In Praise of Soft Cock

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Paris 0:59: Theo and Hugo

Image credit: Peccadillo Pictures

It was never the crude pestle, the blind
ramrod we were after:

merely a fellow-creature
with natural resources equal to our own.

— Adrienne Rich, “Natural Resources,” The Dream of a Common Language.

*

As trans and anti-racist critiques of the now-iconic knitted pink “pussy hats” (worn at Women’s Marches around the world on Jan. 21, 2017) have rightly shown, we need to rethink how we might dream of a common (feminist) language. In place of essentializing ovarian/uterine/vaginal imagery that is all too easily assimilated into the “pink for girls” mainstream, I want to posit a feminist penis: the soft, slow, vulnerable, transferable and mobile opposite to the phallus, that blunt instrument of power which Adrienne Rich called “the crude pestle, the blind / ramrod.” Rather than recapitulating the patriarchal fantasy of the castrating feminist, intent on severing the phallus—or indeed, recapitulating the fantasy of the all-powerful phallus itself—I want to celebrate soft cocks and the films that bring them to our attention.

At first glance, Shortbus (John Cameron Mitchell, 2006) appears to be a hymn to hard cock, intercutting its animated opening sequence with an introduction to James, who is using his yoga skills in an attempt, which he records, to perform oral sex on himself. His erect penis, whose significant length is clearly both inciting and potentially enabling him to reach his auto-fellative goal, is an unavoidable visual focus of the sequence, as it is of James’ attention: not only is it echoed by the striations of his muscles, and the precision of his posed limbs, but it in turn echoes a key image from the animation. Shortbus is set in New York, and is concerned with sexual liberation: Lady Liberty’s erect torch-bearing arm and James’ cock rhyme with each other as strong protest gestures and as beacons of freedom; James is HIV-positive and the film salutes his insistence on an active, adventurous sexuality.

I want to celebrate soft cocks and the films that bring them to our attention.

Writing in February 2017, it’s hard not to think about this sequence with the cover image of Der Spiegel’s Feb. 3, 2017 issue.[i] Drawn by Cuban-American artist Edel Rodriguez, it shows a stylised cartoon version of Donald Trump brandishing a bloody knife in his left hand, and the decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty in the other. Despite the growth in masculinity studies and critical thinking about the “re-masculization” of US culture post-WWII, little attention has been given to the possibility of an alternative to the hard/soft binary. But Shortbus offers valuable insight through its movements from hardcore to softness, from James’ solitary-yet-mediatized self-satisfaction (or lack of) to a collective flow of sex acts at the inclusive sex club of the title, where the focus is, in the final sequence, on the main character’s polymorphous search for release in orgasm outside heteronormative monogamy.

Paris 05:59: Théo and Hugo (Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau, 2016), which starts in a Paris sex club and ends in an apartment, takes the opposite geographical trajectory. But it also traces a shift from an anonymous exchange of hard cock that fits seamlessly into capitalist consumption and disposable labour to a resistant formation of softness, in which the couple is reframed as precarious, provisional, interdependent and marginal. Théo, who is more reckless but uptight, has already softened toward the more mellow (yet guarded) Hugo, reconnecting with him twice in one night after bitter arguments—first about Hugo revealing his HIV-positive status after they’ve had unprotected sex (without Hugo’s realisation), and later, after Théo has received his first preventative treatment. After making up, they travel on the first métro of the morning to Théo’s small apartment, presumably for sex.

But when he strips Théo, Hugo slowly kneels, until he and the camera are at cock-height, where he uses his mouth to speak, not suck.

HUGO: I like your dick. It’s really beautiful. I don’t know how to describe it, but I like it. I like looking at it. I like taking it in my hand. I like kissing it. Your balls are beautiful, too. Here, in my hand, they’re delicate. Yet they have weight. I kiss them. They’re soft. So soft.

While early reviews drew attention to the unprecedented sex acts of the opening minutes, it is in the closing minutes that the film enters truly new territory, of a tenderness that is also explicitly erotic and embodied, rooted in Théo and Hugo’s discovery of each other as “fellow-creatures” who have complex bodily histories. That HIV status disclosure and emergency preventative treatment act as the pivot of this fellowship is significant: not because it is a “queer” issue, but because Ducastel and Martineau, as queer filmmakers, have foregrounded HIV-led storylines since their early films as a way of doing public health work while exploring human intervulnerability.

Infectiousness is the risk carried by being vulnerable and open. When Hugo describes Théo’s balls as beautiful, delicate and soft, he is arguing for an interconnection in which it is not the penetrative power of Théo’s cock (nor even the penetrability of his mouth or asshole) that turns him on or connects them, but the shared and tendered vulnerability of flesh as flesh. “Behind your ear, it’s soft,” Hugo says as he kisses his way down Théo’s body: the carotid artery and the testicles are both points where the body’s tender insides meet the skin and its risks.

Lucia Puenzo’s XXY (2007) figures this through Alex, an intersex teen raised as female and facing decisions about both the surgical and psychic assignment of their identity. When Alex’s parents’ friend Ramiro, a surgeon, comes to stay with his teenage son Alvaro, both Alex’s gender identity and their sexual desire are brought into focus: their images of mermaid bodies with cigarette stub cocks, pasted in their diary, anticipate the scene in which they surprise (and satisfy) Alvaro by briefly penetrating him. Alex’s non-binary modulation shifts the terms of the erotic and of the cinematic, defying the gendered (and gendering) gaze, and altering the terms of penetrability and permeability, as Alvaro falls passionately for Alex as they are.

XXY

Image credit: Film Movement

Corinn Columpar describes this condition, in relation to Shortbus, as “permeability.” She takes up the word used by a former New York City mayor who visits the club in the film and confesses that he was too scared to stand up and support HIV/AIDS patients in the 1980s. He contrasts this with what he calls New Yorkers’ permeability: “their openness to new ideas, new people, and new connections,” as Columpar writes.[ii] Columpar argues further that this permeability, an openness to possibility, was also a condition of Shortbus’s production, as a full devising collaboration between its performers (mainly non-professionals) and director John Cameron Mitchell—but I want to extend that collaborative permeability to reception.

What if film criticism—like Hugo—was receptive to, and celebratory of, the beautiful, delicate and soft as non-gendered qualities, both in films and in the way in which they are addressed? As Kiva Reardon has written, film criticism continues to operate an unconscious bias that excludes non-cismale non-white critical voices, creating a feedback system in which only certain kinds of films (and writing about film) are valued.[iii] Attention is given to films such as Whiplash (2014), literally a film about men hitting things, and each other, hard with sticks; this is indeed unconscious bias, a refusal to see the way in which critical values are not objective and transparent, but subjectively shaped by heteropatriarchy’s dominance (and love of dominance).

The softness of the soft cock detaches it from binary conceptions of masculinity, making it mobile and gender-fluid, just as the concept of intervulnerability and infectiousness renders it a permeable surface rather than a penetrative object.

Barry Jenkins’ second film Moonlight (2016) demonstrates that hard cock is a racist as well as sexist trope: the film’s protagonist Chiron finds tenderness among men, first as a young boy mentored by Juan, a neighbourhood drug dealer who defies stereotypes of homophobic violence, and later through reciprocal, consensual sexual contact with his school friend Kevin. Presenting exquisite images of Black and Latino masculinity as gentle and vulnerable, the film de-objectifies its characters without desexualising them, running counter to the white racist fetishisation of Black male hardness described in Kobena Mercer’s classic essay on Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs, “Skin Head Sex Thing.”[iv] British trans lesbian filmmaker Campbell X’s short-in-progress “Des!re” takes a similar approach to transmen and masculine-of-centre people, staging images that do not re-inscribe masculinity as solely constituted by hardness or aggression.

This is particularly significant for the non-essentializing concept of the feminist penis (skin or silicone): transmen and masculine-of-centre people appear in X’s film as vulnerable, soft, open, and playful without contradiction to their masculine embodiment (as the women in their earlier film “Fem” appeared bold, strong, powerful, muscular, demanding and large without contradiction to their feminine embodiment). The softness of the soft cock detaches it from binary conceptions of masculinity, making it mobile and gender-fluid, just as the concept of intervulnerability and infectiousness renders it a permeable surface rather than a penetrative object.

The opening sequence of Sébastien Lifshitz’ Wild Side (2004) hymns the soft cock as part of the stunning female body belonging to protagonist Stéphanie, seen in a blazon of close-ups as Anohni sings “Fell in Love With a Dead Boy.” Body parts associated with the phallic woman of film noir—long fingers tipped by red nails; slender calves—precede the shot of Stéphanie’s cock nestling between her thighs as she reclines on red sheets, followed by shots of the deep hollow of her navel and the proud erection of her nipples, before the film cuts to Anohni singing at a salon for transwomen, while a fully-dressed Stéphanie watches on. As in Shortbus and Théo and Hugo, the soft cock is also a bond or hinge between the private space to which Euro-Western culture consigns sexuality and embodiment, and the queer, semi-public spaces in which collectivity and permeability defiantly take place: soft spaces, we could call them, rather than safe spaces, LGBTQI+ clubs, salons, bars, squats and shelters that prize vulnerability and intimacy outside the heteronormative dyad or nuclear family.

What’s curious about these soft spaces is that they also spread or diffuse, permeating the more exclusionary spaces around them: Stéphanie has to travel to the countryside to take care of her mother, bringing her new Parisian life with her. In Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behavior (2014), Shirin has to find a way to reconcile her sexual life, which had taken place in her girlfriend Maxine’s apartment and in queer bars, with her life as a second-generation Iranian-American, and as a filmmaker. As much as the film follows Shirin’s journey, it also follows that of the dildo and harness gifted to her by Maxine, which she takes with her when she leaves her girlfriend, then dumps on the street, then retrieves. Walking through Brooklyn with a harness in hand Shirin begins her permeable life, leading up to the (anti-)climactic announcement to her mother (while her mother treats burns she’s sustained at the family Nowruz party) that she is bisexual.

Appropriate Behavior

Image credit: Gravitas Ventures

Vulnerable skin, public sexuality, and the mobile feminist penis coincide—so it can be no co-incidence (although Akhavan said that it was during a Q&A at the London Film Festival in 2015) that both of the men with whom Shirin has sex during the course of the film lose their erections: her OKCupid date is too drunk to bone, and the male partner in the wealthy hipster couple who pick her up in a bar detumesces during their threesome on observing that Shirin and his girlfriend are far more into each other than they are into him. So not all soft cocks are positive, but producing them is always a sign pointing toward the possibility of difference, of putting tender in the place of gender when searching for a cinema of “fellow-creatures.”

Sophie Mayer is a full-time feminist film activist, working with queer feminist curators Club des Femmes and industry campaigners Raising Films.

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FOOTNOTES

[i] Callum Borchers, “This Der Spiegel Trump cover is stunning”, in The Washington Post (Feb. 3, 2017). https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/02/03/trump-beheads-the-statue-of-liberty-in-striking-magazine-cover-illustration/
[ii] Corinn Columpar, “A Permeable Practice: Shortbus and the Politics of Cinematic Collaboration,” Camera Obscura 31.1 (2016), p. 5.
[iii] Kiva Reardon, “2016's Need for Female Film Critics”. http://www.tiff.net/the-review/2016-in-female-film-critics/
[iv] Mercer’s essay has been published in multiple, amended versions, as chronicled here: https://sites.duke.edu/vms590s_01_f2012/2012/10/21/kobena-mercers-skin-head-sex-thing-racial-difference-and-the-homoerotic-imaginary/

Sophie Mayer is a full-time feminist film activist, working with queer feminist curators Club des Femmes and industry campaigners Raising Films.