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

Hard to See: On Gay Masculinity, Pornography, and the Limits of the Image

Steven Ruszczycky, Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo

 While pornographic images of gay masculinity have commanded the attention of queer scholars since the publication of Thomas Waugh’s Hard to Imagine (1996), writing has also been crucial for imagining same-sex intimacies between men. I consider how gay masculinity has emerged out of the tension between word and image. 


As far as studies of gay pornography go, Thomas Waugh’s account of Pre-Stonewall male homosexual visual culture, Hard to Imagine, remains a landmark work. The book’s impact on multiple fields owes itself to its thorough survey of how gay men have used film and photography to document forms of same-sex intimacy at a moment when such intimacies were, as the title suggests, rendered virtually unthinkable. The image was thus an important medium through which men rendered same-sex desire visible and therefore imaginable. In doing so, images were a crucial cultural site through which men might engage, challenge, and re-work the conditions of invisibility that construed same-sex desire as inimical to masculinity. Pornography thus served as a principal idiom through which gay men have come to understand themselves as men throughout the twentieth century.

Since the publication of Waugh’s study, a robust body of scholarship on gay male visual culture has since emerged, yet, perhaps owing to Waugh’s privileging of the image, studies of gay pornography continue to overlook the vast amount of pornographic writing that has proliferated below and beside gay visual culture. For Waugh, this privilege is well deserved, for there is a “special relationship between gay men and the two media[:] That is, photography manages not only to resemble the living flesh of everyday sexual experience (iconic) but also to testify to the existence of that flesh (indexical), thereby unleashing many of the psychological mechanisms in the spectator around voyeurism and fetishism that are still hotly debated” (12). Visual culture documents sexual intimacy in ways that writing cannot, and this capacity to document uniquely bestows upon visual representations their erotic charge. The written simply cannot excite us in the same way.

 This paper will re-evaluate the implicit claim about writing first raised in Waugh’s study and subsequently born out by the bulk of gay porn studies scholarship. It will do so in part by considering how pornographic writing, just as much as the image, has served as a means for both documenting document gay sexual practices as well as re-thinking gay men’s claims to masculinity. While visual culture is defined by its special, indexical relation to bodies and practices, the virtue of writing adheres in its general indifference to the world. In fact, writing’s capacity to do things with bodies and practices that visual images cannot has played a central role in the ways that gay pornography has sought to re-imagine the relation between masculinity and homosexuality. As this paper will argue, the point is not to privilege one of form of media over the other, but to develop critical frameworks that can account for how different media might work both with and against each other. Only by attending to the relationships between modes of representation can we fully account for the ways that men have conceptualized the fraught if also queer relationship between masculinity and homosexuality.