Male homoeroticism: desire, power and subjection

A free eroticism needs to dismantle diverse oppressive structures based on sexual and gender difference to give way to the enjoyment of sexual pleasure as a legitimate human right.

Erotic desire is a fundamental dimension of sexuality, with a strong biological substratum and with an important environmental influence of the culture and historical moment in which the personality of individuals develops.

The sexual hormones, the receptors for these hormones in the peripheral tissues, the chemical substances that produce and transmit the neurons to the brain are part of the complex biological mechanisms that intervene in the human sexual function, as well as in the production and modulation of the erotic desire.

But biology is not enough; the erotic desire needs social interaction with other individuals, which is why it is inevitable for its construction to be mediated by subjectivity. Fantasies, symbols (material and linguistic) and the meanings that each culture assign to the body, understood as the symbolic surface where the prescriptions of the culture and its historical roots are inscribed, intervene in this.

Western cultures, with their global expansion, have historically imposed a medicalised, genitally focused and regulated perception of erotic desire and pleasure. It has been confined to the private sphere and for many centuries it had a perverse, dirty and sinful connotation, especially for women. It has been conceived for reproductive purposes, while sexual pleasure has been, still in recent history, a secondary and forbidden aspect.

The diverse erotic orientations of pleasure that are different from the heterosexual generated a profound unease in the cultural, social, economic and political spheres. A series of medical classifications were invented during modern times that considered the erotic orientation of persons of different genders as normal, healthy and legitimate, and between persons of the same gender as abnormal, perverse, sick, inverted and deviated. In that way, the homosexual term was fabricated in 1869. Desire and heterosexual practices did not require any classification until many years later. It was not necessary to name them since they were natural, legitimate and coherent with the culture.

Our own history has irrefutable examples of this. In the 19th century, specifically in 1890, Cuban anthropologist Luis Montané Dardé (1849-1936) published a scientific research on the psychological and corporal typology of the pederasts (a term used then to refer to homosexual persons). It divided them into active and passive, according to the roles assumed during the genital penetration, as well as combining racial elements in its taxonomical characterisation (blatantly racist, since it classified the Chinese as “natural pederasts”).

A few years later, psychoanalysis contributed the term homoeroticism. Neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), founder of that theory, called it homoerotica of the subject.

At present, homoeroticism is conceived as a cultural and historical construction that describes a plurality of practices, desires and emotions of individuals who have an erotic and affective orientation toward the same gender.

The term in itself has marked political and ideological implications when used from a heterosexist and patriarchal otherness that names and labels everything that is contrary to their hegemonic foundations. The movements championing the human rights of the lesbian-gay identities have appropriated its meanings to legitimatise it and fight for their political and citizen vindications.

Male homoeroticism is of common interest in literary, artistic and scientific contexts. Female homoeroticism, unfortunately, is not much spoken of and researched. Once again, on numerous occasions the violence of silence and of voluntary omission (gynopia) is applied to women. They are frequently the target of the stereotypes that our culture considers as “male.” All this despite the fact that many lesbian women do not practice genital penetration and enjoy an eroticism less centred on the genitals.

In the following text we will deal with male homoeroticism, perhaps the most legitimised among the non-heterosexual practices. However, does homoeroticism as a singular practice exist in order to be classified? How much fallacy is there regarding the term? Is homoeroticism liberating? How is it related in our context to heterosexual erotic practices?

Active, passive and complete: between power and risk

Our mother tongue has precise terms, centred on the genitals, to name and classify male homoerotic practices. He who sexually penetrates is active, the penetrated person is passive. Those who practice both are called versatile, but the most used label in Cuba is complete. On many occasions, these classifications head the perception people have about a homosexual or bisexual person in particular; that is, the personal identity is reduced to the sexual practice of the person.

But the issue of the sexual roles goes beyond the genitals to a more subjective and social level. Being active or passive implies the cultural assignment of categories of power, where the active-penetrator dominates the other person, possesses the person, as it is colloquially said: he has the last say. The passive-penetrated is subordinated, obeys, is possessed and dominated.

The active person’s penis symbolically implies power. The penetrator monopolises the meanings of the erect phallus (phallocentrism) and reproduces the male hegemonic, heterosexual practices dictated by the patriarchal and heteronormative ideology, even when hierarchically the men with homoerotic practices are perceived as socially subordinated individuals and suffer exclusion and heterosexist domination.

These sexual roles are frequently incorporated into the distribution of the roles of domestic work, when two men decide to live together as a couple. The male/female binary roles are reproduced when the active individual carries out chores conceived for males; he is the provider, head of the household, while the passive individual assumes the female chores, as they are distributed in the majority of the heterosexual couples.

Such asymmetrical relations harm the work and stability of the affective relations of male homosexual couples through exclusion, constraint and suffering. However, this does not necessarily imply the vulnerability of the dignity of any person when the couple agrees to share erotic fantasies based on the dominator/dominated relationship. Those are totally legitimate practices in the moments of erotic intimacy, as long as no one gets hurt, physically or psychologically.

Genitally centred homoerotic relations are nowadays considered risk practices from the epidemiological point of view since they favour the transmission of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases when carried out without the adequate protection. This is so much so that HIV transmission in Cuba occurs in 84 percent of the cases of men who have sexual relations with other men and are penetrated without protection, which implies an increased risk of contracting the virus. Additionally, such practices are not approved by the Cuban social imagery, which increases hiding, ignorance and the exclusion of homosexual persons.

It is ironic that medicine was the generator of technological paraphernalia to normalise the bodies with homoerotic practices in the past and now has to pay attention and resources to the implementation of biopolicies related to the prevention and treatment of HIV and AIDS. But such biopolicies will never be equal if they are not devoid of the phallocentric and heterosexist character in relation to desire and sexual pleasure if they do not take action regarding the subjective questions that affect the masculinities and their hegemonies, in addition to their interaction with other elements that increase the stigma toward men who carry out homoerotic practices, like the level of education, economic wellbeing, violence, racism, handicaps, coexistence in large families, among others.

Men’s dominion of the public sphere, independently of the erotic orientation of the desire, accompanied by poor self-care, low self-esteem, irresponsible sexual behaviours because of rash attitudes – inherent to hegemonic masculinities – increase the risk and vulnerability to contract HIV. The public dominion in this context is a relative power, since unfortunately homoeroticism is still a clandestine practice that contravenes the moral precepts of what is understood as a “normal” sexuality.

It is paradoxical that the conquest of the public space, fundamentally of the homosocialisation spaces, achieved in the last 15 years by homosexual persons, does not benefit achieving safe public spaces, where they can enjoy pleasant, responsible and equitable sexual relations that favour an adequate negotiation of the condom. It seems that Cuban families continue being spaces for social disintegration when it’s a question of homoerotic practices. The housing deficit and economic precariousness, the differences in access to and distribution of wealth between the city and the countryside, violence and homophobia in the family sphere are factors that threaten the full and responsible development of affective relations in male homosexual couples. Undoubtedly, the obstacles for the enjoyment of sexual freedom and pleasure in a safe private environment increase the risk and vulnerability of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Some homoerotic impositions of the market

Homoeroticism does not necessarily imply legitimising emotions and liberating alternative practices. Its permanent subjection to the genital heterosexual eroticism follows cultural mandates that have become structured through the development of a global market that homogenises the bodies. Publicity ads impose the masculine white body, waxed, beautiful, always young and desirable. All this has an impact on the way that many persons who recognise themselves as gay follow the fashion and lifestyles and consumption patterns. Dogs, cars, underwear, music, audiovisuals and even flavoured water-soluble lubricants for a successful oral-anal penetration are very expensive. Everything costs in the pleasure market, which with growing success attracts consumers with a high purchasing power. The banalising “of the sexy” has practically become an alienating, mind-numbing and classist post-pornographic strategy.

The extraverbal discourse used by men to flirt in the public space first goes through what they wear and the accessories. In our country, the 1990s led to a greater influence of these market trends, especially in fashion. That was a period in which the body, a very tight piece of clothing that makes it possible to show the anatomic reliefs of the pectoral muscles, shoulders, biceps, back and abdomen, became very popular. The attire was a sign of recognition among the men who were erotically attracted. With the passing of time, this fashion’s craze became extensive to the young heterosexual public and produced a certain “fading” in the homoerotic codes imposed by the market.

The 1990s were also the years in which a market of clandestine parties for gay men emerged, many of them managed by heterosexual owners and with a network of taxi drivers who at high prices transported, starting 11:00 p.m., hundreds of men from the centrally-located corner of 23 and L to the most remote places of the capital’s outskirts. Though these homoerotic spaces are currently accessible in the centre of the city, like in the past, they are prohibitively expensive for the majority of the persons who visit those homosocialising spaces. The small public made up by lesbian women and trans persons in those places generates an additional discrimination – tacit and, on occasions, explicit -, imposed by the market and by the reproduction of excluding interests, perceptions and gender and racial codes.

Other spaces have become plural inclusion and non-profit places for multiple sexualities and desires. The best known example is El Mejunje Cultural Centre in the city of Santa Clara, a place where it has systematically been demonstrated since the late 1980s that it is possible for all persons to respectfully and accessibly socialise independently of the orientation of the desire or gender identity.

The existence of safe spaces for homosexual persons is necessary, but faces the challenge of reproducing the exclusion of other sexualities and of those persons with low economic resources, among which there are other persons with non-heteronormative sexualities. There cannot be talk of full social integration if the relations of subjection and power that impregnate those spaces are not disarticulated.

Other bodies and desires: eroticisms without prefixes

Let’s imagine for a minute that the body does not have a classified sex or identifiable gender. If this were possible, could that body generate desires? What would happen if the fantasies and the symbolism surrounding the genitals are moved toward other regions of the body? Why not explore and exploit other areas of the body that are also erotic?

The entire body has an erotic potential for enormous pleasure, but our culture centred on the genitals has proscribed it. For example, the anal penetration of a man by his female couple, self-defined as heterosexual, is a source of undeniable erotic pleasure that our sexist culture condemns. Neither is self-eroticism encouraged as a safe practice that, in addition to providing physical and mental wellbeing, contributes to recognising our erotic map.

What is said and written about homoeroticism is no more than a fantasy charged with ideology. We are led to believe that such a thing truly exists, that it has been constituted as real, objective and palpable, as if it were different from heterosexual eroticism, for which, by the way, there is no knowledge of the term of hetero-eroticism.

Eroticism and sexual pleasure, as a particular human condition, must be understood based on heterogeneous, fluid, non-generic or model practices, which do not lead to the exclusion or asymmetrical production of power.

Thinking, enjoying and exercising a free eroticism, which enables the enjoyment of sexual pleasure without coercion and as a legitimate human right, requires the dismantling of those oppressive structures based on sexual and gender difference, which are none other than cultural constructions we have learned in a ritualistic way and perceived as natural. (2014)

  1.   Luis Montané: “La pederastia en Cuba”, in Primer Congreso Médico Regional de la Isla de Cuba, La Habana, Imprenta de A. Álvarez y Cia., 1890, p 579. Cited by Sierra Madero, Abel; “Sexualidades disidentes en el siglo XIX en Cuba”, EIAL: Estudios Interdisciplinarios de America Latina y el Caribe 16, no. 1 (2005): 67-94.

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