The Problem With The Term ‘Pegging’

Photo by Karen Sofia Colon.
If Cara Delevingne’s Met Gala outfit this year was designed to spark a conversation, she succeeded. Many people applauded her for the bold, 'feminist' statement. Others pointed out that the phrase 'peg the patriarchy' was trademarked by sex educator Luna Matatas in 2018, and there’s nothing feminist about the fact that Dior (which made the vest) used a queer woman of colour’s work – right down to the identical font – apparently without credit.
Meanwhile, I was one of the trans people letting out a sigh of frustration and wondering when cis people will stop fetishising the way we – queer people – have sex.
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If Delevingne’s outfit had you googling exactly what pegging is, you’re not alone. 'Pegging' is the term coined by controversial sex educator Dan Savage in 2001 to describe someone (usually a straight cisgender woman) anally topping their partner (usually a straight cisgender man) with a strap-on dildo.
Savage had asked readers of his column Savage Love to vote on what word should be used to describe the act. His other suggestions were 'bob' and 'punt' but 'peg' proved to be the favourite. Twenty years later and it’s definitely entered the mainstream psyche. It’s all but become a political statement, memed and girlbossified in its synonymy with edgy feminism.
Depictions of pegging on TV and in popular culture have also become more commonplace. Abbi Abrams pegs Jeremy Santos in an iconic 2015 episode of Broad City where pegging is portrayed as taboo. Most recently, in millennial comedy-drama The Bold Type, Kat pegs the guy she is seeing, Cody. The latter is certainly a more sensitive portrayal. 
Critique of the term 'pegging' does not end with Savage, though it certainly starts there. I don’t think we can entirely separate the word from its originator and his alleged transphobia. In 2001 Savage may have been the only sex educator that anyone had heard of and as a gay man he may have felt diverse then. But today we can – and should – listen to queer voices which historically have been marginalised when it comes to sex.
Lots of those voices are asking why we need the term 'pegging' at all. Some people, like Luna Matatas herself, claim that the word has an important place in our lexicon because it allows straight cis men to get comfortable with the idea of anal sex. The fear that putting something in their butt will 'make them gay' often stops straight cis men from exploring the pleasure of anal play, especially prostate stimulation. 
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Matatas is not alone in her opinion:
To my mind, though, the term’s neutrality sanitises the potential queerness of butt sex so it doesn’t challenge straight cis men’s masculinity – but the problem is the idea that it could challenge their masculinity to begin with. The use of the term 'pegging' reinforces the idea that there’s something 'wrong' with being gay. In reality, sexual behaviour and the sexual acts you participate in don’t define your sexuality.
Much of the discomfort that I, as a bisexual trans man, have with the term 'pegging' comes from the fact that people would call lots of the sex I have 'pegging'. I’m a person with a vulva and tits, and I often have sex where I penetrate people with penises with my strap-on. To describe me anally topping my partners as 'pegging' diminishes the fact that I am a man and that my dildo is as much my dick as a factory-installed penis would be.
Of course, not every trans person feels the same way. Some trans men and transmasculine people might prefer to use an underwear-style harness when strapping on, because it’s more gender-affirming not to feel like the hard dick between their legs is being held there by a harness. For others, strap-on topping might have nothing to do with gender. 
Kelvin Sparks, a 23-year-old sex blogger, often surprises people when he explains that his love of strap-on topping has very little to do with wanting to 'validate' the fact he’s a man.
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For Kelvin, strap-on sex is more about his sexuality and his erotic identities as a queer leather top (a person who is part of queer leather subculture where leather is both an aesthetic and a sexual preference, who prefers to be the 'active' partner during sex). "What really helped me with not feeling as though my strap-on is a 'replacement' for a standard-issue penis is the fact I've actually seen a lot of cis men wear them in leather spaces, mostly to use large toys but also sometimes if the top is in chastity. It honestly feels like a very normal way for queer men to have sex to me at this point."
For many queer and trans people, anal or vaginal penetration with a strap-on is simply part of how we have sex. As a blind person who enjoys topping, 31-year-old queer femme D both wants and needs her hands free for other activities – something that strap-on topping gives her. She finds a powerful, very femme joy in picking a dildo that matches her outfit or lipstick. "Regardless of the gender of my partner it feels very connected to womanhood for me and very separate from the 'girl' role that often feels like what is expected of women in sexual encounters with men."
Bottoming for anal sex – being penetrated in any kind of sex, for that matter – doesn’t have to be passive. One of the most powerful ways we can 'queer' sex is by all partners playing an active part in what’s happening. 
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For H, who is 31 years old and bisexual, the power dynamics of pegging are hot, whether they are being penetrated or doing the penetrating. "When I’m pegging someone I have the power over them and there’s a huge amount of trust being put in my hands. When I’m being penetrated by a cishet man who is caged and wearing a strap-on, I am very much in charge too, even if they are in the more active role."

Pegging is seen as a fetish – as 'taboo' for its subversion of gender roles – but the ways I have sex as a bisexual trans man shouldn't be someone's fetish.

Pegging, then, is an act where straight cis men – possibly for the first time – have to expose themselves to the same levels of vulnerability and personal risk that the people who have sex with them do. It’s not surprising that some women find power in that act, and I don’t blame them for it. But the term itself still bothers me.
There should be nothing inherently powerful about penetrating your partner. The basic cishet sexual scripts tell us that sex 'should' look like a straight cis man using his penis to penetrate a straight cis woman’s vagina. He is active and powerful; she is passive and submissive. He has all the power: sex is something that he 'takes' from her. 
These sexual scripts tell us that the penetrating partner is the dominant one and that the partner being penetrated is not only weaker but that their weakness is somehow 'female'. It’s why cishet people will ask gay couples which partner is the 'man' and which is the 'woman' – it takes a conscious unlearning of these sexual scripts to understand why this question feeds into those cishet ideas about what sex and romantic relationships 'should' look like.
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Pegging can be a way to flip that script, allowing people to step outside their usual sexual roles. While that is powerful and important, I maintain that having a different word for anal play when it’s a straight cis man being penetrated does the opposite. Pegging can allow cishet couples to explore different gender roles and power dynamics but only through the lens that being the penetrator is a dominant and 'male' role while being penetrated is a submissive and 'female' role.
I’m really tired of that lens.
I want people to fuck with gender roles and explore what kinds of sex feel good to them but in a way that defies the sexual scripts we’re taught, not by using language that reinforces them. Would 'fuck misogyny up the arse' have the same weight as 'peg the patriarchy'? I don’t think so, and that speaks to the idea that cis people still see being penetrated – on some level – as degrading, humiliating, weak.
Pegging is seen as a fetish – as 'taboo' for its subversion of gender roles – but the ways I have sex as a bisexual trans man shouldn’t be someone’s fetish. The act can be so much fun but the term is backed up by misogynistic ideas that women are weak and passive, by homophobic ideas that being penetrated makes you a woman and by transphobic notions that a silicone dildo is not a 'real' dick.
It’s time to call pegging what it really is: anal sex with a strap-on.

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