For the Articles?
Butt Magazine, it's straight-boy readership and the return of the all-male zone

Sarah Clyne Sundberg

March 29, 2007

"I love Roger Payne's hardcore pornographic drawings!" reads the first line of the introduction to a Q&A with a gay erotic artist no one's ever heard of. This was issue #6 of Butt magazine, February 2, 2003. At the time, Butt was a curiosity for American gays, a small, hard to come by, pink-tinted zine-like thing filled with grainy photos of nude men and interviews with "fantastic homosexuals."Butt has been produced in Amsterdam since 2001, and has mostly maintained this fairly quiet existence as cult fodder for gays in the know. It's traditionally been found stashed among the literary magazines and dusty architecture books at independent bookstores. If it weren't for knowing friendly gay boys who are considerably cooler than me, Butt likely would have passed me by entirely.

A few months ago, however, I began to notice Butt surfacing in unexpected places. The first time it happened it barely registered — a straight friend mentioned he liked the irreverent style of Butt's bedside interviews. A few weeks later another straight friend joked about the ubiquity of Butt on his blog. Then Rodeo magazine, a not-particularly gay arbiter of things fashionable in my hometown of Stockholm, did a two-page write-up on Butt founders Jop van Bennekom and Gert Jonkers. I soon saw Butt at American Apparel, perched accessory-like on the counter. Then it began showing up on coffee tables in the form of Butt Book, a glossy Taschen volume containing the collected Butt oeuvre. Suddenly it seemed to be everywhere, and those talking about it were the same straight men who are always nursing obsessions with new bands and obscure Japanese sneaker designers. Butt, the gayest magazine in existence, is achieving name-recognition that signals more than simple crossover appeal — it is sincerely resonating with straight men. Why? Jop Van Bennekom describes Butt as "a cultural magazine that also involves sex. We show guys with hardons, but we also show a lot of the person behind the hardon. In a way, it's a bit of a limp-dick magazine."

While Jop won't say that he's noticed more straight men reading Butt, he does say sales have doubled since the publication of Butt Book, and that he thinks Butt has reached new readers due to Fantastic Man, Butt's spin-off men's fashion magazine. Where Butt has ample nudity, youngish men and the occasional jockstrap, Fantastic Man strikes a more buttoned-up tone with cable-knit sweaters, tailored suits and '70s macho-masculine helmet-hair. There are casual interviews with men of various stripes — Helmut Lang is photographed lounging shirtless at his East Hampton home nuzzling a rooster; "the ravishing French ladykiller" Olivier Zahm is pictured in a vintage lace banana hammock.

Butt's tone is a bit more loosely tailored. Its interviews are announced with titles like, "Francois Sagat: Piss-Drinking Porn Star was Born in Congac" (issue #17). And, "Michael Stipe: Non-Gay Queer Popstar from R.E.M. Collects Sugar Packets and was Devirginized at Age Seven" (#9). This desultory tone continues through the Q&As — Stipe's interview opens with the forty-seven-year-old musician asking his assistant to purchase him gray Hanro boxer-briefs right away. This is followed by a lengthy exchange between Stipe and the interviewer deciding what brand of beer to order from room service, also transcribed in full. The first actual question doesn't arrive until page two, when the journalist officially opens with, "When you're giving interviews, does your mind ever wander off and you start thinking in a sexual way about the interviewer?"

Butt is an all-male zone of a type that's nearly non-existent today. Fraternities function less as bastions of brotherhood than as lures for freshman girls seeking free keg beer. Men's magazines are either filled with boobs and misogyny (lad mags), or pictures of sultry starlets. (Esquire, GQ). The State Department and one half of Congress — and possibly, soon, the White House — are run by women. Danica Patrick dominates NASCAR, and Kelly Kulick is the Professional Bowling Association's rising star. Stodgy old Harvard has its first female dean. The evening news has its first female anchor. Ladies playing alongside the big boys is great for everyone, but as society has become increasingly coed, all-female outlets have thrived and maintained an aura of progressiveness — Barnard, the Oxygen Network, Bust — while all-straight-male spaces have virtually disappeared. You may find the occasional boys' club barbershop or Elk lodge, but these institutions reek of datedness. For anyone younger than a Korean War vet, the exclusively male realm has all but vanished.

In fact, many of the all-male zones that still exist are now frequented by gay men. In the '60s and '70s, places like the gym and the steam room were areas for straight guys to congregate and beat their chests. Today? Pretty gay. With growing acceptance of gays by mainstream society, straight culture and gay culture have increasingly merged, producing such feet-in-both-worlds icons as the Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue and the Jackass franchise.

Which brings us to Butt. When asked about its straight appeal, Jop theorizes that Butt "has a Jackass quality to it. Jackass is also a completely masculine world that's totally gay. There are no females around. They even put things up their asses." But Butt is this in reverse: a gay thing with straight-male hangers on. It's hard to think of any other media entity that's ever pulled this off. It works because the skittishness about homosexuality is dying, and because most classic all-male environments now seem so filled with homoerotic overtones it's laughable. Cowboys on the range? Soldiers giving each other buzz cuts? Fraternity hazing? In retrospect, we realize how gay the old straight-male milieus were.

This mix of irony and sincerity suits Butt just fine. Butt offers a window into a palatable all-male world, while dodging snickers about latent gayness by being blatantly gay. It also provides an acceptable path back to the much-parodied butch vanity of the 1970s. Says Martin, a twenty-eight-year-old writer who lives in New York, "Fantastic Man and Butt have a beards-and-plaid-shirts kind of masculinity, almost like a parody of manliness that feels very modern to me. You're distancing yourself from being a 'typical man' by turning it into a pose. You're a 'man' in quotation marks."

The quotation-marks look seen in Butt and Fantastic Man has trickled up from trendy gay culture over the last few years. Gay men have long subverted iconic masculine looks by growing mustaches, riding Harleys and donning tight jeans. Now straight men are re-appropriating the same twice-recycled masculine pose. Will Ferrell, Terry Richardson and American Apparel founder Dov Charney all have solidly hetero personas, but aren't afraid to wear tiny underwear and rock the porn 'stache.

Perhaps it's that non-threatening objectification of men that's the draw. Men are never allowed to be media sex objects; even the models who hawk jeans and vodka from billboards and magazine ads are sterile, sexless props. Butt is enough to make a straight guy feel important and sexy for once, as is, without the GQ-approved blue blazer or compulsory tussled haircut. Butt is interaction with other men without a Gamecube and a Girls Gone Wild video nearby to buffer the interaction, and no one's insecure about all of this coming off as gay-ish, because it's not gay-ish. It's just gay.

It's an oft-cited truism is that women don't dress for men, they dress for each other. But maybe men and women aren't that different after all. Girls stare at near-naked ladies for feedback and comparison all the time, and with Butt men have chance to do the same. Male vanity — in quotation marks of course — is out in the open again after years of baggy jeans and baseball caps. Naturally, it took a gay magazine appreciate it.

©2007 Sarah Sundberg and Nerve.com