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Features | Let’s talk about pegging

Queering heterosexuality and the politics of penetration

The first time I saw an honest, normalized portrayal of pegging was during an episode of Broad City. In a show celebrated for its complex, idiosyncratic women, protagonists Abbi and Ilana offered what might be the first depiction of empowered pegging in network television history. Mid-romp with long-term crush Jeremy, Abbi suggests the two “switch positions.” Jeremy obliges; hands Abbi a custom-designed strap-on, crouches down, spreads his cheeks, and motions for her to put it “right in the butt.” Taken aback, Abbi slinks off to the bathroom to call her best friend and id-enabler Ilana, who denounces Abbi’s hesitation towards this “once in a lifetime opportunity” and tells her to go for it.

For the uninitiated, pegging is a sexual practice in which one individual anally penetrates their partner with a strap-on dildo. Shortly after the Broad City episode was released, NYMag, Vice, The Stranger, and a slew of other media outlets posted articles praising the pair’s honest portrayal of penetrative role reversal. Jezebel titled a post “If You Want a More Thoughtful Boyfriend, Try Pegging Him,” while Broadly wrote a profile on “The Men Who Love Pegging.”

Both articles namecheck Charlie Glickman, author of The Ultimate Guide to Prostate Pleasure: Erotic Exploration for Men and Their Partners, who touts pegging as a way for women to “discover how much work, responsibility and (sometimes) power can be part of fucking someone” and for men to “learn to see things from the other person’s perspective.”

The second time I heard about pegging was through a cis male friend in a heterosexual relationship, who told me that he had enjoyed being pegged by his partner. He, too, argued for its potential to increase male empathy through vulnerability. I thought about how I would carefully fold over and stuff a washcloth into the drain of my bathtub before filling it up with water, and wondered whether I could just as purposefully and methodically insert the tip of a strap-on into a partner’s rectum. I reflected on the anus as a great equalizer, free of gender.

I started thinking of pegging as more than a punchline in a Broad City episode; a reflection that extended to greater considerations on gender, sexuality, and societal taboos. I was intellectually enthralled, but felt overwhelmed by everything I did not know; burdened by the sexual and gender norms I held on to, yet could not tangibly explain. Can heterosexual sex be queered through ‘transgressive’ acts such as pegging? How are we to live in a world that is so prone to distilling desire and identity into false binaries of active/passive, dominant/submissive, male/female, and perhaps most destructively, normal/deviant?

I wondered whether I could just as purposefully and methodically insert the tip of a strap-on into a partner’s rectum.

In researching this article, I asked a few female friends in relationships with straight cis men whether they would ‘peg.’ Most said they’d be game but “not on a first date,” while one respondent, taken aback at the casualness of my question, immediately said no, dismissing it as “just not normal.”

We’re taught not to talk about what goes on between the sheets or what goes in between our cheeks. But as pegging penetrates mainstream media, and is being extolled for its gender-bending potential, it’s time we talk about the history, implications, and politics of pegging.

Language as a buffer

The name “pegging” was chosen by readers of Dan Savage’s “Savage Love” sex advice column as a new shorthand for female-on-male heterosexual anal sex. By creating a new word – rather than simply using “anal sex” – “pegging is clearly marked as a heterosexual act, unlinking the act of anal penetration from gay men,” writes Jade Aguilar, a sociology professor at Willamette University. In contrast, the acts of “sodomy” and “buggery” fall into the domain of male homosexual sex, and are stigmatized accordingly – they’re often used as synonyms for “unnatural,” “illegal,” and “nonconsensual” acts, she writes.

“Pegging,” according to Savage’s definition, can only occur during sexual intercourse between a man and a woman – which I will, from here on, refer to as “heterosexual sex.” In truth, it’s more complicated than that: some women have penises, some men have vaginas, some people have neither, or both, or don’t identify as either male or female. Unfortunately, most academics and media assume that pegging involves a woman with a vagina and a man with a penis, both of whom identify as heterosexual – and this is the intellectual legacy I’m engaging with. There’s a wealth of gender and sexual diversity that complicates and nuances practices of penetration, but I don’t pretend that I have the level of theoretical expertise or lived experience to create a more inclusive theory of pegging by myself.

In her essay “Thinking Sex,” gender theorist Gayle Rubin argues that any sexual behavior that doesn’t involve marriage, love, or reproduction is societally characterized as “destructive” or “dangerous.” For centuries, anal sex has been linked to obscenity, deviance, and most recently, in the 1980s, the HIV/AIDS crisis. The cultural connection between anal sex and HIV even led some to believe that anal sex did not simply transmit HIV, but actually spontaneously caused the disease itself. Even today, some people still believe that anal sex could lead to an irreparable change, through penetration or being penetrated: it could tear your rectum, make you gay, or otherwise corrupt your sexuality.

The power to penetrate is a key feature of hegemonic masculinity. So a man being penetrated is seen as the ultimate emasculating experience, secession of manhood, and an almost certain admission of repressed homosexuality. And if masculinity is associated with active penetration, its counterpart in femininity is passive reception. This dictum of heteronormativity isn’t even confined to heterosexual sex in itself – The Joy Of Gay Sex, published in 1977 by Charles Silverstein and Edmund White, assigned gender roles within homosexual couples based on their penetrative power, wherein the “top is masculine, bottom is feminine.”

Some people still believe that anal sex could lead to an irreparable change: it could tear your rectum, make you gay, or otherwise corrupt your sexuality.

Language is used as a buffer to reduce the cognitive dissonance of being a cis man who is occupying, through “bottoming,” a position historically seen as submissive. Language becomes a way to continually reassert masculinity, and provide a ‘safe’ way for a man to enjoy anal play by cancelling out the possibility of homosexual desire. Reviewing incidences of the word “pegging” in letters published in the “Savage Love” column, Aguilar found it shrouded in violent and combative imagery through words like “pounding,” “ravaging,” and “slamming” – a thinly veiled attempt to “masculinize” the practice, thus allowing the male to retain dominance.

In English, forceful penetration is colloquially used as a vulgarity – “to fuck over” implies assault and an action of piercing, lessening someone else’s value. Go to any Montreal dive bar during a hockey game and you will overhear the Anglicized “ils l’ont rape” expressed as enthusiasm for a well-placed puck landing in the opposing team’s net. In Portuguese, positions in heterosexual intercourse are designated as “to eat” (comer) and “to give” (dar). Cultural anthropologist Serena Nanda notes, “comer describes the male’s active penetration and domination of the female, and is used in different contexts as a synonym for the verbs “to possess” (possuir) or “to conquer” (vencer).” Language draws clear lines between genders; in giving, the female passively surrenders herself to possession, consumption, and loss, while the male is engorged, nourished, and strengthened through the encounter.

In gathering opinions for this article, I spoke to CJ*, a McGill student who has pegged one of her partners. She argued that people who are pegging can choose not to buy into the narrative of penetration as dominance. “I don’t think the person penetrating has to be the dominant one – it depends on how you mentally frame sex. It could be either, or both, or on a spectrum,” she told me. “I’m not interested in replicating the masculinity that comes along with penetration.”

Queering heterosexuality

Originally an anti-gay slur, “queer” was reclaimed by the LGBTQ community in the 1970s as a political assertion of defiance. In the 1990s it trickled into gender studies departments and was assigned an academic discipline of its own: queer theory. Eve Sedgwick, one of the pioneers of queer theory, rejected the binary of masculine and feminine in favour of a taxonomy that would encompass the variability of gender and sexuality. Sedgwick viewed “queer” as a balm for the rigidity of sex and gender, a catch-all term that allowed multiplicity of meaning and identity. While gender fluidity lives in our beliefs and thoughts, can we conceptualize it as something that could just as easily extend to our corporealities?

Most recently, queerness has fallen prey to commodification. Queerness has become “chic”: girls kissing in H&M ad campaigns, and rainbows plastered above TD ATMs and on Burger King wrappers. Today, corporations and individuals alike are monetizing queerness for social and cultural capital. As Jenna Wortham notes in the New York Times, the media hype of ‘queerhood’ champions an inclusivity that “offers a false promise of equality that does not translate to the lived reality of most queer people.” Wortham poses the question: when everyone can be “queer,” is anyone? Can queer straight people even exist, and are they rendered such through how they choose to have sex?

The short answer is no. Pegging, despite its close ties to queerness and “deviant” sex, exists within the confines of heterosexual sex. Granted, it is a far cry from vanilla, missionary-only, lights-off sex; it’s subversive from the get-go because its goal is pleasure, rather than reproduction. It emulates the queer sexual practice of anal penetration that has historically been the domain of men who have sex with men. However, any couple that enforces heteronormativity in other aspects of their sex and relationship, or identifies as heterosexual, is not made queer through integrating anal play into their sex life.

“I’m not interested in replicating the masculinity that comes along with penetration.”

CJ, who identifies as queer, told me that she’d been interested in trying pegging for about three years but was hesitant to bring it up, since her partners during that time were all cis straight men. “I’ve talked to my sexual partners in the last year about pegging and the ones who are queer are definitely more open to it,” she told me. “One partner said he thought it would ‘damage his idea of masculinity’ and said he needed time to think about it. ”

“This year, I pegged for the first time, and it was a great experience,” she continued. “The guy – I trusted him, and he’s also queer, which I think contributed to it.”

When some of my friends (understandably) recoiled at the idea of being interviewed about pegging, I turned to the Internet for opinions. Kat, a student from Ontario who I met on the Facebook group Bunz Helping Zone, told me that she had a variety of pegging experiences that ranged from “fun/empowering/hot” to “gross/coercive/unsanitary/never again,” saying that “the attitude absolutely dictates the nature of the experience.” She identifies as queer, and mentioned that she felt that “sometimes queerness is a fetish rather than a sexual orientation.”

Another person I contacted through Bunz, Chloe, told me that “pegging was originally brought up as part of a D/S [dominance/submission] dynamic“ and led her to a “new way of looking at sex and genitals and the way they relate to one another.” To Chloe, “sexuality and what is/isn’t heterosexual has nothing to do with the sex act or the genitals involved, but rather the people as a whole.”

In homosexual relationships between male-identifying partners, a preference for playing a active or receptive penetrative role is referred to as “topping” and “bottoming,” respectively. The language includes a set of qualifiers that shift the locus of control: “a power top” connotes a greater aggressiveness while a “service top” tops under the direction of a bottom, and a “versatile top” drifts between the two (ditto for power-versatile-total bottoms). Steven Gregory Underwood, author of Gay Men and Anal Eroticism: Tops, Bottoms, and Versatiles, notes that “versatility is a unique and important feature of male anal sex,” and the scenario where “both men take turns fucking each other is often exercised as a celebration of equality.” BDSM communities have also adopted the terms “top,” “bottom,” and “switch” (someone who enjoys being both a top and bottom) as part of their vocabulary – another instance of sexual deviance following in the wake of queer sexual practices.

“What is/isn’t heterosexual has nothing to do with the sex act or the genitals involved, but rather the people as a whole.”

The freedom to choose whether one is a top or a bottom is usually not made explicit in heteronormative relationships. However, in homosexual and BDSM relationships, such freedom is allowed because the relationships are situated in a different realm from heteronormativity, in an ‘inherently deviant’ context. Although female-on-male anal play exists within private sexual lives, its linkage to homosexuality makes it a topic that not many would venture to discuss in the outside world. Prostate stimulation is taboo because it ostensibly requires the male to relinquish any claim to hegemony. Male-on-female anal sex is more palatable, easier to talk about, since the female in question never really had any claim to power to begin with.

Can straight people have queer sex?

Some people who identify as heterosexual feel compelled to stray from the restrictive framework of heteronormativity and assert a form of queerness through ‘subversive,’ ‘queer’ sexual practices such as pegging. But straight couples can peg with the certainty of the privacy of their acts, a symptom of societal privilege. They get all the fun of queer sex, without the violence, ostracization, and silencing that actual queer people face on a day-to-day basis. In these cases, being queer is a temporary costume that a straight person wears, without committing themselves to any of the negative repercussions, or engaging with the politically-charged history of queerness.

CJ, who is an East Asian woman, told me that the protection that heterosexual people are afforded when trying pegging is often compounded by white privilege. “In my experience, white queers have more space to do what they want and have it be more normal or accepted because they are white,” she said. “As a racialized woman, pegging is kind of empowering and just a total reversal of what I am used to in sex and what I have been socialized to expect in sex.”

In the Journal of Lesbian Studies, Annette Schlichter argues that the notions that “intellectual and/or sexual queering of straightness could in itself transform the heteronormative apparatus have to be taken with a grain of salt.” She adds that self-identifying as a “queer straight” or a “queer heterosexual” goes against the very conception of queerhood as explicitly non-heterosexual.

Is queerness authenticated through beliefs or through practice? Can we, in good consciousness, deny someone their self-identification as queer if we fail to see them visibly enact it outside the bedroom? If pegging is a form of genderfuck – a way of subverting the gender binary and associated expectations – does it compromise the heterosexuality of those that practice it?

Straight people get all the fun of queer sex, without the violence, ostracization, and silencing that actual queer people face on a day-to-day basis.

On one side, policing others’ sexual practices seems to contribute to erasure of curious and questioning women and men, who never quite felt comfortable with the label of straighthood. For these people, pegging could be used as part of a transition to queerness. However, it can also be used by straight people to co-opt queerness, what Kat called “the whole ‘I kissed a girl and I liked it’ crap.” Bluntly put, if you weren’t queer before you tried pegging or being pegged, you don’t automatically become queer the second you attempt it. There is a distinction to be made between heteronormativity and heterosexuality: heteronormativity is an institution that promotes heterosexuality as the default and natural expression of sexuality, while heterosexuality is an attraction to a person of the opposite gender. A heterosexual person can challenge heteronormativity by pegging her boyfriend, without any claims to queerness.

Perhaps there is some truth to Charlie Glickman’s original claim that pegging fosters empathy across the gender binary, and can help break down rigid gender norms. The institution of masculinity itself is holding back men, restricting them in movement and disavowing the textures of desire that may compel them. By enforcing the male-as-penetrator as the strict norm, we are also buying into the narrative of woman as a passive vessel for male desire. While it’s true that straight couples shouldn’t co-opt queerness, there are also clear benefits to making space for so-called “sexual deviance” within heterosexuality; benefits that start in the bedroom and extend far outside its boundaries.

That being said, even queer sex is not the post-gender egalitarian utopia some straight people may imagine. “A relationship between pegger and peggee can be just as beholden to patriarchal and heterosexual dynamics as any other relationship,” said Grace, a member of McGill’s Union for Gender Empowerment collective, in an email to me. “Just because you’re introducing a new sex act doesn’t mean it’s going to change your power dynamic,” agreed CJ. Even as pegging inverts the typical male-as-penetrator and female-as-penetrated sexual script, it may still reproduce the heteronormative idea that sex necessarily involves a dominant and a submissive party. And perhaps it’s because egalitarian sex doesn’t exist – as long as we live in a society where identities like gender, sexuality, and race afford individuals differing levels of privilege, perhaps every interaction represents an uneven power relation.

The institution of masculinity itself is holding back men, restricting them in movement and disavowing the textures of desire that may compel them.

Particularly during sex, this power relationship is implicit, goes undiscussed, is assumed to be “natural,” and is often nonconsensual. Pegging, however, renders the always-existing power imbalance explicit, acknowledging its presence and allowing participants to consensually engage with it. As CJ noted, since the act of pegging departs from the heteronormative sexual script, it arguably requires more personal deliberation, conversation between partners, as well as a greater financial investment (costs of a strap-on range from fifty dollars to over 200 dollars). “So much sex lacks clear communication and consent,” she told me. “If you’re not even talking about ‘normal’ sex – cis men penetrating cis women – then how are you expected to talk about pegging?”

In an ideal world, pegging represents a movement away from rigid heteronormativity and towards embracing our own kinks and desires. Anal sex is not inextricably linked to the practice of homosexuality, demonstrating the fallacy of enforcing certain practices as “proof” of one’s identity. Idealistically, pegging offers us the potential to dismantle institutions that do nothing but police and control our bodies. At the very least, it allows us some room to rewrite the script on what it is to be a gendered body, to live in society, and to fuck.

*name has been changed


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