115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Gazing at Gay Guys, or How to See ‘Reality’ in Pornography and Accepting It, Too

Christian Lenz, TU Dortmund University (Germany)

Every man watches porn; not only watches, but gazes at porn actors and thus enters pornotopia. Applying theories of the heterotopia as well as the gaze, I aim to show first that watching porn is a complex phenomenon because watching or gazing at porn films has severe repercussions on the extradiegetic reality of the gazing subject: viewers start to believe the ‘reality’ that is created by porn actors. Secondly, especially gay men involve the ‘learned rules’ of pornotopia in their mating behavior on Grindr and turn real people into (unreal) porn bodies.


Seeing is believing, as the old adage goes. Humans are prepared to believe somebody or in something if visible proof can be presented – everything else is quickly dismissed as fiction or at least as not directly relatable. Moreover, Laura Mulvey has compellingly argued that seeing, or more correctly gazing, is also an act of dominance, establishing the gazing (masculine) subject’s power over the gazed-at (feminine) object.

However, what happens when the idea of looking at it is the most important aspect of a text? Focusing on gay porn films, I will apply Michel Foucault’s idea of the heterotopia to this particular sector in adult films in order to show that watching porn establishes a reality which only exists for the duration of the actual act of seeing. This so-called pornotopia (Steven Marcus) has specific properties that come into being by actively engaging with porn texts on a visual level. My hypothesis is that watching porn is not a one-sided affair but decidedly more complex as I will prove that the watching of and gazing at porn films has severe repercussions on the extradiegetic reality, the one of the gazing subject. Bearing in mind how practices in porn films have influenced social and cultural practices – most visible in the approach of young people to sexuality and romance to California’s debate about condom-free porn films as well as Great Britain’s ban on certain practices in pornography – it is important to consider that the gazing subject enters a feedback loop: the viewer see(k)s certain porn films and due to click counting or (online) sales figures more of these films are produced which results in a rising number of specific porn genres which, in turn, are likely to be considered to be the norm then by the viewer as other people watch them, too.

But not only porn movies are influenced by the act of gazing, people have taken the learned practices from online pornography and applied them to dating apps such as Grindr. Here, the same mechanisms can be observed and help to explain Western societies obsession with online dating or finding sexual partners online. And because users on Grindr are under the impression that the same rules apply in reality as in the ‘reality’ of pornotopia, one can also find reasons for the rather open racism, ageism and other forms of exclusions many users have experienced: Grindr users gaze at guys and turn them into objects whilst they willingly assume the status of gazed-at object at the same time.