July 18, 2006

Drawing the line

Consider porn magazines, a species of utilitarian literature whose purpose is to provide descriptions and images that will bring its (mostly male) readers to climax.  These days, pretty much anything goes -- linguistically and visually -- inside the covers of these publications.  But the covers themselves present a challenge: they should be as enticing as possible (so that people will buy the magazines), but they also have to steer clear of illegality as to what words and images can be publicly visible.  So you get avoidance, in this very unlikely place.  In combination with pushing as close to the line as possible.

Taboo and taboo avoidance are always hot topics here at Language Log Plaza, and then on Saturday John Baker posted to the American Dialect Society list with a link to a paper (in .pdf format) by Christopher Fairman, a law professor at the Ohio State University, about the legal status of an English taboo word, and I was moved to report here on my observations about one type of umliterature, porn magazines meant for gay men.  ("Umliterature" is a term suggested by Larry Horn on ADS-L in June 2005, as a reanalyzed version of "um, literature", as in "I was paging avidly through some, um, literature in bed last night."  The model is "umfriend", which you can check out on Google; both um- words convey some dubiousness about the appropriateness of the base word, having to do in some way with sexual activity.  So nice to see a new prefix being born.  I've decided my XXX-rated comic homoerotic collages should be referred to as "umart" for short.  Ok, "um-art", to avoid the parsing "u-mart".)

Oh, yes, Fairman's article (74 pages, 409 footnotes) is titled, with stunning directness and simplicity, "Fuck".  Fairman believes that the word should be freely used.  The legal history in the U.S. is remarkably convoluted, however.

On to the gay porn mags, mostly Torso and Honcho (which I happen to have, um, on hand).  The no-no words for the covers are fuck, of course, plus cocksucker and cocksucking; the covers seem also to avoid cock 'penis' and asshole.  The no-no images are of penises, testicles, and anuses.  Otherwise, you can get right up to the line.

Visually, buttocks are fine, as is a certain amount of pubic hair, plus erections visible through clothing.  Full frontal nudity can appear on a cover, so long as the model's equipment is concealed behind a teaser for one of the stories or photo spreads inside.  Couples can even be pictured in positions that are unmistakably part of one of the sex acts that can't be directly named, so long as their naughty bits aren't shown.

Linguistically, fuck and cocksucker are often fixed with asterisks, just the minimum one each:

CARLO MASI Talks About Working Out, Sex With Blonds, And On-Camera F*cking (Torso 8/06)
Antonio & Martin: Sex Junkie F*cked Raw (Honcho 9/06)

C*cksucker's Double Dose (Honcho 5/06)
C*cksucker Gang-Banged (Honcho 4/06)
Gas Jockey Initiates C*cksucker (Honcho 1/06)
C*cksucker Services College Jocks (Honcho 2/06)

Though occasionally the editing goes awry:

"My Straight Roommate Watched Me Get F*ucked!" (Torso 4/06)

For fuck, there are many tamer alternatives, often metaphorical and often combined with rhyme or alliteration:

Sex Bully Pumps Rump (Honcho 5/06)
College Jock Gets Pumped (Torso 3/06)
Horn-Dog Twinks in Rump-Roasting Romp ([2] 3-4/06)
Nailing the Perfect Buns (Honcho 4/06)
Straight Jock Bones Gay Bud (Torso 8/06)
Coach Ganged By 3 (Honcho 7/06)
The Gang-Bang: Ploughed By 5 And Loves It! (Honcho 9/06)
Marines Share Spunky A-Hole (Honcho 9/06)

(Note punning in spunky.)  Similarly for the description of cocksucking (note that suck seems to be ok on its own):

Sucking Straight Guys (Honcho 6/06)
Goin' Down On Hitchers (Honcho 7/06)
Blowjobs Anonymous (Honcho 5/06)
Jarhead Blow Buddies (Torso 4/06)
Baseball Jock Scores BJ (2/06)
A Nose for Hose (Honcho 5/06)
Sports Trainer Licks Sticks (Torso 4/06)
Servicing Straight Meat (Honcho 2/06)
Eat My Wad! (Honcho 9/06)

As for cock 'penis', I haven't seen it.  It can be punned on:

Cocksure Stud's Throat-Stretching Exercises (Torso 4/06)

And dick seems to be ok:

Swallowing Surfer Dick (Honcho 5/06)

But otherwise we get stick, meat, hose, etc. (as above) or references to erect penises via boner or hard-on:

Straight Bait's Butt-Hungry Boner (Honcho 7/06)
Straight Guy's Bi Boner (Torso 3/06)
Tuff Punk's Smart-Ass Boner (Honcho 1/06)
Hard-on vs. Hard-on (Torso 3/06)

I also haven't seen assholeA-hole works for asteriskless avoidance:

Marines Share Spunky A-Hole (Honcho 9/06)

Ass gets by, not only in puns like smart-ass (above), but also in contexts where the writer might try to claim that the reference is to the buttocks as a whole, rather than specifically to the anus (what we don't seem to get is anything like "Frat Boy Takes It Up the Ass"):

Gay Soldier's Sore Ass (Honcho 2/06)
Het Hunk's Gay Ass ( Honcho 11/05)

Finally, there are rump, buns, butt, etc. (already illustrated), where in these sexual contexts a word for the buttocks is often taken to refer to its central feature.

That's a sampling from about a year's worth of these porn mags.  Inside, they show and say pretty much anything.  On the covers, they show as much of the merchandise as they can get away with and talk as dirty as they can get away with, saying, in effect: open me up, and we can go all the way together.

[Two notes, one on form and one on content.

On form.  You'll notice how much language play there is in these teasers: puns, metaphors, rhyme, alliteration, even assonance in "Tuff Punk".  I can't imagine that the readership of Torso and Honcho and their brother jerk-off mags includes an unusually large number of men appreciative of language play.  Instead, I'm guessing that the writers of the teasers adopt a style also found in headlines for feature stories (we've several times had occasion to remark here on these practices in science writing), and for a similar reason: to catch the readers' attention and hold their interest, when a plain description might be bland and uncompelling.  The content of most of the pieces in these magazines pretty much reduces to Guy Fucks Guy or Guy Sucks Guy, so we need details and eye-catching language.

On content.  It's hard not to notice how much gay-guy-servicing-straight-guy there is in these magazines.  This is a fact mostly about Torso and Honcho, which have something of a thing for straight guys, as does some portion of their readership.  But I have friends who wouldn't touch these particular magazines, because they find the passion for straight guys so icky.  To each his own.  Fortunately, I don't have to analyze these matters any further here, since this is Language Log, not Psychology of Sex Log.]

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at July 18, 2006 06:32 PM