March 29, 2011
What has happened to gay male porn? What has happened to gay male self-image? Not that either has ever been built on an overly strong sense of self, but I’d be amiss not to notice the growing trend from within gay culture to look like gay male porn stars, while gay male porn stars are, more and more, looking like über-masculine dudes. Let’s get one thing straight (no pun intended): Gay male pornography of today is not filled with mages of “gay” men; gay male pornography of today is filled with projections of the aggressive, competitive male, suppressed of emotion while engaging in one sexual conquest after another: they are images of a hegemonic masculinity fucking itself.
Maybe this inclination by gay men to look like porno stars has always existed, and what I’m noticing is the shift in the images being projected. On any given day I walk into the gym and to a pack of men, presumably mostly gay since I live in the hub of the gay village, with shaved heads and bodies that have been pumped with “roids” and inked with tattoos. I would have to be blind not to notice the similarity between the images of those men at the gym and any one of the latest gay male porn flics. Which is striving to be like the other: is porn reflecting the images of real life, or is real life conflating a sense of self with the cultural images of gender, sex, and sexuality? Either way, there is something very unreal, skewed, about today’s sense of reality.
Masculinity, I have learned, is masculinity: gay, straight, dyke—we are all enacting a performance with no curtain call in sight; there is no end to our construction. It often seems to me, though, that we are all just “following the leader” while having lost sight of who the leader is, or was, and where our following is even leading us. Do we even care? Was there ever even a leader? Does the culture of gay male pornography move us further away from ourselves, or closer to a sense of self? Or is “self” defined solely by what we see within the culture, and how we personify, even internalize, it in our lives? Some would argue that there is no self, that if we go about peeling the onion we will find no middle. Maybe we don’t peel the onion to reach a middle but to rid ourselves of an outer confinement. Meanwhile, we are accruing more and more layers as we are saturated with more and more images about what it means to be “gay,” “desirable,” “masculine,” and most of those images cannot be attained, or if they can, fleetingly, ephemerally, their inscriptions trick us into believing they’re sustainable, which they’re not. The lie of masculinity, any masculinity, is that it is real, that it can be sustained, possessed, like a thing in itself, which it can’t. When someone says to me, “you’re very masculine,” they are of course saying that I am a good performer, that masculinity is a script I know inside out, maybe even that I have internalized my sense of masculinity so absolutely, wholly, that I have come to believe I “am” masculine—which is of course a lie, a lie I tell myself. No one “is,” ontologically, masculine; they merely perform masculinity very well. If I as a man have learned anything about “masculinity,” it is that “being masculine” has nothing to do with “being a man”: if masculinity can be enacted by straight women, gay men, gay women and straight men, “masculinity” itself does not belong to any one of us.
Gay subculture has never not been in crisis, but if there is one, noticeable, crisis in masculinity within the culture today, I would have to say that images of sexual objectification create exceedingly unreal expectations about the body: one’s own, and others. Take Internet dating. More and more these “dating” sites are appearing like another porno site. I, myself, have joined a number of these sites—dating sites, that is—and it does not seem to matter whether I add my profile to the “LTR” category or not—eventually, men will respond to my profile with a picture of their penis, or descriptions about their sexual likes or dislikes, whether they are a “top” or “bottom.” Is “LTR” not still the acronym for “Long Term Relationship,” or have LTRs become, unbeknownst to me, the new casual sex?
All of what I’m saying does have a point and is, hopefully, pointing somewhere. According to a 2007 study in the States involving 516 subjects (126 straight men, 390 gay/bisexual men and women), more than 15% of the gay or bisexual men had at some time suffered from a “subclinical eating disorder”—anorexia, bulimia, binge eating—as opposed to less than 5% of the straight men. The researchers, led by Dr. Iian H. Meyer, PhD, were quoted to have said that the increased risk of eating disorders among gay men could be related to “the values and norms in the gay men’s community [that] promote a body-centered focus and high expectations about physical appearance, so that, similar to what has been theorized about heterosexual women, they may feel pressure to maintain an ideal body image.” None of this seems particularly revelatory to me. One need only stand in any gym in any city in Canada or the States—turn on any television, glance at any magazine cover—and the fetishism of commodities, the “pressure to maintain an ideal body image,” will stare you in the face. Michael Shernoff, in his article “Steroids and the Pursuit of Bigness, writes: “…individuals who abuse steroids almost always suffer from a distorted body image.” Is anyone surprised? He continues: “They often feel that even after several years of using mega-doses of steroids, they still don’t experience satisfaction in the way their body looks, or in the size of their muscles…. Some are so obsessed with getting bigger that when they are done with one cycle of steroids, they begin another one immediately.” Shernoff goes onto discuss some of the causes of the steroid use, including the need to be loved, finding someone to love and to love them back. “[A]lmost every time I hear this worry, it’s accompanied by the rationale that what keeps one unhappily single is being too heavy, too thin, too old or not having a gym body….. Some of these men who have perfectly good bodies and low body fat, present themselves in ways reminiscent of anorexic girls or young women. They have completely distorted views of their bodies, always think of themselves as fat; many have eating disorders.” He also discusses the rising use of steroids in the 1980s as a means of combating the wasting effects of AIDS. Other gay men use steroids and human growth hormones as a means of “underscoring the fact that they are not ill. It has also become the standard for being physically attractive and sexually desirable.” The pumped up body, in other words, has “become the symbol of health.”
How much is ever enough, though? When we go about chasing the symbols, are we merely tricking ourselves into believing we can actually possess the symbol, that we’ve “become” what we are symbolizing? Deepak Chopra, in his book The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success: A Practical Guide to the Fulfillment of Your Dreams, writes that “[c]hasing symbols is like settling for the map instead of the territory. It creates anxiety; it ends up making you feel hollow and empty, because you exchange your Self for the symbols of your Self” (1994: 84). For many gay men their introduction into sexuality is still through the purview of pornography, and yet I question whether the images in today’s gay male pornography teach anyone anything about sexuality that isn’t, fundamentally, a lie: bodies that are never big enough, aggressive enough, sexy enough, suppressed of enough emotion. Gay male pornography today tells us we are, or at least should be, strong, desirable, immutably protected from harm, illness, death. Maybe the greatest deception of all is that our über-sexed, masculine bodies will never die.