This book about pornography—with 28 pages of endnotes, a colon in the title, and a $173 price tag on the hardcover edition—unapologetically identifies itself as an academic tome. Flipping through its charts and statistics, we might hear our own inner voice grumbling, Even queer fuckfilms have succumbed to the graphs of social scientists.
But, as with pornography itself, first impressions can be misleading. Sex, Society, and the Making of Pornography, at $28 for the eBook, is enlightening and even affordable. Its author, Jeffrey Escoffier, a founder of OutLook and director of Out/Write, a professor who has taught at Berkeley, Rutgers, and The New School and is now a researcher at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, avoids pedantry. His graphs, viewed in close focus, give us a rich view of the upheaval in global culture that has taken place since the nudist and bodybuilding magazines like Physique Pictorial, passed furtively from hand-to-hand among closeted men in the 1950s, giving way to Tom of Finland and the abundantly stuffed crotches of his models, and all that has followed since.
“Perversions” and “Scripts”
Escoffier’s book recounts an engaging history that culminates, after millennia, in the mainstreaming of modern hard-core porn—meaning, in his very specific definition, sexual imagery, particularly in videos, of explicit depictions of intercourse, including oral copulation. Escoffier notes that sex researchers of the 1920s, whose focus was primarily on married heterosexual couples, broke ground that later was deeply plowed by Alfred Kinsey, who began in the 1940s publishing the results of surveys that included homosexual feelings, fantasies, and behavior. He doesn’t mention Magnus “Max” Hirschfeld, the German doctor whose Institute for Sex Research, founded in 1919 in Berlin, was the first association in the modern world to promote homosexual and transgender rights.
The author employs the words “perverse” and “perversion” in a way that might be off-putting to an LGBTQ audience. But he is openly gay himself, and no prude, and uses these words in context as a social scientist and historian. Escoffier is known, among many other things, for his earlier studies of “gay for pay” film actors wh6ose heterosexual orientation does not impede their sexual performance with men. He has examined with particular interest what he calls “the social conditions that enable heterosexually-identified men to turn in credible sexual performances in gay pornographic videos.”
Like “perversion,” the word “script” has a special meaning for Escoffier, who devotes most of the book’s attention to films featuring sex between men, and treats pornography as a vast screen on which all of our fantasies are projected. He writes boldly, “Sexual scripts are necessary at every stage of production and are the reason that people watch porn.”
Such a broad assertion concerning people’s interest in porn risks neglecting the developments we see in amateur, do-it-yourself fuckbuddy videos, in which guys who obviously like and are attracted to each other are having fun—not posing or “performing” together. Amateur videos may prove to be a more reliable measure of what people want than statistical analyses of commercial video sales. Joe Gage, creator of rough-trade classics beginning with Kansas City Trucking Co. in 1976, commented in a 2007 Butt Magazine interview, when asked if he liked the work of other directors, “I like amateur porn the best, because it’s real. It’s real sex.”
As is so often the case, LGBTQ people were at the forefront of a social upheaval that soon paid benefits to the entire world. Remember “Chat Rooms”? Maybe you don’t, but if you use any form of social media you are an heir to the slow, noisy, dial-up services that began in the early 1980s, patronized by gay men eager to hook up in a new, virtual way. Personal use of the Internet exploded as men learned to cruise without having to look their best—and, as the technology evolved and allowed them to share photos and videos, to create a new species of pornography. This new generation of do-it-yourself porn embraces various body types, ages, and racial groupings—not as fetish categories for commercial-porn keyword clicks, but as real-life guys doing what comes naturally.
Escoffier refers to the video audience as “spectators,” reinforcing the understanding of porn as a creation tightly controlled by producers who believe they know what the porn-consuming public wants. He nods to Pornhub as the world’s largest distributor of porn and notes that “video pornography on the Internet is not only a hugely popular form of entertainment, but also a body of knowledge about sex that is both a form of sex education as well as a self-help guide”—the modern pillow book. What he doesn’t mention is that the early growth of Pornhub was driven largely by non-commercial, amateur, DIY videos making Pornhub and other amateur sites like XHamster and @ment4us wildly profitable.
From the 1970s through the end of the last century, commercial studios refined and professionalized their product, catering to increasing numbers of fetishes, “perversions,” and interests, in slickly produced, high-quality, keyword-driven commodities. Long gone are the original black-and-white “Old Reliable” films of the early 1970s, which featured snarly, rough-trade types masturbating on camera, often on a familiar worn-out couch, chewing cigars and, occasionally, flipping off the viewer. Meanwhile, technology has allowed fuckbuddies to make quality video recordings of themselves and to post their videos online for anyone to enjoy. The production values are not as impressive, but the intimacy more than compensates.
The Object of Knowledge
But even this erudite observation is subject to reexamination: In a section near the end of Escoffier’s book, perhaps to atone for the statistics and graphs in earlier chapters, he quotes from reviews written by film critics who have had the opportunity to hire their favorite porn actors for live, in-the-room-together, sex. A film scholar studying PornHub and OnlyFans is likely to be able to find his favorites on RentMen. An enterprising performer/escort uses his recognized profile name everywhere, and posts his travel schedule months in advance.
These explicit reviews end the book on a good-humored note: “He was not Rick Gonzales the porn star… he was Rick Gonzales my LOVER for two hours and he just made love to me.”
Andrew Holleran, in his 2015 essay “Notes on Porn,” commented that the occasional moment “when two men do make contact is more powerful than all the anonymous pistonlike fucking of ordinary porn films.” The three-page essay was one of the most often cited items ever to appear in the Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide. Concerning the illusion furthered by porn that the viewer is, in Plato’s terms, experiencing “the object of knowledge,” Holleran wrote, “…you are as alone after sex with someone in a porn film as you were when you began. Depending on your age or temperament or circumstances, this may be a good or a bad thing.”