Butt politics: The complexities of anal sex
By: Dion Kagan
But I want it! I want it! I want it! He chanted like a prayer, even though his fear of the pain was enormous… The head of Fred’s cock pushed carefully into the sphincter. Slowly, lovingly, tenderly. And still Horst just couldn’t endure it. A wave of feelings swept through his body: fear, shame,anger… Since he couldn’t get a grip on them, without a word he wrestled himself free of Fred, jumped out of bed, sprinted to the bathroom to grab his clothes, and a moment later he was gone.
Bend Over! (2011)
This dramatic extract is from Bend Over! The Complete Guide to Anal Sex, a lively little book targeted at gay men and billing itself as “a comprehensive, user friendly guide to the unique pleasures of anal sex”. The book covers many useful topics, from the basics of anatomy, preparation and positioning, to the more particular matters of fear, fisting, farting and fissures.
Its author, German writer Stephan Niederwieser, knows a good deal about the finer details of sex between men. He’s definitely someone I’d like to meet at a dinner party.
Bend Over! opens with a short fairytale about an act of anal sex that promises to be hot but ultimately goes badly. Mars and Venus shoot out of their orbits, the Sun implodes and the Solar System falls out of balance. Horst’s abortive sexual encounter with Fred brings about the end of humankind as we know it.
It’s a ridiculous story and Niederwieser knows it, but this is precisely the point. We all know that a bungled butt-fuck isn’t the end of the world, however alarming the prospect might be in some folk’s minds. But this anal apocalypse myth highlights that there’s a widespread tendency to really blow up the significance of anal sex.
Butt sex is quite the source of consternation. Of course, the same could be said of virtually all forms of physical intimacy between humans – even the humble kiss. If you can imagine it, there are all manner of positive and negative meanings attached to it. However, anal sex – and especially anal sex between men – is particularly loaded in our culture.
There’s a centuries-long tendency in the western imagination to conflate male homosexuality and buggery. Although both of these categories have had shifting historical fortunes – their meanings changing, sometimes dramatically, across time and space – it is more or less the case that since the modern homosexual emerged as a recognisable (and rather unpopular) sexual identity during the late 19th century, butt sex between men has accumulated a whole arsenal of queer cultural baggage.
Anal eroticism is a long-entrenched social taboo that serves a number of apparent social functions. Among heterosexuals, its forbidden, polluting status emerges primarily from the association of the rectum with bodily waste. Secondarily, because all genders have butts, anal sex has the dangerous capacity to ‘queer’ male/female sexual encounters. When cisgender men and women fuck, they are distinguishable from one another because of their different sexual anatomies, so the logic goes. But, when heterosexual desire centres on the anus, ‘heterosexuality’ becomes a little harder to confirm. So, in that sense, anal eroticism muddles the ability to stabilise gender and sexual norms precisely through the arse’s lack of gender reference. It’s a unisex organ.
In hetero contexts, anal pleasure tends to get demoted to a method of contraception, a ‘mistake’ about where to put it, or something that happens in hardcore porn.
Those who identify as men tend to have an anxious relationship with butts – their own and those of other men. This perhaps has more to do with the social organisation of gender, rather than with sexuality per se, although the two are of course always intertwined. The reasons for this come straight out of gender studies 101.
Identifying as a male in our culture requires a fervent prioritisation of the penis. As the main organ of male eroticism, the cock is made the focus of eroticism in general, both straight and non-straight, both symbolically and in practice. This is what feminists call ‘phallocentrism’.
The anus, on the other hand, is associated with an imagined ‘feminine’ passivity, and, as even the most amateur Freudian will tell you, feminine passivity is the antithesis of phallic masculinity. So, according to the binary logic of heterosexual difference, in which masculinity and femininity are bound to a socially prescribed active/passive opposition (men do; women are done to), to be fucked is to be placed in the feminine position and hence to lose one’s claim to authentic (that is, phallic) manhood.
This is the received cultural wisdom, and it’s at the heart of anal anxiety. The anal zone features strongly in the cultural imagination and the individual psyche as a symbol of sexual docility, of penetrability. As a result, getting fucked has negative associations with weakness, or humiliation.
Contemporary gay culture has ‘tops’ (the inserter), ‘bottoms’ (the insertee) and ‘versatiles’, which are terms that emerged during the post-Stonewall period. Again, these heavily gendered positionings, and the sexual identities that are sometimes connected to them, have shifted in meaning over time. These days, the top position is typically understood as ‘active’, ‘dominant’ and ‘masculine’, while the bottom role consigns one to the less male, and therefore less privileged, side of the binary: ‘passive’, ‘submissive’ and ‘feminine’.
In a male-dominated society, to bottom is to be dominated like a woman. But this is far from the whole story.
Back to straight men: if we’re to believe the Internet, hetero guys are becoming increasingly comfortable with the erotic potential of their rectal zones, at least in more sexually liberal contexts. In politer company, however, the straight guy’s butthole remains a no-go zone. Mark Simpson, that irrepressible sexuality pundit responsible for coining both the terms ‘metrosexual’ and ‘sporno’, has described men’s arseholes as the “fatal flaw” in phallic masculinity. It’s a flaw, he suggests, that men “must constantly repudiate because their anus, much as they like to pretend otherwise, is always with them…even when they are at their most active, only a few inches away from their penis”.
For the phallic model of heterosexual masculinity to work – that is, for men to be masculine – the sensual life of the rectum must be repressed: it doesn’t exist, certainly not in a sexual way, and absolutely not to be penetrated.
And although Simpson’s word “fatal” might sound like a bit of hyperbole, in a male-dominated society, the penetration of a man is, on some symbolic or subconscious level, imagined to be a fate worse than (or equal to) death. Think of that infamous ‘bring out the gimp’ scene in Pulp Fiction (1994), or Clint Eastwood’s masculinity melodrama Mystic River (2003). The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and American History X (1998) are other examples, and all these films are the offspring of the original anal anxiety horror, Deliverance (1972).
The deep, dark repository of taboos surrounding the back passage is part of the reason the horror of male rape has featured so prominently in popular culture. Of course, male sexual assault is traumatic and completely unacceptable, and yet the source of terror in these male ‘rape revenge’ films is the ruination of masculinity through the violence of anal penetration. It’s an act so dreadful, it justifies killing as a form of vengeance.
None of this has been particularly good PR for butt sex, or for the homosexual men that have long been considered its signature practitioners. Gay culture inherited some of these hang-ups, and is bedevilled by the gendered polarisation of sexual positionings. In some quarters, these positionings are understood as fixed roles, difficult or impossible to change, and linked to a gay man’s entire social identity.
There is no shortage of top/bottom urban mythology. One story in circulation is that there is a shortage of ‘real tops’ and that all gay men are secretly bottoms. Some of this folklore is based on quasi-scientific ideas, for example, that being a bottom is related to how your prostate is wired.
Note the slippage here from a supposed biological ‘fact’ of the body, to sexual habits and then to sexual identity. Science can be helpful in the sexual arena, but, as we know, it has also been a long-time arbiter of problematic sexual norms.
One dubious study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior claims that “naïve observers” can identify the top or bottom in a gay male duo, based on facial features and “perceived masculinity”. Again, a gay man’s true desire is supposedly lodged in his anatomy, visible to even the un-tutored onlooker. This is strange, really, given that frequently gay men themselves can’t intuit such sexual data until they are in bed with each other.
Other studies suggest that most gay men are versatile, and that one in five doesn’t practice anal sex at all.
Another myth of sexual positionings is that men who claim to be versatile are just cashing in on ‘top privilege’ to appear more masculine. How much these myths resonate depends on the feelings and experience of individuals. In my humble opinion, those who reject the possibility of genuine versatility should go to the same purgatorial place reserved for people who deny the existence of bisexuality.
Still, there aren’t, and nor should there be, sexual fluidity police: some gay men’s experience of their sexual desire does indeed feel fixed. They are ‘a top’ or ‘a bottom’, and, for them, that is real. Also, certain types of power dynamics in the bedroom can be extremely sexy.
Curiously, historians of gay culture and gay porn in the west have shown that the opposition between top and bottom sex roles appears to be more polarised now than it has been in recent times.
The egalitarian principles of the golden days of gay liberation, drawing much insight and inspiration from feminist critiques of patriarchy, might have understood ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ as hetero-sexist roles. Studies of the porn of that era indicate more of a casual interchange-ability of roles during sex. According to Nguyen Tan Hoang’s recent book, A View from the Bottom, it was not until The New Joy of Gay Sex (the gay man’s sex tips bible) was in its third edition in 2003 that the category of ‘versatility’ appeared, suggesting that top/bottom positionings had by then become institutionalised in gay culture.
Much has changed in gay culture since the 1970s, and much of it has played out in the meanings ascribed to anal sex. HIV/AIDS, for example, utterly recalibrated the politics of bottoming. On the one hand, this disease, which before the advent of anti-retrovirals during the 1990s was almost surely fatal, exacerbated the taboos around anal sex, like, made everyone terrified of it. But, paradoxically, HIV has also provided the context for a powerful re-valuation of anality.
For anyone curious about some of the cultural meanings of anal sex in the context of AIDS, there is a must-read essay by American scholar Leo Bersani, titled with the provocative question ‘Is the Rectum a Grave?’ Bersani wrote the essay in 1987, in the thick of AIDS panic and anal-sex phobia. HIV, of course, is a virus with no inherent meaning. However, like sex acts, it quickly accrued many: AIDS was constructed as the ‘disease of homosexuality itself’, with anal sex and its apparent link to death folded into the mix.
Bersani, however, argued that part of the unconscious psychic pleasure of getting fucked was in fact to do with the symbolic execution of phallic masculinity. So there is a radical flipside to the conflation of getting fucked and the symbolic death of masculinity – a more positive one. Anality becomes a means of deposing phallic masculinity, but in a good way.
Another more recent context has emerged from the debates around barebacking, which refers to the sometimes-controversial practice of anal sex without condoms. In barebacking culture and some varieties of bareback porn, there has emerged a new brand of gay male bottomhood, performing a masculinity powerful enough to endure endless arse-poundings. Rather than the willful embrace of feminisation, the ‘power bottom’ is enthusiastically re-masculinised by his ability to ‘take it like a man’.
What can we learn from all of this? From some angles, anal sex between men is always bedevilled by power dynamics. Gendered polarities are just one lens: race, class and other power hierarchies can also play a part.
Gay male culture has a long and abiding fascination with masculinity. In some instances, there tends to be a fetishisation of sex roles, a desire to ‘fix’ them into place. But there is equally a desire to fuck with these roles and see them undone.
Top/bottom/vers language is partly a hangover from heteronormative culture, demonstrating the endlessly boring fact that it can be difficult to imagine sexuality outside of the language of gender difference. But the myriad ‘flip-floppings’ of anal positionings across the variety of gay male sexual practice suggest there are creative and queer innovations on these themes.
In a sense, butt fucking is apocalyptic, if only because of the complete landslide of cultural meanings attached to it. But, thankfully, not all associations are with shame, taboo, emasculation and fright. Anality is also a source of fascination, ecstasy intimacy, power, pleasure, an enhancement of masculinity, and, paradoxically, a willful pleasure-taking in the destruction of it. Frequently, it is all of these things at the same time.
In the past, most gay men were compelled to learn about sex through whispered conversations, or during their first encounter. Now, there is a long list of forums for talking about sex between men, and an ever-swelling library of books like Niederwieser’s how-to guide.
Other wonderful titles include The Ass Book: Staying on Top of Your Bottom by Schulze and Scheuss, (“How you and your partner can get more pleasure from your backside”); How to Bottom Like a Porn Star by gay-sex advice columnist Woody Miller and a team of colon-rectal specialists (“Find out their secrets to getting your butt cleaner than a Brady Bunch rerun”); and Mike Miller’s How To Bottom Without Pain Or Stains (introducing a new anal sex technique called The Sexhalation Method).
Although books and online discussions tend to focus on the mechanics of the act, they don’t ignore the psychological and inter-personal elements of anal fucking. Must-read chapter titles such as ‘How to get over the hang-up that real men don’t bottom’ are good examples of that.
There will always be those that resist a symbolic analysis of sex, preferring to stick with ideas about ‘what is natural’, ‘how they were born’, or ‘thanks, but I’d rather not read into it too much’. And all of those positions are completely understandable.
For others, the cultural meanings of sex are important. And for them, the humble mounds of buttock flesh, the small opening at the end of our digestive tract and the rectal walls that expand and foreshorten in response to internal and external pressures play a powerful symbolic role in the organisation of gender and sexuality.
The sometimes overlooked butt is a complex symbol as well as a multifunctional part of the body’s anatomy. When it comes to getting sexy with it, our culture has given us a lot of reasons to feel and think things. Beyond the garden variety phobias (will it hurt? is it messy?), there is a shitload of other symbolic mess to wade through.
Talking about this stuff might not entirely loosen its grip on how we feel about sex, but it can help to explain why we feel ashamed or terrified, extremely curious or really fucking excited.
Dion Kagan is a researcher and arts writer in film, TV, sex and popular culture. He lectures in gender, sexuality and cultural studies at the University of Melbourne, writes a queer column for The Lifted Brow and is a regular voice on fortnightly culture podcast The Rereaders. His book, Positive Images: HIV/AIDS and the Culture of Post-Crisis, is forthcoming.
This article originally appeared in Archer Magazine #5.