Cumming to an End

The Male Orgasm and Domestic Consumption of Gay Pornography

How to Cite

Bolton, M. C. (2004). Cumming to an End: The Male Orgasm and Domestic Consumption of Gay Pornography. M/C Journal, 7(4).
Vol. 7 No. 4 (2004): Porn
Published 2004-10-01

In finding patriarchal oppression in linear narratives, early Second Wave feminist writers like Hélène Cixous, Julia Kristeva, and Luce Irigaray opposed biologically based Freudian theories that claimed the feminine was grounded in a certain essence of male-ness and female-ness. Cixous’ advocacy of écriture féminine includes her critique of traditional narrative, which she claims is structured by a sexual opposition that “has always worked for man’s profit to the point of reducing writing . . . to his laws” (883). Specifically in terms of cinema, the focus of this paper, Laura Mulvey finds similar oppression in filmic linear narratives. For her, the avant-garde’s near limitless possibilities can break this power, thus freeing “the look of the camera into its materiality in time and space and the look of the audience into dialectics and passionate detachment” (47). Similarly, Steve Neale’s “Masculinity as Spectacle: Reflections on Men and Mainstream Cinema,” where he theorizes about placing the male body under the erotic gaze, remains immersed in a discourse on linear narrative.

Some pornography theorists like Richard Dyer slightly eschew the overall plot-based notion of narrative by using the visible male orgasm as the structuring device, creating something of a narrative of ejaculation. Specifically, I am referring to Dyer’s “Idol thoughts: orgasm and self-reflexivity in gay pornography” where he states that cumming “brings the linear narrative drive that structures porn to a clear climax and end” (192). This emphasis on the male orgasm is also a tool used by some anti-porn feminists to read male-supremacy into (heterosexual) porn. Linda Williams, however, is quick to show that the money shot “is after all only male orgasm” which “can also be seen as the very limit of the visual representation of sexual pleasure,” countering some anti-porn arguments of pornography vis-à-vis the recorded male orgasm (Hard Core 101, author’s emphasis). Yet this too comes from an ever-present formalist tradition of film theory that reads meaning almost exclusively on the screen, maintaining the notion that porn is viewed as standard, commercial movies are, a notion that hardly seems thorough enough to account for the particulars of porn spectatorship. (Subsequently, Williams explores patterns of consumption in a later article entitled “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” an article which I will discuss in more detail below.)

With specific attention to pornography’s effects on viewers, Andrea Dworkin and Catharine A. MacKinnon were successful in getting certain municipalities to pass legislation banning pornography based on the detriments of the genre. (For further explanation of their position, please see the Minneapolis, Minnesota and Indianapolis, Indiana city council meeting transcripts in their book In Harm’s Way: The Pornography Civil Rights.) Although the courts subsequently struck down this legislation, MacKinnon explained some of her reasoning in “Sexuality” where she asked important questions of (heterosexual) pornography’s defining woman in terms of what (heterosexual) male viewers find erotic, and her account of this definition’s role in terms of power seems fairly accurate. “Sexual meaning is not made only, or even primarily, by words and in texts. It is made in social relations of power in the world, through which process gender is also produced” (160). Yet because her argument is grounded in heterosexual porn, I must question some of her conclusions about “man” as a collective gender. In other words, do the erotics of gay porn still define woman as “what male desire requires for arousal and satisfaction and is totally tautologous with ‘female sexuality’ and ‘the female sex’” (161)? Or does man—at least in part—now fall into this category, thus disrupting the strict binaries of male and female sexuality? MacKinnon does bring in issues of same-sex desire, and her effort at inclusion should be commended. Her understanding of male-male sex, however, remains wed to the idea that dominance and submission are still defining characteristics, and that these characteristics reinforce the masculine:feminine binary, presumably in terms of sexual positioning, thus eliminating variance within male-male desire.

The sum total of this is that many gender-based understandings of narrative are too closely tied to formalism, and much theory that questions the positioning of viewers—via feminist theory or otherwise—fails to account for variety within audiences. Porn theorists can use texts like Bel Ami’s Frisky Summer 1: Best Friends to correct the subtracting of marginalized groups by studying the technological characteristics of DVDs in the domestic sphere. And studying these features will allow for more in depth inquiries about geographies of consumption, a category in need of expansion for all of porn studies, not just gay porn.

John Champagne favors this type of culturally-minded analysis of gay porn, focusing on consumption practices within the geographic spaces of gay porn theatres/arcades in his “‘Stop Reading Films!’: Film Studies, Close Analysis, and Gay Pornography.” Here, Champagne claims that close analyses of films of any genre act as a gatekeeper for film studies, suggesting that, through formalism, film theorists are able to ward off intrusions from other disciplines (like queer studies), preserve the film text as a privileged site of knowledge, and ensure their own place of authority (79). With regard to gay porn, Champagne claims that these acts of self-preservation film theorists perform when doing close analysis contain any perceived threat that gay porn and the gay porn theatre/arcade present. “In its psychoanalytically inflected variant in particular, it [film studies] uses close analysis to diagnose the desire of (homo)sexualized spectators, a desire it thinks it already knows and can recognize” (77). Offering the gay porn theatre/arcade as a more appropriate location for examination, Champagne aims “to understand the porno film viewing experience as part of a larger set of cultural and social rituals and practices” rather than studying it as simply another filmmaking practice (81).

Going hand-in-glove with Champagne’s rejection of close analysis as a tool for porn studies, Linda Williams suggests that pornography—gay, lesbian, straight, or otherwise—is a “body genre,” defining this in terms of its desire to cause a bodily reaction (“Film Bodies” 3). In other words, porn wants to get the viewer off. Champagne’s transferring the emphasis from the text to the spectator is very appropriate for a cultural/social investigation into gay porn because of porn’s encoded desires to cause this bodily reaction. (Similarly, work could be done on the video rental store where consumption of pornography—i.e., renting a movie—could be the pretext for a desired sexual encounter.) Yet by focusing so tightly on the theatre/arcade, Champagne misses the opportunity to bridge textual analysis with consumption practices as they are acted out in the home viewing experience.

I, as the home viewer, am allowed more control over the text than the theatre/arcade patron. Champagne describes a machine found in some porn theatres/arcades that cycles through movies, showing brief clips from specific scenes as a preview of what the patron could watch (86). Beyond that, the theatre/arcade patron has little control over pausing, rewinding, or fast-forwarding the film. DVDs, on the other hand, can be viewed non-linearly, something beyond comparison for theatre/arcade patrons and even exceeding what VHS offers. This ability of DVD to turn just about any porn film into a compilation movie infuses far more control over the text than ever before. Because of the overwhelming popularity of home consumption and the ever-expanding DVD market, porn research must account for these newer strategies of consumption.

Like most mainstream DVDs, porn DVDs are divided into individual “chapters,” with porn DVDs usually featuring one sex scene at a time, thus acting similarly to the machine Champagne describes. The Frisky Summer DVD is divided into six chapters representing the six sex scenes, but after selecting, say, chapter 6—Ion Davidov and Johan Paulik—the DVD offers sub-chapter options of “play chapter,” “foreplay,” “oral,” “anal,” and “orgasms,” as written on the screen. By beginning with chapter six, the final scene/chapter, I am not missing vital information to understanding what will be present in this final scene because, as a body genre, the film is trying to cause a bodily reaction, trying to produce my orgasm, not necessarily needing me to follow a linear plot. In other words, what happens in chapter 1—Ion Davidov’s sex scene with Daniel Valent—has no bearing on the visceral pleasure of chapter 6. In fact, porn DVDs like Frisky Summer provide the pieces for me to construct my own sequences that meet my visceral desires. But we shouldn’t completely disregard formalist film theory because one of the offered pieces is the film as “sequenced” by the filmmakers. After all, following characters/actors from encounter to encounter could help drive the orgasmic pleasure for some viewers or possibly even satisfy other visual interests unintended by the filmmakers. Separating home porn consumption from other forms of domestic cinema consumption is that porn filmmakers must expect their product to be seen in fragments, illustrating their knowledge of porn viewer behavior.

Furthermore, dividing the film into not only the individual sex scenes but also the types of sex featured in that scene suggests that the home viewer is not interested in watching the movie form beginning to end because porn’s true goal of viewer orgasm can be met more efficiently by watching a specific sexual act. Jumping right to, say, the anal sex in chapter six allows me to construct a meta-narrative that both defies the diegetic story offered by the filmmakers yet complies with the genre’s, and therefore, the filmmakers’ larger goal to produce my orgasm. And with my orgasm, the narrative truly comes to an end because, shortly after, I will presumably press stop, thus ending the diegetic narrative at a fairly random place, yet ending the meta-narrative of consumption at its standard and expected post-orgasmic conclusion.

Underlining the specificity of the particular sexual act within the sex scene is that, after selecting the anal sex moments between Ion and Johan, the film does not continue on to their orgasms despite this being the next moment in the linear action. Rather, the DVD returns me to the sex act menu within their chapter, allowing me to watch the anal sex again, pick a different type of sex, or return to the chapter menu to pick a different set of actors. With these options of sexual acts within sex scenes, the filmmakers recognize both that I am not necessarily interested in watching the film from beginning to end and that even watching an entire sexual sequence could be more than I want. Furthermore, returning to the menu instead of continuing with the scene as the filmmakers’ edited it suggests that I might never want to see the actor’s orgasms anyway, challenging the formalist importance of the cum shot.

An interesting note to consider with this is the time limitation selecting a specific sexual act places on the viewer. The anal sex sequence between Ion and Johan lasts 3:27. This does not guarantee the viewer enough time to reach an orgasm, a fact that appears to counter the film’s body genre qualities. Yet limited time actually results in viewer control. If 3:27 isn’t enough time to orgasm, the film’s return to the sub-chapter menu demands the viewer exercise power over the text by re-watching, rewinding, pausing, or “slow-motioning” the sequence. While the film could at one point be working against my ejaculation, it nevertheless demands that I control the text.

Grounding gender-based theories on formalist traditions of narrative and heterosexist notions of spectatorship create a structured absence of marginalized sexual identities in non-linear narrative film viewing. Although my comments on this subscribe to a somewhat limited/“vanilla” idea of solo masturbation by self-identified gay men watching gay porn at home, they should be viewed as a starting point for future research that examines all forces being enacted upon porn viewers. Specifically, we can use this idea of pleasure being found between the text and the orgasm to look at both female and straight male pleasures of their using gay male porn. This middle ground between production and consumption is where I place the structuring device of gay male porn viewed by gay men and should be considered in future studies.

Author Biography

Michael C. Bolton