The Penetrated Male
Jonathan Kemp introduces his new book, The Penetrated Male, in which he reclaims the male body from modern masculine subjectivity.
“…the man who does not feel his body will never
be in a position to conceive a living thought…”
– E. M. Cioran, A Short History of Decay
“He who wishes to know the truth about life in its
immediacy must scrutinize its estranged form”
– Adorno, Minima Moralia
The Penetrated Male scrutinizes literary representations of the male body in what is perhaps its most estranged form: in the process of being penetrated. It does this both in order to suggest that penetration is a condition of modern masculine subjectivity, and to reclaim the male body as a penetrable body. The submission by which masculinity registers within the socio-symbolic order is effected by a process of penetration that remainders the male body, marking it as waste and associating it with a pejorative femininity.
Taboos not only against anality and anal intercourse, but, by extension, against so-called passivity and powerlessness, come into play in our traditional understanding of the penetrated male body. Through the traditional cultural associations that exist between the concept body and the concept woman, the name feminine is given to any breach of the taboo against penetrating the male body. The chain of equivalences binding these two abject bodies significantly includes the notion of psychosis and waste. Through close readings of various texts from the period 1860-1947, this books aims to show how the penetrated male body figures as a site of ambiguity hovering behind the protocols of representation that govern its emergence.
The politics of the anus
Michel Foucault’s work on the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome has demonstrated how the male-male eroticism permitted was governed by a strict understanding that the penetrated partner was a non-citizen: that is, a slave, a woman, or a young boy. The civic status and political power of the adult male citizen was contingent upon his body remaining impenetrable, for it was understood that “when one played the role of subordinate partner in the game of pleasure relations, one could not be truly dominant in the game of civic and political activity”: to be penetrated was to cease to be fully human. This pattern was to re-emerge throughout Europe after about 1700, as Randolph Trumbach’s work on eighteenth century sexuality shows. The only remotely acceptable form of male-male sodomy became that performed by an adult male upon an adolescent boy, who was seen to exist “in a transitional state between man and woman”, and therefore neither fully male nor fully human. Trumbach’s research reveals a consolidation of gender difference taking place in the 1700s by which effeminacy became associated with anal passivity: “Adult men were deemed effeminate only when they allowed themselves to be sexually penetrated”.
By focusing on the penetrated male body, this book is thus not only highlighting the ‘repudiation of the feminine’  upon which traditional, patriarchal and heterosexual masculinity is predicated, but is also making a claim for a reappraisal of masculine pleasure, reclaiming that body as something other than grotesque or unthinkable; it might understand the penetrated male body as something other than feminine, and feminine as something other than submissive, powerless and vulnerable. But how has it come to represent these things in the first place, if not through its interpretation by a perceptual system that always already equates these terms with a highly pejorative femininity, that is, a system of mimetic identification and conceptual foreclosure?
The finitude of the flesh from which transcendence is attempted through the traditional process of disembodied masculine subjectivity is clearly linked not only with death, but also with sexuality, desire, eroticism: le petit mort. Erotic submission is a limit-experience. In the words of Steven Marcus, “sex … serves as a kind of metaphor for death”. The dialectic of death and desire has a tortuous and tangled history in Western thought, and it is not my intention to map it here. But from late nineteenth sexological tracts through to Leo Bersani’s reflections on AIDS in ‘Is the Rectum a Grave?’, the anus has been explicitly linked to death and negation, not least because it is the site of decay, the egress for waste matter. The anus is permitted a single function: ejecting, not receiving; it is a way out of the body, not a way in. In the Victorian homosexual pornographic novel Teleny, for example, penetrative anal pleasure culminates in literal death. The model for a receptive sexual orifice within our thinking remains the vagina – and this despite that orifice’s own duality of functions. Yet, whilst D. H. Lawrence’s remark that “Sex is a creative flow, the excrementory flow is towards dissolution” indicates the horror of mixing these two flows, it ignores the excrementory function of the genitals. As Freud remarks:
Where the anus is concerned it becomes still clearer that it is disgust which stamps that sexual aim as a perversion. I hope I shall not be accused of partisanship when I assert that people who try to account for this disgust by saying that the organ in question serves the function of excretion and comes in contact with excrement … are not much more to the point than hysterical girls who account for their disgust at the male genital by saying that it serves to void urine.
And while Freud’s words still strike a revolutionary note, they are themselves couched in terms that serve to signal Freud’s anxiety over whether he himself might be accused of partisanship, accused of knowing subjectively the anal eroticism it is only his intention to explore under the rubric of an objective science. Rupert Davenport-Hines, commenting upon the media representation of AIDS as a punishment against homosexuals for “abusing their arses”, argued that:
Objectively the discrimination between penises and rectums is nonsense; given the greater horror that shit commands over urine in our culture, the distinction is understandable; but nonsense is still nonsense, whether acculturated, atavistic or adopted as an excuse for journalistic bullying.
Whilst the horror of shit is clearly central to the phobia surrounding sexual use of the anus, an equally nonsensical (though equally powerful) gender discrimination is at work, rendering the male anus a particularly problematical site of such anxiety. For example, the reference in some gay pornography to the male anus as a boy-pussy or man-cunt bears witness to a clear gender ambiguity attending the penetration of that orifice. Mario Mieli called passive homosexuality a form of feminine sexuality, using an idealized concept of woman as the model for a more liberal sexual politics.
The masculine subjectivity that has emerged within Western capitalist discourse is seen as the result of reducing bodily sensation to a programmatic model of procreative sexuality centred on genital differentiation. The penis transcends into the phallus, following the model of the privatised anus. Consequently, the phallicised penis is the only permissable site of pleasure on the male body. In this sense, a binary is established by which the penis is secondary to the concept of Phallus, just as the body is considered secondary to the mind. The anus is thus excluded altogether from the male libidinal economy, such that its erotic use immediately carries with it the threat of castration. Erotic investment in the male anus is hegemonically disavowed by branding its owners as symbolic women; a kind of castration is performed. Because “seen from behind we are all women”, because “the anus does not practice sexual discrimination” (Hocquenghem), the role of the phallus is to affirm sexual difference through its presence. As such, homophobia and misogyny serve the same social function, stem from the same fear of the penetrated/penetrable body – which thus becomes an index of femininity. Taking its cue from Anti-Oedipus, Hocquenghem’s Homosexual Desire argues that the privatized anus, as employed in male homosexual intercourse, can assist in the battle against the entire armature of Western capitalist patriarchal power .
Hocquenghem argues for anal pleasure not as a specifically homosexual activity, but as a way of undermining all sexual categorisations. The symbolic role of the anus is pitted against that of the phallus, the latter’s private status correlated with the former’s function as the public marker of sexual difference. If “the body gathers round the phallus like society round the chief” (Guy Hocquenghem), it unravels around the anus. Whereas only approximately half the population have a phallus, everyone has an anus, its universal possession overriding its privatised and individuated function. In Hocquenghem’s view sexual use of the anus is therefore revolutionary , not simply in terms of overturning sexual categorisations but also by undermining the economic sublimation equating faeces with money.
Along with Robert Mapplethorpe’s (in)famous photographs of gay fisting, and his self-penetrating self-portrait with a bullwhip unravelling like a demonic tail from his behind, the work of Mieli and Hocquenghem can be located within a geneaology throughout the 1970s and 1980s that worked alongside gay activism’s promotion of sexual freedom. The advent of AIDS, however, cast a shadow within which this discourse on pleasure became viewed pejoratively as highly utopian, if not downright irresponsible. By 1987, for Leo Bersani at least, the rectum had become a grave, once more a signifier of negation, dissolution and death In his essay ‘Is the Rectum a Grave?’, Bersani refers to the “seductive and intolerable image of a grown man, legs high in the air, unable to refuse the suicidal ecstasy of being a woman”. Why intolerable? Why suicidal? And why a woman? The Penetrated Male offers instead a reading of the penetrated male body that suggests another way of seeing it – one that resists the non-contradictory nature of such identity thinking.
 This phrase is from Jessica Benjamin’s The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism and the Problem of Domination. She argues that the boy’s identity as male must inevitably involve a rejection of the mother and all she represents and in this sense masculinity is a reactive process of dis-identification.
 Teleny’s authorship is attributed, in part at least, to Oscar Wilde. See Winston Leyland’s introduction (San Francisco: Gay Sunshine Press, 1984).
 In a later essay, for example, written in 1987, he states that “homosexuality is baroque, dramatic, it is an ‘effect’, not a principle”, claiming that the term expresses “a certain ‘attitude towards life’ rather than an ‘identity’”, prefiguring one of the tropes of later Queer Theory (see, for example, the introduction to Warner 1993).
 In a later essay, Hocquenghem declares “Our assholes are revolutionary”. ‘Towards an Irrecuperable Pederasty’, trans. Chris Fox, in Jonathan Goldberg (ed), Reclaiming Sodom.