Hustlers are chic once more as sex makes a comeback at the movies. But where's AIDS?
“What has replaced promiscuity is the idea of promiscuity,” wrote the gay, infamously controversial HIV positive essayist Andrew Sullivan in his post-apocalyptic paean, “The End of AIDS,” in The New York Times Magazine last winter. I found this the most provocative statement in his wide-ranging piece. While I’m not sure his theory that people are growing less concerned about having HIV stands up in the real world, I do think the idea of promiscuity has been rehabilitated and deemed fit for popular culture again—especially in gay-themed movies. Nothing illustrates this theory as emphatically as the recent release of two films about male prostitutes: johns and Hustler White.
It’s no secret that audiences love transgressiveness. In America, where sex is more taboo than violence, prostitutes are the most transgressive figures of all. Almost 20 years ago, Hollywood grappled intriguingly with the sex trade in such films as American Gigolo and Midnight Cowboy. Perhaps the most beloved hustler is the pansexual Joe Dallesandro in the no-budget ‘70s Andy Warhol films, Flesh and Trash. But in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, as hopelessness spawned by AIDS seeped into mainstream culture, sexual excesses in Hollywood movies became increasingly rare. Tinseltown shied away from risky sexual topics, producing virtually nothing about AIDS. It also defanged the sex trade: Richard Gere’s sexy hustler in American Gigolo became a preening yuppie out to make an honest woman of Julia Roberts’ lily-white prostie in 1990’s anemic Pretty Woman.
But as Sullivan and others have documented of late, the pall of doom that AIDS cast over sex for the last decade is slowly lifting. Independent and niche-market films have picked up where Hollywood left off. Last year, the gritty Leaving Las Vegas dealt brutally with the struggles of a young sex worker, played by Elizabeth Shue. This year, johns and Hustler White are perhaps the first, though admittedly faint, signs that gay-market movies may again start to explore the sexual netherworld.
What is so remarkable about these movies is not what they show—it’s what they don’t. Both lack any consideration of AIDS. In johns, virtually the only reference to the epidemic is a fleeting shot of leading man David Arquette preparing to go down on his client, condom in mouth. Bruce La Bruce’s Hustler White, a more tongue-in-cheek effort, shows more about how to have sex with an amputee than how to have safer sex.
While indies needn’t cater to mass audiences, they too are driven by market forces and may be subject to a degree of self-censorship. In making prurient movies such as johns and Hustler White, filmmakers may consciously or unconsciously decide to not raise the unpleasant specter of AIDS and explore the sometimes discomforting mechanics of gay sex—despite its obvious relevance--in a bid to attract an audience beyond gay men. johns’ heterosexual writer/director Scott Silver confirmed this: “I didn’t want to preach to the converted. I didn’t want to have a lot of graphic sex. I wanted it be a movie that straight audiences would be comfortable seeing.” Silver, who interviewed scores of hustlers while penning the film, admits that AIDS is an everyday concern for sex workers. “Most of the gay hustlers who weren’t drug addicts always used condoms. [When I asked about it], they looked at me like I was crazy to suggest that they’d be so stupid [not to]…It’s something they’re aware of but don’t talk about all the time.” Yet, Silver didn’t want the disease to become the focus of his film. “This movie is not about AIDS. It is about the relation between two characters. I wanted it t be responsible but not be about safe sex.”
So what defines a responsible film? While the recently released niche movie Booty Call turned a late-night condom search into a humorous subject, it’s hard to imagine a safer-sex genre. We should make sure the lessons of the last 15 years aren’t lost. If indies fail to integrate safe sex responsibly into scripts, they are no better than their Hollywood foils. Such touches needn’t be heavy-handed but should be included in even the most escapist fare. Two years of treatment progress doesn’t undo 15 of decimation.