By Simon Sheppard

Hair, hair! Few physical attributes excite more strongly held tastes than simple body hair.

Every postpubescent male grows at least a few strands of hair south of the neck. But some guys have thickly matted pelts, while others are as smooth as a baby's bottom, and furry and hair-free both have their ardent fans.

Says one fur fancier, "I'm gay because I like men, dammit, and nothing says 'masculine' more loudly than a hairy chest." But why stop there? Fans of the truly hirsute abound, lavishing attention on hairy legs, fuzzy butts, luxuriant armpits, and -- for the truly hardcore -- hairy shoulders and backs. Not to mention, at ground zero, the pubic bush.

"I can see how some guys might like to trim or shave their hair to accentuate the lines of their bodies," says another pro-fur guy. "But that seems just so manicured. Give me the hairy body in all its animal glory."

Conversely, there are men who really love smooth. Though some guys score naturally low on the hirsute-o-meter, others denude themselves by shaving, using depilatories or spending hours at the electrolysist. "I find body hair coarse and icky," says a gay guy who doesn't hunt bears. "I like my men perfectly smooth ... all that lovely, hairless skin. And when I shave my own body, I love the way it feels."

The no-hair camp seems to be gaining ground. In the old days, way back in the Jurassic 1970s, many a porn star sported a sizable patch of fur, but these days hairy sex gods are rare. It's a little paradoxical that as gay men in droves are hitting the gym to develop more "masculine" physiques, they're also shedding their very male body hair. But, as competition bodybuilders have always known, body hair can hide the contours of a finely wrought physique. After Cybex, can Schick be far behind?

In the late 20th century, several factors, including the rise of youth culture and the explosion of HIV, made being young (and presumably healthy) even more highly valued. Body hair, a signifier of maturity, was no longer hot; now the silky-smooth torso was Officially Sexy. It wasn't till the rise of the bear movement, a backlash against the image of the highly primped, perfectly arranged urban gay male, that hair has made a comeback, valued as a symbol of a down-to-earth butch that lets whatever's sprouting grow.

Of course, hairiness doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing matter. Many a queer eye has hungrily followed the "treasure trail," that tempting line of hair that leads from belly button down to dangler. And many a guy has at least trimmed his pubes, thereby making his penis look longer. There are hair fetishes that are really specialized. "I love that little patch of hair that some men have in the small of the back," says a man who ... er ... loves guys with hair in the small of the back. Strange? Maybe, but not any weirder, when you think about it, than craving men for the color of their hair. Speaking of which: "Thick blond fur on a man's forearms," drools one guy, "is the most beautiful thing in the world." So take that, Taj Mahal!

Hairy or fur-free? The debate rages on. Ever since the days of hairy Esau and smooth Jacob, body hair -- or the lack thereof -- has been a bone of contention. We gay men have, as usual, turned a bone into a boner.

Perhaps one gay peacemaker should have the last word. "I don't care if he's hairy or smooth," says he. "Just give me a man who's good in bed!"

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