Purity and Danger and Foreskin

Posted by Madam Bubby

 

I was born into a world where baby boys were routinely circumcised, whether they were Jewish or not. Hygienic purposes. (These were also the days when nurses wore caps, which were later deemed to be unhygienic. Go figure.)

These were also the days when women at least in middle class white America were knocked out in order to give birth. Babies were kept in rooms behind windows, often in incubators even if they weren’t under five pounds, held up for viewing like specimens by nurses in crisp white caps. (I am remembering the episode of the birth of Little Ricky on I Love Lucy, which corresponded to Lucille Ball scheduling a caesarian section for the birth of her son, Desi Arnaz, Jr.)

 

Ricky in the hospital waiting room, from I Love Lucy
Ricky in the hospital waiting room (Source)

 

It's like anything that resembled the nitty gritty raw materials of sex and blood and birth and death was hidden, sterilized as much as possible. Dirt was disorder. Sex was dirty unless it produced babies, but giving birth to those babies was a disordered process that required forceps and scalpels and anesthesia to control it, get it out of the realm of actual living.

 

Scalpel

 

And of course any type of sex other than what took place behind closed doors in a missionary position for procreative purposes was generally deemed dirty and disordered. Thus LGBTQ persons themselves were deemed by the general population as irredeemably dirty, unless they could cleanse themselves and rejoin the pristine world of Father Knows Best, itself but an idealized fantasy.

Mary Douglas in her seminal book Purity and Danger explored this primal desire to contain dirt and disorder, like the way we still keep our basic bodily functions of urination and defecation in a toilet which is supposed to be sparkling clean and in a room that is also supposed to be sparkling clean. The toilet itself is an image that contains in itself this fraught tension which informs our attitudes toward sexuality and even to parts of the body that one uses to express that sexuality.

 

Purity and Danger cover
Purity and Danger cover

Scrubbing a toilet

 

Thus, that foreskin had to be brutally cut off, to cleanse, make pure, the member of an appendage would make its appearance and its role sexual act even more exciting, promising deep, dark, rich scents and that pungent but also enticing smegma.

It revealed the mystery in order to contain it. When I experienced sexually a man who was uncut for the first time (in the bathroom, and in the shower, ironically), which could imply he was somehow more complete, even “holy” which word can also mean complete, I experienced mystery. And in that mystery, glory, and by glory, I am thinking of not a vague disembodied entity or feeling in the clouds, but physical reality itself charged with an energy that creates and propels the orgasm but also encompasses it.

 

Images from The U.N.C.U.T. Club of L.A. & Club Mandom 1: Blue Collar Cheese Factory
Images from The U.N.C.U.T. Club of L.A. (top) and Club Mandom 1: Blue Collar Cheese Factory (bottom)

 

His phallus contained on it a boundary, and it’s through crossing boundaries one grows, changes, lives, dies. I could experience at that time a fullness and as I said above, a mystery that transcended the rigid binaries which result from treating sexual, in fact, all human experience as something we have to dissect with scalpels and pull apart with forceps.

I’m not advocating for an end to circumcision, as it is a boundary-crossing, consensual ritual of initiation for males in many cultures, but, significantly, also a source of horrific pain and suffering for so many, especially women and girls who are circumcised in order to completely suppress their sexual desire, eliminate it like it is indeed something dirty and thus disordered. They in essence are forced into becoming objects only defined by what the culture deems as purity, but at the same time depriving them of living as full, complete persons.

Yes, there’s dangerous realities we do need to contain, as a virus plagues the world and we must first try and control it, then eradicate it, by amplifying up to the nth degree our bathroom rituals of cleansing and purifying. But our complicated, messy, exciting and ultimately glorious sexuality can and should become for humans both dangerous and pure, exploding the tension in that binary if only for a moment. A holy moment.

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Sex and Bathrooms Redux

posted by Madame Bubby

Once again, after being forced to urinate and defecate in the dull and stinky men’s room in the building at the university where I teach, I think once again about the relationship between not just mansex and the men’s room, but the whole sociology of the bathroom.

First of all, the fact I am saying bathroom is significant, because in this dull and stinky men’s room with the constant problem of the unflushed toilet (it is supposed to flush automatically, it does not always do so), there is no bath. La salle de bains? No. Showers are available in the gym, of course, but no bathtub. Why not just call the room the sink/toilet/urinal room?

Second, why are public bathrooms in general such blah physical spaces (unless the ones in expensive spaces)? Yes, they are a public space, and utilitarian in the most basic way, but it seems, not that I would know this, the ladies’ rooms aren’t that different. The luxurious rooms with cushions, chairs, and couches I used to notice in movies made in the 1960s aren’t, or perhaps never were, the norm.
 

Basic public restroom

The unisex/disabled (not parallel terms) restroom the university recently constructed is clean and efficient, and also, and this is a plus to many, private. Single occupancy. Now, that might be interesting, to lock the door and enjoy some action, but that might create more potential for getting caught than doing a quickie in a stall. Knock, knock. Who’s in there? I have to go … I’m calling security.

Thirdly, the issue of privacy is something that seems to be more exclusive to contemporary American/Western culture. Contemporary, I emphasize, because in early modern Europe, urination and defecation weren’t exclusively private acts. People “went” when and where they needed to. Separate bathrooms with plumbing were a luxury, and even those in the upper classes used the chamber pot whenever and wherever, even when dining. Some dining areas and other public rooms contained elaborate close stools for convenient evacuation. The aesthetic features of these receptacles, one could say, were designed to conceal the act as well as blend the object into the overall luxury of the space, but it was clear what people were doing in them. At least, in much humbler settings an outhouse was a private, separate building, but not exactly the jolly T-room.
 

17th century toilet
17th century toilet

I’ve often thought, and perhaps my view reflects how Americans have insisted on enclosing the space and judging a person or institution or business by the cleanliness of their bathroom, that the actual bath and shower should be more separate from the toilet. The juxtaposition of the toilet and the bathing area creates a tension between purity and danger, as Mary Douglas in her book by that title explains. The danger is the expulsion of waste, the crossing of a physical boundary, in this case, the body, however natural this process. It’s not just that the waste itself is toxic or gross, physically. More than instinctual repulsion is going on here, more than concerns about health. We feel the need to control this process, enclose it in a pristine setting. The place to dump the waste must be the cleanest, purest, most private room, treated like a sacred shrine. The toilet is the porcelain god.

Thus, when one puts sex into the bathroom space, the act itself a crossing of physical boundaries which also involves a change of fluids, this purity and danger tension exacerbates. It is interesting that in one’s own private home, one doesn’t usually see the bathroom as a place of sexual activity. It’s the bedroom. One sleeps with another person, and the sleeping verb is a common euphemism for sexual intimacy. Yet, sex acts, anonymous sex, occur in public bathrooms.

Perhaps the connection here is between the words anonymous and public. Any time one even goes into a public space, one is taking a risk, because one is in the position of being seen by others at various levels of intimacy, and in the case of bathroom or toilet sex, what is deemed private becomes public in a space which is enclosed, private, for a private act. One now can see what one has fantasized about seeing. It’s the one moment of connection, the ultimate boundary crossing, the danger, the thrill, the orgasm mixed together in a space designed to enclose a natural, albeit for most, non-erotic process.

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