After living in Vancouver’s West End for three years, I could be excused for thinking that perhaps my fellow gays and I currently belong to one of the most liberated and uninhibited homosexual communities on the planet. Indeed, our government has given us the right to wed, our Pride celebration draws tens of thousands to our streets, and we have steamy circuit parties to ring-in nearly every special occasion. But while Vancouverites lead the pink pack on many social and political fronts, our openness and attitudes toward sex don’t hold an eight inch candle to the defiant sexual prowess and adventurousness of our then newly-emancipated gay forefathers living and fucking in 1970s New York.
A hit on the festival circuit this past year, the film Gay Sex in the ’70s, directed by Joseph Lovett, is a documentary which successfully attempts to shed light on the abundance of free, brash, anonymous sex that took place in the shadows of Manhattan in that newly liberated decade.
It’s true: men in Vancouver, with our wooded trails, tubs, and after-hours clubs are by no means inexperienced in the pseudo-sport of casual sex. But this film is about something more than just sex. It’s about a sense of gay identity, validation and freedom that had never existed before the Stonewall Riots of 1969. Lovett provides us with wistful first-hand accounts of the freedom of the ’70s and the resulting sexual explosion that occurred in New York’s abandoned piers, delivery trucks, back rooms and bathhouses.
Running just over 70 minutes in length, the film is spunky in both content and duration. Younger viewers will be surprised to learn they aren’t currently trailblazing the world’s most sexually liberal gay society, and an older audience will be reminded of the bold and ballsy pre-AIDS era.
The story is easy to follow, laid out chronologically from Stonewall in June 1969 to the onset of the AIDS crisis in June 1981. A fast-paced series of ’70s-era video and photo imagery set to anthemic disco tracks vividly illustrates many of the now defunct or demolished cruising spots. And a cast of about a dozen artistic types, including Lovett himself, fondly narrates the film, adding an element of humanity and humour to the carnal nature of their decade-long orgasmathon.
A big part of what makes this film work is that it is never apologetic. Gay Sex in the ’70s is a memoir to a decade full of gay freedom and sexual excess that ended with the tragic outbreak of AIDS, yet it makes no excuses. If anything, the film seems to cherish what it was like to live in a city brimming with thousands of gay men, all of whom after Stonewall were for the first time, living free from isolation and extreme oppression. They were briefly free to have sex, and lots of it, without the worry of AIDS which re-shackled gay men in the 1980s to feelings of fear and loathing from which they’d only just escaped.
Callous, however, the film is not. It appropriately addresses the repercussions that prolific unprotected, anonymous sex had on the gay community. Leaving morals aside, the film poignantly opens and closes with an artist’s moving tribute to the friends and partner he lost to the AIDS epidemic. So although Lovett far from condemns the free love of the decade, Gay Sex in the ’70s does not suggest that the culture of open sex was not without its consequences.
All of this fond remembrance of carefree sex and free love does work to glorify some sexual acts that were undoubtedly physically dangerous, psychologically harmful (one man claimed that his quest for sex was addictive to a point where it became more important than his career), and just plain unsanitary. Also, the muscled, erotic, and downright hot photos and porn clips in the film don’t include the ugly side of that era’s rampant drug use that surely resulted in more than a few unconscious Bathhouse Betties suffering from wickedly bad trips and shriveled-dicks.
Furthermore, certain critics of this film, perhaps even some readers of this review, will simply find such a display and celebration of unabashed sex offensive. This sentiment will be stirred by the opinion that so much (gay) sex is somehow morally uncouth. In fact, I found myself challenged to view this film without a little finger wagging of my own.
But if you truly look beyond traditional and arbitrary sexual confines and eliminate the instinctive fear we’ve come to know of contracting AIDS from the sexual equation, Gay Sex in the ’70s can be viewed as a fun, honest and racy film. It tells the uncensored story of a liberated group of free-loving guys who threw a decade-long party, the likes of which we might never see again.