Register Monday | June 18 | 2018

Dad's Porn

Under the mattress, out of the closet

When I get together with my gay friends, we talk about the same things I talk about with my straight friends: politics, movies and whether or not Brad Pitt cheated on Jennifer Aniston. But while my straight buddies will inevitably start talking about their impending pregnancies, the fags and I will chat about porn.

Gay men talk about porn like it's wine-we all have preferences for labels, years, flavours and points of origin. Just as the intellectualization of wine has taken away the stigma of being a wino, our endless knowledge of directors and actors and our verbalized criticism of both proves that we feel no shame about getting off watching guys fuck each other. For better or for worse, gay men love to be shameless. Most of them spent years hating themselves for being gay-releasing themselves from that guilt, refusing that guilt, is the best part of coming out.

But not me. I was never ashamed of being gay. This isn't because I grew up in some liberal paradise like San Francisco or Amsterdam. I grew up in Cincinnati, arguably the most conservative city in the United States. It wasn't my parents' skilled social construction either. Sure, they were liberal-they never spanked me and they subscribed to both Ms. and the New Republic-but these former civil-rights workers didn't have a single gay friend, and they hid from my brother and me our godmother who had gone lesbian in the early eighties. In fact, my parents weren't ashamed of using "cocksucker" and "faggot" in moments of anger or disgust. No, I learned it was all right to be gay from pornography.

My dad had porn. Lots of it. Many educated liberals who came of age in the sixties and seventies didn't believe in teaching their children to be ashamed of the human body, and my parents were no different. They didn't obsessively prevent us from seeing them naked, and they didn't punish my brother or me when we were found in the storeroom off my dad's study, flipping through his collection of Playboy, Penthouse, Variations and Forum.

I don't remember discovering the magazines. I just always knew that they were there, stacked neatly on wooden shelves, between musty academic journals and the notes for my father's dissertation, Common School Reform: Connecticut, 1838-1854. My parents never told me that looking through the magazines was naughty. (That I learned from my friends and teachers and the billboards around Cincinnati that, no joke, exclaimed, "Real men don't use porn.") In fact, they seemed to be amused by my interest. Once, when I was six or seven and particularly obsessed with an issue of Penthouse, I clipped out the subscription form on the back cover and attempted to fill it out.

"What does 'a-pee-tee' mean?" I asked.

"It's short for 'apartment,'" Mom said.

"Oh, okay. What's an account number?"

My mom paused for a moment, and then she asked, "Are you trying to subscribe to Penthouse?"

Back then, or at least in the "back then" that I remember, the photographs in Playboy and Pent-
house were extraordinarily artful. The lighting was gauzy, and the women's expressions were coy, even innocent. The images were sensual, soft. There were none of the graphic genitalia close-ups that you now see in Barely Legal. Sexiness was about withholding information. Even when the girls were photographed with partners, when sex had be inferred instead of imagined, the pictures were more 9 1/2Weeks than 9 1/2 Inches.

It was those photos of couples that most obsessed me. Each pictorial, as they were called, told a story, and as proto-writer, I loved stories. My favourite was a riff on Bonnie and Clyde, with models who looked vaguely like Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. Even now, when I see a man wearing sock garters, I think of that faux-Clyde's perfectly trimmed mustache and his slicked, black hair. He's sitting in a chair, legs spread, tank top pushed up his stomach, and Bonnie's head is between his legs. Just writing that sentence has gotten me, well, excited.

The photographer who did the "Bonnie and Clyde" shoot was Earl Miller, and my parents had a collection of his pictorials. I stole it from the cabinet behind their bed dozens of times and would "read" it in my bedroom closet. One night, a year or so after the subscription fiasco, I left the light on in the closet. My father noticed just before he went to bed. The next morning, all he said was, "Remember to turn out your closet light when you go to bed." Ironically, this was the same closet where I would have an approximation of sex with a boy from my grade two class later that year.

When I had exhausted the pictures from my dad's library, I started to read what was between the pictures: the articles, letters and advice columns. I was, without a doubt, the only kid in my grade six class who knew who Xaviera Hollander was (aka the Happy Hooker) and what her opinion was on dildos (pro). She regularly answered questions in Penthouse and Forum, and one of her responses changed my worldview forever. A woman wrote in to ask how to make her gay brother straight. The Happy Hooker told her that she couldn't change him and she shouldn't try. Being gay is just what some people were and, as the guy's sister, she should support and encourage him.

When my hormones started kicking around the age of twelve, and I started to realize I was gay, the Happy Hooker was the first person to tell me that I wasn't mentally disabled or just plain sick. I had read my parents' old copy of Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), which ascribed to Freud's now-debunked theory that homosexuality was a perversion caused by distant fathers, overbearing mothers and wacky fetishism. I'd also grown up with AIDS. According to popular culture, the gays were the Typhoid Marys of the plague: dirty, diseased and dangerous.

Luckily, the Happy Hooker's opinion was in concert with many of the magazines' editorial policies; they published at least one letter every month from a guy who never thought it would happen to him, but, yeah, he'd had sex with his brother-in-law or his son's football coach or his cab driver or his chiropractor-and it was hot. Of course, that letter might be followed by someone's account of sodomizing a seagull. You think I'm kidding about the seagull? I'm not.

I'm not sure why I chose to believe an ex-jailbird and prostitute over famous scientists and peer pressure. Perhaps it was how loved (creased, dog-eared, softened) my parents' copy of Xaviera's autobiography was, or perhaps it was my dad's professed belief that prostitution should be legalized. Every evening, on his way to pick up my mom from work, he drove by Hookers' Row-the sidewalk outside the Plasma Center in Cincinnati-and he honked and waved. The girls always waved back. Perhaps, also, it was how kind and clear the Happy Hooker's advice was. It was almost motherly.

I can imagine that an anti-porn militant could see the previous paragraph as proof that porn corrupts. I can imagine it being read aloud at a book-burning or a congressional hearing followed by gasps and invective. The people who hate porn-and that can include both feminists like Andrea Dworkin and leaders of the religious right like Jerry Falwell-see it as the ultimate bad example. According to them, by consuming images of wanting ladies or stories about boys in bondage or movies about easy cheerleaders, we become rapists, pederasts, adulterers, serial killers, or a combination thereof.

During the seventies and eighties, when I was a child, the anti-porn movement-radicalized by the sexual revolution, Penthouse and Deep Throat-went berserk trying to stop the spread of smut. They succeeded in many parts of the US and Canada. In Cincinnati, for instance, it was impossible to purchase anything racier then Penthouse, and when a local gallery showed the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, its curator-who also happened to be our next-door neighbour-was put on trial for pandering obscenity and child porno-
graphy. Thankfully, he was acquitted.

Because of where I lived, it wasn't until I was well into my adolescence that I realized there was something beyond the well-heeled soft-core on my dad's bookshelves-that there was something both Jerry Falwell and my parents agreed on. Though my father had written letters to the local papers expressing outrage over the prosecution of Larry Flynt for obscenity, Hustler was not allowed in our house. It was not Playboy. It was dirty. One copy got passed around among friends at school like a Van Halen cassette in Communist Russia. Of course, by this point, I had hit puberty, and my erection trigger function knew the difference, too. The pictures in Playboy and Penthouse made me hard. The pictures in Hustler made me feel like I'd just spent three days in a Tijuana brothel.

Lucky for me, my parents were hypocrites. They had videos-hard-core compilations as sleazy as anything in Hustler. I made a habit of fast-forwarding to the threesomes (always sure to rewind them to the exact places I'd found them), hoping to catch some moment of homosexual desire, inferred or imagined.

Sadly, I didn't see any gay porn until I was nineteen. But I had a very clear anatomical understanding of sex-and of what men seemed to like girls to do to them-long before I had even a remote chance of getting laid.

When that chance came, I was prepared. My friend Sam and I had a just watched The Wall in the rec room of his house in Western Hills, which was figuratively and literally on the other side of the tracks. The exchange of blow jobs had been planned for some time. I just had to wait for Sam to lose his virginity-to his girlfriend. When my turn came, and the oral sex was in progress, he said, "God, you're so much better than Nancy." And I thought, "Thank God my dad had all that porn." Afterward, Sam freaked out. He was paralyzed with guilt and disgust. He was the only one; as I drove home, blaring Aerosmith in my mother's minivan, I was thrilled.

But when Sam stopped talking to me, I didn't know what to do. While porn had taught me a few techniques, it didn't provide me with the skills to do anything else-like date. Outside of porn's airbrushed models lies a real world fraught with emotional ramifications, rejection and doubt. The problem with porn is not that it corrupts but that it disappoints. Being gay was so much more complicated and difficult than I had been led to believe by the simplified, idealized narratives that I'd savoured and memorized. It isn't all about sex (and the sex is never that easy to have). Being gay is also about politics and friendship, Judy Garland and Tony Kushner, disco and camp. In the end, porn only taught me what a homosexual does during sex. I had to teach myself how to be gay.

Ted Gideonse isn't afraid to talk dirty. More of his ruminations on porn coming soon to Maisonneuve.org.