- The Ambivalent Erotics of Hot PantsPeter de Rome and the Soundtrack of Liberation
From October 20 to 24, 1971, the Sexual Egalitarian and Liberation Fraternity (SELF) held the second iteration of their Wet Dream Film Festival in Amsterdam. SELF sought to harness the power of free love by celebrating sexual liberation, tolerance, and generosity, stating in their manifesto that "in this world of different languages, religions, races, cultures, and classes, sex is an incommonality [sic]—something common to all."1 The festival screened some twenty-five erotic films, awarded ten prizes, and also hosted orgies where participants could physically enact their utopic politics through numerous and fluid sexual encounters.2 Despite the organizers' hopes that oppressive social forces would be transcended through mutual pleasure, prosex feminist Betty Dodson (one of the competition's judges) lamented that the liberated encounters she found in the nightly orgies did not extend to the films screened in the festival.3 Dodson objected to an overabundance of films that "portrayed heterosexual male fantasies with men on top fucking" and stressed that the dominant representation of sexual pleasure at the festival failed to promote more egalitarian scripts for sexual conduct, merely continuing a heteronormative and patriarchal scopophilia.4 One exception was an eight-minute entry by white British American amateur Peter de Rome. Titled Hot Pants, the film consists of close-range torso shots of de Rome's [End Page 91] friend Johnny Robinson as he dances, disrobes, and masturbates to climax, set to the sounds of James Brown's then recently released track of the same name. In the festival's catalog, organizer Al Goldstein summarized the film as follows: "Well-endowed black man wearing chainmail vest dances to James Brown's soul song 'Hot Pants.' He is bottomless. The camera follows his genital movement from oh so many angles. Man as sexmachine, 'Hot Pants' turned on a lot of women, though the filmmaker intended it for a male homosexual audience. Which goes to show that men like men and women like men some of the time and for some of the same reasons. Like sex."5 Hot Pants won the top prize for a short film, the We Shall Overcum Award, but Dodson attempted to bypass voting rules and ensure that the film would receive the festival's grand prize—precisely because it documented an alternative erotic sensibility.6
Alongside like-minded early feminist and queer criticism, Dodson's critique identified the political potential of media in shaping erotic sensibilities and suggested that alternative representations can invite more relational and socially conscious understandings of pleasure.7 As Audre Lorde stated in her foundational essay, "Recognizing the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change without our world, rather than merely settling for a shift of characters in the same weary drama."8 In order to better complement the festival's supposedly liberated sexual praxis, Dodson seized on a brief opportunity to endorse a representation of pleasure that subverted the other films' normativity by insisting that Hot Pants deserved an award.
Yet it is the very title of the award given to de Rome that points to yet another failure of the festival's progressive claims: the general absence of people of color from the other films and from the festival itself, evidence captured by photographs of the event and descriptions of the films. Only by bawdily riffing on the most iconic anthem of the civil rights movement do the organizers give a nod to racial politics. Here the pleasure and fun of transgressing sexual norms, such as engaging in queer and group sex, distracts from the racialized logics that determine who had access to these sexually liberated spaces. While attentive to de Rome's reversal of the heteropatriarchal gaze, even Dodson's celebration of Hot Pants ultimately remains silent about any potential connection between the film's liberatory erotics and the racialized specificity of Robison's body.
The exceptionality of de Rome's unambiguous depiction of interracial gay sex and black male sexuality during the liberation era has shaped interest in his work, which has been recently revived with the release...