Butt seriously: Focus on humour obscures importance of anal analysis

June 9, 2016

Dr. Jonathan A. Allan poses with copies of his book, “Reading From Behind: A Cultural Analysis of the Anus” at the prestigious 2016 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, held in Calgary from May 28–June 3, 2016.

Brandon University (BU) English professor Dr. Jonathan A. Allan says it was “a pun-filled event” as he officially launched his new book, “Reading From Behind: A Cultural Analysis of the Anus” at the prestigious 2016 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Regina late last month. But he also took time to point out how important it is to take butt stuff seriously.

Dr. Allan, the Canada Research Chair in Queer Theory as well as a professor in Gender and Women’s Studies and in English and Creative Writing at BU, gave a short talk at the event. Excerpts and a photo gallery from the event are below.

“Reading from Behind” was published earlier this year by the University of Regina Press as the debut volume in their “Exquisite Corpse” series, edited by Dr. Allan. Each volume in the series focuses on what is left unsaid about the body. Two future volumes from Dr. Allan include “Virgin Envy,” about the hymen, and “Uncut: The Foreskin Archive.”

Dr. Jonathan A. Allan launches Reading from Behind

Excerpts from Dr. Allan’s talk at Congress:

Reading from Behind is a short book on the role of the anus, the rear, the posterior, the behind, the bottom, the ass in literary theory and cultural criticism. In this book, I had a basic hunch that the ass is more important than we have cared to admit, or than we have admitted, but only in part. In the book, I argued that the rear can help us to understand a wide range of textual expressions and that reading from behind can illuminate literary and cultural texts in new and exciting ways. However, to do this, we must also change our critical postures and anxieties and address what is arguably the most pressing issue: our discomfort with anal things, with other people’s asses, and with the fact that perhaps the ass is filled with meaning that we have not yet attended to for any number of reasons. It’s tricky, for despite the apparent discomfort with, and avoidance of, the anus, it fascinates us. In fact, Christina Garibaldi boldly writes for MTV News, ‘It’s pretty safe to say that 2014 will be remembered as the year of the booty.’

When promoting the book, when the book was reviewed, I was struck by how often discussions focused on titillation, the juvenile, and laughter. A local radio-station tweeted: “Professor writes a book about ‘the cultural history of the anus.’ let the jokes fly…..go…..” The book was even nominated for the Diagram Prize, which awards the book with the “oddest title” the prize. Of course, I knew there would be some reaction (I didn’t imagine it would be so widespread), but there are, I contend, serious consequences to not taking the butt seriously. I admit wholeheartedly that the butt is laughable, even embarrassing. But what are the implications of this shamefulness on our engagement with, say, medical care?

Consider one example: Prostate Cancer Screening. While it may likely come as no surprise, especially given the number of jokes available in popular culture, it bears repeating: “Digital Rectal Examination is a significant barrier to participation in Prostate Cancer screening” (Naccarato, et al., 68).

In one of the few articles to explore why this might be the case, the “barrier” is situated along the axis of masculinity and sexuality: “major barriers to having DRE among African American men relating to their discomfort, embarrassment, or the belief that the exam is associated with homosexuality” (Winterich 301). While this case study focuses chiefly on straight African American men, we must admit that these reactions are likely not unique to African American men, especially given, as I’ve noted, the numerous jokes about prostate exams in popular culture, that, speak to our deep cultural suspicious around masculinity and the anus. Simply put, the fear of the ass can be detrimental to men’s health.

As much as Reading from Behind was a book devoted to questions of literary and cultural texts and their engagement with questions of masculinity, today, I cannot help but see how this book can participate in growing discussions around men’s sexuality and health care. Simply put, the butt is funny, but it is also deadly serious and we need to recognize these intersections.