We Need to Talk About Butt-Sex

Anal is the most intimate sex we’ve got as gay men, yet most of us rarely ever talk about it. This I discovered on Fire Island last summer, while conferring with various guys. I became convinced that we just don’t talk enough about butt-sex, especially regarding the necessary prep. So, here’s my attempt to crack open a discussion.

Why go there? Without the flexibility to consult one another on the mechanics of anal sex, we lack the best tips for safety, cleanliness, and achieving maximum pleasure–a real problem for the young, and/or sexually inexperienced, who may have to endure unnecessary confusion, embarrassment, or pain during intercourse.

It’s no wonder we’re so retentive, given the relentless disparaging of butt penetration that surrounds us. I, for one, am tired of the sickening euphemisms (e.g. “Dumpster Diving”, “Fudge Packing”), and the constant suggestion that getting fucked-in-the-ass is the worst possible thing a man could.

Many gay men I consulted for this article said they never respond to derogatory anal sex references. “I just feel shame.”, said one, “Swallow my anger”.

This internalized shame corrodes our minds and contaminates our sex lives. It’s a particular challenge to field these messages when friends and family are the ones transmitting them. (Consider all the times you’ve been expected to laugh at a dumb prostate-exam-joke.)

Worse yet, without having each other as resources, we may rely too heavily upon entertainment and fantasy, like the scant media devoted to gay male sex which unrealistically insinuates that we’re all Spontaneous Bottoms–that is, we can easily drop trou, whenever, wherever, and open up for some good clean fun. This myth keeps the realities of butt-sex-prep tightly shrouded, turning fantasy into anxiety inducing expectation.

For example, you may feel intensely defective for not fucking in a hyper-efficient-MTV-style-montage sort of way–like the cast of Queer As Folk always did: the furtive-staring-cum-rough-kissing-cum-tearing-off-clothes-cum-tearing-open-condom-wrapper-(with teeth)-cum-rhythmic-penetration-cum-Cum, Cum, Cum! (What if, instead, you find yourself nervously rinsing your rectum behind a triple-bolted door, while your partner waits patiently–and then less so–for you to get your butt back to bed and finish what you started…an hour ago). With the exception of that rare unicorn who can seamlessly bend and deliver impromptu, everyone else gets to be filled with anxiety, inadequacy, and shame.

Renowned psychologist and co-author of The Joy of Gay Sex, Charles Silverstein says,”If you’re going out and you hope to get fucked, then the proper preparation is required, meaning cleaning the colon. That’s not only correct, it’s polite”. He’s right, but why then does the topic of bottom-prep rarely come up, even between gay men? (A Google search for “anal sex”, for example, produces a first page full of tips for women).

There are blogs, chatrooms and articles touching on bottom prep for guys, as well as a few books: Mike Alvear’s accessible and entertainingGay Anal Sex: How to Bottom Without Pain or Stains, and Silverstein’s aforementioned Joy, now in its third edition, effectively written to be the first comprehensive, community sexual resource for gay men. However, when I recently consulted Silverstein for this piece, he said, “I’ve read a lot of books about gay sex, written a few myself, and notice that there is very little instruction about preparation for a bottom. The best I know is a couple of pages by Goldstone’s The Ins and Outs of Gay Sex.”

Silverstein goes on to say, “It is clear to me that social inhibition is the reason cleanliness of the anus and rectum is so rarely openly discussed. We avoid looking at whatever makes us feel uncomfortable. Too bad. As a community we should discuss this more openly.” Silverstein emphasizes shame as the primary reason why we avoid talking about our butts.

“It’s not sexy,” says a friend, adding his two cents on why backyard-grooming rituals e.g. douching, enema rinsing, and sphincter stretching stay closeted. And he’s right, the messy, slow, internal nature of these activities would not a hot time at the movies make.(Imagine if Weekend was about three days on a bidet.)

In fact, the reasons why anal discussions often reach dead ends are manifold, and complex, and for those who are interested in the why, it is clearly articulated in the works of Freud, Michel Foucault, Silverstein, and Leo Bersani, to name just a few. But, for my purpose I’m even more interested in the how; how shame related to our butts interferes with our sexuality, and how we can reclaim it.

In the spirit of Bersani’s essayIs the Rectum a Grave?–which possibly contains the most alluring and empowering description of bottoming ever written–Martin Weber’s recent Huffington Post article, The Bronze Eye is Open: A Philosophy of Anal Sex, and also Oprah’s 2006 special, “Everybody Poops”–I’m interested in how we can bridge the gaps between us, create common spaces to talk about our butts, and maybe share tips for the best preparation for penetration–and freeing us up to have the best possible, realistically achievable, sex.

While on Fire Island last summer, my friend Ben and I were blithely chatting by the pool when conversation suddenly ran secret and deep; we broached the myth of The Spontaneous Bottom and proceeded to shatter it with our personal backstage confessions. We interrogated each other as if for a memoir entitled Everything I Know About Bottoming I Learned From…., discovering that “other gay friends” did not fill in that blank for either one of us.

This made us curious. We’ve had distinctly different histories. (I’ve been monogamous with my husband for over a decade, tending to prefer dinner parties to clubs, while Ben has had multiple partners in that time, and attends every White, Black, and Shades-of-Gray Party, yet neither of us ever received top-down prep tips from other gay men.

We expanded our inquiry to other men on the Island–men of various ages, cultural backgrounds, and sexual experience–and found the same was true for all of them.

The bolt wasn’t unlocked by any one key disclosure (much of the “secret information” shared included jocular tips, like offering prospective partners the disclaimer, “Enter at your own risk”), but by opening the communication lines, all typical guardedness was lifted, allowing for a sense of fellowship, and a palpable subsiding of group shame.

Over the following months, I proceeded invasively to investigate–in person, by email, and over Facebook, asking just about every gay man I know (or know of)about their ass habits.

Of those who responded, all but one said they “mostly topped”, and were therefore unfamiliar with tricks of the bottoming trade–maintaining the unicorn mystique of bottom behavior.

All of them claimed complete naivete about bottoming before their first anal sex–“Baptism by fire” says one–and very few of them admitted to consulting friends, or any reference guide, to this day. (Upon reflection, one said, “My friends say they don’t give a shit [about bottom prep], but I don’t believe they’re truly so blase. It’s like the ladies who say they never get their hair done…it just happens to be perfect.”)

When these “mostly top” guys did bottom, their preparation varied from simply showering and “basic cleanliness”, to an occasional warm water enema rinse, to douching several times in a row, but again, all participants stated they were self-taught.

On the occasion of accidental mess, most said their steamy sex scenes instantly became silent movies, avoiding any talk–even with long-term partners–and engaging in overmuch cleaning before moving on–which in many cases meant going separate ways. With the exception of one friend’s “friend”, who supposedly thinks of “magic messes” as “extra lube”, everyone unequivocally felt that shitting the bed could mean the end of the affair. One friend says, “I’ve stopped mid-way, pointed it out, and ended the sex. Once I stopped and told him to go to the bathroom – I was so grossed out, I went home while he was showering. That was a dark night”.

Only one person brought up prepping to avoid pain, saying that he has been known to sit on a dildo for up to two hours to warm up–most recently while studying for a big test. (Perhaps this aspect of prep was largely untouched because discussing the psychological fears of anal penetration– being “buggered”, “sodomized”, or “invaded”–is far more complicated and threatening than talking about your average, Oprah-endorsed poop anxiety).

Most folks I contacted online respectfully declined to answer(I’ll expect some awkward encounters when next we meet). I certainly understand their positions–I’m not so sure how I’d reply to such questions over email–but this withholding does give us a strong sense of the cagey retention surrounding the topic.

The sole, brave-proud-self-proclaimed-“power bottom” however, did in fact respond by email(apparently writing from his home on Planet Unicorn), saying he learned about bottoming, before losing his virginity, from studying gay porn. He also said that he did and does consult gay friends (“especially gay doctor friends”), for tips and support. His maxims are: “Anal Prep is EVERYTHING!!!!! It makes the experience, clean, fun and AMAZING!!! Anal prep gives the bottom confidence to do what he does best!!!”

Contrary to the other participants, Power Bottom apparently talks about prep “with all my gay friends, all the time”, but also with his partners, “Oh yes, they should know all the prep I went through. In return, they will work just as hard to please me…”

I wanted to learn Mr. Power Bottom’s adaptive secrets–even Lady Gaga knows he wasn’t born this way–but we were unable to rendezvous in person.

And then there were none. It was time to consult a pro.

Porn star Shane Frost was kind enough to indulge me. He validated my disbelief in the myth of The Spontaneous Bottom, saying,”[Bottom prep]is very important on a professional level. Whether you’re talking about cleanliness, or just the readiness of the bottom, if they are not prepared the scene can go down hill real fast”.

His professional work ethic is also apparent in his personal life with his boyfriend of four years. “I like to always present a clean cabin for the submarine to dock in, and I like to have a wide enough cabin for him to fit comfortably…All aboard!”

Frost says he learned about anal sex in his early adolescence, experimenting with a peer of the same age. They would play-wrestle in their skivvies, he says, mimicking the pros on TV, which educed into a main event far more interesting than their attempted emulation, “…buttfucking!” His description of this early experience, captures a buoyant sexual experience with a sense of innocent discovery and play–an image we rarely associate with anal sex, but one that could help us all to talk about, prepare for, and do it.

Now, as an adult who has worked in porn for five years, Frost says that the industry is his primary community, making it very easy to openly discuss prep. His own ritual involves douching once at home before his shower, and then again at the studio “once oral and photos have completed”. Each douche takes him about two to three minutes; he admits that his efficiency has come with time and practice.

As important as cleanliness is to him, he’s learned to be understanding, good humored, and communicative when accidents occur. “The last time it happened”, he says, “I looked at him and I said, ‘Really?’ [laughing]. I gave him a towel, he went to finish what he should of done before we started, and we then proceeded to fuck again. Sometimes you can’t avoid it. Sex isn’t planned, it just happens… So you roll with the punches”.

When I told him about the numerous guys struck dumb whenever poop enters the bed or the conversation, he said, “There are ten bazillion people in this world and guess what, we ALL shit. Cher shits, President Obama shits, Justin Beebz shits…and yes…wait for it…The all mighty Madonna shits as well.”

Now, certainly if you don’t have anal sex for a living, you’re more likely than Shane Frost to be penetrated by societal shame when it comes to your anus, but we can learn from him. When I asked Charles Silverstein how we’ll learn to be more open with each other about sex, he said,

“We learn through modeling. But we need models. That means more instructional information from gay books, gay instruction manuals, even some of these porn stars telling viewers about prepping. I don’t believe there will be any resistance by gay men because they want to learn. The resistance comes from their elders who are simply not doing their job of instruction. I expect that no mainstream publisher is going to publish that sort of book or video, but we now have so many alternatives to traditional books, that there isn’t an excuse for ignoring this important topic. Such a venue would also be useful in dissemination information about safe sex, STDs, and sexual variations”.

I’ll leave you now with some encouragement in the words of Shane Frost: “Everyone’s doing it…So why not talk about it?”.

Jodie Foster: It’s Complicated

Jodie Foster’s reality show “would be so boring,” she told the world at Sunday night’s Golden Globes, where she was awarded for a lifetime in front of the camera. Foster’s speech was hotter and colder than a Katy Perry song. Wearing a “coming-out gown,” she seemed to reluctantly come out, and come out, while demanding privacy at one of the most public events on, well, the globe. These contradictions have ignited polarizing “blogofires” across the blogosphere, largely inflamed by Foster’s latent declaration of her sexual orientation.

I am of two minds on the speech. As a gay person I’m frustrated, disappointed and nonplussed by a public figure drawing attention to her sexuality while simultaneously defending herself against identification with our community, but as a psychotherapist I’m openly and empathically curious about her, a compartmentalized person struggling for a cohesive sense of self, hoping to be recognized by us in all her authentic contradictions — not unlike how I, and many in our community, hope to be recognized by her.

Such dilemmas of perspective often present themselves in my work with clients. At these times I find that the questions are far more valuable than answers.

Some questions to consider: Why did Foster use this platform, this symbolically terminal moment in her career, to address her sexuality? Why expose herself (and make her publicist “nervous”) if only to be defensive? Why give us what she suspects we wanted and then criticize us for wanting it? Was her tone defensive because she felt a general invasion of “privacy” (after all, she had no problem sharing images of her children, her “unfamous” friends or referring to her mother and even her ex-lover), or was the subject of her sexual identity the grain of sand that clogged the whole machine?

As much searching, ranting, probing or blogging we do, we won’t find objective answers to these questions, and perhaps they don’t exist. The only answers I’ll ever have are my own imperfect, subjective responses to the speech she gave, and her own imperfect, subjective justification for giving it.

That isn’t to say that my reactions aren’t valid, reasonable or real; for me they very much are. I still feel teased and slapped by her “anti-coming-out.” I still feel that the pros of queer public figures explicitly owning their identities (e.g., giving LGBT people who live in fear, shame and doubt a point of identification and hope) far outweigh the cons (e.g., the possibility of being blocked from “straight” roles, one Brett Easton Ellis raised in a tweet about the openly gay Matt Bomer). I can’t help but believe that the applause her audience was itching to give her if she had just spoken the words “I’m a lesbian” would not have been for her alone; it would not have been in the spirit of a private support group. I imagine it representing so much more, honoring the progress we have witnessed in the LGBT community thanks to the bravery of entertainers like Ellen DeGeneres (and the celebrities who followed in her footsteps), the advocacy and support of leaders like Barack Obama and, most of all, the brazen willingness of millions of non-famous people who have lived their lives truthfully, against all odds. This, I believe, is the applause she denied by declaring her lack of declaration. (I also can’t hide my involuntary grimace and confusion over the fact that she chose Mel Gibson — infamous for homophobic, racist and anti-semitic rants — as her date on the night that she chose to address, or at least insinuate, her sexuality).

Though my imagination can never approximate the traumatic rupture to her privacy that she experienced when John Hinckley cited his love for her (a college student at the time) in explaining his attempted assassination of President Reagan, I can’t help but also see that as an adult she chose to remain in an industry (you can be forced into acting at 3, but not at 33) that sells entertainment based on an audience’s virtual “love” of the entertainers. She is a bona fide public figure, and that comes with opportunities, choices and challenges but not a contract with the public that states, “You can identify with this piece of me but not this one. You can ask about this but not that.

But if I were her therapist, I would use these reactions to feed my curiosity instead of my frustration. I would consider the unique circumstances under which she grew up: in front of a camera and, to use her words, always “fight[ing] for a life that felt real and honest and normal.” I would wonder about her decision to stay in the limelight even as it threatened her sense of “real” and “normal.” I would consider that perhaps “real” and “normal” are words that she feels ambivalent about, words that she associates with reality TV stars, such as Honey Boo Boo Child (whom she derisively singled out in her speech). Perhaps she learned to find authenticity through compartmentalization (e.g., leading lady, lesbian, lover, mother, etc.). Perhaps this sense of authenticity was more achievable for her when entertainment was less “reality”-focused than it is now: “[H]ow beautiful it once was,” she says. Perhaps the shift in how entertainment is sold (i.e., actors now face more pressure to promote their personal lives instead of just their films) has created a rupture in the “self” she had spent years organizing, causing her to confront the unfortunate contradictions between her identity as “leading lady” (which implies heterosexuality) and “lesbian,” for example. Perhaps we can understand her defensiveness as an attempt to keep the identity she had pieced together so effectively from unraveling, and maybe this defensiveness suggests that she doesn’t like the reductiveness of Hollywood (a system we all contribute to) any more than we do.

If I were her therapist, I would invite a space between our realities, a third space, in the hope of breaking through her defensiveness and breaking down my frustration. Psychoanalyst Philip Bromberg describes such a space as “[a] space uniquely relational and still uniquely individual; a space belonging to neither person alone, and yet, belonging to both and to each; a twilight space in which ‘the impossible’ becomes possible; a space in which incompatible selves, each awake to its own ‘truth,’ can ‘dream’ the reality of the other without risk to its own integrity.”

I am not her therapist, of course, and we are not afforded such exchanges of perception with our entertainers, so my intervention will remain a fantasy; as Bromberg says, “this process requires an enacted collision of realities between [two people].” Instead, I will have to remain disappointed and frustrated, and perhaps she will remain defensive, but in the meantime we can all continue to be curious about Jodie Foster and hope that she continues to be so about us.

Calling All Hobbits of Color

I like to play a little game called “Realism or Racism.” Here’s how it works: Whenever you see a movie, TV show or play, ask yourself, “Are the actors all white due to realism (i.e., casting a non-white actor would seriously confuse the story), or racism (i.e., the producers have chosen material for which they can argue — in a seemingly reasonable way — that casting a non-white actor would contaminate the story’s clarity, but really such casting would only put a greater variety of talented people to work, and increase three-dimensional representation of people of color, and if such casting would indeed confuse the story, well… the producers could have chosen material with more diverse casting opportunities to begin with, but… didn’t)”? Wanna play?

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (which opened last Friday) is ripe for this game, though to be frank, I entered the theater hoping for a journey less expected.

In November 2010 — while The Hobbit was filming — it was reported that a casting agent had been fired from the New Zealand-based production, for placing ads seeking actors with “light skin tones.” After “sacking” the agent, director Peter Jackson’s production company officially denied sanctioning the casting notice (which should come as a relief, if not for the fact that of the double-digit actors appearing in The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy — for which The Hobbit is a prequel and which Jackson also directed — I can recall dozens of big folks, small folks, and pointy-eared folks, but not a single person of color). I maintained hope that this was a significant learning moment for Jackson and company.

However, while watching The Hobbit, I found myself a reluctant player in a round of “Realism or Racism?” As in LOTR, Jackson’s cameras pan across throngs of actors of all shapes and sizes, with an array of hairy feet and mystical beards, but the spectrum of human skin tone moves only from pale to paler (even amongst the progressive, vegan elves). I suppose one could argue this is for the sake of realism, though I defy even the most intense JRR Tolkein fan to do so without resembling the irrationally artery-busting-angry, bunny-hating cartoon, Yosemite Sam — or John McCain defending”traditional marriage” (pretty much the same image).

Now, all-white casting (or whitewashing) is certainly ubiquitous in Hollywood, but it’s one thing to argue,”Everyone living in English manors in 1912 was white” (though even Downtown Abbey’s producers are working to increase cast diversity on the BBC series), and quite another to say, “Everyone living on Middle Earth — this dreamworld that never existed, which is populated by myriad mythical creatures — is white.” But that’s exactly what non-white would-be extras for The Hobbit were told.

It’s hard to imagine racial equality becoming a reality when we can’t envision it in our movies, which represent our dreams and, therefore, inform our behaviors. (As professor Nina Bandelj says, actors’ portrayals of characters contribute to the social reproduction of human identities, and according to SAG AFTRA, the union representing all onscreen performers in America, “There is no other medium as capable of affecting human behavior and thought as films.”)

It becomes utterly disturbing when racial equality isn’t even allowed to enter our fantasy films, which represent the furthest reaches of our dreamiest dreams.

SAG AFTRA (along with their New Zealand sister organization, MEAA) has long advocated for minority actors, both in terms of employment, as well as accurate and varied representation of characters onscreen. Throughout the 1950s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) urged SAG to see that African American actors who were “struggling to attain their rightful place in the life of the nation and the world” were not handicapped by lack of representation “in a medium which speaks powerfully to people everywhere.” These efforts have certainly had an impact on Hollywood and we owe some of the greatest performances and most memorable characters of the last 60 years to this advocacy.

However, as professor Dean Spade says in his book Normal Life, advocacy and “law reform efforts taken up under the banner of anti-discrimination have often failed to alter norms” — the “norms,” for example, that were deeply absorbed into the minds of Peter Jackson’s casting directors (who likely find it difficult to dream of multiracial hobbits since they’ve never seen them onscreen themselves) when they curtly rejected actors of color with, “We are looking for light-skinned people. … You’ve got to look like a hobbit.”

So it appears we have a chicken and egg problem: the “norms” won’t change until the casting choices do, and the casting choices are contingent on the “norms.” But where is the hope for change, when our dreamers refuse to dream?

If only Hollywood, television, and even much of Broadway, would take a page from professional Shakespeare, musicals, and regional theater, where leaps of faith in casting take place regularly and for the greater good. For instance no one blinks an eye — particularly in theaters outside of New York City — if Hamlet is played by a black actor while his mother is cast white, if Roxy in Chicago is Southeast Asian, or if any or all of the leads in Les Miserables (which has a strong history of color-blind casting) are people of color. Perhaps it’s the heightened nature of Shakespeare and musicals (and the limited budgets in regional theaters) that allows (or forces) us to use our imaginations. Perhaps big-budget films (like the upcoming Les Miserables movie) and certain Broadway plays can simply afford to cast productions within the realm of what some call “realism” and others “racism.”

I once heard a famous playwright say that “Theater should always mirror reality,” and this he used to justify his relentless insistence that all of his plays should be cast by specified race — most of his characters are specified as white and male, like himself. The question of course is, “whose reality are we talking about”? And, therefore, “whose realism”?

I like better what Thomas Hardy once said, “Art is a disproportioning of realities, to show more clearly the features that matter in those realities, which if merely copied or reported inventorially, might possibly be observed, but would more probably be overlooked.” I can’t help but think of the missed casting opportunities in The Hobbit when I read this.

I found that the trailer for Les Miserables stirred a bit more hope for change than the The Hobbit (even as I wondered if Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson or Oscar nominated Queen Latifah were considered for respective roles they would be great for in it). Listening to Anne Hathaway wistfully sing “I Dreamed a Dream,” I dreamed a dream of my own. I dreamed that the folks who will inevitably be moved to tears by her pasty, ill, homeless woman will be equally moved by the ill, homeless women of color they encounter on our city streets. I dreamed that the black leader we have in reality (as opposed to the onscreen versions Morgan Freeman has expanded our dreams with for years prior) would be treated with the respect he deserves — the same respect we’ve given every president before him. I dreamed that Martin Luther King’s dream will be more of a reality in 2013 than it is today, at least on our movie screens, and therefore in our personal dreams of the future.

Thank you for playing “Realism or Racism.” Now that you’ve gotten the hang of it, join me for a round of “Realism or Sexism,” followed by “Realism or Homophobia,” “Realism or Transphobia,” “Realism or Xenophobia” and “Realism or Ableism” — only this time, you can pick the movie.