With respect to the anus, “The prevailing social consensus,” writes sexologist and therapist Jack Morin, “can still be described as, ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’” Reading this assertion, I am struck by how much one thing has changed—the resonance of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Yet so much has also not changed.
As much as gays and lesbians might not be forced any longer into the closet, the anus—and discussions of it—continue to remain guarded, closeted, limited. We are still anxious about it. It remains taboo. As I began to think about writing Reading from Behind, I realized early on in the venture that Morin’s words would ring true for many readers, and I imagine that they will remain true for a long time to come. No doubt conversation about it evokes discomfort for many. It is, after all, central to elimination, shit, the abject. But it also entails eroticism, pleasure, affect, sexuality. Still, it makes people extremely uncomfortable.
There was the uncomfortable experience, for example, when an American border agent read my conference paper on “Rectal Reading” in its entirety, presumably because it was a threat to national security (or maybe because it was during a government shutdown and—being a particularly slow and boring time —the guard had nothing better to do). As I have thought about these experiences evoked by my research and writing, I have become more and more convinced that “most of us still feel somewhat uneasy” with this subject matter. But what causes this uneasiness? Why are we, or at least so many of us, uncomfortable with discussions of the anus?
There is, it must be admitted, “no simple explanation” for any of these issues, and though I might be tempted to try to resolve these problems, tensions, and discomforts I think that it is more productive to dwell on them. Taboos, we might recall, “have an all-encompassing quality” and are “highly resistant to logic [and] scientific inquiry”; the taboo is always a “product of culture.” It is certain that we have a number of ideas about the anus and anal things that constitute what I call “anal mythologies.” I mean by mythologies what Roland Barthes meant by them: not so much the lofty myths of Zeus and Aphrodite but the practical, daily myths of wine and milk, steak-frites, and astrology. That is, I am interested in the kinds of myths that inform day-to-day life, the stories that we tell about, say, astrology. The ass too is present in popular culture, a quotidian myth informing common-sense ideas and ideals. For example, a “fat ass” can be a desirable thing—“I like big butts,” the song declares. But it can also be derogatory, fat-phobic, and implicated in gendered and racialized thought (e.g., Hottentot Venus). An “asshole,” though a very useful thing, is not something that we wish to be called, yet we do not wish to be without one. People can be “anal,” which is not to say that they are assholes but that they have anal tendencies, such as cleanliness. Being anal bears no relation to being gay, though in popular culture gay men often appear as anal—think of Will in Will and Grace or Mitch in Modern Family. And even though being anal is not essential to being gay, the anus seems to be, as Jeffrey R. Guss has put it, “the very ground zero of gayness.” In this rendering, any man who experiences anal pleasure, especially his own anal pleasure, becomes associated with gayness, and herein lies the rub: when it comes to the anus, a great deal of phobia resides within and around it.
My argument in Reading from Behind is that the anus is a remarkably productive and meaningful site of inquiry. The anus, unlike the vagina or the vulva, for instance, is not always the opposite or inverse of the penis, yet it would be difficult to argue that the anus is not rich in meaning. Although the penis is undoubtedly fascinating insofar as it highlights many anxieties, desires, and fears, and though its symbolic form could certainly be the governing figure in an attempt to outline a history of sexuality (as a critic such as Ilan Stavans has argued), I argue that the anus provides an equally provocative site to begin critical analysis. I also ask questions about the nature of literary and cultural criticism, not because I believe these modes of criticism to be in need of revision or correction but because I am committed to opening up new lines of inquiry or repressed lines of inquiry that have hitherto remained largely uninvestigated—sealed tight, so to speak.
Indeed, readings of the texts that I explore in Reading from Behind have been incomplete because critics have failed to account for the anus. The anus is an opening to the text that has remained obscured by critical, intellectual, and affective anxieties that have not permitted readers the chance to engage with the other side of textuality. Thus, I argue that though a poem such as Delmira Agustini’s “El Intruso” is largely obvious in its meaning—an intruder enters a private space, and an erotic encounter ensues—there is a secondary meaning, another way of reading the text, that demonstrates a complexity that has not been critically imagined. It is this critical work, as a kind of imaginative reading, that motivates Reading from Behind. I intend to explore and consider what happens to gender, particularly masculinity, when the anus is incorporated into textual analysis.
Jonathan Branfman and Susan Ekberg Stiritz use this type of questioning to frame their article “Teaching Men’s Anal Pleasure: Challenging Gender Norms with ‘Prostage’ Education.” What would it mean, they ask, to think carefully and critically about the intersection of masculinity and anality? They provide an analysis of a letter sent to Dan Savage, the popular sex columnist:
“Drew” anxiously describes his new found “fetish”: anal pleasure. Drew, a 30-year-old, recently “let a girlfriend ‘experiment’ on my ass. What started out as a kink with her finger has turned into a full-blown fetish with her dildo.” Interpreting this “fetish” as a sign he might be gay, Drew “tried masturbating to some gay porn.” Although the porn did not excite him, Drew seeks assurance that he can really be straight despite enjoying receptive anal penetration. As he puts it, “I still don’t have any desire to be with a man sexually, Dan, but I love having my ass pounded. Does that tip the scale toward homo?”
Drew has become a “frantic epistemologist,” to use the language of Adam Phillips. He is urgently trying to figure out what this newfound “fetish” means—as if it must mean something. He turns to gay pornography to see if he really is gay; ultimately, he remains uncertain and requires answers to his anxious questions. He turns to Savage and asks, “Does that tip the scale toward homo?” Surely, in practical terms, Drew must be aware of who is giving him this pleasure: a girlfriend. The scene, in basic terms, is heterosexual insofar as it involves a male body and a female body. Indeed, this is the response from Savage: “Once again: If a man and a woman are doing it—whatever it is—it’s a heterosexual act.” (To be certain, he is correct on the one hand, but on the other he reduces sexuality to a body with a penis and another body with a vagina. It is too reductive; it does not account for the complexities of gender, sexuality, and sex.)
Incidentally, but importantly, an issue that goes entirely untouched in the sexual advice from Savage is the danger of using a sex toy that might not be designed for anal pleasure. The Archive of Sexual Behaviour reports, for instance, that “a healthy, 28-year-old man presented to Emergency Services at our hospital because 5 h ago, while he practiced sex with his girlfriend, she introduced a sexual toy (vibrator) across the anal orifice. Due to suction the object stayed in the rectum.” Such narratives are all too common if one consults medical journals, and on the Internet one can find numerous stories such as this involving any number of instruments: vegetables, toys, guns.
The issue here is that medical professionals, sexologists, and scholars of gender and sexuality need to do a better job of educating the public about anal sexual health. The average male, it seems, is evidently curious about, if not interested in, anal pleasure, not least because of the elusive “male G spot,” highlighted in various examples from popular culture to sex tips from gay men for straight women. Indeed, it is not surprising that renowned psychoanalyst Donald Meltzer wrote in 1966 that “I have been forced also to the recognition that masturbation of the anus is a far more widespread habit than analytical literature to date would imply.” Although his article was published decades ago, it seems that concerns remain as “widespread” today as they were then. If this is the case, then surely there is a responsibility to think carefully about anal health and to treat it as seriously as we would any other medical concern. As a policy initiative (not the goal of this book), this would be not about sexual orientation but about anal health and sexual health. Although not wanting to take on the role of a concerned sexologist, I believe that this discussion of the anus needs to include the work of a cultural critic, such as me, working alongside sexologists, medical practitioners, and sex therapists.
The challenge with Drew’s story is that it recalls Guss’s contention that the anus has become “the very ground zero of gayness.” Drew becomes a “frantic epistemologist” not of what the anus means for other people but of what it means for him. It confuses him. He is like the Lacanian hysteric asking, “Am I a man or a woman?” However, his question is less about sex and more about sexuality: Am I straight or gay? Hetero or homo? And the answer it seems, at least for Drew, is found in and through the anus: what it does and what it means to the constitution and essence of sexuality.
The anus, in this rendering, works to define one’s sexuality. The problem therefore resides in the fact that “the ultimate ‘feminine’ that men must reject in order to be regarded or to regard themselves as masculine” is penetrated. Such a perspective, however, does not (for it cannot) “celebrate our own complex, ambiguous bodily sensations.” In a sense, Reading from Behind proposes that the anus is “complex, ambiguous,” and this is what we need to recognize in our critical theories; and we must equally admit that the anus seems to be caught up in a grand narrative: “the very ground zero of gayness.” This tension needs to be exposed, explored, and understood. The anus, as we have witnessed briefly here, calls into question masculinity, sexuality, and orientation. Even in a scenario involving a male and a female, the anus seems to disrupt one’s claim to a given sexuality and by extension one’s gender.
One of the challenges that must be overcome while “reading from behind” is the less than critical imperative that we orient the anus in a particular fashion. Indeed, one of the goals of this study is to decentre the orientation of the anus. This is not to deny that it has an orientation but to claim that its orientation is not the same for everyone. Further, what would happen—if only as a thought experiment—if we privileged the anal dimensions of texts? Can we read for these instances, these moments, and imagine other readings not indebted to a particular orientation or to the obvious prominence of the phallus, a site of difference, and move toward a space of inclusion? What if the ass, the booty, the moneymaker, the tukhus were a fully loaded sign endowed with rich and complex meaning much like the numerous nerve endings of the anus? What if we loosened up our critical inquiries, embraced the pleasure of the text, and removed ourselves from the paranoid, sphincter-tightening hermeneutics of suspicion? Indeed, is it possible to find a way to read texts that engage the anus but not fall victim to a hermeneutics of suspicion, a paranoid, anxious, or nervous reading practice, one that always insists on a certain orientation?
I suggest that the solution, as it were, is to take the anus head on, to read from behind. Instead of keeping the anus covered and controlled, we can explore why it matters and how it functions in a given text. We can undertake new readings of works that afford interesting, provocative, and important critiques of how we think about the anus. It is not a matter of displacing the phallus from literary and cultural analysis—or of forgetting the womb and clitoris altogether—but a matter of looking at the other pieces, the other assemblages, and determining if there is not another mode of reading that affords another perspective on the same texts.