Reflections on Gay Male Porn

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“Not even a ship under full sail is as beautiful as a young boy’s ass.”
— Latin inscription over the entrance to a ruined villa outside Rome

 

IF PROSTITUTION is the world’s oldest profession, pornography is surely one of its oldest pleasures. The Greeks and Romans were certainly aficionados, as Greek vase painting and the frescos at Pompeii attest. Imagine offering a guest a cup of wine which, once drained, showed a couple in flagrante delicto (male-male as well as male-female), or inviting a dozen guests for dinner in a dining room whose walls were covered with paintings of copulation (mostly male-female, but not always). Pornographic images also appeared on Greek and Roman vases, mirrors, dishes, lamps, door chimes, and other domestic objects, which meant they were visible to men, women, and children on a daily basis. Throughout both civilizations, columns crowned by busts (originally of Hermes, which is why they’re called “herms”) and sporting a phallus were used as milestones, boundary markers, and guardians of the home designed to ward off trespassers and thieves. Over time they came to be venerated as sacred objects with magical powers. In Greece, the phalluses were erect; in Rome, flaccid—so now you know what else we lost when the glory that was Greece fell to the grandeur that was Rome.

For over three millennia in India, the god Shiva has been symbolized by an erect phallus that sits in a vagina, symbol of his consort Parvati, and the Hindu gods are just as randy as their Greek and Roman counterparts. One could easily add more cultures to the list of those less sexually squeamish than our own—Holland, France, Japan, Scandinavia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Brazil, etc.—which means that writing about pornography in the sexually confused and repressed United States is …. difficult? perplexing? highly charged? What else could it be in a culture so anti-body and anti-sex, one that still subscribes to the erotophobic values of Saints Paul and Augustine? This is, after all, the only advanced country on earth in which high school boys refuse to shower after gym class and won’t join the swim team because of those shocking Speedos, and where major publications still refuse to print the word “fuck,” and where a movie producer has a harder time showing a man fondling a woman’s breast than cutting it off with a chain saw, and where men are serving life sentences for having had consensual sex with 17-year-olds. (The age of sexual consent in Canada is 14; in Holland, 12. Try suggesting a modest 16 to your Congressman and see how far you get. As Gore Vidal keeps pointing out, our sexual mores have made us the laughing stock of the civilized world.)

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Alan Helms, professor of English at U-Mass, Boston, is the author of Young Man from the Provinces (1997), recently published in paperback. This piece was adapted from a much longer essay.

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