Countless hours of the studio-produced gay porn which goes out to millions of laptops and devices around the world follow a scant few familiar narrative arcs. Two men find themselves together. They are alone, often in a setting where sex is inappropriate (if not also totally impractical): a locker room, a classroom, an office, etc. One of a number of interactions takes place: If a there is an obvious power dynamic of student-teacher or employee-boss it can resemble blackmail where somehow the betrayed is complicit: “C’mon coach, I’ll do anything!”, “Anything…?”; If the relationship is collegiate (figuratively, or literally), one man usually makes a sexual advance toward the other for them exclaim “Dude, I’m not gay!”, only to have the first allay their fears, denying what they inevitably end up doing is in some way homosexual.
Whatever the setup, the paradoxical twist is the same. These men, who being situationally defined as straight, are not likely to engage in gay sex, and yet end up having gay sex in these fictionalised circumstances, time and again. As common as the template structure of these films is the homogeneity of the actors involved: white, tanned, muscular, masculine males between the ages of 20 and 40. Whichever of these well-worn paths is tread, it is certain that a huge portion of the gay porn being consumed features a group rarely known for their engagement in queer sex – straight men – doing just that.
Those in the San Fernando Valley have continued to churn out reworkings of these clichés for over five decades now. While filmmakers seem to be increasingly investing in porn artistically, with dedication to new narratives, aesthetics, and diversifying, it seems there is still a large market for this trope.
Porn is not necessarily representative of human desire or how sexual behaviour and attraction manifests itself physically. Sex is executed formulaically, flawlessly and the participants look more like underwear models than anyone you’ve ever known. Porn does however demonstrate some aspirational facet of the human sexual psyche and for this reason the phenomenons therein ought not to be ignored. The question is then begged: why does the “straight man” continue to remain such a focal point of the queer gaze sexually?
Neil Watkins has watched many hours of gay porn. He is a known sharer: an actor, playwright and musician. His creative work has detailed his life experiences including those as a gay man, sex addict, drug user and survivor of child sexual abuse.
Having attended his gigs and eaten in the Fumbally café where he works, I knew a little of what to expect. And I was nervous. He’s an engaging, charged performer who makes relentless, unselfconscious eye contact. As a waiter he can be charming or aloof. Today he looks a little tired and is cramped in the corner of tearoom called Bibi’s under a shelf of twee teapots and ephemera.
Immediately, he explains where he has just been “I go to see this woman, a shaman.” The appointment sounds arduous: “In layman’s terms, her work is like guided meditation: she sits opposite me and essentially acts as my therapist – I feel my way into a memory or pain and she picks up on where this is stored.”
I’ve barely had to give a reiteration of why I asked him to speak with me in the first place. When I emailed him (then a stranger) saying I wanted to explore the queer sexual fascination with the straight man he replied « I’ve just spent an evening lusting after yet another one of my straight mates, and a day of it before that in the Fumbally, where there was cacophony of straight beauts. Seriously. I’m sick of it. We need to talk. »
“Ever since I started seeing her [his therapist] it’s been an exploration of shame and self-loathing, and it’s worked.” Neil continues. “Her name is Ursula, which is also the name of the Sea Witch in the Little Mermaid, which is actually very important to me.” I ask him half-jokingly whether that’s because he saw himself as Ariel as a kid. To my surprise he replies “And still do. Ariel is someone who is willing to do drastic things and change herself for an unattainable man, and that resonates for a lot of gay men.” I’m impressed. Speaking with Watkins is, in turns, rewarding and profound, and difficult and abstract. The experience is fairly enthralling however; as intelligent, reasoned observations on the “self” sit next to witticisms, and even near-mysticisms.
“The reason I go for anything alternative is that I have had fourteen years of headaches that I haven’t been able to solve – migraine, blindspot – it’s been a pain in the ass.” he continues. With his therapist/benevolent sea-witch, he has sourced the root. “I’ve suffered with this obsession with winning approval from the ideal man all my life, to the point where it’s manifested as chronic pain in my body.” Like many self destructive behaviours, events throughout childhood born this obsession “My grandad and my uncle would babysit me when my mum went out, and they would taunt me constantly about my soft nature. This went on and on, to the point of boredom. But regardless, I thought something was wrong with me. I wasn’t ticking the standard box of male.”
Being actively derided is damaging, but passive derisions people receive on account of their difference can be equally detrimental. “Even as a kid, you pick up the more subtle things. You pick up on the way you’re being looked at by your peers and adults for your gentle touch and the way your voice sounds. Because of this I was forced to question my own value as a man.”
Watkins is a handsome, physically-impressive man. He is barrel-chested, strong-looking and wears a thick beard. His voice is deep, his accent, other than being subtly Irish, is indecipherable and not particularly effeminate. He is, by all measures, a “manly” man.
“By noticing where I fell down” he continues “I created the idea of an ideal, macho sort of male, which if I could not achieve myself, I would want to associate with.” This idol was to Neil, by definition, straight. “It became my objective throughout my life to find this guy.” This fixation sent Neil spinning away from the safe spaces of family and friends towards positions which rendered him extremely vulnerable. “I would go looking for these male figures wherever I could find them and that guy, whatever shape or form he came in – a friend, the local bully – was always rejecting me. First socially, and later sexually. This eventually included a local football coach whose car I got into and drove off with, who then sexually abused me.”
While never self-blaming or apologising for his abuser, Watkins sees additional patterns of causation for this: “That event just fucking says it all. The abuse really began way earlier: all the way back to the extended parenting of my grandad and my uncle, and to some extent a whole world which projects this ideal of a man.”
Abuse paved the way for other self-destructive behaviours, and for Neil this took the form of sex addiction and substance use. “It used to be I’d go to the Boilerhouse or a lane when I was drunk and have sex with a fucking stranger. Now, the lowest I’ll allow myself to go is porn” He sought treatment in the form of meetings. “I’ve witnessed tale after tale of people going after the unattainable and seen the link between that and self-loathing. The answer is not to get into bed with Russell Crowe or whoever-the-fuck. Winning him is not going to tend to the yearning. The only way to do that is by tending to your own self-loathing.”
How is he tending to himself? “Meditation has now replaced marijuana and copious amounts of porn, both of which filled every other waking hour of the day.” Along with the exorcism of making his art and healthy living and counselling, Neil can work on the fixation “I found myself in company of a straight male mate last night and I was frustrated. I was annoyed with him, and somehow wasn’t being fulfilled by him. I wanted to turn into Veruca Salts or throw my toys out of the Pram. But I caught myself, knowing I had to address my neediness.”
Many of the queer people I know have had at one stage or another unrequited lust or love for someone utterly unattainable. Some pursue it, to varying results. Others have seen it come and pass, as most objects of desire for the healthy appetite do.
Having attended an all-boys Christian Brothers high school, I came out in the interval before college. The bold new world of a Law School was a haven for polished, polite, intelligent young men. Many were handsome and straight, and with all countless ways in which the rules of the arena had changed since school, to my surprise I found it easy to become their friend. Friendship gave the verisimilitude that something could be real. Over the course of lusting after a few in succession, and aided by the pressure valve of porn, two years passed throughout which I had had sex only a handful of times.
Things changed for me slowly. I became more comfortable in my own gender expressions, opinions and orientation. I made an effort to befriend and flirt with other queer people. I met someone. I began to understand and embrace my difference and celebrate and enjoy where I saw that in others. This translated for me sexually in a massive way. Whereas a constrained, blunt form of masculinity was definitive of the men I was attracted to, a much more exciting playing field unfolded before me.
Hearing Neil speak was, for me, alternatingly familiar and extremely alien. Growing up not meeting norms and feeling the invisible forces of differentiation are common among many queer people. How this embosses on later sexual desire, expression and behaviour varies for an abundance of reasons.
My experiences are not like Neil’s and we are incredibly different in our outlooks relating to many aspects of gender and sexuality. Neil and I grew up 15 years apart, in different families and different communities. We experienced key stages of maturation in different worlds. What we do share however is a familiar shape in the arc of our young lives. We both faced non-acceptance and chased for some time unattainable ends. Both of us have found ways to address these futilities.
As society, parenting, school environments et al. change and more readily process and accept the differences among people, the shape of this arc for many may warp. By straightening out this persistent troublesome arc, there may be a shift in the queer gaze away from the straight men upon it is so often fixated. Maybe then will we see the computer screen denizens of those brightly lit locker rooms and college dorms inhabit art classes, bedrooms and bars instead along with the rise of more reflective storylines, worthy of a sexuality that juxtaposes a norm.
Illustration: Sarah Moloney