It Ain’t Easy to be a Bottom in Porn

If you spend just a little bit of time poking about the comment threads on porn sites, you’ll learn something pretty quickly: no one likes a bottom. In fact, the bottom in many gay porn videos is sure to become, sooner or later, the object of scorn and ridicule, the abject that has to be cast out of the collective gay male conscious (as epitomized by the online community) in order for that community to still pride itself on its masculine credentials.

This might seem a bit counterintuitive. After all, it takes both a top and a bottom to make porn work, but you wouldn’t know that from looking at the message boards. Any time a particular model or individual starts to stake out some territory as primarily a bottom, the comments begin. “Throwing a hot dog down a hallway,” “is there anyone he hasn’t fucked?,” “I wonder how much adult diapers cost?” and so on. It’s really quite insidious at some points, to such a degree that one comes to wonder why it is that people watch porn at all, or why the stars themselves would continue to offer themselves up for the derision of others (besides, of course, the obvious inducement of money). You would also be led to wonder why it is that people bother watching gay porn if all they are going to do is complain about someone having too much sex.

However, it’s not all that unexpected to see so much vitriol poured on the bottoms in gay porn. After all, if pornography is a form of spectatorial fantasy and if, likewise, it is a reflection of the social milieu that produces it, it only makes sense that people would find the bottoms in gay porn to be both the object of desire and derision. When it comes to the food chain in the world of gay men, bottoms frequently occupy the lowest rung, the subject of scorn and often pity. There is a bit of a joke among us queer men that a top that shows up on Grindr is guaranteed a success rate, since bottoms on most dating sites are seemingly a dime a dozen. Another joke is that, once you get on Grindr, you basically have to switch from bottom to versatile if you hope to get laid. It’s something of a myth, but even the most far-fetched myths have more than a bit of truth to them.

Queer theorists from Leo Bersani to David Halperin have remarked on the ambivalent relationship that many gay men have to the sex act that makes them, well, gay. It’s all well and good, in the logic of many, to be a top, for that is behaving like a man. Being all masculine and sticking your dick into things is par for the course for the average man. To be a bottom is, as everyone knows, something of a necessary evil, but it’s hardly something that one should seek out. And if you do, you had best be sure that at least your gender performance matches up with the perceived ideals of male behaviour, even if your position in the boudoir does not. No one likes a flaming faggy queen, after all (one need look no further than the many profiles that say something about “masc seeking masc” or “regular guy seeks same” or “looking for a workout buddy” to see what I mean). And heaven forbid you like musicals, or handbags, or anything else that smacks of acting like a woman.

To embrace one’s identity as a bottom in the world of gay porn is to embrace that abject position, the penetrated. It’s one thing if you are able to evince displeasure at doing it (see also: all the “Gay for Pay” actors out there who look like every moment of gay sex is an agony). But if you dare to show that you enjoy it, and if you spend a lot of time bottoming in front of the camera, then you have unforgivably and irrevocably surrendered your male card. Do not pass go, do not collect $200; you’re going straight to the adult diapers section (and can we talk about the infantilizing rhetoric for a minute. Seriously. There is little to no evidence that lots of sex, sex with big dicks, and even fisting leads to incontinence. This is just another example of gay men internalizing the pernicious logic of homophobia).

(An amusing, if irritating aside: some time ago, a friend of mine remarked that men only bottomed out of service to their partner, not because it actually felt good. At the time I was still a virgin, and I felt this clawing fear that maybe my friend was right. Maybe I was fated to never enjoy sex as a bottom! Naturally, that proved to not be the case, and I very much embrace my identity as a bottom. I tell this story because it reflects the misunderstanding that there is something shameful, painful, and/or innately more disgusting about anal sex. Let’s be real. Penetrative sex is a rather disgusting act in all of its forms, but there is much pleasure to be had, so we should let go of our hangups and not force our own assumptions on other’s behaviours).

And of course it goes without saying that porn bottoms who dare to do the unthinkable and get into topping are setting themselves up for all sorts of vitriol and dismissal. After all, how could na avowed bottom, one who is good at what he does, possibly be…versatile? It’s almost as if people are something more than just the positions that they occupy in the bedroom. There are boat loads of specific examples I could cite that have been subjected to this sort of scrutiny, but among the most prominent are Johnny Rapid (a very prolific performer who never fails to draw the ire of many commenters, despite his twinkish beauty and reasonably good performances), Armond Rizzo (don’t get me started on the number of jokes that have been made about his sphincter), and Travis of Corbin Fisher (everyone loves to hate on him when he attempts to top). Unless you’re very very lucky in gay porn world, once you become a bottom, you’re basically a bottom for the rest of your professional life. I mean, you can try to switch off and on, but chances are you’ll be met with hostility.

All of this is not to say that the tops in gay porn don’t come in for their share of criticism from the “fans.” For tops, though, the question involves less shame and more impatience if they refuse to bottom, or if they do that they don’t enjoy it, or that they can’t keep a hard-on. It is only the last of these complaints that’s truly comparable to the sort of shame that’s loaded onto the bottoms in gay porn, who are made to be the scapegoats (in the classical sense) for all of the shame that gay men seem to collectively feel for their desire to bottom.

I would go so far as to suggest that it is precisely this collective shame that explains why so many commenters on message boards reserve their greatest vitriol for bottoms. If, as Leo Bersani said some time ago, there is a certain suicidal ecstasy of embracing the role of the penetrated, then there is also a deep and almost frenzied fear of that position. Small wonder that that so many gay men continue to project that shame and sense of collective abjection onto those who most visibly and publicly give in to that suicidal ecstasy. The fact that a similar discourse does not (and perhaps cannot) surround the prominent tops in gay porn suggests, to me at least, that it is the innate vulnerability of the bottoms that render them so prone to this sort of dismissal.

As a bottom myself, I find all of this tremendously frustrating and hypocritical, just as I find it infuriating to see so many gay men disavow any traces of femininity. Heaven forbid, after all, that we show any trace of anything that doesn’t fit into the dominant model of hegemonic masculinity, that we embrace a certain measure of vulnerability. And perish the thought that we try to think outside of the box that automatically equates bottoming with passivity or misery or try to find other ways of thinking about the sexual positions we occupy.

What’s to be done about all of this, you’re probably asking right about now? Well, to start with, gay men can get over their fixation with appropriate gender behaviour. Dispense with the “straight acting” gay bullshit. It’s so 2004. We can also stop projecting our anxiety about our own sex positions onto porn performers. There are already enough problems in the world, without unloading them onto men who are, when all is said and done, just trying to make a living.

And, finally, in porn as in sex, sometimes we just need to relax, enjoy the ride, and embrace the pleasure.

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Why Do Gay Men Love Abs?

If you’ve ever spent a minute on the popular gay hookup app Grindr, you know it’s no secret that gay men love abs.  Scores of shirtless pics jockey for position any time you open the app, each one trying to outdo the others in terms of the amount of abdominal definition on offer. And a casual perusal of any gay porn studio will show a similar fixation, with both studios and stars jockeying to outdo one another with their conspicuous display of their abdominal fortitude.

Gay men, clearly, love abs, and they love men who have them. They are, in fact, one of the hottest commodities in the dating and hookup scenes.  The question is, though, why?

I’ve given this matter a lot of thought, and while I’m always a little cautious about generalizations about gay men, I also think that there are some deeply-rooted reasons why we seem to have a particular penchant (I might even so far as to say an obsession) with both procuring abs and sleeping with/dating a guy who also has them.  At least part of the desire, I suggest, has to do with the area of the body in question.  The stomach, as we all know, is the focal point for questions about health and wellness, not only in terms of fat (it’s the part of the body that often shows it the most, certainly in men), but also in terms of actual food consumption.

Just as importantly, however, to have a stomach that is soft rather than hard speaks to one’s inability to control one’s appetite, and the ability to control one’s bodily appetites has long been associated with the masculine, as opposed to the feminine, which is characterized, as much as by anything else, by an inability to bring those desires under control, to regulate them and channel them appropriately.  To be anything other than ripped and defined, then, is to become unmasculine, to become perhaps the most dreaded thing in contemporary gay male culture:  the feminine. To be soft and feminine is to take a headlong tumble into the world of the gay abject, subject to the ridicule and cruel dismissal of hook-up culture (which is not, as a rule, known for its compassion).

There’s no question that gay men have long had a vexed and often contradictory relationship with masculinity.  It is at once the thing that we desire and the thing that we want to be. There is no object more desired in the world of gay dating than the hot, muscled, masculine top. One need only look at the many hook-up profiles proclaiming something along the lines of “no fats, no femmes” to get a sense of how vitriolic and jaded gay hook-ups (and, if we’re being honest, gay dating) can be in the world of Grindr and other similar apps.

This isn’t to say that any of this always operates on a conscious level (though it does certainly do so at times).  While many gay men make no secret of the their abhorrence for the feminine, many more, I think, have probably so internalized the demands of our culture at large that it becomes almost second nature to disavow any traces of the feminine or the soft.  To be either is to abrogate any claim to be an object of desire (David Halperin has an excellent discussion of this issue in his book How to Be Gay) and, perhaps just as importantly, to slip into those pernicious stereotypes of flaming queens and limp-wristed fruits that were used by mainstream culture to pathologize gay men for much of the 20th Century.

Having a hard, chiseled body, then, becomes a way of proving oneself to the wider world, a means of proving that you have escaped from the chains of those old stereotypes and reached into a new day, when gay men can have all of the attributes (and privileges) of their straight brethren. And to top it all of, by having that body you also become the commodity that everyone is after, and that brings with it its own particular form of power.

The most frightening thing about this whole situation is that even I, with my critical apparatus honed by years in an English graduate program and immersion in queer and feminist theory, still fall prey to the perniciousness of this body ideology.  I constantly scrutinize my own belly, desperately seeking that first set of signs that my abs have finally begun to develop.  It’s not enough, I’ve found, simply to be thin (though a thin and lithe body has its own attractions). You have to be able to show that you’ve put in the time and the effort (and the discipline) to make your body truly splendid and powerful.

In order to truly become the object and the subject of desire that I want to be, my body should (so my indoctrinated self tells me), fall into the molds prescribed by the culture of which I am a part. It really is a daily struggle to start loving my body for what it is, even while wanting to make it better. And it is also a struggle to make better mean healthier, rather than simply look better. Yes, it is nice to have that outward show of having accomplished a fitness goal, but not at the price of losing one’s sense of intrinsic self-worth.

Of course, this isn’t to say that working out and watching what you eat isn’t good. They absolutely are, and we should do both more. It’s just that we should also be aware of the cultural baggage that always accrues around the body, and we shouldn’t let ourselves become so enamoured of a particular body type that we begin to exclude and pathologize those who don’t fall into those very restrictive modes and models. If we can begin to think outside of that scope, I firmly believe that we will all be the happier for it. Now that’s a goal I can get behind.

Getting it Both Ways: Gay Porn and the Bareback Debate(s)

If you follow the goings-on in the face-paced. contentious, and often-troubling world of online gay porn, you’ve no doubt noticed that a number of high-profile studios, including Corbin Fisher, Sean Cody, and even Bel Ami have, for the last couple of years, been producing condomless/bareback scenes.  Now, this move has been met with a divided response, to say the least.  On one side are the vehement (and often quite vitriolic) scolds, reminding all and sundry that such practices are hideously unsafe and that the studios should be ashamed of putting their models and risk and asking us as viewers and consumers to take pleasure in those risks.  On the other side are those who have unabashedly and enthusiastically embraced this development within the porn industry.  Indeed, there are many on the message boards who are not satisfied, and are often harshly critical, of those sites that persist in utilizing condoms in the making of their films.  And there are the true die-hards, who are not truly happy until they see an internal cumshot (and they are in turn chastised by those who see these desires as socially irresponsible, always pushing the models to engage in ever-more-dangerous behavior).

Both sides, I would argue, have some excellent points, but for the moment I want to focus on the ways in which the studios themselves have sought to address this question.  After all, they are no doubt aware of the blizzard of comments that, at least in the beginning, often accompanied the release of these types of videos.  Even a casual perusal of the message boards of, for example, WayBig (an aggregator that pulls together new releases from many studios), reveals the ways in which this particular issue has split this particular segment of the (presumably queer) community.  As a result, most of the bareback videos currently in circulation begin with a disclaimer that states at least two of the following things:  1) the models in the video were all rigorously tested using the most accurate tests available; 2) the studio does not advocate nor is it in favor of engaging in this type of sexual behavior, even if you happen to be a committed relationship; 3) “unsafe” sex is, indeed, unsafe, and therefore should most likely be avoided.

This rhetoric, laudatory and socially responsible as it might seem on the surface, instead serves as an ornate–and not entirely convincing–way of allowing us as viewers to have our cake and eat it, too.  We can indulge in something that we have been taught over and over again since the 1980s is the utmost in irresponsible sexual practice (remember that it is called “unsafe” sex for a reason), while also patting ourselves on the back, comforting ourselves that OF COURSE we wouldn’t do such an unsafe thing in our own life.  Nor, presumably, would the studios, who clearly want to maintain at least an aura of social respectability and responsibility.  However, their rush to assure us, the viewers, that they don’t really advocate “unsafe” sex practices rings more than a little hollow, especially since, if they were really so invested in being socially responsible, they wouldn’t produce bareback scenes in the first place.

What is most striking about these disclaimers is the way in which they simultaneously invoke and disavow the very pleasures that, presumably, the viewer has sought out the pornography for in the first place.  Contained in those few simple, boilerplate sentences that so often accompany these videos, it seems to me, is a world of anxiety and ambivalence within the gay community about the status of bareback sex in an age when HIV/AIDS is no longer a death sentence and when the 1980s (the height of the pandemic) is largely a shadowy memory.  Should we do it or shouldn’t we?  And if we decide not to, should we indulge in pornography that does and still retain our social justice and ethical credentials?  Are we contributing to a still-extant health issue by showing the studios that they can indeed make money from us watching their bareback productions?  While the disclaimers strenuously attempt to wipe away those pesky and troubling questions, even the slightest bit of pressure on the flimsy rhetoric reveals how truly empty and double-sided it truly is.

As more and more studios, both “amateur” and “big time” begin to exclusively film bareback scenes, it becomes increasingly obvious that both kinds of studios will have to fall in line with this new bareback orthodoxy in order to maintain their competitiveness in the market.  What began (in the U.S. at least) as a fairly marginal practice has become increasingly mainstream, as studio after studio has fallen in line.  Even giants in the industry such as Bel Ami (the very famous European studio that, in my view at least, came to define the 1990s era of gay porn), have gone the bareback route, as have most of the more prominent amateur studios (such as Sean Cody and Corbin Fisher).  They know there’s a market out there, and they are determined to do everything in their power to make sure that they tap into those desires and keep their paying customers satisfied.

This debate has far-ranging consequences beyond just the world of pornography.  With the advancements made in HIV prevention (including the recent PReP announcements), we are having to rethink how we conceive of sexual health and how the goals of queerness fit into those parameters, both new and old.  It goes without saying (even as I proceed to say it), that there are no easy answers to these questions, and we shouldn’t rush to judge.  What is needed instead is an open, frank, and nuanced discussion about what is at stake in these kinds of films, and just how complicit we become by indulging in them.  Just as importantly, we can also use this is a much-needed opportunity to reflect about the advances made in HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention.  These questions remain as vital as they did in the 1980s, for all that we seem to have forgotten them.

“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.