I’m lucky enough to have a bunch of pro-skateboarders for friends. I told them that I’d been asked to write something about ‘extreme’ in porn and sex in honor of the Folsom Street Fair. They laughed. For them the word ‘extreme’ is ruined, a name for organized competitions and SUVs. It’s a dead word. The guys in skateboarding who were truly extreme were the strange ones who broke away and bucked the trends — the ones who skated alone, working out tricks while everyone called them dorks. The ones who were willing to be seen as stupid, strange, outsiders. The rest of the world, when they think of ‘extreme skateboarding’ thinks of robot kids competing for TV-time and corporate sponsorship at the X-games. Fuck them.
As in skateboarding, ‘extreme’ means nearly nothing in porn. Usually it’s associated with things like blood, scat, snuff — but these aren’t extremes. Men have been fisting, pissing on and in each other, wearing the skins of animals, slaughtering slaves for pleasure, shitting in each others’ mouths for millennia. These behaviors are as old as fucking, as old as the species. The real extremes in porn are the acts of creation that signal — and often enable — a needed change of sexual paradigm, a style-shift in the architecture of sexual identity. The real extreme is what the strange ones do to change the world.
Let me give you three examples from fairly recent porn
A great controversy of the late 40’s and 50’s in the U.S. was around the issue of simple nudity. Does a man have the right to publish images of nude men? Does a man have the right to look at these images? Is the man who longs to look at male nudes not only legally covered but also psychologically OK? The efforts by outsider pornographers of the time — strangers — to legalize and celebrate full frontal male nudity had enduring political and commercial consequences. It also had a profound effect on the identities of those men who longed to look at nude men, giving many of them a first taste of personal reality and power. To masturbate gazing at a grinning athletic ithyphallic young man was to give oneself at least a fleeting belief in the correctness of one’s desires.
In the late 60’s and the 70’s, one project of male porn was the introduction of plot and context to sex. The films of another stranger, Wakefield Poole, are great examples. Go back and re-watch BOYS IN THE SAND. The “set-ups” last forever by current standards. It’s not that they’re complex or elaborate or involve dialogue. In fact, simplicity was crucial. Porn now had the mandate to provide viewers with images of sexualized homosexual males wandering about in everyday places.
For example, in BOYS IN THE SAND, Casey Donovan takes ten minutes to mail a letter, endlessly wandering around the picturesque walkways of Fire Island and playing with his happy dog. No one in the audience complained. No one in the porn theater shouted “Boring!”. The pornography wasn’t just in the sex that eventually happened, but was also in the placement of these joyously sexualized men in a world to which they simply and naturally belonged. And then there’s Poole’s BIJOU, one of the five or six finest porn films ever made. BIJOU is all context, an extravagant and metaphysical theater within which sex and self-awakening occur. Very strange, and because strange, extreme in the true sense.
Then, around 1980, came Christopher Rage. With Rage, a leap was made that people still don’t completely understand. His genius wasn’t just in his tenacious and raw capturing of sex in the darkest place and the darkest time (NYC in the early to mid 80’s). In this he was simply carrying on the tradition of necessary nerve that defines a good pornographer.
The essence of Rage’s strange extremeness was in the fact that he was the first to engage the porn viewer in a direct and sexualized relationship with the medium itself. He abandoned the now-required context convention (that Wakefield Poole had worked within and developed) as quickly as he abandoned film in favor of the cheap, unthinkable immediacy of video. He made a point of hiring not stars or great beauties but anonymous and normal-looking men who were used almost as interchangeable props, elements in an indecipherable slut-puzzle. Christopher Rage’s tapes are sex-illuminated philosophy that enabled men, through emulation, to feel in themselves — in their bodies — the concepts that were being presented in Rage’s work.
As soon as he’d made the leap to video, though, his work was about the medium as much as it was about sex. Porn had thoroughly established the political and social realities of male-to-male sex. Now, with Rage, it was about the fact that sex — and identity — were situationally-mediated creations. In Rage, the arch-maverick, men who are having sex have no established identity or even character. They move, they fuck, they shift contexts, but they’re always secondary to the fact of the camera. The viewer is never allowed to forget that he’s not watching sex, he’s watching television.
So,what comes now? Using leather practice as an indicator, you can see its use in each of the developments I’ve listed: from simple 50’s photos of naked men in leather jackets through early leather/fisting films like BORN TO RAISE HELL and into Christopher Rage’s use of leather and leather play as just one more haphazard element in a complex and disturbing scenario. What’s the next step?
A necessary sign of the next porn bellwether is that it will be disturbing and anger-provoking. That’s the job of the ‘extreme’. We’re charmed by the old (AMG photos are pure kitsch now), placated by the contemporary (the concept of the studio-promoted “pornstar” is now equal in effect and excitement to a handful of Valium) and angered by the new (did Paul Morris really make a bugchaser tape?).
It’s my sense that the next phase of porn will focus on the integration of varied and intense sexual practices into everyday and ordinary life. The changes will be unpredictable, though, as creative outsiders try to breathe life into our sex — and, through sex, into our identities. I look forward to a new batch of extreme pornographers — a new Michael Zen, Brad Braverman or Steven Scarborough — who will show that the things we think we understand — cocks, asses, orgasms, men in lust, sexuality itself — are as mysterious, puzzling and undefined as ever.
As I was writing this out, I remembered a poem by Charles Bukowski called “The Strongest of the Strange”. It’s not a perfect fit, but there’s something right about it. Here’s the opening:
for wherever the crowds are
these odd ones, not
but from them
and from the
best of the
We’re ripe for a revolution. For sex to be revitalized and rediscovered, porn will almost certainly have to play a part. And it’ll happen even if only a few of the “strongest of the strange” are behind cameras, intent on goading the work away from predictability and toward innovation and fresh honesty.
But more crucial than the innovative and honest pornographer is the true practitioner, the one Bukowski calls “the best of the strange”. He embodies the work, lives the change, produces not movies or books, but himself. He is his own music, his own work. His own sex.
People like this are around already, of course, annoying and difficult, thoroughly fucked-up, and thoroughly fucking up everything we think and believe. If you’re lucky enough to meet one, learn what you can before you slug him. And if you’re fated to be one yourself — contact me at your earliest convenience.
Program’s Author Notes about Paul:
“Paul Morris, pornographer, owns San Francisco-based Treasure Island Media, a notorious maverick porn studio. He has been called ‘one of the most influential outsiders in porn today’, and has enjoyed the hate of both the Christian Right and the Gay Left. He is the subject of WHAT I DID INSTEAD, an upcoming documentary film.”
Read More of Paul’s Papers HERE