Weekly, rife and I have a private little ritual on Saturday mornings where we make pancakes and watch porn. I’m not sure exactly how it started, we probably did that one Saturday and decided we should do it again. (I have discovered that I don’t really like watching porn while I’m eating, it makes my mouth feel all weird. So the porn and pancakes are separate. Just in case you were wondering.)
I don’t have much of a history of boy-on-boy action, but being involved with this boy has made me more curious about gay porn. I’ve watched a lot of queer porn over the years, with lots of trans folks and genderqueer hotties and butches and femmes, but not a lot of cis guys. (Also, have you noticed that porn with trans women is kind of booming? Maybe it’s just because I started following Chelsea Poe, but I am really inspired by the activism and visibility that’s been happening. And the fucking hotness.)
So the boy and I have been exploring all sorts of fag porn, looking into the things we think we’d like, from leather BDSM porn to daddy/boy explorations.
So far, Stepfather’s Secret on men.com has been my favorite, though “Sexual Education” with James Darling and Allen Silver on Pinklabel also stands out.
I’m surprised how much tenderness is depicted. I suppose partly it’s because of the genres I’ve been primarily watching—leather and daddy/boy—I think those tend to be more tender than average. But I’ve been really touched by the variety of depictions of masculinity.
I’ve also noticed the wide range of types of bodies. Perhaps it’s that the big-ness of men and masculine bodies is what’s fetishized, while with women (and feminine bodies) usually the slightness, thinness, and smallness is fetishized, but I’ve been enjoying seeing the sizes depicted as desirable and sexy.
(I still struggle with this, personally, around my own body. Sometimes I can fetishize the size—that I’m kind of big, thick, heavy, whatever word you want to use—but most of the time I feel bulky and awkward. I know rife and other lovers I’ve had have specifically commented on my size or shape as desirable, so it’s not that I don’t exactly see it reflected, but I don’t feel it. I remember the relief of starting to shop in the men’s department: I went from an XL in women’s to a M or S in men’s, and that just felt like such a more accurate size for me. Plus, the clothes fit my body better, or fit my energetics better, or something, and wow it was such a relief. It’s been more than 15 years now since I officially made that transition to butch.)
Maybe the tenderness in gay porn shouldn’t be surprising, particularly as most of my critique of masculinity comes from the male gender role that tends to be heteronormative, but as a queer feminist butch dyke, I’ve often been critical of the gay depictions of masculinity too, and made assumptions that it was more like the normative male gender role than it was radical and transgressive. But hey, I like to be wrong about things like that! (And certainly there’s plenty of gay porn that reinforces normative gender roles—I just happened not to pick it up during porn and pancakes, apparently. I’ll try harder.)
Really my first introduction to depictions of masculinity in porn was through Heavenly Spire, launched in August 2010 by filmmaker Shine Louise Houston, the director and producer behind the revolutionary queer porn Crash Pad Series. Heavenly Spire is short films, released on Sundays (get it? Spire? Heavenly?) devoted to all kinds of men and their sexuality.
At the time, it was new, raw, and beautiful—and it still is. I don’t know about you, but watching it over the past few years has changed the way I think about male sexuality and erotics.
I interviewed Shine for Carnal Nation when it was first released, but Carnal Nation has since folded and the interview is now only found in the wayback machine. So here it is, reprinted, because the first volume of Heavenly Spire has been compiled and is available from PinkLabel.tv—and it is stunning.
Heavenly Spire: Interview with Shine Louise Houston
Reprinted from Carnal Nation, August 2010
Filmmaker Shine Louise Houston, who brought you the queer porn Crash Pad Series web episodes and the feature-length films Champion, The Wild Search, and Superfreak, has started a new online web project depicting masculine sexualities in a visual medium. Heavenly Spire began in late July. I gladly sat down for a long-distance chat with her about the new site, masculinity, the personal things that had to happen in order for her to embark on this project, and what’s next for her and her growing companies.
Sinclair: I’m excited about Heavenly Spire, the new project! I haven’t seen behind the scenes yet, but the stuff that’s up is lovely.
Shine: The format is different from Crash Pad Series; there are no interviews, no behind the scenes. I’m not too sure if I’m going to do that, I’m going to see how the site goes. We shoot lean on this project, there’s not a whole lot of extras.
What do you mean by lean? You don’t spend a lot of time sitting around, hanging out with them, asking them what they think about sex?
Yeah. The interviews I do for Heavenly Spire are more really about delving into what their sexualities are, what their turn-ons are, has it changed over the years, what do they do now, physically what do they like about themselves, or physically what do they like about each other. I’m approaching it from a totally different angle than I approached Crash Pad Series.
Is that angle also about a focus on masculinity?
Yeah, I really wanted to start thinking about masculinity, and asking whether masculine sexuality is different. Heavenly Spire is a personal project for me. Accepting my own masculinity has really allowed me to feel okay with desire for masculine people. Exploring it on the site really looks at male bodies the way I want to. Maybe not everybody feels the way I do, but this is good for me. For a long time, I just didn’t get guys. But as I got more comfortable, I realized they’re not that different, and they’re not all that scary, and actually they’re pretty cool. And actually, penises are pretty cool. But it’s been a long process, and eventually bringing that to the screen is just where the process is supposed to go.
It makes sense that you would take your own creative medium to explore that sort of thing. What about your own personal masculinity process? What has that looked like for you? Has it been a long time coming, have you always been a tomboy?
It’s been a long process, definitely influenced by time and location. I grew up as a tomboy, but I also remember having favorite dresses. In my twenties, I definitely knew that I liked girls, and I was into the dyke/lesbian identity, but at the time – this was the early 90s in southern California – it was very much anti-butch/femme, pro-androgyny, and that had an influence on me. It was a very cool scene, and things were very open about sexuality. But right after that, mid-90s, I moved to San Francisco, and at that time, it was this huge butch/femme revival.
I knew I was definitely not femme, but I felt a lot of pressure to be one or the other. So the kind of masculinity I kept bumping into within that community was this really intense macho masculinity. I realized trying to put on that performance, that I’m not very macho. I’m really a fag. I went through my fag period, where I dated other fag dykes, but then I think the next big jump for me was realizing that I was into femmes! I remember looking at this girl, and her earrings, and they were kind of … bouncing. And it clicked. So that started me exploring a more masculine, pansexual identity. I’m definitely on the more masculine side, I’m kind of swishy, and I definitely like femmes. In the last six or seven years, I’ve really become comfortable with where I am: my masculinity, my sexuality. I needed to have a strong root in masculinity in order to take on a project and not be freaked out.
Freaked out by worrying about what you were going to be depicting, or not being solid enough in it?
And just not being intimidated by guys! At this point I’m so comfortable with myself, I’m not intimidated to ask guys to take their clothes off.
Do you think the recent work on masculinity has set the stage for this kind of project to be launched? It seems time-specific to me, that maybe we didn’t have enough radical depictions of masculinity, especially not of male sexuality, even four or five years ago.
Yeah, the queer movement, the trans movement – all of the work is completely reshaping what we think about sexuality and how we manage that in our lives. There’s a lot more acceptance for genderqueer and performative genders. The project is a lot about timing—a lot of people have done tremendous work at softening up the ground for it to come along.
Going back to my personal experience, I’m affected by all the waves of thought that have been coming through the Bay Area. There are a lot of people in the porn community who are really changing how they depict sexuality, whether it’s gay, straight, lesbian, bi. This is a drop in the bucket of a larger movement that is sweeping across the porn industry. When I went to Berlin for the porn film festival, I really felt that. I’m not alone, this is going to explode across the industry. And when I got back to the United States, it seemed like maybe it wasn’t here yet, but it’s coming.
It definitely seems like we still need work on the depiction of masculinity in porn.
Definitely. There’s also a new project I’m going to start working on in August that’s definitely going to challenge male homophobia while at the same time satisfying homosexual desire in men who might not otherwise get to experience it. There’s going to be some interesting stuff happening in the next year.
Do you expect some backlash for this? Have you had backlash for including cis men, like Micky Mod, in Crash Pad?
We have a very polite question in the forums in Crash Pad Series, and before I even had the chance to respond, other members of the site said pretty much everything I would have said. And the person who asked the question responded, “Oh, okay.”
And that was it?
Yeah, that was it! I was at the last Feminist Porn Awards, in Toronto, and they screened that scene, Mickey and Shawn. And I answered some questions about them, everybody seemed to like it. But then it won the Viewer’s Choice Award! So I thought, okay, the audience is listening! They loved it.
I also wonder if this is more part of queer women’s culture, not necessarily gay culture. A lot of butch women are watching fag porn. When I started out watching porn, my favorite pornos were fags. This community has been able to really transcend their fantasies, so they can apply to any type of body. They aren’t restricted to just one. In gay culture, which I’m learning more about, they don’t watch dyke porn. We watch fag porn, but they don’t watch dyke porn. So there’s a realm that they haven’t gone into yet, they haven’t applied their fantasies to different bodies yet. Heavenly Spire looks at masculine people, but not every male has a dick. So this is about pushing their boundaries, pushing the male viewer boundaries. I bet they’ll think it’s hot. We’ll see—the site’s been up less than a month.
I’ve only seen the clips so far, and the clips are teasers, but it seems a little less focused on cock-centricity than I would have imagined.
Well—it’s definitely about cock. But what I really want to capture is a person having a good time, really having genuine pleasure, and to translate that into a visual medium. And it’s about building a narrative about the person’s relationship to their own body or to the other person that they’re having sex with. And I’m just having fun with visual language. It’s true, the trailers are very much teasers, and they don’t give you much.
But they’re beautiful.
The clips are, according to porn standards, a little short, but I’ve been struggling with length. So with this, I decided I’m going to cut it the way I think it should be cut, and I’m editing it so the viewer doesn’t get bored. Really picking out the best parts, and splicing the best parts together into a narrative. Sometimes I feel like, yeah, this thing is half an hour long, but is it pretty, and is it working? So this is a bit of a self-indulgent project, because I’m really letting myself go with my ideas, asking myself, how long should it be? What makes it good?
Do you anticipate it having lots of episodes, like Crash Pad does? Or is it a different structure?
No, we update every Sunday. It’s different from Crash Pad, because each week is something new, there’s no behind the scenes, just something new once a week.
If a new performer is coming in, how do you tell if they’re going to be a good porn star? Did you have a sense that Mickey Mod was going to stick around and be amazing?
Not really. Mostly, we have model applications and if we can make a date, we go for it. Some people who work with us find it fun and want to do it again. Dylan Ryan, Jiz Lee, Shawn [Sid Blakovich] all did Crash Pad, and are now doing awesome stuff. We’re the launching pad! Shoot with us, we’re good people, we’re a good place to start.
Is it easy to pair people together? Or do they do that themselves?
For Crash Pad, I work with a booking company who does all of that now. I used to do that, but it’s work. But Heavenly Spire is a different approach. With men, and a gay site, I’m really interested in getting couples who already know each other and already have that connection. People apply, so if you apply by yourself you’re going to be solo. If you want to perform as a couple you have to apply as a couple. I want to make sure the couples like each other. Especially since so much of the gay male porn is all about fucking, I want this to be about connection. I want to see two big dudes who are totally tender with each other.
Are you finding that guys are interested?
As viewers or as participants? We’ve had a decent amount of model applications. We paused the project for a while, but we started to get this influx of models, both trans men and cis men alike, both solo or couples. I have some speculation about viewers, but I’m not 100% sure who is going to be our audience for this new site. I kind of wonder if it’s not going to be straight guys. I think they’ll like it. But gay men, I’m not sure if they’ll like the format. Possibly straight women as well. I’m not sure how it’s going to shape up.
What else do you still want to film?
I have three features I’d like to do, but right now the company is growing, expanding, changing. We’re kind of in the teenage phase, not super big, but not tiny either. So in the future that’ll help us get more what we want with big features. Right now, we’ve got the web projects going on, short videos, and that’s setting the foundation to create these larger features. We’ve really pushed the limits of what porn is. It’ll be self-evident, when I actually announce those projects.
Do you have an over-arching mission for your work, or goals you set out to accomplish? Or was it born out of a love for filming people fucking?
When I first started filming I didn’t realize this was how the mission statement was going to be, but the mission statement came later: We’re dedicated to making really well produced, beautiful images that represent queer sexuality. That was the driving force, but I continue to push myself as a filmmaker, and pornographer (though I identify less with that word). I want to make good stuff, and I want to make good stuff about sex. Everything I do is moving in that direction.
Do you see it as political and social activism?
It is … and here’s the weird thing. I feel that if I approach it as social activism head on, I’m going to do it wrong. I’ll stick my foot in my mouth! So I internalize my own politics, and turn them to the creative mill, and then spit them out and use them in a project. And that way I fulfill certain goals. But if I say, first, that I’m going to do political activism, then I miss the mark of what I really wanted to accomplish. So I take the personal and churn it through my internal politics, and that moves me in the right direction.
Have you had trouble with BDSM being misconstrued as abuse in your work?
Not from people on the site, but at the film festivals. I was at the Hamburg festival, and people walked out. It seems like that’s prevalent in places where they’re not doing the same things we’re doing here. I get really weird stuff about race, and violence. But I feel like ten years from now, it won’t be a problem.
Do you struggle with taking the criticism personally?
I try not to … I think maybe every six months I Google myself. I can’t do it on a regular basis, I have a fragile ego and I’m harder on myself than anyone. There can be fifty great reviews for what I do, but if there’s one bad one, that’s the one I remember. I try to focus on what’s working. If we keep showing at festivals, and people keep downloading it, somebody must like it.
And if you’re satisfied with the work you’re putting out there, how your art is growing, and if you’re continuing to get opportunities, that might be a better scale. But it’s hard! Especially when the work is so personal, when the work we put out into the world is about our own bodies, and our own desires, and our own deepest, splayed open selves, it can be really easy to take in the criticism.
I ask about the problem with BDSM and abuse because I have actually seen queer porn that triggered me—I’m not easily triggered, it really surprised me. But I don’t see that in your work at all.
It might just be because I have such intense aversions to bleed over. Things stay very clear in my own life. I definitely pay attention. If I ever see something that makes me wince, I know it’s not quite right.
I think that exhausts my questions. Is there anything else I should know?
Check out the site! Check out Crash Pad Series, and the new Heavenly Spire.
I’m looking forward to seeing more on Heavenly Spire. It’s a pleasure to talk to you, thanks so much.