Queer Body: Nexus of Violence and the Erotic

by Cliff Bostock
Pacifica Graduate Institute

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: to tremble…" (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 queer male.

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.

The 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 qualities.)

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 balls.

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 culture.

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 qualities.

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) 227-235.

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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