Sexuality & Culture

, Volume 21, Issue 2, pp 423–440

Abuse Porn: Reading Reactions to Boys Halfway House

Original Paper

Abstract

Boys Halfway House is a gay bareback pornography website that purports to host the recorded abuse exploits of managers of a halfway house. It is a recent addition to the genre niche of abuse and exploitation pornography sites that have surfaced in recent years. This article reads viewer commentary of scene updates on review site WayBig.com so as to consider the controversy associated with the proliferation of gay ‘abuse porn’, and of Boys Halfway House and its theme in particular. More than 500 comments over a 2-year period help explain Boys Halfway House as a variant of extreme pornography, and canvas a range of views on rape and humiliation fantasy in gay porn more broadly. The study ends with discussion of the anxieties and appreciations the site has prompted in viewers, and the presentation of two themes in particular: ‘bad porn’ and ‘harmful porn’. Also considered are the ethical implications of such male sexual abuse fantasies, which is a subject of lasting trauma for victims, and one that poses unique challenges in wider contexts.

Keywords

Abuse porn Boys Halfway House Cultural studies Discourse Extreme porn Gay pornography Textual analysis 

Boys Halfway House (boyshalfwayhouse.com) is a gay bareback pornography website launched in 2014. It releases approximately three new scenes monthly under the premise that these are the recorded abuse exploits of managers of a halfway house inhabited by troubled young men. Scenes are described as “incidents” and performers as “residents” on the site, with video titles offering some insight into the types of narratives and performances on show: Earning His Keep The Hard Way, Catholic Schoolboy Raw Misery, and Straight Boys In Distress, to nominate just three. Titles such as these, together with site slogans “Probation is worse than he thought it would be”, “Would you bareback him if you could?”, and “Better than living on the street”, embody the point-of-view, abuse of vulnerable ‘straight boys’ fantasy on offer. The site joins a genre niche of abuse and exploitation pornography that has surfaced in recent years, as typified by sites such as Breeder Fuckers, Czech Hunter, and Sketchy Sex.

This article explores the notoriety of this case through viewer commentary of scene updates on review site WayBig.com. Textual analysis is performed on the viewer commentary so as to consider the controversy associated with the proliferation of gay ‘abuse porn’, and of Boys Halfway House and its theme in particular. More than 500 comments over a 2-year period help explain Boys Halfway House’s abuse porn offering as a variant of extreme pornography, with views both for and against the genre. These comments also offer qualitative insight into viewer perceptions on the role of rape and humiliation fantasy in gay porn, and of individual beliefs on certain divides in pornography (such as fantasy/reality, acceptable/unacceptable), and of what makes certain representations ‘extreme’. This logically leads to discussion of views on the potential harm of the site, and of the rise of extreme pornography in general. Specifically, I explore readings of Boys Halfway House as bad for porn itself and its future (‘bad porn’); and as harmful for people, both the performers and victims of abuse (‘harmful porn’).

Reading Viewer Discourses About Boys Halfway House

This article uses textual analysis in the cultural studies tradition to read discourse about Boys Halfway House. Steve Jones and Sharif Mowlabocus consider the “prohibitive gaze” (2009, 613) of legal contexts pertaining to ‘extreme pornography’, noting both the American-centric debate around free speech (2009, 615) and also recent British legislation on ‘extreme pornographic imagery’ (2009, 613–614; also see Petley 2009). The authors are interested in how legal debates impact on academic research into extreme, or ‘shock’, pornography. The content hosted on Boys Halfway House is not rated, nor are the DVDs the site has released (11 to date), yet the nature of the site’s fantasy theme does pose legal and ethical questions. Though the scenes hosted on the site (at boyshalfwayhouse.com) and the Boys Halfway House titles available for sale through online adult DVD stores (such as tlavideo.com)1 are not rated, both carry the standard 18 U.S.C. Section 2257 Compliance Notice. Additionally, as part of its age verification ‘splash page’, the website also includes a “fantasy disclaimer”, which states:

All depictions on this Web site are for fantasy entertainment only, and do not represent, reflect, document or otherwise memorialize the actual conduct, solicitation, or promotion of any illegal act.2

Such a disclaimer is an attempt to absolve the producers of the site from responsibility for the extreme fantasies depicted, yet also seems to acknowledge by its existence how Boys Halfway House can be understood in accordance with a trend within gay pornography toward more ‘extreme’ genres (see Sullivan and McKee 2015 for a discussion of such a trend in pornography more broadly).

Boys Halfway House exists at the fringe of permissible pornography, and is perhaps the best example of ‘abuse porn’ in the current commercial gay pornography space, the generic qualities of which are also explored here. The site’s position on the fringe of the permissible becomes clear when its ‘fantasy’ depictions are viewed in line with the wording of certain laws on obscene imagery. Britain’s Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, for instance, which makes the possession of ‘extreme pornographic material’ a criminal offence, defines such material as that which “appears to threaten a person’s life” or “appears to result… in serious injury to a person’s anus”,3 both of which are not far removed from the ‘abuse fantasies’ hosted on Boys Halfway House. (In the Australian context, a ban on depictions of violence in X-rated films means Boys Halfway House would be unlikely to qualify for classification, see Stardust 2014). Jones and Mowlabocus’ article is also concerned with the “legal and ethical impossibilities” faced by researchers of extreme or ‘shock’ pornography, and considers textual analysis in particular, which they believe may carry the ‘assumption’ that its analysis “unproblematically justifies certain pornographies” (2009, 613). The ethical challenge of researching such an offering is one reason why this present study takes as its ‘text’ (see Creeber 2006), or object of analysis, the discourse of viewer reactions to scenes from this studio, rather than the scenes themselves. Audience discourse is also valuable in determining how certain examples of extreme pornography are interpreted by viewers. This approach allows for the study of Boys Halfway House as a case study of the ‘abuse porn’ genre, while maintaining a focus on the interpretations of those consuming such texts, rather than my own views. What I describe here is commonly referred to as the maintenance of appropriate ‘critical distance’ (see Williams 2014, 24).

The viewer discourse analysed is drawn from WayBig.com, a popular gay pornography review site. Selection of this service as the source for viewer discourse allows for an appropriate sized sample; while Boys Halfway House does have a comments function built into its scene previews, the number of responses posted using this function are negligible—scenes receive on average 0–1 comment each. Table 1 provides titles of all the scenes reviewed on WayBig.com that were included in the study. Also provided is the number of comments each individual scene attracted; the URL for the review on WayBig.com where the comments are posted; and the date of the review, which is how the comments quoted herein will be cited. Inclusion of the scene titles as they appear on the Boys Halfway House site also demonstrates the distinctly ‘abuse’ theme of the pornography, key phrases including (in sequence): “plowed rough”, “delinquent torment”, “group discipline”, “bareback consequences”, “parolee gets used”, “in trouble”, and “just another piece of fuck meat”.
Table 1

Boys Halfway House reviews on WayBig.com

Using a gay pornography update service such as WayBig.com also allows for the canvassing of broader perspectives on the offering. In other words, views from an audience interested in gay pornography, yet who might be opposed to the particular fetish theme on offer from Boys Halfway House. In fact, opposition to Boys Halfway House is consistently the majority view in the analysed sample. Discourse on Boys Halfway House as posted to WayBig.com provides insight into both the abuse porn genre, as well as certain opinions on what makes particular representations ‘extreme’.

Feona Attwood is similarly interested in how certain pornographies are constituted through discourse as ‘extreme’, and thus cruel and potentially dangerous. With a focus on discourse within media reporting, she argues that underpinning readings of these pornographies are concerns

about the idea of media as immersive and contagious and about a state where media and life are one and the same, constitutive of culture itself. (Attwood 2014, 1187)

In this present study, I analyse the available discourse on WayBig.com, posted in real-time by viewers as new scenes are released and promoted. Discourse on 58 scenes posted over a 2-year period (July 1, 2014–June 29, 2016) makes up the sample, and yields more than 500 comments. This discourse has then been organised into particular themes or ‘scripts’ of abuse porn, which I read in line with scholarship on extreme media. Within the cultural studies tradition, textual analysis goes beyond manifest content to consider underlying ideological implications of the text. In demonstrating my nominated themes, I strategically select and present aspects of the analysed discourse as evidence for my overall argument (Fürsich 2009, 240). The nominated themes pertain to different aspects of the Boys Halfway House offering. Structurally, I begin by providing an analysis of the Boys Halfway House site, positioning it as a variant of extreme pornography. I then focus on analysis of commentators’ narratives on WayBig.com, which are arranged according to connections with Boys Halfway House as rape fantasy, and as humiliation porn. This logically leads to discussion of views on the potential harm of the site, and of anxieties associated with the rise of extreme pornography in general.

Abuse Porn as a Variant of Extreme Pornography

Attwood has discussed extreme pornography in a number of contexts, among them legal (with Clarissa Smith, see 2010) and textual/media (see 2014). In the textual context, Boys Halfway House is well aligned with what she defines as “online pornographies associated with fetishes or revolving around fantasy and roleplay scenarios” (Attwood 2014, 1188). In such examples, she observes that there is “relatively little emphasis on graphic spectacles of the body”, with much greater attention paid to a certain “stagey performance style” (ibid.). A similar observation is also apparent in the discourse on WayBig.com, where Boys Halfway House is read in accordance with a certain typology of online pornographic offerings, as typified by sites such as Fraternity X (fraternityx.com) and Sketchy Sex (sketchysex.com), which share comparable abuse and gonzo4 characteristics, or in Attwood’s words, similar ‘stagey’ stylings:

This site seems Sketchy Sex-style degradation with a pedo vibe added on top. No thanks. (July 14, 2014)

Fraternity X type site:PASS (October 28, 2014)

This kind of gay porn is shameful. They get a young guy hard up for money and degrade him on film. Its like that other trashy site: FraternityX. (November 3, 2014)

This looks like another low-rent barebacking site… sketchy sex/parole him… (January 2, 2015)

This site is one of my guilty pleasures that I like to keep on the down low. Something about it being a ratchet version if debt dandy and bsb [Broke Straight Boys] is so interesting. (July 1, 2015)

In addition to Fraternity X and Sketchy Sex (see Brennan 2016c for my reading of both sites), viewers compare Boys Halfway House to abuse-in-police-custody site Parole Him (parolehim.com), sex-for-cash-in-Prague Debt Dandy (debtdandy.com), and perhaps today’s best-known gay-for-pay studio, Broke Straight Boys (brokestraightboys.com), which has also produced a web-based documentary series about the genre and its performers, BrokeStraightBoys.tv (see Johnson 2016). As is suggested by the above comments, a defining characteristic of the Boys Halfway House offering is the erotic abuse of vulnerable, attractive-yet-ordinary, and ostensibly ‘straight’ young men. Though primarily dedicated to the ‘staging’ of this particular taboo fantasy, coupled with this abuse fantasy is also a certain pleasure derived from the eroticised male body performing pain, distress, and duress from the point-of-view (POV) of a ‘mature’ (presumably middle-age) male abuser. In fact, this particular POV device is an important feature of the site’s videos:

OMG finally some POV action. So hard to come by in gay porn! (November 27, 2014)

I love this site! I can only think of two sites that actually cater to real tops (sorry if your giving oral your not a top), them and Cz hunter. Good, consistent POV angles that actually focus on the bottom! (June 19, 2015)

In the above, use of POV to situate the viewer in line with the perspective of the fantasy abuser is also interpreted as a device to attract “real tops”. As one participant writes in response to the statement “I don’t know what kind of twisted fucks get off on this shit” (April 30, 2016):

I get off to this. And I am happy a site like this exist. Im not sure if your a women or simply a faggot. Gay man is not a term for you. Guys like you are usually submissive – like women with dicks. (April 30, 2016)

I will return to this top/bottom, abuser/victim construction later. But first, on the topic of the techniques and strategies employed by Boys Halfway House to construct a sense of ‘the real’, of viewers actually being there (through POV, for instance), these strategies also extend to the site’s marketing, which encourages viewers to participate in the fantasies being staged. Participation is encouraged in the site’s slogans—“Would you bareback him if you could?”—, in its terminology on the website—where applications to model are described as “House Manager Application”5 for ‘tops’, and “Resident Application”6 for ‘bottoms’—, and by how the scenes themselves are tagged on the Boys Halfway House website.

To explore this last example in more detail. The site’s own ‘tag’ categories are particularly insightful in speculating on the types of fantasies the studio caters to, “POV” being a popular tag for instance. Other telling tagging categories include: “slapping”, “spitting”, “verbal”, and “virgin”. But perhaps the most controversial is “creeping”,7 which describes anal penetration by stealth (while the victim is incapacitated, sometimes ‘roofied’, with the administering of Rohyphenol); Gay Creeps8 (gaycreeps.com) explores this particular fetish with videos that depict scenarios where gay men initiate anal penetration on unsuspecting, often sleeping or passed out, ‘straight guys’. Use of such a tag presents the site as catering in no uncertain terms to rape fantasies. Additionally, tags such as “cum smearing”, “finger sucking”, and “spit in mouth” also illustrate the site’s commitment to the humiliation porn genre, as typified by college ‘hazing’ sites such as Fraternity X and Haze Him (hazehim.com), and degradation of straight males sites such as Str8 Hell (str8hell.com).

But first it is worth emphasising that while there are representative opinions on both sides of the Boys Halfway House debate (these of which have been represented across the time spanned by the sample), the majority view throughout has been one of denouncement. In this respect I find Evangelos Tziallas’ description of extreme pornography as “materials that elicit negative visceral responses” particularly relevant to this case (quoted in Nielsen and Kiss 2015, 125). For in this present study, the vast majority of reactions from viewers seem inspired by concern for what extreme pornography might mean for the future of porn, and for wider contexts also, in encouraging sexual violence for instance. To further explore these reactions and the genre of ‘abuse porn’, I have organised viewer discourse according to readings of rape and humiliation fantasy in the scenes presented on WayBig.com.

Rape Fantasy

In a recent study that used data from Google Trends to identify popular rape-related search queries in the United States, David A. Makin and Amber L. Morczek conclude that interest in rape-oriented pornography is on the rise, with “gay rape video” and “gay rape” ranking among the top fifty “rape video” related searches (2015, 10).9 According to discourse from participants on WayBig.com, Boys Halfway House can be understood as a site that caters to increased demand for rape-themed pornography, as is reflected by the following commentary:

This is wrong on so many levels. Sorry they guy looks like he’s being raped. Not my cup of tea at all. (July 4, 2014)

Yeah, this site is too far. And this isn’t even a case of “if you don’t like it, you don’t have to look at it”. I’m a bottom and am totally into domination stuff, like having my gaping hole laughed at or surrendering to that feeling of being “used”, but this is abuse. Or at least a presentation of abuse. It’s presenting rape as hot, when it completely isn’t. It’s a major problem in society and things like this are basically okaying it. (August 1, 2014)

I mean I know it’s scripted and shit but that’s not ok to encourage rape, I don’t wanna be the asshole who says something but this is really fucked up. (February 20, 2015)

Raping a teenage boy. (September 23, 2015)

I don’t usually watch these kinds of scenes. They make me feel like I am participating in some kind of sexual abuse. (April 13, 2016)

In the above commentary, which is fairly typical of the criticism Boys Halfway House has attracted on WayBig.com, commentators are careful to acknowledge the scripted nature of the product and the legitimate role of fantasy in porn (see Barker 2014 for an overview), while also maintaining that these “presentations of abuse” go too far. Commentators suggest that such presentations go beyond what can be justified as ‘for-fantasy’, making viewers feel as if they are in some way “participating” in what is “a major problem in society”. And in fact, it is exactly such a spirit of participation that Boys Halfway House seems intent on encouraging, as supported by the foregoing discussion of marketing strategies and filmic techniques employed by Boys Halfway House.

Humiliation Porn, ‘Bad Porn’

Moving now to humiliation fantasies on the site, discussion of degradation and humiliation in pornography most commonly concerns misogyny and the portrayal of women in heterosexual representations. In particular, these discussions often concern young people’s experience with pornography, and the question of whether such degradation scripts may be “functioning as a frame of reference for males, […] influencing their sexual desires” (Walker et al. 2015, 203). Such debate is further complicated by the proliferation of more extreme genres of pornography today, particularly internet fetish pornography and video pornography involving BDSM. In such instances, scholars such as Laura Kipnis (1996) and Gayle Rubin (1993) urge caution in how we read these examples; degradation scripts of which risk misinterpretation if they are not read within the context of the genre in which they are situated (also see Jones 2013b). This is of course particularly the case in the BDSM context, in which submission and degradation do not necessarily equate to abuse (see Wilkinson’s 2011 discussion of the response of BDSM practitioners to recent extreme pornography legislation in the United Kingdom, for example). Participants on WayBig.com make similar acknowledgements, both within the context of BDSM examples—“I suppose the face slaps turns some guys off as they probably find it too brutal, but when you consider all the stuff a sub endures in a BDSM scene a couple slaps isn’t so much.” (March 10, 2016)—as well as in expressions of personal pleasures that come with submission:

Everyone hates this site, but I fantasize about being one of the boys with the blown out holes (February 21, 2016)

In this fantasy world, I wouldn’t mind being the guy “in trouble”. (April 5, 2016)

The above discourse is useful in remembering that what constitutes pleasure and abuse is sometimes subjective, yet also, that such pleasure can become complicated by a not-always-clear divide between pornographic representations and lived practices. This point is well-illustrated by the following, in which a participant notes both the pleasure he derives from the fantasy of being abused, and the consequences of acting out such fantasies:

While I hate to admit it, there are parts of me that would want to be treated in this way. I fantasize about being the bottom. I don’t share this because I’m hoping someone will hit me up and offer abuse. Truth be told, I’ve tried acting out the fantasy in various forms, and it’s just not the same. The idea is hot, and the reality is disgusting. (April 30, 2016)

Returning to debates of degradation and humiliation in scholarship on pornography, similar perspectives play out in the gay pornography context. Christopher N. Kendall, for example, has proposed harm-based readings10 of gay pornography, both for those consuming it (see 2004), and those acting it in (with Rus Ervin Funk 2004). Kendall and Funk’s discussion of power in gay pornography is particularly relevant here. Writing in 2004, they argue that in the pornography then available is a “sexualized identity politic that relies on the inequality found between those with power and those without it; between those who are top and those who are bottom” (94–95). While in this case Kendall and Funk were referring to scripts within gay pornography where those deemed non-masculine (bottoms) are dehumanised as a result, “degraded as ‘queer’ and ‘faggots’” (95)11; and while I find a troubling simplicity to this line of argument12; it seems clear that the anxieties promoted in Kendall and Funk’s account, of sex-based harms and an inequity of power (an exploitation of “poor men” for instance, 95), comes to describe the exact fantasies on offer from Boys Halfway House. In short, it is the problems Kendall and Funk identify that Boys Halfway House exaggerate in the spirit of abuse and degradation fantasy, exerted by the powerful (mature, faceless, male operators of a halfway house) over the powerless (young, vulnerable men forced to submit to unprotected penetrative sex in exchange for shelter).

As one participant writes:

WTF is happening to porn? Debt Dandy (where people with crippling debts have to get fucked to pay it off) and this site “Boys Halfway House”, where they seem to get sexually exploited and abused…. Why is porn all of a sudden focusing on poor people and those in dire needs? (August 1, 2014)

Underpinning views such as those held by Kendall and Funk, and as expressed in the above, is a belief that pornography has gone too far. That the ‘fantasy defense’ (see Kendall and Funk 2004) has become indefensible. Where sites such as Boys Halfway House and Debt Dandy, which involve fantasies where shelter and a release from financial burden are exchanged for unprotected anal sex, cross a moral line.

To point to two examples in support of this view:

It is the kind of gay porn that exploits, probably trouble, teens in degrading and humiliating sex scenes. It is at the other end of the spectrum from Sean Cody, Corbin Fisher, Bel Ami and some of the other reputable Gay Porn Studios. (August 24, 2014)

I love how Mr. Halfway doesn’t show his face. If he did I think someone would probably punch him. (February 10, 2015)

Of particular interest here is the construction of Boys Halfway House as ‘bad porn’, positioned in the above first comment on opposite ends of a spectrum, with studios such as Sean Cody, Corbin Fisher, and Bel Ami at the ‘reputable’ end of a quality continuum. I wonder in this context what it is that makes Sean Cody, Corbin Fisher, and Bel Ami more reputable than Boys Halfway House. That is, whether it is simply the lack of a fetish theme, or something more significant. It is not, for example, a statement about safer sex promotion, for all three ‘reputable’ studios produce bareback pornography. Further, as employers, these big name studios have attracted their share of criticism, for both inclusion and treatment of their performers. Bel Ami founder George Duroy, for example, infamously sought to appease his paying subscribers’ critical view of him for “featuring non white models” by pointing out that mixed race performer Austin Merrick “is mulatto” (quoted in Sire 2013). While Corbin Fisher has accrued a reputation for adopting a particularly aggressive legal stance against its own performers for using images of themselves taken by the studio, as well as for a policy of only employing ostensibly heterosexual males (see Brennan 2016a, 27; also see Burke 2016 for a study of the eroticisation of heterosexuality on gay pornography websites). In this regard, all three are arguably engaged in a fetish of their own. Sean Cody and Corbin Fisher, and Bel Ami to a lesser extent, all market themselves as offering exclusive content depicting ‘heterosexual’ men in homosexual scenarios.

Kendall and Funk’s position is without qualification. They suggest that all “gay pornography promotes degradation, violence and harm—and as such, is degradation, violence, and harm” (2004, 93; original emphasis). I suggest that a more useful question is whether certain pornographies—such as those dedicated to the presentation of the roleplay of degradation, violence, and harm—are potentially harmful. And I want to consider this via the views of participants on WayBig.com in response to a particularly controversial representation of such roleplays, namely those of Boys Halfway House. Of course, I do not claim that such views are in any way conclusive, but instead that they will bring to the surface certain anxieties and appreciations that accompany the rise of increasingly ‘extreme’ pornographies; and that these views are valuable because they are held by the demographic target for these products of pornographic extremity. Such anxieties and appreciations make up the final section of this study and relate to my theme of ‘harmful porn’.

Boys Halfway House as ‘Harmful Porn’?

Let us consider in the first instance those who are appreciative of Boys Halfway House and its offering. The following examples are presented in sequence:

Some of the stuff there looks very-interesting, especially for watching when in a sleazy mood. (July 1, 2014)

Yeah! Spit in that fucker’s face! (November 16, 2014)

lol loved those slaps:P (December 5, 2014)

I want inside that guy and I know that’s wrong. (December 5, 2014)

Love the grimacing in pain. (May 9, 2015)

Yes tie that drug abuser up LOL, no but I love this site. I think it’s one of my fetishes tbh, and his hole looks pretty. (July 1, 2015)

Love how they’re treated. (July 1, 2015)

gaping holes makes me so hard….and this boy is sooo hot just the way i like it cute and disinterested like a sex doll…i wish i can fuck him too. (February 21, 2016)

The sight of this boy’s hole getting destroyed is pretty sexy though. (February 21, 2016)

Yeah, that’s the way to treat the deviants. (June 29, 2016)

Yup, used as a fleshlight then a cumrag. (June 29, 2016)

In the above, participants appreciate having access to abuse fantasy material to view when in “a sleazy mood”. Consistently, those in favour of the offering participate in constructing those abused as objects of pleasure and abjection, to “spit” on, to “slap”; to see the “boy’s hole getting destroyed” and his face “grimacing in pain”, or occasionally, appearing “disinterested like a sex doll”. It seems: pleasure is derived from the sight of “deviants” and “drug abuser[s]” “used as a fleshlight then a cumrag”. This makes clear how participants can engage in the construction of a pleasurable common fantasy. (I observe something similar in my analysis of online discussions of homosexual Olympic diver Tom Daley, see Brennan 2016b, 860). Other voices in the comments take up antithetical positions.

Concerning those opposed to the scenes, much of their critique can be read according to a spectrum of disapproval, with surprise that people would be interested in such a theme on one end—“so people are into this? so degrading” (August 15, 2014), “Garbage! I thought porn is supposed to make you want to ejaculate not feel pity.” (September 10, 2015)—and more impassioned vitriolic objection to the site’s premise at the other: as “vile” (August 1, 2014), “repugnant” (August 15, 2014), “nasty” (May 25, 2016), “vulgar” (May 25, 2016), “sordid, and not in a good way” (October 28, 2014), and something that “scares me” (January 10, 2015): catering “for psychopaths” (August 12, 2014) and “pedophile[s]” (February 11, 2016). Such responses are understandable, and can be ascribed to the natural desire/dread reaction that accompanies any sexual fetish. Even homosexual desire has itself been commonly read according to, in the words of Guy Hocquenghem, “a complex knot of dread and desire” (1993, 17). Acknowledging that such diversity of reaction is expected, more interesting for our purposes here is the discourse that explains its disgust for Boys Halfway House, and in this regard I would like to advance two explanations in particular, which can be defined as readings of Boys Halfway House as bad for porn itself and its future, as was discussed in the previous section; and secondly as harmful for people, both the performers and victims of abuse. To draw on the work of Émile Durkheim—who proposes ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ as the central dichotomy along which the moral world divides—if the sacred is what we seek to emulate, we must now understand the general characteristics by which profane things are distinguished (2008, 37).

Too-Real Stylings of Boys Halfway House

A key criticism of Boys Halfway House is its realism, in the words of one participant, that “the styling was a little too ‘real’. It made me super uncomfortable” (July 14, 2014). It is a sentiment shared by another, who writes: “This looks way out. Almost too real; a drug addict needing a fix and doing anything for it” (August 12, 2014). Such concerns also connect with a recurring theme in the discourse, which is that Boys Halfway House is just that one step too far in today’s demand for greater realism, particularly in the hand-held camera, POV ‘gonzo realism’ (see Tibbals 2014) and extreme fetish trend. This leads many to not only lament the current state of pornography that caters to fringe tastes, but also to ask: ‘what next?’

OK, next they are gonna have some kid eating his own shit and brushing his teeth with his own piss while the whole time he is being tazered. This site is a joke. (August 15, 2014)

This kind of porn is disgusting. What’s next? Murdering the “models” and eating them? (January 2, 2015)

Expressed here are anxieties similar to those Attwood and Smith encountered when reading media reports on the regulation of sites such as Necrobabes,13 which was dedicated to the staging of sexualised “murder, typically of women by men” (2010, 178). Underpinning such anxieties is that there should be a limit to what can be staged for the purposes of sexual fantasy, as one commentator writes: “I would actually enjoy debating with someone (not necessarily here or now, but just in general) the morality of a site like this.” (February 10, 2015) This participant’s invitation to others to engage in a more general moral debate about the “incidents” of Boys Halfway House reminds me of the impulse to philosophise on texts of particular sexual controversy. Such as Roland Barthes reflecting on the Marquis de Sade, when he writes on the subject of Sade’s response to incarceration that “teasing is a sadistic passion”, and Sade was “continually ‘teasing’”; teasing his “respectable and conformist relations; wherever he goes, he provokes the terrified dismay of the guardians of order” (1989, 175; also see Carter’s 1978 feminist reflections on the Sadeian imagination). ‘Teasing’ comes close to describing the anxieties expressed in discourse that disapproves of the Boys Halfway House fantasy. Boys Halfway House’s depiction of abuse for the purposes of sexual fantasy is seen to give “gay porn a bad name” (August 19, 2015), and is also read by some according to themes of questionable morality, as perhaps encouraging or ‘teasing’ the performance of deviant fantasies, and even as being potentially inhumane: “Until this site is halfway human it won’t get half a cent from me” (October 1, 2015).

Such readings seem to suggest ‘media effects’14 views on extreme gay pornography as harmful. The logic being that not only is it not justified to ‘present’ fantasies just because some may find them pleasurable, but that such presentations themselves have the potential to corrupt, as is reflected by the following two statements:

Looking over anything from this site causes me to feel alternately turned on and disturbed. I think if looked at enough of it the association between those two feelings would ruin gay porn and sex for me entirely. (November 27, 2014)

I feel like I was just added to a watchlist just for scrolling through this… (January 17, 2016)

Productive connections can also be made here with work around the ethics of war imagery depicting death, pain, and suffering, and the potential fetishisation of the image that takes place when such imagery is published.15 As Elizabeth Dauphinée writes on the subject of Sandra Whitworth’s decision not to publish images of the death of a young Somali man at the hands of Canadian soldiers in her 2004 book Men, Militarism, and UN Peacekeeping:

This refusal is also an ethics, which recognizes that to expose a young man’s battered body to the gaze of the academic or practitioner is not outside of the economy of violence that destroyed that body in the first place. (Dauphinée 2007, 149)

There are important distinctions between these contexts. Such as, reality/fantasy, war/pornography. But there is also value to be drawn from a comparison, namely the fetishisation of the body-in-pain, albeit staged in one of these contexts. Additionally, this point of comparison also invites consideration of potential ‘real’ abuse—not just strategies of ‘realism’—that might take place behind the scenes, or of the conditions that lead young men into the industry and the portrayal of such roles in the first place. This point relates to another pressing concern in the discourse here, which can be described as more ‘symbolic abuses’ that result from pornographic ventures such as Boys Halfway House.
By symbolic abuses I mean the belief that to ‘perform’ degradation is to degrade. This point on performance also connects with wording used in legislation on extreme pornography, in Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 for instance: inclusive of an act which “threatens or appears to”, “results in or appears to”, “involves or appears to” (Jones 2009, 614). This belief that to present ‘the real’, even in pornographic fantasy, is also dangerous, is demonstrated by those who comment on the performers within the scenes, specifically the “residents” or victims—as the “house managers” remain faceless:

It looks like the kid has made some mistakes in life: getting all those “trashy” tats and working for that studio and letting that slob fuck him. (January 2, 2015)

What crime did this guy commit that he has to spend time at the trashy Boys Half Way House? (January 10, 2015)

What’s he doing on a site like this? With those looks he doesn’t need to aim so low. (January 10, 2015)

A really cute guy in the wrong part of the Internet. (February 20, 2015)

Trent Spike is pretty hot! Pity he’s on *this* site. (January 31, 2016)

What is interesting in the above is the equation of performance in such a fantasy as tarnishing, and of an association between attractiveness of the model with the type of pornography in which he performs. In other words, that only ugly models should need degrade themselves in fetish pornography. In one particularly provocative example, a commentator goes so far as to apply these principles to the performance of the passive position in penetrative sex: “Poor Carson. And he used to be a top. I wonder what happened.” (August 1, 2014) I (see Brennan 2016a) found something similar in my study of the decline and inevitable end of a porn performer’s career following his performance in gay fetish and bareback pornography. In this recent study, I read viewer discourse on pornography news website TheSword.com at key stages in the performer’s career decline. Observed is a discourse of “disposal and disgust” that accompanies porn performer Jake Lyons’ “progression through various porn genres, such as commercial, raunch and bareback,” his work for Fraternity X chief among the studios viewers deride him for (Brennan 2016a, 21).

It is also worth noting here that the discourse that questions what has led actors to take part in such a degrading production also aligns with many of the observations made around commonly understood ‘sexual abuse effects’ of sexual victimisation involving males (see Romano and De Luca 2001). These include: low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and sexuality problems. It is a confronting place end, but also one that connects with the rather serious and concerned tone of many of the comments on WayBig.com. Two comments stand out here, the first which describes actual abuse occurring at a halfway house with a similar premise:

I didn’t really get this site till recently. I know an old gay overweight guy that told me he gets pure hot guys at halfway houses. He said every halfway house has a couple very hot guys that will meet almost anyone to get away from that place. (April 30, 2016)

The second and more poignant example is expressed by a participant that shares his own experience of sexual abuse; in other words, the POV from the victim instead of the abuser. It is a pensive place to end, and also one that demonstrates the value of reading this case of extreme pornography via comments on a more generalised pornography review site:

You know, when you have been the victim of an attack it’s just hard to believe there are people out there that think this is entertaining, and scarier still that there are enough subscribers to keep it going… (April 30, 2016)

These final examples together with the foregoing presented excerpts from WayBig.com provide empirical evidence that, at least within the gay commercial context, there is contestation about the nature of the moral boundary around presenting such fantasy abuse materials. As Steve Jones notes in his recent article on ‘extreme porn’ and the “pitfalls of labelling”, often the term “refers to a set of context-dependent judgements rather than absolute standards or any specific properties the ‘extreme’ item is alleged to have” (2016, 295). This article attends to both viewer defined standards and genre specific properties of extreme porn. It has sought to understand the observed contestation in the context of the rise in recent years of extreme genres of gay internet pornography: both the filmic techniques and marketing strategies that define the abuse porn genre, such as the use of POV camera angles; and the perspectives of potential consumers of these texts. But this article’s textual readings also suggest that despite increased regulatory schemes addressing extreme pornography, sites such as Boys Halfway House go seemingly unchallenged in the legal context. This is due in large part to its revenue streams, and primary distribution through an online subscription model that not only avoids classification systems such as those contained within the X-rating category in Australia, but also tests boundaries of what ‘extreme’ means: what constitutes its definition, what can be done about it, and how viewing might impact on those who subscribe and “keep it going”.

Conclusion

If, as Evangelos Tziallas suggests, ‘extreme pornography’ is the “epitome of digital media’s utopian and democratising promise to show everyone anything they want and allow anyone to express whatever they want,” (in Nielsen and Kiss 2015, 125) this present study of reader reactions to Boys Halfway House offers insight into both the products of porn extremity that have arisen in this digital environment, and of the expressions from those confronted by it. This study has read the discourse on a particularly controversial and recent example of extreme pornography in the gay commercial context, and organised this discourse into certain themes and opinions of this current trend. In particular, viewer reactions to Boys Halfway House are read in accordance with rape and degradation pornography, and in the context of ‘abuse porn’ as an increasingly popular variant of extreme pornography. The competing views on the acceptability of abuse porn and Boys Halfway House in particular is well-illustrated by the following exchange from April 7, 2015, where “why does a hot guy have to end up there…” receives the following approval/disapproval-of-the-fantasy responses: “because he deserves it” and “Because getting raped is hot for some people.” The study ends with a consideration of the ethical implications of such male sexual abuse fantasies being represented in pornographic media, which is a subject of both lasting trauma for victims (see Chan 2014), and poses unique challenges in wider contexts.

Footnotes

  1. 1.
  2. 2.

    http://www.boyshalfwayhouse.com/ (accessed November 11, 2016).

  3. 3.
  4. 4.

    See my (Brennan 2016c) concept of the ‘gonzo aesthetic’ in gay porn. Coined in the context of Fraternity X and Sketchy Sex, with this concept I aim to describe the kinds of strategies at play in gay porn videos interested in gonzo realism; an interest also apparent in Boys Halfway House’s videos.

  5. 5.

    http://www.boyshalfwayhouse.com/housemanager (accessed September 8, 2016).

  6. 6.

    http://www.boyshalfwayhouse.com/resident (accessed September 8, 2016).

  7. 7.
  8. 8.

    Gay Creeps is part of the GayRoom.com network, which also owns sites such as Massage Bait (massagebait.com) and Gay Violations (gayviolations.com), which similarly service particular taboo fantasies, such as public-sex.

  9. 9.

    Also see Makin and Morczek 2016 for a similar study that identified “gay torture porn” and “gay torture” as popular search queries (2144).

  10. 10.

    By ‘harm-based readings’ I mean an interpretation of pornography as inherently harmful to consumers and society at large. The feminist anti-pornography movement is an example of arguments that fall into the category of harm-based reading. Feminists Andrea Dworkin and Catharine A. MacKinnon were key proponents of this view, arguing that heterosexual pornography was a form of sex discrimination (see Dworkin and MacKinnon 1985).

  11. 11.

    For a more recent contribution to this debate, see Reilly 2016, who discusses the use of the term ‘bottom’ to criticise gay men with feminine traits.

  12. 12.

    To see through the simplicity of Kendall and Funk’s views here, one need only to consider scholarship on the ‘power bottom’ persona in gay pornography (see Mercer 2012), or of the distinct pleasures bottoms often experience in being sexually submissive to a top (see Hoppe 2011). With these views considered, we arrive at a more complex understanding of gay sexual positionality, subjectivity, and power in both pornographic and lived experiences.

  13. 13.

    Necrodudes was the male equivalent.

  14. 14.

    In his analysis of the ‘torturn porn’ subgenre in horror cinema, Dean Lockwood’s use of Deleuzian affect theory to argue for the “transformative and liberating potential” of masochistic spectatorship is a good example of an alternate reading of the “logic of media effects” that often underpins criticisms of extreme sexual or violent media (2009, 40).

  15. 15.

    On the topic of the eroticisation of suffering, see Jones 2013a’s torture porn discussion, in particular his connection of the genre with the “‘humilitainment’ present in American culture,” which he aligns with “the increase in degradation pornography” (194; also see Presdee 2000).

Notes

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

Joseph Brennan declares that he/she has no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

This article does not contain any studies with human participants performed by any of the authors.

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Media and Communications, Faculty of Arts and Social SciencesUniversity of SydneySydneyAustralia

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