The Age of Promiscuity: Gay Male Sex Before AIDS

In the early days of the AIDS epidemic “promiscuity” and public sex were frequently cited as the primary causes of the epidemic—and while gay men’s sexual behavior certainly played a part, there were many other factors at play: sexual freedom, personal development, collective intimacy, community building, and cultural expression.

This seminar will explore the gay male sexual subculture that existed in NYC before the epidemic and will examine the impact of HIV/AIDS on gay male sexuality by contrasting the 1970s with the gay male subculture of today. In this seminar we will examine the films, art, and architectural spaces that played such an important role in the development of this sexual subculture. 

Recommended reading before the seminar begins:

There are a number of novels that give vivid portraits of gay male life during the 1970s. We would recommend Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance for its powerful atmospheric story that brings together both the comic and the darker aspects of the period. Other novels suggested are following Holleran’s:

  • Andrew Holleran, Dancer from the Dance (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1978);
  • Larry Kramer, Faggots (New York: Grove Press, 1978);
  • Samuel R. Delany, The Mad Man (New York Richard Kasak Books, 1994);
  • Brad Gooch, The Golden Age of Promiscuity (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1996).

Seminar leaders: Jeffrey Escoffier and Kalle Westerling.


Gay Sex in the 1970s: “The most libertine period that the Western world has known since Rome.”

March 14, 6.30–8.00pm, Room 9204, The Graduate Center, CUNY

A showing of Joseph Lovett’s 2006 documentary “Gay Sex in the 1970s” which explores the important role that “promiscuous” sexual activity played during the seventies and how through it gay men explored their sexuality and how it helped gay men to bond. Meet the director and some of the men in the film: Joseph Lovett, director of Gay Sex in the Seventies and others.

Suggested readings: Andrew Holleran, “Notes on Promiscuity,” from Ground Zero (William Morrow & Company, 1988); Edward Delph, “The Erotic Oases,” pp. 19–34, from Edward William Delph, The Silent Community (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1978).

Pornographic Filmmakers Document the Gay Male Sexual Subculture of the 1970s

March 21, 6.30–8.00pm, Room 9204, The Graduate Center, CUNY

Soon after Stonewall a group of early gay porn filmmakers shot porn films that documented gay sexual culture: men having sex in porn theaters, bathhouses, the subways, and the piers. See clips from these films. Whit Strub, the editor of Porn Chic and the Sex Wars and Jeffrey Escoffier, author of Bigger Than Life: The History of Gay Porn Cinema from Beefcake to Hardcore will discuss these important “archival and historical documents” of sexuality.

Suggested reading: Jeffrey Escoffier, “Sex in the Seventies: Gay Porn Cinema as an Archive in the History of Sexuality,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 26, no. 1 (January 2017): 88–113.

At the Gaiety: Strippers, Hookers and Others

March 28, 6.30–8.00pm, Room 9204, The Graduate Center, CUNY

When the Gaiety Theater, just off Times Square, closed in 2005 it had been a gay burlesque theater for almost 30 years. Pioneer pornographer, Jack Deveau’s last film, Times Square Strip, was shot there. Come see clips from the film and meet porn stars Rod Barry, Will Clark, Aaron Tanner and other performers who had danced at the Gaiety over the years. Kalle Westerling will introduce and moderate.

Suggested Reading: Richard Tewksbury, “A Dramaturgical Analysis of Male Strippers,” The Journal of Men’s Studies 2, no. 4 (May 1994): 325–342; Jeffrey Escoffier, “Porn Star/Stripper/Escort – Economic and Sexual Dynamics in a Sex Work Career,” Journal of Homosexuality 53, no 1–2 (2007): 173–200; Joseph R. G. DeMarco, “Power and Control in Gay Strip Clubs,” Journal of Homosexuality 53, no. 1–2 (2007): 111–127; Elizabeth Redden, “Stripping His Way to a Ph.D.,” Inside Higher Ed, June 23, 2008.

The Great Porn Theaters of New York: Adonis Memories

April 4, 6.30–8.00pm, Room 9205, The Graduate Center, CUNY

New York had at least 40 porn theaters where soft-core and hardcore porn—straight and gay films—played, and where gay sex frequently took place. The Adonis was one of the grandest and one of the last to close in 1989. This session will see excerpts from the documentary production of the Adonis Memories. Original cast members and playwright Alan Bounville will perform excerpts and discuss what happened at the Adonis—which one former visitor characterized as a “fuck palace” and an “Odeon of cum.”

Suggested reading: “Lost Adult Theaters of New York: Then and Now,” The Rialto Report (Blog), May 8, 2016; Samuel R. Delany, pp. 1–18 from Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (New York: New York University Press, 1999); Andrew Holleran, “Ground Zero,” from Ground Zero (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1988).

Closing the Bathhouses and the Rise of the Commercial Sex Party

April 18, 6.30–8.00pm, Room 9204, The Graduate Center, CUNY

The promiscuity of the gay male sexual subculture was widely blamed for the spread of HIV and in 1985 the NYC Health Department closed most of the bathhouses in New York, soon private commercial sex parties took the place of bathhouses and other public sex venues. Guest speaker: Etienne Meunier, Columbia University.

Suggested reading: Douglas Crimp, “How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic,” from AIDS: Cultural Analysis, Cultural Activism, edited by Douglas Crimp (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988), 237–270; Etienne Meunier, “No Attitude, No Standing Around: The Organization of Social and Sexual Interaction at a Gay Male Private Sex Party in New York City,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 43, no. 4 (May 2014): 685–695.

About the Seminar Leaders

Jeffrey Escoffier writes on the history and sociology of sexuality.  He is the author of Bigger Than Life: The History of Gay Porn Cinema from Beefcake to Hardcore (Running Press, 2009), American Homo: Community and Perversity (University of California Press, 1998) and edited Sexual Revolution (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2003), a compilation of the most important writing on sex during the 1960s and 70s. He has taught at the University of California at Berkeley and Davis, Rutgers University, The New School University, and at Barnard College, Columbia University. He is a Visiting Scholar at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.

Kalle Westerling is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theatre and Performance and a Futures Initiative Graduate Fellow at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and Co-Director of Co-Director of HASTAC Scholars, a vibrant student network within The Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory (HASTAC). Currently, he is completing his dissertation on the history and aesthetics of male-identified bodies in 20th-century burlesque and 21st-century boylesque, “The Roots and Routes of Boylesque: Queering Male Striptease and Burlesque in New York City from 1930s Golden Age Burlesque to the New York Boylesque Festival in the 2010s.”