on Miller's "The Anatomy of Disgust"

Yesterday I spent the day reading William Ian Miller's The Anatomy of Disgust (1997 Harvard U. Press). And while I follow Miller in his thesis for the most part, I can’t agree with his insistence that semen can be seen as the most polluting of all substances, ahead of even menstrual blood. The evidence just isn’t there, and he does not provide a very convincing argument to support what seems to me to be his personal aversion to the substance. For instance, he says (in chapter five) that semen has the power to feminize anything it comes into contact with. Back in chapter one, he mentioned in passing that Sambian boys must fellate the maturemembers of the tribe regularly. But he fails to bring the Sambian custom into his discussion of “Orifices and Bodily Wastes”. Back in chapter one he claimed it is an exception to the rule, but in chapter five he fails to provide adequate evidence of the rule itself, and overlooks other well-documented exceptions. The Big Nambas of Malekula, for example. The Marind and Kiman tribes of Melanesia. All of whom practice(d) ritual pederasty, and regarded the insemination of boys on a regular basis as integral to their maturation. The semen in these cases was most certainly not feminizing. And closer to home, the Manichees, a Gnostic cult, which we have encountered before, viewed the substance as sacred.

Even in the Western tradition, where sodomy is an act Miller rightly characterizes as feminizing the one being fucked, semen simply does not have the same power to disgust that mentrual blood does. He conflates his obvious disapproval of sodomy and the substance of semen, and bases unsupportable claims that the “slimy, sticky and viscous” substance is vile on scant bits of ancient text comparing it to phlegm.

I did, however, enjoy his discussion of orifices, and particularly of the anus. “[A]nuses are not to admit anything and if admitted the taint can endure for a lifetime.... [T]he advent of AIDS effectively has transformed it into anus dentatus.”

>>[M]ore than any other orifice, it is the gate that protects the inviolability, the autonomy, of males and indirectly of females too.... [I]t is the fundament, the foundation. Fundament, like bottom, is a relational term and thus requires that which lies above for its own completion.... The higher regions are conceived as beneficiaries of the lower, not only sustained by it, but requiring the presence of the low so as to enable the possibility of highness and superiority.... [T]he anus is seen as the footing on which our dignity depends. It must be secured or everything else built upon it crumbles. For this reason, however, the anus is also a temptation. It can be seen as a gateway to the most private, the most personal space of all. It signifies the removal of all barriers of otherness.

If one of the key notions underpinning the feminine is accessibility via penetrability, and the corresponding notion for the masculine is inviolability via inpenetrability, then the female anus may not bear the surcharge of significance the male one does.... Because women’s bodies are penetrable by design, the issue about where the penetration is to take place is one about the propriety of location rather than about the issue of penetrability per se. The female anus can never be her vagina, but a male’s anus is his only vagina.

The anus is thus the center from which genderbending possibility radiates. What is the fundament but the foundation of, not just personhood, but manhood? Yet this works the other way too, for femaleness is also on the line here. If penetrating a man’s anus feminizes him, then penetrating a woman’s does more than brutally drive home her penetrability as a woman; it shows rather that she is penetrable as a man. He feminized, she masculinized after a fashion, for his anus is a figurative vagina, but her anus is an anus being used as if she were a he being used as a she. In either case, to the extent that gender is so thoroughly subsumed into personhood [though note how in the above equation Miller quite literally subsumes personhood into gender - “not just personhood, but manhood”] the foundations of personhood are shaken, he is degraded in one way and she in another.<<

Now, that is a loaded passage if ever there was one, ending in a questionable conclusion about the implications of sodomy for persons engaging in it. For Miller has failed utterly to convince me that sodomy is inherently humiliating. In Miller’s view the fucker’s role is always “domination, desecration, and humiliation of another”. The other may be tainted for life by the act. But aside from culture-explicit ideas about the masculine, this view actually makes very little sense. As the “exceptions” mentioned earlier make clear, sodomy is by no means universally seen as an act of desecration. The Ancients, as is well known, had an elaborate code based on their hierarchy which did, indeed, forbid a freeborn citizen to be on the receiving end, and tied penetration to both gender and social status. Women were not citizens, and were penetrable. Slaves were not citizens, either, and so they, too, were penetrable. This does not mean, however, that penetrating a slave was necessarily any more of a humiliation or desecration than penetrating a woman was. The humiliation was not so much in the act itself, in other words, but in subverting the hierarchy, in citizens behaving as their social lessers. It may be a subtle distinction, but it’s an important one in a discussion of this type. There is nothing saying a society must be arranged in this way, nor are all societies arranged thus.

And this is not only the case with the Greeks or Romans (with their infamous Justinian codes), but with other caste societies. Sir Richard Francis Burton tells of a court martial case over which he presided in Bombay. A Brahmin who had had a sexual relationship with a low-caste soldier, was tried for the murder of the pariah, but it was not exactly a passion crime; the issue was one of caste. As Burton reports, the murder occured when "the Pariah patient ventured to become the agent. The latter, in Arabic, Al-Fa’il = the 'doer,' is not an object of contempt like Al-Maful = the 'done'; and the high-caste sepoy stung by remorse and revengeful loaded his musket and deliberately shot his paramour. He was hanged by court martial at Hyderabad and, when his last wishes were asked, he begged to be suspended by the feet, the idea being that his soul, polluted by exiting 'below the waist,' would be doomed to endless transmigrations through the lowest forms of life."

It is also true that while the Koran severely proscribes homosexual acts, the prophet Mohammed himself, much like his Christian counterpart, in Burton’s words, “seems to have regarded it with philosophical indifference.” It is only when the teachings of the prophet become codified in the form of religious laws, in the shaping of a society and culture based on those laws, that sodomy becomes an issue, and it is always and only an issue in relation to gender and the role of gender in hierarchy. It has little if anything to do with the substance of semen or with the potentially messy mechanics of the act itself.

Even in the modern hatred of homosexuals, where it can be found in the West, semen is not the worst of the substances homosexuals are said to ingest in mass quantities. There are internet pages devoted to spreading the ugly truth about homosexuality, which, with the same zeal and unconcealed relish Mr Starr demonstrated in hunting down Mr Clinton, detail the most shocking acts in gory detail. One such page I came across some time ago at the height of the “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” controversy used language quite similar to Miller’s to outline “the very real basis of the homosexual security threat,” reporting that “almost all homosexuals engage in sexual practices which are inherently degrading or humiliating and are virtually unknown among heterosexuals.” Well, not anymore. But anyway, these included fellatio, which entails, in “about half” of the cases, the ingestion of seminal fluid, which “contains nearly every germ carried in the blood. Ingesting semen therefore incurs the same medical risk as drinking raw human blood.” Cunnilingus is not so terrible, though there is the risk of infection “from contact with or ingestion of vaginal fluids, which also contain germs.” Then there’s anal intercourse, which does not seem to illicit such disgust, though the use of saliva as a lubricant does seem to merit it. It is anilinction, in fact, which causes the gorge to rise. “About eighty percent of homosexuals regularly use their tongues to stimulate the anuses of their partners, thus ingesting biologically significant amounts of fecal matter.” Clearly this is the truly “revolutionary act” engaged in by homosexuals, and the one “virtually unknown among heterosexuals.” The outrage at the practice of fellatio, the semen-blood thing, appears to be a relatively fringe sentiment, and no one nowadays would suggest that the ingestion of semen is virtually unknown to heterosexuals. If heterosexual men can be believed, heterosexual women ingest massive quantities of the stuff.

It is no coincidence, I think, that the fracas took place in the highly hierarchized military. Among civilians in a democratic society there are now very few lines left to cross. There are, of course, no castes to subvert, and Americans readily associate with members of the different classes. Between two consenting adults the once-charged significance of who buggers whom on which day of the week is moot. Between those who have successfully divorced gender and sexuality, there is no real threat to status. Though I think it will always be true that while a mother may somehow countenance the news that her son is gay, no mother wants to hear that he is passive.

But back to Miller. Intuitively, his hypothesis about semen seems flawed. Whatever initial revulsion one might have experienced as an adolescent following one’s first experience of orgasm is easily enough overcome. The nocturnal emission can be a frightening experience for a boy, at first at least. Nonetheless it somehow leads, in a great many cases (the lion’s share, I’d say), to a long history of self-manipulation. Nor is the substance of semen, though it be ”slimy, sticky and viscous,” quite revolting enough to merit disgust. It generally does not have an overpowering scent, and the texture and color is rather like the liquid hand soap mother keeps on the ledge above the washbasin in the bathroom. Once a boy has had an opportunity to examine it and sees that it won’t eat away his flesh or burn holes in the rug, and washes off easily, that’s pretty much the end of it. Those who develop extreme hang-ups in this department are certainly the exception to the rule. Most of us accept without much complaint that all forms of sex leave a stain, and we adjust our habits to accommodate this.

Once a young man discovers sex (proper sex, with a girl, let's say), there is little to stop him from doing what young men do, least of all the embarrassment of letting rip with an orgasm. For most boys that is precisely the point. What little embarrassment may be felt in the moment of climax, in losing control of one’s faculties (and the male orgasm is not so powerful that most men dissolve entirely in the midst of it), seems to be more than compensated for by the climax itself. Sex between young people is seldom disgusting for them. It’s sour grapes to say it is. Sex gets disgusting all right, but not until a little later.

As for digust of one’s own semen leading to fear of the feminizing effect of contact with another man’s, again, it’s implausible. To be frank, I can’t think of a single example in my experience in life and literature of a man threatening other men with such contamination (not of the “Stop or I’ll shoot!” variety, at least). Even at the height of the AIDS crisis in the west it was blood, not semen, that was the real threat. See, for example, the AIDS-era French art-film Savage Nights, wherein the HIV+ protagonist rescues a rentboy from thugs by slicing open his hand and threatening them with the wound. Not only is this an arty allusion to the wounds of Christ—it’s an awful film, by the way—it is also the only practical way to communicate the threat of contamination to those not in immediate danger of being buggered. It is, after all, highly unlikely that the thugs would have waited around for our protagonist to produce that other most powerfully contaminating emission. I’m afraid if contamination there is, it is achieved well before ejaculation. The feminizing effect, as Miller calls it, is accomplished long before the polluting substance appears on the scene, and whether there is ingestion of semen or not makes very little difference. It is the act of penetration that’s the offense.

In art Andres Serrano quickly exhausted any and all controversy that might be in any and all of his (and presumably our) bodily fluids. His Piss Christ (right) caused a great hoo-ha back in ‘87. It is a good question whether he yielded to practical pressures in choosing urine for the work. It is, so to speak, cheap to produce in much larger quantities and much faster than semen. Serrano has also been known to photograph his own semen in the air as he ejaculates, but that hasn’t caused such a stir. In fact, it’s a good question whether Cum Christ would have been a cause célébre, if it would have been intelligible to us at all. Andres, buddy, if you're out there, get to work!

So the first and most powerful argument against Miller’s contention is purely practical. There are simply very few instances one can imagine in which one might be in actual danger of exposure to this polluting substance. It is rarely produced involuntarily, nor is its method of production a great mystery.

There have lately been a whole slew of semen gags in popular American films. It’s not something I have been keeping track of, but when I started thinking about it, many, many instances came to mind. It seems it’s not such a threatening substance that it’s not good for a laugh. I think it found its most interesting and vital expression as metaphor in Todd Solondz’s Happiness, where it is not merely played for a gag as in most of the other films I will get to momentarily, but gains real artistic weight as a leitmotif. In the first instance we see a rather pathetic character masturbating. He wipes up the semen with a postcard and sticks the postcard on the wall at the head of his bed with numerous other cards we must assume he has stuck there using the same adhesive. The scene may illicit groans from the audience, but aside from reinforcing the image of the character as pitifully lonely (already well-established by depicting the act of masturbation itself, which in American Beauty was effective shorthand for the protagonist’s midlife crisis), the substance itself is not used by Solondz to disgust his audience or to strike fear or loathing in our hearts. If anything the substance itself is a symbol of impotence. It’s important not to confuse impotence with emasculation here.

Could Solondz have accomplished this effect without actually showing us the stuff? Was he merely pressing the envelope? Isn’t it enough to see the lonely guy jerking off in his room? It would seem so, but Solondz is aiming at something else here. It's not the act of male masturbation or sexual intercourse, but the pathetic end to which men direct all this energy and effort, not in the unquantifiable experience of orgasm, but in these measurable mililiters of fluid. That's the punchline. All the misery and grief caused by this harmless (yes, harmless) substance. It's comical that all of the trouble in the film is in some way caused by this insignificant emission. Indeed, that's why Solondz feels compelled to show us the substance itself. It’s true that he uses it to undermine the veneer of family values represented by the family patriarch, but this is not gorge-raising stuff, and our urge is to react with that mixture of laughter and pity characteristic of the absurd.

So far from being seen as a lethal substance, sperm is more often portrayed, when at all (and seeing it rather than suggesting its presence is all-important) as symbolic of futility, and often of impotence. It is, in the first instance in Happiness the character's inability to find a suitable repository for his ejaculate, and the dramatic illustration of his dilemma which the sight of sperm discloses to the audience. In the second case, it is the facade of [effectual] patriarchy which is illustrated. The magical qualities of the substance have just been amply demonstrated by the boy whose semen the family dog laps up. For the boy, the act of ejaculating is magical, though we know that it will eventually lead to no good. It is the spilling of the seed, the misappropriating of it, and not by any means the seed itself that elicits a reaction.

Likewise, I know of no prohibitions against the substance itself (it does not, after all, simply appear with the lunar cycles -- it does not possess this essential criterion of a magical substance: that it is related to cycles in the wider world), though acts the end of which is presumably to produce it may be prohibited. And the polluting is not on account of the implication or the possibility of the end. It is well and fully accomplished by the misplacement of the member itself, whether or not the substance is ever produced. In vulgar terms, being branded a “cocksucker” (an epithet used exclusively to refer to men, insofar as I am acquainted with it) is quite enough of an insult. It matters very little beyond that whether you spit or swallow.

In the popular comedy American Pie it's true semen is seen as sickening only when ingested by men. There is an episode in the film in which a high school girl fellates her boyfriend, asking him to warn her when he is about to ejaculate. He does, and ejaculates into a glass of beer on the bedstand. Another boy, a bit of a swaggerer, later comes upon the glass of beer, predictably enough drinks it, and, as predictably, gags. And it is true, the gagging is the important thing here. If the scene had involved a girl unwittingly swallowing semen in a like manner, one can imagine that the joke would be in her obliviousness to having swallowed it, rather than in her gagging on it, just as in There’s Something About Mary the joke’s in the eponymous character mistaking spunk for hair gel. Nonetheless, While the boy’s reaction supports the idea that there is perhaps no substance more damaging to machismo than semen, the audience is not expected to share his unlikely reaction, but to laugh at it. The very idea of machismo is the real butt of the joke. In none of these instances is semen gorge-raising stuff. And even in the last of these the unwitting victim of the unwitting prankster is in no way emasculated. Much worse is the boy who brags about having bedded a girl he did not. When she exposes him in front of everyone at the prom, he wets himself, and we are invited to scorn him.

We see this in a number of recent films about WWII as well. Grown men wetting themselves is clearly emasculating. The loss of bladder control is unmanly, whereas the loss of control one experiences in orgasm is perfectly acceptable, since one has presumably worked for it.

Closer to supporting Miller’s contention, are references to semen in Fight Club. In the film, there is much made of the revolutionary potential of jerking off into vats of clam chowder, particularly for kitchen help. That fits nicely with the idea of semen as contaminating (I mean, of course it’s contaminating), but the waiters urinate and spit in the food, too. It’s hard to say which is the worst of it. There is certainly no hint of semen’s mystical feminizing power in this context.

As for porn, which must, I think, be allowed into a discourse of this sort, since it provides clues as to social standards, the so-called “money shot” is all-important. In gay porn it may be true that the depiction of male orgasm and the fetishization of semen plays an almost revolutionary role, overturning norms of decorum, valuing more highly the seed that is spilled than that put to proper use. It is the wasting of the substance which gives it its value. There is enough of it to go around, porn suggests. Of course, there is a practical reason for the graphic depiction of ejaculation: this gives the act a sense of completion, and the viewer a sense of closure. This is true in heterosexual porn as well. Semen is so consistently and lovingly fetishized in what have become increasingly mainstream productions mostly purchased by men, that it is hard to argue that it’s a substance which out-polutes all others in their eyes. More to the point, there is substantial evidence of a male fantasy of female adoration of not just the member, but of the substance that issues from it. It is true that in heterosexual porn there is a strict segregation of the sexes, but it is not at all unusual to see two men penetrating the same female orifice simultaneously. Porn may be discounted as depending on taboos to titillate, but still there are plenty of acts one will not find in mainstream porn, and this is definitely not one of them.

I may be merely an apologist for semen and sodomy, it’s true, but I have never felt personally humiliated by a good fuck. And as for semen, well, I can’t get enough of the stuff. As a substance it is not particularly offensive. It is pearly white, and its consistency is usually not quite as viscous as snot. It has a distinct smell, no question there, but while its smell may be strong, it is not repulsive, much less gorge-raising. And you see the stuff flying all over the place in porn videos. If it were a taboo or polluting substance, feared by men for its feminizing powers and hated by women for its sliminess and stink, it might be the stuff of fetish films, it would certainly not be the one substance which is ubiquitous to porn, gay, straight, or otherwise. I certainly would not place coprophagia in the same category as fellatio, for example. And there is abundant anecdotal evidence that cunnilingus is a less common practice than fellatio as well, and certainly very rarely practiced during menses. There is simply no evidence that semen is or has ever been seen as a polluting substance, much less “the most powerfully contaminating emission” of human bodies. The rest of the book makes sense and is pretty thoroughly researched. I’m not sure why Miller got this particular bug up his ass, but it’s quite obviously his own thing.


Anonymous Marigold said...

I wandered in here while looking for something else, haven't read the book being reviewed here, and barely saw any of the TV series, but wanted to say how much I enjoyed reading this post. I though it was witty, intelligent, and, insofar as my knowledge and experience goes, right on the money!

10:46 PM  

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