“It’s kind of an art, but it’s also a fantasy”: Notes on ‘Sex/Life in L.A.’

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.

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12 Responses to “It’s kind of an art, but it’s also a fantasy”: Notes on ‘Sex/Life in L.A.’

  1. jessiecarty says:

    I am fascinated by the fact that there is so much fascination with porn. I wonder why it is that it seems so few women are interested in porn, or will admit they are?

    • queerlefty says:

      My first though is that there doesn’t seem to be much porn around specifically tailored to women. This is an extension of the objectification I talked about above. I don’t have deep knowledge of straight porn, but I’ve got the impression that they are almost always told from a man’s perspective, and that the women are mostly reduced to passively lusting for the man, or being one-dimensional objects of his desire. It’s kind of insulting, really.

      I actually wrote a blog post a couple of years ago, but I eventually took it down. The subject was why so many of the males in straight are decidedly unattractive. It could of course be that the producers don’t have the luxury of being picky in searching for people with the right *qualities*, who also happen to be willing to do it. My second theory, though, was that since straight porn is adjusted to the demands of a predominantly male audiences, they may feel intimidated by or inferior to male actors much more attractive than themselves. It would simply be a distraction from the women, if you understand what I mean. Maybe women agree with me that straight porn is not the place to look for hot men? :)

      I wouldn’t rule out cultural factors, either. Our culture seems to tell guys that porn is pretty much a rite of passage, but there doesn’t seem to be an equivalent for girls. My inner feminist is also tempted to speculate that the social sanctions against girls who are outspoken about sex are far more severe than those against guys.

      One thing that confuses me about straight porn, though, is its apparent hangup on lesbian sex. I get that people who are inclined to want to have sex with women find the concept of two women having sex intriguing, but where does that leave straight women? A part of me is skeptical that porn aimed at straight women would incorporate male-male sex as something close to a genre requirement?

      I don’t know if that qualifies as an answer to your question, but it’s the best I can do.

      • jessiecarty says:

        This is a fantastic discussion already!

        I have to admit, first of all, that I’ve never really seen much in the way of porn. I’ve watched some cable shows that push the envelope but probably not much of what would be called porn. I’ve seen all the comedy cliches about it – the music, the pizza delivery boy etc…

        I’ve always wondered why there was so much porn and/or a concentration on it by guys. It isn’t like their libido needs to be tripped usually, so why do they need that extra?

        Perhaps there isn’t as much call for porn for women because women tend to be much more touch oriented versus visually oriented? I don’t know if that is true but I just wonder. I actually read a pretty good memoir by Mary Karr called “Cherry” where she goes into sexual discovery from the viewpoint of a girl which you don’t read or hear about as much. I think what you say about objectification is so true regarding women and their sexuality, especially in America. Girls are taught to almost fear their sexuality that they are ruined if they “give it up” before they are married and while I’m not saying it isn’t a bad idea to wait, I wonder what it would be like if somehow men and women could both be taught earlier that sexuality can be a shared event of mutual benefit.

        I might be babbling off point but wanted to get back to the whole lesbian thing really quick. I find that funny too. Straight guys are uber squeamish about guy on guy action (my husband and I were just talking about how guys won’t sit next to each other even if they are going to a movie together cause they don’t want to seem gay) but they love the idea of lesbian action. I think it is because straight guys firmly believe that all women are really straight that they will sleep with a girl but they are still straight. Straight guys want the dream of two girls so they can dream they’ll be invited to then participate cause if one girl is awesome two is mind blowing!

  2. queerlefty says:

    Jessie,

    thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    First, let me reiterate that I don’t have any particular strong views on porn. I’m just weary of much of the moralizing that dominates the debate from conservatives. It’s like they don’t want to acknowledge sexual desire as human, or at the very least impose control over other people’s sexuality to the extent that they can. My quietly liberal outlook on this also makes me less worried about the societal effects of porn than the moralism that comes in its wake.

    That said, you raise a very good point in the first paragraph, about how the cliches seem to seep into popular culture at large. Porn aesthetics are everywhere, and our whole visual culture seem to be playing with it almost without thinking about it. Some of the cliches are so deeply embedded that they can easily find their way into even family sitcoms and be understood by the whole audience (I remember an episode of Malcom in the Middle in which the landlords of the oldest son host a porn shoot without realizing it). But again, as long as it’s handled in a decent way, I won’t work up a moral panic over this. I defer to parents, who know their children best.

    But to the discussion about why there’s more porn for guys than girls: I think your theory about girls being more ‘touch-oriented’ than ‘visually-oriented’ is interesting, though I have know idea if it’s true. I continue to believe that if there was more porn that the defied the one-dimensional and objectifying conventions of heterosexual male porn, there would be a greater demand for porn for women as well. I think it would help in itself if porn wasn’t so exclusively a male domain. I also believe that a real effort to produce more porn for women would eventually make heterosexual male porn better, because it would force a more nuanced understanding of female desire into the discussion.

    (If this makes me sound like an unabashed, free-lovin’ porntimist, I may have overstated my case.)

    As for why men “need” porn, it’s hard to give an answer. For most people, I think they could do without it if they had to. As you say, it’s usually not a problem, so porn is a choice, not a neccesity. So, why do people choose it? It may be because of the fantasy element. I wonder, however, what people get out of porn? Do they consume it passively, taking their arousal from the action that happens to be playing out on the screen? Or do they imagine themselves as part of the action? Either way, porn often can be a little too direct, taking the sensual and imaginative element out of any form of sex. It’s think the attitude varies greatly among men, and that it isn’t a constant, either.

    Like you, I won’t say that waiting till marriage is necessarily wrong for those who feel that way, but trying to impose that standard on everyone else definitely is, as it makes people fearful and ashamed of their sexuality. There certainly is a double standard in play here, in which guys (gays, too) are encouraged to have as many partners as they please, to prove their masculinity and/or attractiveness, whereas women who do the same are often considered promiscuous. This is something each and every need to find out for themselves, and we have no business judging them.

    Finally, you make an excellent point about how straight guys seemingly need to cling to the belief that lesbianism is something girls can turn on and off at will to satisfy a heterosexual fantasy, while one homosexual act will make you irredeemably gay. The answer, of course, is that we need to respect that some people can be pretty solidly gay or straight, but that some people floats between the two poles at different times, depending on culture, personal chemistry, age etc, etc.

    As for the homosocial aspect you mention, about straight guys being that every little sign of male-male friendship could be perceived as gay, that’s of course a little discouraging. But I think it’s about to change. The movie industry may be leading on this. Movies like ‘I Love You, Man’ and ‘Humpday’ are good examples of how they are trying to grapple with this issue in an open-minded way.

    • jessiecarty says:

      You, as always, make more excellent points! Another thing I was just thinking of with women though is how much so many women love those romance novels. I read a few when I was a teen but I never really enjoyed them much. Sure you could get a good flushed face from reading them but when I read I want to have a different level of entertainment. I should sneak one of those types of novels to you sometime. They definitely have a porn quality to them which is deemed more acceptable for women then porn, but again maybe part of that is because there is little written erotica for men and little geared to women visual erotica?

      Loved this discussion :)

      • queerlefty says:

        Jessie,

        you make another good point here. I think I understand what you mean when you say “when I read I want to have a different kind of entertainment”. I won’t claim deep knowledge in this field either, but the short stories and snippets of romance novels I’ve read, have left me wondering whether literature is even the right medium for trying to do what porn does. I’m sure it’s possible to write stimulating literature, I just didn’t find it in this genre.

        Apart from the lackluster quality of the books in question, I there’s something about the expectation I take to a book that’s different from that of a movie. I know it’s irrational to demand the same from a romance novel that I would from a more serious work of art, but it’s almost like writing about sex in the same direct way as visual porn betrays the promise of complexity that I love about literature. Language gives you so many possibilities for nuance, ambition, scope.

        (I’m rambling, I know. I can’t quite express what I mean. The point is that romance novels often feel painfully bad. It’s like they disrespect the fact that they’re between covers. Erotic short stories written for the web somehow feels like a different story.)

  3. You too are classy. I’ll take it into the gutter.

    The women who run in my circles enjoy porn. One, in particular, who shall remain medicatedly nameless, may or may not have once purchased a movie which may or may not have been titled “Short Chicks Big D*cks.”

    I’ve been known to purchase memberships to online businesses of ill repute myself. For example, please google the words “Kaden” and “Active Duty” and you will see my ex-fantasy-boyfriend. Also “Smoke” and “Amateur Straight Guys.”

    Also, a little World Cup talk since this is an international forum.

    GO NETHERLANDS!

    • OMG. You two are also classy. In addition to “you too.” See, porn makes me all hot and grammatically bothered.

      • queerlefty says:

        Oh, and per your World Cup chant: I’ve been a Holland supporter all my soccer-aware life (since, let’s say, the 1994 World Cup). I supported them against Brazil at the height of the Ronaldo craze (the original Ronaldo) craze in 1998; I nearly cried when they got eliminated by the evil Italians in Euro 2000; and I’ll insist to anyone who’d care to listen that they were the best team in Euro 2008 (I mean, they beat Italy 3-1 AND France 4-1!). And despite all that, something’s different this year.

        I will be cheering for them against Spain in the final, but without the same enthusiasm as before. Soccer is one of those things I’m really passionate about, and at the international level, I’m sort of an idealist. My favorite club, Liverpool, may play any way they need to win – and they usually don’t anyway – but with national teams, my allegiance is not as firm. When I support Holland over Spain, it’s because of our long-held bond, not because I particularly enjoy their current style of play.

        Slate ran a great piece the other day about this sort of soccer purism with regard to Holland, that expressed much of what of I felt. There’s not much ‘total football’ left in the Dutch side, but it seems to be working better for them than the beautiful game ever did.

        The idealistic in me rooted for Germany in this Cup. It’s still something of an adjustment to make, considering Germany (and Italy) represented everything that was evil in soccer up until they hosted Euro 2006 and played the most fierce attack I’d seen in years. They’ve continued under Jogi Löw, and I actually needed a moment to gather myself after they fell to Spain in the semi-final. Fortunately, they finally brought out the best in a Spanish side that has been somewhat sluggish and uninspired for most of the tournament, so I guess we’ve got the Germans to blame if we end up with a completely riveting final. I wouldn’t have thought so a week ago.

        My heart is in the fight for third place, between Germany and Uruguay. And with German striker Lukas Podolski, of course. He’s the sexiest guy of the entire World Cup, rivaled only by Fernando Torres and Cristiano Ronaldo ;)

    • queerlefty says:

      Bryan,

      if that’s what the gutter looks like, I’d very much like to stay there. I followed your instructions, and I mean, WOW! Anyway, if you want to discuss this topic further, I suggest we take it out of public view. You have my email address. ;)

  4. jessiecarty says:

    I can go in the gutter but then I might need a pen name…. :)

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