3 min

Thinking about sex

Why draw a line?

Credit: Xtra files

You’ve just wandered into a bookstore. You were in the neighbourhood and you had half an hour to kill, and you know this particular store will keep you pleasantly occupied with its many queer text and image products and feisty countercultural spirit. You’re drawn today to the large-format picture books. As you browse glossy pics of, say, early Hollywood film sets, or grinning workers miming a foxtrot on a steel beam 50 storeys above Manhattan or zebras in full gallop across an African plain, what you find most enticing to the eye is (always is) the fleshy bits. Those bronze Masai warriors. The lean and sinewy forearms of a foxtrotting construction worker. Muscled troops in skimpy armour lined up in front of the balsa-wood columns of MGM’s Babylon.

Drift and browse, gently turn pages, sashay to let more earnest patrons access the groaning shelves of Literature or Social Theory they gravely slouch toward. You’re in a charmed place. Let others diddle their cerebrums. You’re in brainstem territory. You pause to admire the intersection of leather thong and bubble butt in a tome offering idealized photos of forest peoples in Brazil.

Then a large paperback volume on a new-release table catches your eye. The cover is baby blue. The title is slashed across the middle: large red letters on a black ribbon. Naughty things are being perpetrated. This is obvious, because the cover image is a drawing of two sailor boys by the sea, mutually manipulating things beneath the ribbon with its scarlet message: Lust Unearthed.

There it is. What you’ve secretly wanted since you stepped into this bookshop (since you popped into the world!). You abandon the rainforest and enter Lust at random. Page 110: a drawing of two men on a bed, in the slack white sailor uniforms of another place and time, fucking. They look like twins: identical faces with coarse, squashed features and feral, inward-turned expressions. A beat-up pack of Camels on the bedside table. Girly pix on the wall. From the window a faint suggestion of a Mediterranean streetscape. Belts have been loosened, pants dropped. Cock is sliding into meaty ass. One guy has what looks like a half-open knife wound on his upper arm. Their faces drip sweat. Sheets and clothes and skin look slightly grotty. You can smell the air in the room. It’s like a scene from Genet’s Querelle Of Brest: lust and rage feeding from the same trough.

The handful of sailor drawings by Paul Smara, a friend of Genet’s, get both raunchier and more tender, even as the flesh wounds multiply. Sex in uniform is one of many themes in this mesmerizing collection of 237 graphic images compiled and annotated by Concordia University prof Thomas Waugh, assisted by archivist Willie Walker. Other motifs range from squeaky-clean shower scenes to weird and scary bondage fantasies. All images have been culled from the vast collection of US film and TV designer and “gay bon vivant” Ambrose DuBek, who died in 2002 at age 86.

Waugh’s first collection of gay graphics, Out/Lines, attained an sales rank of 261,741 this year – “whatever that means,” adds Waugh in his intro. It appears to mean (based on my own Amazon search) that the professor’s first dirty picture book has outstripped paperback sales of prizewinning novels from both Edmund White and Alan Hollinghurst.

Waugh knows what’s afoot: “It was not my pontifical musings, but rather those naughty drawings that sold the book.” The pictures in Lust Unearthed will certainly do the same, despite prose that slides from anecdote to pedantry. But Waugh’s academese scores on the censorship issue. Well into the project, he learned that seven images selected for inclusion were judged “verboten” by his publisher. Not surprisingly, they were pix of intergenerational sex. Waugh was miffed by the turnaround, but he allows that Arsenal Pulp Press had legitimate fears that the drawings might attract criminal charges. He negotiated, and four of the seven images were jettisoned in exchange for running three with the naughty bits trimmed.

Would the images have spurred charges? Maybe. Would the “artistic merit” defence have worked? Possibly, depending on how fondly the judge remembers nights at scout camp. One of the cropped drawings (anonymous, circa 1960) depicts a scoutmaster’s carved body being swarmed by his naked troop of adolescent boys. It’s clear that one teen is going down on his handsome master, while two others use him as brawny support for an ecstatic butt fuck. The cropping wonderfully points out the absurdity of criminalizing pictures from the mind’s eye. Cropped or not cropped, the sex acts conjured for the observer are the same, and in both cases imagined. These drawings (unlike film or photo-graphy) are proof of only one thing: that people think about sex. Can we criminalize the life of the mind? Waugh stakes his ground: “This book is all about not feeling guilty.”