The Politics of Penetration

The clichéd mantra of the straight man in a gay bar – “keep your backs to the wall, boys” – did not evolve, let’s be clear, from an observance of Feng Shui.

When a man feels controlled or dominated by another man – usually his boss – he feels ‘screwed’ or ‘shafted’. If he needs the job badly enough he’ll ‘bend over and take it’ and when he can’t take it anymore he might just tell his boss to ‘get fucked’. Because apparently ‘getting fucked’ is the worst fate we can think of to wish upon another human being.

When did the potentially transcendent act of sexual penetration become a battlefield of male ego and the ultimate symbol of aggression? And who decided that the act of giving oneself sexually to another was an expression of weakness and defeat? Surely the acceptance of our ultimate vulnerability is a strength, a triumph over fear and insecurity.

But man’s pathological penetration panic is primordial (reader warning: More gratuitous alliteration to follow). At the head of the food chain, your average fit, able-bodied male has no natural predator, other than – ah, yes – another fit, able-bodied male. And he would sooner be violently beaten to within an inch of his life by another bloke, than tenderly caressed by him. If I weren’t on a linguistic crusade I’d say that’s just a little bit fucked.

Penile penetration paranoia (Ah, there it is!) lies at the very root of homophobia, which is endemic to mainstream male culture just about everywhere. The clichéd mantra of the straight man in a gay bar – “keep your backs to the wall, boys” – did not evolve, let’s be clear, from an observance of Feng Shui.

Paradoxically perhaps, the act of giving oneself sexually to another, when entered into with affection, respect and informed consent, is indeed an act of emotional strength. It demands of the receiver the courage and self-assuredness to be vulnerable and allow oneself to be seen as such. Perhaps if every man could just once in his life experience being consensually dominated by a trusted intimate partner, he might have the opportunity to truly understand the rich complexities of trust, vulnerability, submission and the relinquishment of power.

Otherwise, I fear that our cultural conceptualisation of sexual penetration is disturbingly bound up with the exercise of power and, too often, the abuse of it. If being penetrated is the domain of the weak and the subjugated, what does this say about the way men view their own sexual relationships? Are they ‘screwing’ and ‘shafting’ their sexual partners, just as they have been ‘screwed’ and ‘shafted’ by the boss? Do they experience their partners as ‘bending over and taking it’? Can sexual penetration ever be completely extricated from issues of male power and dominance?

Our cultural obsession with intercourse promotes the silly idea that this is all that people do in bed. And perhaps many men would be quite happy with that. And yet, women with whom I’ve spoken on this issue rate it pretty low on the desirability scale, compared with a range of other acts of sexual intimacy. So, beyond our youthful years of exploration and procreation, is the place of penetration in a respectful and mutually satisfying intimate relationship grossly overstated?

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