You Should Watch Buck Angel Fuck
When I’m not penning columns (that consist almost entirely of questions), I teach a class designed to introduce first-year college students to the rigors and rewards of higher education. Now you may be scanning your iMac or Chromebook or maybe even telephone thinking, Golly gee, that sounds silly. Who the fuck needs convincing of post-secondary education’s real value? Isn’t it intrinsic? I mean, c’mon.
But you’d be surprised (or not, if you know a thing about Chicago’s city colleges and public schools). Turns out the overwhelming majority of its student body don’t have a clue as to why anyone should find herself exerting the time, cash and energy learning how to succeed in college in the first place. And so, in those crucial first semesters, we talk about goals and motivation and time management, plus also how to avoid totally fucking one’s GPA. (Also, you know, what to do when facing eviction or deportation or DCFS agents at the front door.) These prove to be necessary survival skills for your average CCC student.
Gradually, usually after midterms, we find time to broach topics you and I very well may have taken for granted as attendees of private liberal arts schools nestled in Nowhere, USA. Among such topics, the more productive discussions have been, without fail, those that pertain to diversity (which means, most literally, “turned different ways”). So we discuss nationality, ethnicity and race. We acknowledge the varied tongues one hears often in the hallways. But—and here students’ jaws drop and individuals will sometimes storm from the room altogether—we spend especially eye-skinning classes addressing the thorny topics of sex and gender.
I teach sex and gender the way I was taught. (Please NB: I’m no expert; I have no degree in such studies, and folks way more pedigreed than I have gone on record to disagree with the way I’ll phrase it here.) And still, I’ve found the most interesting and difficult and generative discussions arise from framing gender as socially constructed and sex as biologically determined. (Which seems pretty straightforward at first: biological sex carries ostensibly verifiable demarcations; gender answers social questions of presence, performance, and image.) Right?
And usually yeah, we establish that females on average carry double-X chromosomes, tend to produce more estrogen, generally sport measurably less body and facial hair, and obviously also possess the physical hardware for sexual reproduction and delivery. Males, vice versa. And yet, when I press students as to whether a person who may happen to have encoded onto her DNA XXY or XXX chromosomes, or who brews less estrogen than the national average, or may rock something like a ‘stache or unibrow, or perhaps had her uterus removed—whether these people, without the aforementioned biological traits, no longer constitute members of the female sex, they without fail shake noggins and say, well no, not exactly. But then, is that person a woman?
As the room’s collective crania spin, I offer the old “female man” slash “male woman” scenario (which is when, if ever, students pretend they’ve an urgent call to answer, be it cellular or micturative). Because they’re so accustomed to that old-hat formulation where male = man and female = woman, to realize that biological hardware may have, in some cases, damn near zero correlation with widespread social identification—this strikes at least a few students as new and mantle-shattering, and finally their sex and gender binaries begin to break down.
And yet, odds are, you there on your iPad or Android don’t occupy the extremes; the greatest numbers of us traverse this earth comfortably, safely ensconced in societal cisnorms. For this reason though, arguably, it benefits everyone involved, not just to imagine, but actually to turn a new way and witness the far-out ends of the shifting spectra we call sex and gender. Take, e.g., three of Young British Artist Marc Quinn’s favorite subjects: Buck Angel, Allanah Starr and Thomas Beatie. Quinn’s sculpted and made public images of these individuals and, perhaps, raised awareness in doing so. So kudos.
But I think it’s worth noting that at least two of Quinn’s subjects are best known not only for their willingness to share the skin they’re in, but also for actively exploiting it by employing their bodies for profit. And, for better or worse, it’s much easier to find people with Allanah’s physical attributes performing sex on camera. (Bing’s image search is, apparently, less prurient when it comes to these kinds of queries.) To my knowledge, Buck’s the only such performer in his field. He’s fairly prolific and, obviously, the content’s quite graphic. But it’s worth a watch. Under different circumstances, I should like to share images and footage of female men and male women with students. But again, that’s not my field.
Which raises at least one final concern for those more knowledgeable than I: what to make of others who don’t embody gender norms? What about everyone who isn’t a radical outlier? I can speak only from experience to suggest that perhaps that’s where the really difficult work of diversification can happen, in everyday acts of not only seeking, but of accepting and even promoting these new and different ways to live the human experience, to embrace diversity in the actual, uncomfortable flesh.