Taking Porn Seriously

If after you’ve read a book, you find yourself more interested in what was left out, what didn’t fit the narrative, than what was actually in it, that can be both a good or a bad sign. Good, if it means you found so little to criticize about the book itself that in a sense you only wished it would have covered even more ground. Bad, if the author’s priorities were out of order, if he ignored some hugely important aspect that renders his main analysis incomplete, or worse, irrelevant. My take on Bigger than Life (2009), Jeffrey Escoffier’s book about the history of gay porn cinema, is that both of those perspective are valid in assessing it. But let me just say right away that I’m very glad he decided to write a book like this, despite its imperfections. As he attempts to show, the gay porn industry has been instrumental in defining what it has meant to be gay at different times, and it’s laudable that he tries to give a systematic account of such an important phenomenon. Also, while I may think he’s a little soft on the darker side of the porn business, it is, at least as a starting point, refreshing to read a book that is porn positive, in the sense that it recognizes that porn deserves to be taken seriously. It’s an approach I support, but it’s so rare that I was struck by it several times while reading.

Escoffier’s history is broadly chronological, but individual chapters are organized around an overarching theme meant to symbolize the ev0lution of the industry, from the offset of the sexual revolution in the late sixties, the banner years of the seventies, the impact of AIDS in the eighties, and slow decline/fragmentation of the hardcore film industry in the nineties and the aughts. All these periods are vividly recreated, but the discussion of how gay porn reflected and responded to the gay culture at large is much more interesting than hearing about the careers and indiviual movies of an assorted bunch of influential directors, performers and production companies. I understand and appreciate that he needs to discuss some seminal works and performers in greater detail to give us a grasp of how the conventions of gay porn came into being, but at times he throws so many names, titles and even storylines around that it’s hard to keep track, or even to keep the interest.

I found the parts about individual stars and the evolution of the concept of the gay porn superstar to be among the weaker in the book, but because of the novelty of the subject, at least to me, they were still fascinating. Escoffier presents persuasive evidence, based on box office numbers and broader cultural impact, for why a number of actors should be legitimately considered stars of gay porn (Casey Donovan, Jeff Stryker, Al Parker, etc.), but I don’t necessarily feel that I get a better sense of what actually constitutes a good porn performance. Because the main goal for a porn movie is to get people aroused, I guess the greatness of a performance will vary widely with personal sexual preferences, but I still would have found it interesting if Escoffier had taken the time to discuss the inherent limitations of the porn review itself. Still, he deserves credit for including several excerpts from leading porn reviewers at the time. The fact that such serious yet enthusiastic porn criticism even existed was kind of new to me, but it provoked a lot of questions about how you actually review something that’s not quite real yet not quite fiction.

Escoffier is at his best when he backs up from what we might call porn economics, the almost pedantic cataloguing of the performers, movies and directors of any given era, to showing how the aesthetics of porn changed over time, or how the porn industry has had to adapt to societal changes. Among other things, he has a great discussing about how a new industry without an agreed set of genre norms gradually seemed to settle on some elements that were deemed essential for an effective porn movie. For example it may sound odd today, but there was a time when the cumshot was not necessarily considered the obvious climax of a sex scene, instead cutting back and forth between the sex and the foreplay. Documenting how the conventions of gay porn have developed, and above all expanded (into subgenres), over time, may make us more aware of how predictable much of today’s porn really is.

I’m not entirely sure how well his attempt to explore the emergence of several porn subgenres within the generally chronological framework really works, but the middle section of the book, about the impact of the AIDS epidemic, is excellent. This is also where his seemingly endless listing of names makes the most sense, because he uses it to show how many prominent porn performers were infected. From there he goes on to elegantly connect the charged public discourse about homosexuality and AIDS prevention with the resistance within the gay porn industry to taking the severity of the disease seriously. While more inclusive to HIV positive performers than its straight counterpart, the gay porn industry resisted a transition to safe sex for far too long. Based on an analysis grounded in the subversive spirit of the sixties and seventies, the industry believed that the gay porn audience simply wouldn’t want to buy videos if the performers wore condoms. Though morally objectionable, both with regard to the health of the performers and the signal it sent to porn consumers, parts of the industry actually thrived on the AIDS epidemic. Escoffier argues that the public fear of AIDS, in combination with the VCR, seemed to change the way gay men experienced sex. Instead of going to porn theaters, or cruise for multiple partners, they starting taking that experience into their own homes. In short; masturbation enjoyed something of a revival, according to Escoffier. It’s a perspective on the AIDS crisis I have never thought about before, but it’s an example of how much ground he actually manages to cover over the course of 350 pages.

That’s why most of my reservations about the book are of the good variety described above. It’s not so much that what’s he has chosen to include in the book is not interesting or relevant. It’s that there are so many subjects he just barely touches upon, enough to catch my interest and raise some questions, but not enough to answer them properly. One example is what we might call ethnic porn. Escoffier writes a little bit about the rising populary of so-called thugporn, featuring black performers, but generally, his historical account is very white. If black porn was slow to emerge, it would have been nice to know more about why that was. In relation to this, Escoffier makes a point about how black and latinos seem to be regarded as an intetwined subgenre within today’s industry. If that’s a fair reading, it’s very interesting. Do consumers of this type of porn consider them related? Is it because of an ethnic thing? Both are questions I would have liked him to ask.

More substantively, I was somewhat surprised by how little attention was paid to what Escoffier himself acknowledges as the rising demand for bareback porn videos. A deeper discussion of this trend, which he attributes, I think correctly, to a declining fear and awareness of AIDS, combined with a careless interpretation of the subversive potential in gay sex, would have fit in well with previous discussion about the condom code et cetera. His analysis, which includes a suspicion that the industry itself, never more than half-heartedly embracing safe sex, is unwilling to withstand the commercial potential in relaxing its safe sex standards by catering to the bareback crowd, is a persuasive one. I only wished he had developed it further.

But finally, let’s return to the issue of porn-positivism. While reading the book, I was reminded of Jochen Hick’s documentaries Sex/Life in LA and Cycles of Porn (1998/2005). Seeing these two sexually explicit documentaries about the gay porn industry at the local film festival in 2005 was one of the strangest experiences of my whole, long coming-out process. I thought of myself as straight, but at the same time I had to admit that there was something strangely alluring about being able to watch something I had considered unavaible to me, both for moral and psycho-sexual reasons. Sitting in a theater with lots of people I didn’t know, watching porn documentaries for three hours, was a mind-numbing experience in itself. As a perceivably straight guy, I was supposed to watch the movies through a coldly rational, almost non-sexual lens. The audience had this large contingent of loud gays, and the whole time I was afraid that they would suspect me of being like them. In all, it felt like a more clinical version of the logic of the porn theaters Escoffier writes about.

My point when bringing up Sex/Life and Cycles, however, is that they painted a somewhat less glamorous picture of the gay porn industry that’s largely missing with Escoffier. He discusses some of the downsides, like AIDS and ageism, but he doesn’t focus particularly much on the emotional and physical pressure actors are under to perform. When I feel queasy about porn, it’s mostly for two reasons. One is that I simply find much gay porn insulting to my intellect, and I don’t want to get off to that. The other, though, is that I never feel that I can fully trust that the people who participate in it are doing it solely because they want to, and that they were completely comfortable all the time. It may sound like a naive thought, but I at least think we have an obligation to consider these murkier aspects of gay porn. Escoffier doesn’t necessarily do that.

But again, these are fundamentally complaints about things that were left out, not criticism of what was actually included. Despite some flaws, Bigger Than Life lays an impressive and important fundament for a more informed debate about the state of gay porn. That’s a huge accomplishment.

Jørgen Lien

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