Applied Linguistics in Unexpected Places: Queer Theory, Consumer Masculinities and Capital Enjoyments

On 28 September 2021, 3-4:30PM, we hosted Professor Tommaso Milani from the University of Gothenburg to give a talk. You can watch Professor Milani’s lecture below (link here as well).

The following blog post written by Neha Saini is an account of Professor Milani’s talk.

In the 1980s, Professor Leo Bersani asked – “is the rectum a grave?” upon observing homophobic discourse which condemned the gay community for the AIDS epidemic (197). Reflecting on this question, Professor Milani revisits the site formerly associated with disease and depravity to see if the connotations associated with the male rectum have shifted over the past 30 years. Positing that the male rectum serves as an entry point for a linguistic understanding of real-world problems, Professor Milani details the ways in which the male rectum has now become a site of capitalist exploitation.  

             Professor Milani first dives into queer theory to contextualise his talk and provide us with a history of the role linguistics plays in the representation of queer identities. Recalling Judith Butler’s assertion that “identity categories tend to be instruments of regulatory regimes”, Professor Milani urges us to be sceptical of capitalist ventures that claim to cater to queer communities (Butler 307). In reminding us that the essence of queerness is in its defiance of normativity, he makes clear the problematics of the institutional force of capitalism contorting the queer site of the anus into normative consumerist culture through the sale of male sex toys. 

Taking issue with queer visibility being afforded through capitalist ventures, Professor Milani posits that overcoming the struggle of queer visibility in this manner simply makes the queer community complicit in turning the wheels of capitalism. He recommends that instead of fretting over a socio-economic system that will not be eradicated anytime soon, we should focus our energy into undoing identity markers assigned to queer communities that serve the capitalist function of including queer communities into distinct sections of the normative consumerist market. 

Then, Professor Milani narrows in on the adult retail website to conduct a linguistic analysis of the way male sex toys are marketed, specifically to the heterosexual male audience. The prostate massager, Bob, is used as a case study to inspect the ways in which a mere object becomes gendered and personified through the processes of naming and describing which allows for a detailed linguistic analysis of what the toy connotes. 

Bob by Lelo (no longer available on the official website)

Professor Milani brings us through a step-by-step assessment of the linguistic choices made in the marketing of Bob. From the selection of the intimate nickname “Bob” to the usage of the term “the gentleman’s companion”, the site manages to frame the product in an aura of positivity. By using the label “gentleman”, the site brings a sense of respectability to the act of anal play which was formerly denigrated by homophobic discourse.

The type of language used to advertise male sex toys entails a certain dignity and masculinity in the usage of the products, so that the heterosexual man’s conception of their own sexual identity is not threatened. While men deriving erotic pleasure from anal play was formerly shunned, due to its association with gay men, it is now accepted owing to the capitalist gains that come from the encouragement of such pleasure-seeking.

Through the analysis of a variety of discursive materials, both academic and media texts, that promote the usage of anal sex toys, Professor Milani sees the coming together “of what Michel Foucault would call a new incitement to discourse about sexuality”. The market of male sex toys is encouraging heterosexual men to explore different ways of having a more fulfilling sexual life. Specifically, by briefly renouncing control to his female companion who uses the sex toy to stimulate his prostate and give him a greater erotic experience which then restores his sexual power. While the market of male sex toys liberates heterosexual men to fully exploit their bodies to gain greater sexual pleasure, it commodifies the sexuality of gay men to form products for capitalist ventures that use linguistic techniques to capture the heterosexual male consumers. 

Through his talk, Professor Milani makes a strong case for the value of the male anus in furthering linguistic studies in interpreting the structures and functions of capitalism. Professor Milani’s talk also makes one wonder whether homosexuality would be recognised and accepted to the same extent if it did not have the capitalist potential it has shown to have.  

You can read Professor Milani’s chapter, “Is the Rectum a Gold Mine? Queer Theory, Consumer Masculinities, and Capital Pleasures,” from Queering Masculinities in Language and Culture (2018).

Front cover of Queering Masculinities in Language and Culture
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