Written in 1987 during the peak of the AIDS crisis, Bersani investigates the homicidal threats underlying much of the anti-gay rhetoric in the coverage of HIV and AIDS at the time. Not only does Bersani note how the coverage of HIV, which addresses itself to an audience presumed straight and HIV-free, is much more interested in testing for and containing the disease, rather than caring for those suffering from AIDS and researching cures for it. Identifying “how a public health crisis has been treated like an unprecedented threat” (198), Bersani also quotes several ludicrous accounts from supposed authorities (like doctors) whose portrayal of the “gay lifestyle” which they link to HIV and AIDS is ridiculous—in one of the article’s epigraphs, for example, John Hopkins Medical School Professor Opendra Narayan claims that “these people have sex twenty to thirty times an hour” (197).
However, the turn that Bersani makes in his argument from this is startling. From here, he starts with the premise that the big secret about sex is that “most people don’t like it” (197). Informed by thinkers as diverse as Andrea Dworkin and Michel Foucault, Bersani zeroes in on the fundamental problem associated with the penetrative acts associated with HIV transmission: “to be penetrated is to abdicate power” (212). He ties the stigma of anal penetration to both misogyny as well as more specific stigmas against prostitution in the early twentieth century. First, he comments on the larger discussion of the effect of gay stereotype “styles” on the heterosexual world. Calling into question the very valence of camp, Bersani notes that “if you’re out to make someone you turn off the camp” (208). Disagreeing with those who claim that gay “leather queen” styles cause insecurity in the heterosexual males it is parodying, Bersani instead argues that “nothing forces them to see any relation between the gay-macho style and their image of their own masculinity” (207). Further, he identifies that the hyperfemininity of drag queen performances “is both a way of giving vent to the hostility toward women that probably afflicts every male…and could also paradoxically be thought of as helping to deconstruct the image for women themselves” (208), though he admits that the “mindless, asexual, and hysterically bitchy” character of such performances most likely would provoke “a violently antimimetic reaction in any female spectator” (208).
In his discussion of the connection to prostitution, he notes the similarities between the imagined insatiability of the sexual appetites of gay men and prostitutes. Like the rate of an orgasm every two minutes imagined in the epigraph, they are “reminiscent of male fantasies about women’s multiple orgasms” (211). The promiscuity assumed in both populations is targeted in both populations as “the criminal, fatal, and irresistibly repeated act”; this focus allows those in power to “‘legitimate’ a fantasy of female sexuality as intrinsically diseased; and promiscuity in this fantasy, far from increasing the risk of infection, is the sign of infection” (211).
After considering the work of both anti-sex feminists such as Catherine McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin as well as the investigation of sexuality, especially in the realm of S&M, of Michel Foucault, Bersani comes to an important conclusion:
the self which the sexual shatters provides the basis on which sexuality is associated with power. It is possible to think of the sexual as, precisely, moving between a hyperbolic sense of self and a loss of all consciousness of self. But sex as self-hyperbole is perhaps a repression of sex as self-abolition. It replicates self-shattering as self-swelling, as psychic tumescence. If, as these words suggest, men are especially apt to “choose” this version of sexual pleasure, because their sexual equipment appears to invite by analogy, or at least to facilitate, the phallicizing of the ego, neither sex has exclusive rights to the practice of sex as self-hyperbole. For it is perhaps primarily the degeneration of the sexual into a relationship that condemns sexuality to becoming a struggle for power….It is the self that swells with excitement at the idea of being on top, the self that makes the inevitable play of thrusts and relinquishments in sex an argument for the natural authority of one sex over the other. (218).
Bersani thinks that we should focus on this shattering as a key aspect of sexuality: what if stopped thinking of the so-called “passive” role in sex as demeaning, but rather that “the value of sexuality itself is to demean the seriousness of efforts to redeem it” (222). Ultimately, “if the rectum is a grave in which the masculine ideal…of proud subjectivity is buried, then it should be celebrated for its very potential for death” (222).
Bersani’s identification of misogyny at the heart of the anti-gay hysteria as well as his call to arms to re-think the sex act itself seems to anticipate Sedgwicks’ Epistemology of the Closet and quite a bit of subsequent queer theory. Reimagining and rethinking the meanings of the sites of sexuality is key theme in queer theory, which owes a lot to this essay.