3 min

The moral pornographer

Thomas Waugh's Lust Unearthed brings erotic gay history to light

Credit: Xtra West files

Thoughtful porno Porno may sound at first like an oxymoron. But consider what British author Angela Carter called the “moral pornographer.” As a visionary thinker, the moral pornographer would discover “a world of absolute sexual license for all the genders.” Sounds nice. But where to find one?

Professor Thomas Waugh, a prime candidate for king of the moral pornographers, is relaxing for a moment in his cluttered Montreal office, home from a weekend in New York and rallying his strength for a class at Concordia University. He’s also shaking his head at the state of the States.

“In the second Bush term, there’s going to be even more of a chill on queer research of any kind,” promises Waugh.

Four years ago, Waugh published The Fruit Machine, exploring 20 years of queer Canadian cinema; at the time he enthused, “Today, there’s so much going on in terms of queer work, so many queer representations in film and the media. Now the sky’s the limit in terms of being a critic.” But Waugh’s outlook has since cooled: “Even though we may be in a glut mode, there is now a chill in effect. Especially in the States, and that has ripples everywhere.”

So Waugh’s latest volume of vintage porn, Lust Unearthed (Arsenal Pulp Press) is not only a hot sequel to 2002’s Out/Lines but also an important bulwark against the encroaching radical right. His previous books (five in total) have built a reputation for Waugh as one of Canada’s preeminent authorities on queer visual culture.

Unlike Out/Lines, which was a composite of naughty drawings from all over, Lust Unearthed exhibits a single man’s porn collection-that of Ambrose DuBek, a Hollywood costume and set designer (DuBek died in 2002 at age 87). It’s an index for pre-Stonewall underground graphics, but also a shoebox of memories for one particular man: over 200 never-before-published drawings in total.

The prints are almost entirely reproduced from photographs of original drawings-drawings that, at the time, were traded and sold between collectors like baseball cards. “I think it was pretty informal,” says Waugh of their dispersal, “they circulated among friendship networks.” It’s possible that some images were store bought in tenderloin districts during the ’60s, but Waugh imagines that “most of it was hand to hand. I think there was a feeling of scarcity in the underground.”

For more worldly collectors such as the late DuBek, that scarcity was less daunting. The entire DuBek collection houses over 2000 images. DuBek even purchased original drawings directly from uber-pornographer Tom of Finland on a trip to Helsinki in the 1950s.

“His friends swear he wasn’t into S & M” says Waugh of DuBek. But porn collections often belie outward appearances. This one is chock-full of wild dungeon scenes and unusual, nearly yogic, sex positions. “I think he was quite inquisitive,” demurs Waugh.

DuBek’s inquisitive collection includes: Grecian orgies teeming with lusty soldiers; youthful friars administering intercrural delights (aka “The Princeton Rub”); sailors chugging cock like Coca-Cola; rough trade drunks ravishing married men; loads of bondage; a beer bottle up the bum; exhausted woodsmen with elephantine members; and even the soft-core delight of guys “just hanging out.”

What Lust Unearthed misses in variety-we don’t see the transgendered or drag imagery that spiced Out/Lines-it makes up for in sheer raunch.

Simultaneously as the long-lost drawings in Lust Unearthed come back to us, another academic hopes gays will shun such “unearthings.” Indeed, Christopher Kendall (a protégé of the notorious Katharine Mackinnon) in his new book Gay Male Pornography (UBC Press) hopes to turn gays against all porn, full stop. (Specifically, Gay Male Pornography attacks Little Sister’s and their work at the Supreme Court of Canada). “This nefarious piece of crap,” fumes Waugh after reading Kendall’s book. “He’s such a lawyer.”

It appears that most gays don’t care whether Christopher Kendall approves, however. The images in Lust Unearthed have already begun to make the rounds on the Internet. “I don’t object really,” says Waugh, “sharing is the whole point of this book.” Cyberspace, especially outside of the Western porn glut, has become a contemporary underground. “I’ve travelled to India where it’s amazing to see people [downloading] homoerotic imagery they wouldn’t normally have access to.”

Waugh does worry, however, that mass dissemination of Western-styled porn could swamp local sex cultures. “It’s a kind of imperialism,” warns Waugh of the Internet’s omnipresence. The underground culture these drawings were made in was, itself, a reaction against an oblivious, mainstream culture. “The ideology of imperialism,” notes Waugh, “is always unconscious to some degree.” Lust Unearthed, however, with its six essays by way of introduction, is anything but unconscious.

What the Internet, and moral pornographers like Waugh, do clearly ensure is that these treasures, at last unearthed, will not be buried again.

* Thomas Waugh’s next book, The Romance of Transgression in Canada, will return his attention to the world of film.


Arsenal Pulp Press.