Erik Rhodes has been made a cautionary tale.
In his New York Times obituary ("An Early Death but Perhaps Not a Surprise," June 20, 2012), the recent death of the popular porn star and escort, apparently from complications of abusing sex, steroids, and other drugs, as well as depression, has prompted a kind of moralistic, just-this-side-of-"edgy" storytelling from the paper of record, as well as a communal acknowledgement on the Internet.
Yet Mr. Rhodes' story is, woefully, too common among gay men of his generation, porn performers or otherwise. That story is the widespread abuse of drugs. Mr. Rhodes was an admitted user of both steroid cycling (to build up his considerable bulk) and methamphetamine. Additionally, Mr. Rhodes was HIV-positive. The triad of his serostatus, his drug abuse, and the fact that he sold sex places Mr. Rhodes squarely within the morality play of modern gay males as they undergo their rightward-glancing sanitization: "You should have learned your lesson."
The litany of woes that produced the porn performer are thrown out casually in the obituary, as if we all already knew them: divorced parents, lack of a college education, stripping. The tantalizing twist is that Mr. Rhodes has an identical twin brother (straight, college-educated, and not a sex worker, we are reassured), giving the story an additional psychiatric-twin-study flair. We make Mr. Rhodes' story didactic because we, as a society, don't want to talk about our collective complicity in his death. What is it about society, not about Mr. Rhodes, that makes the story of the "fallen" gay man so important?
A quotation from Michael Musto, whom the New York Times piece describes as having been "friendly" with Mr. Rhodes, should have been a major focus of the piece: "The gay porn audience often looks to a hulking macho fantasy, and he provided that. ... He was Thor, the Hulk and the rest of the 'Avengers' cast wrapped in a gay package."
It is because of his 6-foot-4-inch, 258-pound frame that he was famous; this bodily information is given to the reader early on in the article. It is because of his body and its publicized trials that Mr. Rhodes warranted a New York Times obituary. What made him successful as a sex worker and enabled his lifestyle was also, ultimately, to his detriment: It produced a body that was unsustainable. Mr. Rhodes' story is more symptomatic of a society in which desire, success, and perceived happiness are tethered to the pursuit of money and prodigality.
Certain methods for generating income are lauded. Other methods are vilified at the same time as they are held dear for the delightfully counterculture spectacle they create, such as porn. Mr. Rhodes is guilty only of seeking a version of the American dream and descending into night.
We are intrigued by the image and the story of the virile, muscular überman, particularly when that man is gay. His was the strong, seemingly unbreakable body, the type held on a pedestal in post-AIDS-crisis queer media, porn or otherwise. For all men since the 1990s (as surveys on male body image have shown), muscle size and tone have come to be seen as the desirable traits in the male physique. Subscriptions to men's health magazines are at an all-time high. Musculature is indicative of not only health but power and possibility, a potent symbolism embraced by gay men after their identity had been so fundamentally linked to a debilitating, emasculating disease.
Enhancing the physicality of their bodies, gay men, for the past two decades, have conformed to dominant perceptions of masculinity and ideals as a reaction to AIDS stigma. Porn both responded to and help create this demand for an idealized male type. Often, in the construction of the fantasy space in which gay-porn performers operate, the bigger-is-better mentality predominates. Contradictory demands are placed on the manly porn performer: Exemplify a "hulking macho fantasy" that is hyperreal for our consumption, but at the same time suffer the laments of those who bemoan the extent of steroid abuse in the industry.
Unfortunately, as in similar cases, the escapades of a porn performer are ultimately tied to some abuse by the industry, as if the explicit erotica business were the only or even the chief producer of sexual fantasy, not Hollywood, or the advertising business, or the tabloid industry, or television. As consumers, of this obituary and of the overall story of Mr. Rhodes as told through his social-media outlets and his porn, we need to be aware that we are complicit in the structuring of a double bind that says, "Give us our sexual fantasy," and, at the same time, "You will get what is coming to you."
Despite all that, Mr. Rhodes' agency and choices contributing to his early death need to remain foremost, of course. He had 30 years of life and stories to tell, and a New York Times obituary is no small feat. Yet his sad, untimely death opens an opportunity to talk about the ways in which we embrace damaging ideals of body image, and the effects that can have on the people who occupy the bodies we idealize. Of particular concern are the effects on those who desire to obtain that body for themselves. Erik Rhodes was more than 258 pounds of muscle: A portion of that body weight was brain and heart. In his memory, this discussion needs to occur.