Queer Body: Nexus of Violence and the Erotic
by Cliff Bostock
In relation to the simplified reality that is a limit
for mankind as a whole, eroticism is a ghastly maze where the lost ones
must tremble. This is the only way to come close to the truth of eroticism:
" (Georges Bataille, p. 24)
"There is not a single degradation of the body which I must
not try and make into a spiritualizing of the soul." (Oscar
Wilde, p. 155)
When Matthew Shepard, a young
college student, was murdered in Wyoming last November, his death seized
the imagination of gay men in profound ways that have not been examined
in the media in depth.
In Internet chat rooms and in the offices of therapists, including my
own, gay men fixated upon a singular aspect of the murder: They ruminated
- in dreams and fantasies - the image of the boy's bashed body, particularly
his face, which was covered with blood. They particularly focused on the
fact that the blood had been washed from his eyes by his tears.
In an act eerily reminiscent of a crucifixion or a lynching, Matthew's
attackers lashed him to a fence in the cold after beating him, so that
he could not move. Although the political uses and meanings of his martyrdom
are easy enough to understand, I want to speculate here about a deeper,
more disturbing thesis.
Matthew's death was not an ordinary murder with hate as its motivation.
Because the victim left a nightclub with his assailants for the purpose
of having sex, it was, I propose, a ritual sacrifice that included a sexual
seduction. Thus the image of the boy's battered head is not purely a political
signifier. Nor is its continual rumination by gay men just a statement
about the threats and exclusion that define, at varying distances, their
personal sexual and social horizons.
The image of the boy's severely beaten face and body is at its deepest
level and broadest context also an erotic one. It is an example of how
the brutally violent and the ecstatic become literally conjoined in the
sexual, much as Georges Bataille describes in his long essay on sacred
violence, The Tears of Eros.
In this case, of course, its meanings are largely disassociated and its
enactment, as a ritual sacrifice of a body colonized by heterosexual men,
is largely symptomatic rather than explicit within the shared imagination
of the entire culture.
It is worth noting here that I have selected Shepard's case as a trope
only because of its notoriety. Its particularly extreme horror and, I
suspect, the vulnerable and attractive image of the boy caused it to impinge
upon the national psyche. An equally horrific case occurred in March in
Alabama, when two men beat to death and then burned Billy Jack Gaither,
who had supposedly approached them for sex. These cases horrify nearly
everyone but the battering of the queer body by heterosexual men is commonplace
all over America.
The following attempts to elaborate some of these themes, mainly within
the queer imagination, but makes no effort at an exhaustive analysis.
The Queer Body's Formation
The body of gay men is today the primary bearer of America's erotic
repression. This repression of erotic freedom is in service to heterosexual
male hegemony. It fundamentally duplicates the oppression of women and
their erotic adaptation to it. It also recalls the oppression, stereotyping
and adaptation of black men as sexual outlaws in America (Pegues, p. 259-70.)
Gay men differ from women and African American males, however, because
they are not outsiders in terms of biological markers like gender or skin
color. The gay man, unless he elects to take on "tribal" insignia,
disappears into all classifications of his gender, including color, until
he emerges erotically. As such he is by his nature a saboteur of authority
which has, since the duration of the patriarchy, been wielded in phallic
energy directed outward rather than toward the self, as it is in the penetrated
Jamake Hightower (1997) and other queer scholars have documented that
this quality of the gay man as saboteur has been recognized throughout
time but not monolithically condemned, as it came to be in American and
European life. Indeed, the man who principally had sex with other men
was celebrated in many indigenous cultures as a healer, who bore the power
of the radical other.
present-day demonic queer body emerged at the turn of the century, when
a number of social and psychological phenomena coalesced. These are best
symbolized, I think, by the tragic death of Oscar Wilde and the publication
of Freud's Interpretation of Dreams in 1900. These two events would color
the erotic perspective of and toward gay men for the next 100 years, reiterating
the forces out of which they themselves emerged.
These latter forces, certainly, include the industrialization and urbanization
of the Western world, which required a radical reformation of male identity
in the view of Michael Kimmel (1997) and many other writers in the so-called
new masculinity movement (not to be confused with the mythopoetic movement,
which it opposes). In their view, industrialization required a shift from
a "communal male" whose values were rooted in sharing resources,
to a competitive male whose main value was (and remains) the predatory
accumulation of personal power and wealth.
Another way of expressing this - the Jungian way - might be to say that
at the turn of the century there was a massive disownment by men of the
anima, a rejection of the feminine, required by the family-splitting,
competitive world of the factory. This enormous shift in social organization
and psychic identity exerted an influence in Freud's work that is surely
self-evident, as it is in Jung's work, if more consciously contemplated.
By the very elevation of the mother to such a powerful and potentially
demonic position, with her evocation of castration anxieties and her own
penis envy, Freud acted out in his psychology the consequences of the
repression of the female. The symptomatic return of the repressed in this
case was Freud's own psychology - a modern mythology drenched in Oedipal
anxieties. He was surely right to note that the repression of the erotic
was the main problem of dawning modern life; it is rather astonishing
that he so completely blamed the breast.
The result of Freud's psychology was to reiterate as dogma the demonization
of the feminine. Homosexuality in fact became associated with negative
femininity in Freud's imagining of it. He pathologized it, describing
an etiology of overidentification with the mother in the absence of the
father. (Obviously, this is a nearly perfect metaphor for the effects
and requirements of industrialization. The father, newly absent from the
home, left his son completely in the hands of the castrating female, envious
of her husband's phallic energy. How would the husband/father, acting
on behalf of the economic culture, assure that the son did not become
emasculated by the female and threaten the new urban cosmos by withdrawing
from its competition? By pathologizing the female and all of her vulnerable
Freud's conflation of the effeminate and the homosexual - to say nothing
of the preoccupation by mainstream culture with either aspect -- was actually
quite new in world culture. How else to explain Oscar Wilde's foolish
libel suit after he was publicly and accurately accused of practicing
"the love that dare not speak its name." Glamorous, brilliant
and androgynous, Wilde had taken the world, including America, by storm
during the late part of the Nineteenth Century with his lavish aesthetic
of the sensual. Clearly, he could not imagine that, having been so widely
lauded, he would lose his case and be sent to prison. But Wilde's cruel
imprisonment was, I believe, one of those irrational occurrences that
signal a dramatic shift in consciousness often years before it takes full
root in the public imagination.
It is not historic sentimentality to say that Wilde's conviction signaled
a dramatic turn for the worst, from relative acceptance of both gay and
effeminate men without necessary association of the two prior to then.
George Chauncey (1994) has recovered the history of gay life in New York.
He demonstrates that in the late 1800s and throughout the first two decades
of this century, gay men and women lived quite openly in a highly developed
public social life in that city. They mingled socially and sexually with
heterosexuals. Chauncey's book is as much, too, a record of the city's
broad bisexuality, particularly among members of the working-class Italian
community. Although heterosexual males maintained their position as penetrators
in their sexual interactions with gay men, there was no assumption that
gay men were inherently effeminate or particular rancor if they were.
Indeed, New York maintained an attitude of fascinated curiosity toward
the more outre aspects of gay culture, like it's massive cross-dressing
The conflation of homosexuality and effeminacy - the notion that the
queer must be a sissy or that the sissy must be a queer - did not, despite
Freud and the widespread repudiation of Wilde's work, become popular mythology
in America until World War II. Then, a concerted effort was undertaken
by psychologists, religious leaders, government officials and police to
pubicly pathologize homosexuals (often as pedophiles) on behalf of the
"manly" requirements of soldiering. This was a gross literalization
even of Freud's own thinking, effectively adding intense anxieties to
every man's sense of his masculinity. Kimmel (1996) recounts revival-like
meetings at which men during this period basically indoctrinated themselves
with a dogma of pseudo-warrior masculinity (which has a disturbing resonance
with today's mythopoetic movement).
This was, of course, an intenisfication of the same forces arising out
of the sacrifice of communal male values in the shift to industrialized
economy. The fact was that soldiers, thrown into intimate association,
discovered their homoerotic affections in great numbers and this threatened
the hegemony of the warrior as much as the capitalist earlier.
Thus was born the pathologized and, notably, criminalized queer body.
Is it not astonishing to contemplate how this body that loves other men
began the century imprisoned and broken and ends the century tortured,
lashed to fences and torched on a pyre of automobile tires in a junkyard?
This is the atmosphere that queer men have respired for 100 years. The
effects, like living in a cell with the continual threat of torture, have
been inestimably profound and little appreciated inside or outside gay
The Disassociated Queer Body
Obviously, every erotic encounter between gay men occurs against a horizon
of potential violence and this in turn requires an adaptive response.
The character of the response follows the general pattern of disassociation
and symptom formation, but I do not believe contemporary psychology imagines
this condition deeply enough
The response of gay men is certainly as primitive as the response to
hunger. An example is Nancy Scheper-Hughes study of nervos (1992).
In that condition, the mind and body disassociate from one another in
a symptomatic formation because fundamental appetites aren't met. Caroline
Giles Banks' likewise notes a dissassociation of body from mind and spirit
in her study of anorexia (1997).
What is shocking, to me anyway, is that while both studies situate themselves
in metaphorical conceptualizations, their authors seem to miss the deeper,
visceral reality for the subjects. Starvation is digestion. It
is self-digestion. I make this point to suggest that at its depths, the
enacted process of disassociation is completely meaningful, even logical,
often an attempt to satisfy what is unavailable externally. This is quite
different, obviously, from conceptualizing the process as introjection
of cultural values or as reaction formation. It places the metaphorical
process fully in the body: The body cannibalizes itself. This is congruent
with new thinking about the body's consciousness (Lasker and Johnson).
Analagously, the queer body as it has emerged at the end of the century
lives in a hunger for contact and erotic expression that is arguably harder
to achieve than at the end of the last century. Despite (if not because
of backlash to) decriminalizaton of sodomy and de-pathologizing of homosexuality,
the queer erotic encounter remains fraught with imagined and real danger.
And this is of course all the more aggravated by AIDS, which inflicts
disfiguring violence upon the body and stands, more closely than would-be
assailants, near the site of any sexual interaction between men.
Like the anorexic body that digests itself in a grotesque but inevitable
enactment of personal violence, the queer body at the end of the century
is a body that fucks itself. The iconographic queer body, the depicted
body, has become a phallic body - almost literally. Lean, shaved of hair
from head to toe and often self-described in personal ads as "military,"
it is a body in which phallos, as energy, has become self-contained despite
its threatening appearance. Exhibition of the body, rather than penetration
of another body, has become the primary means of sexual gratification
for many gay men.
In the way anorexics buy the ideal of thinness and then proceed to digest
themselves, the contemporary queer body purchases nearly all stereotyped
signifiers of macho violent culture and then proceeds to fuck itself as
violently with them. (The feminist post-structuralists have written so
much about the rape fantasies of heterosexual women that I don't think
I need to elaborate the obvious parallel here.)
When I say that the body fucks itself violently I mean it at numerous
levels, including the literally masturbatory, sadomasochism (which often
involves explicit gay-bashing scenarios) and the frightening resumption
of unsafe sex by young gay men.
In other words, to expess it in Dionysian terms, dismemberment has become
deeply incorporated in the queer erotic imagination. Oddly, one might
argue - and many new thinkers would - that this is not a true disassociation
but just the opposite. To them, in Bataille's tradition, sexual interactions
are inherently violent, so that a deliberate step toward ritualized violence
is a step toward consciousness, as it was in the Dionysian revels, whose
erotic violence he calls the foundation of tragedy (Bataille, p. 57).
Wilde suggests much the same throughout his memoir, De Profundis. By the
degradation of the body, he says, soul is constructed.
Bataille finds late company in the thinking of Wolfgang Giegerich (1993)
who has argued that sacrifice, violence, was at the foundation of culture
and was the way by which soul was fashioned for millenia.
It is a terrifying to imagine that in the sacrifice of Matthew Shepard,
something of soul was being constructed - something of such deep erotic
resonance that it continues to reverberate in the image of his bloodied,
crucified form, an act of horrible violence precipitated by a sexual proposal.
And, really, is this so different from Goya's explicitly lascivious paintings
of violence or, for that matter, of the countless sensual depictions of
the naked, androgynous Christ languishing upon the cross?
The murder of Matt Shepard made explicit what is operating in the erotic
life of most gay men, a deep connection between thanatos and eros. Although
this is almost certainly true in all sexual interactions regardless of
gender choices, it is in gay men that this nexus gains its most intense
expression on behalf of the entire culture. Gay men bear what is disassociated
by the entire culture: the link between death, the violent, and the erotic,
the ecstatic. The degree to which this connection is disassociated in
the psyches of gay men themselves varies greatly.
The Heterosexual Male Body
I would like to close with a few observations about relationships between
gay and heterosexual men in this context. Although the demonization of
the queer body is maintained by patriarchal hegemony, I think it is important
to acknowledge that heterosexual men suffer greatly for the split they
suffered at the turn of the century, alienating them from their anima
In the last 10 years, American culture has hosted a movement among heterosexual
men to recover a sense of identity in a feminist culture. Much of this
has been led by the so-called mythopoetic men's movement, centered around
the work of Robert Bly and Michael Meade. Kimmel (1996) and other new
writers in masculinity studies have exposed the fundamentally sexist underpinnings
of this movement, mainly expressed in its effort to recover a sense of
manhood in a resurrected "archetype" of the warrior. (Andrew
Samuels created considerable enmity on the Pacifica campus when he made
the same observation here in a series of lectures a few years ago.)
The most biting criticism, though, has come from David Tacey (1997).Tacey
recounts his own analysis with James Hillman in Remaking Men. During
his analysis, he began to constellate homoerotic images which Hillman
urged him to follow. Although Tacey is not gay, or even bisexual, he realized
that these images indicated the depth of his disassociation from his capacity
for intimate relatedness with other men.
When he began talking to his men's group, where he'd been a member for
years, about his experience, he was repeatedly silenced - as he was in
other venues where men were meeting to discuss masculinity issues. This
led him to the conclusion that in our time homophobia, even more than
sexism, is the main symptomatic expression of men's disassociation from
anima. Men will not move into a true post-patriarchal consciousness, he
argues, until homophobia is abandoned.
Matthew Shepard's image, then, represents a dismemberment of male consciousness,
one that calls all men into the deepest meanings of erotic contact, not
just as sexual partners, but as comrades in the adventure of soul- and
world-making. But to achieve that, men of both orientations, will have
to abandon, too, their deepest fear of the feminine. A singular fact was
purged from reporting of Matthew's murder in the gay and straight press
after one day:
Matthew Sheppard was effeminate
He also, we learned later, had AIDS.
Moreover, he appeared posthumously in a documentary, Jesse and Me, speaking
as a radical activist.
He was, in short, a fully Dionysian, dismembered and conscious, man.
Banks, C. (1997). The imaginative use of religious symbols in subjective
experiences of anorexia nervosa. Psychoanalytical Review, 84(2)
Chauncey, George (1994). Gay New York. New York: Basic Books.
Highwater, Jamake (1997). The Mythology of Transgression: Homosexuality
as Metaphor. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kimmel, Michael (1996). Manhood in America: A Cultural History. New
York: The Free Press.
Lakoff, George, and Johnson, Mark (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh.
New York: Basic Books.
Pegues, Conrad (1998). Piece of Man: Redefining the Myths Around the
Black Male Phallus. In Looking Queer, edited by Dawn Atkins. New
York: Harrington Park Press.
Scheper-Hughes, Nancy (1992). Hungry bodies, medicine and the state:
toward a critical psychological anthropology. In New Directions in
Psychological Anthropology, ed. Schwartz, Theodore et. al. Cambridge:
Cambridge Universtity Press.
Tacey, David J (1997). Remaking Men. London: Routledge.
Wilde, Oscar (1954). De Profundis. New York: Penugin now
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