Although I was quoted liberally in the Haaretz article on Sporno, there’s no harm in quoting myself even more liberally….
The discussion about whether spornographic images are straight or gay, active or passive, traditional or non-traditional seems to need a more, ahem, explicit explanation, or certainly a lengthier one than was possible in the article (I wounldn’t have minded it being a monologue but others might). Here’s the journalist Doron Halutz’s questions to me on this point and my answers in full (with some cheeky Sporno snaps added which make my point rather better than I do):
DH: You wrote: “Traditional ideas of masculinity required men to always be always desiring never desired, always looking never looked at, always active, never passive, always hetero never homo”.
In the pictures that I have sent you, and also in those you present in your articles, the sportsmen are obviously presented as objects of desire. However, they are not passive – their muscles are prominent, they look like they are ready for action; the sexual hinting, as far as I see it, regards what they can do to you, not what you can do to them…. They will of course be looked at because these are fashion pictures meant to be looked at, but they are also shot in a such a position that they are looking at you, staring directly into the camera; and of course, they are hetero, which is the one thing they manifest whenever they can – they are so hetero that they are not afraid to be pictured in sexy positions…. So although the fetishization and commodification of these bodies are clear, it can be claimed that the hegemonic model of masculinity is preserved – the man as active, dominant, desire also when he is desired.
MS: What you have described is certainly the way that many of the participants in these images would like to see themselves – and also the way many of the voyeurs would like to see the sex-object.
However, the key here is that, as you say, they are presented as sex-objects. Their exhibitionism is itself, like their narcissism, essentially passive, regardless of what they may or may not like to do in bed or to us the voyeur. This is a basic tenet of psychoanalysis: exhibitionism, offering yourself up for voyeuristic pleasure, is passive and/or masochistic.
The sex-object status of men in the visual culture has reached such a pitch that these kinds of arguments that there is ‘nothing passive’ about them because they look at the camera (to check we’re still staring?) or are showing off their lovely muscles no longer wash. Ironically this kind of argument developed out of 1970s feminist theory about the ‘male gaze’ and the plethora of images of female pin-ups which then tried to explain away the emergence of male pin-ups in the early 80s. I think this approach was very dubious then, but it’s largely redundant now. Worse, it reassures the ‘hegemonic model’ of masculinity when in fact it has a lot to be worried about and disguises the real extent of the change that has occurred.
If you compare these pictures with those of say, Arnold and Sly from 1980s Hollywood films, which were also presenting the male body as something to be consumed and enjoyed (the first time that bodybuilders had reached a mainstream audience), most of them look extremely passive.
You can see that the need to disavow passivity in the presentation of sex object males has declined enormously as the culture has got used to this pleasure. None of these pictures of men showing off their bodies feature a huge gun or a pile of dead Commies.
One is posing as a statue, or mannequin. Which is fairly passive. Another is reclining backwards on a chair, legs apart, seemingly ready to let us do what we want. Another in his shorts looks like he would do anything we asked him to. Most of them are boyish, rather than mannish. Ephebes.
DH: The sportsmen-turned-models whom I interviewed for my piece denied the homo-erotic aspects of their half-nude images. They have also claimed that they have no idea of their being gay icons and of having any gay fans, and claimed that they have no desire to be desired by gay men. They were actually very surprised when I brought up these questions.
MS: Then they are fooling themselves.
Or perhaps their surprise is at the fact that you broke the convention and mentioned the inescapable fact that in offering themselves as sex objects they were also offering themselves to men as well as women. And more to men than to women because all men know that men are more visually orientated than women.
It may be a question of culture or of timing. In the UK many of the younger generation of male sports stars actively seek out gay fans because they consider their appreciation and judgment of more value than that of women. Rightly or wrongly they think they have better taste.
Soccer player David Beckham and rugby player Gavin Henson have even argued over their gay fans. Becks has complained that Henson has ‘stolen’ a lot of his gay admirers and he ‘misses them.’ Freddie Ljunberg is often suspected of being gay because he remains single — and because he doesn’t violently refute the allegations when presented to him by journalists, merely dismiss them good-naturedly and mention that he has many gay friends (Calvin Klein have learnt their Marky Mark lesson it seems).
I’m not saying that Sporno is gay in any concrete way, I’m saying that it isn’t terribly straight. It is one of the effects of a visual and commodified culture that you cannot heterosexualize looking. The only way you can do that is to not photograph men in a desirable way. But then you don’t have a visual and commodified culture. Desirable images of men can be desired, obviously by other males, gay or straight or bisexual – and also women.
In fact, even if you could somehow stop men looking at desirable images of other men and make sure that only women saw them this still wouldn’t heterosexualise it. Not only because women are supposed to be looked at and men are supposed to do the looking, but because in my experience women are perfectly capable of treating sex object men in a passive way, no matter how much they flex their muscles.