The Life-Saving Magic of Gay Smut
Photo illustrations by Oliver Shaw
Sex

The Lifesaving Magic of Gay Smut

When the 1980s AIDS epidemic hit, one gay pornographer had a radical idea to rescue it: the dirtiest safe sex imaginable.
September 13, 2021, 11:00am

This is part of a special series, Indulgence, which explores extravagant living in a time of restraint. It’s also in the September 2021 VICE magazine issue. Subscribe here

When John Preston’s doctor finally sat him down, on a bleak day in 1987, to tell him his HIV test had come back positive, it took just a few sentences to strip America’s most famous gay porn writer of his life’s twin passions: writing and sex.

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During the two long weeks after a nurse drew his blood, the 42-year-old Preston had run through the possibilities a million times, but the news still shocked him. For all the years he had spent in leather bars, a con-summate sadomasochist top, he was asymptomatic. He had retreated from New York City to Portland, Maine, well before the plague hit, and had just published two books of safe-sex erotica, for Chrissake.

So many of the queer men and trans women Preston knew were dying so quickly in those days, covered in weird purple lesions or gasping with a rare pneumonia. Even if they made it out of the hospital after a bout or two, their mouths would fill up with frothy white fungus and their muscles would erode away from their skeletons. Many just disappeared. They got sick and threw themselves out of windows. They were evicted from their apartments and forced to return to their birth families, never to be heard from again. 

Now he knew that would probably be his fate as well. The grief of learning he was HIV-positive crushed Preston in one silent, mortal whoosh, as if he had been shoved out of the airlock of his spaceship into the vacuum beyond. He pushed his latest manuscript, an anthology of AIDS essays, onto a shelf where he didn’t have to look at it. He tentatively con-fessed his test results over the phone to a man who had been courting him, crooning into the receiver scenarios from Preston’s books that the man ached to reenact. The wooing submissive suddenly pretended his fandom was platonic. Preston’s will to fuck shut down so completely, his prostate became infected.

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Over the previous decade, Preston’s faith in porn had been so great that he believed erotica could curb the AIDS epidemic. One of the most imaginative efforts in the safe-sex movement, his smut stories showed queer men, in the dirtiest way possible, that they didn’t have to stop living to save their own lives. Yet it would be a year before Preston himself could put on his silkiest underwear, sit down at his computer, and fantasize for readers—and himself—once again.

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Suddenly the shiny leather was gone and I heard and felt Mr. Benson as he leaned over, spit on my hole and cracked my cheek all in one moment. I started, but knew not to move. He began a deep, slow conversation with my ass, punctuated with increasingly sharp blows on the flesh. “Pretty hole, waiting for daddy to fill it.” Crack! —John Preston, Mr. Benson (Cleis Press, 1983)

Not long after he moved to New York City in the late 1970s, a move likely funded in part by his work as a pro dom, Preston tapped out his first smut story on a typewriter in the national offices of the Church Women United, where he was temping. He’d always wanted to write fiction—after all, he’d recently spent a year editing the Advocate as it grew into a national magazine covering LGBTQ life and politics (at the time, GLBT and LGBT were the prevailing terms). Yet literature felt too rarefied, too Ivy League, for a man born in a blue-collar town just outside Boston.

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Porn, though? Porn he felt qualified to write. Porn was more than a sexual conduit. It was the portal to his sense of self. As a teenager, it revealed to Preston the shape of his own desires. He’d schooled his own erotic imagination by buying copies of Physique Pictorial magazines at the local drugstore, taking them to the park to inhale the photos of bikini-clad men as if they were oxygen itself.

At 15, he first realized those fantasies by sneaking off to Boston after school. In the invisible days of the early 1960s, when a mere rumor of homosexuality could scuttle a career, men who had sex with men often found themselves by chasing down the monster in a morality tale. Watch out for those perverts they say lurk around the Boston Amtrak station, you hear? His first experience, as a lean and pretty teenager, was with a salesman from Connecticut he met at that train station. Soon he would step into the role of moral and sexual mentor himself, honoring the duty gay men shared to ravenously, protectively initiate one another.

As an activist circulating from one urban LGBTQ center to another (Minneapolis, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City), Preston plunged into the sexual carnival that Gay Liberation helped create. For him, sex—rough sex, public sex, lots of sex—became an act of simultaneous protest and liberation from shame. “Leather was gay sexuality stripped of being nice,” he later wrote. “It offended. It confronted. It took sex as its own ultimate value. It was a reaffirmation of the revolution, not a dilution of it.”

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By his late 20s, Preston’s face had resolved into an art deco ornament, smooth and sharp with a deep-set, feral gaze. During the year he edited the Advocate, he invested in a black leather jacket, assless chaps, and a leather jockstrap, which became his work uniform after he quit the magazine and took up hustling.

Sex, for a spell, was his life. He prowled the baths for pleasure and put out ads for income. On the side, he collected erotic fiction.

Men who slept with men had been circulating handwritten or photocopied erotic stories among themselves since at least the 19th century. In the 1960s and 1970s, as the Harvard cultural critic Michael Bronski chronicled in his history Pulp Friction, loosening obscenity laws freed up tiny paperback publishers to commission hundreds of “pulp” paperbacks with titles like The Man From C.A.M.P.

Despite salacious covers and subject matter, pulps often made their way onto small-town paperback racks. The spiciest plots carried an even more subversive message than cocksucking, one inhaled by the queer readers who hunted them down: The protagonists didn’t commit suicide. Instead, they fell in love—a radical rewriting of destiny, a birth of possibility, a vision of what it would feel like to slip off the shame and persecution that strangled queer lives.

Amid the pansexual hedonism of the 1970s, gay pulps evolved into flat-out smut—X-rated paper-backs (Rigid and Ready, Country Studs) distributed at adult bookstores or through mail-order catalogs. The glossy porn magazines that emerged in the mid-1970s also ran erotic stories.

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Those were the stories Preston felt like he could write. Drummer, the most leather-leaning of these new magazines, published his very first story. Soon Drummer’s publisher commissioned him to serialize the stories into a book chronicling the adventures of the main character: Mr. Benson, a master of pain and pleasure.

Writing porn became as much an act of topping as what Preston was doing at the baths: turning on his readers, goading them until they came, in control of the experience from first word to last.

But it wasn’t merely fantasy. “The real power of the erotic literature,” Preston later reflected in a lecture at Harvard, was that “we, the authors, were participant/observers in the sexual life that was developing.” His fiction didn’t just document the radical sex of the 1970s. It unlocked new fantasies of domination and subservience, portrayed a masculinity that defied every stereotype of its time without pretending to be straight-passing. “I write pornography,” he wrote, “because it is a form of gay men’s vernacular literature.”

The stories turned Preston into an icon in the leather community. “As a [queer leather] community, we’re very literate, and one of the ways we found out about ourselves was tracking down books and graphics,” says Patrick Califia, the author of Macho Sluts and an icon in the leatherdyke scene before he transitioned 20 years ago. “John was amazing because he didn’t use a pseudonym. He was out and proud as a gay man and a leather master.”  

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Preston’s prolific output (Mr. Benson sequels, pulp-style gay spy tales, straight military adventure books under a pseudonym) allowed him to support himself on writing alone after he moved to Maine the next year, at the age of 33 or 34. Portland offered him a return to the bucolic New England he grew up in. A boyfriend moved east from San Francisco for a year to become his full-time sub. After that relationship fell apart, he visited gay male enclaves in Boston, Provincetown, and New York. He became a prolific correspondent, with letters and phone calls connecting him to far-flung friends. Until they started dying.

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“I received sometimes daily reports from people around the country,” he recalled in A Winter’s Light. “Ben was sick in LA; Patrick was dying in Seattle; Kris had passed away in Santa Fe; Vito died in New York.”

In the summer of 1981, the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times had reported on curious new epidemics of cancer and pneumonia that seemed to affect only gay men. After straight women, intravenous drug users, Haitian immigrants, and hemophiliacs also started dying with the same symptoms, the medical profession named the cluster of illnesses acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

In those early days, journalists in the LGBTQ press pored over medical studies, and medical professionals in major cities set up AIDS wards. In queer communities around the country, people called everyone they knew to schedule care circles for dying friends and scrambled to find food and shelter for strangers. The deaths accelerated, but most straight people didn’t seem to notice. 

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It took several years for scientists to identify HIV, and several more to develop HIV tests like the one Preston finally took. The best source of medical information was often gossip, a tangle of fact and paranoid speculation no one could unravel. They say it’s caused by a virus, but you might catch it from kissing. I heard that only bottoms get sick. It’s a CIA plot to kill homosexuals.

By 1982, a few groups were teasing out theories on how the disease spread. According to the safe-sex historian Thomas Blair, California public health professionals came to the conclusion that AIDS was spreading along the same lines as hepatitis B in gay male communities: through “bodily fluids,” not breath. Straight journalists and conservatives argued that the solution was simple: Gay men should simply stop fornicating. “Curious, is it not, that… it should be so hard to say in plain English that AIDS is almost entirely a disease caught by men who bugger and are buggered by dozens or even hundreds of other men every year?” Norman Podhoretz ranted in the San Jose Mercury News in 1985. “Yet an amazing proportion of these men who could protect them-selves and their ‘lovers’ by giving up such ‘joys of gay sex’ simply refuse to do so.”

Others explicitly argued that gay men deserved untimely ends. The conservative columnist Pat Buchanan wrote in 1983: “The poor homosexuals… they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution.” William F. Buckley Jr. advocated for tattooing the asses of infected gay men and sterilizing any woman who exposed her-self to AIDS.  As the novelist and essayist Andrew Holleran wrote in Chronicle of a Plague, Revisited, “People were on their own.”

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While mainstream and conservative circles proceeded with a moral panic, leathermen, sex workers, activists, and sexual outlaws like Preston, who had seen themselves as the avant-garde of gay liberation, began envisioning a new strategy: safe sex. In 1982, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an activist troupe of drag nuns in San Francisco, put out a cheeky guide to sexually transmitted diseases—gonorrhea, syphilis, guilt, this disturbing new “gay cancer”—and how to avoid them when having sex. Later that year, Bronski suggested, writing in Gay Community News, that if body fluids transmitted the disease, perhaps bondage and whipping might be safer than kissing. Around the same time, a young activist and sex worker in New York named Richard Berkowitz had a similar eureka moment about S&M, realizing that so much of what made leather sex so hot was role play and communication, or forms of touch that didn’t exchange fluids. 

Berkowitz was already deep into conversations about the nature of AIDS with a physician named Joseph Sonnabend and another activist, Michael Callen. The three were convinced that the cause of AIDS was “multifactorial”—sparked by a mix of infections, notably cytomegalovirus (an insidious infection)—and that the more sex gay men had, the more they could accrue the elements of this fatal mix. These discussions, plus Berkowitz’s idea, coalesced into How to Have Sex in an Epidemic, a 1983 booklet they distributed around New York.

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“Since we are a community, taking responsibility for our own health during sex ultimately requires that we protect our partners [sic] health as well as our own,” Berkowitz and Callen wrote. Their simple, straightforward advice, scorned at first, formed the backbone for the safe-sex guidelines we follow today: using condoms—most gay men at the time thought they were for preventing pregnancy—as well as limiting bodily fluids during anal sex and oral sex and cutting down on partners.

There was one problem with such frank directions: neither the mainstream press nor the government would dare repeat it. In 1985, the Reagan administration shut down the CDC’s first major AIDS prevention campaign before it launched. Two years later, the North Carolina senator Jesse Helms rammed through legislation that forbade federal funds for HIV prevention—anything that “promoted” homosexuality or intravenous drug use. City health departments in LA and NYC were forced to retract publications offering safe-sex guidance. 

If perverts and addicts wanted to kill themselves, the government wasn’t about to stop them. It would be up to queer people to save their own lives—outside official channels. Preston knew a way.

Steve pulled back and slipped his cock under my balls and between my legs. I locked my feet around one another to increase the pressure holding his cock between my thighs. As he rode me, I could feel the head of his cock grazing my asshole. I struggled to straighten my spine and tuck my ass up so that he slid more easily against me. I relaxed my abdomen and felt myself opening up to him. He wasn’t fucking me, but my ass was alive with every thrust. —Toby Johnson, “Friends,” Hot Living: Erotic Stories About Safer Sex (Alyson Books, 1985)

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Did Preston read Berkowitz and Callen’s booklet? If so, he never acknowledged it. Either way, he revolted against the official messages promoting kill-joy abstinence. “Everyone insisted that sensible sex was boring,” he wrote in the early 1980s. “There was a sense that it was insufficient, that to practice it was a form of denial, not of celebration.” 

Trained as a sex educator, but also an adventurer in the sexual fringes, Preston instinctively understood how broad sex could be—and that to change gay men’s behaviors, he could speak to them through the vernacular literature of porn.

He teamed up with a Boston publisher named Sasha Alyson of Alyson Books, which primarily published gay male fiction, to compile an anthology of safe-sex smut. Preston, the biggest name in gay male erotica, had the juice to recruit experienced writers, both pornographic and more mainstream.

In the introduction to Hot Living, which came out in 1985, Preston told readers, “We wanted fiction that would help make it possible for readers to see how new sexual situations could be desirable, not just necessary.” Then he spelled out a few basic rules the stories would observe, framed in language no health department was allowed to print: Don’t ingest semen. Don’t fuck without a condom. No oral-anal contact. Don’t swallow urine.

Some stories in Hot Living were first-person excursions into a sexual landscape reshaped by AIDS, like T.R. Witomski’s trips to the then-new jackoff clubs or Eric Rofes’ discovery of sex chat lines that, pre-email or internet, people could call up, paying by the minute to have phone sex with strangers.  Others attempted to inspire gay men to rethink how they pursued sex. Toby Johnson’s tale of a night with an old friend that turns amiably sexual pleads for gay men to honor the affection of sex even as the protagonists rub off on each other in instructively creative positions.

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Preston wasn’t the only one who thought saving gay men meant eliminating lectures. Fishbowls filled with condoms and lube appeared on bars, and bags of safe-sex supplies were hung, like the doggie waste bags today, in public cruising parks. The San Francisco AIDS Foundation produced a safe-sex porn movie. 

Then there was Glenn Swann, a former Marine who toured strip clubs around the country as Mr. Safe Sex in a military jacket, boots, and a jockstrap.

“Stop doing the things that make you and our buddies sick!” he’d shout in his boot-camp sergeant voice at the opening of his act, strutting around the stage. Swann looked like every hero in a Preston story—white guy with a blocky, handsome face, furred chest, grapefruit-size bulge. “Do you understand?”

His audience, not expecting a lecture in a strip club, gawked silently.

“I can’t hear you. Do you understand?”

Then Swann would open his jacket, run a hand past his nipples, and plunge it behind the band of his jock-strap. “But, fellas, let me tell you what you still can do.”

Cheers erupted. And the real demonstration began. Preston convinced Swann to lend his name and photos to a collection of stories, and a Penguin imprint published Safe Sex: The Ultimate Erotic Guide the same year as Hot Living. In the book, Swann undertakes a hero’s journey guided by a parade of girthy Adonises. His Swedish masseur, Karl, teaches him how to wield a vibrator. Don, his muscular Black dance teacher, choreographs his act and then gives him an in-depth lesson on condoms.

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Preston hoped safe smut would work on readers at a deeper level, changing their erotic imagination from the inside out. In porn films, the screen would always form a psychic barrier that separated the viewer from the action. With fiction, every reader became the main character, swept out of their own thoughts and along a journey the author mapped out for them. If safe-sex smut could turn readers on, maybe real safe sex would, too.

Did Preston’s books make a difference? Did any of the public awareness campaigns?

In the past two decades, a number of studies have shown that abstinence education for teens actually results in higher pregnancy rates, and that students who receive explicit HIV/AIDS education in schools engage in fewer risky sex or drug practices. One 1994 study of young gay men in San Francisco found that, in one of the worst-hit cities in America, HIV-positive rates for young men dropped by half between 1984 and 1993. And yet, positive rates for that community were still elevated, as high as almost a quarter for certain populations. Something was keeping queer men from seroconverting, but it wasn’t effective enough. 

What safe-sex campaigns like Preston’s did, Califia says now, is help people realize they had choices. “It was a grassroots, community-led effort to regain a sense of control, and self-respect, in the face of a pandemic that carried a lot of stigma and terror,” he says. For queer kids coming out during the plague years, like me, these campaigns were how we learned to have sex, period—if not a ravenous initiation, a protective one.

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As the epidemiologist Julia Marcus wrote in The Atlantic during the COVID-19 shutdowns, the AIDS epidemic taught the field of public health a critical lesson: that attempts to eliminate or shame away risk will always fail. It took sex workers and radicals like Richard Berkowitz and John Preston, who’d spent a lifetime battling shame over their desires, to come up with effective risk reduction strategies. With safe sex, we could lower our risk of catching or passing on HIV while living our lives.

Preston himself believed that his safe-sex smut made a difference. “Pornography helped lift some of our bitterest isolation from one another,” he wrote. “It created dreams and hope.”

Yet after he received his diagnosis he lost both.

“A frigid wall came down, separating myself from my emotions, from my family and community, from what might be going on with myself and my body,” Preston wrote of the grief-struck paralysis that overcame him after his HIV test.

A sharp realization brought him out from this detachment a year or so after he shelved the manuscript for Personal Dispatches, the anthology of essays about AIDS: If he stopped writing about AIDS, he would become its victim. He had no luxury to think of writing as art; it was activism. He urgently needed to document, to broadcast, what he and other people with AIDS were living through. 

Preston exploded into work again. Personal Dispatches resonated with readers so much that he became the king of LGBTQ anthologies—editing

collections about hometowns, biological families, and chosen families, as well as two collections of his own essays. He was also the Maine AIDS Project’s writer-in-residence, collecting oral histories from dying men. One of his protégés, Michael Lowenthal, became his amanuensis, helping Preston channel a flood of projects that cascaded out long after Preston’s death in 1994.

Fueling his psychic rebirth was his sexual reawakening. When Preston developed a bacterial prostate infection, his doctor told him the problem wasn’t AIDS but stagnation of seminal fluids: In his depression, he had stopped having orgasms. He couldn’t bring himself to trick—it felt too risky—so on the way home from the clinic he stopped at an adult bookstore for books and videos to jerk off to. “It dragged me back into my pornographic mind and made me well,” he said. 

The blockage cleared, raunchy stories charged with swagger and dominance poured out anew. “It must have been the sublimation and redirection of all the old sexual energy he was now feeling again, but not acting on,” Lowenthal now says. For Preston, porn had once captured the spirit of his sexual adventures. Then it became a tool for saving lives. Finally, at the end of his life, writing smut became sex itself. 

Soon after Personal Dispatches came out, Preston sold Flesh & the Word, an anthology of gay male erotica, featuring stories from Anne Rice, Patrick Califia, and Edmund White. Published in 1992 by a prominent New York publishing house, Flesh & the Word sold tens of thousands of copies, displayed in the “gay” section of mainstream bookstores instead of dirty little shops, and inspired four more collections.

To call the series Preston’s pornographic swan song would be to frame it as an uncomplicated triumph, erasing the tragedy of a man killed at the age of 48 by a disfiguring, stigmatized, slow-grinding plague. And yet, even as AIDS ate away his body, the wider world offered a whisper of validation for his life as a sexual outlaw, perhaps suggesting it might acknowledge queer desire one day without opprobrium or the taint of death. And he reveled in the attention. Terry Gross interviewed him on Fresh Air. Harvard University invited him to lecture. He compiled a decade’s worth of essays celebrating the power of smut and titled the collection My Life as a Pornographer.

Even though he had stopped wearing assless chaps and a leather jockstrap in public years before, leathermen in full regalia showed up to the Flesh & the Word book parties to honor the writer who had put their deepest fantasies into words. One man in Boston even kneeled to polish his shoes with his tongue. As delighted as he was, Preston loomed over the sub in silence until he finished, accepting the solemn tribute he knew he deserved.

Jonathan Kauffman is a James Beard Award-winning journalist and the author of Hippie Food, a history of the 1970s natural-foods movement.