Everything you wanted to know about 2nd gen metrosexuality & ‘androgyny on androgens’ but were afraid to ask
Originally published in 2018 (in Spanish) in the Catalan anthropological periodical Quaderns (No. 34, 2018). Expanded from a feature written for GQ Style (‘Attack of the Spornosexuals’), and a lecture I gave at Men in Movement in Barcelona in 2015, organised by UOC and Begonya Enguix. This is the introduction.
Janet: Well, I don’t like men with too many muscles.
Frank: I didn’t make him for you!
– The Rocky Horror Show
Four decades ago, Brad and Janet, a very straight, just-married couple, ‘caught a flat’ and knocked on the door of a bisexual alien in fishnets, busy in his lab making a pretty, smooth, muscular young man with blond hair and a tan who ‘is good for relieving… my tension.’ A night of all-singing, all-dancing cross-dressing, schlock-horror and sexual experimentation follows. The Rocky Horror Show was first produced in London in 1973 at the height of the glam rock era and proved to be outrageously prophetic.
Rocky, the show’s namesake and Dr Frank N. Furter’s beefy blond love-toy in a spangly posing pouch, seems to have become, unwittingly or not, the template for masculinity in the 21st Century.
Though today’s Rockys, in addition to being often more inked, pierced, and adorably bearded than the original muscular sex toy, are a lot busier because they are also their own Dr Frank N. Furters – turning themselves into their ideal(ised) man. They do this in the laboratories of the gymnasium, tanning and beauty salons, with ingredients sourced from Boots, Holland & Barret and BulkPowders.com, and recipes, inspirations and ‘plans’ downloaded from YouTube, Instagram, and Men’s Health magazine. Which since 2009 has been the best-selling men’s magazine in the world, filling its pages with detailed instructions and illustrations on how to transform yourself into a… Men’s Health cover star. Being a male glamour model – or ‘fitness model’ – is perhaps the masculine aspiration today.
Ours is the era, you can hardly have failed to notice – unless you’ve been trying very hard not to – of the sexualised, totally aestheticized and completely shameless male body. And booty. A sexed-up, stripped down, shredded, shaggable, shareable, ‘likeable’, saleable, ‘swole’, physique is the must-have accessory for today’s young men. And boy, are they willing to work for it.
These are the spornosexuals – eagerly self-objectifying, gym-worshipping, heavily ‘supplemented’ second generation metrosexuals who want to be wanted for their bodies more than their – very skimpy, lycra-rich – wardrobes. The desire to be desired, always the self-regarding heart of metrosexuality, has been turbo-charged, personalised and pornolised for a selfie-admiring world. Good-looking is no longer enough. You have to be ‘the total package’. You have to be HOT. You have to be HORNY. You have to be, frankly, fuckable.
At the multipex – let’s finally drop that overdressed ‘l’ – there’s so much naked, pumped, primed man-flesh on display these days that male stripper movies such as Magic Mike XXL just seem like musical versions of today’s action movies. The ones starring Chris Hemsworth’s ravishing bi’s & tris, and huge hammer – and Chris Evan’s oiled bazookas.
That famous lab scene in the first Captain America (2011) where the geeky-skinny Evans (the wonders of CGI!) is transformed, with radioactive steroid injections and a short spell in a giant microwave, into an oiled-up Rocky/Men’s Health cover star – cue everyone’s jaw in the lab hitting the slab – has become the meta-narrative of most action movies. Slutty male superheroes.
So pudgy Parks and Recreation’s Chris Pratt is transformed into a stonkingly ripped intergalactic sex god for Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), and everyone is gobsmacked by this ‘special effect’. Sequels such as Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (2017) probably contractually require a topless scene – lit from below to better accentuate the pecs – to prove that our star is still transformed, still got it, still hot and worthy of recycled Men’s Health features on ‘How to Get Ripped Again Like Chris Hemsworth/Pratt!’.
After his transformation in 2014, which gave hope to heavy-set men everywhere – or merely ensnared them in impossible expectations – Pratt candidly admitted that he was now ‘totally objectified’:
‘”A huge part of how my career has shifted is based on the way that I look, on the way that I’ve shaped my body to look…. I think it’s OK, I don’t feel appalled by it. I think it’s appalling that for a long time only women were objectified, but I think if we really want to advocate for equality, it’s important to even things out. Not objectify women less but objectify men just as often as we objectify women.”’
Mr Pratt’s selfless spornosexual wish has already come true. In mainstream media, men are frequently more objectified than women.
Even the ‘masterful’ Mr Grey is also a ‘totally objectified’ spornosexual. In the 2.23 min trailer for 50 Shades of Grey (2015), a film that was protested by some feminists for what they saw as its demeaning treatment of women and sexist attitudes (despite being written, directed and produced by women), there are no less than seven topless shots of Jamie Dornan’s smooth, gym-sculpted torso, including a mirror shot which gives you a simultaneous, spit-roasting front and rear view of it, and also a shot of him playing his grand piano topless. Compared to one-and-a-half of Ms Steele (Dakota Johnson), sans nipples. Oh, and one side shot of her panties — with Dornan’s cute face in front of them.
In the UK, while 50 Shades of Gray was strutting Gray’s stuff in theatres, the London Underground ran a poster campaign for an online supplement company called Bulkpowders.com which featured a completely naked, depilated, attractive muscular young man stepping out of a tube carriage, his genitals discretely pixelated, gripping a protein shaker (the UK supplement business is booming – nearly half of British males aged 16-24 consume sports nutrition products). In case you missed the point, the strapline for the poster shouted: ‘REVEAL YOURSELF!’ Nobody batted an eye at this spornographic propaganda.
A similar campaign around the same time for Protein World, another supplement company, featuring a slim, attractive young woman in a bikini and the strapline ‘IS YOUR BODY BEACH-READY?’ resulted in complaints, protests, vandalism, countless why-oh-why? columns and questions being asked in Parliament.
On TV, the ‘structure’ of ‘structured reality’ shows popular with young people nowadays, such as Geordie Shore, The Only Way is Essex and Love Island, is frequently the carefully crafted, rarely-covered-up V-shape of the male stars’ torsos. 2017’s season of Love Island, a show in which men and women have to couple up (heterosexually), the most popular couple winning prize money (and endless nightclub PA appearances), featured women contestants in bikinis sitting around on bean bags discussing the size of their implanted bean bags while in the background the men worked out in their trunks, pumping up their glistening organic bean bags as the camera zoomed in. On Love Island the men are the real glamour models, and the camera lens makes sure you don’t forget it – as they relentlessly advertise their wares and describe themselves as ‘the total package’.
Such is the blatant spornosexuality of a ‘heterosexist’ show like Love Island (gay campaigners have complained that it has no LGBT contestants) that it ends up being a kind of comedy of compulsory heterosexuality. This year two of the prettiest (straight) young men had a passionate ‘bromance’ that made them the by far the most popular contestants and the show’s unofficial winners – and were rewarded, of course, with their own TV series. Spornosexuality is twice as hot when coupled.
But it isn’t just reality TV where spornosexuality is rampant. Sports coverage, once the squarest and straightest kind of TV around, is also full of it these days – in an HD age the sporting male body is almost as much an aesthetic and sexual pleasure as it is a competitive one. Especially during 2016’s Olympics coverage from Rio. In fact, Rio should probably be remembered as the Olympics where male stripping was finally recognised as an Olympic sport – and where a tiny island in the South Pacific took on all the major sporting superpowers and won, before a starting pistol was even fired. When the flagbearer for Tonga, Pita Taukatofua, 32, made his sensational appearance at the opening ceremony, wearing just a grass skirt, a gallon of baby oil and a saucy grin – gripping his massive flagpole with both hands – he melted Sugar Loaf Mountain and fused the internet. Viewers around the world took to social media – and then the MSM – to swoon and award him gold.
Other more traditional Olympic sports are no less sexualised these days. The spornographic pleasures of men’s Olympic swimming are so widely acknowledged now that a meme was widely circulated online which mocked the placement of results banners on TV screens covering male swimmers’ tiny swimsuits, claiming it made it look like they were porn stars. And those Speedos – which gaily advertise male versatility, i.e., packets and buns, active and passive – keep getting tinier. So much so that Team GB’s swimming Speedos seemed to have been replaced by thongs (well, it was Brazil, after all).
This reduction turned out to be down to out gay diver and male pin-up Tom Daley who had advised Team GB designer Stella McCartney that the trunks he wore at the London Olympics in 2012 were ‘too big’ (Daley is almost as famous for his highly sensual post-dive showering in front of billions as he is for his actual diving.) He claimed his concern was entirely practical: “They have to be small because everything has to stay in place,” he explained. “If you’re spinning around the last thing you want to do is have something come out of place!”.
Whether or not the viewing public shared Tom’s concern here the end result was that there was even less fabric to come between the voyeuring public and the divers as they spun around in extreme close-up slo-mo widescreen. And even more opportunity to admire Olympian ‘obliques’ – or ‘cum gutters’, to use the more anatomical form.
Gymnastics, forced to perform in vests and long pants, seems to have got somewhat jealous of all the attention diving has been receiving. Sam Mikulak the captain of the US gymnastics team suggested just before the Rio Games began: ‘Maybe we should perform with our shirts off’ so that people could see ‘how yoked we are’. Although he was ostensibly suggesting ways in which male gymnastics could become more popular in the US and step out of the shadow of women’s gymnastics, he was also expressing a timeless truth about his sport and gymnastics itself – ‘gymnastics’ derives from the Ancient Greek for ‘exercise naked’. Greek gymnasia were full of naked male youths – being admired by older Greek men. As were the Ancient Olympics at Delphi, though here maiden women (definitely not married women) could join in the gawping. Gymnastics is the original spornographic sport.
So, when US silver medallist gymnast Danell Leyva seemingly took his captain’s advice, he was also giving us a history lesson. During the gymnastics gala towards the end of the Rio games he danced on the parallel bars and slowly peeled off his top, to loud audience whoops, and then continued to perform half naked, in a kind of aerial Magic Mike routine.
In case diving and gymnastics or athletics in general seems ‘too gay’ for you, please note that even footie, once the very acme of ‘no-homo’ ‘authentic’ alpha male masculinity, has also apparently embraced the ambiguity and submissiveness of spornosexuality with a big, sweaty, topless, post-match man-hug. The world’s most famous, most talented and most glamorous footballer (note how we expect nowadays, post Beckham, these accolades to not only be connected but also interchangeable) is Cristiano Ronaldo, who regularly pouts in his pants for Mr Armani on the side of buses (and now for his own underwear line). When he’s not on TV – in his pants again – grinningly advertising dodgy muscle-toning gadgets that bear a strange resemblance to sex toys. Though of course the same could be said of Ronaldo. He seems to enjoy presenting himself as a kind of cheeky sex robot.
To be sure, like many of today’s footballers Ronaldo is following in the footsteps of metrosexual poster-boy David Beckham – but Beckham’s body though athletic seemed mostly untouched by the gym, if not by Photoshop. By contrast, Cristiano’s ‘hench’ and ripped body, which he likes to show off at the end of matches, looks like it has been Photoshopped in real-life. Which is a working definition of a spornosexual.
The spornosexual’s body is decidedly post-production. Where Beckham is metrosexual 1.0. Ronaldo is 2.0 (though he would probably rate himself 5.0). Ronaldo, like a lot of young men today wants it all: the fame, the success, the money, the body and also the prettiness and the sensitivity, the dominance and the submissiveness. Over the years he has been the subject of a viciously metro/homophobic campaign in the UK tabloid media because he likes the colour pink, wore a flower behind his ear on holiday, cries, is openly physically affectionate towards male friends, wears Speedos, is Portuguese, and most particularly for being apparently completely unafraid of being called gay – or at all interested in what English press thinks of him. (Unlike Beckham, who has always been very careful to cultivate the ladies and gentlemen of the press.)
Nor is spornosexuality something restricted to the mediated world of Hollywood, TV, sports and advertising. Spornosexuals are everywhere – trying to get your attention, and usually succeeding, despite your best efforts to pretend you haven’t notice them. Those sights burned on your retina at the beach, the park, the bus stop, and of course, that factory of the 21st Century where we pay for the privilege of labouring, the gym. Legions of buffed and waxed, possibly bearded (but always pube-less) men with meticulously designed workout routines and obsessive diets and gym bags full of creatine, whey, hair and skin products, sweating to turn themselves into a hot commodity they can upload to the online marketplace of Facebook Instagram Twitter.
In the digital age, hotness will reproduce/repost you more quickly than heterosexuality – or even being good at footie. And who knows? It may get you your own YouTube channel, supplement line or – the summit of masculine success today (after the cover of a glossy magazine) – your own underwear line.
Instinctively, the spornosexual knows that all this eager self-objectification is about celebrating not male virility so much as male versatility – and the reinvention and redesign of the male body as no longer something simply instrumental, something to make things and money, to fight wars, extract coal, make babies and put the rubbish out, but a thing for giving and especially for receiving pleasure. Unlike Rocky, who ran away from Dr Frank N. Furter, they’re fully reconciled to their role – and work even harder on their barbell lunges, for that all-important come-hither bubble-butt.
Hence when straight family man and reality TV sporno star Dan Osborne is quoted in a gay magazine alongside a naked (arse up) spread that he’s had his bum pinched by men, instead of rushing to press his back against the metaphorical wall he says: “I don’t mind that at all. Maybe it’s because a guy knows how hard it is to train, so they appreciate it more.” Or when the mostly straight Warwick University rowing team pose for yet another one of their naked charity calendars rammed with well-bred, smooth bubble-butts ‘fighting homophobia in sport’, they tell us: “Regardless of gender or sexuality, we are inviting you into that moment with us.”
Spornosexuals are nothing if not inviting. And there is no end to these moments. Earlier this year a TV ad for the ‘keyless entry’ feature of Ford cars, probed new, perfectly rounded depths. And possibly the use of key fobs as sex toys. To the strains of an ‘innocent’ 1960s bubble-gum pop track in which a girl compares her boyfriend to something sweet to suck (“I Call Him Lollipop”), everyone on the beach, male or female, young or old, gay or straight, is having a really good look at the worked-out, oiled-up smiling young man in tight trunks sauntering past, soaking up the rays of lust. So far so normal in a world in which the male body has become not just ‘objectified’ but a bouncy castle for the eyes.
But as our beach babe approaches his car however, the gag turns out to be that everyone is staring because they are wondering how he’s going to get into his locked, lovely new ride without any keys. Those trunks are far too tight for his packet, let alone anything else. Cue general bafflement when his car unlocks itself when he approaches. But the camera is zoomed in on his bubble butt when the doors release, and we’re presented with the kiss-off strap line: ‘Ford Keyless Entry – where you keep yours is up to you.’ So, the ad is less about the lollipop than the buttered buns. ‘Keyless entry’ is all about modern male versatility, if not voraciousness.
In our brave new spornosexual world created by the all-consuming need to be noticed, the want to be wanted in a hyper consumerist, hyper visual, over-shared society in which everyone is a brand looking for endorsement, men, whatever their sexual orientation, whatever their sexual habits, are increasingly flagrantly, greedily active and passive. Tops and bottoms. Subjects and objects. Heroic and tarty. Rocky and Franky. Or ‘studs’ and ‘sluts’ to use the argot of the hardcore porn they’ve been downloading furiously since puberty, not only immunising them to any squeamishness about the male body, but also teaching them that the ‘slut’ is the real star of the show (who gets paid much more than the ‘studs’). And is usually the one that seems or at least sounds to be having the most fun. Spornosexuality is androgyny on androgens. Beautiful and buff but also nakedly terrifying.
How the devil did we get here? And is it too late to just say where we are, and go back to the car?
The full essay is a hench 6800 words long. I’ve uploaded it as a PDF which you can download from my Substack here if you are a paying subscriber.
(You can convert PDFs to read on your Kindle by emailing the PDF to your device, with ‘Convert’ in as the subject line. More info.)