- The Pornoethnography of Boys in the Sand:Fetishisms of Race and Class in the 1970s Gay Fire Island Pines
Aspiration for the Gay Universal
Boys in the Sand is a lyrical, joyful celebration of a utopian space—Bayside, Poolside, Inside—where men take pleasure in one another in the face of normative taboos. … An idealized, hypersexual male emerges in each episode from the conjuring imagination of a solitary desiring subject. The sex that follows serves to validate and celebrate, while never exactly normalizing, the difference of gay sex.—Linda Williams, Screening Sex
Joyful and self-absorbed, Boys in the Sand rises and falls on a look that fit well with an aspirational-assimilationist understanding of homosexuality: to be liberated does not mean taking to the streets, but creating a utopian space in which to simply be one’s sexual self. Thinking too much about the social and political standing of that sex and sexuality is a drag. One daydreams of hot men, and they should simply materialize.—Cindy Patton, L.A. Plays Itself/Boys in the Sand: A Queer Film Classic
Conceived as an almost abstract visual poem, Boys was intended by its maker to reflect the various aspects of the “universal gay experience,” moving from discovery to experimentation to first love and the acceptance of life shared with a “significant other,” ultimately resulting in self-knowledge and sexual bliss.—Dries Vermeulen, “In the Beginning …” [End Page 101]
Despite its transgressive subject matter and hardcore action, Wakefield Poole’s porn film Boys in the Sand may be described as a dreamlike idyll. The low-budget “porno chic” flick was set and shot in the Fire Island Pines, the gay sexual mecca of the 1960s and 1970s.1 An immediate commercial success upon its premiere at the 55th Street Playhouse in New York City on December 29, 1971, it grossed $44,755 during the first two weeks alone and charted at #46 on Variety’s list of 50 Top Grossing Films (Standard Data Corp., NY, 1972). Narratively, the film is composed of three lyrical, nonsequential vignettes entitled “Bayside,” “Poolside,” and “Inside.” It documents the one-on-one sexual encounters of the lead actor Casey Donovan (with Peter Fisk, Danny Di Cioccio, and Tommy Moore) in three disparate yet interlocking spaces in the Pines, as Donovan maneuvers through the wooded landscape of the Meat Rack as well as the constructed space of Fire Island’s modernist architecture. As several North American reviewers at the time of the movie’s release have pointed out, Boys in the Sand presents what we might here characterize as a brand of sexual pastoralism: in the film’s portrayal, gay male sexuality appears to be benign, shame free, and nonthreatening. In an Advocate review enlivened with much camp flair, Jesse St. Ives remarks on the film’s “mystic bent,” for example, by identifying Boys’ allusion to Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus in its opening sequence (1972, 25). In a 1977 interview with the film’s director, Peter Pappas further notes how sexuality in Poole’s cinematic oeuvre more generally is dissociated from stigma and shame (1977, 17). In the same interview, Poole himself brings out the pastoralist undertone of Boys quite explicitly in a nostalgic look back when asked to comment on a sequence in his new production Moving: “The first section [of Moving] was really a takeoff on myself, Boys in the Sand again, with Cal and the pretty house and everything’s beautiful and green and gorgeous” (24).2
Three decades later, contemporary commentators, in various historicizing analyses, similarly see the film as engaging in contestation over the meaning of homosexuality. Linda Williams, in Screening Sex, adopts a Foucauldian frame and maintains that the formation of a reverse discourse is central to historically contextualizing the film’s idealization of gay sex (2008, 153–54). Cindy Patton, in L.A. Plays Itself/Boys in the Sand: A Queer Film Classic, further parses various strands of gay and lesbian politics in early 1970s culture and observes how the film betrays an “aspirational-assimilationist” leaning in its narrative construction of a depoliticized [End Page 102] sexual utopia (2014, 73). In like...