This Guy Gets Paid to Study Gay Porn

Joseph Brennan analyses dick size and porn studio aesthetics for peer-reviewed academic research. "Cultural studies" has never sounded so fun.

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Sep 29 2017, 8:18am

Five young men prepare to "study" in Helix Studios' Study Group: A Matthew Keading Gangbang (link NSFW). Photo courtesy Helix Studios

The most recent research by Joseph Brennan, a media and communications lecturer at the University of Sydney, takes a methodical look at how gay porn studios advertise their performers' dicks. Published in the Journal of Homosexuality, it's the kind of work you might glance over before doing a double take, and realizing, yes, someone in a scholarly position actually combed through 6,900 dick pics "for research."

Of course, Brennan had a legitimate excuse: He wanted to see how porn performers were relegated to certain roles according to the size of their penises, and he found that those who fell into the lower range were marketed as bottoms. He also wanted to better understand how the marketing of donkey-size dicks affected the mental well-being of porn consumers.

"Beyond talk of the 'pornification' of gay culture or the mainstreaming of gay porn, I believe more simply that gay porn has played an historically important part in our community," Brennan says.

This fascination is fully on display in Brennan's scholarly trove. In addition to dick sizes, he's written about the gonzo aesthetic of gay porn like that produced by the (famously envelope-pushing, links NSFW) studio FraternityX. He's explored how performers who bareback have been "discarded" by the industry, catalogued reactions to "abuse porn" on the site Boys Halfway House, and looked at how porn sites like Czech Hunters play on Western gay fantasies of desperate and horny Eastern European men.

Brennan seems most intrigued by some gay porn consumers' darker impulses. Why do sites with graphic rape simulations and themes of exploitation seem to thrive online, and what, if anything, do they say about gay culture? In his paper about Boys Halfway House, a porn series in which the viewer sometimes assumes the identity of a predatory social worker, Brennan looks at how viewers make distinctions between "good" (stylized) and "bad" (uncomfortably realistic) abuse porn. There seems to be a fuzzy line that, when crossed, makes viewers feel like they're participating in rape culture. As one comment on a porn review blog reads, "It's presenting rape as hot, when it completely isn't. It's a major problem in society and things like this are basically okaying it."

"Boys Halfway House is an example that brings us closer, I think, to what many might see as the limits of pornographic fantasy," says Brennan.

Similarly, in analyzing Czech Hunters, a gay-for-pay series set in Eastern Europe, he looked at another uncomfortably exploitative porn fantasy—that of the desperate straight man willing to do anything for a fat wad of cash. He argues that there's a kind of false nostalgia at play in the particular strain of narrative that Czech Hunters lays out; people want to believe that the Czech Republic had a thriving sex trade after the fall of Communism, filled with straight guys eager to earn a quick buck. It's an internationalization of the classic gay-for-pay scenario that relies on stereotypes about Eastern Europe.

Peering at gay porn through a monocle might seem like a rather obvious excuse to watch Sean Cody videos at the office, but there are plenty of reasons to do it. For one, research has shown that gay and bisexual men report greater body-related stress and anxiety, body dissatisfaction, eating disorders, and overall poorer body image than heterosexual men, likely due to the porn they consume. Other research has shown a correlation between consuming bareback porn and one's predilection toward risky sex. Then there are the untold masses of straight men and women who consume it, too. Needless to say, there's a lot to untangle about gay porn.

But while porn is a popular realm of study, it's been controversial from the get-go. Porn Studies only launched three years ago as the "first dedicated, international, peer-reviewed journal to critically explore those cultural products and services designated as pornographic," and it was near-instantly decried by anti-porn activists.

Today, though, Brennan says there's a greater understanding for the value of the porn researcher. "I see the number of scholars working in the gay porn area, and publishing on a regular basis, as a small-yet-devoted collective of talented people who approach the field from a number of disciplinary perspectives," he says. In 2015, for example, the journal Psychology and Sexuality released its first special issue on the subject of gay porn. Other publications, including Psychology & Sexuality, have also played host to the burgeoning world of gay porn scholarship.

In our interview, Brennan could be frustratingly obtuse about his motivations for studying porn, and you get the sense that this evasiveness comes with being a self-appointed dispassionate observer. He's careful not to judge the pornographic work itself but rather focus on the online chatter surrounding it.

But it's also clear he sees how the porn world reinforces stereotypes; in his piece on the penis sizes of performers, for example, he notes that tops are frequently described as masculine, aggressive, and take-charge, while bottoms are described as boyish, slutty, and even "hysterical."

It's good, he says, to question "the presentation of narrowly defined sex roles within gay pornography."

"There's a privileged alignment that connects action, power, and penetration with extraordinarily sized, masculine men." Could it really hurt to ask for a "greater variation of fantasies"?

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