Reviewing Jeffrey Escoffier’s gay porn history Bigger Than Life recently, I also talked about the first time I saw Jochen Hick’s documentary double feature on the business, Sex/Life in L.A (1998) and Cycles of Porn: Sex/Life in L.A. Part 2 (2005). It was an exhausting, unnerving, but also secretly exciting experience. I watched it as a special screening at my local film festival in 2005. Having convinced myself that the only people who would want to see this feature were gay, I felt like the straightest guy in the room. As I watched it, I kept making up different reasons – more like excuses – for what I was so, shall we say, fascinated with what I saw. I had always been interested in movies that pushed the envelope, I said, and it was kinda true. I was interested in sexual subcultures, I rationalized, defensively. The reality, however, was that I had never before confronted my interest in homosexuality so directly. It wasn’t about the occasional, painstakingly ignored gay crushes anymore: This movie placed homosexual desire at center stage. I felt like I could be unmasked anytime. It wasn’t just that I suspected that the people there would immediately understand that I wasn’t as straight as I had wanted to believe: I wasn’t ready to ask myself what my fascination with this subject was really about.
I don’t think the 20 year-old pre-gay me would have thought as hard about these questions if the two-part Sex/Life opus had been more sexually explicit. No matter how enticing it was in some ways to finally tap into a universe that had been previously closed to me for self-denying and moral reasons, I assume that I would have felt somewhat intimidated and alienated by huge amounts of gay sex. You have to be fairly inexperienced with gay porn to consider these documentaries metaporn, but I sort of did; its subject matter was direct enough to entail the intriguing qualities of porn, and yet it handled within a framework serious enough so as to let me off relatively guilt-free.
I’m talking about two forms of guilt. One is the relatively straightforward “does this make me gay?” guilt. That question suddenly gets a lot more personal when it has to deal with the core of sexual desire. The other, though, is even more complicated. In a sense, my views on porn correlate pretty well with what Kate Harding said in Salon earlier this year: “I do not want to take your porn away. I am against […] exploitation and objectification […] , but I am also against censorship and Puritanical bullshit, and porn tangles all of those issues up in such a way as to make me feel uncharacteristically dispassionate about the whole mess. My official position on porn: Whatever.” I would like to see a change in porn from within – away from the passive objectification of either gender and towards porn that can be both intelligent and arousing – rather than another predictable battle in the porn wars of yesteryear. For privacy and freedom of speech reasons, what people gets people off should be none of my business, so long as it’s produced in a way that ensures mutual consent and acceptable working conditions.
Escoffier’s book was very good at analyzing porn as a cultural phenomenon, and at chronicling the ebbs and flows of the business, but Hick’s documentaries are a valuable addition to the story of the unerotic and mechanical aspects of porn, and the variety of forms it takes nowadays. Like Escoffier, Hick’s fundamental attitude toward porn is non-judgmental, which, in such a charged debate pretty much makes him porn positive. One of his interview subjects, both in 1997 and 2005, is Cole Tucker, the world famous porn star. If you accept that porn can be a force for good, it’s fascinating and encouraging to hear him make the case for why gay porn has become more inclusive and less ageist over the past several years. Tucker didn’t go into porn until he was in his forties, and he hopes he has helped usher in an understanding that erotic appeal has no fixed age limit. “I hope I had some part in bringing men over 40 back into the sexual venue”. He could well be right.
A less porn-positive directer probably wouldn’t have gain the trust of the families of his interviewees, either. Central to his exploration of porn as a job is the realization that behind these ordinary people with unusual jobs stand people who know and love them for something else entirely. I have no idea how Hick got the porn actor Kevin Kramer’s mother to appear in the movie, but the scenes with the two of them are a nice touch, and original, too. We need stories about people who have been expelled from their families for being gay, or for pursuing their dreams, but they are not exactly hard to find. It’s different with family members who choose support such a controversial career move. Kevin is obviously proud of what he has accomplished, and equally proud that his mother has accepted it. They have a flirty, humorous tone between them that offers a glimpse into the person behind the poster.
I remember from the Q&A session at the film festival that Jochen Hick said that he wanted to make a milder cut of the two features, in order to make them suitable for educational purposes. I don’t if he ever did, or if he succeed, and when I heard it, I was somewhat skeptical of the idea. But there are things to learn from these movies. Non-judgmental as they are, though, our knowledge is derived from the interview subjects, not from some heavy-handed, explicit argument from the director. It turns out that most of the people involved in the movie have a clear understanding of porn as job, and a temporary one at that. For instance, asked whether he enjoys doing porn, actor Matt Bradshaw repli s: “Enjoying movies? No. It’s called money. There’s nothing erotic about it.” And the twinky Johnny Law, who starts out as almost idealistic (he wants to defy the rules and be a successful recording artist in addition to doing porn), resigns to the hard reality after having spent nine months as a performer on a live cam website: It’s mentally exhausting to be supposed to pleasure everyone else if you’re not totally completely comfortable with your life. He seems to have reached the end of what Damian Ford, another actor, calls the short cycle of porn (hence the title, I assume). To succeed and be comfortable in the porn business you have to come to terms with the fact that it’s a special job, that it doesn’t pay nearly as well, and that you won’t do it forever.
But you also have to really want to do it. Actor Will West contrasts Bradshaw’s resigned attitude, talking about how, for him, porn is “kind of an art, but [it’s] aso a fantasy”. He could be playing with us, staying in character. After all, he said just it after he had delivered a genre-specific sample of pre-ejaculatory rambling in bareback movies. But it’s interesting no matter what, for how he tears down the wall between himself the audience. When porn works for actor and audience alike, the reward is quite similar, or at least he wants us to think so. But lest you should forget that porn is actually a rather staged and unerotic affair, with join him in a later scene, in which he has to go back and record a cumshot that escaped him the day before. He may like the though of us watching him, but we are suddenly reminded of how fragile the illusion of eroticism in porn. If you don’t accept physical release as the only worthy goal of a porn scene, the whole things starts to look a little ridiculous, if not creepy.
West is one of several people Hick spoke to who represents the sub-market of bareback porn, meaning no-condom movies. Escoffier touched upon this issue, and explained the proliferating bareback scene as, largely, a product of the porn industry’s late reaction to the spread of AIDS. When condoms finally became the norm in the industry, makers of bareback porn defined their trade as a rebellion against political correctness. Hick talks to bareback producer Bill White, who see the marginalization of barebackers as part of a struggle for market share. In his view, people who work under the so-called Condom Rule are often hypocrites, who fear for their careers if they oppose it, but who tell him that they secret enjoy bareback videos. Finally, he wraps his argument in a call for liberation: Is it wrong to make bareback videos if you only use HIV-positive actors? On its face, it seems like a convincing argument, but it demands that you accept that it’s always up to the market alone to decide whether something should be encouraged or not. I know I’m showing the limits of my liberalism here, but I have to reject that reasoning. I’m not advocating censorship, but I don’t have to agree with the sentiment. The challenge is if the increasing demand for bareback videos make rolling back the focus on safe sex the most profitable option, even for the established production companies.
These are the kinds of questions Sex/Life in L.A will make you think about. I’m sure it sound sleazy when I say this, but the best thing about it may be that it will make you more porn-conscious. Whether that means you’ll be more conscious of what you’re watching, or simply make you more away of how the ethics and aesthetics of porn work in our society today, that should be considered a great accomplishment.