“Broke Straight Boys”: The Intersection of Class, Gender, and Sexuality in Amateur Gay Porn

It’s no surprise that many gay men (and much gay male pornography) is obsessed with straight men.  There are many reasons, both historic and cultural, for this long-standing erotic attraction for, as David Halperin has eloquently argued in his book How to Be Gay, part of what constitutes contemporary gay male identity and sexual desire is precisely an erotic attraction for the masculine, and in our culture nothing represents masculinity better than the machismo-enshrouded figure of the straight man.  Love or hate him, he remains a haunting presence in the American cultural and social imaginary, infusing even the gay community with a sometimes-noxious and toxic infatuation with masculinity and a concomitant rejection of the feminine.

This emerges quite clearly in the world of so-called amateur gay pornography, of the sort produced by such much-vaunted and celebrated studios as Corbin Fisher and Sean Cody, as well as some of the lesser luminaries such as Broke Straight Boys.  What makes the latter studio so compelling is the way in which it manages to encapsulate and draw upon so many different strands of gay erotic desire (including the rough trade figure that has long been a staple of gay pornography and erotica of various kinds) as part of its brand identity.  What emerges from this gay pornography studio is a compelling, and slightly disturbing voyeurism of the vexed figure of the straight male willing (and able) to do anything for the right amount of money.

Of course, the website’s agenda is spelled out in its very title, which draws explicit attention to the indigent status of its stars.  This attention to the financial vulnerability of its performers–many of whom are both explicitly and implicitly coded as traditionally masculine–seems to undermine the very stability of the masculine attributes that it otherwise fetishizes.  Appearances can be deceiving, however, and I would argue that it is precisely the confluence of gender, class, and sexual desire that comprises the visual and fantasy pleasure to be gained from this particular website.  Though its models are not as uniformly muscular or gay-clone-esque as those of some of the higher end studios (such as the aforementioned Sean Cody and Corbin Fisher), that actually works to make BSB’s models both more “realistic” and, perhaps surprisingly, more desirable.  To paraphrase a clutch of comments on various message boards, most of the models look like actual boys that you might pick up at your local gay bar.

Due perhaps in no small part to its own branding efforts–and in spite of its own claims to being the web’s #1 gay porn site–Broke Straight Boys has gained something of a reputation for producing and featuring pornography that, to paraphrase commentators at the WayBig Blog, looks like it came out of a trailer park.  The comment threads attached to the website’s updates frequently contain derogatory remarks about the studio and the quality of its products, and yet, it has clearly managed to gain a substantial enough following to warrant the forthcoming TV series that purports to offer a reality-TV perspective on the internal workings of the studio and its stable of stars.  I would argue that this can at least partially be explained by the particular niche that BSB seeks to fill, one that is studiously underserved by both Sean Cody, Corbin Fisher, and other more self-consciously high-level studios.

This niche is one in which Broke Straight Boys provides the pleasure of the attainable and the everyday, while also drawing upon those things that gay pornography has always attempted to provide for its ever-diversifying consumers.  In an era in which what constitutes gay culture and gay identity is, like many other categories of social identity, increasingly fractured and in flux, BSB also highlights how unstable even gay desire can be.  What’s more, it also illuminates the ways in which studio branding in the gay porn industry can have a significant and potent effect on the types of erotic pleasures being mobilized by these purveyors of visual erotica.  Not all gay pornography, it would seem, is made equal.

At the same time, however, there is a darker side of this branding identity that needs to be acknowledged.  While there is something seemingly perpetually appealing about the straight-to-gay transformation (commonly referred to as gay for pay within the industry), it also caters to a slumming mentality among gay male audiences that is worthy of sustained attention and critique.  What the comments sections on discussion boards call attention to (among many other things) is the unfortunate appeal to a masculinity made vulnerable to the vicissitudes of economic privation.  While this may be appealing as fantasy (and we can fervently hope that it is, though the unfortunate statistics regarding porn stars, economic instability, and suicide paint a different picture), we should also be aware of the disturbing contours and drives that undergird those fantasies.  Is it really so appealing to see financially strapped straight men paid to perform sex acts?  How is this any different than the economic exploitation that occurs when women are engaged in pornographic exploitation?

What emerges from this website, therefore, is an uncomfortable reminder of the contradictions and strains that continue to operate at the heart of gay male pornography and gay male sexual desire more generally.  In order to gain a more complete understanding of the complexities involved in the pleasures offered up by different pornography studios, we need to also understand the intertwining of class, gender, and sex that constitute those pleasures.  While many such entertainments attempt to make us forget what goes into their production, BSB is often forthright, actually making a point of mentioning the amount of money being offered.  In addition to seeing this as part of the fantasy scenario being constructed by the studio, as audiences and spectators we should also use this as a valuable opportunity to think about our own complacency in the exploitation of male sexual labour, as well as the consequences such exploitation has for an understanding of gay male culture’s contradictory relationship with hegemonic masculinity.

Sex or Swords?

Elfwriter

I recently finished an epic fantasy novel by an author who is perhaps a year ahead of me. He has a couple of novels deeper into his series and seems to have a similar, but not bigger, social platform. 

But his books are selling impressively and I enjoyed reading his work, but there was nothing in the quality of the plot, writing, etc. that suggested why he was outselling me.

There are a lot of things in common between our novels. They are both character driven and, though there is a clear plot arc, you really stay engaged because you are rooting for the characters. There is plenty of action and moral dilemmas. If and when I write a review, and I definitely will because this is so important to the author (hinting here!), I realize that it would be similar to many of the reviews I have received for

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All Tigers Have Stripes; All Gay People Are Sexually Attracted to Their Own Sex

WIT

I most love blogging for the way it places me just a keystroke away from people I would otherwise never even pass by on the street.  I can communicate with and receive feedback from anyone with an internet connection.  In this way, blogging is a form of communion.  It does not replace (or even come close to) the communion our bodies can make, but I am grateful for it nonetheless.

I received some rather unexpected reactions to my latest post, “Gay and Catholic? A Response to Eve Tushnet.”  I would like to address one of them here.

Both in the comments’ section of my post and in a separate blog post written in response to mine, I was accused of “reducing” gayness to sex.  One commenter contended that for people like Ms. Tushnet, gayness involves “desiring profound emotional intimacy with their own gender, deep spiritual friendship, appreciating the…

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Review: “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

I will admit to no small amount of trepidation going in to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  As a long fan of the franchise and a devotee of the reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I had high expectations of this sequel (made all the more intense by the overwhelmingly positive reviews the film has so far garnered from the critics).  Even as a devoted acolyte I couldn’t help but wonder:  will this film live up to my expectations?  Is it even realistic to think that it will?  I honestly didn’t think I could stand the disappointment if it turned out that I couldn’t connect with the film in the way I had to its predecessors.

Luckily for me, I did.

Not that there weren’t a few touch-and-go moments.  The beginning of the film is very deliberate in its pacing, showing us in great detail the society that Caesar and his fellow apes have painstakingly carved out of the Muir Woods.  For a while, I wasn’t sure that I was going to be able to connect viscerally and emotionally with Dawn, although I should note that from the beginning I was intellectually engaged with the aesthetics and politics on display.  Two scenes (neither, ironically, involving the main protagonist Caesar, but instead his chief lieutenant and confidante Maurice the orangutan), proved unequivocally that this film indeed reaches into the depths of emotion, both human and nonhuman.  In the first, Maurice carefully instructs young apes in the laws that govern their fledgling society, including the cardinal rule that ape shall not kill ape.  In the second, Maurice bonds with the young human Alex, both of them connecting over a comic book.  Throughout these two scenes, and indeed throughout the film as a whole, the deep, soulful eyes of Maurice beckon to us, suggesting a world of wisdom gained through suffering and pain, but also through witnessing the miracles of compassion and triumph through adversity.  At the same time, they also remind us of the fact that, for all Maurice and his fellow apes may behave like humans, part of them remains beyond the pale of human understanding.

Perhaps no figure exemplifies that message better than Koba, the tortured and scarred bonobo from the first film.  Having made it through the rebellion and risen in the ranks to stand next to Caesar, Koba represents the fundamental distrust that nonhuman apes  have of their human counterparts (and with good reason, considering the troubled and violent history that undergirds the relationship between the two groups).  When a troop of humans seeking the use of a hydroelectric dam to keep their struggling colony stable stray into ape territory–shooting a young chimpanzee along the way–it is Koba who pounds the drums of war.  And it is Koba who ultimately betrays Caesar by shooting him and leading the apes on a march on San Francisco.  And it is, alas, Koba  who not only imprisons Maurice and others he deems too faithful to the memory of Caesar, but it is he who also breaks the ultimate commandment and murders Ash after he refuses to kill a defenseless human.  In the end, after an epic battle between Caesar and Koba, between conciliation and annihilation, Caesar sends his erstwhile friend plunging to his death, having proclaimed that Koba, through his betrayal of his own kind and his warmongering, is no longer an ape.

Far more than a typical action flick, this film is instead a tragedy, brimming full of pathos and the seeming inexorability of war between humanity and apes.  Koba, far from being an outright villain, emerges from this film as its antihero, but this is not to say that his vision of the future is an unjust one nor that Caesar’s is the only viable option.  When Koba, having successfully overcome the human defenders of the San Francisco colony, stridently and defiantly announces that now they know what it is like to live in cages, I honestly felt the same thrill I felt when the apes succeeded in escaping from San Francisco in the first film.  Given the tortures he has endured–made clear when he shows, in brief and poignant gestures, the human-inflicted scars on his body–how can we, as viewers, not be sympathetic to him?*  The fact that his body, especially his face, is rendered in such exquisite detail, underscores the dark depths of his tortured and twisted psyche.  The film may not ultimately ask us to approve of his actions, but it does invite us to understand them.

All of this is not to take away from Andy Serkis’s performance as Caesar.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes allows us to see the ways in which he has evolved as a leader and as a character.  If Rise chronicled Caesar’s loss of innocence in the face of human cruelty and subsequent rise to leadership, Dawn shows us the terrible price exacted by that role.  There is a world of sadness and melancholy in Caesar’s eyes as he views the digital footage of his long-dead father-figure Will, and even more when he regretfully tells his human ally Malcolm that all-out war between humans and apes has already begun.  We, in the audience, also understand that Caesar has finally accepted the unfortunate fact that violence and bloodshed will only end when one side has finally emerged triumphant.  It is a truth all the more bitter in that it so nakedly reflects the unfortunate realities of our own geopolitical experience.

This film is, ultimately, an expression of what the best science fiction can do.  It can utilize the filmic technologies available to evoke a world so completely that we believe it is possible.  The cinematography here is brilliant, ranging from the murky, blue-tinted shadows of the apes’ forest home to the glaring reds, oranges, and blacks of Koba’s triumphant yet costly (in terms of ape life) siege of the human colony.  Just as importantly, Michael Giacchino’s score manages to evoke both soaring emotions, as in the final scene of Caesar’s acclamation by his followers, to deep and abiding unease, as in the score’s numerous disturbing and unsettling orchestral allusions to the original 1968 film’s soundtrack.

In the end, however, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a potent reminder to humanity of not only how precarious our species’ existence is but also, as Caesar ultimately realizes, how little separates us from the nonhumans with which we share the world.

Five Things to Do Before Watching “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

Now that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is almost ready to hit theaters, it’s time for all Apes fans and newbies to start preparing for the movie of the year.  Though one can certainly go into this film cold, I would recommend enjoying many of the other films and novels that comprise this venerable franchise.

1.)  The Original Planet of the Apes Novel

Whether you’re new to the franchise or an experienced Apes veteran, you should definitely take a look at the novel that started it all.  Though substantially different in tone and plot than its subsequent adaptations, Pierre Boulle’s novel is nevertheless a masterpiece and classic of science fiction and well worth the read.

2.)  The Original Planet of the Apes Films

If you haven’t seen the original entries in the franchise, you should absolutely do so before the release of Dawn.  Though the first in the original five films is by far the best, the others have their virtues as well, despite declining budgets and box office returns.  The fifth and final film, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, has a great deal in common with the upcoming Dawn, and it will be interesting to compare how the two films respond to the different cultural and social pressures of their moments of production.

3.)  Rise of the Planet of the Apes

When it was released in 2011, very few thought that this film was going to be anything close to a success.  With the bitter taste of Tim Burton’s unfortunate remake still lingering ten years later, it was with unalloyed joy that many Apes fans greeted this thoughtful and intellectually challenging reboot.  Far from relying on trick endings (as Burton’s remake did), this film, like its venerable predecessors, asked some tough questions about the nature of sentience and the complex and fraught relationship between humans and their closest living relatives.

4.)  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes:  Firestorm

Normally, I am not a fan of media tie-ins, largely because they are often full of bad writing and execrable plotting.  It was with some surprise, therefore, that I read Greg Keyes novel, which chronicles the immediate aftermath of the outbreak of the Simian Flu and Caesar’s successful rebellion.  The plotting is deftly and concisely wove and the writing is at times profound.  It takes a special kind of talent to create ape characters who can be both similar and yet utterly alien to human sensibilities, and Keyes does this admirably with Koba, the tortured bonobo.  Like the two films it straddles, this novel forces its human readers to evaluate their own complicity in the oppression of nonhuman animals.

5.)  Quarantine, All Fall Down, and Story of the Gun

These three short films provide a window into the world that emerges after the Simian Flu begins to take its toll.  I have to admit that I was somewhat wary going in, but I was blown away by both the quality and the emotional depth of these short films.  Each of them has their own shining moments, but I was particularly struck by the ghostly presence of the apes that haunts the second and third films, in the forms of a pair of ghostly eyes/a footprint and the sound of screaming chimps/a silhouette, respectively.  Story of the Gun is especially moving, as it shows, in the ownership history of one gun, the gradual decline and collapse of human civilization as we know it and in the process shows just how fragile and illusory are the bonds that stand between us and anarchy.

And if you have time…

Planet of the Apes on Television

Believe it or not, there were not one but two Planet of the Apes television series, one a live-action drama that takes place centuries before the events of the original film and the other an animated children’s series that features a much more advanced civilization of apes.  While somewhat spotty in quality, they are still worth seeing as they help provide an even more in-depth look into the sprawling mythos that has emerged around the idea of apes becoming the dominant species on planet Earth.

(We’ll just try to collectively forget about the unfortunate 2001 remake, though it too has spawned its own mythos-in-miniature).