Fifty Shades of Matte Gray: Gay Porn and the Straight Look
by Alexander Joseph
(originally published on Vestoj.com)
SEAN CODY IS A fifteen-year-old porn site for gay men fascinated by what’s been called dude sex or bro sex.1 The videographers strive to convince us we’re watching two or more all-American heterosexual college-jock types go at it. Gays have always borrowed straight style tropes – tattoos, camouflage, denim – but by trading in straight looks, straight attitude, Sean Cody might be the ultimate cultural appropriation. A careful, informed reading of the clothes opens up possibilities for various kinds of engagement.
The typical Sean Cody video begins with low-key flirtation, often involving a sport – tossing a football, hitting a punching bag. ‘Arnie and Dean: Bareback’ opens on a pair of shirtless young men sitting atop a picnic table on a golden fall day. Arnie, a good six inches taller, has a chin-curtain beard, broad shoulders and the sort of scars you might get from steroids. Clean-cut Dean, from Portland, Oregon, has a correspondingly softer look; he could be a Hollister model. Dean’s shorts are wide-gauge cotton jersey, Arnie’s a jolting red microfiber with a blue stripe along the side seam.
An off-camera voice says, ‘Dean, I want you to tell Arnie about yourself.’
‘What’s there to say about me?’ Dean says.
‘This is Arnie’s first film…’ the voice prods.
‘So, uh, Arnie was it? Where are you from?’
Arnie’s first line is, ‘Montana.’
‘Been doin’ this a while myself,’ Dean tells Arnie. ‘Lookin’ forward to workin’ with ya.’ They might be any two laconic dudes, downing brewskies, getting ready to go shoot some hoops.
Sean Cody is just one gay porn site among many. (Corbin Fisher and Randy Blue truck in a similar look for their models.) Their stats are impressive, however: One of over 2,200 videos, ‘Arnie and Dean’ has been viewed almost 22,000 times since it was posted December 22 2016. The most popular scene, ‘Brandon Bottoms: Bareback’ (November 28, 2015), has over 127,000 views. ‘Brandon’ also appeared in the site’s first bareback vid, released Christmas Day, 2011. In 2014, designer Riccardo Tisci used an image of Brandon on a T-shirt for Givenchy.2
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‘Devon Hunter’ is the pseudonym of a man who describes himself as a ‘professional gay courtesan.’ He’s performed in more than thirty porn videos, including some for Sean Cody. The filmmakers told him how to act straight: lower your voice, don’t talk with your hands and don’t use big words. Don’t say you’re an exotic dancer – which he was – say ‘gymnast.’ The clothes might look like an afterthought, but au contraire: At the anonymous San Diego warehouse where they filmed, ‘They had a huge wardrobe – shoes, shorts, even hemp necklaces,’ Hunter says. ‘They liked cargo shorts a lot – I mean, a lot.’ Models could wear their own outfits if they fit well: Sean Cody ‘wanted a balance of baggy and tight. Too baggy doesn’t show your physique, but too tight looks gay.’3
Cut to Arnie and Dean indoors, now wearing shirts. Dean’s is a light grey ringer T you might find at Abercrombie & Fitch, while Arnie’s super tight, dark-gray microfiber looks to have been sourced at a sporting goods place like Modell’s. In 1998, sex columnist Dan Savage tried to find out whether the Calvin Klein underwear that often appeared in gay porn was a deliberate product placement; the company wouldn’t say.4 Times have changed. Now, Hunter says, although A&F styles are favoured on Sean Cody, porn makers avoid visible brand labels because they can get sued. (Underwear isn’t an issue here, since these boys all go commando.) Suggesting sexual orientation is only one costume consideration. Muted colours might signify ‘straight,’ but overly bright or dark colours can also throw off the colour balance. ‘White is out, black is out,’ Hunter says. Earth tones and semi-bold hues look good against skin. Jewel tones, not so much.
Hunter appeared as ‘Ryan’ (models’ onscreen names are chosen at random, he says) in ‘Ryan and Fuller’ (September 7, 2009). Their scene opens with the pair cuddling, supine, on a bed with a brown comforter. Ryan, the designated bottom, wears tastefully distressed denim, while top Fuller sports straight-cut jeans. An off-camera voice says to Fuller, ‘Girl update?’ ‘It’s a little confusing,’ Fuller admits, with a deep chuckle. ‘It was good until today.’ ‘Oh no! Let’s not talk about that!’ the voice says. Both men onscreen wear shirts featuring the kind of splattered, double-exposure graphics that are less prevalent now than they were eight years ago, when these mass styles could be spotted on Michael Sorrentino (‘The Situation’) on MTV’s Jersey Shore.
Recently, the trend on Sean Cody is flat-fronted shorts and soft, monochrome shirts. There’s also plenty of breathable microfiber. The clothes match the sets, which are full of sand, taupe and grey in what a friend of mine refers to as the ‘Starbucks regency’ look – bulky, plain furniture you’d find in your local coffee shop. Far from the scuzzy, sweaty-jockstrap, sling-in-a-basement aesthetic of much gay porn, Sean Cody’s look is more timeshare promotion video. Lighting is unobtrusive, but allows for detail in shots. Props include a Rothko-esque canvas and cute glass-ball plant holders. Dean ejaculates on a gunmetal grey rug with a white, interlocking diamond pattern, possibly from West Elm or CB2. (In another scene, a model shoots on a deep-pile oatmeal carpet.) ‘Nothing with a sheen – no hairspray, nothing gloss,’ Hunter says of the strategy. Walls are painted with matte or satin finish, since reflective surfaces affect the quality of the tape.
Once Arnie and Dean disrobe, a paradox in the portrayal of masculinity becomes apparent: Arnie has not only sculpted his pubes, but shaved his asshole – a pretty fussy touch. Via the bear aesthetic, hairiness has made a comeback in gay porn since the 1990s, when it seemed like every guy was smooth and skinny; but the denuded look is still big on Sean Cody. Hunter says the site conforms to trends in body hair: ‘They leave the belly, thighs and taint [perineum] alone, but shave the balls. For a while there was this trend where they’d shave the tops of the abs but leave hair in the grooves.’ Until recently, when the fashion became undeniable, tattoos were also rare. Sean Cody doesn’t want the models to evoke anything too specific, Hunter says, and that includes everything from their build to their body language: ‘You should be as blank a slate as possible, so you can be an everyman.’ What’s there to say about me?
Somehow, it’s not a surprise that the worlds of fashion and Sean Cody overlap: these videos look like a logical extension of fashion photographer Bruce Weber’s homoerotic work for Abercrombie & Fitch. Aside from the rare African-American guy (who usually tops), Sean Cody, like the A&F catalogue, is mostly white. (Michael Jeffries, A&F’s once-closeted CEO, commissioned Weber; Jeffries was forced out in December 2014, and the brand has since dialled back the homoeroticism and made gestures toward diversity.5 ) The clean, sans-serif masculinity apparently appealed to Mr. American Modernism himself: In 2010, Calvin Klein fell in love with a Sean Cody model, Nick Gruber, who was forty-eight years younger. They were together, sort of, for a couple of years.6 Simon Dexter went from modelling for the site to starting his own underwear line, and Colby Keller appeared in a 2016 print ad for Vivienne Westwood.
Porn is like fashion in that it is such a huge phenomenon that it threatens to negate individual reactions to it. According to a 2014 Pew study, only twelve percent of Americans watch porn, a figure that strikes Shira Tarrant, author of The Pornography Industry: What Everyone Needs to Know as decidedly low.7 (Hunter laughed when I mentioned the number: ‘More like twelve percent don’t watch it.’) Perhaps because it gives rise to embarrassment and shame, it’s hard to find much even-handed analysis. The phrase, ‘the Golden Age of porn’ (roughly 1968-1980, after which porn became more widely available for the VCR), usually refers to the quality of the product – shot on film, with actual production values. But for that brief period, porn was also social. In 1972, Wakefield Poole’s hardcore gay movie Boys in the Sand grossed $400,000 in New York’s 55th Street Playhouse, supported with ads in The New York Times.8 Even my suburban parents went to see Deep Throat (also 1972) with their next-door neighbours. ‘By the mid-80s, gay porn had once again retreated behind closed doors…’ writes Jack Stevenson in A History of Gay Sex Cinema. ‘[It] had passed through its most interesting phases as an agent of gay liberation. It was spent as a (sub)cultural force and reverted once again to a mere consumer commodity.’
Just as the average person has no idea who knitted their sweater or where, that same person has little idea of how the porn they watch was made, who made it, or at what human cost. Hunter says the eighteen-minute scene with Fuller took eight hours to shoot. Fuller really is straight – though it would be hard to know for sure, Hunter claims about ninety percent of actors in porn are hetero; in his experience, they’re more in demand, and better paid – and could only keep it up for about a minute at a time. When it was time to film his climax, Fuller told Hunter, ‘Don’t look at me, or you’ll fuck me up.’
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There is a real Sean Cody, by the way. It’s not clear whether he’s still affiliated with the site, which did not return requests for comment. In 2014, the company was purchased by the global IT firm Mindgeek, which owns the majority of the world’s porn tube sites as well as the celebrity gossip site celebs.com.9 According to an apparently deleted interview, Cody, who grew up Mormon, likes ‘men who are clean cut and in shape, with good builds, handsome faces and nice dicks.’ In a scene that now also seems to have been deleted, a man who has been identified as Sean Cody wears an unremarkable gray polo shirt and white, baggy khakis. He looks like a nice, ordinary guy.
Alex Joseph is an independent writer and curator.
- See Jane Ward’s Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men [NYU, 2015], Tony Silva’s similarly themed research in the November 2016 issue of Gender and Society and Brokeback Mountain. ↩
- https://blowyourmindaway.wordpress.com/2014/06/30/gay-porn-and-fashion “Gay Porn and Fashion,” Blow Your Mind Away [blog], June 30, 2014. ↩
- D. Hunter, author interview, December 23, 2016. See also Hunter’s blog for a detailed (and well-written) account of his experience with the site: http://www.devonhunter.info/archives/1625/ ↩
- D. Savage, “Savage Love,” The Stranger, June 25, 1998. ↩
- S. Berfield & L. Rupp, “The Aging of Abercrombie and Fitch,” Bloomberg Business Week, January 22, 2015. ↩
- C. Swanson, “How Nick Gruber Became Calvin Klein’s Ex-Lover,” New York, August 11, 2013. ↩
- S. Tarrant, The Pornography Industry: What Everyone Needs to Know, Oxford, Oxford University Press, March 29, 2016. ↩
- J. Stevenson, “From the Bedroom to the Bijou: A Secret History of American Gay Sex Cinema,” Film Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 1, Autumn, 1997. ↩
- K. Forrester, “Making Sense of Modern Pornography,” The New Yorker, September 26, 2016. ↩