Solo Sex

Posted by guest blogger Miriam Webster

 

As many of us are currently spending a lengthy stint without sexual partners as we practice social distancing during this pandemic, I’ve been reflecting on eroticism that does not involve physical engagement between people.

Non-in-person sex work (via phone or the internet) and viewing pornography can play a huge part in helping folks through this necessary dry spell - though, of course, the coronavirus relief package explicitly excludes applicants who earn money from performances, services, or depictions “of a prurient sexual nature” from being eligible for loans. (There has been an increase in internet censorship and policing of consensual sex work and sexual materials under this administration done in the name of decreasing sex trafficking and exploitation. SESTA/FOSTA, which passed in March of 2018, directly led to the shut down of sites that enabled sex workers to operate more safely, porn companies and performers having their personal data deleted from their private drives, and the major social media platforms increasing their content restrictions and banning countless users. The currently-proposed EARN IT Act looks to extend internet surveillance under the same guise, further putting at risk sex workers and other marginalized groups who would likely be targeted and increasing the possibility of additional sexual content restrictions on social media platforms, as well as compromising the privacy of all internet-based communication and data.)

There are countless ways of sexually engaging with others through distance, many via technology - such as swapping nudes, dirty talk (see our recent blog discussing the Old Reliable audio collection), video chatting, sexting, video games, and even internet-controlled sex toys - through which each individual involved may be physically alone. And, of course, there is also a wide array in the realm of sexuality in which the inspiration for excitement doesn’t necessarily come from another person at all: object fetishism, autoeroticism, and more. A plethora of imaginal and tactile erotic experiences can be explored while physically by one’s self.

One fascinating cinematic look at solo sex and object fetishism exists in Czech artist Jan Švankmajer’s 1996 film Conspirators of Pleasure, which follows several characters’ independent fetishistic rituals. One man builds a masturbation machine with many motorized hands attached to televisions, which he operates during broadcasts of a lusted-after news anchor. Another man creates homemade sex toys - rolling pins covered in materials of different tactile natures like tacks and fur - which Švankmajer live-action animates rolling all over the man’s body. A couple of neighbors create effigies of each other, which they violently torture.

 

Stills from Conspirators of Pleasure
Images from Conspirators of Pleasure

 

In some of these scenarios, the object of desire is a person represented by the masturbation object, while in some, the contraption and/or tactile materials seem to be the objects of desire, themselves. But in each scenario, the rituals are performed in isolation.

Though best known as an animator/filmmaker, Švankmajer works in a wide array of mediums, including poetry and sculpture, and uses all to grapple with tactilism. From 1972 until 1979, he was banned from directing films by the Communist government of Czechoslovakia, who considered his films subversive. During this span, Švankmajer went into extensive exploration of the sense of touch and tactile art, including writing a book, Hmat a Imaginace (now translated and available in English as Touching and Imagining), “of which he produced five copies in 1983, all with ‘tactile’ covers. Featuring rabbit fur along the spine and a hand shape cut out of sandpaper on the front, these copies circulated as samizdat, that is works which were clandestinely produced and distributed to evade officially imposed censorship.” This book details Švankmajer’s Surrealist experiments with touch and tactile art and “is a kind of alchemist’s philosophical treatise.”

 

An original copy of Hmat a Imaginace
An original copy of Hmat a Imaginace

Švankmajer tactile poem and sculptures
A Švankmajer tactile poem and three tactile sculptures

 

Upon his return to filmmaking, he brought what he had learned about tactilism into the medium through content, concept, and technique, trying to create synesthetic experiences for viewers. “Film animation is just another alchemical aid to the performance of a magic ritual in which Švankmajer summons the immanent vitality that resides in the inert material... This capacity for metamorphosis extends to moving images… Švankmajer’s work explores the idea that both direct and indirect tactile experience is mediated by the ‘tactile’ imagination.”

The development of a new personal relationship to touch is described in Švankmajer’s poem “The magic ritual of tactile initiation,” featured in Touching and Imagining, which concludes:

Make the cold warm and the soft hard!
Make the loose compact!
Make the course slimy!
Make the hurtful pleasurable!
And vice-versa!
So that the eye will not perceive and give touch timely warning, constantly confuse his utilitarian habits of touch by disorientation, mystification and panic!
Bear in mind that our entire body is a unified erogenous zone!
Do not smooth down the crumpled sheets!
In winter kick off the bedclothes!
On hot summer nights crawl under a heavy quilt!
Do not scorn masturbation!
Do not have your old shoes re-soled!
Do not urinate before going to bed!
“Be repulsed by all objects yet touch them all!
Learn to love insects!
Tire yourself out!
Only when Touch is freed from its utilitarian context, not constantly forced into a self-conscious moment, will it reach the point where it transmutes the barrier of its identifying existence, and without being aware of it, becomes the language of the poet.


Eroticism is frequently a focus of Švankmajer’s work, as he observed that “if there does exist one aspect of human perception where Touch still has a position dominant over all others senses, it is in the field of eroticism.” The realm of pornography extensively explores “indirect tactile experience” and the sensations this depiction evokes in viewers, also striving to inspire corporeal responses.

Countless approaches to solo sex can be found in pornography. Object eroticism is certainly common, from fetish magazines eroticizing attire and materials such as leather and rubber, to the use of sex toys and such things as household items, balloons, and food as tools for self-pleasure.

 

Stills from Mansize & Food Sex
Stills Michael Zen's Mansize (top) and the Bijou Video compilation Food Sex (bottom)

 

The object in question’s sexual appeal may stem purely from the physical sensations it creates and one’s tactile relationship with it, or from a more symbolic place of connection or memory. And inanimate objects, themselves, can seem to carry inside them their own energetic life. As Švankmajer said, “a strong emotion leaves an indelible imprint on the objects touched.”

Erotic inspiration can be found in the natural world. Director Peter de Rome’s lovely short porn film, Green Thoughts (1971), features a man who becomes stimulated by the plants in a conservatory. Porn star and sex educator Annie Sprinkle has recently been spearheading an “ecosexual” movement, reframing nature as “your lover, not your mother” in an effort “to make the envirnomental movement more fun and diverse.”

 

Images from Green Thoughts
Images from Green Thoughts

 

Acts of self-pleasure may be performed not just as the result of the absence of a sexual partner, but because one’s own self or body or personal sexual technique are, themselves, the source of excitement. Many Bijou titles feature examples of this: enthusiastic solos, autofellatio practitioners, people jacking off to their own reflections, fantasies of self-fucking (brilliantly staged in Jaguar’s Grease Monkeys and in the short film Double Scorpio featured in Hand in Hand’s Private Collection), and intricate autosadism rituals (as in the Jason Steele segment of Big Bear Men and the sounding demonstration in another Private Collection short, Penetration).

 

Nick Rodgers seducing himself in Grease Monkeys
Nick Rodgers seducing & fucking himself in Grease Monkeys (1979)

Jason Steele in Big Bear Men (left); sounding film Penetration (right)
Jason Steele in Big Bear Men (left); the sounding film Penetration (right)

 

One of the true masters of inventive autoerotic practice in porn is “Sultan of Solo Sex” Scott Taylor. Taylor never performed a full partnered sex act in any of his films (the closest is perhaps in Surge Studio’s Strange Places, Strange Things, in which he and another man wildly enlarge and distort their cocks together with vacuum pumps), but he did many solo jack off sessions, as well as self-sucking and creative bodily play. In the Steve Scott masterpiece, Turned On! (1982), Taylor performs a remarkable display of dance and movement, in which he stuffs his own cock and balls up his ass. Al Parker stated, in a Manshots interview, “Even though Scott only has sex with himself, I think he is one of the most erotic people in this business, because you can’t pay somebody to be as crazy as Scott Taylor is in a movie.”

 

Scott Taylor
Scott Taylor


Scott Taylor in Turned On!
Scott Taylor's performance in Turned On!

 

Another artist of self-fucking in classic porn is Chris Burns. Having well-earned the title “the Ultimate Bottom,” Burns certainly can take it from others, but just as aptly can dish it out upon himself. In Steve Scott’s Dangerous (1983), he exchanges dirty talk over the phone with Rick Faulkner (who beats off in a phone booth) while he shoves massive dildos up his ass. Jason Bleu’s fascinating S/M video, Black on Red (1987), takes us into the interior life of the submissive, as Burns literally bends over backwards to punish himself at the feet of and worship a mature dominant, who stands over him throughout the tape's runtime, nearly silent and umoving, like a remote God. Burns, here, performs nearly all of the actions upon himself, shoving more enormous toys (as well as enema tubing) up his ass, putting sounding rods in his dickhole, piercing his nipple, and shaving his pubic hair off with a straight razor.

 

Chris Burns in Black on Red
Chris Burns in Black on Red

 

Not requiring a partner to explore one’s own body and sexual interests can be a liberatory element of sexuality. Illustrations of this can be found in some of the feminist pornography of the ‘80s and ‘90s, which encouraged women to learn about their bodies and personal sexuality - for example, the classic 1992 instructional, How to Female Ejaculate, and the odes to self-pleasure in Annie Sprinkle’s Sluts and Goddesses: How To Be a Sex Goddess in 101 Easy Steps. I’ve personally found developing solo kink practices to be useful and exciting. I taught myself how to do play piercing by practicing on my own body, with the help of online technique/safety tips and instructional video examples. This was a helpful way to learn (without risking fucking up an early attempt on someone else’s body), but maintaining this as a solo practice has also served as a way for me to engage with sadism and masochism on my own, without being reliant upon a partner for outlets.

Some porn makers depicted solo practices as a part of the exploration of various types of safer sexual expression during the AIDS crisis. Artist Michael Goodwin, whose late '80s Goodjac video series focused on handjobs and masturbation, brought creativity, playfulness, and enthusiasm to his documentation of solo sex.

 

Solos from The Goodjac Chronicles & Goodjac Too
Solos from The Goodjac Chronicles and Goodjac Too

 

And we can take eroticism outside of the tactile entirely. There’s the far-reaching imaginal realm of fantasy, which can draw eroticism from endless places. There are erotic responses to music and other audio, such as the visceral and abstract sound textures and vocal intimacy explored in ASMR videos, popularized over the past decade, which for many enthusiasts are not erotic, but can be for some. And there’s spiritual yearning, which can often take on an erotic coloration.

One may find eroticism with and without other people; erotic touch with and without other people; eroticism with and without touch. Perhaps we can use this time away from parntered sex to find ways to connect with our own erotic imaginations and to deepen our relationships with our own bodies, whether by nurturing their health (as a part of the project of collective health) or developing our solo sexual practices, whatever the tools and objects of erotic excitement may be.

Tags:
pandemic social distancing solo sex autoeroticism self-pleasure eroticism phone sex pornography porn companies politics Covid-19 coronavirus internet surveillance censorship social media sex work sex workers sex workers rights SESTA/FOSTA EARN IT Act internet sex cyber sex internet censorship marginalized communities sex and politics Old Reliable Old Reliable audio dirty talk object fetishism fetishism sexting cybering nudes sex toys Czech film Conspirators of Pleasure Jan Svankmajer film art art theory animation film history art history Surrealism sex machines alchemy tactilism tactile art sculpture poetry 1970s 1980s 1990s Communism touch synesthesia vintage fetish magazines fetish magazines leather rubber balloons food Food Sex Mansize Michael Zen Peter de Rome Green Thoughts ecosexualism The Erotic Films of Peter de Rome Annie Sprinkle sex educators environmentalism environmental movement solo masturbation autofellatio Grease Monkeys Jaguar Films Double Scorpio Penetration Private Collection Hand in Hand Films Surge Studio Big Bear Men Jason Steele autosadism automasochism Nick Roders Jack Deveau sounding kink fetish S/M BDSM fetish porn S/M porn Scott Taylor Strange Places Strange Things vacuum pumps Steve Scott Al Parker Turned On! Turned On dance Chris Burns Jason Bleu Black on Red Dangerous Rick Faulkner shaving piercing play play piercing needle play piercing dildo enemas vintage gay porn classic gay porn vintage porn classic porn feminist porn lesbian porn queer porn art porn Pink Label 1970s gay porn 1970s porn 1980s gay porn 1990s porn 1990s gay porn 1980s porn stars 1980s gay porn stars How to Female Ejaculate female ejaculation Goodjac Michael Goodwin The Goodjac Chronicles Goodjac Too AIDS crisis ASMR erotic art erotic poetry erotic audio fantasy sexual fantasy sex and religion sex and spirituality bodies health sadism masochism vintage porn stars classic porn stars porn stars sex education feminism balloon fetish
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It's Art and It's Porn: The Legacy of Arch Brown

It's Art and It's Porn: The Legacy of Arch Brown
By Madam Bubby

 

“Zee art film … “ I remember that campy scene in Valley of the Dolls where the beautiful Jennifer North played by the beautiful Sharon Tate has to get a job making soft porn films for a sleazy French movie director. Jennifer complains that a beautiful scenery and a bare bottom doesn't make art. 


That may have been the case with those many of those XXX movies about "boobies, boobies, boobies, boobies" that Neely O'Hara laments she didn't have, but the gay filmmakers that emerged from the gay liberation movement of the 1970s radically changed in many ways, at least for many communities in major urban areas, the perception that gay films were either pornographic peep shows, exercises in camp, or mainstream films where a gay character commits suicide after being outed. 

 

One of these filmmakers was Arch Brown, who made a number of gay porn classics, including the particularly notable The Night Before, which was created with and produced by Jack Deveau, Bob Alvarez, and co. of the legendary Hand in Hand Films (read more on them in our blog on Hand in Hand/Deveau, our interview with Alvarez, the Hand in Hand Films wikipedia article, or in the book Good Hot Stuff: The Life & Times of Gay Film Pioneer Jack Deveau).

 

The Night Before poster image


Arch Brown

Arch did not even set out to make gay films, much less films that - because of explicit sex - were deemed pornographic. 

He was born in Chicago as Arnold Kreuger in 1936. After attending Northwestern University, he came to New York City, the destination of so many artistically-inclined and LGBTQ people during the 1960s (and before!). His parents thought it would be respectable for him to go into television (perhaps because less overtly gay-oriented than the actual theater), but he switched majors and decided he wanted to write and direct plays. (Many in the 1970s NYC gay porn world had direct ties to theater, including Alvarez, Wakefield Poole, and Casey Donovan.)

He first worked at Circle Square in the Village, but then he switched careers and got a job in advertising. After contracting hepatitis, he had to quit that job, and ended up, after picking up a guy in Central Park who liked him and his camera expertise, began making “home movies.” But apparently his home movies weren't at the level of crude amateur ones of the peep show variety, and they ended up showing in the private gay movie club, Cinema 7. 

According to an interview in the 1970s gay magazine Michael's Thing, “Andy Warhol's Interview got to him, and Variety sent one of their guys downtown to take a look at these new-fangled movies.”

I wonder if Warhol saw something of his own transformation of new realist techniques such as collage used in his own pop art in Arch Brown's concretely realistic, but also surrealism-infused, films of gay men's sexual relationships. 

These films were realistic because the sex was actually occurring on the screen, themes and characters (and their emotions) came out of real gay life of the time and place, and they also creatively used materials from everyday life at that time, ranging from pop music to advertising. 

Arch Brown perfected the above approaches when he collaborated with Hand in Hand on The Night Before (available from Bijou on DVD and Streaming; images featured below). 

 

This surreal porn classic offers a funny, touching, and realistic look at lovers and their emotional responses to both jealousy and carnal lust. Casting a group of nine men of varied types and cock sizes, the film begins with two average guys, Hank (Coke Hennessy) and Paul (Michael Cade - aka omni-present man of many hats in the NYC gay porn world Frank Ross), who meet and fall in love in New York City when Hank helps photographer Paul with a shoot in the park. 

 

Cast of The Night Before

At Paul's place, they check out photos that he's taken, including one of Paul with another man, both naked. Hank and Paul's ensuing relationship and lust develops through dinners, visiting an art gallery, picking out a kitten, and making out in the dark room. 

They have their first touching and intimate sexual encounter after this (with no live sound, but a great orchestral score by frequent Hand in Hand composer and Arch Brown collaborator David Earnest): Paul passionately eats out Hank's asshole and rolls around the bed with him to fall into a 69 session. Paul later stands and humps Hank's throat before filling his butt with cock; they go to bed after sex. 

Sounds simple enough, but at this point Brown takes us into the surreal world of Hank's dreams (or paranoid fantasies). In his dreams, Hank watches Paul hungrily sucking one man's thick prick after seducing him and fucking another man's tight asshole, while Hank himself sucks, then fucks, a delivery man in the basement of a building. 

Also occurring in this dream sexual montage are: Paul fucking the hairy ass of the kitten seller on a roof, Paul and Hank painting each other's naked bodies and kissing in a shower, cocks appearing through curtains to be sucked, two professional dancers in a vintage Advocate cover photo coming to life and dancing naked to an operetic score, and Hank participating in an orgy where a cock emerges from a fruit bowl and a massive double-headed dildo seems to fantastically penetrate entire bodies. 

Dancers in The Night Before
Orgy scene from The Night Before


The dream depicts what Brown terms "lover's paranoia," the kind of insecurity one feels when one falls too hard for someone too fast. 

What's interesting here is how some elements of the film were influenced by Brown's own life (a camera shoot in the park), and how artistic mediums (in this case, painting and photography, which themselves have always undergone a rather fraught relationship!) can both concretely and symbolically convey various dynamics of sexual attraction. 

In 1974, according to Variety, this classic gay porn film was one of the 50 top-grossing movies at the 55th Street Playhouse in New York City, and The Advocate said of this Arch Brown masterpiece, "proves that a little Cocteau, a dash of Fellini, and sex do mix well." 

 

For a deeper dive behind the scenes of The Night Before, check out this podcast episode from Ask Any Buddy.

 

Vintage 55th Street Playhouse movie ads


Starting in 1976, Brown made a series of films for P.M. Productions, including the gay porn spoof of Charlie's AngelsHarley's Angels, and also classics like All Tied UpFive Hard PiecesHot FlashesMuscle BoundPier Groups (which we now carry on DVD & VOD), and Dynamite, which often included popular stars like Jack Wrangler, Jayson MacBride, Keith Anthoni, and Eric Ryan among their cast members. His other work outside of P.M. and Hand in Hand includes such titles as (Bijou releases) Trips and So Many Men So Little Time.

Vintage posters for Dynamite and Harley's Angels


Brown said in his interview in Michael's Thing, that he didn't want to be political; he basically wanted to make a good fuck film, but his films aren't just two guys fucking, nor are they apolitical. They come out of a sociopolitical movement that wanted to carve out a visible niche in New York's arts community, and they also, without hitting the viewer over the head with slogans, realistically show the challenges of gay sexual relationships in a world just starting to break down closets of fear and hiding. (Just observe the interesting commentary on the NYC piers' significance to LGBTQ culture and their looming demolition in Pier Groups and the psychological dimensions of out-ness and gay romance and sexuality in The Night Before.)

Brown himself took advantage of a new climate of tolerance.  According to his obituary (he died in 2012), in the late 1970s, Brown began writing plays, which he continued to do into the 2000s. His first play, News Boy, was his most successful, receiving an Off Broadway production in 1979; it focused on the coming out of the gay son of a conservative politician. 

A 1998 comedy by Brown, FREEZE!, received the Eric Bentley Playwriting Prize that year and has been produced several times. 

During the last decade of his life, Brown founded and ran the Thorny Theater in Palm Springs, which mounted several gay-themed plays each season; the theater closed in 2010. 

After his partner, Bruce Brown, died in 1993 (Arch used his lover's last name professionally), Brown established the Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation, which ran until several years ago, giving grants to queer playwrights and to theater groups mounting LGBTQ-themed plays, as well as sponsoring periodic literary competitions that awarded prizes to playwrights and fiction writers whose works are “based on, or inspired by, a historic person, culture, event, or work of art.” 

 

And, fascinatingly, an unpublished manuscript was discovered shortly after Arch Brown's death and published in 2017 as his memoir, A Pornographer.

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