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date: 10 December 2022

Gay Pornographyfree

Gay Pornographyfree

  • Joseph BrennanJoseph BrennanIndependent Scholar

Summary

Commercial, moving-image, hardcore, all-male pornography (otherwise known as “gay pornography”) emerged in the United States in the 1970s when, for the first time, many of the cultural inhibitions and legal restrictions on explicit gay sexual content were swept away with the current of a sexual revolution—prompted in large part by the 1969 Stonewall riots. In 2022, its study constitutes a thriving subfield of porn studies.

This qualitative review starts with the contributions of foundational essayists (Richard Dyer and Thomas Waugh) in a 1985 edition of Jump Cut, followed by discussion of the contributions of three special issues on the subject (in 2004, 2015 and 2017) in the Journal of Homosexuality, Psychology & Sexuality, and Porn Studies—through which a case is made for the instrumental role of these specials in the subfield’s exponential growth, commencing circa 2015. “Bareback” (the on-screen abandonment of the condom) and “gay-for-pay” (a gay-sex-strictly-for-remuneration fantasy and career construction/identity) are marked out for separate consideration as two profoundly dominant (and uniquely gay-aligned) conditions to which much of the subfield’s (relatively) recent flourishing can be attributed. The final section organizes extant literature according to key bulges and thrusts across text, industry, and audience concerns, with John Mercer, Jeffrey Escoffier, and Todd G. Morrison, respectively, nominated as the key architects of the critical, 21st-century groundwork on which the subfield owes much of its contemporary vibrancy.

This is a dynamic survey, acknowledging the author’s own disciplinary stake (cultural studies) via qualitative, strategic selection of some eminent and emerging themes from across the literature. Crucially, allowance for future updates is built into its structure and method; key themes can be added as new priorities emerge, expanded, or shifted, with the ebb and flow of the subfield’s agenda items (should thrusts come to bulge or bulges lose impetus).

Subjects

  • Gender (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies)

Introduction

Linda Williams (2014a), in the augural edition of Porn Studies (PS)—the field’s first (and still only) dedicated journal, its conception itself an exercise in the organization of an emerging discipline—described the field of pornography studies as “weedy,” those who attend to it as tending to “dabble,” and attentions in the gay regard as an “(over)abundance.” This final observation that in 2014 there was an “(over)abundance of work on gay pornography versus the surprising paucity on heterosexual pornographies” (Williams, 2014a, p. 24) was, frankly, absurd. That the statement came from a figure whose 1989 monograph was “groundbreaking” (as characterized by PS founding editors Feona Attwood and Clarrisa Smith [2014, p. 1]; Mercer, 2017b, p. 15, calls it “agenda-setting,” even though it omits gay porn from its discussion) in porn studies’ emergence was problematic. Especially so given it came as part of a field-wide survey for the inaugural issue of porn studies’ first dedicated journal—in the abstract, no less. At best, it was a misunderstanding of the history of the gay porn studies subfield; at worst, it was an erasure of the fact of erasure in the literature and, therefore, in this author’s view, a necessary first point of redress.

Commercial, moving-image (initially, American) hardcore all-male pornography (simply “gay porn” hereafter) emerged in the 1970s when, for the first time, many of the cultural inhibitions and legal restrictions on explicit gay sexual content were “swept away” with the current of a sexual revolution—prompted in large part by the 1969 Stonewall riots (Escoffier, 2009, p. ii). Straight varieties of hardcore pornography (“heteroporn” hereafter; a deconstructive reaction to the “exnomination” of heterosexual positions in “porn”—studies and texts [see Fiske & Hartley, 1978, p. 176, for a discussion of exnomination, the evacuation of privileged positions]) also entered mainstream American culture around this time (Escoffier, 2009, p. ii). Yet the gay variety came as part of a wider, gay sexual subcultural “explosion” of explicit homosexual representation (Escoffier, 2009, p. 383) and with a social history and narrative activism (i.e., Burger, 1995) that labored against a violent past and historical-present precedence for hidden-ness, prejudice, and criminalization. In fact, Wakefield Poole’s “Hollywoodian” 1971 Boys in the Sand preceded the heteroporn hit Deep Throat.

Gay porn soon forged unique relations with the community whose sex it put on screen. One example of its place in gay culture has been the “highly social and communicative” adoption of it in gay spaces—especially important during times of discriminatory hostility, where it was played in bathhouses, sex clubs, bars, and discos. Such traditions are ongoing and evolving today, via the “hook-up culture” home, for instance (Adams-Thies, 2015). Within the scholarship that followed the 1970s emergence of hardcore gay and heteroporn also came a tendency—that ran into the early 1990s (and beyond, in some instances)—to “ignore” and “erase” or “exclude” (Gubar, 1987) the gay tradition. In some cases, to aid explicit efforts—in the view of Gubar (1987)—to focus the scholarly agenda on women being dehumanized as sexual objects or degraded as the victims in heteroporn (see Garry, 1978, for a reading of this type). In rare instances where gay porn was addressed by scholars, it was often “defined” (see Mosher, 1988) as similar in psychology and sexual acts to the degradation of a feminine object, as was argued to be taking place in heteroporn. Such reified positions persisted into the present century where, following Andrea Dworkin, Christopher N. Kendall (2004b) surmised, “Gay male pornography merges with an identity. . . [politic where] gay men are not only penetrated like women but are expected to lust after pain and degradation like women are thought to under male dominance” (p. 67).

In summary, gay porn was underrepresented in scholarship, and it would seem a distraction, especially in the social sciences, from the main theater. Such a position is supported by Todd G. Morrison et al.’s (2016) own survey of the subject (written at a critical moment of transformation in the literature). My survey acknowledges foundational essays (Dyer, 1985; Waugh, 1985) that helped shape, inspire, and move the gay porn studies subfield away from pathological perspectives and toward the critical mass of scholarship it enjoys today. I accept that in the 2020s, “gay porn studies comprises one of the largest and more active subfields within porn studies itself” (Ruszczycky, 2021, p. 13) while asserting from the outset that the attention and contribution of this subfield (to “porn studies” and beyond, including the wider humanities and social sciences) is a more recent and hard-fought status than Williams’s statement (and her 2014 survey overall; see Mercer, 2017b, pp. 9–10, for additional critiques) implied.

Scope; or Pathways Toward Abundance

Let us start, as Richard Dyer (1985) famously did, by “coming to terms.” While this survey is named “gay pornography,” adopting “gay porn” throughout not only embraces simplicity over “grandiloquence” (see Mercer, 2017b, pp. 9–10) but exnominates as well. “Gay male pornography” recurs in the literature but I find it antiquated—like “gay male video pornography” (i.e., Burger, 1995), and “cinema,” too, which belong with “pre-web, pre-digital” phases (Mercer, 2017b, pp. 11–14)—and at odds with the more contemporary, inclusive “gay porn studies.” Comparing cross-decade monographs by Kendall (2004b; Gay Male Pornography) and Mercer (2017b; Gay Pornography) reveals the connections of “gay male” with a certain social-scientific (read: Morrison et al.’s [2016] GMP) and legal framework (read: Kendall’s [2004a] SJD), where it is joined in the literature by terms like “MSM (Men Who Have Sex With Men),” “SEM (Sexually Explicit Media),” or even “all-male.” Extraction of “male” here, in other words, comes with a cognizance for its implications.

“Lesbian porn” and “queer porn,” among other areas (i.e., “trans porn”) as lesser-explored and more recent subfields, respectively, are excluded, and deserving of their own surveys. Also excluded are non-moving-image media forms, such as gay porn fiction (see Ruszczycky, 2021). “Gay” is a loaded term that, some might argue, excludes non-gay-identifying performers and representations like gay-for-pay as well as producers and audiences of this pornography, which are diverse (i.e., women; McCutcheon & Bishop, 2015). That is to say, I am aware of the arguments of some scholars (i.e., Cante & Restivo, 2004) around the “multi-layered problems” (p. 111) of “gay” porn, especially outside of the Anglo-sphere and in gay-for-pay contexts; all productive points, for this diversity rubs up against some of the themes charted, such as connections (and challenges of these) with the gay community, real or imagined.

Williams’ (2014a) PS essay advocated “critical distance” between scholars and the porn industry, to ensure the field is not automatically “pro-porn” in its stance (p. 24). It’s a fair point, yet in a version of the same essay, she also makes the following observation about the “male side of the queer continuum” (2014b, p. 31): “There seems to me no doubt that this particular subfield of pornography studies will continue to flourish, for the people who write about it have found these pornographic texts crucial to who they are” (pp. 31–32). Nguyen Tan Hoang (2004) provides a powerful example of this in a Williams-collection essay via the “poignancy in ‘saying good-bye’” gay men may feel in viewing a 1995 Robert Blanchon “recathexis of early 1980s gay pornography” (p. 261).

Of course, not all scholars or gay men see gay porn as crucial to who they are. See, for example, John Champagne’s (1995, pp. 28–56) construction of gay porn as “nonproductive expenditure,” together with Kendall’s oeuvre of harms-based arguments—including rejection of the idea that gay porn is identity-forming and liberating (Kendall, 2004c, p. 877)—perspectives that have also been picked up more recently for contemplation by scholars such as Shannon Gilreath (2011, pp. 169–203). Yet gay cultures are especially “pornified” (an “axiomatic” consensus reached by Maddison, 2017, following immersion with 30 years of gay porn scholarship) and I don’t shy away from a personal stake in the subject.

Williams’s 2014 essay also called on porn studies scholars to invest less in one-off pieces—journal articles and book chapters—and adopt a more disciplined investment in larger, encompassing works—monographs. Reflected here is both the disciplinary core of PS, as envisioned by Williams, and the evolution of the discipline itself—namely, as seeded in the “film tradition” and the humanities more broadly, where fellow humanities researchers will be painfully aware of single-author books as the benchmark of success and serious contribution. Single-author monographs have a place, certainly, and there are important books, both confined to gay porn (i.e., Goss, 2021; Mercer, 2017b) and with a broader scope, yet which have nevertheless made a considerable impact (i.e., Dean, 2009, who explores bareback). Not all scholars who write on gay porn in journals alone can be seen to dabble at the surface, however. Dyer’s profound contribution is often charted “through a succession of articles” (Mercer, 2017b, p. 13), and the closest we have to a gay porn scholarly canon are the so-called dabbles of daring film scholars. Dyer and Thomas Waugh may not have been the first to publish on gay porn—(Blachford, 1978) Gregg Blachford’s Marxist critique appeared in Gay Left in 1978, for instance—but these men were the most influential.

The Classic “Dabbles”

Dyer (1985) asserted gay porn’s importance as an object of textual study through an analysis of sexual narrative constructions built on the premise that narrative exists in even the simplest of pornographic loops. Writing in a context where porn discussions had tended “to start off by being either for or against all porn and to be caught up in equally dubious libertarian or puritanical ideas” (p. 27), by his own assessment, Dyer’s main suggestions in the essay are “quite brief and simple” (p. 27), and necessarily so; they set out a working definition for gay porn. Dyer’s contribution (together with his early writings in general) was influential because it did not discount the critiques of feminists, putting forward the view that scholars should resist “pure sex” notions and defending porn based on a position that it released a sexuality “repressed” by bourgeois society (Dyer, 1985, p. 123). In fact, in a subsequent essay, Dyer (1989) calls to dismiss views of a “small chorus of gay individualists [who] resent intrusions from feminism upon their pleasures” (p. 199), which can be read in line with cultural studies principles.

In the same edition of Jump Cut (JC), “Tom” Waugh (1985) takes a post-sixties, “relatively loose comparison of gay male pornography to straight male pornography, referring wherever relevant to its major product divisions” with the comparison organized by relations of production (making), exhibition (showing), consumption (looking), and representation (depicting). As with Dyer, a filmic disciplinary intention is clear—a characteristic of the publishing venue—with the study ending via consideration of a specific pornographer (Curt McDowell) and a call on pornographic cinema to “attain an eroticism worthy of our political ideals.” Lofty ambitions are not much reflected in subsequent scholarship or the films to be released—and can, as with Dyer’s analytic frame, be read in line with the influence of cultural studies on reading gay porn: such as a conscious move to “decenter” texts and a greater interest in broader issues of power and identity formation over a search for intrinsic value of certain texts, including over others (Johnson, 1986–1987).

Waugh (2017) undertook “a personal revisit” of his classic essay more than 30 years later, where he considered its relevance to the “sex wars” and pondered “the water and other fluids” to flow through the field since (p. 131). The political dimension of his original essay returns, as Waugh outlines the hectoring backdrop experienced with JC’s editors, Chuck Kleinhans and Julia Lesage: to defy censorship by “boldly reproducing the images under analysis” and, ultimately, to show pictures of hard cock (p. 133). Published in PS, Waugh takes aim at the journal as evidence of a “partial victory”—with Gail “Dines, our twenty-first-century Dworkin” (p. 132). Most valuable for our present purposes, however, is Waugh’s reflection that his original essay’s comparative analysis, “with gay and straight being on a continuum rather than in separately lived worlds . . . might be the piece’s standout contribution, especially in today’s ‘gay-for-pay’ world” (p. 132)—the latter of which has constituted a key area of gay porn scholarship. If Dyer and Waugh constitute the “first wave” of gay porn scholarship, I count three journal special issues (and their editors) as forming and agenda setting the second.

The Special Issues

John Hartley (2009) describes journal special issues as “indispensably” “devoted to field-shaping initiatives.” There is perhaps no greater truism of this than for gay porn scholars, who found themselves reliant on aligned or wider disciplines like cultural studies to publish—International Journal of Cultural Studies that, under Hartley’s founding direction, proved itself a furtive forum for such scholarship (i.e., McKee, 1999). Hartley also conceives of the special as “an extreme version of running order,” which highlights the important curatorial role of special editors in advancing underexamined areas. As of 2022, there have been three gay porn specials (Mercer, 2017a; Morrison, 2004a; Morrison et al., 2015), and they deserve separate and in-sequence attention.

2004, Journal of Homosexuality (Editor: Todd G. Morrison)

By the start of the current century, gay porn had still received only limited academic attention. As redress, in 2001, Todd G. Morrison started compiling submissions for a Journal of Homosexuality (JH) special (Morrison, 2004a). Opting for an interdisciplinary approach, it drew on perspectives from fields such as history, film studies, law, psychology, and sociology. It’s difficult to overstate the contribution of Morrison’s project, which provided a blueprint for how gay porn studies could proceed as a subfield and is the clearest demonstration of what Mercer (2017b) describes as the “second wave of gay porn research” that emerged in the early 2000s (p. 15).

In the spirit of “eclectic” curation, Morrison included as well as departed from harms-based positions (read: antipornography feminist framework), notably with a polemic essay by Kendall (2004a) on the 2000 Canadian Supreme Court Little Sisters Book and Art Emporium case that had the impacts on gay youth self-respect in its sights. Working in the tradition of Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, 2004 was a pivotal year in Kendall’s contribution to the field with his book (2004b) published, using this case among others as a springboard for harms-based positions.

Robert Jensen (2004) also adopts radical feminist ideas in the special and Karen Busby (2004) challenges Kendall’s arguments around the Little Sisters case, bringing a balanced perspective on the complexities of gay porn. Scott J. Duggan and Donald R. McCreary’s (2004) survey research lends some empirical support for criticisms in Kendall’s essay around gay porn’s valorization of muscle as increasing social physique anxiety for gay men, while Morrison’s (2004b) own research showed, via a focus group, the active reading strategies of gay audiences, who adopt a “utilitarian perspective,” seeing potentially negative influences of the gay porn texts as transitory and impacts on attitudes and behaviors of gay men as minimal.

Qualitative text-based and ethnographic contributions are also represented, via the analysis of cross-generational producer and/or actor memoirs (Cohler, 2004); behind-the-scenes (Scuglia, 2004), autobiographic-viewing (Hallam, 2004), and contributor perspectives (Ellis & Whitehead, 2004); and analyses of place, via exotic transnational locations in the works of Kristen Bjorn (Westcott, 2004) and the popularity of the prison setting (Mercer, 2004).

2015, Psychology & Sexuality (Editors: Todd G. Morrison, C. J. Bishop, & Mark Kiss)

Morrison, joined this time by C. J. Bishop and Mark Kiss, contributed a second special a decade later titled “More Eclectic Views on Gay Male Pornography” (emphasis added) and appearing in Psychology & Sexuality (P&S). As the title suggests, it is in conversation with the earlier special, with the editors using the introduction (Morrison et al., 2015, pp. 2–3) to draw out three key differences: technological advances (notably, [continued] pervasiveness of the Internet and social media), changes to evaluative lens (notably, [continued] state of condomlessness in gay porn and shift in attitudes on the absence of condoms within the industry and gay community), and burgeoning interest in gay porn as a field of scholarship (notably, via the diversity of topics covered in the special—diversity that has also continued).

The first three essays are evidence of a maturing field, devoted to taxonomical work: Bishop (2015) undertakes a literature review, modifying Paul J. Wright (hetero)porn frameworks; Darin J. Erickson et al. (2015) use latent class analysis to categorize users; and Richard Silvera et al. (2015) consider how “outness” might influence porn use among MSM via an online survey. The edition’s remaining essayists continue the 2004 JH conversation and capture the more eclectic, “burgeoning interest” that characterized the mid-2010s (Morrison et al., 2015, p. 3). This includes two phenomenological perspectives accounting for women’s (McCutcheon & Bishop, 2015) and self-conceived (Hald et al., 2015) perceptions; industry-insider-cum-scholar Scuglia (2015) returns with another reflective piece, a doomsday reading of gay porn’s “point and purpose” in the Internet age; contributor perspectives are again canvassed, this time as “a virtual discussion” (Nielsen & Kiss, 2015); and auteur contributions are considered in aligned-though-fresh directions, including of “new flavor” indie porn (Nielsen, 2015) and exotic visions of Arab place and national identity (Tziallas, 2015b).

Conspicuous in their absence are pathologizing perspectives in the spirit of Dworkin, which can be read as a gesture to keep the “porn wars” in the past, departing from the perspectives of Kendall while not foreclosing considerations of gay porn problematics. Keeping Kendall in the past is possible courtesy of robust challenges—within his own legal-regulatory framework—in the early 1990s, such as from Carl F. Stychin (1991–1992), who develops several lines of argument around the “failure of the feminist anti-pornography approach to differentiate” between gay and heteroporn (p. 857), namely, that gay porn ceases to be oppressive—in fact becomes liberating rather than objectifying—and destabilizes the coherence of the male subject through a subversion of phallocracy. Notably, contributors across Morrison’s two specials, such as Mercer and Tziallas, went on to do much more than “dabble” in the field—Mercer most significantly.

2017, Porn Studies (Editor: John Mercer)

Morrison (with Daragh T. McDermott) “assumed the reins” of P&S in 2017 and PS—then in its fourth year—published its first gay porn special (Mercer, 2017a), “Gay Porn Now!” This “hyperbolic title” sought to “capture the sense of excitement and vibrancy” of the time: “50 years after homosexuality was no longer criminal and over 30 years since Waugh provided a critical framework to discuss gay porn” (Mercer, 2017a, p. 128). Mercer’s introduction and, on balance, this special, was clearly curated with an eye to history. It stands as an unusual omission, therefore, that Morrison’s contributions receive no mention by Mercer here.

Waugh’s (2017) “personal revisit” leads the special, aiding Mercer’s account for the past while the “now!” is written in “new modes of production and emerging aesthetic and discursive patterns” (Mercer, 2017a, p. 129) that, following and expanding upon Morrison et al., are markers of the dominance of the Internet and social media and evidence of changes in evaluative lenses revealing the richness of burgeoning interest.

The special includes exploratory taxonomical work (Mowlabocus & Medhurst, 2017, with sonics); interrogation of assumptions, namely a continued (following McCutcheon & Bishop, 2015) account for female heterosexual audiences for gay porn (Ramsay, 2017) and the role of porn in gay culture, as read through the lens of social media platforms (Maddison, 2017); evaluative lens changes, from auteur analyses to textual qualities of Internet-based “extreme” texts (Young, 2017 reading Gag the Fag) and performer trajectories that account for social media celebrities trying a hand at gay porn (Arroyo, 2017, reading Chris Crocker), endemic in the 2020s; and, perhaps most significantly, account for the “new” conditions of circulation (Tsika, 2017, on streaming platforms) and production (Mercer, 2017c, on amateur porn-making practices). As of 2022, Mercer is coeditor of PS, a position he accepted a year after his special published.

Method: Text, Industry, Audience—Thrusts & Bulges

As Nathaniel B. Burke (2016a) observes, “Scholarship on pornography generally falls into one of three broad categories: studies that explore films’ content (e.g., textual or content analysis of meaning), those that investigate audience reception, and studies of the industry itself, its means of production, and the patterns of labor and power” (p. 587, emphasis added). Jane Stokes (2003) states something similar in the context of media and cultural studies research, naming text, audience, and industry as the broad categories that organize (p. 17) and make up the complete picture (p. 60) of media research. I adopt these categories to organize the state of gay porn scholarship as it stands in 2022.

My aim is not exhaustiveness but instead utility, to be purposeful, embracing the digital affordances of an updateable survey of an interdisciplinary subfield’s scholarly coverage of moving-image examples, underscored by a method of my own. Textual analysis in the cultural studies tradition is uniquely suited to a project such as this. Unlike quantitative content analysis, it does not strive to cleanly categorize within a confined sample; in fact, I allow for slippage across the categories in developing the key themes identified. Notably, and advantageously, I, as textual analyst, seek to identify broader trends via strategic selection of key scholarship.

There is a “reflective practice” that underscores this review. Following the ideas of Donald A. Schön’s (1983) reflective practitioner, I recognize the problematics that come with the study of gay porn and the challenges of a single author undertaking a thematic reading, which is why this review is concerned more with problem setting: “a process in which, interactively, we name the things to which we will attend and frame the context in which we will attend to them” (p. 40). My naming and framing process is as follows: to set out many (not all) of the key gay porn bulges (the critically amassed interest that has comprised the core concerns of scholars across each of the three broad categories), followed by some noteworthy thrusts (the emergent or developing areas of the literature), with scope for future attention and adjustment, as “the ‘things’ of the situation” that have set the boundaries of scholarly attention up to 2022 change (Schön, 1983 p. 40). Herein lies the unique opportunity of the present project and its structure, namely: It is written and set up to be updated.

Dominant Conditions

A need for taxonomical work was a key theme across the specials, given the blossoming scholarly interest in the area from the mid-2010s (Morrison et al., 2015, p. 3) and the historical prevalence of antiporn positions prior to the current century. In framing their own taxonomical project—during this critical mid-2010s period of scholarly swell—Simon Corneau and Emily van der Meulen (2014) defined, distinguished, and conceptualized gay porn types via interviews and thematic analysis with 20 Canadian consumers. The resultant five categories—mellow, commercial, raunch, amateur, and bareback—were broad conceptualizations, yet ones that demonstrate the profound impact of “bareback” (the onscreen abandonment of the condom) as a category within itself, worthy of separate consideration.

Bareback

Bareback has been (and arguably remains) the key battleground of gay porn scholarship, providing both the most compelling rationale for the need for research and the clearest pathway to broader concerns of gay culture and lived experience. From its origins, it’s been seen as a subtext of gay porn and gay life, an especially radical/fringe/also-raunchy (and potentially dangerous) gay porn variant and sexual practice that rose to the level of moral panic for its potential to undermine safer-sex messaging (Jonas et al., 2014) and—in, as well as beyond, the representational sense—the workplace safety of performers (Silvera et al., 2009). Fears that bareback porn might undo progress made in the fight against AIDS led to instances of industry regulation, such as California’s 2012 “Measure B,” which prohibited bareback production. Such measures gave rise to legal debate on bareback porn as sufficiently “expressive” to warrant First Amendment protections (Ramos, 2013), underscored by perspectives on the practice as a form of homosociality among men (Nielsen & Morrison, 2019).

There’s connective tissue—and polarizing promises of intimacy and diminishing controversy—tied with bareback porn that, returning to Hoang (2004, p. 261), point in complex ways to the wild sexual abandon of the 1970s; the grim tempering of AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s, bringing the death drive back to gay sexual representation via a revival of ideas by the likes of Leo Bersani (McKittrick, 2010); and, more recently, the return of condomless porn off the back of treatment and preventative technologies of the current age (the “bareback momentum,” Brennan, 2020), ushering us into the present “post-crisis” period (Florêncio, 2020a).

Bareback porn, in order words, is a “dream screen” of radical gay lived experience (McKittrick, 2010, p. 76), an experience of profound trauma and shifting sexual fortunes. In 2007, Corita R. Grudzen and Peter R. Kerndt proffered that male viewers would likely “not tolerate” condomless gay porn depictions, for (quoting from the Los Angeles Times Magazine) watching condomless gay porn would be akin to “watching death on the screen” (p. e126). In a “heterotopic” (a concept Morris & Paasonen [2014, p. 27] apply to bareback porn), previously unimaginable manner, gay porn’s ubiquity has turned to the condom’s absence, in porn and sexual practice, leaving historical conceptions of the genre—even within the past decade (i.e., Morris & Paasonen, 2014, as “risky sex”)—in need of a rethink. In ubiquity, bareback now oscillates across the other categories of gay porn (commercial, raunch, amateur, mellow).

Tim Dean’s (2009) Unlimited Intimacy deserves to be recognized as the key text here. Dean delves into the barebacking subculture more broadly, but with discussion of bareback porn specifically (pp. 97–144), inclusive of aesthetics and the politics of this representation. Separating bareback out here is a deliberate recognition of its status as a defiant concept, supported by alignment among many scholars between bareback porn with queer theory (Davis, 2015). Bareback defies even received wisdoms on it as a category of gay porn, including its inception. Nostalgic constructions of the period before the term entered common parlance—of the “precondom” era (often referred to as the “Golden Age” of gay porn)—cannot exclude bareback; as Storms (2015) points out, the performers of those 1970s and 1980s features that are now marketed as precondom classics “were at risk of contracting HIV, regardless of whether it was a known risk at the time” (p. 388)—as indeed were/are the health threats other than HIV that are heightened when the condom is abandoned.

Such understanding anchors texts that might, on the surface or via their marketing, have otherwise been separated from bareback (“precondom” video porn, for example) and “contextualizes” these texts with bareback, both in a familiar—as by-products of safer-sex campaigns (Mowlabocus, 2007, p. 218)—and in a more porous way, such as with what Storms (2015) describes as the “longer history of HIV” (p. 392). The condom’s presence and absence, in other words, puts all gay porn performers, texts, and audiences in ahistorical situ with bareback. Bareback porn, its production, reception, and analysis-as-text, is, in a pinch, unstable.

This instability is especially pronounced in the industry tradition. The 2006 anti-bareback stance of pornographer Michael Lucas of Lucas Entertainment, for example, published in the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, now rubs alongside scholarship reading his studios’ 2013 bareback transition (Brennan, 2020, pp. 17–19) and event marketing of the condom’s absence (Tziallas, 2015a, pp. 386–393) in Lucas films since. While from an audience standpoint, comparatively early studies of reactions to bareback porn that deemed such texts dangerous for “making unsafe sex sound exciting and glamorous and cool, and it’s none of those” (quoted in Carballo-Diéguez & Bauermeister, 2004, p. 9) now need to be understood in line with that critical moment in which this discourse was created and current conditions.

Textually, and at the point of reception (as Mowlabocus et al., 2014, found through textual analysis and focus group methods), subcultural understandings of bareback porn are dependent on a variety of factors that include “the age, body type, and racial identities of the performers; the setting, context, and mise-en-scène of the pornographic scene; and the deployment of power relations between the insertive and receptive partners” (p. 1462). The “‘cool’ deviancy” (Mowlabocus, 2007, p. 218) and resolutely taboo dimensions connoted by bareback and “HIV-risks contexts” (Carballo-Diéguez & Bauermeister, 2004) in the 1990s and early 2000s now need to be tempered with changing attitudes to the practice-as-risk, such as from the mid-2010s when the iconography of bareback as connected with “the North American cowboy and his quintessential masculinity” (Gilreath, 2011, p. 169) seemed to linger while some of its harder-edged health connotations started to fall away.

Bareback’s “cool” connotations lingered even as perceptions of risk faded as a “succession to a state of increasing ‘condomlessness’” (Brennan, 2020, p. 128) swept through gay porn to make the condom’s absence the “center” (Mowlabocus et al., 2013, p. 525) once more. Bareback became a key gay porn selling point, in order words. A marker of intimacy that carried a degree of expectation. As Kiss (in Nielsen & Kiss, 2015, p. 132) observed, acts of visualized internal ejaculation (known as “anal creampies”), which would have been deemed extreme—and the exclusive purview of “back-alley” studios like Treasure Island Media (TIM)—a decade earlier, were in 2015 generally considered “vanilla” in mainstream sources like Sean Cody (see Tollini, 2017, for readings across these sources).

Across the literature, performances and subversions of masculinity (i.e., Florêncio, 2020b; Tollini, 2017) and queer theoretical positions, especially around time/temporality (i.e., Brennan, 2022b; Florêncio, 2020a), are some of the more dominant textual concerns, while key audience arguments have addressed risky/safer-sex behavioral effects (Eaton et al., 2011) and accounted for national contexts (Vörös, 2014) in the reception and sensemaking of this porn. Recently, scholars (i.e., Longstaff, 2019) have also expanded understanding of the above themes through account for bareback in context with other gay porn representations of “risky” sex, such as chemsex porn, while ideas like “becoming-pig” (Florêncio, 2020b) and consent quandaries like “stealthing” (Brennan, 2017b) capture an inherent impulse of bareback (porn and practice) to keep a presence at the fringe—holding space alongside antiretroviral therapies, online porn, and sexual drug use, even as condomlessness has spread into the commercial mainstream. Bareback’s symbolism, accounting for its “important function among gay men” and inclusive of its “deviant” dimensions that carry a “more multifaceted view” today, in sexual practice and gay porn, is as “a form of communal bonding and a challenge to gay assimilation and homonormativity” (Nielsen & Morrison, 2019, p. 215).

Gay-for-Pay

“Gay-for-pay” receives separate consideration because it has been a dominant and recurrent condition of gay porn, it has attracted concentrated and ongoing scholarly interest, and it is unique to the gay tradition—all factors that apply to bareback as well. As is suggested by Kiss and Morrison’s (2021) recent definition, gay-for-pay is a “strictly for remuneration” gay porn fantasy with distinctive text (“inauthentic narratives”) and industry (“male performers are heterosexual”) contours that defy clean categorization in either (p. 1509). Compared with bareback, which has a messier relationship between its representation and lived identities/sexual practices, and without ignoring entirely meaning at the point of reception, gay-for-pay is, by definition, representational (even at the level of performance)—making it a bridge to larger debates, such as the relations between porn and fantasy (see Barker, 2014).

Drawing on Jane Caputi’s definition of porn as a “worldview” that genders domination and submission, Gilreath (2011) points out the paradox for gay men, namely, that “in gay pornography we see what heterosexuality is” (pp. 169–170). Though part of “the problem with gay pornography” agenda (see Gilreath, 2011, pp. 169–203), situating gay porn within a straight supremacist system does explain the staying power of a sizable number of its stars—from Jeff Stryker and Ryan Idol (Bozelka, 2013) to Johnny Rapid (Brennan, 2022b), whose across-decades successes are connected with gay-for-pay identities and, especially in early cases, being “‘made’ by directors (Matt Sterling and John Travis for Stryker) or agents (David Forest with Idol[)]” (Escoffier, 2007, p. 179); the past decade’s most popular (in terms of visitor traffic) sources of gay porn, too, that take “ostensive straightness” as a narrative aim—that is, Sean Cody, Gay Hoopla, Corbin Fisher, and Chaos Men, to draw from a 2018 list of the top 10 Internet sources (Brennan, 2018b, p. 914).

Longer, “softcore” histories can be traced via “beefcake to hardcore” (Escoffier, 2009) social and production conditions. These gesture to (among other sources) the need-for-the-hetero-guise of McCarthy-era physique magazines—and are conditions, especially today, not confined to the “stars.” In the Internet porn age, one way this prevalence presents itself is in the corn-fed, all-American, first-name-only,-please college “dudes” of the likes of Sean Cody and Corbin Fisher—read: nonstars, on the down low, only available to gay men through gay porn. Jane Ward’s (2015) Not Gay is a key text in the Internet context, Chapter 5 especially (pp. 153–190), which reads Haze Him in connection with gay fetishization of hypermasculinity and “straight-acting” performances. On the men of Haze Him, Ward remarks, these “most likely gay or ‘gay for pay’ actors, know enough about the exceptionalizing logics that facilitate sex between straight men to be able to engage in believable not-gay sex on screen” (p. 181)—a point illustrative of the longer history of sex between men and the constructedness of these performances, serving as a useful parallel with extant understandings of gay-for-pay porn: namely as “inauthentic narratives” (Kiss & Morrison, 2021), “believably” (Ward, 2015, p. 181) and “credibly” (Escoffier, 2003) gay-sexually performed—the actual sexuality (gay or “gay for pay”) of these men, notwithstanding.

Reticence and coercion through financial incentive have been key narrative drivers in gay-for-pay porn, both in American (Bozelka, 2013; Mercer, 2012b; Stadler, 2013) and non-Western contexts (Brennan, 2019a). On its industry contours, and the “making” of gay-for-pay performers in particular, implications include the promotion of a hegemonic ideal of masculinity, as Burke’s (2016a) 11-month 2012/2013 participant-observation study at From Behind Films revealed. Such studies support a view of gay-for-pay performers as polished professionals, stars of whom are consciously developed and marketed—starting with Stryker in the mid-1980s, who emerged as “a new type of gay porn superstar” (Escoffier, 2007, p. 178). Escoffier’s (2003) essay is a key text in this regard, using scripting theory to support the place of gay-for-pay personas within the industry, and more recent textual studies support the continued professionalization of gay-for-pay as a profitable marketing strategy (i.e., Burke, 2016b, with a content analysis of “str8” performers).

Kiss et al. (2019) explored the “believability and erotic value” of the gay-for-pay male in gay porn from a gay audience perspective, showing that narrative and performer strategies such as reluctance to engage in certain acts (i.e., bottoming) were read by viewers as markers of believability. Interestingly, the authors also observed few statistically significant associations for internalized homonegativity. Though scholars have read certain sources of gay-for-pay porn in line with a homophobic framework (i.e., Henze, 2013, with Broke Straight Boys) and stars such as Stryker have sometimes spoken publicly in favor of a more fluid understanding of sexuality, the issue of reception and potential effects of this pornography on gay men is an area in need of further research, and generally, scholars beyond the antiporn framework have favored a view of gay porn, including scenes that might appear to carry homophobic undertones, as having a “complex range of discourses at play” (Mercer, 2004, p. 166, regarding prison narratives).

Complexity has generally been served by the textual tradition, traced especially to Dyer, and carried through in the gay-for-pay context via two essays in a 2013 JC issue. Kevin John Bozelka (2013) examined the “gaze” in classic Stryker and Idol films, while John Paul Stadler (2013) adopted a more contemporary, pressing perspective, considering how digital production and dissemination of gay-for-pay reorients spectatorship toward amateurism and meta-narratives. Mercer’s (2012b) perspective on gay-for-pay in the Internet era is also valuable, his reading of Bait Bus and the “predatory gay male” (pp. 545–549) that connects with more recent evaluations of the genre, such as Kiss and Morrison (2021): both readings in the textual tradition.

Text

In a somewhat alarmist 1997 essay in Cinema Journal, Champagne (1997) set out “polemically the absurdity and perhaps even perniciousness of submitting gay porno films in particular to close textual analysis,” believing the method to carry “dangers” to the film studies discipline should its scholars treat these texts as “just another film genre to be covered” (p. 76). Writing 20 years later, Mercer (2017b) argued that a proliferation of close textual readings of gay porn did not come to pass, something that in fact constituted “a blind spot for the field” (p. 18, noting exceptions including Hoang, 2004; Pronger, 1990) that he sought to redress through the “sustained fashion” (2017b, p. 18) of his monograph.

Michael C. Bolton (2004) critiques Champagne, including his preference for a “culturally-minded analysis of gay porn,” with sites like gay porn theaters or arcades seen as more meaningful points for interpretation than the confines of texts themselves, something Bolton connects with extant conceptions of porn more broadly as a “body genre” (Williams, 1991, p. 3). Certainly, queer theory would come to offer much to close reading—Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s paranoid and reparative reading lenses, for example (published in the same year as Champagne’s essay), are now widely adopted in gay porn readings (i.e., essays in Waugh & Arroyo, 2019).

In my view, Champagne’s critique blinded itself to the active nature of reading texts (especially media texts beyond film, i.e., television; Fiske & Hartley, 1978) and the ability—of scholars and audiences alike—to engage in sensitive, context- and culturally minded reading. Also, to be able to engage with ideological problematics without necessarily being harmed by these; in fact, to draw them out for contemplation and understanding, positions and competencies at odds with an assessment of close reading as tending toward “value neutral and free from ideological underpinning” analyses and that are also suggestive of Champagne’s wider project of anti–gay porn scholarship (p. 76).

By the second decade of the 21st century, the qualitative textual tradition in gay porn became more significant across the literature, helped in large part by Mercer’s monograph. But the tradition had a wider-reaching and earlier impact than Mercer suggested. Notably, via his own investigations of gay porn iconography that came prior to 2017, but also through textual readings of decidedly problematic aspects of gay porn pointed to in the “Dominant Conditions” section (in the abandon of the condom and eroticization of ostensive straightness across bareback and gay-for-pay conditions), and further through founding voices such as Dyer—through which the film tradition origins of gay porn studies is often traced.

Bulge: Iconography (& Prototypes)

Following Dyer’s 1993 views around the “stereotype,” Mercer (2003) offered the field “homosexual prototypes” to understand repetition and the construction of the generic, and to identify and define “the characteristics of the iconography and types deployed in contemporary American gay video pornography” (p. 280). Importantly, Mercer made clear that his use of the term placed emphasis on “textual qualities rather than the responses to them” (p. 280) and that performers are not prototypes; rather, prototypes are “a conjunction of specific presentational characteristics, iconography and physical attributes that emerges within the location of a specific text” (p. 283). While audience (responses) and industry (performers) dimensions exist, Mercer’s primarily textual concerns of presentational characteristics and locations in gay porn is an important distinction, one that connects with broader definitions of porn (as fantasy, as text) and with it continues the departure from harms-based readings (while not foreclosing considerations of “harmful” or problematic texts regarding race or online discourse, for instance).

Prototypes are inclusive of positionalities, which, in gay porn, have been to the general exclusion of versatility—an aspect Young (2017) demonstrates via a reading of Gag the Fag, which, in Mercer’s (2017a) assessment, “reminds readers of the staged and performed nature of the sexual acts represented in gay porn” (p. 129). A preference for top/bottom textual representations demonstrates the fantasy contours of the form—not always aligned with the lived reality of gay men. I (Brennan, 2018b) supported this via a reading of 6,900 gay porn performer profiles in line with disclosed penis size and sexual position, where, by combining qualitative and quantitative textual approaches, a sample-wide correlation in the most popular online gay porn sites between smaller penis sizes (5–6.5 inches) and receptive sexual acts (bottoming), and larger (8.5–13 inches) with penetrative acts (topping), showed representations of versatility to be at odds with survey research of gay men’s sexual practices and identifications, which has favored versatility.

A top or bottom gay porn preference helps explain the popularity of the “power bottom” prototype, “an autonomous sexual adventurer” who “orchestrates sexual situations that will result in him getting what he wants, which is usually a well-endowed, prototypical top who will satisfy his need for anal sex” (Mercer, 2012c, p. 220). Other popular gay porn prototypes include the eroticized older man or “daddy” (Mercer, 2012a) and the seemingly submissive and usually slender (and White) youth or “twink” (Tortorici, 2008, p. 205), with combinations also common, especially in line with performative masculinity, as well as transitions over the course of a career, as I (Brennan, 2016a) show via a study of lollipop/muscle/power bottom twink Jake Lyons and the performer’s transition to cum dumpster/piss pig. The “jock” persona is also frequently conjured through use of costumes connoting competitive (often violent, i.e., American football) sport and locker room eroticism (Pronger, 1990, pp. 125–176).

Mercer (2003) posits two questions in relation to gay porn prototypes: first, what forms these take and, second, why they exist and their function (p. 287). His schema and these two questions encompass both fixtures of gay porn culture and more ideological (including possibly exploitative) implications, respectively. Exemplars of “strident masculinity” such as soldiers, sailors, and construction workers are pointed to as populating gay porn texts (p. 287), as gay porn embraces what Jamie Gough (1989) describes as “masculinity as a sexual fetish” (p. 121; examples of alternative and nonnormative body types in the literature is a generally underexamined area, though exceptions do exist, i.e., Highberg, 2011, on fat and Thorneycroft, 2021, on crip representation). Such fetishization was made famous by the illustrations of Tom and Finland, among others, who rose to prominence in the pages of publications like Physique Pictorial. Shaun Cole (2014)—using the example Colt Studio founder Jim French’s films, 1967–1981—connects the way “characters” are dressed in gay porn with such icons of masculinity and gay culture (such as the leatherman, motorcycle cop, and “gay clone,” i.e., Al Parker).

Settings/spaces are another key dimension of gay porn iconography, with scene set pieces as rich in symbolism as character costume. It is in this arena that Mercer (2004) continued his textual analysis with a consideration of “the myth” of the prison in American gay porn via 110 commercially available videos produced between 1987 and 2002, confirming these as “idealized spaces” for acts of “voyeurism, narcissistic display and active/passive role-play” (p. 152). Dyer (1994) had read the prison setting a decade earlier in relation to a performance by Stryker in John Travis’s 1986 Powertool, where he describes the pleasure of this feature “for many” as “the willing suspension of disbelief, the happy entering into the fantasy that Powertool is all happening in a prison cell” (p. 50).

Prison settings have been popular in gay porn and scholarship because—like barracks, boarding schools, and naval vessels—they are all-male spaces that create a degree of same-sex eroticism all their own, as captured by Escoffier’s (2003) concept of “situational homosexuality” (p. 531). More queer spatial considerations have also been explored, such as the clubs, porn stores, and hotel rooms of TIM videos that have been conceived as “analogies to the men in the porn” (Morris & Paasonen, 2014, p. 227), together with the on-the-road urban spaces of gonzo-reality sites like Bait Bus and frat-house aesthetics of Fraternity X/Frat X (Brennan, 2016b). Mercer’s (2004) use of myth was in a more literal, forms sense—gay mythologies drawn from diverse textual references—though he does cite Roland Barthes, and Mercer’s work on prototypes helps inform work on place and constructions of national identity in gay porn texts.

Thrust: Race (& Place)

Mercer (2017b) wrote,

I want to argue that whiteness is not just presented as a fact, as Dyer [1997, p. 2] describes it as ‘non-raced’ and as an ideal, but is demonstrably positioned as the default or ‘exnominated’ reading position from which masculinity is to be understood in gay porn. (p. 150)

Mercer’s take, including the presentation of an “American version of whiteness,” can be usefully applied to a range of studies, especially those grappling with national myths (i.e., McKee, 1999, on Australian; Brennan, 2019a, on Czech). Clare N. Westcott’s (2004) reading of Australian, Canadian, and South American national identity in gay porn as part of Morrison’s first special embodied a certain transnational spirit that has increased in the current century through readings of men and locales outside the Anglo-European sphere. This has included constructions of Arab (Cervulle & Rees-Roberts, 2009, via French gay porn), Indian (Baas, 2021, admittedly, using ethnographic methods and a focus on the popularity of the bodybuilder prototype), and Latino men (Subero, 2010). At an individual level, star studies have also proved increasingly popular, most notably the analyses of “transnational, ethno-flexible” (Tziallas, 2015b) François Sagat, who, in the current decade, Gabriel Ojeda-Sagué (2021) read in line with the “both racial and professional crossover potential” of his “whiteness” (p. 107).

The classic text here, however, is Richard Fung’s (1991) essay on the eroticized Asian in gay porn, while historically, the aspect in greatest need of dedicated scholarship has been consideration of the Black man, which Mercer (2017b) described as “perhaps one of the most potent of the sexual prototypes of gay porn” (p. 150). Although inroads had been made toward consideration of the Black prototype in gay porn prior to the 2020s, generally this was part of broader (i.e., McBride, 2005, pp. 88–132) and aligned (i.e., Dean, 2009, pp. 159–160) gay projects. This gap in scholarship was redressed in 2021 through Desmond Francis Goss’s monograph, which unpacked the stereotypes of Black men on which gay porn relies, including as “missing links” through excessive focus on their dark phalluses and essentialist representations of sexual aspects of racial identity—aspects, Goss noted, that are more prevalent in commercial gay porn compared with user-submitted content. Also recently, the representation of racial abuse by White “police officers” on Black male bodies has been explored (i.e., Brennan, 2019c; Smith et al., 2022).

Industry

It is unsurprising that celebrity and stardom have attracted attention in the literature—stars being an object of analysis Dyer is particularly well known for. The status of the gay porn “star” formed a key part of understanding the economics and constructions of gay porn’s performers. I use “performer” rather than “actor” as a deliberate separation of these men from the work of men in other entertainment media, something that captures the multimodal nature of gay porn appearances and the implications of such appearances, which have been a divisive avenue of debate in the literature. Mercer (2017b) describes Escoffier’s (2009) Bigger Than Life as “belonging to the lineage of Waugh’s historical work” and as “ostensibly written for a popular readership” (Mercer, 2017b, p. 13); Escoffier’s critical approaches to gay porn outside of the academy that captures something of his significance to industry understandings, work conditions particularly.

Bulge: Work Conditions (& Stakeholder Insights)

Kendall and Funk (2004) argue that gay porn, like heteroporn, “is degradation, violence, and harm,” chiefly because it “uses real people, many vulnerable and easily exploited” (p. 93). Powerfully, the authors follow this statement with words by 1980s gay porn star Joey Stefano, who died of a drug overdose in 1994, aged 26:

No job.

No money.

No self-esteem.

No confidence.

All I have is my looks and body.

And that’s not working anymore.

I feel washed up.

Drug problem.

Hate life.

HIV-positive! (Kendall & Funk, 2004, p. 93)

Stefano serves as poster boy in Kendall and Funk for the dangers of gay porn to its “many vulnerable and easily exploited” performers, inclusive of the star’s rejection by the industry after testing positive for HIV—a disease whose career and health impacts on additional performers such as Casey Donovan and Parker were charted in late-2000s biographies by Roger Edmonson. Gilda Padva (2019) applies the Frankfurt School’s 1940s notion of a “culture industry” as mass deception to porn and links in the criticisms of Kendall and Funk (among others) to place the gay variant within a harms rubric—that is, via its “phallic cult” status (p. 1309) and (supposedly) top or bottom “without consent” power nonchoice contouring (p. 1310).

Though Padva was careful to include counterpositions, the “real people” point—buoyed by a steady output of scholarly collections delving into the changing complexities of male sex work—has, arguably, kept considerations of potential harms at the fore of industry-based gay porn studies. Certainly, when compared with other fields of a similar age and lineage (i.e., fan studies and “aca–fans”), the importance of “critical distance” between scholars and industry seems more pronounced for social, historical, and political reasons. This is not to discount the contributions of industry stakeholders to the literature, however, which have been significant.

Pornographers have found a voice through scholarship, particularly on high-stakes subjects like bareback (Lucas, 2006). In this regard, TIM’s Paul Morris, arguably gay porn’s most controversial figure, has also been the most influentially vocal of “academic–pornographers”: as a single author in an academic journal’s “forum” (Morris, 2016) and in “dialogue” (see Morris & Paasonen, 2014) and collaboration (Morris & Paasonen, 2019) with Susanna Paasonen, a key voice in porn studies more broadly. Such a presence, however, should not foreclose scrutiny, as criticism of Lucas has shown (Brennan, 2020).

Industry “insider” perspectives (Scuglia, 2004, 2015) have also appeared in a limited way in the literature, while the recollections of canonical filmmakers like Poole and writings of performers like Aaron Lawrence—especially the more radical voices from the AIDS era, of which Scott O’Hara is the most notable—have been mined for scholarly insight (i.e., Race, 2010, reading O’Hara in the context of bareback, the term’s genesis that has been attributed to this performer). Such contributions have made self-life-writing a valuable resource for understanding social change and life circumstances of gay porn’s producers and performers (see Cohler, 2004, who reads the works of Poole, O’Hara, and Lawrence).

Self-life-writings, those of Lawrence particularly, have helped demonstrate “the retrogressive dynamic,” a 1930s concept from Paul Cressey that Escoffier (2007) applied to gay porn and has been a major influence on the literature. Escoffier charts the ways in which performers attempt to confront the retrogressive dynamic by limiting the number of filmic performances, diversifying sexual repertoire or shifting to “economically complementary forms of sex work,” either within or outside gay porn (2007, p. 173). The concept offers insight into the economic realities performers face—gay economic, historic, and politic foci of which have been dominant threads throughout Escoffier’s scholarship—along with changing conditions, captured by gay porn turns of men from reality television and social media (Arroyo, 2017). Escoffier’s concept is suggestive of the pressures on performers, particularly as these relate to the lived experience of sex work, something that has resulted (in the past decade especially) in some growth of ethnographic studies—inclusive of gay porn individuals (Johnson, 2013) and studios, with both performers (Burke, 2016b) and producers/managers (Law, 2021) being considered. Each of these studies can be seen to seek to understand, through various lenses (from love to stigma, in the case of Johnson and Law), the consequences of intimate labor.

Gay-for-pay positions have also been explored. Building on ideas from his 2017 monograph, Nicolas de Villiers (2019) explores how the behind-the-scenes motel interviews with gay porn workers in two documentaries create “a hybrid mode of confession porn or gay-for-pay confessional” and advocate a shift in scrutiny, from those who have gay-for-pay sex to the “ethics and motives of the filmmakers and the ‘knowingness’ and fascination of their mostly gay male audience,” highlighting the persistent ethical quandaries surrounding the “real men” who contribute to the creation of gay porn and its fantasies (p. 178). Complexities borne of real-people pressures have invited reflection across text and audience as well. Returning to Stefano, Jeffreys (2002) reads pain in one of his performances, recognition of pain that, she suggests, would be rejected by gay men as it is incongruent with gay culture’s commitment to gay-porn-as-liberation readings.

Thrusts: Medium, Spaces, Archives

Whitney Strub (2019) argues in a similar vein to Jeffreys, tracing the transgressive sex acts that were “sanitized” from the 1970s porn oeuvre (gay porn films included) during the U.S. sex wars. He argues that porn edited its own history, especially when access and academic attention increased following VHS. Mercer (2017b) is among those to recognize medium’s significance to the literature, dividing gay porn scholarship into two “phases”: “pre-web, pre-digital” and “post-web” (pp. 11–18). The first phase is inclusive of film and its spaces—gay porn theaters, for instance, have been a vibrant avenue to account for gay-culture connections, especially via ethnographic approaches (i.e., Capino, 2005)—and VHS and its store/home spaces.

The “VHS revolution” was also a porn revolution, marking a radical shift in both studio and amateur porn. Concerning the latter, the concept of the “home movie” took on a whole new meaning and represented a decisive shift in what has been described as the “democratizing of porn” (Tziallas in Nielsen & Kiss, 2015, p. 125) and the experience of porn (i.e., in domestic spaces; Bolton, 2004). But this also came with certain anxieties that new media often face—as captured by the “video nasty” moral panic, whereby porn entering households was seen to gnaw at the fabric of the once-wholesome home.

It was a revolution that persists, converging in the digital or “post-web” age, and disrupting certain industry conditions. Such disruption has been observed both through modes of gay porn production and distribution (i.e., with the rise of piracy and tube sites; Tsika, 2017) and through the experience and pressures on performers, whose agency, arguably, has increased via self-presentation opportunities—via social media and with the rise of new platforms for self-production, such as OnlyFans (Ryan, 2019, pp. 119–136). Such shifts have allowed gay porn performers to speak directly with their audiences in a new world of “networked intimacy” (Wang, 2021), all conditions of gay porn’s medium.

Arrival at the commercial “DIY gay porn” that circulates on tube sites and via social platforms has been an emerging post-web phenomenon that, most recently, has included crossovers with social media influencers and microcelebrities, and contexts outside of the Anglo-sphere (i.e., in China; Song, 2021). These industry conditions have come with due acknowledgment of intersections with text and audience positions in the literature. Textual positions that are inclusive of “aesthetics” of amateur and “gonzo” forms of commercial gay porn and narrative inclusion of technology, such as “hook-up apps” on Sketchy Sex (Brennan, 2016b) or earlier-period throwbacks through a mobilization of VHS aesthetics (Brennan, 2022a).

In the audience stakes, while the affordances of online gay porn consumption—and “flow to float” of tube sites (Arroyo, 2016)—have led some scholars (i.e., Poole & Milligan, 2018) to the conclusion that there is greater diversity and new opportunities for personal connection with expressions and identities presented in gay porn, others have observed anxieties and a “paranoid pleasure” that may arise in a viewer as he peeps through “the keyholes of technology” as part of his ever-converging, and often participatory, gay porn consumptive practices (Vanderwees, 2019, p. 23); the commercial/amateur aspects of the content—especially as circulated “decontextualized” across tubes sites—have meant that the commercial/amateur provenance of the gay sex recordings may not always be clear (Brennan, 2018a).

I count among attention-to-medium groundswell development of and account for the “archival value” (Barriault, 2009) of gay porn, inclusive of personal collections, both amateur and studio. Such archives that are inclusive of, returning to Strub (2019), revisiting received wisdoms via the critical reading and reevaluation of these archives and some of the “historical fantasies” (Hilderbrand, 2016) that characterized 1970s-era gay porn. To this end, memory studies has offered up productive inroads for the subfield to aid in the understanding and rethinking of the past: to, especially, demystify the so-called “Golden Age” of gay porn (Herron, 2021).

Audience

In the past decade, accounting for user perspectives on gay porn has been a powerful means of demonstrating complexity at the point of reception and dissuading a sole conception of the genre using a gay affirmative or harms-based dichotomy. Corneau et al. (2017) found this in their survey research, concluding that such dichotomies “may not do justice to users’ experiences, since various levels of agreement are present in users’ perspectives when confronted with contrasting and often contradictory arguments” about gay porn (p. 223). Arguably, the contribution of social scientists—Morrison chief among these—who, empirically, have explored potential “effects” of gay porn for its (gay male) viewers has been most influential in moving the subfield along, both away from its dichotomist “media effects” roots and the textual, film studies tradition.

Bulge: Effects

The success of scholars in shaking gay porn’s harms-based connotations can be seen as anchored in a key received wisdom about these texts. Namely, that gay porn “participates in the cultural construction of desire” (Dyer, 1994, p. 49) and “has always had a more exalted (and accepted) position in gay culture than in straight” (Thomas, 2000, pp. 61–62). Contrary perspectives, such as John Stoltenberg’s (1990) argument that gay porn communicates to its spectators a sexual disconnecting that divorcees the sexual spectacle from concepts such as “communion” (p. 253), were generally positions of diminishing returns across the literature, and in fact, as with Stoltenberg, could be argued to also anchor gay porn to gay lived identity (even if it is a discounted one). Jacques Rothmann (2013) uses the U.S. and South African contexts to engage in “theoretical contemplation” with the conventional wisdom on gay porn’s importance to gay men, especially the ways in which “gay men may possibly ‘do’ and ‘use’ their sexual orientation” (p. 22).

Studies seeking empirical proof for such wisdom among consumers were, however, late to emerge. As Morrison et al. observed in 2007: “Although perceived to be a ubiquitous and profitable element of gay culture, to date, only one published study [Duggan & McCreary, 2004] has investigated the correlates of gay men’s exposure to pornography” (p. 33). Jochen Peter and Patti M. Valkenburg’s (2016) 20-year survey of empirical studies exploring the prevalence, predictors, and implications of young people’s use of porn offers further support for this view, finding that in the mid-2010s, research “suffered” from a heteronormativity bias, the authors only citing one exception within their youth-focused survey—Renata Arrington-Sanders et al. (2015), who examined the role of gay porn in the sexual development of Black same-sex-attracted male youth. The result of a scholarly corpus that was, until fairly recently, almost wholly focused on heteroporn was that “knowledge about the functions, meanings, and implications of pornography use” among gay men was “restricted” (Peter & Valkenburg, 2016, p. 527, speaking in this instance about gay and other nonheteronormative youth specifically).

Morrison’s (2004b) focus group exploratory study in his special was an important first step in addressing neglect of the gay perspective among social scientists, a neglect that had created a situation whereby “little is known about how gay men perceive this medium” (p. 167). Morrison found that discussants tended to view gay porn from a “utilitarian perspective,” namely as a masturbatory aid with little significance “vis-à-vis gay men’s attitudes and behaviours” (p. 167). Morrison has continued to be a key voice in the empirical search for correlates between gay men’s exposure to gay porn and, I believe, has been foundational to the diversification of the subfield. A Morrison et al. (2007) Internet-based survey, for example, found little support for anecdotal harms-based perspectives on gay porn (i.e., Kendall & Funk, 2004).

Starting in the mid-2010s (around the time of Morrison’s second special), there was a notable increase in scholars (especially social scientists using an online survey method) exploring, via testable methods, the effects of gay porn. In particular, scholars explored effects pertaining to body image/ideals (i.e., Gleason & Sprankle, 2019), bareback/sexual risk behavior (i.e., Galos et al., 2015), and, an emerging area of concern, internalized homonegativity (Kiss et al., 2019). Such studies are vital to many of the extant arguments against harms-based perspectives (Gleason & Sprankle, 2019, for example, who were left to conclude that sexual minority men in their study did not report greater social physique anxiety, greater drive for muscularity, or reduced genital body image through their exposure to gay porn).

Recent review articles (i.e., Paslakis et al., 2022) continue to note a “scarcity of studies” (p. 743) exploring porn effects among nonheterosexual samples, however, confirming that there remains work to be done in this space, especially outside of the Anglo-European sphere. Though race has been a popular “problematic” object of analysis in textual research, the audience aspect has been lacking. As Corneau et al. (2021) note, very few studies have focused on the role porn plays in influencing and modeling sexual desire based on race and ethnicity, with these authors’ study pointing to some concrete grounds for the “race problem” in gay porn and coming up with user profiles (from a sample of 974) for racialized desire among audiences.

Qualitative studies also have much to offer here, and Joseph N. Goh’s (2017) interviews with 30 Malaysian men is an example of welcome expansion of understandings on gay porn audiences. Goh (2017) found support for the view that gay porn can function as “a means to perform and make sense of sexuality [and] a self-validated avenue of pleasure,” as well as attending to the struggles born of a national context where sexuality remains taboo and porn is restricted by law (p. 447).

Thrust: Discourse

William L. Leap (2011), via online audience discourse on the 2009 Lucas film Men of Israel, argued for complexity at the point of reception, pointing to his study’s analyzed discourse as evidence that the film’s audience was engaging in “a broader framework” than Lucas had necessarily intended, with viewers “using transnational rather than film-specific criteria to guide their ‘reading’ of the Israeli-centered narrative” (p. 932). Since then, language and specifically Internet-based discourse analyses have been a key thrust in understanding the sense-making practices of audiences.

I have been a key figure in promoting online discourse as a key site of knowledge generation that provides insight into the diverse perspectives of gay porn viewers, attending especially to ideological implications of certain “extreme” pornographies. My first analysis came around the mid-2010s spike in scholarly interest and combined star study of Lyons with textual analysis of online discourse to make sense of a culture of “disposal and disgust” that surrounded Lyons’s career-ending transition to bareback porn (Brennan, 2016a, p. 20). A strength of my contribution has been the advancement of understandings across time. Recently, for example, I reevaluated my 2016 analysis through concepts of time and aging and a more recent performer’s (Rapid) bareback transition that was read quite differently by audiences (Brennan, 2022b).

Sustained attention to audience discourse—notably in journal articles spanning a number of years rather than via a single monograph—has aided in understanding the complex and shifting sense-making positions of audiences and helped me demonstrate a growth in “extreme” gay porn, notably, incremental advancement that avoids reification at the same time as I grapple—often through combined text- and audience-based methods—with the ethical quandaries in fantasy areas that include “abuse” in institutional settings (Brennan, 2017a), sex addiction (Brennan, 2016b), nonconsensual condom removal (Brennan, 2017b, pp. 327–329), sex tourism in Eastern Europe (Brennan, 2019a), and intergenerational familial relationships in the gay youthful-adult category (Brennan, 2022a).

Gay Porn Now (& Beyond!)

Thrusts and bulges organize gay porn’s scholarship into eminent and emerging concerns in this qualitative project, with scope to be updated. What is a thrust now may bulge in successive updates, and colleagues—serial and one-off “dabblers” and career scholars akin—it is hoped, will be served by the thematic organizations within: to stake their own position on and contribution to the advancement of gay porn scholarship. Across each of the three categories are numerous topics not addressed here in detail but that may come to feature more prominently in the literature in future. These include political dimensions of parodies (Brennan, 2019b) in text, impending impacts and shakeups of “platform death” (Floegel, 2022) in industry, and how other fields and disciplines (i.e., fandom studies; McKee, 2018) may continue to challenge media effects dichotomies in audience, to name just a few potential growth areas. Following Mercer (2017a), this survey sought to capture something of gay porn now!, with due acknowledgment to history. The study of gay porn overcame erasure and underrepresentation to thrive today. To appropriate Laura Kipnis (1996, p. 167), through the present survey’s structure profoundly and paradoxically social and acutely historical dimensions of gay porn’s future! seems not only assured, but may be accounted for as well.

Further Reading

  • Escoffier, J. (2007). Scripting the sex: Fantasy, narrative, and sexual scripts in pornographic films. In M. S. Kimmel (Ed.), The sexual self: The construction of sexual scripts (pp. 61–79). Vanderbilt University Press.
  • Mercer, J. (2006). Seeing is believing: Constructions of stardom and the gay porn star in U.S. gay video pornography. In S. Holmes & S. Redmond (Eds.), Framing celebrity (pp. 145–160). Routledge.
  • Rzepczynski, B. (2015). Pornography, gay male. In A. Bolin & P. Whelehan (Eds.), The international encyclopedia of human sexuality. Wiley-Blackwell.

References