Let's face it: We often want to escape our lives -- at least temporarily -- and sometimes we succeed through drugs, alcohol, droning music, drag, or adopting children. The pursuit of fantasy, however, can sometimes get us in trouble. Luckily, for over 25 years, the International Male catalog has provided a healthy and affordable antidote to the "mean reds" of reality.

As if I.M. and its treasures are news to YOU -- you've probably been crackin' your corn to the UnderGear hunks for years, or at least when you were a teen and real gay porn was HARDER to COME by. I freaked out the first time I saw I.M. -- the models were impossibly hot and usually half-naked, the underwear was absurdly skimpy and bulging and the other clothes were tight, flamboyant and nothing like what I saw on local men or the department store racks. And I wanted to see more! So I called I.M.'s 800 number and ordered a free subscription under a fake name (but with my address) and played dumb (and straight) when my parents brought the mail in and threw my I.M. in the trash. "I'll take the garbage out, mom!"

That's all history though because recently I took some I.M. merch for a test-drive. Phoning the company's glamorous San Diego office, I was put in touch with Paul Walter Kleinschmidt or, as he e-flirtatiously signed off his e-mails, "Paulie." Paulie is I.M.'s Catalog and Public Relations Coordinator and his job covers "everything from booking models and locations, coordinating all the clothes for the photo shoots, etc." It's because of Paulie that the gays on "Queer as Folk" wear I.M. It's because of Paulie that an E! reporter will be sporting I.M.'s London Opera Trenchcoat (on sale for $129.99) to neither London nor the opera, but on the red carpet at this year's Academy Awards in Los Angeles. And it's because of Paulie that a big box of I.M. was Fed-Exed to my door, no questions asked.

Oh. My. God. That's what I said when I actually saw, in person, the Ultimate Poet's Shirt, wrapped in plastic -- where it still remains. It's just so...icky, I can't even unwrap it! (Sorry, Paulie.) The UnderGear was another story completely, I couldn't wait to finger it all. But eewww, the BunsŪ Bikini has this weird, speed-bumpy panel that rides against your balls and backdoor. And then there's The Sock, an International Male legend -- a jock without the straps, for those not on the mailing list (unlike YOU). I was set to wear my Sock to the gym, to really give it a whirl during a much-anticipated cardio blowout...but the real blowout was happening in my pants, as my goodies kept falling out! Prompting me to ask aloud: "Who wears this stuff and WHERE?"

"Believe it or not, we're HUGE in the Midwest," Paulie told me. From the praries of the heartland to the bayous of the deep south, everyone is not in leather as the Gap would have you believe. They're in I.M.! Turns out even the swamp witch of gay fantasy herself, Anne Rice, is a frequent I.M. shopper. Of what, I'm not quite sure. Surely she isn't hauting the crypts of the French Quarter in the Sock, but perhaps it's the literary ruffle of the poet shirt that has Anne VANTING some more. When I asked Paulie, who by the way is a real babe, if he actually wears I.M., he bristled. "You make it sound like I should be ashamed to wear I.M. clothes -- on the contrary! My closet is full of I.M. I just don't know where to wear some of it!"

But I knew exactly where to wear the Sleeping Bag Snuggler. "I'm just going to use the bathroom," I'd say at various friends' homes before changing into the extremely baggy blue polyester one-piece unit. After slipping my legs through the midget-level leg holes and zipping up this walking sleep sack, I was ready to emerge with my surprising new look. What they saw was classic Martha Graham. What they heard? Martha Wash. "What the hell IS that?" "What do you DO with that?" "That is SO weird -- can I wear it out tonight?" Turns out the Sleeping Bag Snuggler, comfy as it may be, gets a lot of laughs -- AND everybody wants to try it on!

"'Style as individual as you' -- that's our motto," Paulie said. "Our ideal customer is someone who wants to make a statement. Someone who wants to stand out in a crowded room." Believe me, wearing the Snuggler, unzipped to the navel to show off an unlaced Swashbuckler Shirt ($42) yet covering the Wonderbra-for-the-penis qualities of The Sock will definitely say something...perhaps, "I'm crazy!"?

But wait, there IS plenty to love about I.M. beyond the swollen pecs and massive crotches. Paulie sent me a sample Bootlegger Brief. Being an athlete himself, Paulie explained that "In football, to 'bootleg' is to 'conceal the ball.' Hence, our Bootlegger 'conceals' but conforms naturally" And me being an athletic supporter, it's my favorite underthing of the moment. Sexier than a boxer brief and comfortably snug, I think I'll be buying some more soon at three for $18.

You know what else looks hot? The Long-Sleeve Ribbed Muscle Knit top ($32), the Scandinavian Rib Tee ($12) and, while I didn't get freebies, the Tough Guy Leather Jean ($169) and the cringe-inducingly-named Nouveau Riche Leather Trench (sale, $150). They're all simple, flattering and downright butch -- the quintessential gay fantasy itself!

I will, however, be passing on some of the fancier items. The New Sparkling Turtleneck, the Raining Diamond Jacket, all of the caftans and the Times Square Shirt -- which "features an embroidered antique clock face" -- are just too rah-sha-sha for me. Maybe it's just that I'm not, as Paulie says, "someone who's comfortable with people continuously coming up to them and asking where they got their outfit." Continuously!

Okay, now for what you -- or at least I -- REALLY want to know: It always seemed like the I.M. models had the same cock and balls. You know, their packages were always impressive but, as a friend once observed, "they seem to all have the same three potatoes stuffed down their pants!" So I asked Paulie point blank if the guys wear some kind of "mold" to fill out their baskets; is it flesh or fantasy?

"You were drooling over real meat, trust me!" swears Paulie, who also went on to dispel other myths of the I.M. catalog I had not even thought of. "Our models don't need to wear cock rings and they are not porn stars. If we would ever discover that one of our regular guys was doing adult movies, we would immediately end our relationship with that person. And if a model shows up for a shoot looking anything but perfect, we have no problem telling them to go home!" Which is refreshing to hear, as it is the same staffing policy as Blair!

Ivory satin. Shantung silk. Rhinestones and sequins. Black Tie. Real dongs AND ethics. I.M. has it all. So even if you don't have your own God-given ass, I.M lets you make your own million dollar derriere! Personally, I already have a really nice ass, so the BunsŪ Bikini didn't do much for me except scratch on my scrotum. Butt thanks, Paulie!