Is sex still sexy? When any gay man with an internet connection can tap instantly into a limitless supply of body parts and assignations, the idea of the love that dare not speak its name, a cornerstone of the gay erotic ideal, becomes laughably old fashioned. The intimacy and secrecy that makes sex—and particularly, homosexual sex—an experience different from others, is under threat from the internet. Like photographic film, another relic, exposure to light destroys our old notion of eroticism.
Over the past ten years, a crop of gay little magazines has emerged and grown alongside and often in opposition to the Internet. These publications propose a new, old-fashioned gay erotica: un-campy and unabashed, non-commercial and non-exploitative, and above all, stubbornly analogue and print-based. The grandfather of these magazines is BUTT, which was founded in 2001. BUTT is as straightforward as its name. It’s printed on shocking pink paper and features interviews with gay men from porn stars to Hollywood directors to, most recently, a deaf Berlin baker whom the correspondent happened to think was cute. The artless titles of the pieces (“Ryan Trecartin Gay Video Artist Finds Lesbians Super Exciting”) speak not only to its being translated (BUTT arrives from The Netherlands), but to an ardent refusal to be snide or sly about sex; after all, in this open age there is no longer a need.
So too the photographs, which are a real draw of the magazine. They’re full-page nudes, usually in black and white, of men looking out windows, drinking coffee, reading magazines. Often, the work is by notable photographers—the most recent issue features a spread by Wolfgang Tillmans. Artist Paul Sepuya, who has contributed to BUTT notes that it and similar magazines provide “alternatives to mass-produced images and pornography. The overlaps within the immediate community of fellow artists, designers, fashion fags, etc, make for much more approachable, tactile and sexy product.”
Indeed, regardless of who’s shooting them, the men photographed in BUTT never quite fit the pornographic ideal you’re more likely to see online. They’re not quite bears, not quite twinks; they’re regular guys, lit well and given a privileged place on the page. Models are chosen, as Sepuya suggests, for their talent as much as for their looks, drawn as they are from an artistic community. The images are matter-of-fact, but they’re not snapshots—they’re taken with care, and with an eye toward revealing something of the subjects’ personalities, rather than a six-pack or lazily conjured bedroom eyes. Make no mistake, BUTT is porn, but it’s a different kind of porn. It gives its models agency and respect—and does the same for its readers.
BUTT precedes a host of gay little magazines that have further developed an erotic discussion that’s very consciously non-digital, and that share a straightforward, unpolished aesthetic. Mary focuses on literature. Christopher Schulz’s Pin Ups does away with the words altogether, and just presents a series of one or two models in every issue. Little Joe gives film a queer reading.
All these little magazines are mainly print operations, and together they present a legitimate example of the medium being the message. That they print at all, rather than focus their energies online, is a statement. Like the unglamorous, personal photos in BUTT (and Pin Ups and Little Joe), the choice to actually print in print is rendered unique – even counter-cultural – by the flood of erotic gay images and words on the Internet.
Sam Ashby, who publishes Little Joe, told me that his magazine is intended to be “a tactile, personal experience. I don’t believe one can have this experience with a computer.” He sees his audience as a generation who “grew up without the Internet and experienced film in a very specific way, discovering their sexualities through films seen by chance via late night TV viewings, or scouring the aisles of their local video rental store, or even the recorded VHS’s, passed amongst friends.” The conversations taking place in Little Joe and its brothers require a certain intimacy with the physical magazine itself, a relationship that’s simply not possibly online.
Indeed, the physicality of the magazines—that you can buy them, hold them, and keep them—creates a closer relationship between reader and content. When I was preparing to write this piece, I found myself walking out of St. Mark’s Bookstore holding a plain brown-paper bag full of gay rags. At that moment I felt connected to a gay past that I had never experienced: the formerly common experience of sliding a few bills across the cover of a dirty magazine and then scurrying home. Having to go out and actually buy the stuff—in public, no less—calls for a heightened level of ownership and identification. One might lazily click through any number of perversities online; out in the open, you’re drawn not only towards what might turn you on, but what makes sense as a broader perspective.
We’re so used to getting provocative content for free that magazines that cost money are held to a higher standard. That’s why they’re not just porn, and not only criticism. They’re both. These new little magazines use sex not only to titillate but to define a new, matter-of-fact gay identity, constructed not around total demographic buying power, but creativity and aesthetic appreciation—how old-fashioned is that?