If pornography once served mainly as a mood enhancement for sex and cruising, the AIDS epidemic has made it an outright replacement for sex, both for those of us who have chosen celibacy and those of us who have made an uneasy truce with our libidos by settling for the tepid pleasures of mutual masturbation. AIDS has radically transformed the function that pornography plays in gay culture, elevating it from its former role as an aphrodisiac, a way of whetting our appetites before we ourselves plunge into the act, to its present role as a wholesale substitute for sex, a safe alternative to the perils of the meat rack. We are rapidly becoming a culture of voyeurs, a society that delegates its sexual experiences to a special class of proxies, of stand-ins and understudies, who, like stunt men in action films who leap from careening automobiles and dive through circles of flame, hurl themselves into a deadly battlefield of viruses where they take upon their shoulders all of the sexual risks that we ourselves are unwilling to assume. AIDS has turned us into cowardly bystanders whose knowledge of sex is increasingly second-hand; something we indulge in vicariously, safely ensconced on our sofas; an absorbing spectator sport that we participate in only with our eyes. As intercourse becomes an exclusively visual event, our pornography begins to cater solely to peeping toms who watch sex more than they participate in it, looking but never touching.
Long before hard-core porn films became available to the general public in the 1970s, small audiences of venturesome gay men defied the vice squads and gathered together in stifling, unventilated rooms to watch what were called “smokers,” the silent, 16mm shorts produced by a handful of underground pioneers during the 1950s and 1960s. In these smoky, improvised theaters, guilt-ridden men feasted their eyes on such unspeakably obscene things as naked teenagers skinny-dipping in mountain lakes, bare-assed cowboys in g-strings and Stetsons tackling unsuspecting Indian braves, and pensive artists sketching nude athletes in the tasteful poses of classical discus throwers. In The Captive, a short film from this period, a Roman centurion taunts a disobedient slave in a tiny cache-sexe who, like a damsel in distress, pleads to his captor for mercy as he unconvincingly yanks on the chains that bind him to two teetering plaster pillars. In Marble Illusion, a melancholy Pygmalion chisels away at a Herculean figure who miraculously comes to life, strutting about the studio in a scanty “posing strap” and gazing benevolently at the sculptor who swoons girlishly over his flexed biceps.
No matter how arousing gay men may have found vintage erotica (which the modern audience laughs at as little more than puerile kitsch), the films of such studios as the Athletic Model Guild (AMG), Zenith Pictures, and Apollo Films fell far short of actual pornography. They contained no penetration, no erections, and, most importantly, no frontal nudity, at least until the mid-1960s when a Supreme Court ruling allowed them to offer parades of jiggling penises. Even something as innocent as touching was presented in an extremely stylized manner and was sanctioned only if it were masked in one of three ways: (1) as a maniacal tendency on the part of the actors to engage in unmotivated bouts of wrestling, the adolescent rough-housing that, in the absence of more intimate contact, serves as a form of surrogate sex; (2) as “appreciation” by an admiring artist who revolves around a static, muscle-bound figure on a pedestal, squeezing his arms and tentatively prodding his taut stomach; and (3) as a homoerotic form of rescue, as in the many drowning sequences in these films or in scenes involving heat exhaustion on African safaris where one parched beauty collapses limply on the shoulders of his heroic companion. Embracing was rarely permitted as an expression of affection, let alone of desire, but was allowed only in the form of mindless aggression or if one of the actors is defenseless, immobile, unable to touch back, paralyzed as a living statue or as a semi-conscious accident victim languishing helplessly after a close brush with death.
Because of bad lighting, the asshole remained largely unfilmable until the early 1980s.
When gay directors finally made the leap from erotica to pornography in the very early 1970s and abandoned such sophomoric sex substitutes as wrestling and posing for actual penetration, plot suddenly became much more central to the entire stag-film industry. The ironic result was that, as erotica became more raunchy and less euphemistic, it simultaneously became more artful, more literary, more narrative. The use of plot was, in one sense, a purely practical response to the political pitfalls involved in filming explicit sex acts, which were liable to incur the wrath of vigilant censors unless directors carefully padded their films with a perfunctory quotient of socially and artistically “redeeming” material which could withstand in court the scrutiny of pious public officials. Plot was also essential to the misguided psychology of arousal basic to these films. Assuming naively that the audience would become more excited if the sex scenes were staggered throughout the movie, separated from each other by long sequences of inaction, pornographic filmmakers used plot as a form of striptease, of narrative foreplay, a way of deferring gratification until the viewer was worked up into a feverish pitch of impatience. Throughout the 1970s and well into the 1980s, directors produced baroque monuments of inertia and aimlessness, Last Year in Marienbads of dreamy, somnolent filmmaking, as in the 1972 film Left-Handed, which consists largely of arid stretches in which the characters stroll through the streets of New York or take leisurely Sunday drives through the countryside, followed by trance-like moments of presumably transcendent love-making blurred by the effects of pot and mescaline. The directors of such films set out, in some sense quite deliberately, to bore their audiences, for boredom was crucial to their tactics of delay. Plot served not to grab the interest of the viewer, but precisely the opposite, to make him restless, to make him chomp at the bit, to sit on the edge of his seat until his lusts could be slaked in the highly desultory moments of explicit sex that followed lengthy sections of sluggish narrative prick-teasing.
The use of plot as an instrument of delay is not the only factor that makes early gay films difficult to watch. The obstructive presence of narrative is heightened by the bad lighting of early pornography, which frequently envelops the actor’s entire body in impenetrable shadows, obliterating his cock and ass which, at the most crucial moments, disappear altogether from the screen. Despite the fact that directors used close-ups obsessively, they had great difficulty throughout the 1970s and even into the 1980s in overcoming the darkness of the regions surrounding the groin, which were made even more mysterious by the long hair of the actors which draped over blow jobs like curtains, hiding erections from the audience. Because of bad lighting, the asshole also remained largely unfilmable until the early 1980s, hidden away under a bristly fleece of coarse hair which prevented all but the briefest and most unsatisfactory cameo appearances of a barely discernible puckered opening buried in a thicket of frizzy curls.
In part, the funereal gloom of the films made during this period was simply the result of incompetence and the technical limitations of the medium of film (as opposed to the much brighter and more adaptable medium of video). But bad lighting also served a specific ideological function: it contributed to the decadent atmosphere with which directors linked gay sex in an effort to incorporate the forbidden and illicit nature of homosexuality into the very mechanism by which they aroused their audience. When sex occurs in many of the films produced during the 1970s, we enter what might be called a dreamscape, a hypnotic, ill-lit world suffused with a highly moralistic sense of sin, in which the characters exist in a timeless state of drugged arousal, floating disembodied through indeterminate landscapes that have no clear physical reality. In one of the darkest and most brooding films of the 1970s, Destroying Angel, a priest experiencing religious doubts is chased around Manhattan by a demonic twin who appears at his bedside when he is making love, stepping out of mirrors and cackling with sinister glee over his brother’s ungodly abominations as Hitchcockian scores of dark cellos and screeching violins reach deafening crescendos.
The sex of early gay pornography often occurs in a setting that is explicitly demonic and otherworldly, an illicit realm in which perverted acts, engulfed in the misty vapors of fog machines, are filmed in slow motion or in diabolical shades of red. Moody, Dantesque twilight zones crop up even in the most realistic films: the characters no sooner pull down their pants than they leave the bedroom behind and enter a trance-like state of sexual rapture in which the normal operations of space and time are suspended. As the characters make love, the viewer is transported out of the everyday world into a vague and kaleidoscopic no-man’s-land divorced from reality, a delirious mirage where the ravenous fingers of faceless phantoms snatch at wayward undergarments slipping down rock-hard thighs. The final scene of an otherwise quite naturalistic film, the 1976 production Kansas City Trucking Company, for instance, takes place in a bunk house for truckers so dark and so permeated with a sense of shame that it is impossible to tell if the whole nightmarish episode is not in fact a figment of the characters’ feverish imaginations, a fantasy in which headless truckers, tormented by unnatural lusts, lunge at the protagonist’s defenseless body with an air of starving desperation.
In the years immediately following Stonewall the neogothic strain that taints many gay films appealed to homosexuals’ belief in their own moral turpitude, a stereotype that pornographers exploited by arousing their viewers with images of decadence and degeneracy. Over the next two decades, however, the eroticizing of guilt lost its grip on our sexual fantasies as homosexuals acquired greater confidence about the healthiness of their preferences. In fact, the entire history of gay self-acceptance since Stonewall can be summed up in the changes that have occurred in the lighting of gay films, from the gloomy and spectral settings of the 1970s to the brilliant, clinical illumination of present-day films which take place in spaces free of guilt, of the erotics of sin. Contemporary pornography is anchored in the here and now, in real bedrooms and real cars, rather than in indeterminate fantasy realms whose flickering light and dramatic chiaroscuro provide an almost allegorical representation of the stealthy conditions under which homosexuals were once forced to meet and cruise.
Sex was supposed to effect a mystical union of two lovers.
The misuse of narrative and the mistaken belief that darkness operated as an aphrodisiac were just two of the factors that make early gay pornography virtually unwatchable. Many of the films produced during the 1970s were also undermined by the heavy editing of the sex scenes, which were shredded into ribbons, sliced up into shots as brief as one or two seconds, and then scrambled into a sort of cubist collage. Well into the 1980s, the viewer was presented not with intact bodies that we are allowed to examine in their entirety, but with a mosaic of details. A shot of one lover’s arm would be juxtaposed next to a shot of the other’s thigh, a nipple next to a foot, an eagerly lapping tongue next to a curling toe, or a mouth drooling in anticipation next to clawing fingers raking down a frenziedly thrusting back. In the course of sixty seconds of a particularly chaotic sex scene in Destroying Angel, for instance, the director makes a total of thirty-seven cuts, or one cut every second and a half, a staggering number that results in a garbled patchwork of incoherent close-ups stitched together in such a way that the viewer cannot even determine which cock belongs to which character. Contemporary pornography, by contrast, tends to present an average of only four or five shots every minute, a number that produces far less fractured images than those found in the mangled episodes of older films, which seem to have been invented from scratch by splicing together random loops of film on the editorial chopping block.
The medleys of body parts in early gay pornography were not simply a reflection of the director’s ineptitude but of his conviction that an endless succession of rapid jump cuts and tumultuous sequences of blurry, dismembered shapes contributed something irresistibly erotic to the sex scenes. Pornographers believed that they were filming two people, not in the act of fucking, but of merging, of coalescing, a process that involved the dissolution of their separate physical identities as they melted together, losing their definition as individuals. This high-flown and extremely sentimental idea had profoundly detrimental consequences for the visual clarity of early gay pornography. Sex was supposed to effect a mystical union of two lovers whose spiritual integration in the heat of passion was represented aesthetically by actively confusing their bodies, carving them up into small pieces, and then grafting them back together in intricate visual puzzles.
The fragmentation of sex scenes from the 1970s was also the result of the context in which they were watched, a setting that changed dramatically when the home video revolution of the mid-1980s liberated viewers from decrepit burlesque palaces with sticky floors and dilapidated seats plastered with wads of gum. Until the last decade, pornography was a communal event which took place in darkened cinemas where restless audiences migrated from seat to seat in a game of musical chairs, knocking knees, playing footsie, and gathering together for sex in the cramped stalls of bathrooms or on abandoned balconies. Because the vast majority of people watched pornography in a public setting, early gay films really served more as a backdrop for cruising, a form of visual Muzak for sex, than they did as an end in themselves, as engrossing full-length features that monopolized the viewer’s attention to the exclusion of all else, holding him spellbound as they meandered at their own exasperating pace through rambling and convoluted plots. In its early years, gay pornography was more glimpsed than it was watched. Its splintered images were designed for the most careless and intermittent attention, allowing the viewer’s eyes to dart back and forth between the screen and the audience, the fidgety and restive spectators who function as the unstable subtext of early pornography.
In the mid-1980s, the nature of the audience’s involvement with sexual imagery changed from the glance to the stare, the absorbed concentration of the man on his sofa who used pornography, not as an excuse for staging impromptu orgies on ruinous mezzanines, but as a masturbatory aid. Over the next decade, pornographers attempted to accommodate the spectator’s new level of alertness by dramatically cutting down on the amount of editing and the number of confining close-ups, thus presenting more intact bodies for viewers who, undistracted by the heavy cruising going on around them, were increasingly devoting their undivided attention to the television screen. When pornography fled from a communal to a private setting, from the theater to the living room, the blurry and inchoate images of early pornography snapped into sharp focus, the pieces of the shattered bodies were reassembled, and, with the flick of a switch, the stage settings in which sex was filmed were flooded with light as unsparingly brilliant as the incandescent lamps of a surgical theater.
Well into the mid-1980s, the unreality of the pornographic dreamscape was heightened by the absence of sound and the practice of dubbing sex scenes with voiceovers of disembodied groans and echoing tirades of expletives. The action was also set to music, to inappropriately lighthearted supermarket jingles that skipped merrily along, totally at odds with the thrusting pelvises pummeling each other on the screen. When the ghost-like inhabitants of misty purgatories began to speak and groan in their own voices, however, and to do so in instantly recognizable settings presented without the perceptual distortions that make older films so hallucinatory, the viewer suddenly achieved the feeling of what might be called “presence,” of being in close proximity to the sex. We moved from the ecstatic love ballets of the earlier films, in which sex transcended the realm of the physical, to the films of the last ten years which, far from being dreamy and trance-like, aim for something infinitely more mundane and down-to-earth: “hot” sex, sex that is rooted in the physicality of actors who remain firmly planted in the locations in which they make love rather than lofting up into an otherworldly state of euphoria where they convulse and shudder through acts of sodomy and fellatio. We have gone from rapturous pornography to crude and exclusively carnal acts of unapologetically obscene fucking and sucking; from transcendent sex, which was primarily an emotional and spiritual experience, to sex that takes place in the very incarnate realm of beds with creaking box springs.
Characters now make love in sleek, uncluttered environments, in living rooms that look almost unoccupied.
And yet the decline of disincarnate sex and the arrival of “hot” sex created as many problems as it solved for the modern pornographer: as porn came down from the clouds, it became difficult to conceal the characters’ egregious acting, their intense anxiety, and their lack of excitement. When the viewer is finally permitted into the room where the sex is happening and is forced to listen to dopey blond surfers and burly numbskulls dressed as plumbers deliver their dishearteningly hammy lines, he comes face to face with the theatricality of pornography in a way that he had never experienced before. He realizes immediately that pornography seldom evokes fireworks but more often resembles a stroll through a lifeless wax museum in which talentless automatons flog each other with limp pricks, all the while howling, grimacing, and gnashing their teeth. Ironically, the realism of modern pornography is its downfall. The more lifelike the films become, the more phony they seem, haunted by the insufferable inauthenticity of actors chanting “oh baby” and “take it” even as they stand before us trembling and impotent, professing with nauseating fervor the burning passions they clearly do not feel.
It is not only the sex that has become clearer since the video revolution, but the locations in which the action occurs. Up until the mid-1980s, the backgrounds in gay films were usually irrelevant, consisting simply of someone’s cluttered living room strewn with dirty socks and old newspapers or their grungy garage slick with pools of coagulating oil. These settings were chosen solely because of their availability and not because some well-paid scout had scoured the neighborhoods in search of the perfect location. It is precisely because of their irrelevance that the details of these backgrounds are so conspicuous today, luring our eyes to the peripheries of the scene, to the hideous nonessentials that dwarf the sex itself: the appalling knickknacks on the coffee table, the half eaten jelly donut on the chipped plate at the foot of the plaid sofa, the orange shag throw rug lying on the pea-green wall-to-wall carpet, or the filthy high-top sneaker left on top of the red vinyl ottoman.
Throughout the 1980s, directors became as sensitive to the aesthetics of their backgrounds—to uncoordinated patterns of upholstery or walls with peeling paint—as the cinematographers of commercial Hollywood releases. Unlike the “found” locations of older films, the tasteful decors of contemporary pornography are actually meant to be seen and appreciated, to be processed along with the sex, creating a seductive ambiance of well-heeled elegance that exerts as strong an influence on the audience as the sexiness and stamina of the actors. Surrounded by original works of art and tasteful antiques, characters now make love in sleek, uncluttered environments, beside marble hearths crackling with romantic fires or in living rooms that look almost unoccupied. Affluent, footloose bon vivants, fresh from Waikiki, now dally in luxurious swimming pools and then screw their way through every room of the entire mansion, taking the viewer on a kind of guided tour, from the ultra-modern kitchen, where they copulate over islands of gleaming appliances—espresso machines and chrome juicers—to the master bathroom, where they make love in the jacuzzis and walk-in showers.
The revolution in the decor of recent pornography is a symptom of a much larger phenomenon: the emergence of a new gay archetype. X-rated films were once in perpetual flight from the subculture and therefore celebrated such non-gay figures as truckers, construction workers, and policemen—blue-collar studs whose “authentic” masculinity tantalized their effete admirers. But with the rise of the House Beautiful aristocrat whose sexual adventures function both as pornography and as a fanciful tour of a prime piece of expensive real estate, we are witnessing the rise of a new sexual hero, one that originates from within the subculture rather than from outside; from the ranks of homosexuals themselves rather than from the elusive proletariat whose uniforms and mannerisms gay men once imitated. While porn films still celebrate the primitive laborer who screws in the cabs of tractor trailers, over wooden trestles at construction sites, or on bales of hay in the lofts of barns, these comely plebeians are gradually being crowded out and the viewer is watching sex between idealized versions of himself.
In one sense, the use of sexual models who come from within the subculture represents an advance in the education of the homosexual libido. Many gay men are no longer at war with themselves, turned on exclusively by the act of self-cancellation that informs older films in which homosexuals have sex with the Other, with grease monkeys and horse wranglers, assiduously avoiding their emasculated subcultural counterparts. But in another sense, the fact that porn films increasingly revolve around posh and gentrified images of gay men marks an insidious shift in the psychology of pornography. In recent films, viewers and actors are compatriots, accomplices, brothers-in-arms, and the man on the screen is not simply an object of lust but one of imitation, a model rather than a sex object, a figure who represents the bland summit of gay materialism. The porn star is increasingly the embodiment, not only of the gay man’s sexual desires, but of his social and economic desires as well, his aspirations to lead the carefree life of a lounge lizard swimming in disposable income and basking in the sun around his crystalline pool where beautiful boys in bikinis silently skim the leaves from the waters and then succumb wholeheartedly to his sensual whimsies. As a result, pornography now eroticizes an entire lifestyle which has become as sexy as the sex itself. In the 1989 film Two Handfuls II each scene is set apart, for no apparent reason, by lingering shots of such high-priced appurtenances as Louis Vuitton wallets, disc-man players, high-tech electronic gadgets, and bottles of vintage Chablis. While turning away from the cult of the macho Other may represent a small step towards self-acceptance, when we begin to choose our archetypes from within our own ranks pornography begins to exert a degree of control over us that it has never had before, shaping our social and professional aspirations as well as our sexual ones.
In addition to providing an economic model for the gay community, the rich new playboys of recent pornography also provide an intimidatingly unrealistic physical model. Throughout the 1970s and well into the 1980s, the bodies of the actors were so fractured or seen at such close range that the viewer often didn’t have a clear sense of which leg belonged to which man, let alone what each character looked like or how well-endowed he was. The erotics of coalescing produced a style of pornography that was profoundly indifferent, not only to the luxuriousness of the settings, but to the identity of the star, who was usually not a magnificent specimen but simply an average man off the street, a slender but not necessarily gym-toned person with bad teeth, bony knees, and a boyish paunch. Because the actors’ personal appearance was all but irrelevant, collage sex was the porn of anonymity, a style of filmmaking in which the central character was simply a man, any man, unlike the ambrosial youth, the autocracy of ectomorphs, now promoted by studios like Falcon or Colt, which groom and cultivate entire stables of actors, paying their gym memberships and issuing decrees about the length of their hair and the darkness of their tan lines.
The new gay archetype is not only wealthy and muscular but also untouchable.
The rise of such embodiments of the new gay archetype as cult stars Jeff Stryker, Ryan Idol, and the late Joey Stephano contributed to an obsession with fitness that jeopardizes gay men’s sense of physical and sexual well-being. Homosexuals have always been concerned with their appearances, but it is only with the spread of pornography that we have stampeded into gyms where, out of intense inadequacy, we attempt to sculpt our flaccid bodies into shapes they were never intended to assume. With the onset of the sexual revolution, which triggered the proliferation of such glossy beefcake magazines as Honcho, Mandate, and Blue Boy, gay culture was saturated with a coercive body of masculine iconography, the luscious images of the buffed, bionic males who now strip in our clubs, strut down the runways of our fund-raisers, sprawl spread-eagle in our calendars, and leer suggestively, in all of their hairless splendor, from virtually every page of our newspapers. During the 1970s, gay men began to ingest massive quantities of prescriptive images that idealized an unreal and unattainable individual, forever outside of our reach, inaccessible to all but the most conventionally beautiful people. The censorious and moralistic culture that preceded the sexual revolution thus had at least one distinct advantage over its modern, hedonistic counterpart: its squeamishness prevented the free dissemination of the sexual images that now provide the punitive standard by which we measure the mediocrity of our own sex lives, as well as the inferiority of our bandy-legged, stooped-shouldered bodies. Gay liberation inadvertently liberated us into a new state of heightened sexual self-consciousness, placing an aspect of our lives that had been relatively immune to the forces of commercialism at the mercy of the marketplace, which quickly began to bombard us with photographs and films depicting an all-powerful sexual elite.
The new gay archetype is not only wealthy and muscular but also untouchable, a cold-blooded creature whose primary purpose, like the immaculate suites of palatial bedrooms and lavish solariums over which he presides, is largely ornamental. If the directors of older pornography created out of two separate individuals a single montage that was intended to suggest spiritual fusion under the surreal intensity of lust, recent films strive just as conscientiously to keep the bodies of the actors apart, to prevent them from coalescing. Directors now limit their characters’ interaction in order to showcase the stunning physiques of a parade of prima donnas who are not having sex so much as they are striking flattering poses, mugging for the camera, and flaunting the results of the gruelling hours they spent torturing themselves at the gym. We have come full circle to the old AMG films in which living statues, tastefully slumped against Doric columns, were meant to be admired from a distance, like works of art that could be seen but not touched. Just as wrestling once served as a surrogate for sex, so sex now serves as a surrogate for posing. Whereas the men in pornography from the 1970s clung to each other like barnacles, contemporary directors rarely permit full-body embracing for more than a few seconds. Horizontal sex, in which one character drapes himself over the prone body of the other so that they become virtually indistinguishable, is strictly forbidden on the grounds that such extensive contact would impair the audience’s vision of the showpieces on display. The cameraman manipulates intercourse to create a schematized, televisual sex in which the bodies remain as detached and thus as photogenic as possible. Unlike older pornography, in which anatomically incoherent and ill-lit ensembles of entangled limbs writhed to the dulcet strains of Muzak, sustained body contact in the films of the last ten years is so minimal that the actors are joined, like Siamese twins, only at the single point of entry where one character’s penis penetrates his partner. As a result, for purposes of clarity, the characters in contemporary pornography do not make love with their entire bodies but touch each other with their genitals alone.
This desire to maximize the exposure of the bodies in order to allow the audience the best possible view results in a number of strange sex mannerisms: the actors often appear to be pulling away from each other, shrinking back rather than rushing forward, as if their partner in some way repelled them. When kissing, for example, porn stars often seem absurdly diffident. While people in real life kiss by pressing their faces together so that their tongues can explore deeply within each other’s mouths, the tongues of porn stars frequently do not enter the orifice but simply touch at the very tip, flickering in the air like serpents so that this most apocryphal of cinematic kisses can be captured by the camera. Directors also choregraph anal sex in a particularly stilted manner: the active partner places one hand behind his back in a strange Napoleonic pose that simultaneously shows off his washboard stomach and prevents his erection from being hidden by his forearms as he clasps his partner by the hips. Sex is also an occasion for exhibiting massive quads and bulging lats as actors indulge in more literal forms of posing: folding their arms voluptuously behind their heads; flexing their biceps; and doing pushups while drilling the mouths of their lovers who lie helpless beneath them, serving as human fulcrums for these impressive acrobatics. Even the harmless slaps the actors often give each other, pounding their partner’s pecs with their fists or playfully swatting their rear-ends, are not masterful S/M slaps meant to inflict a pleasant sting, but a means of demonstrating to the audience the tautness and tone of the bodies, which the characters take turns displaying as if they were car dealers showing off the special features of their merchandise, kicking their tires and adjusting the luxurious bucket seats.
But perhaps the moment that reveals most clearly that the real subject of modern pornography is not sex but a prurient examination of the sculptural perfection of spectacular physiques is the eccentric manner in which orgasm is represented. Astonishingly, what industry insiders call the “money shot” seldom occurs during intercourse, from friction with another body, but is relegated to separate scenes in which the actors suddenly stop having sex altogether so that each man can bring himself to orgasm through masturbation as the other simply sits back and watches, offering feeble words of support and encouragement, like a midwife presiding over a difficult birth. Instead of having simultaneous orgasms, which are relatively rare in gay pornography, the actors politely take turns, spelling off in such a way that only one man assumes center stage at a time, thus allowing the viewer to savor the thrill of each cum shot individually. At the very moment when the two lovers should be merging in mutual satisfaction, they are most alone, withdrawn, and independent. The money shot is a metaphor for the pathology of modern pornography as a whole: Highly solipsistic and opposed to the idea of merging, these films aim to display champion thoroughbreds whose beauty can best be appreciated without the obstructions of intimate contact. Contemporary pornography is at war with its very subject, sex, an act that involves a type of communion now anathema in films more concerned with the appearances of gorgeous specimens than with the quality of their interaction.
Older pornography looks as chaotic as it does because directors were trying to show sex from the point of view of the characters, whose excitement they mimicked in a reeling, vertiginous series of jumpcuts meant to provide the objective equivalent of a highly subjective state of arousal. Its makers assumed that the audience would get excited if the pornographer could devise a sufficiently compelling image of what was going on inside his actors’ heads, of the intensity of all of the tactile impressions being experienced in the character’s consciousness. In the course of the last twenty years, however, directors have abandoned the notion that pornography works by empathy, by the transference of pleasure from the consciousness of the actor experiencing it to that of the audience watching it. While older films focused on what the actors were feeling when they had sex, more recent films focus on how they appear when they have it. Pornography has gone from being intensely, inscrutably subjective to alienatingly objective. Old pornography was about pleasure, about how pleasure feels. New pornography is about aesthetics, about how pleasure looks. The point of view of pornography has migrated from the actor to the audience, from the first person to the third, from their perspective as participants to ours as passive spectators loitering on the sidelines, experiencing the scene from the outside, watching an activity that has become a visual event rather than a sensual one.