Monday, March 5, 2012

Eros by Any Other Name

My blog exists for me to talk about the eroticism of wrestling. Naturally, I acknowledge that there is more to wrestling than its erotic aspects. Other aspects I like and can appreciate and sometimes write about in these pages. But mostly this blog is about what strikes me as erotic.

By "erotic" I mean the obvious: its capacity to make dicks (specifically my dick) hard. Not many male wrestling fans will admit it, but their behaviors support the fact that eros plays a large hand in the sport. Fans' uneasiness on this point might even be taken as proof. Straight-identified wrestlers and fans often argue that eroticism plays no part in their interest in the sport, and I would not want to question their experience except that my own experience is so often taken to task. Many of these guys, though, freely confess that mixed wrestling and woman-on-woman wrestling affect them in a way that is not true of, for instance, their interest in women's tennis. Their leering response to wrestling divas indicates that wrestling is indeed erotic, even for them; it's just not (for them) homoerotic, or else their minds can't get around the idea of finding men hot under any circumstances. (I, however, often find the act of wrestling erotic even when I don't find the wrestlers otherwise attractive, an idea I have wondered over elsewhere without being able to conclude anything from it.)

Many straight men admit they get erections sometimes when they wrestle other men, but they attribute these uprisings to "friction," not erotic stimulation. I contend that they are erotic, even if there's no conscious interest in fucking one's wrestling opponent. Eroticism often involves the genitals, but it's not limited to them. Eroticism does not necessarily lead to sex or ejaculation or anything more than a cool wave of feeling between the shoulders and a flush of fever between the thighs. (By analogy, to support my point, it's normal for women to feel aroused when breastfeeding, but that hardly means they want to screw babies.) 

In the past, to admit that wrestling is erotic posed some moral and psychological challenges for me. I thought perhaps my own sexual feelings had somehow warped through my exposure to the society I grew up in, a society that vehemently suppressed same-sex intimacy, yet freely permitted men to strip to the waist and squeeze themselves tightly and oilily together. In the 1960s, images of good-looking men doing exactly that were widely available to me through art, movies, TV shows, and magazines, and, on the military bases I grew up on, on front lawns. The message I got was male skin touching male skin was permissible as long as the feelings were violent and the intent was to destroy or to dominate.

I don't think that way anymore.

Healthy eroticism is not about hurting, dominating, and humiliating others. In Freudian psychoanalysis, "eros" or libido is the life instinct, creative and constructive, unlike "thanatos" or the death drive, which is the source of human violence and repression. How then do I justify the wholesome, life-affirming sense of "eros" in wrestling and other combat sports?

In several ways.

For one, Freud himself acknowledged that libido and the death drive are closely aligned and sometimes mistakable for each other. Acts of destruction can almost simultaneously be acts of creation. Nature destroys to create: the "circle of life," and all that. La petite morte ("little death") is a French metaphor for sexual climax. When exposed to the sight of adults having sex, children often perceive the action as a violent assault. Love and sex have been thought to be "safe" and "nice" only since the Victorian era, which reduced sex to a marital duty and codified the missionary position as the one and only norm. Victoria notwithstanding, the two instincts of life and death are not very far apart from each other psychologically. Studies of mouse brains suggest that sexual and violent impulses are not well segregated physiologically.

Furthermore, the pro-wrestling matches I often write about are creative acts in the sense that they are theatre. Violence and humiliation can be choreographed or improvised as ways of dramatizing cultural values, including social roles ... and life-affirming ideals (perseverance, justice, fair play, loyalty, and so on). The bare-chested fights in movies I saw as a child often depicted the triumph of good over evil, in the ways that good and evil were understood in the popular culture back then. But like art and other creative acts, wrestling events do not have to promote good manners or acceptable values. Creativity can be enjoyed simply for its own sake, without the need for justification. Roland Barthes wrote in Mythologies (1957) that the 
gesture of the vanquished wrestler signifying to the world a defeat which, far from disguising, he emphasizes and holds like a pause in music, corresponds to the mask of antiquity meant to signify the tragic mode of the spectacle. In wrestling, as on the stage in antiquity, one is not ashamed of one's suffering, one knows how to cry, one has a liking for tears. (Trans. Annette Lavers)

But I would like to take my justification further, if I can. What about wrestling as a somewhat risky sport, and what about boxing, jujitsu, and other combat activities that are far from play-acting? What can these have to do with eros, creativity, love, and sex? Well, potentially nothing. Lovemaking is mutually nurturing. The drive to humiliate, hurt, dominate, or manipulate is not love in any shape or form. When two men fight each other in order to hurt, diminish, or destroy each other, they are driven by the death drive, not libido, unless a victory stands for a kind of mating call to a third party not directly involved in the fight, yet this would be just as true of a game of chess as an MMA cage match.

However, as I have said, aggressive competition can be a spectacle, a mere pretense of violence. No harm actually done. But it can also, as a real and heated contest, with real bruises, enhance and affirm the participants' lives and achieve intimacy: a manifestation of "eros."


In The Art of Loving (1956), Erich Fromm says that it's a mistake to think of love as "absence of conflict": "Real conflicts between two people, those which do not serve to cover up or project, but which are experienced on the deep level of inner reality to which they belong, are not destructive. They lead to clarification, they produce a catharsis from which both persons emerge with more knowledge and more strength." Fromm would not put it this way, but I think getting in a tussle is a quick way to get to know both yourself better and the person you are fighting. The old William Wellman movies, where men brawled as a means of bonding, show us something true about intimacy (specifically male intimacy) that is as old as Gilgamesh and Enkidu smashing each other through the stone walls of Uruk on the way to becoming loving companions separable only by death.

For the ancient Greeks, wrestling was a key aspect of the education and socialization of young men. It taught skills necessary for combat, of course. But it also honed character, even in times of peace. It also enhanced critical thinking. As many a wrestler will tell you, done properly the sport involves the intellectual rigors of chess. The palaestra, an open-air wrestling school where students wrestled oiled and naked in pits of sand (our word "arena" derives from the Latin harena, meaning sand), was everywhere in the classical era. It was an essential institution of Greek culture ... and, incidentally, a well-known spot for making out. ("Palaestra" was also a humorous slang term for "brothel," a sure sign that the Greeks were not blind to wrestling's eroticism.)

My point is that, over the years, I have come to see my erotic interest in wrestling as healthy and natural, if not exactly "normal" in the context of contemporary American society (or even its gay subculture). I do not see it as a sign of my sexual repression or self-loathing homophobia. I call it a "kink" only because, in the world I live in, it is definitely not "straight" ... or even a recognized quality of the typical "good and proper gay." I've read enough of sexual history, however, to know that "wrestling to emission" was a fairly common erotic practice in a number of cultures (even ones that disapproved of anal and oral intercourse). And I know that, well before I was a fully sexual being or making romantic choices of any kind, I was noticeably aroused when Tarzan wrestled jungle natives, when Hercules and Samson battled amid styrofoam columns, when Popeye beat up Bluto, and when James West ripped off his shirt to scuffle with Dr. Loveless's evil henchmen on The Wild Wild West. And I'm tempted sometimes to say I lost my virginity back when I was twelve or thirteen and schoolboy-pinned my friend Robin to the bedroom floor, and we mutually wetted the flies of our corduroys. (A few years later I had sex with a girl, once, which is the version of popping my cherry that requires the lesser amount of explanation in polite company.)

I'm talking about several different things here, and perhaps I'm not fitting them all together very well. I'm trying to show that wrestling is erotic because (not in spite) of its associations with violence. I'm also saying that the dramatic performance of a conflict cannot be confused with actual conflict in life, and that theatrical actions can have different meaning than their real-world counterparts do (e.g., a knife in the belly can substitute for sexual penetration in a movie, and a missile exploding can metaphorically stand for ejaculation, but not so much in everyday life). I also mean to say that fighting that is sportive, playful roughhouse is (for males, especially) a natural form of achieving intimacy, but fighting that is designed to demean, maim, dominate, or control is in no way an expression of eros, although, I admit, when viewed with an indifference to its context or actual intentions, it may sometimes appear so. Finally, I'm saying that our passions are interesting and worth our paying attention to. We should not confuse them with rational behavior. But neither should we view them with shame or guilt, unless our failure to understand and manage them leads us to hurt others or ourselves.


  1. Wrestiling has always been male foreplay for sex. It is about holding, controlling and dominating for one's own desires whatever they may be. It is the male versions of "rough" sex for heteros. Every Tarzen or Hercules movie has that moment when the hero is in chains or captured. And imagination takes over from there.

    1. When I was a very little boy. Even before I became sexually aroused. I was in a super market at 9 yrs old in 1960. the markets at that tiem sold encyclopedias at the check stand and th G Book had pix of greeks wrestling and I remember from that point i was hooked.

  2. As most boys did, I wrestled with my cousins and friends. But it was my best friend that introduced me to the fine art of erotic, nude wrestling at age 13. Now that I am considerably older, I still love the hot body to body contact that is wrestling. It is difficult to fine others that like the erotic aspect of wrestling. I'm glad to find this blog and to find someone that speaks my language.



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