Sex in the Seventies: Gay Porn Cinema as an Archive for the History of American Sexuality
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Sex in the Seventies:
Gay Porn Cinema as an Archive for the History of American Sexuality

Pornography . . . is profoundly and paradoxically social. But even more than that, it’s acutely historical. It’s an archive of data about our history as a culture and our own individual histories—our formations as selves. . . . Pornography is a space in the social imagination as well as a media form.

—Laura Kipnis, Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America

The forty years between 1960 and 2000 were among the most tumultuous decades in the history of gay male sexuality. For many gay men who came out in the period after the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969, the seventies were a golden age of sexual freedom.1 It was an era during which it became possible for American men to openly acknowledge their homosexuality and foster a sense of identity and community, and it also initiated a period of sexual experimentation.2 The advent of AIDS in 1981 changed all that.

The emerging epidemic provoked debate and conflict over what aspects of the so-called gay lifestyle might have contributed to the pattern of immune deficiency among gay men. Many observers attributed the outbreak to sexual promiscuity, the frequent patronage of bathhouses and other public sex venues, along with the general availability of sexual activity in the urban centers of San Francisco and New York.3 An enormous body of epidemiological literature, social scientific research, and cultural studies, as [End Page 88] well as hundreds of memoirs and volumes of fiction documenting the sexual life of gay men, has identified patterns of sexual behavior, modes of sexual interaction, and the cultural norms and fantasies that shaped sexual conduct before the emergence of the AIDS epidemic.4 In this article I would like to explore how pornographic films and video could also be considered as documents in the history of gay male sexuality.5

According to sociologist Martin Levine, the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, the emergence of the gay liberation movement in 1969, and the increased freedom of sexual expression all combined with the massive migration and concentration of gay men in the urban centers of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco to fundamentally alter the forms (both social and sexual) of American gay men’s lives.6 The migration and increased visibility brought together a critical mass of gay men who could economically sustain the kinds of commercial leisure establishments (bars, bathhouses, sex clubs, porn theaters, vacation resorts, and dance clubs) that facilitated sexual expression and generated a thriving and permissive sexual subculture. Patrick Moore has argued that during the 1970s gay men adopted sex as a tool to develop “new models of sexual interaction.” It was, he concluded, “an astonishing experiment in radically restructuring existing relationships, concepts of beauty and the use of sex as a revolutionary tool.”7 As a result, gay men had developed “a distinctive life in which the masculinized representation of beauty, sexual experimentation and drugs were central.”8 Moore likened gay men’s use of “sex as the raw material for a social experiment” to experimental art. Amongst the artists, he included porn filmmaker Fred Halsted, impresario Bruce Mailman (owner of the famous disco club the Saint), and graphic artist and writer David Wojnarowicz. Moore also includes the Mineshaft in New York and the Catacombs in San Francisco, sex clubs and bars where transgressive and experimental sex took place 9. [End Page 89]

Moore’s thesis that gay men were engaged in radical sexual experimentation counters the negative view of the 1970s as a “shameful” episode that set the stage for the AIDS epidemic.10 In his book on the photographic achievement of Robert Mapplethorpe, philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto adopted a position similar to Moore’s.11 Danto was deeply struck by the impact that participation in the gay male sexual subculture of the 1970s, which included sadomasochism and group sex, had on Mapplethorpe:

It is the mark of fantasies that we return, obsessively and repetitively, to the same images and the same scenarios, over and over again. We do not for...