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Maddison's “Is the rectum still a grave? Anal sex, pornography and transgression” (2012)

“Is the rectum still a grave? Anal sex, pornography and transgression” [PDF]

In an age of pornification, of increasing explicitness, and of apparently increasing sexual choices, it is especially noteworthy that the anus, potentially the most gender-neutral of genital zones, should be as assiduously gendered as it is in heterosexual porn. What does it mean that one of the primary articulations of heterosexuality in porn is women getting fucked in the ass?

Catherine Walby offers the notion of “erotic destruction” as a way of conceiving the “ecstatic confusions wrought upon the everyday sense of self by sexual pleasure” (1995: 266). Destruction here conjures both the “tender violence” and the “terrors” of sexual practice that bring about a “momentary annihilation or suspension of…self” (266).

One of the key elements of Waldby’s argument is her suggestion that the erotic potential of the male anus is intensified by the strength of the phallic taboo against it; that the enormity of the transgression and the cost of its destructive potential is what makes eroticism of the male anus so compelling. But Waldby points out that this intensification of erotic potential in men’s anuses usually involves a violent repression, where this potential is channelled “back into the penis” and into “violence against…those who…experience such pleasure themselves”. Thus, repression of the erotic potential of the anus can lead to both an intensification of the erotic “destruction” of women, and of homophobic anxiety and violence (273).

That [the anus] means, in the mainstream porn of Elegant Angel, Vivid Entertainment, Wicked Pictures, and others, very specifically the receptivity of women’s anuses and the non-receptivity of men’s, points to the density with which gender is circumscribed in this kind of porn, and in turn to the density of the anus itself as a site of contestation and anxiety.

The anus is more authentic than the vagina, for Stagliano, Amis and the men they assume to be watching porn, because men have one too. Thus what is apparently a preoccupation with female authenticity becomes a narcissistic substitution of the anus, the indeterminately gendered orifice/receptacle.

That women are (anally penetrated) means that men aren’t “destroyed” ... [Waldby] suggests that: “If the point of the phallic imago is to guard against confusion between the imaginary anatomies of masculine and feminine, and to shore up masculine power, then anal eroticism threatens to explode this ideological body…anal erotics in the male body amount to…a taking of pleasure in being destroyed rather than being the destroyer” (1995: 272).

For Mario Mieli, an Italian gay liberationist writing in 1977, repression of anal eroticism is not merely an important way of securing a phallic masculine subjectivity, but of reproducing bourgeois capitalism. To be fucked is to be “ruined” both in materialist and gender terms (Mieli 1977: 140).

Capitalist ideology depends upon the psychic repression of polymorphous desires and their expression in forms that reinforce social alienation, competition and the hysterical accumulation of money. For Mieli, the liberation of anal eroticism promises a mutuality of sexual experience that will not only prevent men from fucking women “badly” and foster greater identification with women, but will underpin a wider revolutionary transformation of the ways capitalism represses sexual energies, and institutionalises exploitation.

Watney notes how AIDS discourse reinscribed gay men’s bodies in terms of disease and contagion born of precisely the kinds of excesses and permeability Mieli prescribes. In a reactionary backlash against the political gains of gay liberation and its erotic libertarianism, in the AIDS discourse of the mid 1980s gay sex and the gay anus become unsafe, in Sedgwick’s words “fragile and fatal” (Sedgwick 1994: 210 n21).

[Bersani] concludes by suggesting that “if the rectum is the grave in which the masculine ideal (an ideal shared – differently – by men and women) of proud subjectivity is buried, then it should be celebrated for its very potential of death.” (222)

I want to return to the proposition that the abundance of anal sex in porn represents a repression of male anal eroticism ...[W]e would assume that porn fails to manifest a heterosexual male anus at all. What use would it have for one? ... [Yet Rocco's films] are also haunted by the spectacle of Rocco’s anus ... [and] Rocco’s explorations of his anal eroticism seem to offer few opportunities to reimagine a more mutual form of erotic destruction. His female co-stars could hardly be said to occupy a phallic destructive sexual role; in terms of the progress of the genital play, they are subjugated by Rocco’s ass, rather than subjugating it.

As neoliberal consumer culture has embraced homosexuality for its profit potential, emboldening queers of all hues, those queers have become literally less marginal than they once were. Thus assimilated, and generally lacking a trans-generational culture with which to reinvigorate and inspire the less experienced, queers have become less politically meaningful than they were, to the point of “disappearing” in Bech’s words. Queerness, and all it stands for, is less troubling than it once was. An economically significant effect of this is the so-called “metrosexualisation” of heterosexual men, who have become subjects of the consumer culture just as upper-class women did in the early twentieth century and middle-class women did in the post-war period. Male narcissism, fashion and grooming are no longer signs of queerness, but of successful heterosexuality; gay men have thus not only disappeared politically and culturally, but aesthetically and stylistically as well.

The prevailing structure of porn in the style of Siffredi, Stagliano and their ilk is homosocial; masochistic desire for, and violent disavowal of, anal penetration and anal pleasure, is a primary way in which porn organises negotiations with women. As we’ve seen in discourses of anality (“pussies are bullshit”) and in the distribution of affective responses in porn (“guttural”, “virile”), women represent both the opportunity for demonstrating phallic prowess, and the possibility of failing to demonstrate that prowess.

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