Academic Book, anal penetration, Annie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain, Freud, Gore Vidal, Homos, Homosexuality, Leo Bersani, masculinity, Michel Foucault, Passive/Active Sexual Performance, Penis, phallocentrism, phallus, Queer Theory, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, William F. Buckley Jr
There’s a point in your academic career when you realize that you’ve just spent the last three hours reading about anal penetration between men and none of it came anywhere near close to being erotic.
Most people will probably never read Homos. The simple reason is because few people possess an interest in Queer theory, though I may be selling a great portion of the populace short. The only problem with a book like Homos is it’s an academic work and right off the bat that means the readership dwindles to a handful of intellectuals working in an even smaller handful of universities. To be honest if it wasn’t for Brokeback Mountain I never would have even heard of the book. But I just realize you’re walking in on me mentally masturbating and my isn’t that a pleasant image that will get stuck in your head while your partner is busy talking about her day.
Maybe a little background will help. And listen to your partner more, seriously he married your butt when he could have shacked up with that rich dentist from Maui. He gives and gives and you don’t even try man. Five minutes, seriously, it’s the little things that make a marriage.
Starting in January of this year I began an independent study dedicated entirely to Queer Theory, a brand of social, and in this case literary, theory that attempts to understand how homosexual, bisexual, queer, etc., identity fits and at times is at odds with the dominant discourses in society. A friend of mine who was the VP of the Gender, Sex, and Sexuality Alliance organization at the school, and who I had only recently discovered was transgender, told me about it and invited me to join him. I jumped right in eager to see how exploring sexuality in an academic setting would go. The class was really just a bi-weekly meeting with the professor, and often my friend and I would do most of the reading and talking over coffee. I started to confide in him more and more, and the reading list was a real challenge. I decided to do a Queer reading of the Western, focusing specifically on Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx. In my research I found a book listed in the works cited pages of several academic articles.
With a title like Homos, it’s hard to miss. Given the fact that most titles of academic works avoid cleverness like the plague, and the fact that all of them seem to require not only colons but multi-line subtitles, Homos is like a breath of fresh air. However before my reader rushes off to buy a copy and bask in its warm glow of gay academic script I should probably make sure they are aware of something: This is an incredibly academic text. Take one sentence from the introduction:
Even more: why should sexual preference be the key to identity in the first place? And, more fundamentally, why should preference itself be understood only as a function of the homo-heterosexual dyad? That dyad imprisons the eroticized body within a rigidly gendered sexuality, in which pleasure is at once recognized and legitimized as a function of genital differences between the sexes. (4).
(*snort*) Huh? What? Sorry dozed off, where we? I’m kidding, but this quote does give a pretty solid example of what the reader can expect. Leo Bersani’s book, did I mention him, he’s the author, he might be important, is an attempt to situate and understand male homosexuality in Modern culture looking at works that deal with same-sex desire, to sadomasochism, and warning against group identity politics. That’s really just a fancy way of saying that Bersani looks at the way men desire other men and why society seems to have a problem with it. In fact, one of the reasons Bersani’s work is so interesting is the fact that, for an academic work about sex, he does actually spend a fair amount of time discussing sex. He says later:
De-gaying gayness can only fortify homosexual oppression; it accomplishes in its own way the principal aim of homophobia: the elimination of gays. […] Furthermore, gay critiques of homosexual identity have generally been desexualizing discourses. You would never know, from most of the works I discuss, that gay men, for all their diversity, share a strong sexual interest in other human beings anatomically identifiable as male (5-6).
Speaking as somebody who typically reads a fair amount of queer theory, this sentence is as validating as it is charming, especially when you’re writing about male-male desire and you have to dig through Foucault. I love the man but he could have been a little more direct about dudes who like wang. And, not to be a nasty little butthole here, but that turtleneck, SO last fall.
I bought Bersani’s Homos because I needed to address how the anal sex scene, the only erotic moment in Brokeback Mountain, constituted a “queering” of the landscape of the Western. Since most of the canon of Queer theory are written more about the abstract notion of same-sex desire, and since many of them are written by women, tackling the issue of physical intimacy between men is difficult beyond citing the Joy of Gay Sex, and the trouble there is it becomes difficult for the academic community to take you seriously. And, to be honest, I bought it because it was a fun read.
While several of my steady readers shake their head and text their buddy to confirm suspicions they have of the writer, I wanted to return to the idea of intimacy between men. This is a topic I’ve explored before, but since this is an academic work as opposed to a general non-fiction history or philosophy, Bersani is able to really explore how society has intellectually processed the act of anal penetration. In the past this has manifested in the question I’m sure many gay men have had to smile through, “So which one is the girl?” This question may alter in terms of language, but the sentiment remains the same. Bersani notes this perception and elaborates upon it while quoting David Halpern’s observations of male-male desire:
This meant, specifically, not only that phallic penetration of another person’s body expressed sexual activity and virility, while being penetrated was a sign of passivity and femininity, but, even more, that “the relation between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ sexual partner is thought of as the same kind of relation as that obtaining between social superior and social inferior.” (105).
He continues this thought saying:
“In a sense, the Greeks were so open about their revulsion to what they understood as female sexuality, and so untroubled in their thinking about the relation between power and phallic penetration, that they didn’t need to pretend, as nineteenth century sexologists did, that men who went to bed with other men were all secretly women.
“Only half of them were women, and that judgement had enormous social implications; the adult male citizen who allowed himself to be penetrated, like inferior women and slaves, was politically disgraced. The persistence of this judgement throughout the centuries and in various cultures is well documented.” (106).
If you are the partner that typically “receives” your partner’s erection then you’re “the girl,” and therefore weak. The proliferation of the idea that if you enjoy being penetrated, then you must be a woman inside rather than a man is a patriarchal notion that, as he observes, goes back as far as Greek society. The conflict for really approaching this as homosexuality is complicated because the gay behavior of the Greeks is really more pederasty than it is homosexuality, but the idea has continued throughout human society resulting in the term “invert” that rose to prominence during the late 1800s, early 1900s. Even after the Civil Rights movements in the 1960s that gained recognition of homosexuality, gay men still are asked whether they like getting fucked in the ass. It’s not just the barbarically rude curiosity that exists in this question, the larger concern is for men on the receiving end, for once the act of intercourse is complete they may compartmentalize this public perception and begin to question their own virility.
Am I still a man if I want to have a man fuck me? If I just give blowjobs does that constitute being the passive partner? What if I don’t want to fuck someone, and just be fucked, does that mean I have no say in anything? Am less of a man, or a human being, because I prefer receiving?
Bersani moves from this concern to Proust and the ultimately to Freud’s theory of the fear of castration during sex. The next quote in paperback copy is a big pink highlighted brick because, to be fair, it’s without a doubt the most entertaining and intriguing passages I’ve ever read in an academic book:
“We might imagine that a man being fucked is generously offering the sight of his own penis as a gift or even a replacement for what is temporarily being “lost” inside him—an offering not made in order to calm his partner’s fears of castration but rather as the gratuitous and therefore even lovelier protectiveness that all human beings need when they take the risk of merging with another, of risking their own boundaries for the sake of self-dissolving extensions. If there is no fantasy to read behind the happy faces of those two gays we began by observing, perhaps there were, supporting their lovemaking, the shadowy figures of the loving child and the daddy he coaxed out of his terrorizing and terrorized castrating identity, figures who may have helped them, Foucault’s couple, to spend a night of penile oblation” (112).
Who says the Humanities is boring now? Quote this to your republican brother-in-law who owns the Lamborghini at Thanksgiving and see if he’s still so quick to say you never do anything interesting as an English grad student. Go on, do it. He’ll respect you for it, I promise (*Results may vary*).
The above quote stands out to me as a kind of final summation revealing the inadequacy of the question, “Who’s the girl?” The people that ask reveal their own phallocentric view of the world in which it penis is designed to fill every physical and intellectual space of human existence and therefore the one who possesses it and uses it is truly strong, however the fault of this mindset is revealed in this Freudian understanding of the “Invert.” As the man buries himself in his partner, he loses that phallus while his partner is the one left holding the golden ticket, so to speak. Bersani is understanding the homosexual sexual relationship through Proust and Freud, but also challenging it. The man being penetrated may be being fucked, but he’s stronger for lacking fear in the act, actually supporting his “active” partner’s fear with an offering.
“Who’s the girl?” is a stupid question, because being a woman is not a sign of weakness. Second, it’s barbaric to keep asking that stupid question because if two men in a relationship are a cisgender homosexuals, neither of them are the girl, they’re both men. If a man says he’s gay, it means he like men and if either of them wanted to be with a girl they wouldn’t be gay. You’d think this was obvious, but alas it needs clarification.
It’s at this point my reader may be wondering: Why would I want to spend my time reading about gay sex unless I was gay? What does this have to do with my life?
This is a fair question since I have reiterated that this book is predominantly written for academics, but I feel I may have mislead the reader by stating that. Bersani’s book is certainly bound in theory, but like all books, it can be relevant to anyone possessing an interest in human sexuality, and given the number of people who have found this blog looking for black dick pics, I believe it’s fair to say a fair majority of the population shows an interest in such efforts. Bersani’s book is important because his claim is that the homosexual movement is “de-gaying” itself by merging into other identities. He says earlier:
“Our de-gaying resources seem limitless. Most recently, we have decided to be queer rather than gay. The history of gay is too bound up with efforts to define a homosexual identity. But queer has a double advantage: it repeats, with pride, a pejorative straight word for homosexual even as it unloads the term’s homosexual referent. For oppressed groups to accept the queer label is to identify themselves as being actively at odds with a male-dominated, white, capitalistic, heterosexist culture.” (71).
Speaking as a member of organizations on and off campus for LGBTQ individual rights and liberties, this statement does seem to possess a great deal of relevance. The term queer is often, and has often, been thrown at people like a knife. William F. Buckley’s televised debates with Gore Vidal possibly being the most poignant and perfect example that springs to mind. Being a Queer theorist myself and bisexual to boot, I feel Bersani’s point to be a little troubling. I understand his concern as a gay man and wanting to find solace as a gay man, but does it seem he’s trying to stop Same-Sexual desire from changing generation to generation? I’m not sure he does for he says later:
“If Queerness means more than simply taking sexuality into account in our political analyses, if it means that modalities of desire are not only effects of social operations but are at the core of our very imagination of the social and political, then something has to be said about how erotic desire for the same might revolutionize our understanding how the human subject is, or might be, socially implicated” (73).
Homos is an effort of love for a political identity. Sex in our culture is often politicized and treated with a grandiosity that distracts us from the simple act and joy of fucking, but books like Bersani’s are important to read even if you don’t have multiple PhDs and enjoy reading The New Yorker. Who you fuck, and how you fuck is a private matter, but it is also part of the narrative of your life and all Bersani really wants his reader, and my own to consider, is how important is that decision in the larger narrative.
“I’m a gay man,” is a story, and one worth telling, because for many young men in the world they may not have the language to even begin to know where they fit in the larger narratives of human society, or else they fear what their desire says according to other.
Queer theory only ever asks questions, and rather than accepting straight answers (see what I did there?), it asks more questions of the larger heteronormative trends to see if they ever really are heteronormative. Do you enjoy anal sex? Do you like to recieve? Are you gay? And if all of these are true, does this really strip you of your humanity? More importantly, does this remove your chance to speak honestly about how you express your sexuality? If it does, then there’s something wrong in the world you live in, because everybody should be allowed to express themselves, no matter what the story they tell reveals.
I have explored my own reading of Bersani rather than providing an objective review of the book, but my training in Queer theory in general has taught me that ultimately studying sexuality is about asking questions rather than trying to arrive at one central conclusion. There may be some of my readers who are gay men that object to the ideas, if so please let me know what you think. I love conversations.
**Writer’s Second Note**
Also please note the title is not meant to be dismissive I just thought it sounded clever. My wife tells me I’m really not that funny.
***Writer’s Final Note***
The image of the group of people was taken last year during National Coming Out Day. I’m the dude on the far left wearing the purple shirt, polka-dot bow-tie, the kilt, and the hat who looks like I smelt a really lousy fart. Here it is again. You’re seeing it now aren’t you? What was I smelling?
Still. Fun day.