Why do some gay men refer to themselves as Pigs?
Do you consider yourself a sexual pig? Ever wondered why some gay men describe themselves as pigs and what that might involve?
We’ve now got some solid academic research to help make sense of it all.
Dr João Florêncio is a senior lecturer in the History of Modern and Contemporary Art and Visual Culture at the University of Exeter.
His latest publication is Bareback Porn, Porous Masculinities, Queer Futures. It’s all about the ethics of becoming ‘Pig’ – in the context of the sexual identity of gay men.
I caught up with João to go deep on the research.
What led you to wanting to research and write about Pig identity and sexual behaviour?
It was a realisation that, over the last decade or so, I saw an increasing number of men identifying as pigs both on hook-up apps, my own hook-ups, and in porn – whether amateur or studio porn.
I had a feeling that such form of self-identification in sexual contexts had to do, on the one hand, with the development of antiretrovirals for the successful treatment and prophylaxis of HIV and, on the other hand, with the increasing availability of free pornography online. Porn has historically played a very important role in modulating the sexual imaginary of queer folk, not just by showing us the sex that we have but also by almost speculating on the sex and pleasures that we could be having.
The sex that I was seeing being associated with pig self-identification amongst gay men tended to be sex that appeared centred on a transgression of bodily boundaries – both through relentless penetrations and exchanges of all kinds of bodily fluids.
I started this project to try to triangulate the ways in which these new forms of 21st-century gay male self-identification emerged in a highly-mediated context, where both prescription and recreational drugs and online pornography have helped us shape the sense of the sexually-possible and – through that – the ways in which we understand intimacy, communion, and our own masculinity.
What was the research process that you followed for this work – did it involve watching a lot of porn and going to sex parties?
The project involved a lot of archival research to try to understand the history of the use of the term ‘pig’ among gay men.
Of course, that involved looking at a lot of pornography – produced mostly since the 1970s – as both printed matter and moving-image.
To complement that, I also interviewed gay men in London, Berlin, Los Angeles, and San Francisco – some of whom were also porn models – as well as some porn producers and artists working on the edges of art and porn.
I also went to clubs and parties where sex took place, and I became more self-reflexive about my own sexual encounters. A substantial part of the book starts from or builds on my own experiences, almost like a sexual auto-ethnography. Rather than being self-indulgent, I think that aspect of the work is really important, as – I hope – it will give readers a clearer sense of where my questions and thoughts come from, while trying to avoid one of the pitfalls of a lot of recent scholarship on sex which can tend to purely exist in the realm of the abstract or the theoretical.
My approach was to build on experience, build on the concrete, on anecdotes, episodes or encounters I share with readers in order to then reflect on them and, only then, move towards the theoretical and the abstract. After all, writing about sex matters because sex is such a material and complex aspect of everybody’s existence and sense of self, regardless of whether one has a lot, little, or none of it.
Have you been able to pinpoint the origin of Pig as a sexual identity for gay men?
When looking at gay magazines from the UK, USA, Germany, and France while doing archival research, I was able to identify men describing themselves as pigs as early as the late 1960s. Those references were quite periodical and used to appear both in the personal ads section of the magazines as well as in erotic stories and other editorial pieces.
Already, pig appeared associated with a lack of sexual limits or a curiosity to test and push boundaries, as well as being clearly associated in some cases with eroticised exchanges of bodily fluids – this was something that I found really very much present in more ‘hardcore’ German fetish magazines like Kumpel, which ran from the late 1960s until the 1980s.
With the public advent of the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s, those references seemed to become rarer, and references to safer sex eventually started appearing in both editorials, erotic fiction, and personal ads. Importantly, though, while they became rarer, they did not disappear completely.
Something that I found really interesting was that it did away with the idea that condoms had been universally adopted by gay men as a result of the AIDS crisis. That was clearly not the case. But even then, I couldn’t identify ‘pigness’ being associated with a desire to become HIV-positive or an eroticisation of the virus itself. What ‘pig’ appeared to mean, then just like before, seemed to have more to do with a more general eroticisation of practices and substances deemed ‘abject’ in dominant culture.
So, obviously in the context of the then emerging bug-chasing culture, in which gay men eroticise HIV and seek to become infected, one can understand how the term ‘pig’ also fits that sexual subculture and how it was also adopted by it. Yet, it is important that we note that pig had originally nothing to do with either barebacking – understood as transgressive condomless sex taking place in the context of the AIDS crisis – or bug-chasing.
That’s also one of the reasons why the vast majority of people who identify as ‘pigs’ are also either HIV-undetectable or HIV-negative on PrEP and – I’d argue – with no investment in fantasies of HIV transmission.
While the term ‘pig’ fits many different practices, its common framings around HIV are extremely reductive of what are much more complex situations, desires, sexual practices, and pleasures.
Can we self-identify as a Pig?
Pig, to me, is a form of self-identification of gay men, one that is based on how they frame the kinds of sex that they’re into. Pig is not about the body or looks – as in otter or a bear. It’s not about what people are physically but about what people do.
What pigs do can vary significantly. But, one of the things that defines ‘pig’ subjectivities is, to me, an investment in excess and in transgressing the boundaries of the body. That excess and transgression can be through being gang-banged by several men, or being fist-fucked, or exchanging all kinds of bodily matter such as piss, spit, cum, or shit.
That’s one of the reasons why I think ‘pigs’ are becoming more visible and rather mainstream in the age of antiretrovirals. It’s not because pigs necessarily eroticise HIV or even like the fantasy of HIV infection while being protected by antiretrovirals. Of course, some of them do, but to me, in those situations, what HIV is doing is merely being another instance of a foreign body entering one’s own – it’s an example of our bodily boundaries being transgressed, or crossed into.
From all I’ve seen and all the conversations I’ve had, I think that is what brings all pigs together – the pleasure they feel when something that should be outside their bodies is felt entering them. Antiretrovirals therefore allow for those sexual experiences to take place and for those pleasures to be explored without being life-threatening.
What does Porous Masculinity mean in this context?
My term ‘porous masculinities’ is an attempt to describe the kinds of experiences of masculinity that are emerging in the context of the sexual practices I’ve been describing.
They aren’t necessarily ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – those are judgements of value I don’t want to make. What they are, in my view, is deeply interesting developments in masculinity – more concretely in the experiences of masculinity of cis gay men – that raise very interesting questions about what we consider a man to be and about the history of western masculinity itself.
One of the things that has historically defined the male body was its supposed self-enclosure – its autonomy, impermeability, and impenetrability. As opposed to female bodies who were historically seen as leaky, permeable, penetrable, and thus lacking autonomy. These kinds of porous masculinity we see in gay ‘pigs’ – which so many times are performed in quite hyper-masculine and ‘heroic’ ways – seem to ground masculinity no longer on one’s penis and one’s ability to penetrate someone else but, instead, on one’s holes and one’s ability to be penetrated relentlessly and to be porous to all kinds of ‘foreign’ matter and bodies.
This is an important and radical inversion of an ideal of the male body that has dominated Western thought for much of modernity. Further, I think these emerging forms of cis masculinity are also one of the reasons why, over the last few years, we have been seeing a lot more trans men performing in gay porn without any fanfare or being objectified as ‘exotic’ – masculinities are living ideas and embodied experiences of gender and as such they are plastic and change. Beyond the experiences, incredible political activism and much-needed increased visibility of transmasculine folk, we see masculinities changing too amongst cis men – like gay pigs.
Of course. ‘pig’ masculinities can also come with issues, with less than ideal sexual ethics, with a narcissistic cult of heroism, athleticism, violence, endurance, emotional unavailability, and extreme risk-taking – all attributes that have also defined hegemonic western masculinity for a very long time.
The task is how to learn from the ways in which the porosity of gay ‘pigs’ can contribute to more capacious understandings of what being a man is about while still insisting on the importance of ethics of care in experiences of communion, intimacy, and how we generally live and love and have sex with others.
Who’s your target audience for this book? Is it a how-to guide on becoming a pig?
The book is an academic book and it’s mainly aimed at researchers or people who, not necessarily being ‘professional’ researchers may have an interest in the topic. What I hope the book will do is to help show how masculinity is not an ossified and unchanging thing but, instead, how it is plastic.
I also hope to show how bodies are incredible sources of pleasures known and yet-unknown, that people should be able to explore consensually while caring for and looking after one another. Our bodies are the factories of ourselves and sex plays a very important role in how we, modern subjects that we are, have come to know ourselves, our bodies, and those of others.
The book isn’t a call for everybody to become a ‘pig’ and it’s not a how-to guide. It is an academic study, certainly quite personal at times, but it is a study – a case study of a contemporary form of masculinity.