- Anxiety and Desire in France’s Gay Pornographic Film Boom, 1974–1983
In September 1975 the cover of the French society weekly Paris Match featured three bemused-looking nuns standing before an advertisement for the pornographic film Julia et les hommes (Julia), the image accompanied by the headline “La France Porno.” Inside, a (fully illustrated) special report agonized over the “wind that has come to sweep away old taboos.” According to the magazine, this wind originated in America, with Hugh Hefner and his photogenic entourage the prime culprits: “Eroticism and pornography are spreading, aided with the complicity of businessmen who intend to stimulate weak sectors of industry and with the blessing of intellectuals anxious to hasten the liberation of humanity.”1 To the sensationalist journalists at Paris Match, pornography combined a number of fears floating in the French imagination in 1975, namely, economic uncertainty, American influence, and the specter of sexual liberation.
The phenomenon was hard to ignore; France experienced an explosion in the production of hardcore pornography in the mid-1970s.2 At the opening [End Page 26] of the decade, French companies produced around twenty-two erotic (or softcore) films per year; by 1978 the number of erotic and pornographic films produced reached over two hundred, not counting imported titles.3 French cinemas were not just screening heterosexual sex. The late 1970s marks the first time that pornography featuring homosexual sex could be legally imported, produced, and distributed in France, a phenomenon that went unnoticed by the moral crusaders at Paris Match. Gay pornography experienced its own boom, beginning in 1975 with the import of the American film Good Hot Stuff (Histoires d’hommes in the French market).4 Gay liberation has previously been understood as a phenomenon of changing political demands and organization, but through pornographic film we can better understand gay liberation as a broader commercial and cultural phenomenon.5 Furthermore, these films contribute to our understanding of gay men’s responses to a changing political, legal, and moral landscape by the close of the 1970s.
The opening of the decade saw new forms of political activism being taken up by gay men and lesbians with a will to transform heterosexist society rather than be assimilated into it.6 This new political militancy contributed to a broader phenomenon of increasing public visibility of homosexuality. As in the United States and many other Western European nations, this process of gay liberation in France was characterized not only by new political organizations more radical than their forebears but also by a burgeoning gay commercial scene in France’s urban centers.7 The decade between the relaxation of censorship in 1974 and the onset of the HIV-AIDS crisis constitutes a distinctive period in the development of gay sex on French [End Page 27] screens. Despite this intertwining of gay politics and porn, the production and consumption of pornography remain a neglected window into the history of sexual liberation in the West.8 The history of homosexuality in France is now emerging after a protracted and difficult birth, and printed erotic material has been integrated into this history, especially the “physique” magazines that marked a more discreet phase in the development of sexual subcultures in France.9 But early gay pornographic film remains marginalized. In his history of erotic and pornographic cinema in France, for instance, Jacques Zimmer lumps gay pornography together with “snuff” films as an example of depravity.10 Other work concentrates on the political and legal developments that led to the regulations for the X rating.11 Work in film studies has been more inclusive of pornography, particularly in the ways in which explicit sex has been mobilized by activist filmmaking and more “serious” art house filmmakers and used in contemporary queer cinema, but that work is less concerned with pornography’s historical origins and contexts.12 Lack of wider attention can also be attributed to the inaccessibility of many of the pornographic films produced in the period. Filmed on reels of 16 and 32 mm film and passed around specialist cinemas, the films are often in a poor state, and some have been lost entirely.13
While neglected by historians...