Today in class I showed the documentary Gay Sex in the 70s. It’s a great, if pretty graphic, documentary about gay male sex in New York City in the 1970s. It combines images from the 1970s — private photos, clips from films (porn and non-porn), etc — and interviews with men (and one woman) who lived through the gay 70s NYC scene. Here’s a clip/trailer:

I really like this documentary. What I love most about it is its putting a face to the 70s. While I lived through them, I was a just a babe then, and none of my students were even born in that decade, so we need a human face, a mediator, to explain what it was like to be there. A short film that I sometimes show my class is about a gay guy in the 90s who is magically transported back to the 70s every time he puts on a pair of shoes handed down to him from a friend (his uncle?) who died of AIDS. These shoes allow him to come out of his shell and “get to know” the guy he has a crush on. For me, this short gets to my generation’s complex feelings about the 70s. Some of us are jealous of the “free love” and liberation of that time period, but we’re also conflicted about it since we know what comes afterwards. “We” yearn for the sense of community that this period aspired to, but we also know that this community was ultimately forged through great suffering and death.

Gay Sex in the 70s captures the joy and brotherhood of the gay community in the 70s as well as the coming pain and death of the 80s. It shows us the idealism, the naiveté, and the downsides of this culture. And I like that it sets my class up for reading Larry Kramer’s Faggots, one of my favorite books to teach.

Gay Sex in the 70sEvery time I see this documentary, I’m also reminded just how sexy the 70s were! To the left is a picture from the documentary’s press packet. The 70s look is just hot.The short shorts. The tight bodies that aren’t overly worked out at the gym, but rather have a more natural muscularity. The jeans. The mustaches. Crew socks. Shaggy hair. Maybe I just have some sort of irrational affection for the 70s look left over from my budding gay childhood or something, but I definitely think it’s THE hottest look. This documentary is, of course, full of images of 70s men — what’s not to love?!

While this documentary is definitely useful for my class — my students know next to nothing about the 70s — it’s also complicated. The film does include a couple of clips from early gay porn and a lot of images of nude men. We never see any erect penises or any anuses, but still it’s really graphic, probably more graphic than anything my students have ever seen in a class before. Part of me is completely unembarrassed by this, but part of me is also totally antsy about it. I don’t want to offend my students, but I also don’t want to assume that seeing sexually graphic images of gay men participating in sex (even if those images are not pornographically depicting that sex) is offensive or embarrassing. My class is about representations of gay and lesbian sex in texts written since Stonewall, and I give my students fair warning on the first day that the course will involve such representations, but one can’t help but worry about how they will respond. But so far, no one’s complained (that I know of). And hopefully no one ever will.

This is an important part of our history, and I don’t think me lecturing my students about what a bathhouse is would have the same educational effect as watching an interview with someone who’s not only been to one but who also really, really enjoyed going to several of them. This documentary gives us a glimpse of what this culture was about. I can’t match its imagery and educational value — except maybe if I composed a PowerPoint presentation full of lots of nude men and snapshots from Studio 54; in other words, a version of just what this documentary already has.

I remember reading some online reviews of this film that we’re not particularly complementary, but I think it’s a great film and certainly worth watching.

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