The Little Dildo That Queered

Check out my latest essay, that was posted yesterday on Harvard’s LGBTQ Policy Journal blog.

still from Broad City

still from Broad City, the awesome Comedy Central show.

The Little Dildo that Queered

By Shelly Ronen

On February 4th the TV show Broad City aired an episode about pegging that sent delighted shock waves throughout the interwebz. “Pegging,” for the uninitiated, is the term coined in 2001 on Dan Savage’s show, “Savage Love” for a woman anally penetrating a man using a strap-on dildo.

Gleeful commentary briefly basked in joy: the episode portrayed pegging as empowering for women! Moreover, the episode seemed to indicate that the act is becoming mainstream. This is no small feat, of course. Aspiring pegees – men who like to be pegged – often struggle with the fear that enjoying this act is a gay thing. In Cosmopolitan’s feature, real talk with women who have pegged, one woman says her partner asked afterward if it was “weird” how much he liked it. She says she knew he was asking, “am I gay?”

So indeed, this is an exciting moment. Could it be that this televised ‘coming out’ of pegging countered once-and-for-all the claim that straight men who enjoy pegging are actually gay? But the episode in question didn’t touch on that issue. In Broad City, the one who is hesitant about pegging is our heroine Abbi, not her hunky neighbor-turned-hookup, Jeremy. In a bit of comic scripting, Abbi merely suggests switching positions and the Jeremy misunderstands the intended meaning of “switch it up” and eagerly pulls out the harness and strap-on dildo.

To be fair, of course Jeremy wants to be pegged! Because – newsflash – men have their own G-spot, and it’s called the prostate. So, why would enjoying prostate stimulation from a silicone member bring up the fear that a man may be gay? Within our reigning ideals of sexual orientation, “straight” or “gay” are immutable traits. We are “born this way,” whatever way we’re born. It’s not about how we’re bedded it’s about who we like to bed, right?

At other moments in human history, this was not the case. In ancient Rome, sexual orientation didn’t map onto our modern dichotomy of “straight” and “gay.” They had their own dichotomy. What mattered most was the sexual role as “active” penetrator or “passive” penetrated. Today’s act of pegging, had it been a thing, would literally have put ancient Roman women into a different category of sexual role – in with the straight men.

But we’re not in ancient Rome. And even if ideas of sexual orientation have varied over time and in different social and geographic locations, the fear is still real. What is that fear? Let’s take it seriously, and hold it up to the light. Men worry that they may be perceived as gay if they enjoy being pegged. And we learn two things, two interlocked cultural truths. First, the fear is really homophobia. “Is it weird?” means ‘is it gay?’ and thus gay is weird. That’s not so surprising (though still painful). But interwoven with this first unsurprising aspect is a second revelation about masculine heterosexuality. Far from being strong and macho and impenetrable, it is vulnerable. Straight manliness is so delicate that new and unfamiliar sex acts can destabilize it. Any deviation from penis-in-vagina intercourse begins to threaten a man’s credentials as masculine and straight.

That threat, of course, is what many have celebrating as “queering,” or a destabilizing of constraining dichotomies (male/female, man/woman, straight/gay). These dichotomies are also a reason why we have such a terrible time with bisexuals and why they are more likely to experience stigma for their category straddling. But notice this: the attribute that’s doing this queering is a mere seven inches of silicone! The dildo. The dildo is the thing forcing the issue; it’s the main figure at the center of this crisis of heterosexuality cum potential for queering.

The dildo has played a similar threatening role before (and I use “threat” here to mean destabilizing). During the famous “dildo debates” of the late 1970s, lesbians argued over whether the dildo was a substitute penis that discredited their same-sex desire. Could the dildo undo their lesbian identities? If they were really into women, why would they need a phallic member?

At that time, the dildo represented the potential to undermine the legitimacy of those with same-sex desire, and all the political responsibility that it brought. Both then as now, the dildo represents the potential to discredit sexual orientation identities, unmasking ‘truer’ desires. Forty years ago, lesbians feared that the reinsertion of the penis-substitute revealed their true desire for a man, just because they liked the feeling of a fake phallus. For today’s pegees, the novel insertion of a penis-substitute among heterosexuals enables them to engage in a gay-coded sex act, and this risks queering their gendered sexuality.

Notice how the sex-act is itself coded as “gay” or “straight.” Sounds familiar, sounds ancient roman. When sex with a dildo is marked as “gay” sex, then the dildo suddenly complicates (again, queers) the born-this-way straightness of those in the bed. The dildo, safely strapped into its harness, reminds us of the limits of our born-this-way logic. Is it who we bed or how we bed? As a society, we’re not quite sure.

The encounter in Broad City, and the rising prevalence of pegging suggests we are no longer so afraid of that object that queers. While men welcome anal play at the micro level of the intimate interpersonal, a correlate change happens at the macro level of the cultures of (gendered) sexuality. That change is the queering of sex acts – with the result that constrained categories like “straight” or “lesbian” might lose their meaning.

So, let’s return to that fear, that’s now out in the light. What should we do about this fear? Should we coo gently and stroke away men’s fearful expressions and tell them that they aren’t gay and that everyone has a prostate and of course they should enjoy that feeling and anyone can do that regardless of their objects of desire? Yes, something like that, and we should push the fear to its logical conclusion—that the rigid binaries of our sex culture should be unseated by those pleasure-giving inches of silicone. Let’s champion the queering potential of the dildo!

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