Is "Dawson's 20-Load Weekend" the Most Important Gay Porn Film Ever Made?
July 9, 2012
The annual Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco is noted for its unbridled embrace of every star in our sexual constellation. Even the fearless leather community that founded the event can sometimes appear tame amidst the outlandish kinks and clothing -- and lack thereof -- on display along the city's tilted streets.
In the middle of this rowdy bacchanalia in the fall of 2003, Paul Morris stood at the booth for Treasure Island Media (TIM), the gay porn outfit he founded that features unprotected sex (barebacking) between its actors. This particular specialty was the singular driving force behind his smashingly successful and relatively new company.
Then, like the legend of Lana Turner fortuitously cozying up to the counter at Schwab's, a beautiful and achingly masculine young man approached the TIM booth. He liked the TIM videos, he liked them very much indeed, and he hoped to one day document a few fantasies of his own. TIM star Jesse O'Toole was on hand and someone snapped a photograph of the two of them together (right). In it, the grinning young man with a leather cap appears to have found his long lost tribe, and O'Toole looks as if he has found a seven-course meal.
The photo was sent to Max Sohl, a sometime porn actor with a theater background whom Morris had commissioned to conceive and direct what would be Sohl's first porn film. Sohl met with the aspiring model and asked him to complete a form that included a simple question: What is one of your fantasy scenes? In response, the young man wrote simply, "me getting nailed and seeded by a gang of hot guys."
"The Black Party was coming," Sohl explained in a recent interview, referring to the annual New York City weekend of leather men, parties and sexual adventures, "and I thought, 'Okay. Let's see how many men he can take.'"
And that is how Dawson's 20 Load Weekend was born.
Prior to the onset of AIDS, condom usage in gay pornography was nonexistent -- but that was before bodily fluids became synonymous with death and disease. For well over a decade after the crisis began, gay porn videos featured not only tightly wrapped penises, but their storylines -- indeed, the actors themselves -- suffered from a sort of dramatic malaise, as if sleepwalking through their sexual routine while trying to pay no attention to the man with KS lesions behind the curtain. The videos mirrored our own lack of interest in gallivanting about with the pizza man or diving into an orgy with strangers, with or without condoms. Many viewers simply returned to their stash of pre-AIDS pornography, which was condom-less but "justified."
As AIDS deaths subsided with the advent of new medications in 1996, gay male culture responded with a vengeance. Circuit parties were born of celebration (before succumbing to their own excesses), safer sex behaviors relaxed, and there was a palpable longing to escape the horrors of the previous years. Reclaiming a bold sexuality -- something many gay men believed had been lost forever -- was a tonic for the post-traumatic stress they suffered. Younger gay men, who had listened to stories of an earlier, sexually liberated time as if it were a lost era of paleontology, were more than willing to explore whatever modern version might await them.
Unprotected sex since the arrival of HIV is nothing new -- it is, after all, the primary reason for new infections that have continued fairly steadily since AIDS began -- but in the late 1990's the gay community proved again how comically adept it is at applying a little branding to any phenomenon, and "barebacking" entered the public lexicon. The irony may be that a new word was developed for the oldest sexual activity imaginable: having sex without a barrier. It wasn't the sex that had changed, but the meaning and judgment associated with it towards, most specifically, gay men. Or, as AIDS advocate Jim Pickett said at a recent conference for people living with HIV, "When a friend announces they are expecting a child, I feel like screaming 'You barebacked!'"
But while intelligent minds and passionate advocates argued about the reasons and the proper response to barebacking, no one had dared document it on videotape for the erotic pleasure of others. Yet.
In 1998, two renegade companies formed to make bareback videos exclusively: Hot Desert Knights and Treasure Island Media (links definitely NSFW). None of the leading gay pornographers would consider producing them (although they were eager to market their highly-profitable backlists of videos produced "pre-AIDS" that featured bareback sex). The cheaply made videos by the upstart porn producers brought the sexual choices of an increasing number of men out of the closet and onto DVD players and computer screens.
My Fabulous Disease
Comment by: Buck
(U.S.A. : Massachusetts : Boston)
Thu., Dec. 27, 2012 at 4:14 pm EST
I would love to know how 'Dawson' is doing today. We were gym buddies for years here in Boston.
Comment by: Tim
Sat., Aug. 18, 2012 at 12:14 pm EDT
Turns out "Treasure Island" is a nuclear waste dump in the San Francisco Bay. Coincidence? Maybe Morris was just alluding to his favorite childhood book, as the official line goes. Or maybe there really is something sinister to the symbolism of his works.
Comment by: Lee
Wed., Jul. 25, 2012 at 9:43 pm EDT
I am HIV positive, yet find it sad that so many men have unprotected sex. Truthfully, I never barebacked before becoming HIV positive, and do not bareback now. My current partner is HIV negative, and I am happy to protect him.
Comment by: RLS
Fri., Jul. 20, 2012 at 1:43 am EDT
Meh, I was an HIV-negative cum dumpster after 10 years of using crystal meth. I was 14 months sober when I seroconverted, go figure.
I lol'ed at the suggestion that taking 20 loads was "beyond taboo" in 2004. When that video came out we joked about it being amateur night.
Do I sense a little buyers remorse all across the board here? TIM has a lot of hot porn. This just wasn't one of them.
Comment by: Tom
(San Francisco, CA)
Tue., Jul. 17, 2012 at 2:36 am EDT
I agree with the sentiment that questions the validity of comparing straight barebacking to gay barebacking. That's an apples to oranges thing. The average straight person has maybe ten partners in a lifetime. An average gay man can easily have that in a month, without trying or thinking. Repeat that number throughout the course of his twenties and (hopefully) thirties, and we can see the number of partners reach into the thousands. The risk is commensurate. You might as well say "motorcyclists long for a helmet free lifestyle, like their car driving counterparts" or "Americans wish they could sit down to a meal without counting calories, like the lucky Somalians". It just doesn't make sense. I wouldn't want to have been stuck with the same sex partner every night through my sexual prime. I see the web of guilt, shame and contempt straight men live in to endure monogamy. Safer barebacking is a benefit to their collective lifestyle. Not experiencing the full sensation of sex is the what we pay for ours.
Comment by: Andy
Mon., Jul. 16, 2012 at 6:02 pm EDT
There is so much going on in these videos that philosophers and sociologists have really only begun to scratch the surface. I suspect we'll be talking about them for a long time after we put this disease to rest. First, the atmosphere they present is anything but "post aids". In fact, Dawson's partners contrast with his healthy demeanor; many are clearly showing the ravages of advanced HIV infection. Second is the way this entire company drips with symbolism-from the color black, to the use of the skull which is a notorious symbol for death, TIM videos remind us of a sense of danger at every turn. Even the title looks like it was painted in blood. This isn't "post aids", this is embracing aids-it is bugchaser porn, pure and simple, it revels in danger and rebellion.
I see these videos as so damaging to people with HIV that it makes me cringe. How can we wonder if they've contributed to the perception that poz people are sluts without pointing out the obvious, that their introduction preceded one of greatest rollbacks in the dignity of poz people in a long time? They promote the concept that routine, promiscuous barebacking is something everyone does when they're poz, and we've seen a commensurate spike in all sorts of STDs. They rationalize serosorting, and have basically ghettoized us in the process while doing nothing for actual prevention. They provide illustrations to an increasingly moralistic prevention discourse that gives poz people the short end of the stick.
Was this film "important"? Yes, it was important. So was Mein Kampf.
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Comment by: Rodger
Thu., Jul. 19, 2012 at 2:33 pm EDT
I think this comment counts as a manifestation of Godwin's Law...
Comment by: Rodger
Thu., Jul. 19, 2012 at 2:35 pm EDT
I should add that since I tested poz and have begun exploring unprotected sex with other poz guys, I have actually experienced *less* STIs, not more. True story.
Comment by: Michael
Sat., Jul. 21, 2012 at 5:00 pm EDT
Prolonged bouts of abstinence don't count Rodger.
Comment by: Andy
Tue., Jul. 24, 2012 at 4:10 pm EDT
Invocations of "Godwin's law" are now so ubiquitous and reflexive that one could be forgiven for assuming holocausts start with death camps and that the victims of the nazis were the only people who've ever been killed by a society.
Within 72 hours of my first positive result, a friend of a friend killed himself after testing positive, and a positive friend died in a drug related incident. I was lucky to be diagnosed early, during an era when effective, tolerable HIV treatment that was available to most. Despite this, two years afterwards, I've witnessed a poz person die prematurely about once every two months. Most of us were set on this path at diagnosis, not before. I feel the most obvious cause for this is a sense of cognitive dissonance contributed to by these types of films that tell us we're reckless, and the fatalism and isolation reinforced by people who glorify serosegregation.
You can complain about "Godwin's Law" all you want. We're still looking at a work that has directly and indirectly contributed to people's deaths, just as Mein Kampf did. When certain things are legitimately remniscent of the Nazis, there is no virtue trying to silence concerns with accusations of "Godwin's Law".
Comment by: Vincent
(Los Angeles, CA)
Fri., Jul. 13, 2012 at 5:41 pm EDT
Mark - How incredibly well written and insightful this article is! The best you've ever written, I think. It is hard for me (HIV+ 26 yr) to imagine how or why anyone would be so careless with their health as to bareback. But the same could have been said of me 26 years ago, I suppose. Somehow, the general gay population is still unaware of the tragedy of AIDS, the many side effects, opportunistic infections, dashed dreams, etc. Thanks for articulating the complex web of opinions regarding unsafe porn sex. For me, an over sexed libido was like a monkey on my back, one that I am only too happy to say has died. How strange that the overwhelming biological urge that drew me like a moth to a flame should now be vanquished, leaving a transformed man in its place. Thanks for all that you do.
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Comment by: Mark S King
Tue., Jul. 17, 2012 at 8:24 am EDT
Thanks very much, Vincent! It's clearly different from my first-person blog posts, and I will admit it required conducting several interviews (including a behavioral scientist who studies gay porn, I kid you not) and I actually had to read research studies! It felt important for me to approach this dispassionately and carefully.
Comment by: Alfred
Fri., Aug. 3, 2012 at 10:18 pm EDT
I disagree. It's relatively pointless, actually.
Comment by: Marc P.
(Fort Lauderdale, FL)
Fri., Jul. 13, 2012 at 11:31 am EDT
Interesting article, but a couple of points are left out. For those who resent that straights face far less judgement for barebacking than gays, it is important to note that unprotected anal intercourse is THE most efficient route for sexual transmission of HIV. Unprotected vaginal intercourse is number two. Also important is the fact that the straight community has far less HIV infection than the gay male community. A single incidence of unprotected intercourse is far more likely to transmit HIV for gays than for straights, because a much higher percentage of gays have the virus. In fact, gay males, representing around 2% of Americans, represent well over 50% of new HIV infections. Lastly, there is nothing said about the costs of the drugs. A personal decision to bareback, and/or become infected with HIV, affects not only the individual, but all of society. It will cost $10,000 or more per year to keep him alive.
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Comment by: Mark S King
Mon., Jul. 16, 2012 at 4:24 pm EDT
Thanks, Marc. The facts of how HIV is transmitted are not at issue here. My point you refer to is about the double-standard that applies to gay vs. straight sex and its relative emotional, physical and spiritual meaning. Yes, gay men have a higher incidence of infection in some geographic areas (except, by the way, where you live -- most Fulton County infections are among black young women).
But Marc, sexuality is about more than mode of transmission. The desires and instincts of mankind can't be permanently changed because of a virus that only appeared a generation ago. And gay men's desire for intimacy is just as important as anyone else's -- ask a straight man to use a condom EVERY TIME for the next ten years and see how he likes it.
Actually, we don't have to wait it out, do we, since unwanted pregnancies continue, as do STD's among heterosexuals. That cost analysis of providing services, tax dollars, etc for unwanted pregnancies is staggering and far outweighs HIV/AIDS.
So the point is, mistakes are costly, but human sexual behavior doesn't follow strict guidelines and never has. So why must society consider the (very human) mistakes of gay men so much worse than those of others? I believe there is a word for that. Homophobia.
Comment by: Ricky
Thu., Jul. 12, 2012 at 7:19 pm EDT
Scary to think that people still regard bareback sex with such a blase attitude . . . always be safe and the facts and tips are here http://www.getiton.co.nz/condoms-lube/
Comment by: John-Manuel
Thu., Jul. 12, 2012 at 5:20 pm EDT
I love and miss Eric Rofes. And he was correct that "barebacking is a right." but it is a "right" in the sense that we have the "right" to abuse ourselves, even kill ourselves, if we want to. To argue that because "practically every straight guy in the world gets to do it without being told they are irresponsible, foolish or suicidal" misses the VERY BIG POINT: Straight men, certainly in America have FAR less risk of contracting HIV from barebacking with woman. There is FAR less HIV floating around the heterosexual world. The CDC says gay/bi men are 60 times more likely than hetero men and 54 times more likely than women to be diagnosed with HIV. I don't call that "liberating" by a long shot. And what is this "defiance" thing? Do we need to act out as if defying our parents? It seems to me a healthier, more mature attitude might be this: Safe sex is liberation because it frees us from the fear of getting or transmitting a still potentially fatal virus. You can have an awful lot of M2M fun when you're not worried about the price you could pay for a moment's pleasure.
Comment by: MIkey
(South Gate, CA)
Thu., Jul. 12, 2012 at 2:18 pm EDT
Yes, bareback porn is hot; hotter than safe-sex porn. And as much as we as adults like to think of ourselves as above the "T.V. influences how we think" mantra of parental watch-groups, the fact is that it's true. No matter how much we like to think we are completely capable of ignoring messages sent via media, we aren't. It's a proven fact. The more we celebrate bareback porn by watching, buying, sharing, and supporting then the more we celebrate the spread of all types of STD's, not just HIV.
Is it liberating? I don't see how. One night of "liberation" can chain you to a disease that there may not be a cute for. It's insulting for those of us who everyday must live with the fact that, for the sake of others and ourselves, there are certain things we must and mustn't do. These porn media companies are a slap in the face of those of us who rally against the spread of HIV and all the other venereal diseases through the advocation of protection. These porn "actors" diminish us as a community.
Comment by: Rodger
Thu., Jul. 12, 2012 at 2:15 pm EDT
This is an interesting, thoughtful and mostly balanced piece. I appreciate the effort that went into it and non-hysterical tone is sets for this conversation.
A few things though. I don't see it as sadly revealing that Dawson turned to BB porn as a poz man. Better that than doing so as a neg man, which would have been much riskier for him. The tops in the film are taking a risk whether they know the bottom's status or not.
I only got seriously involved in BB sex after seroconverting. I generally avoided it before then as a risk-reduction strategy to stay neg. When I turned poz it was essentially an accident and I couldn't change it. So after 2+ years of an undetectable VL, I decided to explore it.
It's way more fulfilling physically and emotionally, and the relationships I establish with men I meet on BB sites like BBRT are the only place I actually feel safe disclosing that I'm poz. This is fantastic and empowering. That I can disclose and have BB sex reduces my risk of being busted, which can happen if I have zero-risk sex without disclosing (such as giving a neg guy a BJ). And widely disclosing my status would be very unsafe for me on every level, including my job.
Also, seeing unprotected sex in porn has had zero affect on my behaviour, and it never has over the 25 years I've been sexually active, before I turned poz or after.
Comment by: Scott
Wed., Jul. 11, 2012 at 11:19 am EDT
This is a really stupid article. You leave out the fact that Dawson looks so freaking high in these videos its not funny. Ofcourse he is grinning is EXTREMELY fucked up probably on Meth. How brave of him to take so many cum loads, or how dangerous? What a waste of an article. Why dont you write about all of those with HIV that continue to do amazing things like me who went to graduate school and got my PHD after finding out I was positive, not deciding I wanted to get filled with strangers sperm. I dont really care what this dude did, but why write about it?
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Comment by: Mark S King
Mon., Jul. 16, 2012 at 4:34 pm EDT
Someone must have dozed off during the article. Or else they wold have read Dawson's "sadly revealing" choices, or the fact that young gay men will be exposed to high-risk behaviors online, or the challenges of new prevention messages.
I've been doing HIV education for 25 years, Scott. And anyone involved in designing prevention messages will tell you that we cannot change behavior unless we first try to understand it. Your comment strongly suggests we simply not write about it, or the issues involved here. How exactly is that moving the fight against HIV forward, to ignore the risk behaviors of an entire group of people? Just ignore it. Huh. Oh, and call it stupid and accuse them of being drug addicts. Interesting strategy.
Congrats on the PhD, Scott. I might have expected a more nuanced vocabulary...
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