Compatibility, social norms, and butt stuff: an interview with Michael Axelrod

For Decent Company February: BODY, Michael Axelrod will be presenting a very special sex ed lecture. Michael sat down with Decent Company producing director Josh Boerman to talk a bit about the inspiration for this lecture, cultural stereotypes of masculinity and femininity, and the way sexual norms change over time.

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MICHAEL AXELROD: So I was talking to my mom, and she just said, “So, just tell me what it’s about.” And I said, “Okay. So, Mom, I’m an artist. This is what I do. I’m bizarre. You should know that by now.” And she said, “Okay. Got it.”

JOSH BOERMAN: You’re, like, bringing her in slowly. (laughs)

MA: And I said, “Mom, it’s a fictional version of our family, and how the key to my grandfather’s salvation is through his asshole.” (Josh laughs) And she cried out in despair and said, “Michael, what would Grandma think?” And I said, “Grandma would, like, be into it. I dunno.” Like, how do you— and that’s the other thing. You know, anal, butt stuff is such a taboo, even now.

JB: It’s super taboo.

MA: So what I heard from Mom—and sorry, Mom—is, “There’s something wrong with it.” A man shouldn’t desire that when he has a woman. I was talking to [my director] Kathleen about this earlier. As a gay guy, you’re kind of thrust into that, just based on our sexuality. You know, whether we love anal or we don’t do it, we have to deal with it.

And that’s not something we really talk about when we come out. It’s like, sure, we’re gay, but also we have to deal with—

JB: The mechanics of gay sex?

MA: Yes. It’s complicated. And it’s, like, you have to discover it and go through it and see what works for you. Because it took me a year or two to really figure out what I liked and what I liked done to me. And I think as young gay people now are coming out younger and younger, you feel pressure to engage in these very intense sexual experiences. You know, your butt is not made to take a dick naturally. 

JB: Well, and too, that’s a great point, and this is something that applies to all kinds of sex, regardless of what the sexual orientation, the gender, whatever of the people going at it. Simply the idea of safe sex, and pleasurable sex, and knowing what you need to do with and to your body in order to have an experience that isn’t horrible.

MA: Right. Because when I was a young, stupid little gay baby, I had men who would have an idea of what they wanted to do, and they would do it, and I didn’t know enough to say, “I need you to do this to make me feel comfortable.” I didn’t think it was okay for me to say that. I thought, “Well, it’s just natural for me to be in pain for this.”

You know, ’cause I didn’t know any better. Who could tell me this? So it took talking to other gay people and some self-worth, gaining more self-worth and confidence, to be able to say what I needed in sexual experience.

JB: Right. And to the earlier thing that you mentioned as well, it’s not as if anal penetration is an exclusively gay thing. Regardless of your orientation, you can enjoy it. The prostate is, you know, it’s—

MA: Exactly. And I think for whatever reason, because of the homosexual norms of today— and they’ve changed throughout history. You know, this is a brave new world for us homos. (Josh laughs) We are forced to deal with it.

And I know that I’m mostly talking about men, but I could talk about women, trans, genderqueer, all that. You know, I say in the piece, everybody has a butt. Everybody. And everybody could stand to have something up there.

So— but anyway, I just wanted to have that caveat added. I’m talking about men because that’s what I know. I don’t mean to be like, “It’s just for men. No way. No way, Jose.” And… I forget what I was saying. (laughs)

JB: We had been talking about how regardless of what your orientation is, the prostate’s an amazing thing that can be stimulated and blah blah blah.

MA: Yes. So, straight men don’t have to encounter that. They don’t have to think about their butt as a sexual organ, because I think based on the cultural paradigm, it’s just the penis. Always. And it’s all about size, and it’s all about how it looks. And it’s all about the penis. But, you know, there’s so much more.

And even in 2017, I think many people would still think that one is gay if they enjoy anal stimulation. I still think that.

JB: Yeah, I think you’re right. I think that if you’re a “straight” guy, whatever the hell that means these days, who likes to get pegged by your female significant other, that means “you’re gay.”

MA: Yeah. I think it’s gonna be the generation after millennials, whatever they’re called, that’s really gonna start to change that attitude. I don’t think it’s gonna be millennials.

JB: Yeah, things take time.

MA: It takes time.

JB: Norms take time to change.

MA: I mean, we just legalized same-sex marriage. So it’s like, we’ve come a long way, but we still have so much longer to go.

JB: And on the topic of generational norms shifting and so forth, that in this piece is why you are talking to your grandfather specifically, right? Or at least that’s part of it?

MA: Yes. It’s such a difference between when he was growing up and what sex was, and us today for what sex is and what it means. I don’t wanna speak for the ’40s and ’50s, you know, but— it’s a brave new world for sex. And I don’t think back then they could deal with it.

JB: Well, and maybe they could do it in the privacy of their own homes, but they were not given permission to be open about it. And we are very much a society now where being open is something that oftentimes is not just encouraged but expected, I think, when you’re negotiating the terms of a relationship with somebody, for instance.

MA: Right. Yes. But with that transparency comes the backlash, and the cultural norms that are still active today being the go-to. You know, a straight man admits that he likes being anally stimulated and people call him gay. That’s just what’s gonna happen.

And there’s recent examples of it with Kanye West and Amber Rose. She shamed him for that, and to be fair, he was shitty to her. You know, I’m not saying he’s guiltless.

JB: Plenty of blame to go around in this situation. (laughs)

MA: Plenty of blame. But then he vehemently denied it. He was like, “I don’t like that stuff.” But I liked the other example I was thinking of, which was 50 Cent and Vivica A. Fox. She kind of insinuated that he’s gay because he likes certain taboo things. You know, she was very kind of coy about it. And then he was interviewed and was like, “Yeah, I had her lick my ass.”

JB: And he just didn’t care? He just straight-up was like—

MA: He was like, “Yeah, she licked my ass. I’m not gay. You know, she was okay lickin’ my ass; I wanted her to.” And everyone was like, “Sure. Someone licked your ass? Cool. Yeah.” So I liked that response of his. That was very good.

JB: What do you think it’s going to take to move more in that direction? For us as a culture, as a society?

MA: I think it has to start earlier. And this might be slightly controversial, but I think it has to start in sex education. Because I think right now sex education is mostly about being safe and how your reproductive system works, and what to do to prevent pregnancy and disease, which is all very important.

But we have all these different sexualities and all these different— you know, we’re exploring more, earlier and earlier. And I think it’s important that we talk about sex for pleasure as well. You know, I think we still use sex education as kind of the nuts and bolts of how it works. But we don’t talk about how it feels or how to make it feel good. I think that’s a controversial thing to talk about, your butt, and how it’s a sexual organ too.

JB: Yeah, I never learned about the prostate in sex ed. Did you?

MA: I learned about it in terms of how it affects your ejaculation and your sperm production, but not that it was this magical little button that can send you to rainbow unicorn heaven. I never learned that until I was coming out, you know? So I think it has to start early. And there’s the whole thing of seeing receptive men as a feminine role, as the receiver of sex.

JB: The bottom.

MA: The bottom. The bottom, sure. The big ol’ gussy bottom, as the woman. So seeing the man as the giver and the receiver as the woman’s role.

JB: Which is what’s so— again, going back to the earlier example, talking about, say, a man and a woman who enjoy having the woman give and the man receive, then by the norms of society, they’re both gay, right?

MA: Right. You’re defying the norms, the gender norms. And you’re seen as deviant because of that. And this isn’t a new thing. I did some research about the history of anal sex and how even in the Greek and Roman times, you were seen as the man if you were the top, and you were seen as the woman if you were the bottom.

And, you know, young men were the bottoms. If you were two grown men in a relationship having sex, it was seen as aberrant. It was seen as strange. So they had to kind of contain this homosexuality, even though that’s what we call it now, into these roles, into this certain way of doing it.

And I think this modern time is the first time we’re really exploring these different roles and how different people can match up, and how that’s okay. We’re so used to this man/penetrator/giver meets woman/receiver, you know, and that’s how it has to be.

JB: Slash younger, more effeminate guy as the receiver. And that is still a thing that persists to this day. I mean, if you want to talk about the normative world of, say, gay porn and stuff like that, if you are looking for something about twinks, those guys are not going to be giving. They’re going to be bottoming.

MA: Right. And that was something I had to get over as a gay person. Because even in our community, that’s the stereotype, and that’s how it’s seen. You know, when I was younger, even two, three years ago, I thought, “I need a masculine man, because I see myself as more passive and more submissive.”

JB: And these were all things that you explored in the piece that you did for Decent Company back in August.

MA: Yeah. So then when I met a guy who was feminine, and I was super attracted to him, and he was a top and very enthusiastic about that, I had to reorganize my brain around, “You know what? Masculine does not equal top does not equal man.” You know, I had to break all these conceptions that I had.

And what a difference to just see them as a person and as someone compatible. You know, because we still think of feminine men as lesser than.

JB: And ultimately, at the end of the day, that’s so important.

MA: Yes.

JB: In our sexuality, seeing your sexual partner as a person, not just somebody who you do it with, but as somebody who— you’re engaging in a very intimate transaction with them.

MA: Right. I agree. I agree. And it took me a while to change my headspace about that. And I think the more conversations we have about this, the more we embrace everybody for who they are, as cliché as that sounds, the more we’re gonna see people as normal. You know, it’s all just normal. We’re all just people.

To purchase tickets for Decent Company February: BODY, click here.

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