How Many Licks

art by imp kerr

What are we actually getting at when we talk about “sucking dick”?

What is a dick, who has one, and what does its sucking entail? Unpacking such questions is key to understanding the spectacle of the dick and the mouth. It is a sex act with an amended symmetry: two heads that become faceless by the nature of their encounter. They are differently faceless, differently consuming one another—one literally, through the mouth, and the other through the idea of a mouth. The cultural imaginary around dick sucking, almost more than other sex acts, has as much to do with what came before as it does with its physical presentness. It comes to us as stories, as histories, as gay-artist retrospectives, as breakfast. If there is something long, and an opening, look hard enough and eventually there is a dick and it has been sucked.

Sucking dick is imagined and reimagined as a particular set of power relations—something more extended and impactful than asskissing, perhaps. Roman poet Catullus actually used irrumare (to force dick sucking) to describe a boss who treated others very poorly. The overquoted and over-orientalized Kama Sutra, meanwhile, has a chapter on the eight different types of “mouth congress” and then goes into a detailed account of who does and doesn’t approve of or practice the congress and its variations. There is an understanding that it’s not an act for those privileged by caste, class, and other markers of social standing. Dick sucking often gets marked as a submissive act, but a very much not passive one, and always with the impending threat of the bite. Outside of a penetration-centric framework, the mouth can actually be imagined as having a great deal of power, or at least a momentary hegemony through enclosure. The sites of giving and receiving are constantly under question. (Did I give or take head or dick or pleasure? Neither or both or all of the above?) One hears, “I want your dick in my mouth,” and also “I want you to suck me off.” A dirty mouth and a cleaned dick, the switch.

The 1972 American porno Deep Throat plays with precisely that uncertainty of both pleasure site and mouth, as the star Linda Lovelace discovers the clitoris hidden in her throat, with the assistance of a very “hands on” doctor. Her “deep” awakening, from one perspective, is the total realization of patriarchal fantasy—the woman who totally gets off by sucking you off. From another, there’s an exciting imagination to it. Linda is that switch-up of “I want your dick in my mouth” and “I want you to suck me off.” She is that undone zipper between opening and asking.

Fundamentalist religious institutions, such as the Catholic church, have long had a stake in publicly condemning sex acts that don’t relate to procreation. Dick sucking is doubly condemnable because it is both non­procreative and is effectively masturbation into the mouth. This in turn highlights the mouth’s impure place as a receptacle rather than a purveyor of holy truth, or language in general. The irony, of course, is the deep resemblance of dick sucking to particularly devout prayer.

The phrase “blow job” has multiple etymologies, potentially dating back to sex workers in the U.S. from the 1930s, or from the Victorian slang “below job.” Linguistically, the phrase “blow job” is recent. As late as the mid-20th century, military pilots referred to their planes as blow jobs. “Giving head” also dates to just about mid-century. “Suck” comes to signify fellatio in the late 1920s and its strangely opposite-but-the-same cousin “blow” in the early 1930s. Even “fellatio” comes to us only in the late 19th century. Essentially, it’s quite recent that we have each of these now quite varied forms in English to give voice to the same act.

Like most activities straight people happen to engage in, giving head/giving a blow job/sucking dick evokes its queerer forms. “Cocksucker” is a literal way to queerbash. Sucking dick surfaces the cruising spot, the bath house, the back room, and other spaces of taboo public sex. Over time, it seems dick sucking has unraveled into various elements of its own taboo: the literal dick, the dirtying of a mouth, the knees, the dark, the quickness, the lick, the flick, the release. Contemporary dick sucking is a slurry of its own transgressions that it has accumulated across time, along with a proximity to both sex (the dick) and a high potential for gossip (the mouth).

I grew up in the 1990s, when Monica Lewinsky became synonymous with her own name. Monica was entering a public sphere where dick sucking was just outside the boundaries of both sex and the acceptable. As in, Bill “did not have sexual relations with that woman,” but he may have filled her mouth and/or dress with semen, and everyone may have dirtied their own mouths talking about it afterward. As if the entire U.S. news media was itself giving a blow job to the entire executive branch, and we were all watching it aired nightly. The fashioning of dick sucking into an implicitly queer sex act is located both in that sort of spectacle, and in the spectacle’s uncertainty. The queerness of the blow job isn’t just about its literal insertion, but about all its potential. It’s like a play, in one act, where all the actors have a rotating set of equally interesting ­understudies. The queerness implicated in sucking dick is not just about cruising spots and other spaces of taboo public sex (though that too), but also a total shakeup  of what dicks, sucking, and dick sucking constitute. That’s where the potential is: to totally unravel our language into the sheets we wrap our bodies in.

The queer potential of dick sucking is about changing the play’s cast without warning. Any part of the body can be, become, or unbecome a dick. Any body can have a dick. Any dick on any given day can be not a dick at all. A body that determines it doesn’t have a dick actually doesn’t. We can toss sex outside language and still communicate with our tongues. They don’t have to be attached to human forms at all.

After all, where does the “idea” of a dick come from? We have that second-wave feminist notion that all dicks come to us as a patriarchal tool to induce pregnancy and its ongoing labors, and then we have the actually much more complex picture. Patriarchy is in the mix. So are incredible histories of gender variance and dildo artisans working in a variety of creative materials for millennia. National monuments. The New York skyline. Mean bosses. Richards. Straight porn. Racialized ideas of phallus size. Dominance. Homoerotic anything. Dicks can be hands, feet, faces, strap-ons, fingers, ears, miscellaneous objects. If the dick isn’t just, you know, a dick, and we have notions of pain/pleasure/service/consumption that go beyond the definitional, then sucking is a wide field of activity. Sucking can look like biting, slapping, yelling, music, poetry, the Department of Homeland Security.

Part of what makes heteronormcore so boring is its inability to dream bodies outside its own dictionary. Part of what makes capturing the essence of modern dick sucking so difficult is that once we make a serious attempt to hold all kinds of actors and genders (including ones that don’t “look” like either men or women at all), and all kinds of queer encounters, we are left with lots of substance and story and little common meaning. Perhaps that’s the point. That sucking dick is an idea, and a dick is an idea, and the mouth is an idea (an open one), and sucking is an idea, and then putting a mouth to a dick and sucking is several permutations of ideas waiting to explode one another. Dick sucking anticipates variations on itself. Like people, sex acts can have one name across certain spans of time and yet dress and behave in completely different ways. Phrases like “queer” and “War on Terror” don’t mean a material thing anymore on their own. Neither, I would posit, does sucking dick. Maybe, at some point in the vast and fluid history of sex, dick sucking was an act; right now it’s more of a performance.

In her piece Indigurrito, performance artist Nao Bustamante straps a burrito on, wears nothing else, and asks white men to come to the stage and eat the burrito as a means of atoning for their sins (namely hundreds of years of settler colonialism). Consume me, she says, but on my terms. Humiliate yourself, stay on your knees and pray. Bustamante gives us a whole range of switched actors. The dick is a burrito. Sucking is a consumption. The white man’s mouth is biting but stripped of its power, which is generally in his words. Gender is worn as artifact. Sites of pleasure and spectacle and submission are thrown to the audience to consider.

Where does this all leave us with respect to what dick sucking is or isn’t? Nowhere, or anywhere at all. It’s a totally emptyfull act, ready to be emptied and filled at every occasion that an opening and an extension are playing somewhere together. There aren’t bodies that are lacking dicks and bodies that have them; there is a whole field of wordly objects and people ready to be fashioned into dicks by the field of objects ready to be fashioned into mouths. We can spend whole lives sucking dick, and making art about it, and making new dicks and new manners of sucking, and we still would have barely scratched the cultural surface. Perhaps we will have enjoyed it, but that isn’t always the point. Sometimes, we’ve just got to wait for what comes next.