The elevator doors opened onto a loft-like space throbbing with music. Organizers in T-shirts that read ASK ME ABOUT MY BUTTHOLE were setting up booths by the entrance, helping a strange panoply of performers prepare for the evening. A woman wearing all-but-invisible underwear sat on a perch while a companion covered her naked flesh with yellow paint. Another woman organized a kissing booth, dressed in a flesh-colored bodysuit and a pillowy hat shaped like a butt that covered her entire face. Her face cheeks became butt cheeks, her nose became an anus—she was a human butt.
The room was of a kind common in New York, where the walls are thick with layers of white paint applied slapdash over decades. It was the sort of room that could work for a wedding, or an art gallery, or, if someone nailed together some drywall partitions, a chiropractor’s office—a blank canvas that could become anything. On that sweaty evening in August, the room was transformed into an event called Butt-Con.
In the materials circulated by the PR company promoting the five-hour ordeal, Butt-Con was described as a “‘holey’ experience for the like-behinded.” The website’s splash page featured a large color photo of a peach with an oversize bead of sweat rolling down its curve. It listed panels on colonics, cake sitting, and butt plugs. One speaker would teach the audience how to produce the perfect poop. A panel featuring fitness gurus would discuss how to use small, repetitive movements to sculpt a shapely ass. A porn star would lecture about anal sex; a surgeon would describe Brazilian butt lifts.
Because I was a member of the press, the bouncer let me in ahead of the long queue lining West Twenty-Sixth Street, so when I rode up in the elevator from the nondescript lobby, I didn’t find myself alongside eager butt enthusiasts. Instead, I was surrounded by other writers with complicated feelings about the event they were covering. The whole thing felt like a PR stunt: an elaborate, tacky extravaganza put on mostly so we would write about it. And it was: the five-hour promotional experience was designed for Tushy, a hefty plastic gizmo that attaches to a toilet in order to turn it into a bidet. The founder of Tushy, Miki Agrawal, says that she likes to work in the “taboo space.” Before getting into butts, Agrawal was busy rebranding menstruation as the CEO of Thinx, a company that makes underwear for people on their periods. Butt-Con was a showcase for her new product, as well as for her own personal brand of transgression: Agrawal doesn’t just want to talk about the body parts we keep hidden, but about what those body parts do. She makes products for periods and pooping, and then she works to make those products seem hip.
When the doors opened and we collectively encountered the butt-faced woman, a museum-style exhibition on the history of wiping, and a ten-foot pink balloon in the shape of a voluptuous rump, we all simultaneously noted it in our notebooks with an eye roll. The whole thing seemed shameless, but we were feeling ashamed.
The shame wasn’t merely due to the fact that I sensed I was a patsy for corporate America, or because of the discomfiting Vice-magazine-esque aesthetics of the space, but also as a result of the taboos Agrawal was so conspicuously and aggressively leaning into. To be at Butt-Con was to live in a world where everyone is speaking aloud about the fact that they have butts, that those butts might be involved in sex, that those butts fart and defecate, that those butts are always with us, being dirty and desirable and embarrassing and pleasurable and gross and beautiful. For more than three decades, I’d trained myself not to talk about my butt in public, to keep matters of the bathroom and bedroom confined to those spaces. Butt-Con asked that I buy a Tushy bidet, but it also seemed to ask that I bring my butt out into the open, that I question why there are parts of the body, and the self, that we allow the world to see, and parts we don’t. Although Butt-Con was a corporate publicity stunt, it was also, at least in part, genuinely provocative.
Before coming to Butt-Con, I didn’t know what to expect. The PR materials described it as something like Comic Con, an event I’d also never been to. Really, the only “cons” I’d ever attended were academic: the American Studies Association conference, the American Alliance of Museums, the American Historical Association. At those cons, the decor was beige, the panel discussions were heady, the Q&As were heated, the booths were selling academic books. Although I knew Butt-Con would surely be different, I stuck to what I knew, and, as I prepared for the event, I dutifully jotted down which talks I hoped to attend. I found myself concerned that the symposium on twerking conflicted with the lecture on “the obsession with the ass.” I wanted to see them all, curious to hear what the various discussants would say about appropriation or gender performativity.
But Butt-Con did not turn out to be anything like an academic conference. Instead it was a kind of butt networking event. The thing to do, it seemed, was to mill about and talk to the vendors selling portable bidets and fiber supplements marketed at gay men, to meet influencers and exchange Instagram handles, to talk to other people at Butt-Con about why they had come. There were panels, in a sense, but they were hard to hear, overpowered by music and chatter that stayed loud even when the panels got up and going. I strained to understand as a celebrity colonics practitioner described a client who didn’t poop for six weeks. I could barely make out what the fitness gurus said constituted the “ultimate booty workout.” The panelists were brightly lit and sat on toilets instead of chairs. Conversations of appropriation or gender performativity would have to be shouted over the music while sitting on a toilet. As far as I could tell, those topics were never broached at all.
The loft-like space of Butt-Con smelled distinctly vegetal, like cabbage that had been left too long to stew. I would later learn that this smell was wafting from the vegetarian taco stand, but it made for an odd juxtaposition in a room full of people intent on making butts and pooping sexy and hip. The smell was there during discussions of anal sex, it hung thick in the air during the colonics panel, it was fully detectible when a woman who sat on cakes in porn videos described how she made money. Although the event was millennial in its branding and cheeky in its execution, the smell lingered as if to remind the room that, while butts may be sexy, they are also smelly.
Miki Agrawal was a crucial presence at Butt-Con, as was her butt. From the front, she looked fashionable and put together, clad in a flowing white skirt and a felt fedora. But when she turned around, it turned out she was really wearing something more like an apron. Her butt, covered only by a thong bodysuit, was on full display.
This kind of provocative exhibition has caused Agrawal trouble in the past: her former employees at Thinx are now suing her for sexual harassment. They claim that she touched and described her employee’s breasts, that she took video-chat meetings nude from her bed and the toilet, and that she changed her clothes in front of her employees. Although transgression can sometimes feel liberated and bold, it can easily entail trampling the boundaries others have set around their own bodies. To break a taboo can be freeing, but it can also cause harm.
It was a bit of a shock the first time I saw Agrawal’s butt, as I’m sure it was intended to be. Her bottom was preternaturally smooth and fit and almost alarmingly cellulite-free. The fact that the skirt was long and full in front and nonexistent in the back was far more titillating than had she had just been walking around without any bottoms. I felt myself tugged to take a long look, and then felt like a creep doing it. I wondered if the chairs felt cold when she sat in them. But as the evening progressed, Agrawal’s butt, like all the butts at Butt-Con, felt less provocative, and more and more like a fact of life.
Non-journalists had come to Butt-Con for all kinds of reasons. Some were very earnest in their motives. “My boyfriend asked me to come,” one woman told me. “I’m trying to learn more about colon health.” It was a common refrain. It turns out lots of people are concerned that their lower GI tract isn’t clean enough and are looking for methods of moving things through it more efficiently. Another woman whispered to me eagerly at the back of a packed discussion with adult entertainer Asa Akira; she had brought her boyfriend—who works in the city’s sewage department—to the event because he was squeamish about anal sex. “My boyfriend is in the poop industry and he won’t do anal,” she told me. “But it’s a huge part of my sexuality.”
A common refrain at Butt-Con was that attendees were interested in breaking down taboos, that they were excited to be able to talk about colons and anuses and pooping and sex with abandon, without fear of judgement. “It’s kind of exciting to think about how butts are just another important part of the body,” a soft-spoken woman told me. Rather than being a shameful afterthought, the butt was getting its fair due. “I think every ass should be celebrated,” a young aerialist declared boldly. Instead of there being a “perfect ass,” there were lots of asses, and they were all good. At least according to these young women, ButtCon was doing its part to overturn normative, shameful ideas of the body.
But while butts are laden with the stigma of excrement and sodomy, they also traffic in a less straightforward anxiety that is trickier to untangle. Although butts, like breasts, are sexualized, they are also pockets of fat that many women work hard and long to get rid of. There may be an expanding notion of the perfect body, but it is worth noting that the only nude butts on display that evening were smooth, round, and high; butts that bubbled out a bit, and butts attached to otherwise thin bodies. Enormous butts, cellulite-y butts, and even bony butts were kept out of sight.
Butts carry with them a complicated historical legacy of the sexualization of women of color and appropriation by white women, though that consideration never made it beyond the subtext of Butt-Con. One woman told me that she had “a pretty good ass for a white girl.” The emcee—comedian X Mayo—at one point made reference to the fact that although white people are newly interested in butts, that enthusiasm certainly wasn’t new in the black community she grew up in. But those were one-offs, jokes and observations left dangling and unexamined. Nowhere was there a discussion at Butt-Con about Sarah Baartman, or Miley Cyrus’s VMAs performance, or even why it was possible for there to be a Butt-Con in 2019 when there would have never been one in 1992.
Butt-Con wasn’t the American Studies Association, after all. Perhaps I’d expected too much of an event designed to sell bidets.
After four hours at ButtCon, I was hoarse, dehydrated, and hungry, longing for tacos that weren’t full of cabbage. I slumped in a chair and listened as a cosmetic surgeon described the ways in which “butts are the new faces.”
The strangeness of the evening had worn off. The giant pink buttocks had begun to deflate a bit. The woman dressed as a butt seemed less like a scandalous provocation and read more as mediocre performance art. ButtCon had accomplished one of its desired goals: the taboo of the ass had lessened by attrition.
“It’s just all asses today,” X Mayo said as she waited for the next set of speakers to mount the toilet-bowl seats onstage. “There is no shaming. People walk out of the bathroom and I’m like, How was your shit? You can’t do that anywhere else.”
The ease with which people described and discussed all things asshole did feel strangely revolutionary, but as the hours wore on, the initial layers of hilarity and transgression at Butt-Con softened into something more mundane.
Still, the discussions of the butt and its functions didn’t feel like eulogizing a lovely face or a beautiful set of hands. As the butt became normalized, it also became significantly less sexy, a fact that highlighted the inverse relationship of the taboo and the erotic. By making the butt’s function not just acceptable, but almost boring, both the humor and the allure of the butt collapsed slightly. After hours of thinking about poop, there wasn’t a lot of eros left.
At the beginning of Butt-Con I had felt ashamed: of butts in general, of my specific butt, of the very space I was in. By the end, it became a body part like any other, no more mysterious than a knee or an elbow.
And then I left Butt-Con, took the elevator back to the street, and walked through Chelsea toward the subway. A man turned and looked at my backside as I passed him on the street, and I pulled my shoulders and legs closer together as I walked just a little bit faster. Even if in the corporate utopia of Butt-Con, the butt was no different from an elbow or a shin, here on the street it maintained its complex set of erotic and taboo associations. I felt ashamed of my butt’s bigness. I felt both fearful and proud of its sexiness. I wondered what, exactly, the man was up to. I felt his gaze on me, and remembered all the things that weren’t discussed at Butt-Con: misogyny, racism, homophobia, the long and intertwined history that might make a white man stare long and hard at the large butt of a white woman.
Although it was exciting to believe briefly otherwise, the butt is not just a butt, just as breasts are not merely sacks of fat attached to the chest. A utopia, for me at least, isn’t a place where butts are stripped of meaning, but instead a place where the taboo is understood and explored in order to transform our relationships to our bodies. To do otherwise is to miss the lessons that our bodies, and our shame, can teach us.
Heather Radke is a writer, curator, and audio producer who lives in New York.