What do you call the act of pushing a ring or a tube onto something, like a vagina encircling a dildo? The opposite of penetration? Well, Bini Adamczak has a new term for us to denote just this: Circlusion.
I wish to propose to you a new term, one that has been missing for a long time: “circlusion.” 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 the affliction of 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 synonymous to being feeling disempowered.
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 of us who should be experts on power play. Dommes/doms of all genders tend to express their affinity with the figures of the dildo, the penis, and erect fingers of the hand. Subs associate themselves with the mouth, the vagina, the anus. Sometimes the vulva or the anus of a domme even appears as taboo. It’s as if making use of these parts would have disempowering effects. Maybe not if they were confronted by a tongue, but definitely so if met with a dildo.
What matters, of course, is never a question of what parts a body possesses, rather, of which parts of that body 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 sub, somebody passive. 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 that a person who has genital sex, tensing their pelvic muscles all the while and vigorously rocking their hips, can nevertheless believe themselves to be the one who got 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 of penetration stays intact even when contradicted by all the facts.
It is contradictory feature of bourgeois ideology that effort gets causally associated with power precisely in a society premised 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 exists between penetrating and power. That’s what has to go.
In our discourse about penetration we map its ‘meaning’ largely in connection with violence. The idea of penetration still dominates, unnecessarily, our understanding of what it means to fuck, and when we say fuck the system, for example, we don’t have in mind a nice kind of annihilation or an experience of delicious plenitude. Penetration often 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. Thinking about fucking in a different way would simply mean that when we say I’m being fucked by the system we’re saying we’re getting badly fucked – badly circluded, for instance – or, more precisely, not getting fucked at all.
Technical as well as colloquial language tends to narrow penetration down to mean practices involving vaginas, anuses, penises, and dildos. Finger-in-butt and nipple-in-mouth play are often not referred to as penetrative sex. The word “circlusion” does not have to share this narrowness. On the contrary, it could cheerfully refer to the activity of a closed hand around a dildo, or of a vagina stretched over a fist, alike, as the act of “circluding.” But it doesn’t have to serve us in this way. Since the meaning of a sign is only ever determined through its use, “circlusion” could equally take the place that “penetration” has hitherto occupied in culture, just without conjuring images that interfere so negatively with people actually 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 unwrapped condom, would they? But the task of correctly applying a condom 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, how gums envelop their food, how a nutcracker crunches nuts, or how a hand encircles a joystick, a bottle of beer...
In German, the word “penetrating” (penetrant) is a synonym of another adjective – aufdringlich (which means pushy or overpowering). But aufdringlich is made up of the idea of pushing-through (dringen) together with the prefix ‘auf’ (over/onto). To penetrate or be aufdringlich, then, is about pushing over/onto someone – that is, circlusion! Penetrant should really mean eindringlich instead, 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 can, needless to say, finesse the usage and practice of circlusion and put forward sub-distinctions. Say, rotating a bolt into a nut is penetration; rotating the nut onto the bolt, circlusion... In fact, both processes are happening at the same time.
The term “circlusion” enables articulation of experiences we have been living for a very long time. Adopting it is no hindrance to those of us who shall continue to employ our open hands, vaginas, anuses or mouths in the business of getting fucked. What’ll be new is the fact that outstretched fingers, penises, dildos and fists can also be used for that very purpose. Not that we weren’t all doing this already. The only element that was missing until now was the word to describe some of what we’re doing. ‘Circlusion’, of course, is the official word we might reach for when talking to a lawyer or a doctor. In bed with a playmate, it may behoove us to develop something snappier and equivalent like ‘gulfing,’ ‘circling,’ ‘gulping,’ or simply: ‘nutting.’
We often think of feminist vocabulary and speech practice as a highly complicated matter. The word “circlude,” however, is easy to learn and simple to use. Look: I circlude, you circlude, she/he/they/it is circluding, we circlude, her dick is being circluded, his ass is circluding their hand. And above all, it is much more handy than its counterpart. Penetration has four whole syllables; circlusion only three. We’ll end up saving valuable time while talking. Time which we can invest in fucking.
Translation by Sophie Lewis. Sophie is a queer communist and sometimes politics teacher who has written things for Blind Field, Mute, Jacobin, New Inquiry, and Antipode. She co-translated Bini’s Communism for Children from German (forthcoming 2017). She grew up in France and is currently a PhD student at Manchester University.