Gay Sex In The 70s

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The documentary Gay Sex In the 70s both does what it says on the tin and completely fails to at the same. Joseph F. Lovett’s doc is a mixture of interviews, vintage photos and footage that look at the idea that the gay rights movement in the 1970s led to increased visibility and a more stridently upfront attitude, which resulted in an explosion of gay decadence and sex, with men screwing each other all over the shop. This was then brought to an abrupt end by the emergence of AIDS in the early 80s.

It’s a potentially interesting subject, and indeed this documentary isn’t the first to paint the 70s as some sort of halcyon age of gay free love that’s gone forever. Its problem though is that it never seems to get to the heart of anything, merely hinting at things that it doesn’t develop. For example, the move from being closeted, furtive and at risk of being jailed and/or ostracised from society, through the Stonewall riots and gay rights fight, to a position of ‘We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it’, is skimmed over at record speed. There are hints that the decadence and rampant sex of the 70s may have partially been a response to the bashing down of the closet doors, but the documentary never really goes anywhere with it.

Likewise the dangers and moral dimensions of the all-sex-all-the-time attitude are brought up and then largely shrugged off, with the interviewees talking about the possibility of getting beaten up, robbed or killed, or of drowning after falling through the floor of a dilapidated pier (which was one of New York’s favourite sex hangouts), but the men seem to treat that as par for the course, with the documentary never pushing into why these men would go to such dangerous extremes for brief anonymous sex.

Was it the relief of finally being allowed to be open about their sexuality making them feeling braver and more untouchable than perhaps they ought to have? Were they just part of a wider explosion of sexual freedom (it was the era of porno chic, after all)? How big were the risks really? Did the fact they were men and that there was no chance of pregnancy (as well as the fact there was comparatively little health info for gay people at the time) mean they thought they might as well just screw around continually? Well, if you wanna know, don’t bother with this, as while the documentary hints at all of them, it has little to say about any.

Even with AIDS, Gay Sex In The 70s never really seems to know how to handle it, so it gets summed up very briefly, with a few brief hints at the effect it had on the gay community, but that’s it. It’s blatantly obvious from the interviewees that it was much bigger than that, many of whom have been very active in the battle against the disease, but all the documentary seems to want to say is that it was a shame the party had to end. It’s particularly frustrating when you have people talking about how great life was until hell came (i.e. AIDS), but then it cuts away without actually asking any pertinent questions about what that means.

However the documentary’s major failure is to assume that the experience of 18 men who spent the 1970s shagging their way across New York, really sums up gay sex in the 70s. Was New York typical? Are these guys even typical of New York, or were they just the most visible aspect of gay life then (assuming they were)? Have the men slightly rose-tinted the era both because it was their youth and because of the devastating impact AIDS had on them and their friends in the ensuing years? The documentary doesn’t seem to care.

The result is that because it hints without ever exploring, the film largely becomes an account of where you could have had anonymous sex in New York in the 70s, moving from location to location with the interviewees describing what it was like. And quite frankly, who cares about that, especially when the doc keeps brushing up against far more interesting ideas and offering faint whispers of what was going on under the sex, but never properly talks about it? It was a vitally important time for gay rights, but all this documentary can really offer is a travel guide to the seedy places of yore.

There’s an undercurrent of this being made for younger gay people, so they can learn about their history. Teaching gay people who are utterly ignorant of the struggle that happened not that many years ago is a noble cause, but not only will Gay Sex In The 70s tell them very little except that some people had a lot of sex and that little of it was in their bedroom, but it may also alienate them by treating everything back then as somehow unique, whether it is or not. It’s slightly wagging finger, going ‘you don’t know you were born’, even though the documentary seems to have little idea what life is like now for the gay men who were the same age as the director and interviewees were in the 70s. Without any context, and with such a narrow focus on the particular experiences of some rampantly sexual men in New York 40 years ago, it all ends up feeling slightly pointless and a wasted opportunity.

Overall Verdict: Despite plenty of potential and hints at some really interesting things about gay life in the 70s, it’s focus on a subsection of New Yorkers and its failure to do much more than to subjectively say ‘wasn’t shagging a lot great?’ turns Gay Sex In The 70s into a rather pointless jaunt through the many public sex hangouts of NY four decades ago.

Reviewer: Tim Isaac

This review previously featured on Movie Muser

Overall Rating 4outof10

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