Friday, May 15, 2009


I recently discovered the work of an author I never knew about before, Mary Gaitskill. She apparently made a big splash in the late '80's with her debut collection of sort stories, Bad Behavior. She has been far from prolific, but one of the short stories from BB was co-opted by Hollywood sometime in the early noughties as the film Secretary. She was a bit chilly about the film's translation to the screen, claiming they had filmed a "nice...Pretty Woman version" of her story. One of her main contentions was they tried to make it into a PC version of S and M, so that practitioners could feel good about themselves. Gaitskill found it a bit silly that at the end of the film the characters say, in effect, "Hey, we like fact, we like this so much, let's do it all the time. In fact, let's get married!" When in reality, Gaitskill said, anyone attempting to exert that much control over their erotic life would be too riddled with issues to sustain something rooted in reality over the long term.

This got me thinking (there I go sounding like an ersatz Carrie from Sex and the City again) about the social dynamics which play out in the S and M subculture, between both male/male couples and male/female couples. The bedroom (alley, toilet, etc) is sort of a mirror image of what occurs in the greater culture, to the extent that the power imbalances between men and women in the workplace, for example, as well as physical and psychological differences, play a role. With a heterosexual couple, these games many well not translate into a conjugal setting because of the power-dignity relationship already germane to male-female relationships in society. The male, in other words, usually has the upper hand, due to physical, financial and social hierarchal circumstances.

Because there is a level playing ground between men in society, however, I think gay male roles in the sexual subculture play out a little bit differently. Men are used to negotiating power differently, and are quite naturally competitive. There's less of a stigma attached to dominance and submission between consensual males, and in some cases less lingering traumatic aftereffects. For example, when I first saw the pictures from Abu Ghraib prison, I really wasn't all that disturbed, because the first thing that came into my mind was, wow, gay porn! The themes and motifs therein were to me very similar to what many gay men take for granted in their erotic lives. Of course, for an Islamic heterosexual man, with the consensual aspect removed, this would be the ultimate degradation, being magnified into full-blown emotional violence. But for a number of gay man, this kind of abuse of power and heinous transgression, within the context of sexual fantasy and the very fluid power structures contained therein, would be a powderkeg of eroticism.

Gaitskill also touches at one point on gay marriage, stating that she had once believed that assimilation and the disappearance of gay culture was a good thing, because it signalled the waning of a mentality of difference. She has now altered her original opinion by saying that she that maybe the outlaw culture was necessary for some people, to hang onto an outsider identity. I interpret this as an alignment of the "outsider" culture (also necessary to the creation of art, but that's another essay) with the type of behaviors she ascribes to her characters, not necessarily homosexual, but also sex workers, disenfranchised people and psychologically dislocated miscreants.

I would argue that because of their very flexibility with respect to the acting out of power structures in the bedroom, reflected in the level social playing field between men and compounded by the easy social mobility within the gay diaspora, that some gay men, unlike Gaitskill's characters in their original incarnations, would be better equipped to maintain such a master-slave relationship within a serious long-term committed partnership. While feminism has been unable to completely confound socially prescribed roles for women, contemporary definitions of masculinity allow a great versatility in male roles. As James Baldwin said, "This (American ideal of masculinity) has created cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys, punks and studs, tough guys and softies, butch and faggot, black and white."

By extension one could add, "bottom and top", "master and slave", "dominant-submissive." I have good straight male friends in the US who do things like enforced strangulation, farting on each other, bondage and tickle torture, precisely because it's so degrading, in fact, free from religious proscription and feminine power differentials, it imparts a sort of dignity the more control the male has over his compadre, the more he is able to "punk" his counterpart. Look at "Jackass" for Christ sakes. It's only natural, then, that these roles be acted out not only in a social crucible, but on the playground that exists within a man-on-man union (and in every gay man's imagination). Who said "to love, honor and obey?"

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