This essay examines the legacy of gay playwright and activist Robert Chesley through an in-depth look at his most controversial play, Jerker, or The Helping Hand (1986), uncovering a unique strand of safe-sex advocacy that emphasized sound—and the voice specifically—to manifest queer desire. Phone sex, or dial-a-porn, as it was first called, rose to popularity in the 1980s amid the AIDS crisis. Chesley's depiction of it onstage reimagined the pornographic address, unleashing it from the visual primacy of video porn of the time to foreground elegiac, pedagogic, and ethical dimensions. The broadcast of Jerker on radio station KPFK-FM, however, spurred a legal redefinition of indecency in 1987 and further imperiled safe-sex advocacy that refused to skirt eroticism. In an era when “Silence = Death,” Chesley's Jerker revealed the complexities of the mediated voice as a tool for survival, remembrance, and unbounded pleasure.

Robert Chesley's death from AIDS in 1990 cut short a promising career in queer theater and political activism. Whereas the playwright Larry Kramer lived through the height of the AIDS epidemic and remains a prominent figure in AIDS activism and theater today, Chesley has become increasingly obscure.1 This article reexamines Chesley's cultural significance through an in-depth look at his most controversial play, Jerker, or the Helping Hand (1986), in the process uncovering a unique strand of safe-sex advocacy that emphasized sound, and the voice specifically, as an alternative expression of queer desire. By narrativizing phone sex onstage during the height of the AIDS emergency, Chesley reimagined the pornographic address, unleashing it from its visual primacy—what Linda Williams calls its “frenzy of the visible”—to foreground elegiac, pedagogic, and ethical dimensions.2 

Arriving against the backdrop of the contentious “sex wars” of the 1980s—but also the nascent feminist pornography movement, exemplified by performers Candida Royalle and Annie Sprinkle—Jerker intervened in discourses on pleasure and danger from a gay context. The 1980s were a fraught period for feminism, during which time the anti-pornography faction caricatured hardcore media (with scant consideration for its multiplicity of forms) into a monolith of misogyny, violence, false consciousness, and alienation. These sweeping claims inflected debates surrounding gay pornography's value and social impact as well, but as I will show, gay pornography's eventual celebration as a medium for self-expression, sociality, and political empowerment also helped to challenge the initial claims proffered by the anti-pornography position. Examining Jerker's negotiation of these questions helps to rehabilitate and nuance queer media and feminist media studies' complementary relationship.

Additionally, this article makes disciplinary interventions into both pornography and sound studies by interrogating how Chesley's Jerker imagines and utilizes an under-scrutinized facet of pornography: the sonic register. Theater, like telephone and radio, is an ephemeral form of communication that relies on performance to forward its meaning. It is noteworthy that Jerker sutures theater, telephone, and radio together into an intermedial constellation, but maintains a pornographic address across all three. In this unlikely collaboration, Jerker disrupts a narrow understanding of gay pornography as only a video phenomenon and in the process makes the case for pleasure's indebtedness to sound and the theater of the mind.3 

The following foray into the immaterial sounds of queer longing is, with noted irony, indebted to the material archives of New York Public Library's Performing Arts Center, which recently made the Robert Chesley Papers available to researchers. Drawing from manuscript drafts, correspondence, newspaper clippings, advertisements, and playbills included therein proved invaluable to the following intellectual pursuit, which has five major movements. In what follows, I sketch the dominant discourse on safe sex during the 1980s to distill the competing factions. I then examine the cultural history and theoretical engagements that informed Chesley's Jerker in its pornographic invocation of the telephone. Third, I overview the controversy that arose from the play's broadcast on public radio, and its long-lasting effects to the US legal system's understandings of indecency. I then turn to read the sonic performances in Jerker for their unique articulation of anonymity, ambiguity, and absence—qualities uniquely remixed by sound and the AIDS epidemic. Lastly, I synthesize the dialectic of pornography and elegy that concludes the play through an invocation of melodramatic form.

DISCOURSES OF SAFER SEX

In the early 1980s, Robert Chesley and Larry Kramer regularly engaged in acrimonious dispatches in the pages of the biweekly gay newspaper the New York Native. These tit-for-tats foreshadowed the debates they would continue to wage in their respective plays, Jerker and The Normal Heart, about the “correct” political response to AIDS. In one particularly scathing critique, Chesley warned:

Read anything by Kramer closely. I think you'll find that the subtext is always the wages of gay sin are death. I ask you to look closely at Kramer's writing because I think it's important for gay people to know whether or not they agree with him. I am not downplaying the seriousness of Kaposi's sarcoma. But something else is happening here, which is also serious: gay homophobia and anti-eroticism.4 

Chesley cites Kramer's famous pre-AIDS novel Faggots as one such example. Faggots was retroactively hailed as prescient for its rebuke of promiscuity, but upon its publication in 1978 it received an overwhelmingly negative reception from gay liberationists for its polemic against promiscuity—a position the arrival of AIDS effectively rehabilitated. Observing this reversal, Chesley challenged what he saw as an underlying victim-blaming logic:

The concealed meaning in Kramer's emotionalism is the triumph of guilt: that gay men deserve to die for their promiscuity. … It's easy to become frightened that Kramer's real emotion is a sense of having been vindicated, though tragically: he told us so, but we didn't listen to him; nooo—we had to learn the hard way, and now we're dying.5 

Chesley defended the hard-fought right to depict gay eroticism without shame, even in the face of the unknown future that AIDS augured. The promiscuity that Kramer denounced so vociferously Chesley championed as a form of love, care, and vitality. In Chesley's words, “Nobody ever died from being offended, but prudery kills.”6 

Chesley's stance contravened the common wisdom of the time that the mechanisms of safety take center stage, leaving pleasure as mere afterthought. The famous safe-sex manual “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic” (1983) exemplified this displacement of pleasure, with its risk assessment of itemized sex acts and actionable modifications to reduce the likelihood of CMV contraction (then thought to be the trigger for AIDS, prior to the nomenclature of HIV). Despite its good intentions, “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic” painted a homonormative portrait of privilege and increasing conservatism:

But for two people who meet and want to become lovers and who wish to ensure that they are healthy from the beginning of their relationship, this battery of CMV tests (in addition to routine VD and amoeba testing) would be a good investment. Once both partners are assured that each is free from CMV and other infections, they need not take most of the precautions that we will outline in this pamphlet since these precautions ware [sic] designed to interrupt the transmission of CMV and other infections.7 

This manual dressed precaution in the language of capital, declaring the pre-sex testing (and its continued upkeep) a “good investment” that would, counterintuitively, reward its practitioners with the luxury to ignore its remaining interdictions. Such an investment benefited those with the means for medical intervention and the will to defer instant gratification. The recommendations positioned anyone who would choose otherwise—to place pleasure before safety—as “bad investors” in their own lives. For all of its pragmatism, “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic” might more accurately have been titled “Who Can Have Sex in an Epidemic,” with authors Richard Berkowitz and Michael Callen invoking many of the same shaming mechanisms that Kramer popularized.

Already in its parodic title, Douglas Crimp's essay “How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic” (1987, my emphasis) sharply critiqued this discourse on safety. Drawing attention to the broader sociocultural responses to AIDS, for whom “sex has been the real culprit all along,” Crimp honed in on the faction of gay men who had internalized this anti-promiscuity logic.8 He critiqued Larry Kramer, Charles Ortleb, and Randy Shilts; Shilts had popularized in And the Band Played On (1987) an etiological narrative of the supposed “patient zero,” the French Canadian airline steward Gaëtan Dugas accused of originating the virus in North America on account of his rumored promiscuity and mobility.9 In his analysis, a contradiction emerges in these sex-averse gay authors: “They blame the lack of response to the epidemic on the misrepresentation of AIDS as a gay disease even as they themselves treat AIDS almost exclusively as a gay problem.”10 In their retellings, a shared disdain for gay promiscuity was meant to elicit greater concern on behalf of the government. This ingratiating tactic, however, helped to internalize anti-promiscuity and placed gay men squarely at the center of AIDS as both the site of blame and the hope for redemption.

Dismissing this tactic, Crimp instead argued for promiscuity as a survival strategy that had always protected gay men from the epidemic. If “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic” ultimately limited the imagination for what sex could be and who could have it (and with whom), Crimp expanded the possible meanings and experiences of pleasure: “We were able to invent safe sex because we have always known that sex is not, in an epidemic or not, limited to penetrative sex. Our promiscuity taught us many things, not only about the pleasure of sex, but about the great multiplicity of those pleasures.”11 The multiplicity of pleasures Crimp celebrates, however, notably elides pornography. Such an absence ignores the experiential quality of pornographic consumption as well as its importance to gay culture. Lucas Hilderbrand notes that “pornography was the mainstream of gay popular culture at one time, and it has arguably remained its most prolific form.”12 

Crimp seems aware of this importance. In fact, he later invokes pornographic texts but shies away from naming these objects as such. One noteworthy example concerns Jesse Helms's notorious amendment of a fiscal bill in 1988 that prohibited federal funding to AIDS research and education that condoned homosexual activities. The offending materials were a series of safer-sex comix distributed at gay bars that had been commissioned by the Gay Men's Health Crisis.13 Helms famously photocopied and delivered these comix to colleagues in brown envelopes with the warning “Personal and Confidential, for Senators' Eyes Only.” The federal government was—he claimed—implicated in the production of pornographic literature that, in addition to teaching safe-sex techniques, took seriously and promoted the desires and pleasures of its readers (fig. 1). This complicity was directly at odds with the Reagan administration's Meese Commission on pornography, which two years prior, in 1986, had issued a two-thousand-page rebuke of pornography that has subsequently been criticized for its overt moralism, ideological and rushed methodology, inattention to social science, near exclusive emphasis on violent media, and conflation of the varieties of pornography.14 After Helms's amendment, the government would no longer fund any AIDS organization that “promoted or condoned homosexual activity” in their educational materials. This amendment would mean that any federally subsidized sex education would have to be desexualized.

FIGURE 1.

An advertisement in the Seattle Gay News (July 27, 1990, 35) invokes Jesse Helms's curious fascination with—yet disdain for—pornographic material to promote the play Jerker. Robert Chesley papers, *T-Mss 2010-112, Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library.

FIGURE 1.

An advertisement in the Seattle Gay News (July 27, 1990, 35) invokes Jesse Helms's curious fascination with—yet disdain for—pornographic material to promote the play Jerker. Robert Chesley papers, *T-Mss 2010-112, Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library.

Helms's opprobrium for the Safer Sex Comix can be linked to the fantasies and genres they exhumed, which extended beyond the more conventional fare of commercial gay video pornography of the time and included scenes of S&M, fantasy, incest, and intergenerational sex. Taken together, they deployed an erotics of the imagination that was not limited by the mimetic bounds of video porn. In one example that Helms surely would have seen, the third issue of Safer Sex Comix, Mark calls his old college buddy Bill, only to find Bill's roommate Raul at the other end of the line (fig. 2). The two unexpectedly connect and share descriptions of themselves as well as stories of their pasts in college (Mark had been a wrestler, Raul a swimmer). Getting hot and bothered by their conversation, these unexpected phone mates fantasize about wrestling together, after which Raul asks Mark to put on a condom and fuck him, even though they remain spatially apart. In the panels that follow, the two are seen masturbating and ejaculating; they maintain a close graphic proximity (divided only by a thin gutter) that nonetheless signals distance, connected only by the receivers they hold to their ears. The strip perpetually denies corporeal access, as the gutter forever separates their realms, but the language they share nonetheless unites and moves them to a mutual orgasm. These men share what Jacob Smith calls an intimate and mediated co-presence.15 The physical body is not the only access to pleasure. Notably, nonmimetic and onanistic forms of pornographic representation—like this comix, with its stylistically exaggerated hyper-musculature—envision an unbounded sexual playfulness free of physical constraints. This expansion of possibilities was not a denial of the epidemic's ravages, but rather expanded the sites of pleasure beyond the limits of the moving image.

FIGURE 2.

A scene of phone sex from Safer Sex Comix, no. 3 (New York: Gay Men's Health Crisis, 1986). Artwork by Matt, story by Greg. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender periodical collection, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library.

FIGURE 2.

A scene of phone sex from Safer Sex Comix, no. 3 (New York: Gay Men's Health Crisis, 1986). Artwork by Matt, story by Greg. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender periodical collection, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library.

To many gay men living in the 1980s, memories of the 1970s shifted drastically after the arrival of the AIDS emergency. In historical and representational depictions of this era, the decade that ushered in gay liberation was synonymous with carefree promiscuity.16 AIDS catalyzed a paradigm shift for understanding gay sexual sociality largely through the prism of safety. As the example above illustrates, safety and pornography seemed like incompatible projects to many, even within the gay community. Gay liberation as an idea had symbolically unshackled the identities and libidos of many closeted men, but AIDS threatened to re-shackle them, bringing shame and fear back into the picture. Sex was no longer seen as liberatory and life affirming; it was being drawn into a deep embrace with death. Promiscuity no longer seemed possible, except in the realm of fantasy.

JERKING IN THE THEATER: DISCURSIVE ENGAGEMENTS

Against this backdrop of heightened eroto-phobia and debates on proper safety protocols, Robert Chesley fiercely defended the importance and life-sustaining value of representing the sexual lives of gay men. Chesley's Night Sweat: A Romantic Comedy, popularly credited as the first AIDS-related play to premiere in New York (it was first performed on May 24, 1984) was an unabashedly explicit and politically charged portrayal of the sexual desires of people with AIDS.17 Theater was one of the first forms of cultural production to respond to the AIDS crisis in real time, and as such it became a prime site for political activism.18 Gay pornography posed another vital cultural site for responding to AIDS and was influential in spurring the safe-sex movement.19 

Chesley's Jerker was first performed at the Celebration Theater in Los Angeles on July 18, 1986. It went on to become his most produced play, touring through many major cities in the United States.20 Set in San Francisco in 1985, it follows J.R. and Bert as they engage in anonymous phone sex over the course of several calls, sharing erotic fantasies and bringing each other to orgasm. In the process, they bond and grow to care for each other in the midst of the AIDS crisis. In a promotion still from one performance, we see two men reclining side by side, telephone cords entangled, eyes closed (fig. 3). The telephones in this photograph collapse that distance and enmesh J.R. and Bert, creating a sense of co-presence that is amplified through their near-ecstatic facial expressions and tender embrace of their respective receivers. Jerker provided an important counterpoint to the well-known AIDS plays As Is (1985) by William M. Hoffman and The Normal Heart (1985) by Larry Kramer. Even at their premieres, though, Chesley's plays had tumultuous and varied receptions, with Jerker in particular gaining notoriety for its explicitness.21 

FIGURE 3.

A 1986 promotional photo advertising Jerker shows J.R. and Bert entangled by their phone cords. Robert Chesley papers, *T-Mss 2010-112, Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library.

FIGURE 3.

A 1986 promotional photo advertising Jerker shows J.R. and Bert entangled by their phone cords. Robert Chesley papers, *T-Mss 2010-112, Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library.

The full title of Chesley's play is a mouthful: Jerker, or the Helping Hand: A Pornographic Elegy with Redeeming Social Value and a Hymn to the Queer Men of San Francisco in Twenty Telephone Calls, Many of Them Dirty (fig. 4). Amid this verbosity, the phrase “a pornographic elegy” announces an unexpected combination. Elegy, of course, most commonly refers to poetry about remembrance and reflection, and typically takes as its subject the deceased. The pornographic modification of elegy presents an unexpected hybridity, a dialectic genre that invites several questions. How could pornography remember the deceased? Would such pornography still deliver pleasure, or what transformation of pleasure results from such hybridity?

FIGURE 4.

The program for the production at the Sanford Meisner Theater in New York highlights Jerker's lengthy title. Robert Chesley papers, *T-Mss 2010-112, Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library.

FIGURE 4.

The program for the production at the Sanford Meisner Theater in New York highlights Jerker's lengthy title. Robert Chesley papers, *T-Mss 2010-112, Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library.

And if this admixture were not already complicated enough, the “twenty telephone calls” that signal the play's primary conceit as a series of phone conversations further complicate Jerker's pornographic theatricality. The theater has infrequently been treated as a pornographic medium. In the few cases where queer theater took on explicit content in the 1970s—usually by way of copious nudity, as in plays like Geese (1969), And Puppy Dog Tails (1969), and Tubstrip (1973)—it typically maintained a softcore approach that was derided by some as exploitative.22,Jerker likewise adhered to a softcore approach; while it contained copious amounts of nudity, its visual depictions of masturbation were wholly pantomimed, and no visible erections or ejaculations were shown in the recordings I have viewed (fig. 5). Richard Dyer's definition of pornography as a body genre intent on eliciting arousal does not necessarily require visual explicitness to still hold true.23 What Chesley reveals is the power of the spoken word to elicit arousal, which he exemplified through the reversal from visual to verbal explicitness. Rather than “know it when they see it,” audiences at Jerker knew it when they heard it.

FIGURE 5.

As seen in the program image for the Seattle premiere, productions of Jerker often drew attention to the naked actors even though nudity only minimally informed the play's pornographic invocation. Robert Chesley papers, *T-Mss 2010-112, Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library.

FIGURE 5.

As seen in the program image for the Seattle premiere, productions of Jerker often drew attention to the naked actors even though nudity only minimally informed the play's pornographic invocation. Robert Chesley papers, *T-Mss 2010-112, Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library.

Theatrical works that dramatize communication technologies were not without precedent at the time of Jerker's premiere, although they were and still are rare.24 Perhaps the most famous example is Jean Cocteau's The Human Voice (1930), a play later adapted as a short film (1967) that depicts a woman on the brink of a mental breakdown during a fraught telephone conversation with her ex-lover. We only hear her end of the call, requiring inference to fill in the ambiguous gaps. Like The Human Voice, Jerker explores the complexity of the utterances and exchanges that the telephone uniquely makes possible. While The Human Voice conveys the anxiety of crossed lines and dropped calls, Jerker explores the shifting power dynamics of phone sex, the unexpected humor of misdialed numbers, and the distressing ambiguity of answering-machine messages. Pragmatically, the theatrical telephone call also produces spatial problems for the stage by keeping actors separated from one another and minimizing their range of possible motions. Additionally, the sonic timbre of a voice modulated across the telephone lines is wholly missing from such performances, an affective absence that raises the specter of inauthenticity.

But what can the theater tell us about the medium it dramatizes? To approach this question, I will briefly detour through the fields of pornography studies and sound studies to clarify how each apprehends erotic audio, in order to then see what a theatrical understanding can add to these discursive conversations. As I have already claimed, Jerker elevates the spoken word above visual and physical expressivity, in stark contrast to mainstream pornography. In fact, Linda Williams argues in Hard Core (1989) that the “frenzy of the visible” cannot be superseded by sound, which, for the duration of the entire stag film era, was wholly missing. For Williams and others concerned with moving-image pornography, the question of sound's function is directly circumscribed by technological limitations and the capacity to deliver a sense of reality. When audio was finally synced to the pornographic film stock, Williams writes that at best it situated and verified the “realness” of the visuals, and at worst, its frequently overdubbed nature detracted or disrupted that same “realness.”25 What Williams's articulation does not account for is a pornographic representation that might seek to elevate the sonic and linguistic registers above the visual, and a project where the production of fantasy, not realness, is the desired outcome.26 

Early scholarship on gay pornography prioritized specifying its particularity in order to distinguish it from heterosexual hardcore. As a result, audio remained an under-studied topic. Thomas Waugh's definitive Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography and Film from Their Beginnings to Stonewall (1996) provided a sweeping genealogical study of the precursors to gay hardcore, including art cinema, amateur photography, and physique films, which consequently revealed the historical complexity of gay male erotic representation across the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, primarily in visual terms.27 Richard Dyer's influential essay “Gay Male Porn: Coming to Terms” (1985) delimited pornography as a body genre and analogized gay pornography's narrative structure to gay male sexual practice, but made no reference to sound.28 Waugh's comprehensive essay “Men's Pornography: Gay vs. Straight” (1985) delivered a comparative study of gay and straight pornography. It also made one of the first passing mentions of sound in its close reading of Curt McDowell's 1980 film Loads: “At the moment of his final montage of all six protracted ejaculations, McDowell adds the sound of thunder to the already exaggerated heavy breathing on the soundtrack, a hint of parody that is just the right touch to top off the ‘expedition,’ this exposure of the male sexual drive.”29 Waugh's description aligns with Williams's analysis that sound can be a disruptive force in pornography, precisely for its anti-mimetic function and capacity to produce critique—here, parody. But whereas Williams views the disruption of reality as a diminishment of the pornographic project, Waugh seems to relish this effect.

A second wave of pornographic scholarship began to test sound's broader implications and uses within gay audiovisual texts. Notably, Earl Jackson Jr.'s analysis of the gay “erotic confessions” genre of pornography and Rich Cante and Angelo Restivo's notion of “porno-performativity” both name audible excesses that facilitated the self-shattering or self-objectification of the gay male figure. Jackson, in analyzing the videos All of Me (1982) and A Matter of Size (1984), considers voice-over fantasies of sex that play over their visual manifestation in an incongruous manner, which he argues allows “the ambiguity of the ‘truth’ of the confession (in the plot of the film, its narrative register) [to be] problematized by seeing it happening (in the film's specular register).”30 Cante and Restivo contemplate the equally striking concept of porno-performativity, which names a self-aware enunciation of the porn performer as he is being watched. These utterances, diegetically speaking, are redundant: “The male who, while being fucked, incessantly exclaims to his partner ‘fuck me’ or ‘suck his dick’ seems totally self-conscious—both as a performer and as a sexual actant—that he is producing what the communication theorists call ‘phatic’ communication.”31 Phatic communication, for instance greetings and pleasantries, provides a social function but rarely relays new information. This phenomenon in gay pornography, which Cante and Restivo count as unique, exists also within heterosexual pornography, which Eugenie Brinkema refers to as “pornographic heterophony,” or the real-time imperative to describe verbally the very sex acts occurring physically (and visually) in gonzo porn. This shift, she claims, names a desire to move from an episteme of reaction to recording.32 

Other pornographic audio features deserve mention. For instance, Cante and Restivo also write of “the manner in which pornographic ‘acting styles’ are finally carried by voice and ambient sound to such a great extent—the dead silence, or the buzz of video under the scene characterizing the pornographic status of the text as much as its supposedly more central sonic elements.”33 We can add to this list the traditionally derided bad soundtrack of pornography, as well as the nonverbal sounds that punctuate pornography—the oohs and ahhs—which arguably are its most identifiable feature. What this brief overview reveals is the still-nascent status of pornography studies' engagement with sound, but also its rich potential for further study. In putting these theories into conversation with Jerker, perhaps most salient is the manner in which porn of the video era conceptualized sound as either competing with or superfluous to the visual domain.

For sound studies, the erotic voice has existed since the onset of audio recording technology. The Grammy-nominated Actionable Offenses (2007) gives evidence of this fact through its preservation of indecent cylinders dating back to the 1890s. These recordings, culled from the Walter Miller and Bruce R. Young Collections, survived the Comstock Laws in place since 1873, which had facilitated the seizure and destruction of such materials. During this era, the phonograph was viewed as a “disruptive technology” for its capacity to capture what had previously been transitory, and its popularity as a public amusement eventually spurred its private use as a form of entertainment that included erotic dialogues.34 Jacob Smith's book Vocal Tracks (2008) follows this tradition into “blue disks” or “party records” from the 1920s to the 1950s, which were anonymously made phonograph recordings of erotic content sold under the counter to listeners seeking aural titillation. In addition to locating the influences of burlesque, radio, film, and oral riddles on these blue disks, Smith notes the roles of humor in mitigating risk and audience participation in creating a sense of immediacy. He also finds in these recordings a unique mode of porno-performativity that “attempts to enact a breakthrough out of performance, thereby offering a tantalizing suggestion of the uncontrolled, authentic, and spontaneous ‘real’ expression, via traces of the body in spasm.”35 

Would this desire to break free from the perceived inauthenticity of sonic performance translate across the phonograph to the telephone? Frederick S. Lane III writes that the first national pornography network was the telephone. The breakup of AT&T's monopoly in 1982 and subsequent sell-off of numerous regional operating systems spurred the rise of the phone-sex industry. In pursuit of new revenue streams, automated information lines took off, prompting the rise of “dial-it” services. Perhaps inevitably, this led to “dial-a-porn,” the veritable explosion of 1-900 numbers that promised prerecorded and live erotic conversations.36 While its commercial popularity took off in the 1980s, phone sex was already emerging as a cultural phenomenon in 1971, the year the underground film The Telephone Book depicted a woman falling in love with an obscene phone caller.37 Its release a full year before Deep Throat provides an alternative and sonically oriented origin to what would later become known as hardcore. Jacob Smith notes that the gender of phone-sex operators was overwhelmingly female, and that their affective labor differed from blue disk recordings in their unabashedly performative nature.38 While these accounts of the erotic voice offer a necessary historical framework, they give scant insight into the specific cultural uses of dial-a-porn to the gay male community (fig. 6).

FIGURE 6.

This advertisement for the TeleContactor from the December 15, 1986, edition of the New York Native highlights just some of the many telephonic connections then being advertised. Robert Chesley papers, *T-Mss 2010-112, Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library.

FIGURE 6.

This advertisement for the TeleContactor from the December 15, 1986, edition of the New York Native highlights just some of the many telephonic connections then being advertised. Robert Chesley papers, *T-Mss 2010-112, Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library.

In addition to explanations of political economy, the popularity of phone sex in the 1980s should be understood as a by-product of the AIDS epidemic. Journalist Carlos Briceño drew a similar conclusion by 1990, revealing that some gay sex lines even offered meeting places for patrons who felt isolated.39 Pornographic magazines further attest to the growing popularity of the telephone as a tool for sexual expression and care during the AIDS crisis through a steady uptick in phone-sex advertisements.40 In fact, some productions of Jerker even made synergistic use of local phone-sex lines in their own programs (fig. 7). Media, then, offered one alternative to the increasing precariousness of navigating sex in everyday life. While this may seem positive, Daniel Harris lamented that “AIDS has radically transformed the function that pornography plays in gay culture, elevating it from its former role as an aphrodisiac, a titillating way of whetting our appetites before we ourselves engaged in the act, to its present role as a wholesale substitute for sex, a safe alternative to the perils of the meat rack.”41 The same critique against gay porn could be made against phone-sex lines—that they create a kind of replacement to “real” sex—but what this fails to consider is the interactive manner in which dial-a-porn offers a more muddled experience, somewhere between performance and representation, creation and reception, connection and alienation. Its interactive world-making process and mediated co-presence are markedly different from the act of watching video porn alone. Furthermore, Chesley's pornographic invocations uniquely previewed for theatergoers the fantastical and nonmimetic qualities that an audible, interactive pornographic form could promise.

FIGURE 7.

An advertisement for “The Tool Line” appears in the program of the Boston production of Jerker. Its owners would go on to found the gay social networking website Manhunt on April 1, 2001, drawing a direct connection between phone sex and the hookup apps that still dominate gay culture today. Robert Chesley papers, *T-Mss 2010-112, Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library.

FIGURE 7.

An advertisement for “The Tool Line” appears in the program of the Boston production of Jerker. Its owners would go on to found the gay social networking website Manhunt on April 1, 2001, drawing a direct connection between phone sex and the hookup apps that still dominate gay culture today. Robert Chesley papers, *T-Mss 2010-112, Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library.

A CONTROVERSIAL LEGACY: RADIO SMUT

Jerker was produced across numerous formats—first as theatrical performance, then as radio broadcast, and finally as video adaptation—and depending on the medium, the text's reception and classification as indecent shifted. I dwell on these iterations to emphasize the text's inherent interest in interrogating how media interface with and shape one's sense of sexuality, intimacy, and loss. Ironically, it was the final video adaptation of Jerker that delivered the most muted performance.42 Given the full range of possibilities of audiovisual representation and the semipermanence (or at least extended life) that video affords in contrast to its ephemeral antecedents, the Pride Playhouse Collection's video adaptation of Jerker distinguished itself from the wildly popular gay video porn industry at the time by opting for a more sterile approach, which it signaled through its shortened title (fig. 8).43 In contrast, the original play could heighten or attenuate its innuendo, masturbatory gestures, and orgasmic moans based on audiences' immediate reactions. In fact, as is evidenced in correspondence from Chesley's archive, he would often write to theater managers to ask whether audience members had had visible erections.44 In cases where they did, the theaters themselves became a kind of substitute for the porno theaters that were then being shuttered for fear of unsafe sexual activity.45 

FIGURE 8.

Despite claims of being “uncut, uncensored, unforgettable,” the 1991 video adaptation of Jerker (dir. Hugh Harrison) failed to live up to its own hype. Robert Chesley papers, *T-Mss 2010-112, Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library.

FIGURE 8.

Despite claims of being “uncut, uncensored, unforgettable,” the 1991 video adaptation of Jerker (dir. Hugh Harrison) failed to live up to its own hype. Robert Chesley papers, *T-Mss 2010-112, Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library.

No version of Jerker was more controversial than its abridged radio broadcast. This excerpt made the play infamous and etched its legacy in legal precedent. The radio broadcast of Jerker came under fire precisely for its pornographic valence, which offered listeners the closest experience to actual phone sex of any format, since the play itself could not erase vision. On August 31, 1986, Los Angeles–area minister Larry Poland heard the broadcast on the radio and filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission. The station in question, KPFK-FM, was noncommercial, listener supported, and a member of the Pacifica Foundation network, broadcasting out of North Hollywood and serving Southern California.46 The excerpt that Poland heard was a scene of lamentation and rage, where Bert tells J.R. that he refuses to feel ashamed for his past promiscuity: “Yeah, it was loving even if you didn't know whose cock it was in the dark or whose asshole you were sucking.”47 Chesley argued that it was precisely the radio's capacity to reach any person within broadcast range (as opposed to a play) that made its dissemination in that medium such a valuable pedagogic endeavor.48 In that regard, the radio not only heightened the erotic charge of Jerker (rendering it almost indistinguishable from actual phone sex) but also lent it the status of “safe sex tutorial” for those who may not have ever experienced representations of homosexual desires.

The government's response to the radio broadcast was swift and draconian. In November 1986, the FCC launched an investigation into KPFK, which had broadcast a portion of Jerker on their weekly gay radio show “I Am Are You?” (sometimes abbreviated “IMRU”). In a ruling in April 1987, the FCC found that “I Am Are You?” was, in principle, liable to the charges of indecency, but that KPFK could not be penalized because of a prior FCC determination that ruled indecency permissible if aired after 10 p.m. and preceded by a warning.49 Because “I Am Are You?” had both given such a warning and been broadcast after 10 p.m., it was effectively let off the hook with a warning, but the FCC's memorandum opinion and order set a new precedent to amend the exceptions that had provided “safe harbor” for indecency. It sought to clarify the so-called ambiguity of this exception, but in actuality added further ambiguity, as evidenced in footnote 9 of the ruling, which appears to contradict itself:

Accordingly, we do not believe a warning preceding a broadcast program is sufficient to restrict the access of children to indecent material at times of day when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience. Nevertheless, we continue to expect advance warnings to be given when broadcasters choose to air indecent programming at a time when there is not a reasonable risk that children may be in the broadcast audience.50 

The FCC's declaratory ruling held a precedential effect on future cases. The perceived loophole of the nuisance rationale that had itself been implemented in response to the “seven dirty words” comedy bit by George Carlin from the 1970s was brought into question.51 The result was that the nuisance rationale became unclear while the FCC's power to determine possible indecency on its own terms was bolstered. In effect, expressivity, context, and temporal boundaries no longer held as robust defenses against charges of indecency as they once had. In his introduction to the play in the 1990 anthology Hard Plays Stiff Parts, Chesley wrote about the ramifications of the scandal:

So Jerker has inadvertently caused a lot of damage. The whole fucking nation is worse off, and it's quite conceivable that lives have been lost that could have been saved if vital, direct information on the spread of AIDS had been available on the broadcast media. Nobody ever died from being offended, but prudery kills. I can only hope that Jerker has done and will continue to do some good, with its message of pride in gay identity and honesty about sex.52 

In Chesley's view, it was precisely the capacity for radio to reach underserved audiences who were not otherwise exposed to media on sexuality that made this FCC order so dangerous.

VOCALIZING QUEER DESIRE

The complexity of the pornographic voice in Jerker across its incarnations, but particularly in its theatrical and radio formats, relates on a basic level to the number of vocalized transgressions it permits. For instance, Jerker makes audible fantasies of fraternal incest, intergenerational sex, water sports, and bondage without any visual enactment. For the majority of the play, J.R. and Bert refer to each other incestuously as “brothers,” toggling between affection and torment in their audible demeanor. In the fifth scene, Bert fantasizes about tying J.R. to a tree, blindfolding him, tickling him, cutting his pants legs off one at a time, and exposing his unleashed cock before eventually making him cum. In this scene, Bert vocally controls the progression of the scenario with dominance, positioning J.R. in the eager, submissive role. J.R. passively coos, “Oh, yeah?” to Bert's commands, which include an imperative, “Don't you cum yet, buddy. You hear me?”53 J.R. eventually loses control, climaxing when Bert narrates that he is kissing him after a long scene of play-torture. J.R.'s disobedience to Bert's will is just part and parcel of the verbal sparring that runs throughout their phone calls. As Robert Hopper observes in Telephone Conversation (1992), “In telephone openings speakers align identities, intimacies, problems and agendas.”54 Because J.R. always makes the call to Bert and initiates all of their earliest sexual fantasies, one might presume that he holds a position of power in their conversations. This power dynamic is quickly turned on its head, though, once the fraternal fantasy is established and Bert takes on the role of older brother. As the sexual fantasies and calls progress, these positions of dominance and submission switch frequently with audible cues and moments of disobedience like the one above. Part of the intrigue of Jerker derives from its enumeration of the conventions of phone sex and its negotiations of power, taboo, and rule breaking. As an ephemeral form of communication, the cultural practice of phone sex could suffer from historical amnesia; texts like Jerker provide a record that documents some of the shapes it took.

One such shape concerns anonymity. Anonymity allows “pornographic desires” that shirk all sense of model gay citizenship to be spoken, creating an audible space of non-judgment and experimentation. It also plays a key role in the cultivation of pleasure and dread in Jerker. At the heart of J.R. and Bert's relationship is this contradiction. Not knowing who the other truly is allows J.R. and Bert the freedom to express themselves without reservation, granting intimacy divorced from attachment, physicality, and the risk of AIDS. In fact, it is primarily the fantasies they spin out across their disparate spaces that connect them: their past sexual experiences transformed into aural storytelling becomes a network of desire that bridges their physical divide. Their telephonic co-presence also assures that their connection will only ever reside in the ethereal space between telephone receivers, granting that intimacy an unstable, uncertain, immaterial quality. While they come to know each other by their first names, it is only J.R. who knows how he met Bert, and only J.R. who retains Bert's phone number. Every call made in Jerker is one that J.R. dials, and this unequal dynamic keeps Bert perpetually in the dark. Long before caller ID, Bert cannot screen or return J.R.'s calls unless J.R. were to leave his phone number on Bert's answering machine, which he eventually does in the penultimate scene. Anonymity serves another purpose, as a salve against the threat of discrimination and rejection. Given his situation as a disabled Vietnam veteran with limited mobility, J.R. carefully curates the version of himself he wants Bert to receive—namely, a pornographic vocalized fantasy version, freed from his own bodily limitations.

Nonverbal sounds are also critical to Jerker's depiction of pleasure, and Chesley's meticulous stage directions would seem to leave little room for improvisation. Take, for instance, the following direction:

J.R. is playing with himself. Then he smiles to himself—an idea has occurred to him—and lies back with his eyes closed and brings himself to the point of cumming. He sits up and re-dials, still on the verge of cumming. … J.R.s timing is beautiful: just after the beep he pants two or three times, then holds for a second, and then cums with a gratifying “Ah—!” Ah—!” into the receiver.55 

In video recordings of two different productions, however, the nonverbal enunciations “Ah—!” shift drastically in length, repetition, pitch, robustness, and breath to render a range of meanings, including excitation, loss of control, ecstasy, relief, and even near-panic. The “Ah—!” in Chesley's note conceals the sheer variability that “Ah—!” can express in its performance. Perhaps because these very sounds are unstable indicators of pleasure in video porn, they are always under scrutiny in the play itself. The audience, of course, enjoys the dramatic irony of having the sight that the two characters lack, and therefore can relish the inconsistencies between sonic and visual pleasures. On numerous occasions, J.R. and Bert will either have to inform the other they have climaxed (due to the lack of an eruptive sound effect), or verify that the moans and gasps heard actually indexed an orgasm. This instability and ambiguity of sounds reveals the double-edged sword of sonic pleasures: that its utterance can never be fully verified, and that thus anything and everything is possible.

The last seven scenes of Jerker shift tonally from sonic pleasure to sonic disturbance. In these calls, J.R. can only reach Bert's answering machine. Bert is absent from this point of the play to its conclusion, but his voice remains in these recordings. The affective shift of a voice spoken by an actor—which, in its conceit, represents telephonic mediation—to a voice modulated through the magnetic frequencies of the answering machine produces a stark contrast. Bert's final words deliver a chipper message, but the answering machine's recording, in its very alienation from the unmediated voice that preceded it, colors it with a melancholic stroke: “‘Good evening—or good whatever time of day it is you're calling, though it's evening now as I record this message for you, and a beautiful evening it is. An especially good evening to my little brother, if it's you calling; I'm really sorry to miss your call, if it's you 'cause I miss you and I want you to know—' and then a click and a beep.”56 The tape runs out. J.R. records his message for Bert and the scene ends.

From here until the last scene, Bert's answering machine plays a recording of Judy Garland singing “Do It Again,” with Bert chiming in afterward, asking his caller to leave a message after the beep: “You really shouldn't have done it / You hadn't any right. / I really shouldn't have let you / Kiss me. / And although it was wrong / I never was strong, / So as long as you've begun it, / And you know you shouldn't have done it … / Oh, do it again.”57 Chesley's literary executor, Nicholas Deutsch, handled numerous productions following Chesley's passing and even offered to mail directors the version of the Garland performance Chesley intended, noting, “[It] is essential and will certainly affect your take on the last stretch of the play—Judy sings VERY slowly—that's part of what makes the final scenes so excruciating.”58 Indeed, in the recording of the Boston production, not only is Garland's song painfully slow, but the beep that follows it increases in duration after each successive call in a kind of affective sonic agony.

As the scenes progress, the tenor of Bert's recording and J.R.'s messages shifts drastically. Not unlike the startling conclusion to the film The Conversation (1974), although Bert's recording remains putatively the same, through repetition and repeated close listening, his voice begins to sound somber, weaker, deflated. J.R., who spends the better portion of the play expounding on the virtues of their amorous anonymity, must confront the growing realization that Bert may be in the hospital, inaccessible to him, since neither knows the other's true identity. J.R. confesses to Bert's answering machine his concern and, notably, his number: “Look, maybe it's stupid, but I'm worried about you. Would you—please give me a call—my number is 771-0725. Okay? I just wanna know you're okay. Thanks. I … love you. Please call.”59 In the next scene, J.R. is not greeted with Judy Garland's voice. Rather, the violent dissonance of a disconnection notice blares through his receiver, which he drops. His greatest fears have been confirmed, and the play ends in blackout, with only the sound of his pained gasps and sobs. His message of love has not been received, trapped as it is on an answering machine with no one on the other end, an absent receiver.

MELODRAMATIC CLIMAX

Chesley keeps J.R. and Bert apart from one another for the entire play, until late in Jerker when they spin out a fantasy sequence that culminates in a fairy tale about two young princes going on an adventure together. Rather than climaxing through orgasm, J.R. and Bert share an embrace. This is the only moment of physical contact in the play, but it is also a figment of the imagination. Some productions signal the ontological instability of this embrace through smoke or a shift in lighting effects. Chesley's stage directions call for J.R. to have full use of his body, despite the crutches beside his bed that indicate his Vietnam injury.60 In contrast to this momentary contact, the only real touch or “helping hand” within the play is one's own, but it is a touch that is directed by the voice of an other whose absence is felt. When the play concludes with J.R. desperately trying to reach Bert, whose answering machine has been playing the same message for weeks, the melodramatic form wholly subsumes the pornographic.

Pornography has long been defined by the involuntary bodily response it produces in its spectators: arousal. It is the capacity of pornography to “move” the body to orgasm that positions pornography as a kind of agent that inscribes upon the body. In “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess” (1991), Linda Williams categorizes the melodramatic form as yet another body genre, one structured on spectacle, episodic presentation, and coincidence.61 The intensification of emotion that melodrama harnesses recalls bodily hysteria, which performs an important function in Jerker, as it does for many of the earliest AIDS plays of this era. The health crisis complicated the formulation of a traditional romantic unit (the primary goal of nearly all romantic melodramas), which Chesley resolved by offering a recuperation of “bad sex” (masturbation, phone sex, pornography) alongside an elegy to “good sex.” While melodrama can be counted on to elicit tears (or, playing from the title, to connote a tearjerker), Chesley presents this bodily compulsion alongside Jerker's more obviously masturbatory denotation. By muddling melodrama and pornography, Chesley suggests that mourning need not only be sorrowful. He recognized the axis that sadness and desire share in the body; both move us in ways that seem out of our control. Jerker literally jerks us around—that is, its somatic imperatives register within and through the theatergoer's body, and this affective jerking reminds us that the AIDS theater of the time was not monolithic in its depiction of people with AIDS; nor was pornography.

I want to propose that Chesley's pornographic vocalization be read as a conferment of dignity and care upon strangers (both for characters within the play and for viewing subjects in the audience) with the telephone at its center as an apparatus for survival. The safety Chesley imagined does not look the same as the gay video pornography of the time, which hoped to inspire behavioral changes in the kinds of sex its viewers had. Instead, Chesley wanted to celebrate desire through storytelling; more importantly, he invoked pornography as an elegiac tool for remembrance. In his literary archive, notes for a speech he would deliver in April 1987 at Washington Irving High School in New York for the AIDS theater presentation Epidemic, Center Stage reveal the negative associations that undergirded popular safe-sex discourse of the time. One entry, entitled “Anti-Erotic Platitudes” (fig. 9), challenges these associations:

FIGURE 9.

Robert Chesley's handwritten note on “Anti-Erotic Platitudes” in preparation for his speech at Epidemic, Center Stage, Washington Irving High School, New York, 1987. Robert Chesley papers, *T-Mss 2010-112, Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library.

FIGURE 9.

Robert Chesley's handwritten note on “Anti-Erotic Platitudes” in preparation for his speech at Epidemic, Center Stage, Washington Irving High School, New York, 1987. Robert Chesley papers, *T-Mss 2010-112, Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library.

“The party's over.” (It was not just a party.)

“Play safe.” (We're not just playing: that's a children's word.)

“You can have fun safely.” (Again: fun is part of sex, of course, but is scarcely its whole significance)62 

Party. Play. Fun. These are the crimes that Chesley views as on trial: end the party, play safe, have safe fun. In these platitudes, he perceives a simplification of the gay male sexual ethic of the 1980s as hedonistic, childish, reckless, or all of the above. These platitudes served as rallying cries for safety, but they also threatened to become a condemning explanation for the epidemic at hand.

This tension is one that Chesley was deeply aware of and troubled by. At the bottom of this note on anti-erotic platitudes, Chesley scribbled in handwriting: “Gay sex of the 70's was backrooms, glory-holes, baths, Ringold Alley, the piers, the trucks.” This addendum is matter-of-fact, not pontificating. The portrait of the 1970s that Chesley paints here is one where sex and sociality were entangled like the phone cord from the promotional still above, where the many forms that sex takes shaped a public and made possible a group's identity. But what, then, did that make sex in the 1980s? Gay video pornography of the 1980s paints one picture, but for the first half of the decade it largely tried to ignore the epidemic.63 Once gay video pornography began to respond more directly to the epidemic through safer sex campaigns, though, sex came into direct tension with protocols of safety and revolved almost exclusively around the visibility of condoms, which introduced its own set of instabilities and tensions, resulting in ineffectual, or questionable, results at best. Condom visibility was only one part of the discourse, but in many cases it has remained the dominant story of how gay men managed the health crisis in the 1980s.

Chesley offers another perspective. Jerker reimagined the pornographic address in an elegiac mode, ceding the primacy of the “frenzy of the visible” to an aural urgency. It memorialized the sex of the 1970s by transforming those pleasures into sonic form. It defied increasing calls to conflate sex with shame, expanded the conception of safer sex, and foregrounded emergent forms of mediated intimacy. Chesley refused to let AIDS rend from sexual desire its untidiness and force, irrespective of one's serostatus. His eroticization of the body under duress through the immaterial voice was an act of both defiance and hope. In the era when “Silence = Death,” he amplified the voice as the vehicle for survival and reminded his audience that pleasure takes potent form when played across the mind. Chesley's lasting plea was that we listen to the call.

NOTES

NOTES
1.
The 2014 HBO adaptation of his play The Normal Heart (1985) helped introduce Kramer to a younger audience.
2.
Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible” (1989; repr., Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 36, 112–13.
3.
This idea originates from the radio play's supposed predilection to elicit imaginative mental images better than any other medium. For a striking assessment of how this informal conjecture came to be viewed as dogma see Neil Verma, Theater of the Mind: Imagination, Aesthetics, and American Radio Drama (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).
4.
Quoted in Larry Kramer, Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist (New York: St. Martin's, 1989), 16.
5.
Kramer, Reports from the Holocaust, 16.
6.
Jerker, or the Helping Hand, collected in Robert Chesley, Hard Plays Stiff Parts: The Homoerotic Plays of Robert Chesley (San Francisco: Alamo Square Press, 1990), 72. Subsequent references to the play's script are drawn from this version of the source.
7.
Quoted in Richard Berkowitz, Stayin' Alive: The Invention of Safe Sex, a Personal History (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2003), 198.
8.
Douglas Crimp, “How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic,” in AIDS: Cultural Analysis, Cultural Activism, ed. Leo Bersani and Douglas Crimp (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987), 238.
9.
Gaëten Dugas was exonerated in 2016, thanks to a team of researchers from the University of Arizona who sequenced the HIV virus. Their groundbreaking research was published in Nature and found that HIV likely entered the United States by way of Haiti in 1970 or 1971, and remained centralized in New York before being carried to San Francisco around 1976. Michael Worobey, Thomas D. Watts, Richard A. McKay, Marc A. Suchard, Timothy Granade, Dirk E. Teuwen, Beryl A. Koblin, Walid Heneine, Philippe Lemey, and Harold W. Jaffe, “1970s and ‘Patient 0’ HIV-1 Genomes Illuminate Early HIV/AIDS History in North America,” Nature, November 3, 2016, 98–101.
10.
Crimp, “How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic,” 249.
11.
Crimp, “How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic,” 253.
12.
Lucas Hilderbrand, “Historical Fantasies: 1970s Gay Male Pornography in the Archives,” in Porno Chic and the Sex Wars: American Sexual Representations in the 1970s, ed. Carolyn Bronstein and Whitney Strub (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2016), 327.
13.
Jan Zita Grover, “Visible Lesions: Images of the PWA,” in Out in Culture: Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Essays on Popular Culture, ed. Corey K. Creekmur and Alexander Doty (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), 367–68.
14.
For a useful overview of the Meese Commission see Whitney Strub, Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 198–206.
15.
Jacob Smith, Vocal Tracks: Performance and Sound Media (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 236, 241.
16.
For one nostalgic view of the 1970s see the documentary Gay Sex in the 1970s, directed by Joseph Lovett (New Almaden, CA: Wolfe Video, 2006), DVD.
17.
The actual first “AIDS play” to appear in the United States was The AIDS Show, a modular piece of ensemble educational theater. Noreen Barnes-McLain, “Death and Desire: The Evolution of the AIDS Play,” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 12, no. 1 (1997): 116.
18.
David Roman, Acts of Intervention (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 44–87.
19.
Cindy Patton's Fatal Advice offers a compelling resource for understanding how condom usage emerged across video porn in the 1980s and eventually became standard practice. Fatal Advice also poses urgent questions to the media-effects debates that have long concerned pornography's presumed behavioral influence. Whereas most of these debates examine the potential harm pornographic viewing could pose to women, Patton interrogated the potential benefit of pornographic viewing in gay men's adoption of safer sex practices. Cindy Patton, Fatal Advice: How Safe-Sex Education Went Wrong (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 118–38.
20.
A production history from Chesley's literary executor in 1996 notes that the play had been in continuous production (with multiple revivals) for the last ten years, including performances in Los Angeles (1986, 1988), New York (1986), Atlanta (1986, 1996), Des Moines (1987), San Diego (1988, 1990), Garden City (1988), Toronto (1989), London (1990), Philadelphia (1992, 1993), Dallas (1991), Houston (1992), Seattle (1992), Boston (1993), and Palm Springs (1996). Robert Chesley papers, *T-Mss 2010-112, Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library: b.1, f.8.
21.
Chesley's play Night Sweat (1984) preceded Hoffman and Kramer's critically hailed plays by a year but it vexed audiences. Taking its cue from the finale of Soylent Green (1973), the storyline centered on a dystopian assisted-suicide facility for gay men who have been diagnosed with AIDS and want to die. It was met with overwhelmingly negative reviews. Night Sweat, collected in Robert Chesley, Hard Plays Stiff Parts, 8–69.
22.
Jordan Schildcrout, “Legitimate: Jerry Douglas's Tubstrip and the Erotic Theatre of Gay Liberation,” Journal of American Drama and Theatre 30, no. 1 (2017): 3.
23.
Richard Dyer, “Gay Male Porn: Coming to Terms,” Jump Cut 30 (1985): 27–29.
24.
One play that comes to mind is Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, collected in Krapp's Last Tape and Other Dramatic Pieces (New York: Grove, 1960), 7–28.
25.
Williams, Hard Core, 122–23.
26.
Williams minimizes the importance of sound in pornography due to its un-framable and enveloping nature (as well as its voluntary quality, as opposed to the involuntary quality of visual spasms), all of which are points that porn scholarship should return to and reexamine. Her argument that the pornographic film might be productively thought of in relation to the structure of the stage-musical genre (and its interrupting “numbers”) is provocative, and she develops it through Richard Dyer's writings on the musical. This essay hopes to extend from Williams's observations but also challenge sound's presumed purpose to pornographic discourse as a guarantor of reality. See Williams, Hard Core, 124–26.
27.
Thomas Waugh, Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography and Film from Their Beginnings to Stonewall (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).
28.
Dyer, “Gay Male Porn,” 27–29.
29.
Thomas Waugh, “Men's Pornography: Gay vs. Straight,” Jump Cut 30 (March 1985): 35.
30.
Earl Jackson Jr., Strategies of Deviance: Studies in Gay Male Representation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 162.
31.
Rich Cante and Angelo Restivo, “The Voice of Pornography: Tracking the Subject through Sonic Spaces of Gay Male Moving-Image Pornography,” in Keyframes: Popular Cinema and Cultural Studies, ed. Matthew Tinkcom and Amy Villarejo (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), 221.
32.
Eugenie Brinkema, “Irrumation, the Interrogative: Extreme Porn and the Crisis of Reading,” Polygraph 26 (2017): 139–44.
33.
Cante and Restivo, “The Voice of Pornography,” 221.
34.
Patrick Feaster and David Giovannoni, Actionable Offenses: Indecent Phonograph Recordings from the 1890s (Rayburn, CT: Archeophone Records, 2007), 5, 11.
35.
Smith, Vocal Tracks, 52, 73–74.
36.
This fascinating history is explicated in the fifth chapter of Frederick S. Lane III, Obscene Profits: The Entrepreneurs of Pornography in the Cyber Age (London: Routledge, 2001), 149–82.
37.
The Telephone Book, directed by Nelson Lyon (1971; New York: Vinegar Syndrome, 2013), Blu-ray/DVD.
38.
Smith, Vocal Tracks, 237–40.
39.
Carlos Briceño, “‘Dial-a-Porn’ Industry Battles U.S. Restrictions,” New York Times, April 13, 1990, B5.
40.
My archival research into the LGBT Periodical Collection at the New York Public Library (MssCol 1494) revealed that gay pornographic magazines in the 1980s were saturated with advertisements for phone sex, both commercial and amateur (peer-to-peer). For instance, in perusing the print run of Playguy from 1986 to 1989, each issue included between six and thirteen phone sex advertisements, including the following: Hot Line; Dial-a-Load; Dial-a-Daddy for Discipline & Training; Fantasy Men; Peter's Phone Action; Steven's 18+; Muscle Masters: When You Need It Rough; Deep in the Hard of Texas; TelErotic: Speak Now, or Forever Hold Your Piece; Head Quarters: Lone Star Jocks; Musclemania; 9+ Huge: When Too Much Is Not Enough; Body Talk: Hot Live Phone Pleasure; Dial a Stud!; L.A. Heat: “When It's Got to Be Hot” Phone Fantasy; and Knight Line. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender periodical collection, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library.
41.
Daniel Harris, The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture (New York: Hyperion, 1997), 131.
42.
Jerker, directed by Hugh Harrison, performances by Tom Wagner and Joseph P. Stachura (West Hollywood, CA: Out and About Pictures, 1991), VHS.
43.
Peter Alilunas charts the rise of VHS pornography in the 1980s, giving a critical historical account of this format's adoption and its industry effects, in Smutty Little Movies: The Creation and Regulation of Adult Video (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017).
44.
Robert Chesley papers, *T-Mss 2010-112, Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library: b.2, f.1.
45.
See Samuel R. Delany, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (New York: New York University Press, 1999), 154.
46.
Alex S. Jones, “F.C.C. Studies ‘Indecency’ on Radio,” New York Times, November 22, 1986, 9.
47.
This line, from scene 9 of the play, is cited in the FCC's report as the first example of indecency: Memorandum Opinion and Order, in the Matter of Pacifica Foundation, Inc., Licensee of KPFK-KM, 9 FCC 5320 (1987).
48.
Robert Chesley papers, *T-Mss 2010-112, Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library: b.2, f.1.
49.
Commissioner James Quello wrote in a concurrence with the FCC commission of the loophole that he believed required alteration: “Under the nuisance rationale, channeling indecent broadcasts to times when there is not a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience avoids the inappropriate broadcast of such material to children.” By the FCC's standards, indecency is a lesser offense than obscenity and concerns language or material that depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory activities or organs. Part of the ambiguity in determining indecency concerns the community standards under review—in other words, the context—which make abstract claims of indecency legally dubious. Memorandum Opinion and Order, in the Matter of Pacifica Foundation, Inc., Licensee of KPFK-KM, 9 FCC 5319-5322 (1987).
50.
Memorandum Opinion and Order, in the Matter of Pacifica Foundation, Inc., Licensee of KPFK-KM, 9 FCC 5322 (1987).
51.
This refers to the seven words one cannot speak on public broadcast, whether television or radio: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. at 732 (1978).
52.
Chesley, Jerker, or the Helping Hand, 72.
53.
Chesley, Jerker, or the Helping Hand, 86–87.
54.
Robert Hopper, Telephone Conversation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), 53.
55.
Chesley, Jerker, or the Helping Hand, 82.
56.
Chesley, Jerker, or the Helping Hand, 114.
57.
Chesley, Jerker, or the Helping Hand, 115.
58.
Robert Chesley papers, *T-Mss 2010-112, Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library: b.2, f.2.
59.
Chesley, Jerker, or the Helping Hand, 118.
60.
Chesley's stage notes read: “A change of lighting and perhaps a music cue indicate that ‘real’ time and space have dissolved, and what we now see is fantasy. J.R. puts his phone receiver down and stands by his bed—without his crutches. During the rest of this sequence he talks directly to BERT, though BERT continues to talk only to his phone receiver; as he tells his story, J.R. ‘invisible’ to BERT, eventually moves into BERT's area, and sits on BERT's bed, like an adult telling a child a bedtime story.” Chesley, Jerker, or the Helping Hand, 110.
61.
Linda Williams, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” Film Quarterly 44, no. 4 (1991): 3.
62.
Robert Chesley papers, *T-Mss 2010-112, Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library: b.1, f.5.
63.
Film scholar Thomas Waugh critiques “the industry's utter bad faith in its masking of whatever safe sex the performers are fortunate enough to be allowed to practice on the set and above all in its abundant glamorization of risk behaviors. Apart from perfunctory printed guidelines scrolling here and there, and some producers' self-righteously pronounced avoidance of internal ejaculation (when did the come-shot trade ever show internal ejaculation?), the industry's culpability in this matter is a baldly stated matter of record.” Thomas Waugh, The Fruit Machine: Twenty Years of Writings on Queer Cinema (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), 233.