History of LGBT: Pornography

Michael Bronski. Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered History in America. Editor: Marc Stein. Volume 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004.

Michel Foucault once commented that sodomy was a thoroughly confused subject. The same might be claimed for pornography. While pornography has long loomed large in a wide range of cultural discourses—legal, literary, moral, pedagogical, medical, and feminist—any definition that has been used to describe it has been, at best, provisional and open to debate. According to Walter Kendrick’s book The Secret Museum, the word was first coined by cobbling together the Greek words for whore (porne) and writing (graphein) and was used by British Victorian archaeologists to describe the sexually explicit artifacts found in the ruins of Pompeii. Since that time the concept of pornography has been subject to significant cultural debate, but pornography is generally defined as texts or images that describe or represent sexual activity, usually with the intent of inducing sexual arousal in the viewer, reader, or audience. Applications of such a loose definition are necessarily affected by current values. Boccaccio’s Decameron was not offensive to fourteenth-century Florentines, but it was considered obscene by British Victorians. More recently, William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch faced a series of challenges under obscenity laws in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1964, the Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s ruling that Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer was obscene; the Supreme Court decision came three years after the book’s U.S. publication and thirty years after it was published in Europe. Both Naked Lunch and Tropic of Cancerare now viewed as important works of twentieth-century literature.

There are two culturally similar concepts closely connected to pornography. The first is obscenity, which is loosely used to define materials (most often sexual in nature) that are offensive to commonly held standards of decency. While there have been crusades throughout history against the display and distribution of “pornography,” legal codes in the United Kingdom and the United States have generally referred to obscenity, not pornography. While there is popular talk of anti-pornography laws, more accurately these are anti-obscenity laws. The second term is “erotica,” which is commonly used for sexually explicit material sold in mainstream venues to a wide audience and therefore more culturally acceptable. The writer John Preston used to quip that “erotica” was a middle-class word for porn. In the past twenty years, with the production of a large amount of sexually explicit heterosexual material written by and for women, the term “erotica” has come to describe not simply a subset of pornography, but a distinct, highly lucrative category of the publishing industry.

Before the Twentieth Century

There have been, historically, a plethora of visual and written images of same-sex sexual activity. In ancient cultures these include Greek vase paintings of men, and less frequently women, engaging in sexual acts, passages in Petronius’s Satyricon, and references to both women and men in Martial’s Epitaphs and Catullus’s poems. (Sappho’s woman-centered erotic poems are more properly classified as romantic, rather than overtly sexual works.) Explicit same-sex erotic activity can also be found in works of the French Enlightenment (in Breton, Sade, and others) as well as the British Restoration (for instance, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester’s play Sodom [1675] and John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure [1748]). British Victorian culture, despite very strict obscenity laws, was awash in pornographic books, no small part of which included episodes of same-sex activity. This included semi-literary writing such as The Lustful Turk(1838) and Harriet Marwood, Governess (1884) (both authored anonymously), Under the Hill by Aubrey Beardsley (1904), and Teleny (1893), allegedly written in part by Oscar Wilde. Novels such as The Sins of the Cities of the Plains (1881) by Jack Saul had fewer literary pretensions and were also popular. While same-sex male content in these books was usually written for a homosexual male readership, same-sex female content was aimed almost entirely at a heterosexual male readership.

In the United States literary writers who dealt with more explicitly homoerotic themes, including Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass (1855), often had their works banned or suppressed. But this was not true for everyone. Herman Melville’s Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), and Moby-Dick (1851) all contain fairly explicit homoerotic scenes, but never elicited moral approbation. The same is true of (now) less well-known works such as Bayard Taylor’s Joseph and His Friend (1870), Charles Warren Stoddard’s South-Sea Idyls (1873), and Alan Dale’s A Marriage Below Zero (1899). The difference between Whitman’s reception and the reception of the others is due in part to the fact that Whitman promoted an ideology of sexual freedom, whereas Melville’s and Stoddard’s books were accepted as adventure stories and Taylor’s and Dale’s as literary novels. But the difference is also attributable to the arbitrariness of obscenity classifications.

The advent of photography in the late nineteenth century proved a boon for the production and distribution of sexually explicit images. Photographs of cross-sex and same-sex sexual activity existed, but images of the female and male nude were more widely available and popular. While female nudes were generally aimed at heterosexual men, photographs of male nudes found popularity with a homosexual male audience as well as a smaller heterosexual female one. Photography also became one of the central means of promoting the physical culture movement, which championed improving moral and psychological health through the building of strong bodies. Because photography was quickly elevated to the realm of fine art, nude photographs of either sex were often considered art rather than pornography. Indeed, the works of Baron von Gloeden (a German who primarily used Sicilian youth as his subjects), F. Holland Day (an American who specialized in eroticized religious themes), and Thomas Eakins (who also painted male nudes) defined not only the aesthetics of art photography, but a new gay male pornographic aesthetic as well. This aesthetic influenced not only the physique magazines—the manifestations of the physical culture movement that began publication in the 1950s—but, to a large degree, sexually explicit gay male photography today.

The Early Twentieth Century

Aside from the same-sex eroticism of works by Melville, Whitman, and others in the nineteenth century, there is little record of the production of overtly sexual books in the United States before the twentieth century (though books published in Great Britain were read by Americans). By the 1920s and 1930s, however, American authors were beginning to produce literary works with bolder, often more explicit, same-sex sexual themes. These works also differed from their nineteenth-century counterparts insofar as they were written with the consciousness of a homosexual identity, which had not existed in the United States before the late nineteenth century. In Playing the Game: The Homosexual Novel in America, the late Roger Austen chronicles a subculture of male homosexual writing in the 1920s and 1930s. Many of the unpublished works discussed by Austen were passed from person to person to avoid prosecution under federal, state, and local censorship laws. These laws regulated not only sexually explicit materials, but any materials that dealt with same-sex sexuality. While literary works that dealt explicitly with cross-sex sex were often targeted (including D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers [1913] and Lady Chatterley’s Lover [1928] and James Joyce’s Ulysses [1922]), novels with overt same-sex sexual content such as Radclyffe Hall’s classic lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness (1928) were almost always targeted. Still, courts began to restrict the scope of obscenity law during this period; most notably, in People v. Friede (1949) the New York Supreme Court overturned a lower court decision that had declared obscene The Well of Loneliness.

1950s and 1960s

Because national and state laws were so strict, even the slightest suggestion of same-sex eroticism could be enough to have a book, film, or pamphlet legally prosecuted as obscene. So could non-erotic discussions of LGB identities, communities, or politics. In 1953 the Postmaster General of Los Angeles seized the current issue of ONE, a respectable homophile magazine that avoided discussions or depictions of same-sex sex, based on allegations that it was “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy.” A federal district court as well as a federal appeals court declared that ONE was legally obscene, using language that suggested that any writing not critical of homosexuality was ipso facto obscene. In 1958 this ruling was over-turned by the U.S. Supreme Court in ONE, Inc. v. Olesen, thus allowing LGB material to be more easily published. In 1962, the Supreme Court ruled in Manual Enterprisesv. Day that male physique magazines had to be treated the same as comparable heterosexual material. There were still federal, state, and local laws that prohibited the publishing and distributing of obscene materials, but a series of Supreme Court decisions from 1957 to 1966 limited enforcement of these laws, thus allowing a far greater range of homosexual and heterosexual materials to be published.

These rulings, while clearing the way for “literary” works, did not prohibit federal and state agencies from harassing, and even imprisoning, the publishers and distributors of non-literary materials, though litigation often overturned these actions. The San Diego–based Greenleaf Press, for instance, which published both heterosexual and homosexual erotica, faced a series of obscenity charges from 1966 to 1972. Philadelphia-based Drum magazine also faced considerable opposition from federal, state, and local authorities in the mid-1960s. When federal and state courts were not involved, national and local pressure groups such as the Roman Catholic–based National Organization for Decent Literature (NODL) used economic boycotts to stop bookstores, card shops, and magazine stores from selling paperback novels and magazines considered offensive or immoral.

Despite the legal restraints on explicitly sexualized LGB images before and after the Supreme Court’s rulings, after World War II production of LGB materials with varying degrees of sexual explicitness increased. In 1945 Robert Mizer formed the Athletic Model Guild (AMG) and in 1951 he began publishing Physique Pictorial, the premiere “physical culture” magazine for gay men. With candid photographs of amateur models (in many cases hustlers who used AMG as a form of advertising) taken by such noted artists as Al Urban, Dave Martin, Lon of New York, and Bruce of Los Angeles, Physique Pictorial set the standard for similar magazines that included Vim, Grecian Quarterly, Adonis, and dozens of others. These magazines provided a template later used by male nude photographers such as Roy Blakely, Kenn Duncan, and Bruce Weber.

Production of books with LGB sexual themes also increased during the 1950s. While mainstream publishing companies occasionally published books that to some degree dealt with LGB topics, those that specialized in original paperback books (nicknamed “pulps” for the wood used to produce the cheap paper) flooded newsstands, bus stations, candy stores, and card shops with a wide array of works that dealt with lesbianism. The 1950 publication of Treska Torres’s Women in Barracks, the memoir of a French soldier, opened a floodgate of lesbian pulps that soon included Vin Packer’s 1952 Spring Fire and Ann Bannon’s 1957 Odd Girl Out (the first of a five-volume series that included I Am a Woman[1959] and Beebo Brinker [1962]). Hundreds of lesbian pulps were published in the 1950s and 1960s, most of them written by heterosexual men for a male heterosexual audience, but some by lesbians, including Packer (the pen name of Marijane Meaker), Bannon, Paula Christian, and Valerie Taylor. Most of these books had few sexually explicit details and while they were rarely banned or censored as obscene they did function as erotic literature for the women and men who read them. Many of these titles were so popular that they sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

Gay male novels were also published in paperback editions, although for the most part these were reprints of literary novels published by mainstream presses. By the mid-sixties, however, censorship laws had changed enough that new types of publishers came into existence. Focusing at first on mildly suggestive works and by the 1970s on explicit sexual descriptions of both heterosexual and homosexual activity, publishing companies such as Greenleaf, Brandon House, and Publisher’s Export Company specialized in commercial pornography that was mass-produced and widely distributed. The lesbian titles that came from these new houses were almost entirely written by heterosexual men for a heterosexual male audience, but certainly some lesbians had access to them.

The loosening of censorship laws, the publication of these and other types of novels, and the emergence of explicitly sexual photograph books from the same publishers gave birth to the new phenomenon of the adult bookstore. Beginning in 1965 in California, the adult bookstore, selling erotic paperbacks, illustrated sex manuals, pornographic magazines and 8mm films, and sex toys, became a prominent commercial feature in almost all American cities. Along with the emergence of these bookstores came the advent of adult theaters, which were now allowed to screen sexually explicit films. This created a distribution network for a burgeoning erotic film industry that had functioned almost exclusively under-ground or through mail-order sales of 8mm films to be screened at home. These stores and theaters, usually operating in urban areas, were not only an outlet for new publications and films, but also became cruising spots for gay men. The adult bookstores were also in some senses the predecessors of LGBT bookstores.

An offshoot of these new developments were gay owned and operated publishers, distributors, bookstores, and theaters that not only catered to a gay audience, but saw themselves as engaging in community building and political activism as well. In Philadelphia, the homophile activist Clark Polak, who was president of the Janus Society, not only published Drum, an edgy, campy publication that featured fiction, personals, physique photos, and cartoons, but also owned Trojan Book Service, which published and distributed physique magazines and other pornographic materials, and several adult bookstores. A similar, even larger operation was run by H. Lynn Womack in Washington, D.C. The publisher of several physique magazines—Manual, Guild Quarterly, Grecian Quarterly—Womack was the person who won the groundbreaking Supreme Court case Manual Enterprisesv. Day in 1962. Under his direction, the Guild Press, Inc. reprinted literary novels and published original pornographic work as well as physique magazines. He also ran the Guild Press Book Service, which gave subscribers access to a wide range of materials from muscle magazines and pornographic novels to best-selling books like John Rechy’s City of Night (1963) and literary novels such as Lonnie Coleman’s Sam (1959) and John Selby’s Madam (1963). Polak and Womack were predecessors of the overtly gay publishers, distributors, and book clubs of today.

After the 1960s

The advent of the gay liberation movement in the 1970s brought sexually explicit gay material not just out of the closet but into the arena of politics. The earliest post-Stonewall riots newspapers such as New York’s Gay and Gay Today routinely featured naked men and full frontal nudity as ways of celebrating the gay male body and gay sexuality. While these were commercial periodicals, a similar celebratory attitude toward sexuality was also seen in alternative, political publications such as Fag Rag (Boston), Gay Sunshine (San Francisco), Gay Alternative (Philadelphia), and Body Politic (Toronto). While these rejected most aspects of commercialized gay male sexuality—including commercial porn and non-gay owned bars and bathhouses—they had no problem with presenting sexually explicit images, fiction, and autobiography as political statements. Lesbian and women’s liberation magazines and newspapers of the same period almost never carried images of naked or highly sexualized women, but relied more on representations of strong, non-traditionally beautiful women to convey their anti-authoritarian and anti-patriarchal messages.

Political protests against the commercialization of gay images and gay culture had little impact on mainstream gay culture. Beginning in the early 1970s, a number of glossy, sexualized gay male lifestyle magazines began publication. Taking their cue from Playboy, these publications, which included Blueboy, Mandate, Honcho, Numbers, Drummer, and Bunkhouse, presented full frontal male nudity, pornographic fiction, first-person narratives, cultural reviews, and often humor. This was the culmination of the social changes that had been occurring since the early 1950s. The appearance of these magazines on neighborhood newsstands also marked the emergence of a new level of public acceptance of homosexuality in everyday urban American life. This new visibility also coincided with the further commercialization of gay male pornographic films and theaters. Meanwhile filmmakers such as Arthur Bressen, Wakefield Poole, Jack Deavue, Fred Halstead, and Peter DeRome began directing sexually explicit films that they viewed as art. Their filmmaking was directly linked to the political impulses of the early gay liberation publications, which made explicit connections between gay pride, gay identity, and gay sexuality.

As the adult entertainment industry grew in the 1970s and 1980s, gay male videos proliferated. Companies such as Falcon, Catalina, All Worlds, and Vista flooded the market with an increasingly wide variety of gay male videos that catered to particular sexual interests, including sadomasochism, leather and other fetishes, role playing, athletics and working out, solo masturbation, interracial sex, and monoracial sex. As with all marketed commercial popular culture, the industry promoted its stars—Kip Noll, Richard Locke, Casey Donovan, Jack Wrangler, Joey Stefano, Ryan Idol, Jeff Stryker—who became, for their admirers, as popular as Hollywood stars. And as with Bob Mizer’s AMG publications and films, much of this film and video work was a form of advertising for the sex work of its stars. Often the major video companies published film and video stills and interviews with their stars in magazines such as Mandate and Drummer, which benefited both the film companies and the publications. There are no hard financial statistics available on the adult entertainment industry. It is also difficult to separate out earnings based on homosexual material from earnings based on heterosexual materials since many production companies are owned by the same parent company. Estimates for the years 1990 to 2003, however, are that the adult entertainment video industry in the United States alone grosses $15 billion a year.

Lesbian and lesbian-feminist culture did not generally view sexually explicit imagery as a form of liberation. In fact some feminists in groups such as Woman Against Violence Against Women (WAVA) and Women Against Pornography (WAP) focused on the threats that heterosexual porn posed for women. According to theorists such as Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon, heterosexual pornography was one of the primary causes of misogynist violence in Western culture. Other feminists disagreed strongly, arguing that sexual pleasure had to be conceptualized as central to women’s liberation. At a women’s and sexuality conference held at Barnard College in 1982, the “sex wars” exploded, often pitting women’s liberation and lesbian activists against one another. The so-called pro-sex activists formed groups such as the Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force (FACT) and spoke out on a wide range of issues that profoundly affected the public debate about women, feminism, and sexuality. One of the most tangible results of these debates was the emergence of a number of lesbian, and feminist, sex magazines such as Bad Attitude (Boston, 1983) and On Our Backs (Los Angeles, 1986). These magazines reclaimed lesbian and women’s sexuality from what they saw as a male-dominated public discourse and placed women at the center of both production and readership. While almost all of the lesbian porn up until this point had been produced by heterosexual men for a heterosexual male audience, there had always been a lesbian audience for it and now lesbian-produced pornography aimed to reach and expand that audience. Along with publishing magazines, lesbians also began producing sex videos, although these have had none of the success of the publications.

While the feminist critique of pornography was widely regarded—among non-feminists at least—as repressive, it did have a large cultural impact by opening up public discussion about pornography. Over the last two decades various scholars and commentators have asked important questions: Are the blatantly sexualized images in mainstream advertising similar to traditional porn? What are the politics of the idealized body in gay male porn? Should porn be judged by aesthetic or political standards? Can the fantasy world of porn be criticized as racist? Does pornography lend itself to sexual liberation or is it just another manifestation of consumerism? Are there fundamental differences in how males and females experience pleasure? With the rise of the internet, pornography has perhaps never been as accessible to the U.S. public, and LGB porn has perhaps not surprisingly emerged as a central subject in controversial debates about blocking internet access in schools, public facilities, and workplaces. Mass-produced porn has been a staple of LGB cultures for just over a century and it is likely to remain a source of debate, controversy, and pleasure for the foreseeable future.