“Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”
It has become something of a truism that sex is political. Whether it be the Republicans attempting to assert control over women’s bodies or those same Republicans attempting to criminalize homosexual acts, the act of sex has become a fraught political weapon in the ongoing war between the parties. Gay (anal) sex in particular has occupied, and continues to occupy, a particularly vexed place in the American cultural imaginary since, almost invariably, it involves one man submitting his body to the penetration of another. And, in Western culture, especially those indebted to the Greeks and Romans, anal penetration poses a fundamental disturbance to the alleged inpenetrability of normative masculinity. Penetration, in the minds of many men, is the ultimate expression of indignity, the ultimate degradation and destruction of their masculine subjectivity (witness the fact that male/male rape or other sexual assault is often used as a means of breaking down male prisoners of war).
As a result, many queer theorists have postulated that passive anality is, whether consciously or subconsciously, a strike at the heart of hegemonic, phallic/impenetrable masculinity. Indeed, this serves as the basic argument of Leo Bersani in his landmark and highly controversial essay “Is the Rectum a Grave?” While I agree with Bersani and other theorists that passive (and yes, I realize the loadedness of this term) anality is a potentially subversive strike back at the tyranny of hetenormative masculinity, it seems to me that what gets left out of this equation is the “top” partner in this exchange. What role does gay topping have in this schema? While it can be argued that the penetrated “bottom” is engaging in a subversive political act by taking another man into himself and surrendering to the mingled pleasure and pain of penetration, can the same be said of the “top”?
At first glance, it might seem that the top in a gay sexual encounter is merely replicating the very phallic masculinity that male homosexuality is supposed to challenge, for it could be argued that the top is merely slipping into the role of the penetrator, i.e. placing himself into the position of the “man” in the encounter. However, I would argue that something much more complicated and potentially politically subversive is going on here. It is necessary to remember that, in consensual gay sexual encounters, both parties enter into a (often unspoken by no less potent and binding for all of that) contract. The bottom knows that he is relinquishing a certain amount of power to his top, and the top, in turn, knows that he has in his hands that kind of power. There exists, therefore, a very fragile balance of power between the two sexual partners in the moment of coupling that, ultimately, can form an intensely powerful emotional bond between both of them. It takes the normal trade of power that is inherent in any penetrative sexual act and heightens the stakes and, in so doing, enters into a different circuit of desire than that in which much heteronormative/patriarchal sex circulates.
But, I can hear some of you objecting, don’t people who identify solely as “tops” tend to be those same people who so strenuously disavow femininity in other gay men? Aren’t those who proclaim themselves “bottoms” (or, the rare subspecies, the “power bottom”) automatically falling into the position of the woman? To this I would say, no, not necessarily. There are a number of important things to remember here. First, just because one person is penetrated and the other is penetrating does not necessarily mean that the one being penetrated has rendered himself feminine (although this is entirely possible, and indeed be a point of identification/community between gay men and women. I would hasten to add, however, that this a perspective that only some gay bottoms would adopt). Second, to merely assume that top/bottom map easily onto male/female is to inject a decided note of heteropatriarchy into what is decidedly not a heteronormative sexual arrangement. That is why, for many gay men (and women), the question: so who is the husband and who is the wife? is so incredibly insufferable and offensive. It is attempting to enforce a particular kind of logic on a system in which such a logic has no place.
Thus, there exists within gay sex a subversive political potential on a number of levels, though not all gay men will partake or indulge in these particular perspectives, and some may do it at some points and not at others. There are an infinite number of possibilities when it comes to gay sex, and there are many gay men out there who actually adopt a versatile position, moving fluidly between different positions of power. Thus, I do not want to suggest that all gay men are automatically subversive. However, I do want to suggest that gay male sex has the potential to be subversive, whether one adopts the position of the top or the bottom in a particular sexual encounter. What is more, we as gay men need to not only become aware of this fact, but firmly claim it as our own particular set of practices, rather than letting the opposition compose the narrative for us.
Ultimately, I have to conclude that gay desire and sexual practice, whether they manifests themselves via the top or the bottom position, have within them a subversive political potential. After all, though we may hate it, we still live in a heteronormative, patriarchal world, where phallic masculinity and hetero-penetrative sex is still the norm. Gay men, even those who do all that they can to disavow any feminine aspect of themselves, occupy a vexed position in this world (which may go at least part of the way toward explaining why they do everything they can to avoid being known the dreaded “f” word). Gay male sex, then, may serve as another weapon our continual struggle against the inequality that still remains structurally built into the world in which we live. And if we can have fun while doing it, that makes it all that much better.