The Buts Of Butts: Why We Need To Talk About The Complexity Of Consent As Gay Men

"We need to get better at constructing a more diverse and nuanced language around our sexuality."
11/08/2017 07:56 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2017
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I’ve written about my first time before. It wasn’t great. But it significantly shaped how I came to understand my sexuality. Because what I didn’t realize at the tender age of nineteen was that the hazy politics of consent were central to the awkwardness of my sexual youth. This didn’t look like violence. I wasn’t held down. That’s not my story. Instead, it resembles feelings of embarrassment and shame at declaring, “no”.

It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge that in the spreadsheet of my spread sheets lie a few entries where I rationally came to the decision that it was less uncomfortable just to have sex.

Our relationship to sex as gay men is interesting. Straight people don’t need to prove their sexuality, it’s default, it’s assumed. Our sexuality, however, relies on expression and behavior. After my first time I wasn’t sexual for more than a year. It didn’t go unnoticed. Someone slurred, “are you asexual?” at a college party. My legitimacy as a gay man, questioned. Because to be sexually inactive - or perhaps just cautious - somehow de-legitimizes an identity to those seeking proof and validation of gay identity. And just as we were taught to constantly prove our masculinity, our own sexuality, too, is now under micro-inspection.

Our relationship to sex is also political. The narrative depicts a minority community mobilizing around a behavior they were criminalized for. We recall when law decreed certain sexual acts as punishable crimes: “homosexuality was illegal” (don’t be fooled, this is still a reality for much of the world). Here we conflate ‘homosexuality’ with a specific behavior; a sexual act. A historical reading of the gay liberation movement shows sex as a political tool to undermine authority. We wanted to take back control of our sexuality, our desire and our freedom. Public bathrooms, sex parties, saunas, ‘beats’. A literal desire to fuck against the establishment. Sex thus became central to our display of status and identity. It wasn’t just an act of hedonism, it was political action.

This politicization further cemented when the AIDS epidemic reared its head in the 1980s. The moralism of the conservative religious right was abhorrent and vicious - blame was omnipresent: “you will die for your sins”. The ownership of our sexual narrative was not only stolen from us, but weaponized against us. My identity-kin ancestors fought a hard battle to educate and heal our community.

And so sex became a strident symbol of identity, intimacy, affirmation, pleasure - a fight against the shadow narrative of fear, stigma, impurity, death.

But I think a potential danger opens when identity is constructed around behavior. What follows is a rigidity in behavioral norms and expectations, measuring success in our identity based on our community’s implied guidelines. Sex, we’re informally taught, is something we should always want to want. In an ideal society there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. But in our society it presents itself more troubling. It’s how entering a commercially gay space (bar, nightclub) somehow acts as proxy to consent. It’s the guy next to you grasping your butt, brushing your crotch, grabbing your waist. And it’s the way we’ve learnt to swallow this as just part of the culture.

“I have hemorrhoids,” a friend told his hook-up to mask discomfort at performing penetrative sex. The lie was mumbled off-the-cuff, but representative of something girthier: a sexual hierarchy we’re constantly checking ourselves against. If our identity centers on behavior, and that behavior is to fuck, who gets left behind? “I have hemorrhoids”: language used to protect status, identity, and buffer judgement, shame.

Understanding our community’s language is pivotal to determining its operations and power structures. Dion Kagan tracks the narrative of butt politics from “shame, taboo, emasculation and fright” to “a source of fascination, ecstasy intimacy, power, pleasure, an enhancement of masculinity”, providing a nuanced exploration of language, history and our power to transgress.

But what’s often find missing from our butt talk is the talk of no butts: where do men who don’t actively engage with the anus sit? What penetrates deeper than top/bottom/vers?

Gay lexicon labels you a side, “to kiss, hug and engage in oral sex, rimming, mutual masturbation... practically every sexual practice aside from anal penetration of any kind.” (Dr Joe Kort). Like Kagan, Kort touches on shame and stigma within the gay community: “Sides typically struggle with tremendous feelings of shame. They secretly believe that they should be engaging in and enjoying anal sex, and that something must be wrong with them if they are not.”

It’s this shame that gives you fantasy hemorrhoids.

Perhaps it’s this shame that also gave me traces of relief when I had penetrative sex during my first time. My gay validation.

After my not-so-great-first-time I became hypersensitive to consent. I’d refuse to hook-up if we were drunk. “Do they really want to?”. I grew good at reading sexually social cues. It wasn’t particularly about “no means no” (I’ve been guilty of saying yes while meaning no), but more about ‘yes means yes’. It’s a tricky stream to navigate when sexual behavior is so strongly rooted to our self-understanding.

Moving forward we need to get better at constructing a more diverse and nuanced language around our sexuality. This includes being mindful of sexual diversity, the pressures we put on ourselves/each other, and how we’ve come to understand consent. There’s great potential harnessed in “hook-up apps” as tools of consent. The negotiation of sexual terms and conditions - what are you into? - becoming informal contracts for future encounters. Clearly defining and understanding each other’s level of sexual comfort might help buffer unwanted advances or coercive “I said yes when I really meant no” instances. But first let’s leave the sexual hierarchy behind: our instant default to “top or bottom?”. This dichotomy looks strikingly familiar to power structures we’re already familiar with anyway (hint: traditional gender roles enforced within heterosexuality).

But why do we gag ourselves from these conversations? Perhaps we don’t want to deeper politicize our sex after such an exhausting fight. Does this mean we’re inevitably prioritizing the pleasure over the pain? Perhaps we’re hesitant to vilify our already-marginalized community kin in confessing that some behavior was inappropriate, unwanted, non-consensual. ‘Sex as criminal’ is a narrative we’ve known for too long. Or perhaps it’s our internalized masculinity which halts us from revealing any crumbs of shame and discomfort. Because how do we learn to say no when the yes holds such status?

This is my personal contract for better baring it all. For me the conversation starts here.

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