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07.18.10

An Indie Hit's Sex Message

In the new movie The Kids Are All Right, the lesbian couple played by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening watch male gay porn, and enjoy it. Jacob Bernstein explains the phenomenon.

There’s a scene early on in the new movie The Kids Are All Right when the lesbian couple played by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening decide to watch a porno movie. As the lights dim and they turn on their flat-screen TV, the action isn’t two luscious babes having sex. Rather, what they watch is two macho gay guys getting it on, on the hood of a car.

Confused? So are some who’ve seen the film.

“I wouldn’t have guessed lesbians would want to watch porn that didn’t have women,” said a straight woman who recently saw the Lisa Cholodenko comedy.

“With gay porn, for a second, we can go there and not think about politics and sexism… there’s something about removing women from the equation that’s freeing.”

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“I was totally confused,” said a gay man after seeing the film. “Why would a couple of lesbians want to watch us having sex?”

As it happens, lesbians liking male gay pornography is not an unknown phenomenon.

“I don’t do it, I don’t understand it, but I know so many dykes that watch gay porn,” said Ariel Levy, a writer for The New Yorker who has written on gender and sexuality for the magazine. “It’s definitely a thing.”

This Week’s Culture Feast: Film, Music, Art, and TV PicksLevy directed me to her friend Alex (not her real name), who told me why she prefers watching gay male porn rather than straight pornography, or women with women. For one thing, she doesn’t find female porn stars attractive, no matter whether they’re starring in movies featuring men and women or girl-on-girl action. “There’s too much plastic surgery,” she said, adding that the women look “like cyborgs.” And the movies she watched were depressing. “It never seemed like they were having fun.”

Other lesbians who came of age in the feminist and post-feminist era told me that the role assigned to women in straight pornography was frequently in opposition with the ideal they strived for in their daily lives, making the movies hard to watch. Moreover, most of the pornography featuring lesbian action was actually made by straight men for straight men.

“Our feminism remains with us when we grab the remote,” said Tristan Taormino, a sex educator and producer of erotica. “So when there’s no women around, it… gives queer women the ability to get swept up in the action of the film without thinking, ‘Who is this woman? Is she having a good time? Is she coerced?’ With gay porn, for a second, we can go there and not think about politics and sexism… there’s something about removing women from the equation that’s freeing.”

She added: “You don’t have to want to have sex with a man to be attracted to masculinity in a specifically sexual context.”

Or as Mike Alvear, host of HBO’s The Sex Inspectors, wrote in a recent blog post: “They’re not so much looking at the players in the play, but the roles that they’re playing.”

Lesbian comedienne Kate Clinton agreed. She is not a viewer of man-on-man action, but knows many gay women who are. “I think it’s also an opportunity to watch a kind of role-playing that lesbians are into,” she said.

For Alex, there are also deeper, less politically correct, desires at work. “For me, it’s partly about wanting to have a cock,” she said. “I’ve always been fascinated by the hydraulics—if I had a dick, how would it work?”

Others think that particular fascination is largely metaphorical, a chance to see desire externalized, a point Julianne Moore’s character actually makes in the movie. “I have no sexual attraction to men,” said the comedienne Judy Gold. “But I think there’s something about seeing a penis become erect that’s a turn-on for lesbians. Because what are you going to do with a woman? Get a telescope and a sponge and a paper towel?”

A few lesbians I spoke to suggested that the members of the tribe who watch gay porn are in fact getting off on a fantasy, in which the man is subjugated and used in the way women frequently are.

As Jen, another gay porn-loving lesbian, put it: “It’s a surrendering of male privilege. It throws a monkey wrench into the idea that women are receptacles.”

Clinton put it even more bluntly.

“It’s about power dynamics,” she said. “We’re so used to watching men in our lives wield power. Gay porn is an opportunity to watch them get f-----.”

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Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.