Reading as Kissing, Sex with Ideas: “Lesbian” Barebacking?

By Kathryn Bond StocktonMarch 8, 2015

Reading as Kissing, Sex with Ideas: “Lesbian” Barebacking?

The following essay is part of the Los Angeles Review of Books special series “No Crisis”: a look at the state of critical thinking and writing — literary interpretation, art history, and cultural studies — in the 21st century. Click here for the full series.


You, Too, Shall Bareback

FIVE YEARS AGO, a treatise exploring barebacking practices hit academia with notable force. Readers professed themselves excited — and incited. And the book was lauded as bravery on the page, whether one views the phenomenon of barebacking as a thing to celebrate or to condemn.

Indeed, the back cover of Tim Dean’s book, Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking (University of Chicago Press, 2009), describes his study as “a riveting investigation into … gay men[’s] deliberately abandoning condoms and embracing erotic risk,” a risk that may include contracting, or even seeking to contract, HIV. Martha Nussbaum, feminist philosopher and holder of an endowed chair in law and ethics at the University of Chicago, writes in her blurb: “Unlimited Intimacy is novel, fascinating, insightful, and courageous. Tim Dean convincingly argues that confronting head-on a sexual subculture that is alien to most readers, and understanding the fantasies that propel it, is a very good way of stimulating thought.” A second endorser, Matti Bunzl, of the University of Illinois, also seems stimulated: “This book does not break taboos; it shatters them. While many readers will come away from it with puzzlement, anger, and even disgust, it presents a compelling and entirely original analysis of the barebacking subculture.”

A culture not so “sub,” Dean informs us, as he offers readers neither manifesto nor apology, only a culture “with much to tell everyone — gay or straight — about how intimacy works in the twenty-first century.” Or, in a nutshell: “Without going so far as to advocate for unprotected sex,” Dean asserts, “I want to suggest that the [barebacking] subculture’s embrace of risk may help illuminate the pleasures and ethics of encountering the unfamiliar.”

Of course, on its surface, the idea of opening oneself to HIV, maybe seeking HIV, is truly unfamiliar to many readers (though surely not to all). But I can assure you, more unfamiliar, to almost any reader, will be the train of thought that I pursue here. The suggestion that readers, by virtue of reading, are “lesbian” barebackers, circa ’09.i

Please read on. The pleasure of barebacking swiftly awaits you. And not as metaphorically as you might think. But let me mention another phenomenon, one that lurks around the edges of this essay, one you need not know too much about but explains my fascination with barebacking’s focus on the feel of raw sex — sex without condoms (hence, the term “barebacking”) — with its potentially risky penetrations and ingestions. It’s enough to know that the essay you’re reading is a fanciful engagement of the trend called “surface reading.” The aim for surface-readers is not to be swamped by seeking “deeper” meanings such as your favorite deep-reading English teacher has sought. Rather, this phenomenon to which I’m responding calls for taking the surface of a text as a destination in its own right — almost at the level of one’s just describing it closely, carefully, fully attentively. Take my essay as its own embrace of surface that would fondle depth.

Barebacking, reading: Each has a curious relationship to surfaces, signs, and depths. Each, for this reason, can be deemed “lesbian,” strange as that may sound.

Getting Inside Us

Consider my central thesis, if you will. Receive it as it comes. Barebacking advertises (that’s right, advertises) unprotected reading that I call “lesbian” and that our lives depend upon. Something’s being advertised; something’s unprotected; something’s looking lesbian; something’s giving life … that copulates with death. That thing is reading, and barebacking figures it.

Shall I put this yet more strangely? A lesbian quietly reading in the corner is like a barebacker chasing the virus. So is a lesbian kissing in the corner. Or make that a lesbian aggressively using a dildo in the corner. In fact, since these acts have historically come before barebacking practices, I would say the barebacker more resembles them. Gay male barebacking is like dildoing is like kissing is like reading: it’s a fetishizing of a sign and surface that must get inside us, where a sign-and-surface birth and cause some death. In this way, barebacking figures those forms of reading that even children do — can’t help but do, insofar as they read. Imagine a sleek, sexy campaign for Readers Are Leaders using barebacking as its hook.

Here, I get ahead of myself. To stay beside myself, to the side of myself, I want to kiss the “lesbian” sign in all of this. It may be the dildo, even the stranger, that needs to be your lover, birthing and breeding meanings inside of you. But let’s get it straight: I am not a lesbian. I’m not even “homo.” But I’ve made lesbians since I was a child. I can explain.

I Am Not a “Lesbian,” but Sign Me Up

I am not my girlfriend. We are not the same. Our genitals are different. Since mine are not hers, they are not the same. We use them differently; their use is not the same. I do things to pleasure her a man could also do — and if she closed her eyes, she might think I were he. If she always closed her eyes, she’d never know if he were me.

I’ll sketch quickly our different ways of coming to what is called our sameness, a sameness undone by the ways we’ve come to it. The crucial point is this: we are each strangers to the sign “lesbian” and the sign estranges us each from ourselves. I was female-assigned at birth, though I thought I was boy mistaken for a girl. And though I was to my mind the ultimate straight man seeking normally feminine women, I turned out a “lesbian,” against my will — though in accord with my desires. As for my girlfriend, she grew up, to her mind, normally feminine, as a rural Mormon raised in rural Utah. In her twenties, after her male fiancé died, after she didn’t go on a mission, after she walked across the US for nuclear disarmament, she met lesbians and wished she could be one, so cool did they seem to her. But she figured she wasn’t a lesbian. Long story short: I didn’t want the sign but was pierced by it; she quite wanted it but didn’t think she’d gain it.

We have been dildoed by the sign “lesbian.” We’ve been pleasured by it, as it’s come inside us — I’ve had to try to take it like a man — but we’ve also split from each other at the very point of our contact with the sign. Somewhere where denotation births connotation, we start feeling erotic rips and tears. Ours is truly a fractured sameness in several directions. We are like the figure of two lips touching, touching through their gapping, that Luce Irigaray offered and explored in the 1970s as a figure for (self- ) caressing through (self-) splitting (lips I wrote about in the 1990s as a figure for a sexual self-estrangement). Through our contact with the sign “lesbian,” my lover and I, so profoundly different, touch upon the nearness Irigaray conceptualized through the touching lips, deriving pleasure “from what is so near that [we] cannot have it, nor have [ourselves].” Some self-fracturing, breaking sameness, is to be found in a “lesbian” kiss.

In fact, if there were time, we could rehearse how the sign “lesbian” has functioned historically as a bold estranging force, breeding estrangements with every use: Who is a lesbian? What do they do? Can it be sex? What is its continuum? Is it all dildo (only a sign of the missing penis that does the penetrating) or is it all kiss (surface relations of various sorts)? Sign and surface. Penetrating sign. Surface to be kissed. Hold these terms. And pivot with this:

The good old sexologists, from the 19th century into the 20th, didn’t know what to do with “the femme.” She was a stranger to lesbian desire. They tended thus to see her as a normal woman who was led astray by a “mannish lesbian.” And I must confess, so delightful is the femme that I had a little game I devised in childhood to cheer myself up, whenever I was low, called “femmes at the mall.” You know what I did: hit a shopping center and imagined that every appealing woman whom I deemed feminine was a femme lesbian, until proven otherwise. Since I never tested them, they were not disproven. And, therefore, due to this generous practice, the world was virtually — dare I say, virally? — full of lesbians, thanks to me.

All right, let’s say you tentatively grant that the sign “lesbian” has bred estrangements, advertised estrangements, among both lovers and the broader public. What about gay male sex on this front? Could it be said to advertise anything? And why this curious word, after all: “advertise,” of all things?

Another thinker can lead us on to Dean and, later, to the penetrating nature of reading, due to the ways in which reading is kissing. But, first, it may matter how we have sex with a certain idea: “sex” itself. Or with the climax taken for sex.

Reading Orgasm (Angrily): Advertising Penetration by the Thought of Orgasm

“Analysis, while necessary, may also be an indefensible luxury. […] [M]orally, the only necessary response to [public responses to AIDS] is rage.” — Leo Bersani, “Is the Rectum a Grave?”

So wrote the famous literary critic Leo Bersani in 1987, at the height of North American AIDS and during the dawning of queer studies. And so began, to my mind, a set of paradoxes that surrounds “doing” in queer domains, whether that doing is doing someone sexually or doing rageful politics. Analysis is somehow too luxurious, but also necessary; rage, furthermore, is not so much a violent feeling as deliberative thought, outrageous thought, making our action our rage against the state and the way it thinks. And against the ways gays and lesbians think. Action, for Bersani, is stopping “gay” thought. Something queer studies, in most of its varieties, has emphasized since.

What was the focus of Bersani’s anger? First, displacement. Second, tumescence (of a certain sort). Bersani was enraged that the general public was displacing a health crisis — namely, AIDS — by treating it as a sexual threat. Also maddening was gays themselves wanting to redeem sex, to displace its self-disturbances, with something more self-enhancing in sex (like nurturance or love). In Bersani’s view, what the state and many gays were taking from us — in trying to stamp out queer promiscuity in the time of AIDS — was the “radical disintegration and humiliation of the self” that come with orgasm’s over-pleasure. Here’s your estrangement force all right. Orgasm is pleasure, pushing into pain; hence, of course, for centuries orgasm has been called “a little death.” It breaks the boundaries of a person’s self, Bersani says, and he regards it as a positive, cleansing humiliation of one’s selfhood.

Bersani was not content to point to the unconscious workings of orgasm that shatter selfhood and therefore resist easy, sentimental versions of “gayness.” There were conscious actions of conscious thinking he wanted us to do, as if consciousness of what we were doing around self-fracturing made all the difference. Thus, I teasingly suggest that “Is the Rectum a Grave?” is Bersani’s consciousness-raising piece: a genre straight out of lesbian feminism. Here, moreover, is what he pressed upon us, in his ardent anger:

— Consider that your self is not your friend: your very idea of your self is a kind of “psychic tumescence” that promises violence, since the harmful things you do are “in defense” of your sense of your self.

— Thus, he says, go get shattered. No, scratch that, if you’re having sex you are getting shattered, just realize it: otherwise, you are repressing the fact that “sex [is] self-abolition.”

— So, says Bersani, bury in the rectum your bad, proud selfhood.

See where I’m headed? What’s paradoxical (and this is what I love) is how Bersani, who wants to ground his thoughts, unabashedly, in anatomical positions and the force of biological climax, ends up making orgasm something of a metaphorical penetration, something of a sign, an idea, we have sex with, before, during, or even after sex. Orgasm, if one follows his thought to its logical conclusion, is a figural penetration, even in acts that aren’t penetrative (some oral sex, some digital sex, several kinds of “lesbian” sex). Everyone is penetrated/punctured/shattered no matter what they’re doing, as long as they’re coming. If I come, when I come, I am boldly shattered, making my orgasm the very “organ,” to put it metaphorically, that penetrates me. Everyone’s a catcher to orgasm’s pitcher. Everyone’s a bottom to their own climax. Everyone is punctured by the orgasm dildo. We are shattered by sensation but also (re-)invaginate sensation as a sign?

All this is intriguing in an essay, Bersani’s, that wants us for a moment to be strictly literal when it comes to sex, that wants to combat our love of “displacements.” And though Bersani may be anti-redemptive, famously so, he urges our pursuit of sex as “our primary practice of nonviolence” in contrast to relationship (which he sees as a battle of selves). Gay men especially can “advertise” this practice of sex as non-violence.

(“Advertise” is his word.) Why can they advertise? Because they are positioned, often through literal anal penetrations and promiscuities, to “represent the internalized phallic male [another sign, another idea?] as an infinitely loved object of sacrifice.” Hence, gay men advertise orgasmic over-pleasure as (last Bersani phrase) “a mode of ascesis.”

That’s right, “ascesis” is the very last word of Bersani’s essay. (Ascesis: the religious self-denial of monks and saints.) We exit his essay as ecstatic ascetics, whatever those are. St. Theresas, every one of us, if we have our consciousness raised? Picture the angel in Bernini’s statue, St. Theresa in Ecstasy, holding a word/a sign/a surface rather than an arrow with which to pierce her entrails.

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Barebackers’ Having Sex with …?

If the barebacker likes his sex “raw,” as they say, with no condom on, I suggest that two forms of fetish are at play: the feel of a surface (skin to skin) and the sign, the idea, of HIV. (Recall, for a moment, the dictionary definition of “fetish”: something thought to have magical power; something to which one’s irrationally devoted; something nonsexual with sexual resonance.) The fascinating aspect of this second fetish — HIV — is how it may function (think Bersani here) as a figural penetrator of all the parties present at a scene of penetration or semen-ingestion. If, at this scene, a sero-conversion to HIV-positive is possible for someone, whether or not anyone is seeking it, it’s likely, though not certain, that HIV is a fetishized sign penetrating penetrator/penetrated/voyeur/or ingestor. The sign has gotten inside any body that is invoking it via speech or thought (consciously, unconsciously), whether or not the virus is actually getting “in” a body being opened up. Caressed by the mind, HIV can’t be felt as anything other than a sign. Consent, nonetheless, happens at the surface, where one consents to begin a penetration or ingestion, where the sign HIV (and perhaps the virus) may be allowed to journey in the body in any number of invisible ways. At the very least, a commitment to a surface, its initial feel as a signifying force, is what penetrates those who are exchanging.

Then there’s advertising. Tim Dean tells us that HIV “when pictured as bug-chasing” is an “attempt to coordinate birth and death, to make one’s [sero-conversion] birthday the occasion for ‘breeding’ or initiating new [viral] life.” Obviously, I’m implying that bug-chasing and barebacking (when they coincide — and sometimes when they don’t) advertise one’s kissing the sign HIV, letting it in, invaginating it through the anus or the mouth and, of course, the mind, letting it do with you what it will: birthing something in you, letting something die, becoming a decaying of which you may not know the extent. And it seems certain, as Dean states: “the figure of the barebacker … offers an image and an identity with which any gay man may flirt.” Dean proceeds to add: “barebackers fuck without protection on behalf of those too timid to do so.”

What’s so sexy here? As Dean explains it, a “sacrificial ethos” reigns supreme. But here, masculinity, contra Bersani, is shored up by a man’s “surviving … physical ordeals, including multiple penetrations, humiliations, piercings … brandings and infections.” “Being HIV,” Dean continues, “is like having a war wound or battle scar” — something “cognate with other physical tests that are necessary to constitute a heroic masculinity of almost mythic dimensions.” What’s happened here to Bersani’s notion of the “internalized phallic male as an infinitely loved object of sacrifice”? Is barebacking advertising “self-abolition” or “psychic tumescence”? Is it in need of a “lesbian” puncture?

Whatever the answer, Dean, though never speaking of advertising, does discuss how cruising — seeking sex with strangers — “allegorizes” an “ethic of openness to alterity.” And I must say, as he explains this allegorical ethics, I start hearing echoes of Irigaray (advocating “nearness” through self-splitting and self-estrangement: deriving pleasure “from what is so near that [we] cannot have it, nor have [ourselves]”). Cruising, says Dean, involves “how one treats the other and, more specifically, how one treats his or her own otherness”; “encountering a stranger brings one into contact with the unconscious.” Not for nothing does Dean assert: “Without going so far as to advocate for unprotected sex, I want to suggest that the [barebacking] subculture’s embrace of risk may help illuminate the pleasures and ethics of encountering the unfamiliar.”

There are even “lesbian” echoes here. Sounding a bit like Marilyn Frye in her famous essay “Lesbian Sex,” where she argues that lesbian sex cannot be conceptualized according to standard notions of orgasmic climax or genital intercourse, Dean underscores that “the ethics of cruising” is not “reducible to genital satisfaction.” Indeed, as a reviewer of Dean’s book puts it: “the pleasure[s] barebacking subculture seeks … are far more varied and [far more] diffuse than sex as sex is conventionally defined.”ii Hence, there are no adequate measuring devices for the frequency of barebacking sex — a point Frye makes for “lesbian sex.” And the sex that is “had,” Dean emphasizes, is distanced from heteronormative and gay understandings. Ditto dyke sex.

Will the real estrangement force stand up?

Oh, that’s easy. That would be reading, which the acts of barebacking, which I’m deeming lesbian, crucially figure. Talk about kissing a signifying surface …

This Word Which Is Not One: Dildo and Virus

Reading is promiscuous, penetrating, pleasurable, vibrant, viral, and estranging, while it’s rational somewhere at its core. Perhaps because it’s cognitive, and can feel familiar, we can disavow the basic scandal and danger of reading, never mind its corporeal nature. And its transports.

Let me put “reading” as queerly as I can. In the act of reading, we are being penetrated by an author’s sequencing of sensuous dildos we call words, which we kiss, which then open us up to viral growth (a growth that needs our bodies and what our brains supply). The word is a dildo? A dildo we kiss? Kissing leads to penetration? Penetration spreads a virus? A virus from a dildo? Where to begin with such outrageous thoughts?

You have seen me use the word “sign” throughout this piece, when you might have guessed “word” would be the word to use. And if there were time and space to do so, I’d explain how a sign consists of two parts: what we think of as a word (“lesbian” or “HIV,” let’s say) and the concept that goes with it; the word is called a signifier, the concept’s called a signified; together, they’re a sign. But let me simply dramatize the problem with words by sticking with “word” as the word you know. As you may have heard, a word is not itself. It cannot be one. Yes, on the page it looks singular and nicely contained: a grouping of letters accepted as a word. (We can see its form.) But to be grasped by a reader who reads it, it must quickly spawn and become a different word or group of different words that the reader uses to define the word s/he’s read. In fact, the word births in us, with us, and through us, as we take it in: courtesy of us, it’s allowed to breed an intimate estrangement of itself in the form of denotation (its socially-agreed-upon definition, contained in words that are not the word), connotations (meanings in addition to its primary meaning, held by words that are not the denotation), cultural myths that may stick to the word (as they’ve stuck to “lesbian” and “HIV”), along with feelings and memories the reader may attach to the word. That’s a bunch of words-that-are-not-the-word that we supply when our eyes touch a word, take in one word, one solitary word, as we read it on a page. We supply these words (from prior penetrations!) from our brains and bodies, but it, the word-dildo, “stimulates” them.

We are dildoed by the word, in the sense that the word, as an object outside us, of sensuous form, must come inside us to be a word to us and to stimulate meanings (made of words-not-the-word). And though we consent to be dildoed by an author’s sequencing of words — all laid out like a line of dildos — and though we’re active bottoms as we take them in (even through a finger, for someone reading Braille), we are consenting to what we can’t control, to a kind of transport we cannot predict. Like one being barebacked, we consent to surface, unprotected from this surface, that starts at our surface, never knowing how a surface coming in us will breed — or die or decay. Indeed, the words bred by an author’s word-dildo, never mind the copy of the word that is the dildo, may over time die in your body or decay. Or displace other words, causing their death or slow erosion. Even words you desperately, consciously seek to hold may not remain — or may lie dormant in ways you can’t perceive (a specialty of HIV, we know).

Now let me emphasize four key points more quickly than I’d like: 1) the reader “kisses” a surface as s/he’s reading; 2) we don’t bugger authors, they quite impersonally dildo us; 3) reading shares a feature of barebacking that barebacking porn tries to solve; 4) reading can leave a tumescence as its trace.

Kissing is my most metaphorical claim.iii Who kisses with her eyes? Surely many lovers but also many readers. I say the reader kisses the word that penetrates him — that he invaginates — because I need a term for how the eye caresses, lightly or intently, the words it encounters through the reading process. A light encounter, as can happen when we’re reading certain texts or parts of texts, may be like a brush of the lips in a breezy, pro-forma greeting. It’s done, it’s gone, it’s largely instrumental. Just enough contact to get the word in. Or, perhaps, it doesn’t get in. (Some words don’t.)

But a more intent encounter often happens when we love a word or sequence of words, due to their “feel” — their rhythm or pulse — or mental stimulations. I call this kissing, because the uniqueness of a word-dildo, its particular feel as a surface at our surface, makes us want to linger over its exquisite properties, whether they “take us somewhere” as they enter us (as kissing can lead us down the path toward orgasm) or they are just something to caress, contact, and revisit (as kissing can take us nowhere beyond a surface we enjoy). Either way, we notice, the word like a dildo keeps its form. You could say it’s mass-produced. It can be used over and over and does not belong either to the penetrator or the penetree. Moreover, it’s detachable from the body wielding it. It is not its author’s flesh, though it touches ours.

Can we say we’re kissing the author when we’re reading her? Do we bugger authors? You may consider these queries ridiculous. Over the top. But no less famous a writer than French philosopher and theorist Gilles Deleuze has written (offhandedly?) of “see[ing] the history of philosophy as a sort of buggery or (it comes to the same thing) an immaculate conception.” “I would imagine myself,” writes Deleuze, “as taking an author from behind and giving him a child that would be his own offspring, yet monstrous.” In a sense, of course, the author’s words in us become a monstrous offspring: a viral growth of meanings — which might lead to a beautiful transport, we should realize. So, indeed, something is birthed. And if we wrote it down and somehow, by chance, got the author to read our words on the page (as a critic might succeed in doing), then we might actually penetrate him. But generally we don’t.

Our sole contact with the author’s body — and thus with her intent — lies in the words laid down on the page, in their certain sequence. No small thing. That is what we kiss. Dildos left by authors who were living and breathing when they left them — and their selection and arrangement reign supreme — but who may be dead and are very likely absent by the time we’re kissing their words and getting pierced by them. And authors can’t control their dildos’ effects, never precisely and sometimes not at all, though these dildos affect quite profoundly what denotations get aroused and bred in us. (Are these fairly rational since culturally shared? Is the denotation a significant place for meanings-held-in-common with authors, other readers? Are denotations, and also connotations, what make us feel we can argue our points? And, indeed, we can argue, though seduction and counter-penetration are perhaps more apt descriptions for the interpretive readings we create. These are actions, still, we perform on fellow readers — more precisely, our readers — or consenting listeners.) In any case, connotations, cultural myths, and feelings that words conjure in us can vary strikingly from reader to reader, as the author wonderfully contaminates established words through us. However impersonal, these contacts are intimate and “come” from authors to us as a surface that will get inside us.

Of course, the getting-in-us and breeding-once-inside-us are what we cannot see. What a remarkable invisibility the breeding of words by the word-dildo turns out to be. Barebacking porn frets about and plans around such invisibilities. How can a viewer of porn observe a sero-conversion taking place? She can’t. No one can. So Tim Dean has a fascinating chapter, “Representing Raw Sex,” that discusses various imperfect methods for implying the effects that a camera cannot show (involving various maneuvers with ejaculation — and with subtitles, funnily enough). If you think of reading, a camera couldn’t capture even readers’ “kissing” (though it could show them looking intently at words on a page). Nor could it catch the dildo-action of a word getting into a reader’s body. We can’t even witness the scene of penetration common porn can show (!), never mind the stimulations of meanings, concepts, and ideas inside us. These are mystic materialities. We know that they are there, know they are material, but what they “are” exactly, or how they unfold, we cannot perceive. The only thing we see is what we have in common. A surface we can kiss, all of us can kiss. A word which is not one.

A word which is many words — has to be many to be a word to us — may become tumescent over time as we use it. Readers encounter words they’ve heard, spoken, and read many times over, making for accretions around certain terms for certain readers over time. Certain words are “swollen with significance,” we say. This swollenness may happen when material experiences attach to a word and weirdly swell it for us. Therefore, what we put inside each other — even what we put in our mouths, strange to say — may affect down the line how we read a certain word.

I end with tumescence.

Penetrating Mouths and Minds: Tumescent Ideas

How are other material experiences, outside of reading but impinging on reading because they swell ideas, part of the dynamics of “lesbian” barebacking? Why would I call us ecstatic ascetics, punctured by aesthetics?iv

Recently, I found myself, with my undergraduates, wanting to make trouble for the word “redemption,” and so, in my course, I was sliding Pulp Fiction onto the back of Babette’s Feast, when I found in the latter a remarkable scene of mystic materialism; surface ingestion; penetrating signifiers. This film focuses on three women: practically twinned female forms in burlap coats on the coast of the sea, who are named for Protestant revolutionaries, and a French servant who gets between their lips (women loving women, in some broad sense, women Adrienne Rich would put on “the lesbian continuum,” given their lifestyle). The spare beauty of the images is such that the scoured gray of the sky makes luscious something like milk being poured in a pail. (Take that, ingestors!) The drama takes a turn when their servant, Babette, having won a lottery, asks to make the sisters and the members of their sect “a real French dinner.” It’s a new idea.

The Puritan sisters start to fear as the goods arrive. At night they dream of tortoise heads and spilled red wine — as if the phrase “real French dinner” and what they think it means (sinful, scary pleasures, at the very least) is at work inside them. Thus, when they warn their fellow Christians “we have exposed ourselves to … evil powers,” they all make a pact as a way to proceed: “We shall not say a word about either food or drink; it will be as if we never have had the sense of taste.” But here’s what happens: a general who used to belong to their sect, who has traveled the world, attends the dinner with them and — not in on the pact of silence — exclaims his astonishment over each course, names each item they are ingesting. In fact, we as viewers watch the scene unfold from the visually engrossing actions that make the caille en sarcophage (quail in sarcophagus) to the shimmering of the table, to the food itself, to the believers flush with pleasures of extraordinary wine and cuisine. And though the scene begins with the believers’ “Hallelujah” and ends on the note of this very same word — as if they have simply kept their pact — the viewer is struck that between Hallelujahs sits a French dinner the believers learn to eat, block with their speech, but let in with their guts and, of course, with their minds, such that the material food they quite materially digest is set loose in some fashion around their words, so that the last Hallelujah could mean, for all we know, “mind-blowing caviar.”

Here’s a forceful instance of repeatable words that keep their form but tumesce over time, getting fat inside us. That is, it’s a parable of what we who work in words and ideas may not see or perceive yet accomplish. What we provide between two instances of the same word — between the words “lesbian” and “lesbian,” “sacrifice” and “sacrifice,” “HIV” and “HIV” — are material experiences. When I teach, how I teach, when I talk, how I talk, I seek to set loose a sumptuousness surrounding words that forever changes them. This is what I like to think I have done to my students’ religious words: set loose lyrical, pornological images from our reading Jean Genet, which they enjoy, around the words “pieta” or “angel” or “sacrifice.”

We need not be depressed, then, as we often understandably are, to hear our students or the general culture keep talking in the same old terms. We need to believe precisely in the materiality of words. We need to believe in making words attractive (and/or newly fat) by the sensations we pack around them, in our classrooms, our interactions, our reading-in-common, and in the texture and rhythm of our words. We need to see that our words get into bodies, which may in turn breed new feelings and meanings around and for a term. Haven’t fabulous femmes, for example, intervened between your former use of “woman” and your speaking the word “woman” now? (Or is that just me?)

So goes the beauty of “lesbian” barebacking. It is your beauty if you are a barebacker, which of course you are, since you are a reader, a reader reading this. You routinely kiss, indeed you bottom, your way to a reading. Then, if you share it, it pierces someone, via your dildos, and may seduce or infect their thinking, without controlling it, and plump the meanings that get attached to words and groups of words and plots-made-of-words …

Fight it though you might — close your lips to it — the signifier “lesbian” is what I’ve made you kiss. It is now a stranger I have made your lover, since the word “lesbian,” I have suggested, stands for how words are a bold, estranging force, breeding and birthing meanings inside us. Our contact, yours and mine, does remain immaculate, for our bodies touch each other only through the dildo. But I’d like to think that, surely for a time, when you contemplate the words or ideas surrounding “reading” or “lesbian” or “kissing,” you will think liquidly but no less precisely with my words inside you. Whichever words remain. Whatever dildos spread.


i. I speak of barebacking “circa ’09” as it appears in Tim Dean’s book. As some readers undoubtedly know, the world of barebacking is now changing, due to the drug Truvada for PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), which is gaining traction among gay men, though with controversy. Will its users use the pill consistently, as it must be used so as to lower risk? Will the pill “encourage” “risky behavior”? Will it in any way affect those men who seek to catch the virus? For further reading, see “What Is Safe Sex? The Raw and Uncomfortable Truth About Truvada,” Rich Juzwiak,, filed last March, 2014, where Tim Dean weighs in on these developments; see also “Why Is No One On The First Treatment To Prevent H.I.V?” Christopher Glazek, The New Yorker, September 30, 2013. Look for Christopher Roebuck’s research on these issues soon to appear.

ii. Marc Spindelman, “Sexual Freedom’s Shadows,” Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, Volume 23, No. 1, 2011, 235.

iii. For readers who would like to see my extension of this idea of reading-as-kissing, see Kathryn Bond Stockton, “Surfacing in the Heat of Reading: Is It Like Kissing or Some Other Sex Act?” J19, Volume 3, Spring 2015, forthcoming.

iv. This section draws on and reframes materials published in my essay “Rhythm” in Queer Times, Queer Becomings, ed. E.L. McCallum and Mikko Tuhkanen (Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 2011), 345-48.


Kathryn Bond Stockton is Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Utah.

LARB Contributor

Kathryn Bond Stockton is Distinguished Professor of English and Associate Vice President for Equity and Diversity at the University of Utah, where she teaches queer theory, theories of race, the nineteenth-century novel, and twentieth-century literature and film. Her most recent books, Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame: Where “Black” Meets “Queer” and The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century, published by Duke University Press, were both finalists for the Lambda Literary Award in LGBT Studies (2007 and 2010), and she has authored God between Their Lips: Desire between Women in Irigaray, Bronte, and Eliot (Stanford University Press). Stockton has received the Crompton-Noll Prize, awarded by the Modern Language Association, for the best essay in gay and lesbian studies and, in 2011, she taught at Cornell University’s School of Criticism and Theory, where she led a seminar on “Sexuality and Childhood in a Global Frame: Queer Theory and Beyond.” In 2013, she was awarded the Rosenblatt Prize for Excellence, the highest honor granted by the University of Utah.


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