Back Door Sex: Renaissance Gynosodomy, Aretino, and the Exotic
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ELH 69.2 (2002) 303-334



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Back door Sex:
Renaissance Gynosodomy, Aretino, and the Exotic

Celia R. Daileader


I am a back door man.
The men don't know,
But the little girls understand.

Few fans of the defunct rock group The Doors are liable to link the song "Back Door Man" with an early modern euphemism for anal sex. Yet the modern rock song—its subject illicit, non-monogamous, "straight" sex—occupies a continuum traceable to seventeenth-century England, when shifting ideologies gave rise to a secular and therefore increasingly sexual form of popular entertainment in the commercial theaters. 1 That the back door idiom—though still connotive of transgression—has lost its original anatomical referent should not surprise us, given the rampant homophobia of postwar America and its habit of associating anal eroticism with gay sex. Recent scholarship, however, has questioned the utility of the hetero/homo classification system in comprehending the more fluid erotic economies of early modern English culture, particularly as manifested by the transvestite stage, that matrix of sexual indeterminacy. 2 Moreover, the back door idiom in Renaissance drama does not inevitably invoke male-male sex; very frequently, in fact, it refers to male-female sex. And while Queer theory has shed much light on the various eroticisms of the stage, these gynosodomitical moments remain as yet undertheorized—a footnote in the history of male homoerotic and homosocial relations. 3

Before we take up these theoretical questions, though, one additional gap must be filled in the above-mentioned historical continuum. Another story lurks behind Jim Morrison's indecipherable lyrics: in fact, he owed the song to an earlier American musician, the black blues singer Howlin' Wolf. That a white rock star cannibalized and profited from the work of a black songwriter, crafting an eroticized persona from black materials, is no surprise, [End Page 303] considering the history of American popular music from Elvis onward. But the "black" substratum of the song's history, along with the early artist's self-caricature as a howling wolf, rings true to the genealogy of the back door as well; this slice of American pop culture curiously replicates the link between bestiality, promiscuity, backwardness, and blackness evident in Renaissance erotic discourses.

In fact, it is arguable that the form of difference English Renaissance culture most frequently associated with back door sex was not gender (women, after all, have anuses too) but ethnicity. This is due to the notoriety of Pietro Aretino's Sonnetti Lussuriosi(1525), inspired by and printed with a set of obscene engravings, and flagrantly pro anal sex. Despite suppression by the Pope,"Aretine's pictures"—as they were called—very quickly reached England—either in rumor or in fact—and the name "Aretine" entered the English imagination as a synonym for sexual license of the Italian variety. 4 Thus, to dramatists like Thomas Middleton, whose fascination with "sexual vagaries" stands out even amidst this notoriously bawdy body of plays, sex "after the Italian fashion" was indisputably, anatomically "backward," although references to the practice seldom have much to do with Italy. 5 Interestingly, none of the sixteen sonnets—even the ten which celebrate anal sex—involve homoeroticism. Rather, anal sex is justified for reasons of birth control, pleasure, and fashion, and in only two cases does the female speaker of the pornographic dialogue refuse to engage in the "bestial" act—more frequently, she initiates or encourages it. 6 The Aretinian legacy, needless to say, did little to diminish already flourishing stereotypes of the non-Anglo Other as licentious and sexually depraved, which English authors were quick to anticipate in—if not inevitably to endorse for—their audiences. 7

Kim Hall views representations of race in early modern England as demonstrating "the anxieties of an evolving nation-state" which made women and their bodies "the repository of the symbolic boundaries of the nation"; these imperialist anxieties gave rise to increasing "concern over the whiteness of Englishwomen and the blackness of African men (and the mixture of both)." 8 I wish to adapt Hall's paradigm and posit a continuum...