Life

Skyn Tight

With the demand for condomless gay porn on the rise, studios and performers not able to go full bareback have found a “magical” solution.

GIF of a condom-covered banana, then a banana that is condomless
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

When you think of straight porn, condoms are probably not the first image that comes to mind. That’s because straight studios have long relied on frequent STI testing in order to produce movies without them. But gay male porn is a different story. From the onset of the AIDS crisis until fairly recently, the gay side of the industry has tested less and used condoms more frequently, making rubbers a standard presence in scenes and performer HIV status a more private matter. But with advances in HIV treatment—notably PrEP, the drug regimen that prevents HIV infection, and the medical consensus that “undetectable = untransmittable” for those living with the virus—the risk of passing HIV can be reduced to essentially zero. This has meant a rise in condomless (or “bareback”) sex among gay men generally and a parallel shift toward bareback sex scenes in gay porn. Today, we’re getting to a point where most gay porn studios are making some bareback movies, and many are tossing condoms entirely.

Or at least it looks like they are. Despite recent medical advances, there are many reasons why a porn studio would prefer to shoot scenes with condoms. Not all HIV-negative performers are necessarily on PrEP. Local and national laws surrounding porn production and STI testing can be tricky to navigate (especially when you employ performers from different countries), and testing windows don’t always line up with shooting schedules. Perhaps the top performer is “gay for pay” (i.e., straight) and is squeamish about the vicissitudes of anal sex.

In each of these cases, it’s just easier just to grab condoms. But doing so puts porn purveyors at risk of running against increased viewer desire for “raw.” The solution? Use rubbers, but find a way to hide them. Among industry wizards, this trick is called the “Magic Condom.”

Medium shots and moody lighting

Picture this: During the foreplay sections of a gay porn scene, the penetrative (top) performer does not have a condom on. The camera zooms in on the condomless dick slapping against the bottom’s ass. The scene then cuts to a medium shot from another angle, where the top fully penetrates the bottom. But if you look closely, the top is now wearing a condom. However, that condom will be incredibly hard to spot: It’s likely to be low-profile, nearly skin tone in color, and without any latex bunching at the base.

“It used to be that everyone wanted to use Trojan Magnums because of their prestige, but they are too thick and look too obvious,” explains mr. Pam, a (cis woman) director who is known for bringing Hollywood-level cinematography to gay porn. “We like to use Skyn brand condoms [now] as they have the lowest profile. Sometimes we use moodier lighting to conceal the condom.” Taken together, these techniques render the condom essentially invisible—at least during penetration. “There’s some things you can’t do,” cautions Pam, “like pulling out the dick and slapping it on the bottom’s ass. It will be obvious they are wearing a condom.”

One thing that viewers may not be aware of is how much time passes on set in that split second the Magic Condom happens. According to Pam, it’s common to shoot all the condomless foreplay scenes early in the day, and then take a break before penetrative sex. In this break, they will shoot marketing photos, let the crew have a coffee, and give the bottom more time to douche. It could be 30–90 minutes before everyone convenes to shoot the penetrative scenes, and yet in the final film, it will seem like the top just slipped right in (usually just with the aid of spit, rather than all the lube that has been actually been applied off-screen—another bit of porn sorcery). This fluidity is the magic of the Magic Condom—if the maneuver is executed successfully, most viewers will think they are watching an instance of real, and preternaturally effortless, bareback sex.

The business of bareback

While the Magic Condom might seem sneaky, such subterfuge is necessary for producers—without it, people might not watch at all.

According to mr. Pam, who’s shot both condomed and bare, a large majority of new gay scenes being produced today are bareback (indeed, only two U.S.-based studios, GayHoopla and GayRoom, still use condoms 100 percent of the time), and the obviously condomed variety “can be hard to sell.” “I’ve given away porn DVDs at bars,” she says, “and the boys say ‘Oh, this has condoms? I’m not interested.’ ” But that doesn’t mean they weren’t unknowingly watching the occasional rubber anyway: Pam estimates that she could shoot upward of 50 Magic Condom scenes in a given year (though this is declining as true bareback becomes a more established practice).

For Pam’s productions with a large, established studio like NakedSword, condom use is a business decision, not a social statement. Companies of its size, which generally already self-regulate in order to protect talent, are also under more scrutiny to follow the law when it comes to performer STI testing and safety. (An amateur pornographer can rent a hotel room for a weekend and shoot crazy raw sex scenes, and not necessarily get in trouble for it.) NakedSword, which works in multiple states, has to adhere closely to state law for protecting their performers and providing safe working environments. Bareback is a higher standard to pass, and so Magic Condom scenes may be the better business move.

To wit: Recently, Pam was sent to England for a prestige shoot, and the intention was for it to be bareback. However, navigating the testing procedures and safety standards of two different countries proved too complicated, so they used condoms. In Pam’s view, having to drop plans for a bareback scene did not lower the quality of the film: “Sex with a condom can be just as authentic as bareback,” she says. “It’s just different.” But viewers seem to feel otherwise—hence the need for the Magic Condom.

A horny medium?

So how did we get here? When Pam started out working in gay porn in the late ’90s (after going to grad school at San Francisco State University for film and media), the mood was completely different. Condoms were standard for almost all gay porn being produced, and performers would often be shown putting them on. Pam even tried different ways of eroticizing condoms, such as having the bottom performer put a condom on the top’s dick using his mouth. Condoms were the instruments of gay sexual liberation in a post-AIDS world, and they had a hallowed place in gay porn (and gay culture more broadly) for decades. But that was a different time, and those old scenes with their bulky condoms now seem as outdated as their VHS-Camcorder aesthetics.

According to Pam, she started to see a shift toward bareback porn around 2010. At this time, gay men’s attitudes toward condoms had already grown cold, and their use of condoms was consistently declining. In 2012, PrEP was introduced, which helped underscore the fact that condoms were not the only way to prevent HIV. A new sexual era was dawning, and its porn changed with the times.

For gay men today, bareback sex can be a mentally and emotionally freeing practice. If done with the help of PrEP and antiretrovirals, a condomless sex act can be a sort of triumph over the fear of HIV, a terror deeply ingrained in many of us. It makes sense that we’re attracted to experiencing that triumph in fantasy as well as real life. But does appreciating new freedoms (for those with access to the necessary resources) mean that we have to break totally with the valuable customs of the past? What does it mean about the community’s psychosexual evolution that many of us now find condoms so intrusive that we need to be tricked by editing and lighting in order to get off?

It may be that the overwhelming shift towards bareback porn in the gay world signals the emergence of a new norm—a world where condomless sex is the standard, where condoms are so alien they have be hidden, even when porn production needs demand them. Indeed, as gay men try to navigate the sexual playing field right now, guys who want to use condoms often report a feeling of exclusion, like kids sitting at the loser table in a high school cafeteria. Even as it enables a new kind of intimacy for some, the move away from condoms is creating divisions in the community, especially among men who aren’t comfortable with barebacking’s increased risk of STIs outside of HIV. And because porn is a medium where sexual scripts and norms are reinforced, it’s doubtful these tensions will let up anytime soon (unless the pendulum swings back, and a new STI epidemic requires a return to condoms).

That said, mr. Pam has a vision for the future of porn that might be something to which we should all aspire. “In a perfect world,” she says, “the models would choose whether they want to use condoms or not.” Ideally, this heady moment of freedom and sexual liberation will soon calm into a new equilibrium in which we accept a variety of safer sex practices in our porn, as well as in real life, and learn to better appreciate the boundaries of our sexual partners. Perhaps we could take a cue from porn and want to know all our bareback partners have been recently tested. In that arguably healthier scenario, the Magic Condom would lose its power. And the hotness of a sexual encounter, on set or at home, would be judged more by what the men involved do with their dicks rather than what they have on them.