There have always been predatory pervs on the silver screen, though not all of them were gay. Some were vampires or werewolves, crafty cannibals or shadowy stalkers of little kids. The question of sexuality was often left unresolved, but not the equation of perversion and violence. Ever since Psycho, killer trannies have been bursting out of closets or donning their victims’ skin. And who can forget those serial-killer sagas in which the camera shies away just as the queer clown goes to work on his teen captive? If John Wayne Gacy didn’t exist, the movies would have had to invent him.
But never on stage or screen has there been a gay predator who was also a champion—not until Richard Greenberg’s queerified baseball saga, Take Me Out. The ample display of male flesh in its shower-room scenes may be the major reason why people flock to this Tony Award-winning play, but what makes it so compelling and contrary is what happens in the shower. A hapless bigot is sexually assaulted by the play’s protagonist, a Godlike slugger. That the victim is straight and the victimizer gay sets the fateful events of this drama in motion. It also sets a new standard for showing gay aggression.
The reclamation of the gay predator has been percolating in radical queer culture for some time. Every now and then it pops up in a plucky independent film such as Greg Araki’s The Living End, in which an HIV-positive couple goes on a madcap shooting spree, or Jon Shear’s Urbania, in which a bereft gay man attacks the phobe who murdered his lover. But these are desperate men lashing out against a world that barely tolerates them. What’s new is the image of a conquering queer—a role model, no less—ravishing a straight man.
Of course, there’s more to Take Me Out than that. The play features a touching relationship between the slugger and his dweeby accountant (played by Denis O’Hare, who won a Tony of his own). But the object of everyone’s affection is no gay sensitif. He’s arrogant and morally ambiguous, as male heroes often are these days. His freewheeling aggro is not unlike the ruthless ‘tude in rap. When he assaults a teammate, he doesn’t act out of desire but from a determination to crush his opponent’s ego. It’s a rape like any other, except the perpetrator is gay. That makes all the difference.
Rape is terrorism. It’s a crime that strikes at the core of human rights. But rape fantasies are metaphors. They stand for more than the act itself. The rape metaphor can evoke infantile passions of omnipotence, sadomasochistic needs of the will, fury sparked by fear of the other. No wonder rape fantasies are so common. But some guilty pleasures are more likely than others to show up in the culture.
Is there a relationship between rape fantasies and the real thing? No doubt. That’s why it’s important to examine our dreams, even as we reserve the right to have them. Whose rape fantasies are represented, and what are they like? To answer this question is to peer into the core of power relations.
At a time when men are invited to enjoy all sorts of sadistic games, it’s no surprise that certain rape fantasies have been given freer rein. Guys are getting to vent their predatory urges in entertainments as diverse as gangsta rap and arty French films. Irréversible, the ultra-violent succès d’estime that breezed through town earlier this year, features a nine-minute rape scene as horrific as the stuff of specialized porn. Slim Shady’s rapine ruminations have made him an icon of transgressive allure. Pulp mags from the pre-XXX era, with their lush imagery of women being violated by variations of the Hun, are enjoying a vogue. Prison rape is a leitmotif in Oz.
Even women are invited to display a little aggro (as long as they’re willing to have Vin Diesel’s babies). The feminist payback film has become a regular genre, as in the recent Baise Moi (Fuck Me), in which two hookers lustily whack their johns. But the rules of this game are clear: Female predation on men must be the product of jealousy or oppression; it can’t be about a woman simply strutting her stuff. You won’t see Wonder Woman bursting upon an unwilling male, strap-on at the ready. Though more than a few women—and men—might enjoy this turnaround fantasy, the culture sticks to a certain script in reveries about rape. It’s a guy thing, except if the guy is gay.
When Eminem rapped about setting a pack of his pals loose on his 10-year-old sister, the album went platinum. But imagine a homothug musing about loosing his crew on a young boy. Imagine a pulp mag in which two pumped queers rip the clothes off a helpless het. Imagine a remake of Irréversible in which a straight man is buttfucked and beaten bloody by a homo hellion in excruciating detail. Not even the French could cook up such a scandale. In the wonderful world of entertainment, gay men can fall in love, we can screw in fascinating ways, we can be the best man at Grace’s wedding, we can run with the X-men, we may even get to dominate each other—preferably in leather—but we can’t subjugate straight men. Not if we want to be alive at the end of the film.
In an age when nothing about sodomy (short of priestly ministrations) seems to shock, the specter of the empowered gay predator may be the last queer cultural taboo.
The Commercial Closet, a group that monitors gay imagery in advertising, has been throwing darts at a recent car ad in which a band of deep-woods campers unload their gear for the night. Suddenly they hear distant strains of the theme from Deliverance. It’s enough to send them bolting for their buggy and racing away. The folks at the Commercial Closet are right to regard this as a homophobic pitch, but it’s also a droll allusion to the ultimate straight-male nightmare: being raped by another man.
Because its victims must contend with fearsome threats to their sexual identity, male-on-male rape may be the most secret sex crime, though it’s more common than meets the eye, especially if you include the epidemic of sexual assaults in prison. Few of the perps are homosexual; most would be quite willing to rape women if they could get their hands on them. Male rape, like all rape, is a crime of power, and its unconscious ambition is to enforce the sexual order. As gender traitors who already seem degraded, gay men are far more likely to be violated than to violate.
But in the straight imagination, a different image applies. Here, the terror of being raped (and the temptation that comes with it) is projected onto the homosexual, presumably lusting for straight-male tail. Every homo is imagined as a potential predator, and any display of gay aggression is likely to be seen, at least implicitly, in this light. Generations of us have been marked by the need to play the servile faggot in order to reassure straights that we pose no threat. We are taught from our first wet dream that it’s dangerous even to imagine striking out against “real men,” and the culture re-enforces this taboo by churning out endless images of what happens to queers who violate it. If a gay man has vehement impulses, he’d better confine them to his own kind. The prevalence of s/m in gay life may be a product of the message, delivered in so many ways, that we can’t act out our aggro on those who oppress us.
Not that we don’t harbor resentment against straight men. They are the ones who bash us, pass laws against us, and banish us from institutions they control, such as the military. Straight men have much less reason to hate women than gay men have for loathing straight men. Why shouldn’t we dream of dominating and even violating them? The answer is: We do, but usually in oblique ways. Many gay porn films feature putatively straight men giving it up. (Ever heard the joke about the definition of a butch marine? He wants to hold his own legs up.) Such aspersions aren’t so different from the straight-male supposition that all women are basically asking for it. Then there’s the common homo whimsy of “turning out” a straight boy by seducing him with drink and devotion. This is analogous to the hetero dream of plying a girl with charisma or a roofie. Both are not-so-sublimated rape fantasies. When you cut to the chase, gay and straight men operate on the same psychic planet. What’s different is the invitation to express these impulses.
Certainly there are limits on how nasty straight men can get, but many options open to them are closed to gays. When a rogue rapper vents his sadistic fury, it’s often received as righteous rage. There will always be a place in the human heart for the angry young man. But God help the angry gay man: He’s well advised to take a Xanax—or take up a fetish.
Many gay men—like many women—are drawn to the straight-male aggressor. It certainly makes for a hot fantasy life. But why assume that the fantasies we have are the only ones we are capable of? What would the libido be like in a world where women and gays were encouraged to think of themselves as potential predators? Would our reveries, and more importantly our self-image, change if we were regularly treated to the spectacle of straight men being entered against their will?
Life might be better if rape fantasies didn’t stand for power and agency—but they do. Those who get to imagine themselves as sexual predators also think of themselves as entitled to rule. Indeed, the act of rape is, often enough, a sadistic response to the gap between real life and the presumed prerogatives of masculinity. In fantasy, if not in fact, the roles of the violator and the violated correspond to the traditional sexual order: playas on top, bitches beneath them, and fags at the bottom. No wonder images of rape that bolster this hierarchy are so cherished now that women and homosexuals are on the rise.
As gay men break free of our subordinate status, it shouldn’t be surprising to see our position in the rape fantasy change. Instead of repressing aggression—or shifting it to worship of the belligerent straight stud—we’re more likely now to conceive of ourselves as acting out. You can see the same change in images of women, along with the same payback strategy to justify violence. It may be harder for most women (at least straight women) to think of themselves wielding a dick than it is for gay men, who actually do. But this is not about raping someone; it’s about allowing yourself to have one of the culture’s most gripping fantasies of potency, for better or worse.
Many men who would recoil from the image of a beaten dog are drawn to rape imagery. That’s a fact, and it’s unlikely to change as long as there are issues of power to be mediated by the psyche. But we are crawling toward a time when the sexual order is as flexible as the human imagination. A moment may come when everyone can imagine both ravishing and being ravished—or, just maybe, neither.