Six years (and counting) of circlusion

Klein bottle

It gives me great pleasure, as well as relief, that The New Inquiry has agreed to republish this landmark essay. For a while now, strangers have been sending me emails, on average, every month, asking where my translation of the great German communist Bini Adamczak’s landmark piece about circlusion––the obverse of penetration––can be found. The original article in German, “Come On,” appeared in the Berlin-based Missy Magazine in March 2016. I had just helped out with the translation of Communism for Kids (Adamczak’s short book, which isn’t actually for children, excerpted in The New Inquiry). Almost immediately, I began an English-language version of “Come On,” working in a Google Doc in conversation with Bini. We eventually published the results, “On Circlusion,” at Mask Magazine in the summer of 2016. Ever since, especially in the semi-offline and subterranean passageways of global queer culture, the text has enjoyed cult classic status. Due to the shutdown of Mask, however, Bini’s essay has not been available for a couple of years. Now, at last, it’s back.

“Circlusion” has been on many adventures since Bini Adamczak proposed the term. There were discussions everywhere from BDSM sex blogs to French Cosmopolitan and Le Monde. Sex therapists and intimacy coaches took up the expression. The British poet Gloria Dawson published a poem cycle, Circlusion, in April 2018 (“Why don’t you come in to us. By us. For us. With us. Despite us. Let the cupboard’s mouth suck on our dance. And swallow us. And swallow us. And swallow us.”) Dance and performance studies conferences in Denmark eagerly adopted “circlusion” as a companion term for Ursula K Le Guin’s “carrier bag theory of fiction.” Bini’s conceptual baby even infiltrated a Los Angeles art gallery, as the title and foundation of an exhibition by Genevieve Belleveau. In 2019 a huge arts festival in Berlin called itself “Circluding History.” Performance artists known as “Hazy Borders,” in Leipzig, developed a show called “Just a Circlusion.”

The term continues to catalyze reflection in academic feminism, psychoanalysis, queer culture and feminist practice. In her 2019 book Rape: From Lucretia to #MeToo, Mithu Sanyal wonders: “What would classics like Donald Symons’s The Evolution of Human Sexuality—which Thornhill and Palmer cite as the inspiration for their Natural History of Rape—sound like if a term like circlusion had been in common use?” In 2017, I was, in retrospect, clearly inspired by circlusion when I wrote “Amniotechnics.” In Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family, I explicitly deployed circlusion as a way of making gestationality intelligible. Clearly, McKenzie Wark found the framework similarly useful when writing her memoir about sexual labor, Reverse Cowgirl, of which one chapter or vignette is entitled “The Art of Circlusion.” Writes Wark, of her lover, Leslie: “She pressed so hard into femme that it was as if she was fucking her own look from the inside. … Her skin came on my skin.” As such, the circlusive subject-position can serve to describe the labor of topping, or it can inspire theorizing from the bottom (bottom theory), or it can confound the top/bottom distinction altogether. Thanks to Bini, the stickiness of our libidinal relations is well illuminated. See you on the rims…

Sophie Lewis



On Circlusion

by Bini Adamczak (English translation: Sophie Lewis)

I wish to propose to you a new term, one that has been missing for a long time: “circlusion,” or, if you prefer a purer latinate, “circumclusion.” It denotes the antonym of penetration. It refers to the same physical process, but from the opposite perspective. Penetration means pushing something––a shaft or a nipple––into something else––a ring or a tube. Circlusion means pushing something––a ring or a tube––onto something else––a nipple or a shaft. The ring and the tube are rendered active. That’s all there is to it.

This word, circlusion, allows us to speak differently about certain forms of sex. We need it because penetration still rules supreme over the heteronormative imaginary and its arbitrary division of bodies into “active” and “passive.” The verb to penetrate evokes a non-reciprocal or at least unequally distributed process. The one who is penetrated is implied to be passive. More than that, being penetrated, like being screwed, is automatically imagined as disempowerment.

To make matters worse, penetration exerts its disproportionate influence over the queer imaginary too. This is evident in contemporary mainstream porn but also in BDSM and so-called post-porn. The dildo and the penis function, almost unchallenged, as practical signs of power. Bewilderingly, this is also true among those who should be experts on power play. Dommes/doms of all genders are associated with the dildo, the penis, and erect fingers of the hand. Subs tend to express their affinity with the figures of the mouth, the vagina, the anus. Sometimes the vulva or the anus of a domme even appears taboo. It’s as if making use of these body parts would have disempowering effects. Maybe not if they were approached by a tongue, but definitely if approached by a dildo.

What matters is not what parts a body possesses, but rather, which parts are put into action. Practically everybody has an anus, but somebody who uses theirs sexually––in conjunction with a dildo, penis or hand––becomes a bottom, a passive, somebody’s sub. Almost everybody can afford a strap-on or a dildo, but a person who uses one sexually, as a rule, counts as a top or a dom––as active.

Stranger still is the fact that a person who has genital sex, tensing their pelvic muscles all the while and vigorously rocking their hips, can nevertheless understand themselves to be the one “getting fucked.” This person is encouraged to think that they have “bottomed”––even if they were lying on top!––simply because they functioned as the bearer of the vagina or anus in relation to the possessor of the dildo/penis. The fantasy around penetration remains intact even when contradicted by all the facts. Frustrating.

It is a contradictory feature of bourgeois ideology that effort gets causally associated with power in a society premised precisely on the opposite: power derives from the exploitation and appropriation of others’ activeness. It’s remarkable how quickly this supposed link between power and effort is forgotten where blowjobs are concerned. But that’s beside the point. What concerns me here is that this direct link between penetration and power exists at all. That’s what has to go.

In our discourse about penetration, we map its “meaning” largely in terms of violence. When we say fuck the police, for example, we don’t have in mind a nice kind of annihilation or an experience of delicious plenitude. Penetration conjures up forceful, conquest-related images––swords and sheaths, drills and holes, rods and sockets and suchlike. Mind you, circluding isn’t necessarily less violent, nor is it a guarantee of good sex. But the idea of penetration unjustifiably overshadows our understanding of what it means to “fuck.” Thinking about sex in a different way would mean that when we say I’m getting fucked by the system we’re actually saying I’m getting badly fucked––badly or unwelcomely circluded, for example––or not getting fucked at all.

Technical as well as colloquial language tends to narrow the meaning of penetration down to practices involving vaginas, anuses, penises, and dildos. Finger-between-cheeks and nipple-in-mouth play are often not referred to as “penetrative sex.” But the word “circlusion” does not have to share this narrowness. On the contrary, it might designate the action of a closed hand around a dildo, of lips around a foot, of a vagina stretched over a fist. All these are ways of “circluding” someone. However, they don’t have to be understood that way. Since the meaning of a sign is only ever determined through its use, “circlusion” could equally usurp the place “penetration” has hitherto occupied in language … only, this time, without conjuring the kinds of images that interfere so negatively with people having sex.

Think of the moment when you were taught in school how to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections. No one would ever think of trying to push the banana into the freshly opened condom, would they? The task of correct condom application is easy when you think of it as unrolling the tube onto the banana.

Indeed, circlusion is an extremely common experience of everyday life. Think of how a net catches fish, a throat envelops food, or a hand encircles a bottle of beer...

In German, the word “penetrating” (penetrant) is a synonym of another adjective—aufdringlich (which means pushy or intrusive). Aufdringlich is actually made up of the idea of pushing-through (dringen) together with the prefix auf (over/onto). Thus, paradoxically, to penetrate or be aufdringlich is about pushing over/onto someone… that is, circlusion! Penetrant should really mean eindringlich instead (urgent, emphatic, im-press-ive), where the prefix ein stands for in/into.

O workers of the anus and the mouth, of the vagina and the hand, I say to you: be aufdringlich! Whoever so wishes may propose sub-distinctions. Let’s say: rotating a bolt into a nut is penetration; and rotating the nut onto the bolt, circlusion... Obviously, both processes are happening at the same time.

The term “circlusion” enables us to articulate experiences we have been living for a very long time. Adopting it is no hindrance at all to those of us who want to continue to employ our vaginas, cleavages, hands, anuses or mouths in the business of getting fucked. What’ll be new is that outstretched fingers, penises, dildos and fists can also be used for that very same purpose.

I don’t mean to suggest that we weren’t practicing this already. But the element that was missing, until now, was a word to describe that latter dimension of what we’ve been doing. No doubt, “circlusion” might end up serving mainly as the kind of formal, technical word one might reach for when talking to a lawyer or a doctor. In bed with a playmate, it might behoove us to develop some kind of snappier equivalent like “gulfing,” “circling,” or “gulping.”

We often think of feminist vocabulary as a highly complicated matter. But the word “circlude,” I think, is easy to learn and simple to use. Look: I circlude, you circlude, she/he/they/it is circluding, we circlude. Above all, it is much more handy than its counterpart. Penetration has four whole syllables; circlusion only three. By adopting it, we’ll end up saving valuable time while talking… time which we can spend having sex.