Books: Three Books That Delve Into The Glamour, And The Excesses, Of The Gay Pornography Industry

Published December 5, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

The world of porn as one big playground -- made up of equal parts danger, dysfunction, substance abuse and fantasy fulfillment, peopled by a lovable community of outcasts creating their own family from the circumstances they've been given and the appendages they possess -- that's the world of director Paul Thomas Anderson's "Boogie Nights," an homage to the best of both Robert Altman and Quentin Tarantino. The movie is full of smart performances, it's hysterically retro and it looks great, right down to the documentary within the movie, shot on super-8. With all that going for it, it's easy to overlook the film's one glaring inaccuracy -- that Mark Wahlberg's Dirk Diggler becomes the darling of porn, while in the real world of straight porn he would have been merely one of the stable boys to Julianne Moore's Amber Waves, the true star. It says something that the only time women have clout over men in the movie business is when it's the porn movie business.

Then there's the gay porn movie business, also catering to and paid for by men. But even here there's a double standard at work. Traditionally the only real "stars" have been men's men -- hypermasculine, overdeveloped, monosyllabic hulks who purport to be "straight" and function as "tops," orally passive (they like to receive), anally active (they like to give). One of the more interesting points raised by Charles Isherwood in "Wonder Bread and Ecstasy," his biography of porn idol Joey Stefano, is the fact that before Stefano came along, the "bottoms" of the business were interchangeable. Pointing to the thematic breakdown of gay porn as listed in the Adam Gay Video 1991 Directory, he notes that during the middle period of Stefano's high reign the most popular sex films involved athletes, construction workers, cops and cowboys -- what every straight boy wants to grow up to be, and what every gay boy wants to grow up to get fucked by.

But then along came Stefano, bottom extraordinaire. He became a star through a cultivated sullen passivity; he turned lying there and taking it into an art form. (It also helped that he had Tom Cruise's clean-cut cuteness.) From his emergence in 1989 until his death by drug overdose in 1994, Stefano became one of porn's household names, on par with such great gay tops as Jeff Stryker and Ryan Idol. Isherwood places Stefano's ascendancy in the context of the late '80s gay political climate, with the emergence of ACT-UP and Queer Nation: "The hegemony of the top was toppled; a new mood had arrived."

The arrival of this new mood had much to do with one Chi Chi LaRue, nee Larry Paciotti, a drag performer turned gay porn entrepreneur and director. LaRue both chronicles and celebrates his own genius in "Making it Big," a big, fat, loud, flatulent breeze of a book -- a porno producer's primer. Possessing a lifelong love for the cinema of sex in all its aspects, LaRue, a Divine-sized walking encyclopedia of porn in a woman's size 24 dress, knew instinctively what to exploit and how to exploit it. Quickly he became fuck film's Orson Welles. Having learned his craft by working his way up the ladder from gopher to director, he revolutionized not only the look of gay porn videos but also the way they're sold -- and who is sold with them. It was LaRue who discovered and fell in love with Stefano, and it was he who sold the Stefano package, as it were, to the world. But as "Wonder Bread and Ecstasy" makes repetitively clear, Stefano was ultimately responsible for his own demise. The porn world is the only industry where you can be famous, lusted after and recognized, yet still be the object of contempt. It's a world where "stars" aren't really stars, and might still be forced to live from hand to mouth -- or in Stefano's case, on Wonder bread and the drug ecstasy. Unfortunately for him, Joey wasn't smart enough to grasp this rather important distinction. Fame was fame, wasn't it?

Stefano's life story fails to have the import of tragedy because there's no real sense of what died with him; Isherwood's book is the usual "ain't it awful" morality tale. There didn't seem to be anything else for Stefano to do with, or want for, himself: "What if?" becomes "so what?" Reading about Stefano's numbing descent and death at 26, you don't feel the pointless loss of life because the life seemed pointless to begin with.

Described in at least one review as "sex-positive" (a word much overused and politicized), Scott O'Hara's jauntily titled "Autopornography" is neither an apology for his porn past nor a strident defense of it. His career as a porn star takes up no more space than a variety of other topics. In fact, the book is little more than a meandering mishmash of sound bites -- O'Hara expounding on family, fisting and foreskin. Chapterlets titled "'Is That All Real?'" "Noose," "Scott in Love," "Pornstars in Private" and "Dear Ex-Lover" (as well as an occasional and unfortunate poem) reveal both articulateness and self-delusion masquerading as forthrightness. It sounds like a sad rationalization when he claims that he counts himself "lucky to have been infected" with HIV because his life is now "carefree," and that he "pities" HIV-negative people "who spend their entire lives trying to eliminate risk." It's an insult to every AIDS death of the last 16 years (and the living left behind) to wax glib on this subject, even now, in the era of protease inhibitor drugs. It doesn't have anything remotely to do with being "sex-positive" for O'Hara to say that being HIV-infected "isn't for everyone, obviously. But for those of us who are more interested in adventure than security it's the fashion accessory of the 1990s. I wouldn't be caught dead without it." The idiocy of this sentiment speaks for itself.

Subject matter aside, none of these books remotely resembles literature, and you certainly won't come away from reading them with anything that you ever really needed to know. But LaRue, for one, understands exactly who his readers are and what they want to hear; the joy he gets from la vie de porn makes it all seem fairly wholesome. O'Hara, on the other hand, despite a surprising dexterity with language, comes off as nothing more than a sex machine with a complete lack of understanding regarding anything that isn't smothered in carnality. And while Isherwood does his job admirably, his earnestness often becomes ponderously pious.

The land of gay porn lies, no doubt, between LaRue's cheery view and Stefano's lamentable existence, but it's fairly narrow territory. All three books make a case for the argument that when sex is the all-consuming way of life, sometimes there's not much life going on around the sex.

By Daniel Reitz

Daniel Reitz, a frequent contributor to Salon, is a writer living in New York. His film "Urbania," based on his play, "Urban Folk Tales," will be released in August.

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