(The following is an excerpt from Male Sex Work and Society).
It was the notions of homosexuality as abject and of homosexuals as “repressed, lonely fuck-ups and/or killers” that gay filmmakers working during the 1970s and early 1980s were trying to combat. However, one of the main tenets of the gay rights movement was, as Glyn Davis puts it, “assimilationist,” in that the movement was interested in positive representations of gay characters that said “we are just like you, really, so please accept us.” It follows, then, that gay activists would not be interested in (re)claiming the image of the male sex worker since he, by his very definition, is opposed to the homonormative idea that “we are just like you” (“you” being the imagined heteronormative ideal). In direct opposition to notions of heternormativity, New Queer Cinema (NQC for short) emerged on the film festival scene in the early 1990s. These films offered, according to B. Ruby Rich, “something new, renegotiating subjectivities, annexing whole genres, revising histories in their image.” These films exhibit a trait that Rich calls “‘Homo-Pomo’: there are traces . . . of appropriation and pastiche, irony, as well as a reworking of history with social constructionism very much in mind,” which makes them “ultimately full of pleasure.”
Directly in the wake of and in response to the AIDS crisis (and the Reagan administration’s horrendous response to it), these films were no longer concerned with positive representation for gay individuals. NQC instead sought to “‘take back’ materials used by straight cinema—stereotypes, stories, genres—and in an anarchic, subversive spirit, rework them, and thus alter their social and political implications.” These new gay characters no longer had to conform to the confines of traditional Hollywood representation, thus these films could feature characters that were previously unacceptable as protagonists, including the gay male sex worker.
At the same cultural moment that cinematic representations began to shift with NQC, the medical and sociological literature that dealt with the subject of male prostitution began to shift as well. In the 1990s, many studies were published that focused on the topic of male sex work—something the literature published previously never dared or felt compelled to do. All of a sudden, the male sex worker could not be summarized in a paragraph or a few pages; he demanded texts of over 300 pages in length, such as D. J. West’s Male Prostitution (1992), Peter Aggleton’s Men Who Sell Sex (1999), Samuel Steward’s Understanding the Male Hustler (1991), and Graham and Annette Scambler’s Rethinking Prostitution: Purchasing Sex in the 1990s (1997).
Many of these studies found their critical importance (or, perhaps, justification for being) in relation to the HIV/AIDS crisis, in much the same way as the films of the NQC; they also presented many of the same goals as NQC, foregrounding an interest in historical types, in reclamation, and in complication. More than a third of the essays in Men Who Sell Sex, for example, explicitly focus on the sexual risk of HIV/AIDS, while Scambler and Scambler, in their afterword to Rethinking Prostitution, work to democratize sex work by noting that, in Britain, the laws have been historically “gender biased even in conception: there was a High Court ruling on 5 May 1994, for example, that only women can be charged with loitering under the Street Offences Act of 1959.” Articulating the need to complicate traditional notions of male sex work, D. J. West writes:
Popular images of the male prostitute are confused and contradictory, poorly informed and often more concerned with moral condemnation than humane understanding...Prostitution is generally thought of as a woman’s occupation, but the “oldest profession” caters to all sexual demands and the desire of some men for sexual contact with their own kind has been known throughout recorded history...The assumption that women, including lesbians, have no need or no wish to pay men for sexual services has become less certain since the advent of the “toy boy” fashion, but young male prostitutes still seem to cater mostly to older males.
The Living End, which follows the road trip adventure of Luke (a spontaneously violent, HIV-positive male hustler) and Jon (a recently diagnosed HIV-positive film journalist), provides a narrative trajectory in which its protagonist, Jon, can work through his HIV diagnosis in a way that allows him to be liberated “at a time where that health status appeared inevitably to lead to a rapid demise.” As Glyn Davis has discussed, Araki’s film directly references two particular types of gay men from traditional Hollywood filmmaking, the “macho” and the “sad young man.” Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, on the other hand, tells the story of two male sex workers—Mike (River Phoenix), a homosexual hustler, and Scott (Keanu Reeves), a self-identified heterosexual who says he’s willing to “sell his ass” for money—as they embark on a road trip to find Mike’s long-lost mother. Mike exists as the “repressed” character type who longs for his mother, while Scott represents the “fuck-up” who sells his body as a way to rebel against his wealthy father. While each film has its own distinct cinematic style and its own seemingly contradictory message about male sex work, both strive to challenge the finite lines and simplistic notions that have historically classified male sex workers.
The complexity with which these films explore their characters’ sexuality becomes especially evident in their visualizations of gender performance, particularly in relation to the roles of women. Whereas Julian only sells his body to women in American Gigolo, My Own Private Idaho’s Scott keeps a clientele that usually consists exclusively of men. In his essay, Just a Gigolo? Paul Burston makes a compelling argument regarding Julian’s performance of heterosexuality, which is particularly interesting when considering the men of My Own Private Idaho. Burston argues that Julian is at home in a world of “sun-kissed bodies and swimming pools, of pastel interiors and micro-blinds... Framed within this world, Julian is coded as an object-to-be-looked-at... At the same time, the precise way in which he is coded for visual pleasure borrows heavily from a long tradition of homoerotica.” The film works tirelessly to drain this “ambiguous eroticism” of its homosexual potential by having Julian constantly remind other characters and, thus, the audience that he doesn’t do “that fag stuff.”
In one of the film’s only sex scenes, Julian comes to a lavish home to service an older woman, but her husband, who is coded as a repressed homosexual, demands to watch and instruct Julian as he works. The disgust that Julian exhibits at the thought of even being watched by a man places any sort of homosexual interaction (including the male-on-male gaze) as abject territory. As the scene progresses, the man commands Julian to “Slap her! Slap that cunt!” In these moments specifically, as well as in the film more generally, gay characters are shown to be excessively violent at the expense of the white woman. This man, whom the audience has identified as homosexual, demands that Julian beat his wife, while the other homosexuals in the film, Julian’s pimp and the pimp’s other gay male prostitutes, end up murdering this same woman and framing Julian, reinforcing the “homosexual killer” type and linking S&M sex practices to homosexuality and, ultimately, to murder. Julian has found himself in a situation with the two things he likes least—“fag” and “kinky stuff”—and where he is subject to both. Although the film’s poster for its recent DVD release features the tagline “HIS BUSINESS IS PLEASURE” in big bold letters, the audience is quickly reminded of the qualifications one needs to retain Julian’s services. This offer only applies if one is a woman, wealthy, white, and (usually) married. Men and/or sexual deviants (of any sort) need not inquire.
The idea of kinky sex doesn’t inhibit these characters, though; sex is sex and they’ll take the work where they can get it. Earlier in the film, for example, Mike has sex (of sorts) with an old dandy dressed in a suit with a bow tie, red hair, glasses, and a handkerchief. However, the “sex” the old man wants involves no sort of penetration. He wants to dance around his home, rubbing his feet against the floor while Mike cleans, making the space “immaculate” while dressed as a “little Dutch boy.” The film makes it perfectly clear that this is a sex act for the old dandy; as Mike scrubs the counters the client rubs his own chest while moaning “faster, little Dutch boy, harder!”
While the sex act is never actually allowed to occur between the female client and Mike, the sense of abjection so present within traditional Hollywood representation is lacking within the fluctuation of sexual expression in My Own Private Idaho. Whereas the repressed homosexuals of films like Midnight Cowboy, represented by the man that Joe Buck beats senseless in a hotel room, are shown to be simply repressed homosexuals, Mike’s repression is a sign of his complexity. My Own Private Idaho understands repression as a character trait that exists beyond being a simple character type ready to be placed into a film without further explanation. Instead, Van Sant explores repression psychoanalytically. Linda Kauffman explains:
The film revolves around a search for origins (maternal, paternal, narrative), but the search is doomed to defeat . . . Whenever Mike falls asleep, recurrent images appear: he lies in his mother’s arm, infused with oceanic bliss . . . Mike’s narcolepsy is a symptom of his arrested development in the Imaginary; the recurrent images in his dreams are part of his “image repertoire.”
One of the main tasks of My Own Private Idaho, then, is to work through the repressed homosexual, to understand and explore him and, therefore, to use the trait as a way to nuance the character type in a way that undermines the work of prior films with the same type.
Excerpt from the chapter “Representations of Male Sex Work in Film: From the Sixties to the Present Day” by Russell Sheaffer, from Male Sex Work and Society, edited by Victor Minichiello and John Scott. Available September 2, 2014 from Harrington Park Press, a specialized academic/scholarly book publisher devoted to emerging topics in LGBTQ diversity, equality, and inclusivity. Available on Amazon and Harrington Park Press (distributed by Columbia University Press).