Dispatches

Crack Addiction: The Gentle Art of Mooning

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 DISPATCHES



Crack Addiction: The Gentle Art of Mooning  

by Judith Levine  

  



Several years ago, some seventh-grade boys from a small Vermont town where I live flashed

their bottoms at the boys in the next cabin during a school retreat. It was their last evening

in a program called Nature’s Classroom (could Nabokov have come up with a more

perfect name?) on Cape Cod, everybody was feeling warm and goofy, and the

two twenty-ish male aides in charge allegedly failed to stop them.


    

Upon returning home, the aides

were anonymously reported to the school authorities, who immediately

suspended them. Misconduct hearings were convened. The students staged a

protest, the parents and school board met. The local paper ran front-page

coverage for weeks, including an editorial, tongue in cheek but critical

of the school’s actions. Letters to the editor poured in, almost

unanimously in support of the aides. The one exception was a

several-thousand-word screed from the school superintendent, who

inveighed against the paper’s sensationalism, bias, ignorance, and

mockery-making of democracy, due process, educational standards and just

about everything else fair and decent. The matter was referred to the

state commissioner of something-or-other, who, after a thorough

investigation, discovered no foul play. His conclusion: “It was pretty

much a mooning incident.”


    

Finally, the aides were acquitted, with regrets voiced from most

quarters. “I think it’s unfortunate that the procedure we are forced to

go through, we are forced to go through,” one school board member told the paper. “I think it is unfortunate we had to go through this.

Hopefully, if it happens again, we can go through it in a better way.”


    

Of course, everyone hoped it would not happen again.


    

But what, exactly, was “it”? Once I finished musing on the two-bit

prudery of small-town officials and the heartening sexual tolerance of

small-town people (proven once again by America’s collective yawn at the

President’s consensual extramarital fondlings), I began to gaze at the

moon itself. Why all the fuss about a flash of the buttocks? Is mooning a

harmless juvenile prank? Or is it, as the school administration’s actions

implied, a genre of sexual harassment? Is mooning obscene?


    

In the West, where the buttocks are customarily clothed, dropping trou

has long been a gesture of disrespect and a staple of bawdy humor. The

grotesque figures high on the walls of French medieval churches are busy

wagging their naked bottoms. Boccaccio, Rabelais, and the other

Renaissance conteurs gave us their share of cheek. (My dictionary

traces the etymology of cheeky, by the way, to the face — to

speaking impudently — but I have my own suspicions.) In Chaucer’s

“Miller’s Tale,” the hick Absalon thinks he’s kissing his beloved Alison,

but he’s actually bussing her ass (her “nether eye,” in fact). Later,

Alison’s lover Nicholas sticks his own posterior out the window, to trick

Absalon into rendering him the same honor. But in the dark of the moon,

his own moon gets lit. As Leo Braudy, at the University of Southern

California, eloquently put it, “Absalon shoves a red-hot plowshare where

Nicholas expects a more tender tribute.” And in Shakespeare’s “Midsummer

Night’s Dream,” the jealous Oberon arranges some magic against the fairy

queen Titania, causing her to fall in love with Bottom, whose head has

been transformed into that of an ass — a sort of mooning-by-proxy.


    

“The exhibition of the buttocks was something of a standard trope in

[sixteenth-century] North German Reformation woodcuts,” University of San Diego theology professor

Joseph Colombo emailed me.

“The object of such exhibition, sometimes accompanied by defecation

and/or the passing of gas, was the Bishop of Rome.” In France as well,

when mooning was insufficient insult, farting was added for a measure of

injury. McGill University’s Louis Godbout, a fount of ass-related arcana,

advised, “Check out the frontispiece of the facetious eighteenth-century

book, The Art of Farting. It shows a row of butts lined up on a

crenellated rampart, proudly firing away as so many canons.”


    

When the butt wasn’t being deployed as an instrument of derision, it was

derision’s target. Voltaire’s mock-heroic poem “La Pucelle” tells of Joan

of Arc inscribing three fleurs de lys on a page — that is, on the

exposed ass of an English general’s sleeping page. A contemporaneous

English engraving depicts the poet Alexander Pope, whose literary and

political disputes were legion, standing on a ladder among his enemies.

The caption: “The Higher Up You Go, the More They See Your Ass.”


    

Mooning surely endured through the nineteenth century — there’s a scene

in Moby Dick where the sailors moon Captain Ahab — though it

could be argued the Victorians and their successors found a better use

for the gluteus maximus: spanking. Evidence of the British

national fetish is still ubiquitous, from pornographic etchings to the

Sunday comics.


    

This chain of associations, from farting at the Bishop to the erotic

mortification of the backside, offers a clue: mooning is silly and

insouciant, but at the same time it is slyly sexual. As with

pornography, the meaning of the moon depends on the beholder’s mood. But like all

pornographers, the mooner intends to affect that mood. He deploys his own

immodesty to aggravate the other’s modesty, to humiliate or embarrass.

Of course he can also deny that intention, because he’s only joking. Since a

joke is hard to reprimand without looking like a poor

sport, mooning simultaneously offends and disarms.


    

I say “he” because the quick, and often collective, butt-flash is almost

exclusively a masculine act, and a heterosexual one at that. “The

swelling and coloration of the backside is particularly conspicuous in

those species which have the most aggressive and quarrelsome males,” said

the anthropologist Robert Brain. Diana, goddess of the moon, is a woman,

but women do not moon. When a woman shows her ass — as Monica Lewinsky

did, strapped into thong panties — she does so to entice, to invite.

When a straight man shows his, he means to aggress, to repel, to dare the

observer to look or force her to avert her eyes. That the ass cheeks are

frequently smooshed unattractively against a car or bus window indicates

that mooning’s goal is opposite that of displaying a well-muscled

posterior in, say, coyly lowered Levis, a classic homosexual come-on.

That this form of exhibitionism is commonly performed by pubescent boys

in testosterone-catalyzed clusters (fraternities, sports teams,

seventh-grade cabins) is further proof that mooning is not a seduction of

the other, but a form of male homosocial bonding. “Mooning? That’s

something straight guys do,” sneered Frank Browning, author of several

books on gay male eros. He found the subject utterly uninteresting.

Heterosexual, hypermasculine, infantile: think of those Wall Streeters

indulging in a truly postmodern sexual practice — representing a

moon by sitting bare-assed on the Xerox copier. Tucked into a female

coworker’s mailbox, that image doesn’t say “Fuck me.” It says “Fuck you.”


    

The ass is both erotic and degraded — in short, obscene.

Pornography statutes never fail to include the buttocks in their lists of

offending body parts. Keep that snapshot of Junior’s yummy tush off the

mantelpiece: if a vice cop happens by, you could find yourself in jail

under child pornography laws.


    

The fact is, these cute, plump pillows are but one fleshfold from the

most abject, despised, and thus most sexually transgressive orifice: the

anus, orifice of shit, of sodomy, and now, of sexually transmitted death.

To show the butt is to suggest anal intercourse. And to bugger is as low

as you can go, according to conventional morality; it is to debase both

yourself and the other. Cultural theorist Kaja Silverman pointed out that

anal intercourse is so outré it exists beyond

gender: it is described as both “using a man as a woman” and “using a

woman as a man.”


    

If not filthy, the ass, and its hole, are trivial. In French, which has

an extensive argot based on the word cul, or ass, a

cul-de-plomb is a pencil-pushing petty bureaucrat (and everyone

knows there is no petty bureaucrat pettier than a French bureaucrat). To

pick nits or split hairs is enculer les mouches — literally, to

bugger flies.


    

So did those Vermont school authorities overreact? To the immediate

situation, of course. But given the heft of history, who could blame

them? They were onto something they could not, and surely would not if

they could, articulate — something, uh, deeper about the meaning of the

exposed buttocks of seventh-grade boys. Out there in Nature’s Classroom,

unintended lessons were obviously being learned.


    

I leave you to ponder another sweet and “meaningless” schoolchildren’s

activity, the singing, the world over, of “Au Claire de la Lune.”

According to some scholars, the ditty, written by a well-known

seventeenth-century sodomite named Jean-Baptiste Lully, describes the

attempted anal intercourse of two familiar, farcical

characters. Lend me your pen, the ever-horny Arquelin implores the

ever-impotent Pierrot. My candle has lost its fire. Open your door to me,

my friend. Pierrot, in bed, sends his importuner to the neighbor woman’s

door. Pens, candles, fire, beds, doors that open and shut — my god, what

are these children singing about?


    

The light of (yes) the moon.

For more Judith Levine, read:
Kitty Porn
Crack Addiction
Randy Rubes and Lusty Lawyers







©1999

Judith Levine and Nerve.com