To begin, a few questions. Age? Height and weight? And: “Did you save up three days for me?” I watched this scene many times without catching that last question—asked by a male voice off-screen, the man with the camera. And the focus of the viewer’s attention? A youth who replies that he’s twenty, five-eleven and a hundred sixty pounds. Looks as if he’s in the service too. Buzz cut, chest and upper arms defaced with bold bluish tattoos. No swish about him. Clearly “straight”—at least “straight-acting.” Straightness is a plus, erotically, within a community that emphasizes gay pride. He’s just doing this for money. He doesn’t love the scene being prepared for him, and yet he doesn’t resist it. The working-class youth of our dreams! And yes, he’s saved up.
The director instructs him—in a folksy, fake-familiar way—to undress, lie back and put his hands behind his head. This is the director’s favorite pose (I have watched many other scenes in the series). There should be no tenderness, no vulnerability. The youth does as he is instructed, lies back on the bed of a bare motel room and begins watching straight porn. What should we call him? No name provided, so let’s say Brett. He must not watch gay porn. We must believe that he loves girls. We don’t see the girls/women who are turning him on now: they exist only as loudly moaning off-screen voices. We have no use for them except as props. Who are they? We’ll never know. We’ll never know who anyone is, for that matter. Illicit, exciting anonymity!
Brett is perfect—for me, for others. His hands are red and rough and he is smooth everywhere. His face has a shut-down, untroubled, simple look: in school he was probably not a bully, probably not a particularly bad boy but stayed with the in-crowd. He’s just emerging from rugged pubescence. He is the boy next door many people dream about, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that thousands have consumed this clip. His torso is not extravagantly built up; it’s moderately muscled. No scars on him (other than ink work), no unsightly birthmarks; he’s fresh, just beginning to live. He is ours, for these fifteen or twenty minutes. And then he’s ours again when we watch this scene over and over and it’s watched over and over by thousands of the lecherous all over the world (it can be accessed free).
Brett is perfect—he gives off a quiet, charismatic machismo that people must find intoxicating. Beauty is supposedly in the eye of the beholder, and yet I’m always struck by how universal the appreciation of good faces is. The body’s bulges are easy to measure, but as to the face, that’s a mysterious and fascinating area. Most perfect bodies look alike: Mr. Universe is judged for his deltoids, biceps and pecs, not for his smile; Olympic swimmers all have the same physique (especially if one just catches them in their goggles and caps, when they appear to be clones). But what is it about some faces? What kind of magic? What kind of statements or messages are some exceptional faces sending out to the point that thousands or millions will unhesitatingly begin to adore them?
I have chosen to call this boy Brett because this is the name of the clerk at the supermarket down the hill. Brett—the real one—is outgoing and gives off the same kind of low-key, hot energy as the video Brett. I’m not able to picture him being rude to anyone. He’s worked in the market for a few months and, like the porn director, I have some questions. For instance, about what he does for exercise. And, sure enough, the other day he mentioned—unprompted—both his sport and his age while he was ringing me up. Baseball. Twenty-one. I’ve never been good at sports and have sad memories of gym class that have stayed with me for life. I’m always pleased when he’s at the supermarket. Often I’ve fantasized about what he might let me do to him. I shouldn’t be fooled by his friendliness: he’s equally friendly to everyone—all this friendliness must exhaust him by the end of his shift; or maybe not. It’s a flirtatious, charismatic kind of charm, but he’s not wooing me. I hope he stays there for years to come. Just in the last few weeks, a new clerk has begun at the same market. He is tall, dark and effeminate—and not especially friendly. I am struck by my reaction to him: distaste, even revulsion (I’m revolted by my revulsion). Am I like him—really? Or am I, inside, more like Brett, after all? Like many of my kind, I’m not aroused by the softer, more vulnerable kind: I need the ballplayers. Thom Gunn, in his poem “The Search,” confesses to a preference for a “cab driver’s build” with “lots of attitude / . . . insensitivity a big +.” I’m sure Brett is polite to the new employee, but I wonder if Brett laughs at him behind his back. I can see them both in the fifth grade or as high school sophomores! I feel I know exactly what they were like. The popular jock, the limp-wristed fashion freak. Each with his own archetypal place in the school’s ecosystem.
And in this video there is an ecosystem too: we have already met (or heard from) the director; we have met (heard from) the invisible—to us—ladies of the laptop or TV; and we have been fixated on Brett, our star. But there is still someone we have not met. I say “someone,” but he could be almost “something.” He is a prop. He has the most interesting, pleasurable job of anyone here. As soon as preliminaries are out of the way (the brief “interview,” the undressing, the lying back with hands behind head), and more abruptly than we might expect, an elfin creature appears from nowhere and begins to fellate our young friend. This is an older man (but not much more than forty), fully clothed, Latin and clearly queer. He stands in for the hungry viewer. He is the foil to our hero-stud. We are meant to relate to him as he begins his pleasure-work of bringing out the three-day load. We have no name for him, but he could be Diego. There are hundreds, thousands, just like him prowling the fantasy places of southern California. Diego is a “bottom,” Brett the “top.” Diego represents the hungry men of the community who, back in school, didn’t play rough. In him, the male viewers see themselves, if they can stand to look.
Diego is not an appealing prop. He exists only as hole and admirer. For me, the deepest fantasy is to go, in dignified professorial garb, into a dorm room to pick up or deliver some papers and, while I’m there, seduce a straight stud. This is more or less what happens here. “Seduce” may not be the best word, though, in this case, because it’s all quick and clinical. Brett needs the cash, and he needs to do something about his three-day load. And Diego appears quickly on the scene to take care of him—but what he mainly does is help take care of the viewer. We—the viewers—are excited by this vignette because Diego, as a stand-in for us, fits with the low self-image we have of ourselves. If Brett were to be joined by another jock, the video would be aesthetically more appealing, but it would lack the all-important first person. We want Brett for us, so, to give the scene more realism, a character like us is used. Diego is us, the impersonal viewer: a little over-the-hill, a little obvious, a notorious bottom, a little short and colorless but very adept at pleasuring an idealized object. Like the fellow in the supermarket who works alongside Brett, there isn’t much enticing about him, and he even seems, in a way, to lack genitalia. After putting a condom on Brett, Diego climbs on top of him, and though he’s facing the camera, he covers his limp organ. He’s not meant to have any maleness at all! He’s enjoying himself, but the focus must absolutely remain on the stud, the true male, with the genitals. At one point in the story, Diego is so overwhelmed with pleasure and pain that he squeals louder than the off-screen female voices; this prompts Brett to pause in his pumping and ask, in his sophomoric male way, “Are you good?” Diego or the director lets out some kind of affirmative mumbling, and a moment later Brett is back to work using his foil as hole, eyes taking in a view of ladies we can’t see.
“Are you good?” Good question. Diego might be on meth; we don’t know. Besides the squealing, no discernible language emanates from him. And no fluids are expected from his limp, hidden organ. His body is flabby and unexercised; he doesn’t look healthy; he seems to have completely succumbed to his vices. And on his face he has a sheepish, shamed look. It’s as if someone at school has just hit or taunted him; he never looks his “partner” in the eye. What better evidence of shame is there than Brett’s lack of tenderness or respect? Brett hardly even touches him; he’s wholly focused on the ladies. This is no kissing, no caressing, no affection. In other words, Diego is being abused. This is erotic to watch. He is being abused not with meanness or cruelty but with indifference. This is what he loves and is accustomed to. This is the eroticization of rejection. This grim scene is the point at which emptiness and excitement meet.
The director tries to encourage Brett—who’s supposedly never had this kind of contact before—to be wild. “Just like a pussy,” he tells him. “There you go. There you go! There you go!” Director, Brett, Diego and the unseen women all rush the story up to a climax. All have their tasks and roles. The motel could be in California or Texas or Nevada. The motel is like any motel that you and I have seen. There is nothing here to evoke any emotions at all. We are focused on Brett and what he has to offer. Brett! Ten years ago he was ten. Too young. In ten years from now he’ll be thirty. Too old. (It’s not just youthful faces and physiques that excite; it’s also the unripe minds behind them, dumb with escapade and self-centeredness.) This is his man-child moment—that flowering, fleeting phase to be captured and preserved forever on a computer file. He works pretty hard, but he’s not passionate. We can see, or we’d like to imagine, that he would much rather be with the girls up on that other, unseen screen. But he’s stuck with Diego—for now. After he takes himself out of the prop’s body, he once again lies back with hands behind head, this time more aroused than before, and lets the little man’s hands work. They are experienced hands (and loud), more a woman’s than a man’s. Brett acts as if they’re not there. He’s not really present. He’s just doing this for money, remember?
Or is he? “Making porn is all about telling lies,” director Ben Leon has written recently. “But porn lies are the best lies. They’re called fantasies.” Possibly the biggest lie on display here is Brett’s straightness. How many genuinely and purely straight studs would engage in these acts with other males and expose themselves to the world? If Brett just needed the money, wouldn’t there be other, more discreet, ways of trying to make ends meet? A long time ago I read this in an Encyclopedia Britannica article from the early ’70s: “The homosexual male ideally seeks a masculine appearing heterosexual male, and the prostitute attempts to fit this image. Consequently the prostitute can do little or nothing for or to the homosexual client lest he betray a homosexual inclination of his own and ruin the illusion. […] In actuality, of course, the ‘hustler’ has a substantial homosexual component which is necessary or he could not achieve erection and orgasm. […] [T]he female [prostitute] simulates a passion she does not feel, while the male prostitute conceals a passion he does feel.” This old, old article does go on to admit the following: “There is some evidence that this curious pattern of feigned indifference is gradually breaking down.” Ultimately, in our little scene with Brett, we cannot know his “true” feelings (and, being macho, he’s not supposed to have too many feelings): we can only conjecture about those. What we see on the screen, nevertheless, is a scene played out in exactly the same way as described in the old encyclopedia entry. After forty years of marches, protests, political and social gains and even same-sex marriage, the gay psyche still places the heterosexual male on a pedestal and celebrates the “straight stud” erotically over the “sensitive dreamer.” How many videos are being made about two married men on their honeymoon? How many scenes are set in hair salons, as opposed to locker rooms or dorms? Not too many. None. As Harvey Fierstein has written: “What do you need to do to prove how much self-loathing there is [among gay men]? Just pick up any newspaper that has personal ads in it and look at how many say ‘No Fats…No Fems…Straight-Acting Seeking Same…In the Closet…Don’t believe in the Gay Lifestyle.’ Do you ever see an ad for a heterosexual saying, ‘Please Don’t Act Straight’?”
Abuse. Exploitation. This occurs in all porn, gay or straight. When I searched online (because I wasn’t sure a relatively elevated term like “director” applies here), I came across this question in a forum: “Can porn directors have sex with the bitches?” As if this language weren’t degrading enough, one answer to the man’s questions reads as follows: “They absolutely could but they love their penises way too much for that.” A level of contempt and degradation that goes beyond anything I have seen in the gay world—and these are just two thugs chatting. The kind of humiliation routinely perpetrated on females by males does not have an exact equivalent in gay culture, but scenes like Brett’s are troubling in a different way: the loathing here is directed not at the other, but at the self. One can (charitably) call it a focusing on traditional masculine norms. Or: putting macho ideals up on a pedestal to the point that they are idolized. Or one can call it internalized homophobia.
Scenes like Brett’s may be sick, they may be nasty, they may be politically incorrect, but they may also be inevitable, because they spring from the inevitable contradictions and difficulties that go with being gay. If Brett’s moment with Diego is exciting, there are deep reasons for this, and no pride-marches or lecturing or angry blog posts will make it less exciting. Internalized homophobia is present here, yes—in other words, inner conflict; but, taking a wider view, conflict is part of the human condition, ever since we left Eden. Maybe in a few thousand years we’ll evolve and live in a utopia—a utopia in which Brett’s little scene will seem as primitive and barbaric as gladiatorial combat—but for now, we still exist in a world afflicted with “communal neuroses,” as Freud says at the end of Civilization and Its Discontents. At the heart of this world is conflict, imperfection. In many—in most—activities, whether opera or soap opera, novels or soccer, there is some tension—something negative, some challenge—that must find resolution. I say “resolution” because “catharsis” might be too lofty a word: the topic under discussion is porn, not high art. On a primitive level, scenes like Brett’s supply the viewer with a coarse form of purification or purgation. The viewer, by spilling seed, is cleaning himself out, trying to heal himself, with the help not of “the best lie” (as Ben Leon would have us believe) but of the worst truth: his own self-loathing.
In this self-loathing project, Diego and the viewer must not be alone: they must spread their loathing to Brett the hero-stud, who is no hero and who needs to be humiliated even as he’s being worshiped. This is a much more subtle form of humiliation than women are subjected to, but it’s just as rampant in this kind of show. The point of calling this youth “Brett,” after all, has been to fulfill my original wish: to achieve intimacy with—to conquer—someone out of reach: the supermarket athlete who will never consent to a visit up at my place; but in this fantasy-video he does. And he does as he is told. Every part of him is exposed for anyone to see, indefinitely; the camera probes almost every inch of him in his voluptuous boy-man prime. The cum shot—the “money shot”—is captured, and so is the stained sheet, and the white-stained right leg. How did this feel, compared to what the youth is used to? “It was more tighter,” says Brett. He can’t even get his grammar right; maybe he’s a fool; maybe it’s satisfying knowing he’s a fool, beneath us. The last image is the director reaching to handle a now fairly flaccid penis. So the brute has gone soft; he’s showing he has a soft side, like the rest of us. A few last drops are roughly and clinically squeezed out by a hairy middle-aged hand. Back in the schoolyard, maybe it was Brett and his friends who had the power; there’s no doubt who has the upper hand now, after all this time. Brett lies on the motel bed like a big teen victim in a horror film—a body vanquished at last, except there’s semen all over instead of blood. He’s served his purpose. We’re done with him.
Alex M. Frankel’s chapbook is “My Father’s Lady, Wearing Black.” His full-length book, “Birth Mother Mercy,” is due out by the end of 2013. He has published poetry and prose in journals such as The Antioch Review, The Comstock Review and The North Dakota Quarterly. He hosts the Second Sunday Poetry Series in Los Angeles. He has been nominated by Judith Hall as “Best New Poet” and his website is alexmfrankel.com.