On the Political Necessity of Seeing a Gay Man’s Erection on HBO

Hey guys, why so shy? 

Photo courtesy John P. Johnson/HBO

It’s not news: Gay men love penises. They unzip jeans to get at them. They jerk them off and suck them. Sometimes, they insert them into willing partners’ anuses. Then, they ejaculate. For many a dude, the dick is the raison d’être of homosexuality.

Yet, when the HBO series Looking concludes in six weeks, viewers of the most ambitious television show starring gay men ever produced will almost certainly not have seen the essence of (gay) male sexuality: the erect penis.

This is inexcusable. While it’s possible that Looking’s lack of rigid man meat is part of executive producer Andrew Haigh’s understated personal aesthetic, history suggests that the real blame lies with the network. While ostensibly breaking barriers by producing a gay show for a general audience, HBO’s failure to spotlight members at attention shows the network is bowing to censorious TV convention—and perpetuating a disturbing fear of queer people.

This dick-shyness is not, as you might expect, a legal necessity. A 2012 Supreme Court decision suggested that the Federal Communications Commission’s ability to police broadcast television may be legally shaky, but regardless, cable networks were already liberated. That’s right: Though it can bluster about it, the FCC has no real say in what HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, et al. put on the air. Yet, even as a faux load of jism splattered a cast member of Girls last year, the flesh cannon that shot it inexplicably remains a TV taboo. Why?

It’s a mystery. HBO isn’t beholden to the same advertiser pressures that rein-in other networks, and it certainly isn’t prudish—from 1st and Ten (1984-91) to True Detective, its series have, often gratuitously, showcased titties and male and female asses. Shows such as Deadwood and Boardwalk Empire have smiled on vaginas. And flaccid wieners—including, most memorably, Louis C.K.’s in Lucky Louie—have flitted across HBO productions, helping the network earn its annual shower of Emmys.

HBO couldn’t comment in time for this piece. But, whatever the reason—convention or sexism—its boner ban is real. After a few painstaking hours of phallicular research, I can find only one hard dick in the history of cable television’s non-documentary original programming. It appeared mid-handjob on the forgotten HBO show Tell Me You Love Me on Sept. 9, 2007, and caused a stir. (Catch a glimpse of peen I missed? Tweet @ediesedgwyck, #isawahardcockonhbo.)

Of course, though we didn’t see Michael Douglas or Matt Damon’s schlongs in Behind the Candelabra, it’s not just homos’ boners getting the shaft. When HBO, for example, revealed Theon Grayjoy’s heterosexual package not long before its mutilation on Game of Thrones, said wang was as flaccid as Grayjoy’s claim to the Iron Throne. It’s clear that for HBO, erection rejection is an equal-opportunity sport.

But here’s the thing: Looking needs rock-hard dongs more than the mythical kingdom of Westeros. Since homo sapiens first drew on cave walls, straight sex has been depicted ad nauseam in popular media—and queer people have usually been left out. Now, with gay marriage bans about to fall in states as conservative as Virginia and Utah, our society won’t be liberated from centuries of homophobia until we see a gay member with its head held high.

Since Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for indecency in 1895, we’ve come a long way. Looking, if bland, is historically significant. For 30 minutes on a mainstream network best known for Tony Soprano’s Bada Bing, a gay couple negotiates the politics of a threesome as a WASPy video game designer figures out whether a Latino bouncer is up to his mother’s standards. Gay men were little more than a punchline in popular culture 20 years ago. This is progress.

But as critics, gay and straight, cheer Looking on from the sidelines, they’re ignoring the elephant in the room. The elephant, in this case, being a dude’s throbbing penis ready to ejaculate on or in another dude. Looking’s gauzy love scenes, often shot from the waist up, just don’t give us enough of the flagrante of in flagrante delicto.

As poet Wallace Stevens put it: “Not ideas about the thing, but the thing itself.” In the name of truth, justice, and the American way, we need a homo’s hard dick on TV now—even if it beats its straight counterpart to broadcast. That would be a sign of true national gay pride.

Call it affirmative XXX action.