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A Century Of Cinematic Pornography

by Rob Blauwhuis in Films & Books , 07 maart 2015

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

In 1969, the well-known and then forty-year-old Dutch essayist Rudy Kousbroek confessed: “I had never seen a sex film.” In 2015 it seems unbelievable that someone his age would say such a thing, especially with an undertone of missing out on something.

This also can be read in his statement that some years earlier, he “missed (out) on a blue movie shown at a friend’s apartment in New York, something I really regretted.” Since 1969, both the legal and technical situation regarding pornography have undergone major developments. It may be somewhat exaggerated, but one could say that nowadays someone has to go to great lengths not to see porn.

You only have to switch on the computer to see an abundance of material of the most varied quality, and with a large choice of sexual expressions; from “regular” guys jerking off in front of a webcam to very professional evocations of the most extreme forms of fetish sex.

Kousbroek could make his confession in the past tense, as he had managed to catch up at the “Verdens første sexmesse,” the very first sex fair in the world. This fair was organized in October 1969 in Copenhagen. Kousbroek did not come with a blank slate, as he “naturally had seen some pornography” prior to the fair, but not in the quantity he was presented with at the sex fair: “The pornographic photos that circulate in Western Europe are mostly of a respectable age. Most of them from the 1920s and 1930s, sometimes true antiques, real heirlooms, handed over from father to son and endlessly rephotographed over the years.

As a result of some combination of these factors, such pictures are almost always low in contrast and focus, and sometimes so hazy that one could take the scene for a Zeppelin in the fog, or the Laocoön group in a sauna, which does much for their charm.”

At the sex fair, Kousbroek was confronted with a completely different category of photos: “brightly lit, without shadows, full of detail and very sharp. Moreover, most photos were in color.” The most striking aspect of these photos is that they are not “the end, but the means.” “They are glued on boxes, to give an idea of what is in the box: small film. The typical product after the removal of the last restrictions on pornography is not the photograph (and even less so the printed word), but film, especially in color, and sometimes even with sound.”

In 1967, Denmark was the first country in the world to abolish all legislation concerning pornography. Legal restrictions, however, have never led to something not being done. Just like photography was shortly after its invention used to create “naughty” pictures, and sometimes even very explicit images of sexual acts, it didn’t take long before sex was captured on celluloid. The oldest surviving mainstream film - two seconds! - is “Roundhay Garden Scene” by Louis Le Prince from 1888. The art of motion pictures matured in the “silent era” from 1894 to 1929. In 2013, the Library of Congress reported that it is assumed that about seventy percent of American silent films is completely lost. As the priority of the preservation of pornographic films was a lot lower than that of “regular” films, it is very likely that we will never know when the first pornographic film was made, not to mention the first film with gay sex.

Mighty Rough Stuff

In “Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography and Film from Their Beginnings to Stonewall” (New York, 1996) Thomas Waugh reports that about 2000 stag film productions are left from the period 1908-1970, of which seventy-five percent was made in the 1960s. In the period before World War II, he found documentation on about 180 films: “about 100 American, 50 French, plus a sprinkling of Latin American, Spanish, and Austrian works.” To his surprise, it also included approximately fifteen film with gay sex “(slightly less than the beloved old Kinsey proportion of one in ten!) - that is, from eight to ten French films, about five American, and one each from Cuba and Spain.” In many of these films, the gay sex is taking place in a heterosexual context, often as a form of revenge, as in our time it was conceived in the sub-genre of the bisexual and often interracial “cuckold porn,” in which, for example, a husband catches his wife in the act of adultery and then screws both, or, because he can’t give his wife what she apparently needs, gets screwed in the butt himself.

In his research, Waugh discovered an American stag film that is completely about a gay performer, “Surprise of a Knight” from approximately 1930. The credits state that the script is from Oscar Wild (sic!). Initially, this films seems to capture a “heterosexual encounter between an elegant gowned hostess with bobbed hair and evening gloves and her suited male visitor.” Both protagonists mostly remain dressed during their sexual escapades, although the heroine seems to get anally fucked.

The real climax comes in the final scene “with the heroine once more raising her skirts for a close-up and out pops the long-suspected penis from its intracrural hiding place (announced by the film’s only intertitle, ‘Surprise’); the crucial organ is no sooner revealed than engaged in a frenetic bob and swirl, with the figure’s entire body soon joining in, front and rear view, ablaze with intensity.” Then, her skirts are completely abandoned, and the young man has another dance with his knight. “As a coda, she assumes her male social identity, abandoning her nude dance and histrionics for masculine attire and a coy close-up smile at the camera, a brilliantined and winsome young man.”

Some men were really puzzled about what they saw on the screen. In his memoirs, the American playwright and Nobel Prize winner Eugene O’Neill describes a performance in a brothel in Buenos Aires: “Those pictures were mighty rough stuff. Nothing was left to the imagination. Every form of perversity was enacted and, of course, the sailors flocked to them.”


Because of technical advances and the slightly more liberal attitudes towards sex, the production of sex films steadily increased after WWII. Even to the extent that the US Supreme Court got involved in 1956. A prosecutor argued that these films were made by “those deliberately trying to produce material which they know to be illegal, comparable to bootleg whiskey... Unpleasant to talk about, unpleasant to think about... [motion picture films] are the worst, most vile, of any form of pornography... Eight and 16mm films are produced in a... I guess about a 300 foot roll, has a short plot to it, starts off with the characters, and ends up with all forms of perverted conduct.”

In his descriptions of the sex fair thirteen years later, Kousbroek stated that “people are interested in pornography as a phenomenon from a clinical, cultural, sociological, artistic or God knows what point of view, but not out of a personal interest in sex.” Unmistakably in this remark, there is a sense of irony, and it is therefore not inconceivable that the learned jurists of the Supreme Court maybe have felt uncomfortable talking and thinking about these films, but that they had many a restless night after watching the evidence... However, despite their hard and disapproving judgement, they could not stop developments.

In the 1960s, as Waugh concluded, the number of explicit sex films not only increased, but the photographers of erotic male nudity, such as Bob Mizer, started making films. These films were initially of wrestlers in just a posing-strap, who would often “accidentally” find themselves in very suggestive positions while practicing their sport. Moreover, in underground films by, for example, Jack Smith and Andy Warhol, gay erotica was increasingly becoming explicit. As the title suggests, Warhol’s “My Hustler” (1965) is about a male prostitute who is coveted by a woman and two men.

One of the protagonists has contracted this young man via the Dial-a-Hustler agency and has taken him to the Fire Island Pines, a famous holiday destination for gays from greater New York. He tells one of his rivals that, obviously, he did not pick him up from the street. “Street pick-ups are for aging out-of-work hustlers like you who’ve decided who’ve decided they’ve got to like it.” “My Hustler” never becomes explicitly pornographic, but is, as Jeffrey Escoffier puts it in “Bigger than Life: The History of Gay Porn Cinema from Beefcake to Hardcore” (Philadelphia 2009), “the first of Warhol’s cinematic explorations of the male body - and the emotional preoccupation with time, waiting, and homosexual desire.”

Sexually Liberating

“My Hustler” was a hit in the smaller theaters that showed avant-garde movies. Viewers who secretly hoped that this kind of movie would show a bit more of homosexual desire only had to wait another couple of years. In 1969, San Francisco was the first city in the United States that showed hard-core productions in cinemas, which heralded the end of the illegal circuit of sex films. To keep things interesting for these theater lovers, a regular supply of new productions was needed, preferably longer than most sex films were at that point in time. This demand led to the emergence of the porn industry.

Wakefield Poole’s “Boys in the Sand” (1971), which is situated on Fire Island just like “My Hustler,” is often mentioned in this context as a milestone. “Boys in the Sand” was the first gay porn production that was advertised in the mainstream press, including The New York Times. This film also launched the career of John Calvin Culver, who would become one of the first superstars in the gay porn industry under the pseudonym Casey Donovan in subsequent years. However, “Boys in the Sand” was part of a development.

A year earlier, “Eyes of a Stranger” (also known as “Eyes of a Gay Stranger”) had been released. This film marked the beginning of the successful career of another popular porn star from the 1970s, Jack Wrangler. Wrangler was born in Beverly Hills as John Robert Stillman, the son of Robert Thurston Stillman, producer of Hollywood films and popular television series like “Rawhide” and “Bonanza.”

A year before his death in 2009, Wrangler stated in an interview that he had acted in porn because he found it culturally subversive, but also sexually liberating: “At the time we were all trying to find out who the hell we were as individuals, what we wanted specifically on our own terms, who we wanted to be, what our potentials were, what our differences were, what made us unique...

And I think that’s why the XXX-rated films were important, because it was like, Oh, my God, there are other people who like the same things as me, like leather, or being blown on a pool table. It was a start - literally stripping ourselves naked and trying to begin from there.”

Adventures in a Barn

Wrangler was not the only one who saw pornography as liberating. Around that time, Samuel M. Steward - who started his career as a professor, but then continued as a tattoo artist and gay porn author (under the pseudonym Phil Andros) - convinced the young rent boy pimp J. Brian to take on the filming of the porn classic “Seven in a Barn.” A Dutch translation of this famous porn novella was published in 1970 by the Rotterdam publishing firm Sexquis. The afterword of this edition notes that “as far as researchers [ ...] have been able to ascertain, [...] it can be assumed that it can be traced back to [approximately] 1920 in the United States, perhaps even earlier. From that moment on, thousands of handwritten, typed out and stenciled copies have traveled the world.”

The publisher of this book probably did not foresee that a year later a film version would be released, which follows the original rather closely. Even though this film was made with a small budget, according to experts it is the first gay porn movie that is both in color and has a synchronized soundtrack. Whether consumers considered these technological advances to be the most important aspect is doubtful. In 2008 Jaibo suggested in a discussion on that “the most provocative stance it takes - for its day - is its insistence that a good-looking WASP boy who is a football quarterback gets off in a big way on having his body used and probed and invaded in every orifice by other young men. Years of gay pornography has made this message familiar to the point of ordinariness, but then it must have seemed like a pretty liberating statement.”

Soon after the appearance of “Seven in a Barn,” director and producer Brian was invited to screen and discuss the film for film classes, sociology workshops, and psychology clinics on various Californian universities. However, this did not mean that pornography was now generally accepted. In 1972, the police confiscated “Seven in a Barn” shortly before a showing at a panel discussion on pornography at the University of California in Irvine. This police intervention could not stop advances, and in the years to follow, the porn industry would develop into an extremely successful industry, also in economic terms. Not only in the United States, but also in various countries across Europe.


The porn industry in Europe is more obscure than in the United States, and it is also studied less. In some countries they did produce porn, but can’t it be called an “industry,” for example in The Netherlands. In the 1980s, Freddy Valks, the owner of the boy’s brothel De Boys on the Amstel, would make sex videos with his employees if the opportunity arose. This was also true for the manager of the sitting-room brothel Alex Privé & Friends. Around that time and at the other end of the sex spectrum, a barkeeper of The Eagle in the Warmoesstraat made a very intense SM video. These videos were not released independently, and they were not written about. Twenty-five years later it’s therefore difficult to identify precisely which porn productions were made in The Netherlands.

Moreover, European legislation regarding pornography differed extremely. In France, Jean Daniel Cadinot had no problem starting out in porn, after he had made a name for himself with erotic pictures of boys and men. Cadinot once said that he “never tried to find out what the audience would like, I don’t do market research... I make the films that I would like to see myself.” This view did him no harm, as he directed a large number of very successful films up to his death in 2008. In 1998, the number had risen to fifty-four and he kept adding masterpieces to his oeuvre in the following ten years. In those, he returned to the location of his great successes in the eighties, North Africa.

In the United Kingdom, such a career would have been impossible. On someone once answered a question he posed himself:  “What happens when a pretty, young, blonde Frenchman is left to wander alone through a North African Bazaar? As we have seen in Jean Daniel Cadinot’s 1984 classic, ‘Harem’ (‘Sex Bazaar’), he gets about ten penises put inside of him all in one day.” The British could not have answered this question so easily, as in the year that Cadinot released “Harem,” the Video Recordings Act was introduced in the United Kingdom. This law stipulated that all videos had to be subjected to an inspection by British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) before legal release. They reserved four years for all existing material, after which the sales of non-approved material simply became illegal. This could have been irrelevant, were it not that a spokesperson of the BBFC at the time informed the magazine Gay Times that gay porn would never be officially approved, as videos containing oral, anal or genital sex, erections and masturbation would never get a seal of approval. Only in August 2009 it was discovered that this law no longer was enforceable as the European Commission had not been informed of its existence. In December of that same year, the British government came with new legislation that did get European approval.

To the Museum

In Germany, where since a few years the only European porn awards are presented at the HustlaBall Awards ceremony, the situation was again somewhat different. In Berlin, the exhibition “Porn That Way” can be visited at the Schwules Museum up to March 31. According to the organizers it is a scientific, critical, but also sensual exhibition. For the very first time the developments of past and present homosexual, but also lesbian, trans and queer pornography can be seen at an exhibition. “Porn That Way” deals with the history of homosexual pornography, from the dark and hidden alleys of the nineteenth century and the openly proud productions of the 1970s, to porn made during the AIDS crisis and the current feminist sex-positive films. The emergence of “romantic porn” is also dealt with, as is the increasing production of trans*porn. The emancipation of queer sexuality is depicted in photos, postcards, films, magazines, garments, contracts, original tapes, posters and flyers - but also with vintage dildos, syringes, pills and film equipment - from archives, studios and private collectors from around the world.

Till March 31, the exhibit Porn That Way is available in Berlin,
See for more information.



In the New Issue of Gay News, 324, Augustus 2018

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