Rumbustious Review of Butts: A Backstory

Rumbustious Reviews are short, conversational discussions about books that aren’t specific to behavior analysis. Sadly, the book review is a dying art in our professional journals. These appear with decreasing frequency, and the ones that do appear are often deadly dull, more high school book report than incisive commentary. For what it’s worth, “rumbustious” means “boisterous or unruly.” That might be a slight overstatement of purpose, but I do believe that reading widely has a constructively disruptive effect on our thinking. There are a LOT of books that educate on things about which we are or should be interested. We ought to encourage each other to read them. I believe we can do this effectively by harnessing the tone of a decently elevated bar conversation, without too much stiff academic language and minus that drearily conservative expository style that journals demand of us. 

Radke, H. (2022). Butts: A backstory. Avid Readers Press.

If you need special prodding to become interested in a book about butts, I don’t want to know you. But I’m here to prod nonetheless. Heather Radke’s spectacular Butts: A backstory is part history, part sociological inquiry, part cultural critique. From cover to cover it is a fantastic read about how one body part fuels a vast array of behavioral phenomena.

Radke is a captivating writer. Even if you don’t care about butts, her prose is so seamlessly crafted and effortless to consume that you will find yourself behaving as if you do. You’ll blow through large chunks of pages and dive deep down the rabbit holes of issues bearing great philosophical, ethical, and societal importance. About some of these issues, like racism and sexism, a lesser story teller would be inclined to sermonize. No need for that here, because a sermon’s purpose is to hammer home take-away messages (akin to explaining the punch line of a joke). Radke’s writing is so good at creating stimulus relations that insights emerge without any need for browbeating. Trust me, if you’re not interested in butts now, you will be after reading this book.

Butts, at its core, is social criticism, in the sense of analysis rather than reproval per se. It may sound strange to suggest that something as base as a butt could support serious social criticism. But the window to society’s soul is found, not in in outlier phenomena like serial killers or natural disasters. It’s found in the things that we take for granted because they pervade all of society. Butts deserve our attention because they are nearly ubiquitous in human affairs.

Appropriately, Radke begins with the question of why we have butts in the first place. Reptiles don’t have butts. Birds don’t have butts, And our closest cousins, the great apes, also don’t have butts. The reason humans have butts is a fascinating tale of phylogeny and ontogeny interacting to create behavior-driven natural selection. Butts allow humans to run. Running allowed our ancestors to eat and escape danger. That enabled them to survive, and thus to produce us.

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Once butts attached themselves to humans, they could insinuate themselves into, well, just about everything to do with human behavior. In Butts you’ll learn about the sexualization of butts, both biologically (maybe) and culturally, and about their objectification in gender and racial bias. Some of those themes come together in the sad 19th Century story of a Khoe tribe member dubbed “Sarah” by captors who enslaved her long after slavery was officially abolished in Britain. For her entire adult life Sarah was exhibited in a sort of traveling freak show whose purpose was to titillate repressed English gents with the stereotype, based in large measure on Sarah’s fulsome backside, of African women as hypersexual Sirens.

Moving forward in time, you’ll learn about the role of butts in the eugenics movement and in body image issues and in clothing industry trends and in hip-hop music and in cultural appropriation. It turns out you can’t turn around in this world without bumping into a butt. That’s central point of Butts.

Most of the cultural references in Butts are contemporary, and if you have no interest in popular culture then this book may be a bit of a hard sell. But I’ll argue that, if you’re really an expert in behavior you should be interested in popular culture because it is Behavior Writ Large. It is something done by large numbers of people and therefore poses the ultimate “Why?” (i.e., functional analysis) question.

Butts made me think about how we behavior analysts have elevated the three-term contingency to idol status. While it is certainly true that butts are embedded in many contingencies, for a single body part to become central to so many contingencies seems to demand a more encompassing explanation. The concept of metacontingency comes to mind. In truth, the existence of butts dictates nothing in particular other than the fact that humans can run (and twerk). But once butts evolved, they set the stage for the cascading emergence of a vast number of interlocking contingency systems. While Butts is not a behavioral analysis of these systems per se, it’ll get you thinking about Behavior Writ Large like it did me. This one’s worth your time — no ifs, ands, or but(t)s about it.