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The emerging epidemic provoked debate and conflict over what aspects of the so-called gay lifestyle might have contributed to the pattern of immune deficiency among gay men. Many observers attributed the outbreak to sexual promiscuity, the frequent patronage of bathhouses and other public sex venues, along with the general availability of sexual activity in the urban centers of San Francisco and New York. (3) An enormous body of epidemiological literature, social scientific research, and cultural studies, as well as hundreds of memoirs and volumes of fiction documenting the sexual life of gay men, has identified patterns of sexual behavior, modes of sexual interaction, and the cultural norms and fantasies that shaped sexual conduct before the emergence of the AIDS epidemic. (4) In this article I would like to explore how pornographic films and video could also be considered as documents in the history of gay male sexuality. (5)
According to sociologist Martin Levine, the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, the emergence of the gay liberation movement in 1969, and the increased freedom of sexual expression all combined with the massive migration and concentration of gay men in the urban centers of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco to fundamentally alter the forms (both social and sexual) of American gay men's lives. (6) The migration and increased visibility brought together a critical mass of gay men who could economically sustain the kinds of commercial leisure establishments (bars, bathhouses, sex clubs, porn theaters, vacation resorts, and dance clubs) that facilitated sexual expression and generated a thriving and permissive sexual subculture. Patrick Moore has argued that during the 1970s gay men adopted sex as a tool to develop "new models of sexual interaction." It was, he concluded, "an astonishing experiment in radically restructuring existing relationships, concepts of beauty and the use of sex as a revolutionary tool." (7) As a result, gay men had developed "a distinctive life in which the masculinized representation of beauty, sexual experimentation and drugs were central." (8) Moore likened gay men's use of "sex as the raw material for a social experiment" to experimental art. Amongst the artists, he included porn filmmaker Fred Halsted, impresario Bruce Mailman (owner of the famous disco club the Saint), and graphic artist and writer David Wojnarowicz. Moore also includes the Mineshaft in New York and the Catacombs in San Francisco, sex clubs and bars where transgressive and experimental sex took place. (9)
Sex as a public practice during the seventies is explicitly the topic of Joseph Lovett's 2006 documentary Gay Sex in the 70s. (15) The film explores the significance of promiscuous and casual sex in public in gay men's lives during the decade. (16) Focused on New York, Gay Sex in the 70s is constructed from "memory images" (a term popularized by the interwar German film theorist Siegfried Kracauer) of a dozen or so gay men who are survivors of the period and still alive in 2005 in the aftermath of the AIDS epidemic. (17) Somewhat hyperbolically but in line with Danto's thesis, Lovett characterized the seventies as the "most libertine period that the Western world has ever seen since Rome." Supplemented by still photos, artifacts, and film clips from the porn movies of Jack Deveau and Peter de Rome, Lovett sets out to evoke the atmosphere of the period between June 1969 and June 1981, the period from the Stonewall riots, which initiated the American gay liberation movement, to the year that the disease later known as AIDS was first diagnosed. The film offers extensive documentation of Danto's thesis on the importance of sex as a public practice. It is both a documentation of the sexual freedom explored by the generation that had come of age in the era after Stonewall and a memorial to that same generation's devastating experience of the AIDS epidemic. It is precisely the possible role that public sex may have played during the AIDS epidemic that has obscured its historical significance.
This wave of uninhibited and adventurous sexual expression during the 1970s was also captured on film by a group of gay pornographic filmmakers based in New York. These filmmakers sought to document the underground sexual lifestyle that had emerged in the years before and immediately after Stonewall. Like the Italian neorealist filmmakers after World War II, (18) the queer realist filmmakers of New York created a synthesis of a documentary-like view (in this case focusing on the gay sexual subculture) and the more psychopolitical themes of sexual liberation. Filmmakers such as Jerry Douglas (under the name of Doug Richards), Jack Deveau, Arch Brown, Peter de Rome, and Avery Willard (under the name Bruce King) shot their early hardcore movies in the style of cinema verite, using naturalistic techniques that originated in documentary filmmaking, with its stylized cinematic devices of editing and camera work and deliberately staged setups to capture the rough and gritty feel of New York City--I will call these filmmakers "homorealists" (see table 1). They were thus both pornographic movies and documentaries about the gay male sexual subculture. (19) Even Wakefield Poole's more fantasy-oriented film Bijou offered documentary-like slices of New York City life. (20) Many of the films were produced by either Jack Deveau's Hand-in-Hand Productions or PM Productions, the production wing of New York's leading porn theater, the Park-Miller. These films reveled in the post-Stonewall sexual subculture that had emerged amidst the seedy, rundown, and unused industrial spaces that supplied so many opportunities for uninterrupted sexual activity with multiple and unknown partners. They all made a point to show the streets and the landmarks of the city's sexual landscape. Every one of these movies set sex scenes in public spaces of the city. Some, like Arch Brown's Pier Groups, actually were shot on the piers along the Hudson River; both Jerry Douglas (The Back Row) and Jack Deveau (A Night at the Adonis) shot group sex scenes in porn theater restrooms; and three of the films were set in bathhouses (Bijou, The Voyeur, and Muscle Bound). (21) Jerry Douglas's The Back Row, Peter de Rome's Underground, and Ian McGraw's Subway each had erotic scenes set in the subway system. (22) Jack Deveau's last film, Times Square Strip, was shot at the Gaiety, a famous Times Square strip club. (23) And all of them had sex scenes with three or more partners and ostensible strangers. They used actual locations where public sex took place. They showed the kind of sex that occurred in those locations. And they captured the staging of sexual roles and the silent gestural vocabulary that established communications between participants. These films demonstrate that pornographic photographic media can make a unique contribution to the history of sexuality.
Historically, most of the physical evidence of sex disappears without a trace. Even the children left behind by heterosexual sex represent only a small proportion of all heterosexual sexual activity. Other historical traces show up in the form of demographic and epidemiological statistics such as birth rates or rates of sexually transmitted diseases. But these sources often convey little about the specificities of the sex itself, about either the sequence or the character of sex acts, positions and duration, or the psychological and social meaning of particular sex acts. And, apart from pornography--whether as prose, illustration, or photography--empirical documentation of homosexual sex is even scarcer.
I would like to argue that though sex is indeed a physical act, it still has a history, although a somewhat fraught one, to be sure. As physical acts, acts of sexual intercourse may appear to share common corporeal mechanics, but as Carole Vance has argued, "Physically identical sexual acts may have varying social significance and subjective meaning depending on how they are defined and understood in different cultures and historical periods." (29) Indeed, while sex is shaped by social norms and personal attitudes, it is scripted and enacted within different historical or cultural contexts--in some periods, certain acts may be proscribed and in others widely practiced. (30) One need only compare the evidence of sex after the AIDS epidemic to the many accounts of sex before the epidemic to realize that sex indeed has a history. (31) AIDS changed the social context of sex, and many gay men clearly felt that sex in general, after the advent of AIDS, offered potentially less pleasure and more danger than before. "Sex is just a completely different thing now," porn star and director Al Parker exclaimed. "The entire time you're having sex you're thinking: 'I'm having sex with everybody this person ever had sex with. I wonder what he's done and where he's been and if he's positive or negative. I wonder if I'm giving him anything.' If you can keep a hard-on while all this is going on in your head, you're better than I am." (32)
Pornography, because of its explicit representations of sexual acts, has long played a special role in historical studies of sexual behavior and attitudes. Erotic drawings and paintings, pornographic fiction, ethnographic travel accounts, and sexually candid memoirs have served as sources for explicit accounts of sex in different historical periods. (34) For example, K. J. Dover's study of Greek homosexuality relies extensively on the portrayal of sexual interactions on Greek vase paintings, which show that "every point on a scale of intimacy is fully represented." (35) The Tears of Eros, the culminating volume of Georges Bataille's life-long study of eroticism, includes everything from Paleolithic cave paintings to the work of modern French painter Baltus. (36) Another prominent example is Steven Marcus's The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England. In addition to drawing on medical studies of gynecology and sexually transmitted diseases, Marcus also explored the extensive collection of pornography amassed by Henry Spence Ashbee, nineteenth-century pornographic novels, and the remarkable, eleven-volume, anonymous sexual memoir, My Secret Life. (37) In Governing Pleasures: Pornography and Social Change in England, 1815-1914, Lisa Z. Sigel turned to pornography as a means to explore the "sexual imaginary" of nineteenth-century England. For her, pornography of all varieties (writing, art, and photography) is like "a series of broken mirrors--that reflects, refracts and distorts a picture of sexuality" and shows a shift from the sexual representation as a political expression to one of consumer pleasures. (38) And Paul Deslandes has explored how erotic representations in gay porn magazines both reflected and validated the sexual lives of gay men during the seventies in Britain. (39) 041b061a72