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This Professor Spent the Last Three Years Researching Butthole Culture

Jonathan Allan has literally written the book on ass.


Photo via Flickr user Kakei.R

Assholes are everywhere, just ask Kanye.

For Dr. Jonathan Allan, anuses are a gateway into understanding culture, language, social anxieties, humour, politics, and possibly the meaning of life. Given that butts are gender neutral and represent a host of positive and negative connotations, they make for a fascinating topic of study. Dr. Allan spent two and a half years researching and philosophizing about the anus, and he eventually wrote Reading from Behind: A Cultural Analysis of the Anus. Set for release in early March this year, the book inspects the ass in literary theory and cultural criticism.

Starting with Sigmund Freud's 1908 work "Character and Anal Eroticism," Dr. Allan shows how describing someone as having an "anal personality" may signal our need to take the anus, with all "its pleasures and its discomforts," and "repress" it. From there, the author surveys everything from films like Brokeback Mountain, the virginity complex, anal pleasure and violence, and even how butts relate to colonialism in Canada.

We reached the professor and Canada research chair in queer theory at Brandon University by phone for an interview. We probed him about butt stuff like twerking and how the anus relates to socio-economic disparity and gender.

Dr. Jonathan Allan says Kent Monkman's "Cree Master 1" painting flips the traditional colonial narrative. Photo courtesy of the University of Regina Press

VICE: What do you mean by the 'democratization of the anus'?
Dr. Jonathan Allan: One of the things that most interests me is how we define gender based on difference. And of course, gender is this weird thing that gets conflated with sex all the time. When you fill out a government form it asks for your gender—male or female. Well, male or female is about your biological sex, not your gender, which is how you live your day-to-day life. Everything is about difference. The one thing that unites us is the butt. We all have one, have access to it, and we sit on it for most of the day. That's what's so interesting to me.

You also relate the anus to what you call 'the frontier myth and colonialism.'
When I started presenting this work at conferences, someone asked me about colonialism. They referred me to [the artist] Kent Monkman. [Monkman] inverts colonial narratives. He depicts an Indigenous person spanking a white settler's ass. It flips the common narrative. Why these images? I related them to the [1966] novel Song of the Loon, which is about a settler's errotic adventures with Indigenous bodies. So much of the language of colonialism—we say 'the land was raped' and so on—what would it mean to invert that narrative?

This might sound simple, but butts are dirty. They are considered uncouth to talk about in certain company.
That's true. I can't imagine most of us sit around during holiday dinner talking about our butts. But, at the same time, pay attention to it on TV. You will hear constant references in the media. I was watching one of those medical emergency shows on TLC, and sure enough some guy shows up at the hospital with something stuck up his butt, and he can't get it out. On Big Bang Theory, there's a great moment about the "anal autograph" and the "colon calling card." In the movie Sisters, there's a scene where a dancing ballerina toy gets stuck in some guy's ass. For ten minutes, there's an ongoing joke about this toy playing music in this guy's ass. We do this thing where we talk about our rectums, but we talk around them. We hint at it because it's dirty. It's purpose is defecation, but there's a remarkable universality to it.


Photo courtesy of the University of Regina Press

Can we talk about twerking?
It's a shameful and yet desirable thing. It defies rules of gravity and it's right in our face. It's not the first time we've seen the ass in popular culture. We had Ricky Martin's 'Shake Your Bon Bon," "Honkey Tonk Bedonkadonk," "Fat Bottomed Girls," Sisqo's "Thong Song," and others. But twerking took it to a whole new level.

In your book, you say women are the biggest readers of gay romance novels.
There's very little serious writing about romance novels, unfortunately. To actually sit down and read these things not as a joke or judge them as something bad housewives read, I wanted to find out what's going on there. They're everywhere though. I think [gay romance novels] are the fastest growing sub-genre in romance reading. They are mostly written by women for women. They speak to anxieties around the male body and the kinds of pleasure men have and have access to.

For your research, do you have a room covered in photos of anuses with interconnecting strings linking them together? I'm thinking A Beautiful Mind-type scenario.
[Laughs] There are all these connections that are constantly made. One thing that is interesting to me is how the ass is invoked in political discourse. The metaphors we use—"backroom deals," for instance. Or Donald Trump's "getting schlonged" thing. It's about about the refusal of the phallus, right? And then he uses that to describe Hillary Clinton. Or Doug Ford: after the provincial election in Ontario, he said how the Progressive Conservative party needs an "enema."

Photo courtesy of the University of Regina Press

Let's talk about eroticism.
For a part of the body that's so taboo, we put a lot of energy into it. Whether it's getting a perfect ass, downsizing if we have a fat ass, or gaining an ass. I saw in a men's magazine—maybe GQ or Men's Health, one of those magazines—2015 was the year of the man's ass. In the first pages of my book, I point out how [MTV News] declared 2014 to be the year of the ass in general. We're obsessed. We want to sculpt it; we wear yoga pants.


Jonathan Allan. Photo courtesy of the University of Regina Press

Could you unpack the issue of violence and the anus?
In the book, I talk about [the woman-on-man anal rape scene in] Gore Vidal's Myra Breckinridge. That scene is quite graphic. There is a certain violence and a lot of power at play. I think that power is always transferable and always in flux. The anus is always there. We've all experienced pain in our asses. We've all experienced anal pleasure. We've all had particular bowel movements that were pleasurable. When we frame it in those terms, it becomes something different. I don't think we'll ever get rid of the shame of assholes, but we're clearly interested in them.

Is there something to be said about social class and the butt?
The butt is the proletariat of the body. If it is about wealth, the Kardashians seem to be doing fine. There are class arguments to be made around it though. I quote the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, who says, "The day shit is worth money, poor people will be born without an asshole."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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