movie that is so hot that it makes KANSAS CITY TRUCKING COMPANY feel like a three-hour Marguerite Duras film projected at half-speed. It is also a lot more than that, though this "more" amplifies the turn-on rather than legitimizes it.

Like most great works of eroticism, and like the erotic films of McDowell's fellow Bay Area homosexual, Barbara Hammer, LOADS is intensely personal, autobiographical, even confessional. The diary form tends to achieve a mixture of everyday images and fantasy overtones that is highly potent. As in the first-person anecdotes of Straight to Hell, the authentic ring of, "This is really true. I was really there," brings a vibrancy to even the tallest tale. The diaristic form also has a documentary graininess to it that enhances the impact, the spontaneity of camera twitches, the fragility of flares. Both Hammer's and McDowell's format is the low-budget independent non-sync-sound short film, an alternative form, borrowing from both documentary and experimental vocabulary, that knits well with an alternative eroticism. Slickness takes away from desire, Hefner's airbrushes notwithstanding.

Hammer and McDowell, however, live at opposite ends of the Bay. Her films have a Berkeley spirituality to them, even at her most carnal moments (the closeup labia-dabbling in MULTIPLE ORGASMS). Maybe it comes from her habit of linking eros to nature, whether it's the garden or the desert with all their iconographic associations in our culture; maybe it's the presence of a visible lesbian community throughout her films, the pervasiveness of sisterhood for all her obsessive egotistical sublime. With San Francisco-based McDowell, a cock is a cock is a cock. His landscape is the concrete of the streets, the filtered light of his non-residential-zone studio. But his physicality doesn't belong to the Castro, except for the overtones of camp — it belongs more to the Mission. Unlike Hammer, McDowell is usually alone. The faggot fellowship is nowhere in sight, the clone ghetto somewhere over the horizon. His love-objects are the Other, the Straight Man.

In fact, in LOADS, it's six Straight Men who swagger through the frame. The film narrates the filmmaker's encounter with each of them, on the street or in parks, his offer to film them jerking off. They all consented (though of course the filmic record doesn't include those who refused nor any real or threatened violence incurred), and the six intermingled episodes/ vignettes of the film are built from the resultant posing and sex sessions in McDowell's studio.

Suddenly spectators find themselves embarrassed voyeurs both of McDowell's tricks with the six men, and of the men's tricks with the camera. The men strut about defensively, as if taunting the camera, or they lie back invitingly, staring vulnerably, trustingly into the lens. They undress and caress themselves, or allow the filmmaker to help. The camera sometimes embodies McDowell's point of view, crawling across the floor in submission for the blow, trembling as if in echo of the spectators excitation. Or else it remains aloof on its tripod for a breather with the pretense of immediacy temporarily dropped. At other times when McDowell needs both hands, one of the subjects holds the camera, adding the frisson of subjective angle to the palpability of micro-closeups of flesh. This is participatory camera taken as far as it will go, filmmaking as fellatio. The editing preserves the feeling of participation and spontaneity, texturing the narrative lust with the temporal patterns of memory and obsession — echoes, stuttering, flashbacks. McDowell's half-confessional, half-conspiratorial voice-over adds to the complexity of the mosaic: "I wanted to be slung on his back, fucking him as he walked down the street."

In fact, McDowell doesn't fuck any of the men. And that's the point at which the film begins to expose "the raw place" of the filmmaker's desire and of our sexual culture as gay men of the post-gay-lib era. Like all eroticism shaped by a commodity- and image-enslaved patriarchy, McDowell's eroticism is deeply troubled, and troubling. I am speaking neither of the gospel of omni-pansexuality embodied in the gay male institution of tricking, nor of the objectification inherent in the image-making process in itself — at least not here. I am referring rather to the eroticization of the Not-Gay, the Straight Man. For some, it may be gratifying that the tables are turned. The straight man becomes erotic surface, objectified, both idealized and debased, the object of erotic obsession. It is an obsession frequently present in gay male pornography, as I've noted elsewhere, and an obsession that McDowell tackles head-on, exorcizing it and analyzing it as well as indulging it and perpetuating it:

"I have no idea why those straight men turn me on; I see that it's my own obsession — one of them."

"My real interest lies in things, like, I want to go on expeditions, and always document the sexual aspect of things. Like National Geographic …"

"… since much of (current norms of) homosexuality is based on guilt and shame, I think you can realize that guilt is what is turning you on."

"… I'm hung up on straight men because they're like virgins. They've never done it with another guy. I like them for fantasy. But I wouldn't want to see them 'turn gay,' to become my lovers."

McDowell, then, is quite deliberate in confronting the contradictions of his sexuality, of gay sexuality in its current incarnation, but he doesn't pretend to be able to understand them, nor to resolve them — without the spectator's help.

The types of men McDowell is attracted to are telling. They are macho, some body-builders, mostly working-class, a few with tattoos, — none with the idealized beauty of Blueboy pornstars but in fact almost parodies of our culture's stereotype of masculinity were they not ultimately so ordinary. Their sexuality, not surprisingly, is deeply alienated. Most depend on images to masturbate to, propped on one elbow, thumbing the glossy magazine photos of women, the perfect image of the ideal sexual consumer of the post-Hefner age. One man even rubs his cock into the crack of the centerfold during and after his ejaculation. Of others, McDowell manages to capture the comic absurdity as they strut around trying to look cool with their pants down around their knees. Of still others he succeeds in registering an unexpected tenderness, a haunting vulnerability that matches his own, an openness to this experimental intermale exchange that subverts our rigid labels of sexual orientation. At the moment of his final montage of all six protracted ejaculations, McDowell adds the sound of thunder to the already exaggerated heavy breathing on the soundtrack, a hint of parody that is just the right touch to top off the "expedition," this exposure of the male sexual drive. The male body is both celebrated and decorticated, the rites of masculinity are both indulged and subverted.

As for the spectator, caught up in a mix of desire and outrage, guilt and complicity, amused distance and involvement, his disturbance remains long after the excitement has dissipated. Not your usual pornographic film, designed for easy consumption and disposal. This is the direction we must pursue if we are to attain an eroticism worthy of our political ideals. I do not mean the reworking of fuck-film formulae with ideological discourse and politically correct sexuality, nor the legitimation of eroticism "artistically" through self-reflexivity or modernist editing (though we should not exclude possibilities inherent in either of these avenues). I guess I mean an alternative practice, a grass-roots pornography to counter the industrial pornography; an eroticism that enhances our pleasure in our sexuality by starting from the raw place we're in right now and by responding to that place, without defensiveness or complacency, but with honesty, questioning and humor; a challenge to our sexuality as well as a celebration of it.


1. "Lesbians and Pornography," from transcript of workshop at the Pittsburgh Conference on Pornography 1980 in off our backs July 1980, p. 9.

2. Andrea Dworkin, Pornography: Men Possessing Women (New York, 1981), p. 43.

3. Lisa Orlando, "Bad Girls and 'Good' Politics," Village Voice (Literary Supplement), December 1982, p. 16; Ellen Willis, "Who is a Feminist? A Letter to Robin Morgan." ibid. p. 17; Deidre English, "Talking Sex: A Conversation on Sexuality and Feminism," (with Amber Hollibaugh and Gayle Rubin), Socialist Review, No. 58, July/Aug. 1981, p. 51.

4. Kathleen Barry, Female Sexual Slavery (New York, 1979), p. 207.

5. (Ibid., p. 206.

6. Quotations by Curt McDowell are taken from interviews in Gay News (London) No. 229, p. 47 (by Jack Babuscio); San Francisco Chronicle Datebook, Pink Section, Feb. 8-14, 1981 (by Calvin Ahlgren); Artbeat, Dec. 81-Jan. 82, pp. 22-23.