Gerbilling Reconsidered: Comparing Talk of Foodways and Sexways
The Ohio State University
This paper considers the gerbilling legend of the early 1990s. The author contends that, by re-envisioning gay sex as gerbilling specifically rather than anal sex generally, heterosexual tellers of the legend grant themselves permission to participate in anal sex without participating in gay sex—a necessary function at the beginning of the AIDS pandemic. He also contends that reading it against rumors and legends of ethnic foodways more conclusively reveals that the gerbilling legend primarily stigmatizes the gerbil as a sex partner, not the act of rectal insertion, and that therefore the legend is not necessarily anti-anal sex. Meanwhile, it appears to remain anti-homosexual because of how tellers separate themselves from same-sex desire even while embracing traditional homosexual sexways. The paper concludes with a queer approach to the story that reconsiders gerbilling as an acceptable sexual act.
According to the legend, gay men do it for pleasure. Gerbilling. I first heard about it as a child in the 1990s. I remember it well because the gerbilling legend is one of the first stories I heard about a gay person; it struck me as valuable information. Here’s how it went: The straight friend of a friend of a female teenaged relative worked as a nurse in the emergency room of a Cleveland hospital. According to her, one night a gay man came to the hospital with an embarrassing, horrific problem: the gerbil he inserted up his rectum by way of a toilet paper-roll would not come out. Initially, the man inserted the gerbil for pleasure; now, he was worried and in great pain. The story ended there, leaving me wondering if doctors ever actually removed the gerbil. But the point of the tale wasn’t how the gerbil was removed; it was how and why the little animal was ever introduced to this man’s rectum in the first place. This man, with his odd, disgusting, unnatural sexual preferences, was doomed to live forever, in the minds of myself and the other listeners gathered around the dinner table, with a gerbil up his butt. And if my memory of his “disgusting, unnatural sexual preferences” is any indication, my relative told the legend with the intent of relaying information about a sexual Other and framing him as morally corrupt in the minds of listeners.
In 1994’s The Case of the Missing Gerbil, Norine Dresser recalls a female friend telling her the legend with similar motifs: an emergency room (this time in Los Angeles), a gay man (this time a closeted movie star), and a gerbil (1994: 229). In the variant she hears, though, doctors successfully perform a gerbilectomy (1994: 229). Thank goodness. Dresser contends the legend relays an “obvious anti-homosexual message” (1994: 232). According to the legend, “if you are a homosexual you engage in outrageous libidinal acts and therefore will suffer grave consequences” (1994: 235). Dresser’s interpretation of the legend echoes the sense I had of the legend when I first heard it.
However, Dresser’s reading places too much emphasis on the act of rectal insertion—an act that has become metonymic of gay culture and behavior—as the stigmatized motif of the story. Her analysis reads as follows:
Psychiatrist Richard Gottlieb has suggested that “straight” males benefit from this legend. Jerry [Dresser’s euphemism for the movie star associated with the story] and the Gerbil permits men to discredit Jerry as a way to disown their own homosexual stirrings. It is possible that male moviegoers as well as females find Jerry sexually attractive, yet this is an emotion that most men would deny… A male folklore student collector of this legend makes [this] judgment: “Everybody has some latent homosexuality within them which most hate and are scared of because it represents a threat to their perceived sexuality” (UC Berkeley Archives). In other words, Jerry and the Gerbil permits men to express covert homosexual yearnings in a safe way. (1994: 237-238)
It is unclear how a gerbil in Jerry’s rectum would allow men to “disown their homosexual stirrings” toward him. I’d like to fill in that blank. Additionally, I’d like to explain how the legend can allow straight men to simultaneously “disown” and “express” what Dresser characterizes as same-sex desire by arguing that, instead of assuaging same-sex desire, the gerbilling legend (of which “Jerry and the Gerbil” is one variant) chastises inter-species desire. The “covert … yearnings” expressed in the story, then, have less to do with same-sex desire than with a general—pertaining to men and women—interest in anal sex, which Dresser conflates with gay sex. That is, what Dresser calls “homosexual yearnings” are actually desires for anal sex, be it with a member of the same sex or not.
This paper also reframes the gerbilling legend as one told by both men and women. Dresser heard the story from a female friend; I heard it from a female relative. I contend that, by re-envisioning gay sex as gerbilling specifically rather than anal sex generally, heterosexual tellers of the legend—men and women—grant themselves permission to participate in anal sex without participating in gay sex. I also contend that reading it against rumors and legends of ethnic foodways more conclusively reveals that the gerbilling legend primarily stigmatizes the gerbil as a sex partner, not the act of rectal insertion, and that therefore the legend is not necessarily anti-anal sex. Meanwhile, it appears to remain anti-homosexual because of how tellers separate themselves from same-sex desire even while embracing traditional homosexual sexways. My project will consider why such a distinction (between anal sex and gay sex) is necessary to tellers of the legend. It will conclude with a queer approach to the story that reconsiders gerbilling as an acceptable sexual act.
To begin, it is useful to consider a few of the points made by Roger Abrahams in 1984’s “Equal Opportunity Eating: A Structural Excursus on Things of the Mouth.” Abrahams commences his essay by saying,
In principle, we like to keep separate and discrete matters of talking, eating, engaging in sex. It is only human that we regard the major orifices, especially our mouths, as providing an access to our selves that must remain inviolate except in the most privileged of moments, when openness is valued more highly than protection. But to mix up our modes of interaction on such privileged occasions is to invoke the worst kind of uncleanliness. In spite of this, we find ways of talking while we eat, and we even relate the two with sexual pleasures on occasion. (1984: 19)
Abrahams notes that the mouth may fulfill a number of actions: talking, eating, and engaging in sex. All three are matters of expression. When we talk, we obviously express some piece of information about ourselves. Generally, for example, the language we speak signifies the culture in which we participate. Eating, too, is an exercise in group identification, as certain foods pertain to certain groups. And finally, how we use—or do not use—our mouths during sex reveals the kind of sexual culture with which we identify. And yet, according to Abrahams, we usually take care to separate each of these actions despite their shared use of the same orifice. The fact that I first heard the gerbilling legend while at the dinner table further underscores these connections: consumption and talk of food is closely connected to talk of sex. As my relative openly maligned the supposedly gay sex spoken about at that table, she framed the table itself as a heterosexual (and heterosexist) cultural space.
In the United States, the anus carries less fluid significations than the mouth, especially amongst conservative heterosexual groups. Consider this popular expression: “My butt is a one-way street.” It attests to the presence of general uneasiness over letting something—anything—enter the anus. In conservative sexual arenas, the anus is understood to serve exclusively as an exit for, rather than an entrance to, the body. Perhaps knowledge of this uneasiness led Dresser to her conclusion that the gerbilling legend is anti-homosexual because it appears to be anti-anal sex. But we must note that, especially in polite conversation, stigma is also attached to the process of digestion, which ends with matter passing through and exiting out of the anus. To most Americans, it is taboo to talk about the anus in any way, be it as an entrance or an exit to the body, because of the “access” it too, like the mouth, provides to “our selves.” Any rumor or legend focusing on the mouth and/or anus of an ethnic and/or sexual minority likely reveals something heinous about how that person uses her/his orifice and body.
Interestingly, though, tellers of the gerbilling legend challenge the taboo attached to the anus even as they reinforce the taboo of homosexuality. In the legend, the anus fills the same motifemic slot that the mouth does in rumors and legends about the foodways of various ethnic groups. Abrahams notes that in such rumors—rumors of the possum-eating Appalachian, the raccoon-eating African American, “the frog-eating Frenchman and the dog-eating Chinese” (1984: 34, 22)—we may witness “the deep stereotype” (1984: 22). According to Abrahams, the deep stereotype “refers to very general characteristics by which peoples throughout the world talk about strangers and enemies. The deep stereotype calls attention to a lack of civility through abnormal sexual proclivities, expressive disabilities and, of course, strange eating habits” (1984: 22). The function of such a stereotype is group management and definition, which includes rules for “what may be eaten and what may not” that translate into claims of “who may be eaten with and who may not” (1984: 21). Gay men are removed from the culture of the gerbilling legend-teller—the space of the “dinner table,” if you will—for the teller characterizes them as “strangers and enemies,” people with repulsive sexual behaviors.
And yet, as stated, the gerbilling legend does not necessarily foreclose the possibility of anal sex for its tellers and listeners. Stigmatizing weight is placed on the use of a gerbil as a sex partner, not on the act of rectal insertion. After all, in rumors about the foodways of ethnic Others, it is, for example, the specific choice of a dog as a meal that is condemned, not the act of eating in general. And if we understand the gerbilling legend in conjunction with rumors of ethnic foodways—as I am proposing we must—we realize something a bit unexpected: heterosexual tellers of the legend implore their listeners to reconsider rectal insertion as a possible sex act even as they limit what may be inserted into the rectum. A gerbil is certainly off limits; it’s the grotesque sex partner of homosexual men. Other methods of non-gay anal sex remain possible, however, for heterosexual listeners. The legend serves as somewhat subversive sex education for its listeners, as it directs their attention to the anus as a possible source of sexual pleasure.
So why is such a function necessary? General disdain for homosexuality is an obvious answer. But the legend’s popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s provides more specific context for this reading. Susan Kalcik writes, “In times of security, diversity in foodways is accepted and even encouraged [as symbolic of Americanism]. Food seems of little consequence when measured against religious, political, or racial differences. In times of insecurity, of course, the power of this symbol is reflected in our hostile attitude, e.g. towards German and Japanese foods during the Second World War” (1984: 55). Just as World War II created a crisis in American foodways, we may read the AIDS crisis—still ongoing but especially fresh in the late twentieth century—as fostering a sense of “insecurity” over sexways among tellers of the gerbilling legend. The AIDS crisis produced a need for heterosexuals to distance themselves from the sexual practices of homosexuals, the group most associated with the disease in the early 1990s. Because heterosexual interest in and desire for anal sex remained despite the crisis, gerbilling became a handy all-encompassing symbol and metonym for homosexual practices. Tellers were able to separate themselves from gay culture and still participate in anal sex. As Dresser notes, “[S]ince the spread of a century’s old plague was associated with one type of rodent, the rat, perhaps there is an unconscious parallel regarding the relationship of AIDS, the new plague, and a different kind of rodent, the gerbil” (1994: 237).
To clarify, the gerbilling legend serves two functions. The first is to redefine/re-imagine what gay sex is. In redefining gay sex as gerbilling, the legend fulfills its second function: to establish anal sex as an acceptable heterosexual practice. A third function may be revealed by considering Michel Foucault’s theory on the discourse of pleasure: It is often said that we have been incapable of imagining any new pleasures. We have at least invented a different kind of pleasure:
pleasure in the truth of pleasure, the pleasure of knowing the Truth, of discovering and exposing it, the fascination of seeing it and telling it; of confiding it … of luring it out into the open—the specific pleasure of the true discourse on pleasure (1990: 71)
Many listeners of the gerbilling legend laugh and giggle while hearing the story—giddiness perhaps rooted in their sudden ability to know of a marginalized sex practice and relief that they themselves haven’t a desire for gerbils up their butts. Dresser reveals that apparently no one has such a desire, as no medical records exist of gerbilectomies or of any other attempt at a procedure to remove an animal from a human rectum (1994: 235). The gerbilling legend, then, at once “imagines” a new pleasure—gerbilling—and exposes it via storytelling. The storytelling itself becomes sexualized, much as Foucault sees confession as an erotic act (1990: 59-60). The pleasure derived from the teller, and many of the listeners, results from the positioning of homosexuals as the medical subjects of heterosexual doctors, nurses, and researchers in the emergency room where the story is set. In the legend, homosexuals become legible subjects through gerbilling; heterosexuals, presumed to be people without a desire to gerbil, are therefore relieved of the possibility that they themselves, because of an interest in the anus as a source of sexual pleasure, are gay. Thus the story allows heterosexuals dual and simultaneous pleasures: knowledge of homosexuals and security in their own heterosexuality. These pleasures, though, may be bittersweet for homosexual listeners. Gay men in particular are the figures positioned in the legend as the sexual and medical subjects of heterosexuals. Therefore gay listeners may feel confused as to how to react to such a legend: vehemently deny gerbilling as a gay practice, or vehemently defend it as an acceptable (queer) possibility?
After all, the stigma attached to gerbilling is a stigma similar to those attached to various ethnic groups with different relationships to animals than the dominant American culture has. Abrahams identifies five categories of animals prevalent in the dominant culture: 1. livestock (“our common food resources”); 2. pets; 3. scavengers and vermin; 4. wild animals; and 5. game (“capture[d] or gather[ed] for special eating purposes”) (1984: 31-32). Gerbils fall into category two: pets. According to Abrahams, “pets and houseplants are members of the family, thus not to be exploited as resources” (1984: 32). Therefore the hospital patient’s use of a member of the family—the family pet—as a sex partner becomes especially repulsive in the gerbilling legend for its connection to incest. The story frames the man as morally reprehensible because he does not share the dominant culture’s categories of appropriate sex partners, just as the ethnic Others in rumors of foodways are demonized for not sharing the dominant culture’s categories of appropriate food items. But these categories, as Abrahams notes, are culturally relative. In rumors and legends of ethnic foodways and homosexual sexways, meaning is located in an individual’s choice of food and/or sex partner, not in her/his initial choice to eat and/or have anal sex. Therefore the position homosexual listeners take toward the legend is politically important: align with the dominant heterosexual culture by insisting that gerbilling is not an acceptable gay practice or regard it as positively queer?
Dresser contends that all listeners of the legend ought to criticize it. She writes,
Through the acceptance of this legend as truth, the children [who hear it] are internalizing a stigma that will be difficult to destroy. As they grow older and learn more about homosexuality, it will remain linked with lurid bestial behavior. As a result, when these children go through their own sexual awareness and ambivalence, these ideas will remain forever connected, and their own self-images and development may conceivably be damaged. (1994: 241)
Thus, Dresser laments the continued telling of the legend (1994: 241). And again, her prediction certainly resonates with my experience as a child listener. But I wonder if this conclusion is too simple. The weight placed by tellers of the gerbilling legend on the hospital patient’s conflation of a pet and sex partner reveals uneasiness with strict rules of sexual behavior even as it imposes them. Heterosexual tellers seek to expand the repertoire of sexual interactions that are acceptable for them to practice and simultaneously keep homosexual interactions Othered. Homosexuals “will remain linked with lurid bestial behavior,” but straight people will be granted anal sexual freedom.
Abrahams notes a similar phenomenon occurring in contemporary attitudes about ethnic foodways. He writes,
It would be too easy to say that a culturally pluralistic and egalitarian ethic is taking over. To the contrary, eating other people’s foods has been a sign of their having been subjugated. But there is clearly a change in eating practices that is enlarging our range of tastes, one which is affecting our nation on every level of society. Though we have not yet learned to eat dog or monkey, we have developed sufficient flexibility and adventurousness of taste that we can eat the traditional foods of those we have called dogs and monkeys in the past. (1984: 34-35)
Here, “taste” can refer literally to flavors sought out by the tongue or metaphorically to the proclivities one has toward sex. Such interest in the (actual or perceived) customs of cultural Others does not eliminate subjugation, though, and the gerbilling legend attests to this fact. Its teller’s inability to de-stigmatize homosexual people even as s/he celebrates a perceived-as-gay cultural practice (anal sex) speaks to the cultural appropriation that so often accompanies marginalization. Here I do not mean to imply that ethnic, racial, and sexual marginalization always work in parallel ways. However, when comparing talk of foodways and sexways, there are distinct similarities in the ways various minority groups are spoken about.
Kalcik explains this dichotomy of rejecting cultural Others even while adopting their cultural practices. She writes, “Americans must eat the foods of all their ethnic groups, Americanizing them in some ways, because by this act we perform the sense of our national ethnic identity. By ingesting the foods of each new group, we symbolize the acceptance of each group and its culture” (1984: 61). That is, sanctioning the meeting of an anus with another object, so long as it isn’t a gerbil, could be seen as symbolizing “acceptance” of gay people as part of the national fabric, so long as their sexual practices are no queerer than anal sex.
I must note that many straight listeners see through and reject this function. While working on this project, I told the gerbilling legend often to my college-aged friends in order to gauge their reactions. The majority of them were uncomfortable with the notion of gerbilling. Significantly, no one contested the legend’s truth. And even after I revealed that no medical records of gerbilectomies exist, my friends—gay and straight—insisted that it must have happened at some time. Instead of an argument over the legend’s truth, the debate that always emerged was whether gerbilling should be a stigmatized sexual practice or not. During our debate, one straight male friend asked the group in a fit of frustration: “Who cares if someone wants to stick a gerbil up his butt?”
His reaction to the legend was so unlike my childhood reaction to it—a reaction I had continued to have toward the legend for years. My reaction was similar to those which Bill Ellis describes in “‘The Hook’ Reconsidered” as typical of contemporary legends: “Traditional belief legends and most contemporary legends aim to modify the actions of the listener directly: don’t gamble on Sundays; watch your children at malls” (1994: 70). Meanwhile, “[l]egends like ‘The Hook’ seem less committed to altering social contexts than to heightening their expressive qualities. That is, they allow participants to experiment with a social taboo; violating it, respecting it, or compromising with it are all equally valid responses” (1994: 70). Ellis contends that these two reactions create two distinct genres of legend. He does not see “The Hook,” the story of a heterosexual teenaged couple making out on a hillside and the eventual spoiling of the couple’s fun by a deranged man with a hook, as a story that relies on an assumption of truth for its force. Rather, its listeners see the story as a fictional challenge to the respectability and acceptability of teenage sexuality. In this regard it is unlike most contemporary legends and traditional legends. But my experience with the gerbilling story reveals that the same tale can inspire disparate reactions on different occasions and in different contexts, despite the fact that, in my cases, both groups of listeners believed the story to be true. My childhood reaction and Dresser’s reaction to the gerbilling legend resemble those of traditional belief legends and most contemporary legends. The listener is warned against gay sex (conflated with gerbilling). But the reaction of my friends demonstrates willingness to experiment with and challenge social taboos. Therefore categorizing the gerbilling legend generically seems to be a matter of categorizing it on an individual basis according to listeners’ reactions.
Ellis explains that “‘The Hook’ and other narratives in this nomos inspire first fear, then curiosity, and finally a decision to commit the ‘forbidden’ act—or not… [L]egends like ‘The Hook’ … leave the audience free to commit the very actions they nominally describe as taboo: parking and sexual experimentation” (1994: 71). That is, instead of providing a definitive answer as to whether one should park (on a hillside to kiss) or not, a respondent merely asks, “Shall we park?” (1994: 71). This question has a clear connection to my friend’s: “Who cares if someone wants to stick a gerbil up his butt?” Just as the variant I heard as a child leaves the possibility of anal sex open for heterosexual listeners, the variant I recently told to my friends—in a significantly more gay-friendly context—appears to have left the possibility of gerbilling open to heterosexual and homosexual listeners. While the legend I heard as a child served as sex education about the anus, the legend I told as an adult challenged conceptions and regimes of heterosexual and homosexual normativity, including restrictions and expectations on who or what constitutes an acceptable sexual partner.
I hope this paper has positively augmented Dresser’s argument about the gerbilling legend by revealing several of the tale’s possible functions and charting a few possible audience responses. I also intentionally left some questions unanswered, particularly those questions of audience response. How should one react to the gerbilling legend? Deny, defend, or judge the possibility of the practice? Actually perform the practice? While each option carries different political significance, it seems that denying the truth of the legend is rarely effective—even among college-educated people—in eradicating deep stereotypes. So then, defend or lament it? Either choice requires a listener to reconsider any initial disgust at the practice. This openness, this ability to reconsider, further underscores the idea that this legend is about assessing the oeuvre and acceptability of sexways for heterosexuals and homosexuals. The legend struggles with the boundaries of self- and group-definition. Thus it is no surprise that the anus becomes its narrative site because the anus, like Abrahams says of the mouth, “provid[es] an access to our selves that must remain inviolate except in the most privileged of moments” (1984: 19). Any listener, gay or straight, is confronted with a dilemma over what behaviors s/he will accept as part of her/himself.
Abrahams, Roger. 1984. “Equal Opportunity Eating: A Structural Excursus on Things of the Mouth.” In Ethnic and Regional Foodways in the United States: The Performance of Group Identity. Edited by Linda Keller Brown and Kay Mussell. Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press.
Dresser, Norine. 1994. “The Case of the Missing Gerbil.” Western Folklore 53:3, 229-242.
Foucault, Michel. 1990. The History of Sexuality: Volume I, An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books.
Ellis, Bill. 1994. “‘The Hook’ Reconsidered: Problems in Classifying and Interpreting Adolescent Horror Legends.” Folklore 105, 61-75.
Kalcik, Susan. “Ethnic Foodways in America: Symbol and the Performance of Identity.” In Ethnic and Regional Foodways in the United States: The Performance of Group Identity. Edited by Linda Keller Brown and Kay Mussell. Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press.
Christopher S. Lewis is a Ph.D. student at The Ohio State University Department of English. He focuses on African American literature and sexuality studies.