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Does The Gay Media Have A Sex Addiction?

For David Badash, a Bilerico Project post about a website featuring Mormon guys masturbating was the final straw. The New York blogger at the The New Civil Rights Movement announced quite publicly recently that he was no longer going to write for the brainy, activist blog that is the Huffington Post of the LGBT blog world.

The back and forth between Bilerico’s founder Bil Browning and Badash has unearthed one of the dirty secrets about the LGBT (old and new) media world: sex sells and sex is interesting.

Open up almost any LGBT newspaper or click on almost any gay blog and you are going to see a little sex. Whether it’s shirtless models posing in underwear (or less), ads for sex chat lines, escort classifieds, or just regular advertising that features guys busting out of their tight shirts or jeans, sex is everywhere.  And it helps keeps gay publications and blogs afloat.

In addition, there is the added layer that sexuality is what unites its readership. Sexuality isn’t a dirty word for many LGBT media consumers and glorifying–even objectifying–sexuality isn’t problematic.

In responding to Badash’s concerns, Browning conceded “[s]exy pictures always bring in viewers. I’m not ashamed of using that mentality to continue to bring new readers to one of the smartest, sharpest and controversial LGBT websites where you can talk openly about anything remotely queer.”

Browning called the correlation between sexy posts, increased page views, and advertising impressions that lead to more income a “win-win” and that the content of the site was not lessened by a few posts that have a sexual content that appeal to gay men. Browning’s site is not all “boys in underwear” and porn links; far from it. With a large number of lesbian and transgender columnists, it reads more like a queer studies lecture than a porn-script. In fact, there are actually very few photographs visible on the site’s homepage.

But there’s no doubt that sex sells.  The editor of the British gay magazine Attitude told the Telegraph that a recent experiment printing an edition with two different covers–one, conservative leader David Cameron and the other a male model in underwear–found the male model outsold the politician 70 percent to 30 percent.

Andy Towle, the founder of the very successful Towleroad site, says that he includes sexy pictures because they are among the interesting things he finds online but that he isn’t intentionally posting boys in underwear just to get hits.

“I’ve never used sexy pictures and posts as a device to drive traffic,” Towle told Mediaite.  While he has been criticized by online rivals for using flesh to get attention, Towle said that he’s not going to apologize for posting beefcake photos because they only make up a portion of his posts.  While the mix of news, advocacy, and beefcake has been a successful formula for Towle–who writes at least 95 percent of the posts on his site–he said the irony is that success has actually been an impediment when it comes to the sexy stuff.

“I’ve had to abide by stricter rules as my site has become more successful because top advertisers have different expectations,” Towle said. Mainstream advertisers are wary of adult content and links to adult websites, Towle explained, meaning that he has to be conscious of what he puts on his site to avoid offending ad networks even if similar content on a non-gay website wouldn’t raise eyebrows.

The double-standard that the LGBT media is criticized for sexualized content when mainstream media is left alone also bothers Tracy Baim, who has worked in LGBT media for 25 years.  Baim is the publisher and managing editor of Windy City Media which includes the Windy City Times newspaper.

Vanity Fair is just as risque as gay publications are, but no one ever complains about their content and advertising,” Baim told Mediaite.  She said that the alternative weeklies–like the Chicago Reader–have always had adult advertising and pictures yet  they have not felt pressured to downplay the sexiness the way some in the LGBT media has.

She finds her different publications end up having different criteria and different rules.  The Windy City Times is more newsy, which means fewer sexy images and ads.  In contrast, the bar-focused Nightspot has full-page ads of shirtless hunks because the market for that paper is 90 percent gay men who go to bars. Her online presence–at OutlinesChicago–sees the most flesh but that flesh is harder to control because they come from ads that appear through Gay Ad Network, which syndicates ads for a number of top LGBT websites.

Baim says she doesn’t get a lot of complaints about the sexual ads, even from other lesbians who are accustomed to seeing bare chested 21-year old men whenever they look at LGBT media. The biggest complaints about sexual ads–in the heyday of sex phone chat ads–came from gay male staffers who felt the ads represented an oversexualized view of gay men.

For some people, like Badash, the concern is that LGBT equality–which is a theme of LGBT media no matter the format–shouldn’t be compromised by the appearance of underwear models and sex come-ons.

“I do not see my work and pornography as compatible or even being able to share the same home. And I do not think that that type of content here helps us in our battle to win the hearts and minds of those who might choose to help us,” Badash said in quitting as a Bilerico contributor.

He rejects the idea that he is “sex-negative,” but instead points out that some prominent LGBT sites, including Pam’s Houseblend and AmericaBlog, don’t have sexualized content and boys in underwear.

The reality, however, is that sites with a large gay male following like a little sexy with their news.  As Baim points out, this is a tried-and-true approach to publishing that works for many magazines geared towards men, including Details, Men’s Health, and GQ. Even women’s magazines, like Cosmopolitan and Essence, aren’t afraid to show a little skin to attract readers.

For the LGBT media, the challenge is finding that right balance between sexy and relevant (with a little activist tossed in). It is also, as Towle explains, finding a way to stay clean enough to avoid online filters that are especially hard on sites that include the words “gay” and “lesbian.”

“It doesn’t take adult content to trip the filters,” Towle said. With people doing most of their web reading at work, Towle said this is a real concern and something that bloggers need to deal with in order to remain sexy enough to attract viewers but tame enough to avoid the filters.

So the sexy is going to continue . . . and continue to be debated.

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