Reading the Gay Male Body


Reading the Gay Male Body

"In relation to gay sexual politics, it is worth signalling that this should give pause to those of us who thought/hoped that being a gay man meant that we were breaking with the gender role system. At certain levels this is true, but there seems no evidence that in the predominant form of how we represent our sexuality to ourselves (in gay porn) we in any way break from the norms of male sexuality." (Dyer 1990, 294)

Importing the notion of contemporaneous, competing discourses to Dyer's observation above brings us to the point where we can ask what discourse of homosexuality gay porn presents today. Before launching into that analysis, however, I wish to ruminate a little about what other discourses porn might be positioning itself amongst.

Consider for a moment the most celebrated gay men in this culture. Among the most popular, or rather, (and I think this is very important) among those that "cross over" and become the most popular for non-gay observers, you would certainly find Liberace. It's a party trick I picked up a few years ago. Aside from telling you how sensitive your conversation friend might be, answers to this sort of question also point to what might be thought of as a dominant discourse on the representation of homosexuality, and homosexual bodies. Feminine, flamboyant, ephemeral, frail, even riddled with AIDS: these are some of the metaphors of the gay male body today. By no means is this the exhaustive list - creative, survivors, cultured, witty and nurturing would also be nice - but these images have a powerful presence in what one might think of as the national psyche. Another excellent example of this is change in media presentation of Rock Hudson's body when his AIDS condition became public. His image slid from inaccessible dream-hunk (despite his age) to undesireable walking corpse. (See Meyer 1991) If you perform the party trick in body-building circles, however, you might hear about Bob and Rod Jackson-Paris. Even straight body-builders buy this couple's books. They are so buffed, they must know what they are doing, right?

Faced with these images, then, what might the gay male imagine himself to be? What discourse of sexuality does porn deploy?

Second Reading

As a word of preface to the following images, I want to tell you how they were chosen. Like the first two images that pointed out the usefulness of reading for iconography earlier, figures three and four are also taken from postcards. All of these postcards were purchased together in 1996 from a bookstore specifically catering to a lesbian/gay "friendly" clientele. Thus, the fact that they were first produced at different times does not negate the fact that they are offered for consumption now. In fact, their dates add specific meanings to their current consumption. Images pulled forward into a different cultural context indicate a resonance of the consuming culture with the discourse framed in the past.

The remaining images are covers of magazines. I chose to focus on covers for two reasons. First, they enabled me to speak to the explicitly sexual without having to eventually deal with someone's shocked expression that I showed them some genitalia. Second, and most importantly, these covers are often all the consumer has to think about when they purchase the magazines in a store. Many stores encase their porn in plastic bags or paper bands to encourage people to buy the magazine before flipping through it. To that end, the cover is the sell; it is a condensed form of the discourse porn engages in. It is an obvious argument, but worth emphasizing. Much like the postcards mentioned above, these magazines and many others like it are also available on back issue. Often they are repackaged years after initial publication and sold at cut rates. This recycling of images brings back Dyer's observation that the consumption of porn has a large effect on its meaning.

That said, back to the show.


In the second image of our Jim Wigler model, the masculinity and power linked to the police profession was a vital element in eroticizing the shot. "Construction Worker" by Steven Baratz (fig. 3), performs a similar feat. Here the softly lit backside of the model plays an odd trick with our perception of his muscularity. It is evident from the curves of his arms and the molding of his back that he is strong; the heft of the power saw confirms this. What is interesting about the presentation of the musculature is its softness when compared to the more cut muscularity of Officer Animal. "Construction Worker" takes on a "real" quality, as if earned through actual labor, and not carved out in a gym. The props all confirm this strongly working-class identity, and obscure our vision of the model, save for his exposed back. Also, as the back is the feature of the shot, there is no gaze returning to meet us. We are free to appreciate the model at our own leisure; he cannot even tell if we are looking at his back, trying to see his ass through his tools, or not looking at all.

Yet even as the back is circumscribed by the array of props as a construction worker's back, made muscular through "real" work, an irony creeps in. This construction worker is no where near his work. The setting is the generic non-setting of the photographer's drop. Baratz also exposes the constructed nature of this shot by having the bare backed heft a power tool. You get fired for unsafe working practices like that, but in the studio, it can become a way of marking your masculine skilled labor to re-shape the world. The masculine meanings of the work modify the softened musculature of the back to give an image of honest, earned, natural masculinity, and hence a "real," "down-to-earth" sexuality: a working-class sexuality.

If Baratz references the masculinity of the skilled working-class laborer, then Louis Hine's image of the "Powerhouse Mechanic" (fig. 4) documents it. Taken in 1920, the scenery confirms the title, giving Hine's image a realism Baratz consciously avoids. Yet at the same time, the pose of the shot reveals its construction. The torso of the model is effectively framed by the end of the turbine. The wheel-like design of the turbine and the lighting point the viewer's eye toward a glowing white mound of bicep; the musculature and masculinity of the model is not only visible, but on display. Much like Wigler and Baratz in the late twentieth century, Hine focuses our attention towards his subject's maleness and bodily sexuality through the professional and class connotations of his props. "Powerhouse Mechanic" is a reach back towards an "authentic" masculine sexuality, again communicated through his working-class identity.

Indeed, placing these images back into context as postcards, sold as art with erotic and sensual appeal, the message carried by the class and professional connotations is consistent. I suggest that when class markers are present in gay porn, they serve to eroticize the subject by linking him to a masculinized field. The three examples I provide here are all of working-classed masculinities - the police office, the construction worker, and the mechanic. But as Chauncey and others have shown, there are often different formations of masculinity across class lines.

To that end, I would also suggest that when gay porn images tap into upper-class markers, that they do so to summon masculinized traits of independent financial success and leisure time. What masculinities are available to the upper classes, then? "Construction Worker" is a backdoor of sorts into what I mean here. Earlier, I opposed his softer, work-earned physique to the cut look of the masculine physique obtained in a gym. This is not to say that only upper-class men work out in a gym. However, the body sculpted only through gym work represents an immense investment of leisure time and money, either for equipment or gym fees. In a sense then, the chiseled body becomes the upper-class body. That is, recreational athletics and weight-lifting are the upper-class routes to the body marked as masculine.


To the extent that upper-class men obtain their masculinity through recreational athletics, I suggest that representations of recreational athletics speak to the representations of upper-class masculinities. Not just from watching sports, but through actual involvment in athletics, men gain a form of body knowledge much like the bodily knowledge of desire Dyer ascribes to porn. (Dyer 1990, 291) Needless to say, all sorts of people excercise and watch sports, but when athletics reach men, athletic ability becomes the totem bearer of masculinity. Athletic ability links through the body to notions of sexual attractiveness, and when speaking about the sexually attractive athletic man, terms of gender always appear. Notice "hunk," "jock," and "stud."

The link between upper-classed masculinities and athletics can be seen in the next three images (figs. 5, 6, & 7). All are covers of magazines directed specifically at men, telling them what to do to take care of their bodies: spend their leisure time working out. Returning to iconography, each one of these covers centers the body of the model and exposes their athletic ability through their musculature. Body hair is generally sacrificed to emphasize the bulk of muscle; one signifier of masculinity is traded for the signifier central to the discourse of the magazine. Their skin is also clear and tanned. The poses chosen also allow the models to intentionally flex specific muscles associated with masculinity - the biceps and the pecs in particular - yet have the pose still appear somewhat natural. The models' masculinity is also communicated by their confident, forward gazes.

Another theme in each image is a free-weight of some sort. Although the articles in the magazines discuss excercises other than weight traning, weights remain signified as the "real work out." In a way that weight machines like Nautilus and Cybex do not, free-weights read as masculine. Free-weights are linked to "serious" body-building. In my experience at gyms, I have seen few women using free-weights, but perhaps too many young men who, though they possess seemingly healthy bodies, attack the free-weights with such aggresive enthusiasm that you wonder what they need to prove. Or much more to the point I am making here, you do not wonder for a second what it is they need to prove.

Returning to the magazine covers, I want to make a point about bodies and sexuality. This may be merely my experience as a gay man, but the sight of skin, of the exposed male form, is always already sexual. I do not need something to tell me that I should think this model's face is cute, or that I have permission to become aroused. Each of these models (to varying degrees) functions in this way. Yet two of the covers beat the reader with the sexual potency of their models and explicitly inform the reader that buying this magazine will give them better sex. Men's Health's message of "Get It Now!: Better Sex" ranks sex with presence of muscle and energy and the absence of fat. Men's Workout also places "EXCERCISES FOR SEXUAL ENERGY" conveniently near a potent signifier. Both covers make it seem that there is an actual article on beneath the model. Interestingly enough, Men's Health contains an article on sex surrogates. Men's Workout does not contain a single article on sex, however; their cover statement really functions as an advertisement, both for excercise in general and for the magazine in particular. In fact, each of these magazines includes ads featuring sexual products or marital aids. Men's Workout also stands out from the other two in offering ads explicitly directed at a gay audience.

On the subject of advertising, I want to turn specifically to Men's Health. Unlike the other two magazines, the ads here range from cars and fashion watches to full page ads for Forbes. It even tells you "How to Talk to Women," a subject neither Men's Excercise or Men's Workout even approach. The ads in the other magazines are more narrowly targeted to dietary supplements, instructional videos, slinky men's wear, and of all things, job training courses. This difference in advertisers places Men's Health as geared distinctly towards an upper-class consumer in a way that the others are not. Yet all share a similar formulation of the athletic masculine physique.

As a mainstream non-porn discourse on male sexuality, then, these magazines present muscular, tanned men, with time on their hands to train their bodies into this shape. (Even this distinction as "non-porn" is questionable in some circles, where men's health and muscle magazines are easily talked about as "soft porn." Considering the centerfold structure of many physique magazines, the only difference may be the presence of skimpy gym wear.) Moreover, the connection between these excercises and sexuality is causal. These magazines tell men that building their bodies is a responsible thing, even a necessary thing to achieving health and reducing stress. Sexual potency is seen as a natural outcome of possessing a built physique, where the built body is positioned as the signifier of true manhood.

The three remaining images (figs. 8, 9, & 10) are covers from mainstream gay porn magazines, the kind orgnized around centerfolds of individual porn stars. (One could also argue that they are ultimately organized around the phone sex and video porn industries. The stills of the models urge the reader to a phone release, or to buy the video and see the real thing.) First, remember that these covers are explicit about their sexual attraction; these covers are meant to make you buy. In each shot, the muscularity of the model is enhanced by his pose just as in the health magazines, emphasizing muscles associated with strength and masculinity. Athleticism is explicitly referenced with the boxing shorts, the sweat pants, and the pommel horse. Unlike the health magazines, the added presence of sweat marks the models, not only as athletes in exertion, but as hot bodies in both senses. Like the health magazines, these models meet the camera's eye with confidence; they are comfortable in their bodies, and certainly desire the attention of the camera and the viewer. As Dyer noted about porn, these models realize that they are posing to achieve a goal. As if these already built bodies were not enough on their own, the titles of the magazines heap masculinity on their models. Greg Logan becomes a cover jock; one fantasizes about Ryan Idol (there's a name in and of itself!) mandating some sexual service; Adam Hart may even be as endowed as the title Inches suggests. We can even imagine that Ryan Idol's gloved hands have been slinging cable around in the studio all day as an underappreciated working-class grunt. Just as long as we buy the magazine. Also like the health magazines, these porn magazines have ads: but here the ads are for the videos where you can see these cover models actually having sex with other men.

So what discourse are these covers creating about gay male bodies and homosexuality? First and foremost, we cannot mistake these models; they are unavoidably men. Real, masculine, muscular, tanned men who (as models) have time on their hands to train their bodies into this shape. Consider then the props that are used to add meaning to these already unmistakeable bodies. Athletic clothing and equipment, sweat, and the working-class props of gloves, denim, and cable all communicate additional masculine meanings. It almost feels like a sledgehammer, these covers beat the message out so loud: these are real men who have sex with other real men.

Collecting these scattered images consumed in gay discourse on sexuality and the erotic, we form a picture that echoes Dyer's observation at the beginning of this section. Far from breaking step with the norms of male sexuality (as illustrated through the health magazines), gay porn deliberately magnifies its models' masculinity through gendered and classed iconography.


Bringing these observations back to the questions that launched this analysis, the hyper-masculinization of gay porn can be seen as one among many representations of the homosexual body and person. As Dyer points out, however, these fantasy representations and those who view them "are not necessarily equal, in that performers are validated as attractive sexual beings to a degree that audience members may not be." (Dyer 1990, 298; see footnote 31) There is also some tension in understanding these models to actually be homosexual bodies.

At a recent lecture at the University of Chicago, Dyer made a presentation on gay porn where he focused on the masculinization of the bottom, specifically using clips from Ryan Idol videos. (The lecture took place April 16th, 1996, as a meeting of the Gay and Lesbian Studies Group at the University.) Ryan Idol has been variously built up through his name, his physique and the roles he has played in his videos. The drama around Idol as a porn star, however, has been around the specific sexual acts his videos depict. The video that included the first (recorded) Ryan Idol blowjob was heavily marketed around this very scene, which occupies all of five minutes. There was also intense rumor that Idol would star in another film where he would be the bottom in an anal sex scene. This film was never shot, and Idol has since announced his retirement.

In terms of the questions of the representation of the homosexual and what is rendered as "homosexual," I sense that Ryan Idol and many other gay porn stars allow an observation much like Chauncey made of Newport. Stars like Idol are definitely positioned as representing homosexuality, in that they have sex with men. The drama over what sexual roles Idol plays, however, points out that his sexual actions did not render him as homosexual; to put a twist on Dyer, "everything is superficial, playing lesbian/gay is presented as a particular way of carrying on." (Dyer 1991, 199) All this "changed" with the blowjob scene; and even then, there was clamor for the ultimate proof of his potential homosexuality, as though anal sex might not be an act as well. Somehow, though, his retirement has an air of coincidence that casts doubt on the authenticity of his existing receptive performance.

The intensity of discussion over what sexual roles are played, and whether or not these stars are "real homosexuals" has one crucial difference from Chauncey's observations. Even with his mouth on a penis, Ryan Idol is seen as a real, masculine man. I would suggest that this is the case for many gay porn stars today. No matter the sexual role, their masculinity is featured alongside their eroticism. But even this misses the mark, for their masculinity becomes the erotic point of departure; it is what makes the sexual contact sexy, and not "merely" sensual. The tension over sexual roles points to a certain retention of a gender/sexual formula Chauncey described in Newport - insertive:masculine::receptive:feminine. However, the discourse of mainstream gay porn ruptures the neatness of this formula by very aggressively asserting the masculinity of its models. It is almost as if, in order to validate homosexuality, mainstream gay porn ties its models into pre-existing structures of power and validity, such as masculinity.

What consequences might such a discourse on homosexuality present, particularly to the projects of gay liberation politics? That is to say, what are the historical consequences of this representation of male homosexuality? Dyer has already pointed out several consequences for the immediate viewing community of gay men. Many consumers of porn are very aware that the bodies they see on the screen are not the bodies that are watching the screen. As a representation of the attractive in homosexuality, of a validated form of existence, the bodies of porn do set up a standard of beauty which audiences may internalize. To some extent, this is the appreciation of beauty where it is found, but it can become an unhealthy rejection of self in favor of a difficult to attain ideal. As an internal question of gay politics then, one must question representations that detract from the health of the polity, and porn can be said to do this. I must note however, that most of the gay men watching Dyer's lecture had a sense of humor about it all. One observer even quipped that it was like watching Ken (of Barbie fame) have sex with himself.

Moving outward to a larger conception of "queer" politics that seeks to incorporate women and men, whatever their sexuality, Dyer again sounds a warning signal. As noted at the beginning of the last section, "there seems no evidence that in the predominant form of how we represent our sexuality to ourselves (in gay porn) we in any way break from the norms of male sexuality." If anything, mainstream porn cleaves to masculinity like a life preserver. To what degree might this entrenchment in a divisive gender system undermine attempts to unite "queer" men and women? Just as some lesbians have worked (meaning mocked, played, and struggled) to liberate sexuality from a strict gender structure of butch/femme, it would at least be fun to find other ways to represent male homosexuality outside of gender.

Another consequence of gay porn's clinging to masculinity as the core of identity is that a blind commitment to race sneaks into the picture. Earlier, I noted Dyer's approach to this issue, that the representative claim of lesbian/gay film often finds itself limited in practice to "white and middle-class" representation. In terms of porn, this can be seen by the "kinkiness" often associated with interracial scenes, or the consumption of latino, chicano, or different asian images by white audiences. Politically, however, this exposes a rift not in representation, but in awareness. The non-white, read through porn as the exotic, often reinforces marginalizing roles. Not surprisingly, however, the grasp for masculinity remains, often through the very route of race as exotic and natural.

Finally, in relation to mainstream presentations of homosexuality, the discourse of porn performs a somewhat contradictory role. First of all, it is an internal discourse, mounted towards gay men. There seems little opportunity for widespread dissemination of gay porn into mainstream culture, unless one counts Marky Mark and Calvin Klein ads as homoerotic; I for one lean in that direction. Indeed, it is tempting to argue that gay male representations, in sensing so well how to perform masculinity, have educated the wider public on what the masculine "really" is. One might take this a step further and muse on a reinforcing cycle (gay representations becoming more masculine in response to straight representations, straight cultures picking up intensified masculinities from gay cultures, ad nauseam) where the masculine becomes such an intensely narrow construct that either it explodes from the pressure of so many people trying to fit inside of it, or it collapses because people cannot find any room to stay inside and still breathe. The contradiction will come when gay porn, in presenting a potentially positive image of gay men as "real men," realizes that it got involved in the argument in the first place. Why should the masculinity of gay men be necessarily subject to question at all?

Despite all these ponderings, owever, we must remember the structure of author/reader/culture that got us here in the first place. Further, we should remember that the only non-monetary goal in the minds of (all) porn producers is to make the product sexually attractive and enticing. Whether or not sexual fulfillment is the objective or the achievement is open for debate. But with sexual attractiveness at the top of the producers' intentions, we as viewers may inquire into their modes for choosing the attractive, and what social and cutural arrangements these choices might endorse. Such a move would mean taking a conscious role in the education of desire. For the education of gay men then, this is the first lesson: mainstream porn, by positioning these hyper-masculine men as attractive, equates hyper-masculinity with attractiveness. This much is inescapable, and undeniable, even if it is a turn on.

That said, I'm going back to the show.


Return to Chapter Two: In the Navy, or, "All We Want Is a Few Good Men"

Back to Grendel's Scribbling

To the Back Porch


This page last updated November 11, 1996.