Of course, you know the story — it’s one of the most enduring celebrity rumors of all time. And while other rumors usually jump around from celebrity to celebrity (the way the rumor about Prince getting his ribs removed to suck his own dick eventually became a rumor about Marilyn Manson instead), this particular tale is only ever related to one guy: Richard Gere.
The story goes like this: Richard Gere once got a gerbil stuck up his ass and then had to go to the ER to get it removed. And that’s it — end of story. Yet this single-sentence narrative has somehow endured the test of time for decades, like some ancient folklore passed down from generation to generation. Why has this story been so durable? Where did it come from? Why the fuck is a gerbil always the rodent of choice? Most importantly, is it true?
First off, let’s establish whether gerbiling — as it’s apparently called — is even a real thing. Certainly, the Wikipedia article for “gerbiling” (which contains perhaps the greatest wiki image/caption pairing of all time) regards the act as merely a “rumored sexual practice.” Being a respectable journalist, though, and unwilling to take Wikipedia at face value, I also reached out to literally dozens of gerbil breeders for this piece. One of the very few who replied told me, “There is no sexual act of ‘gerbiling.’ This is an old urban legend.”
The story is the same elsewhere. Iconic sex-advice columnist Dan Savage remarked in 2013 that he’d never heard of any firsthand or even secondhand account of this in real life. As the final likely nail in the coffin, late National Enquirer gossip columnist Mike Walker once remarked, “I’ve never worked harder on a story in my life… I’m convinced that it’s nothing more than an urban legend,” referring to not only the Richard Gere story but gerbiling as a whole.
Despite all this, gerbiling may still be a real thing — in fact, it probably is. “It is real,” insists M. Jenny Edwards, an attorney specializing in criminal law and sexual offenses relating to bestiality, zoophilia and zoosexuality. “While it’s colloquially called ‘gerbiling,’ the actual name for it from a medical or mental health point-of-view is formicophilia, which involves not just gerbils, but other kinds of small critters as well. This is a form of bestiality, which essentially deals with things crawling on you or in you.” Generally, these things are living, “or at least they were living when you put them in there,” Edwards explains, citing a variety of cases on the subject.
One such case was a man she dealt with who would go to Thailand, rent young girls and insert roaches into them. Edwards also says, “Eels are pretty popular, both by men to insert into their anuses, and occasionally women into their vaginas, but more often the women use small fish like a goldfish.” She also worked on a case that involved a mouse being inserted into a man’s anus, which was later removed in an emergency room.
As for gerbils specifically, Edwards says that she’s not personally dealt with a gerbil case, nor has she read about them, but she says that she wouldn’t be surprised if it occurs. “Nothing surprises me,” she remarks. And while no cases exist in any medical journals, that doesn’t mean people haven’t ever put a gerbil in their asshole, it just means that it hasn’t gone horribly wrong for them to the extent that they’ve needed medical attention for it.
If you’re still with me after that — and I honestly don’t blame you if you’re not — Edwards explains that the way this is done is by putting some kind of plastic tubing into one’s anus (a toilet paper tube, a common detail in the Gere story, is too flimsy). From there, a mouse, gerbil, or whatever is inserted into the tube — oftentimes with a lubricant on their snout — and a string is tied to their tail for later retrieval. “It’s that feeling of them biting and scratching and rooting around that’s pleasurable to them,” Edwards says.
So why do people get off on this? Could it be prostate-related? Edwards says it’s hard to say, as some also find pain pleasurable, but she does add that this sometimes stems from men who are used to being penetrated by dogs. Edwards explains, “They’re used to things like mastiffs, which have quite large penises. So when you’re used to having that kind of thing inside you, it’s harder to get excited by just a regular old guy’s dick.” And because of that, they “graduate” to things like mice. And perhaps even gerbils.
How did gerbils become such a popular aspect of the rumor, though (especially considering Edwards says they’re probably one of the least likely rodents to go up there, due to their relatively large size)? I got an opinion from gerbil breeder Melissa Favata of NY Darling Gerbils — who was a bit more game for my questions — who offered that “Gerbils love tunneling. They will dig and burrow for hours on end. So I guess that would be why.” That said, she adds, “I can guarantee that a gerbil won’t want to tunnel into anyone’s anus.” It may also be that “gerbil” is simply a funny word to say, so attaching a gerbil to the story made it more humorous.
Okay, that part is over now, I promise, so let’s get to the Richard Gere stuff. While you’ve only ever heard the story about the Pretty Woman star, the original story had nothing to do with him. As psychologist and blogger Mark Griffiths writes, “Jan Harold Brunvand, the author of The Encyclopedia of Urban Legends, says the ‘gerbilling’ story began in 1984 [and] started out as a story involving an unknown gay man and a mouse. Over the subsequent years, the unknown gay man became Richard Gere, and the mouse became a gerbil.” And before that gerbil permanently attached itself to Gere, it was briefly assigned to an unnamed Cleveland Browns linebacker, as well as Philadelphia newscaster Jerry Penacoli and weatherman Rick Segal, both of whom, like most of the gerbil breeders, declined to reply to my inquiry on this subject.
But why did this rumor stick so effectively to Gere? It seems there are a few reasons, one of which is the fact that homophobia is often intertwined with gerbiling accusations, as evidenced by this highly offensive quote I found in the replies to a piece about formicophilia: “If what’s being done with worms is anything like what phags [sic] used to do with gerbils, I don’t want to know,” says a man labeled as “Rich L.” The oddest thing about this to me is that Rich seems to think homosexuals used to engage in this practice frequently, which raises the question, if it was so pleasurable, why did they stop? (Frankly, I’m starting to think that Rich hasn’t properly thought this through.) Anyway, homophobic dummies have often accused gay men of gerbiling probably because it involves inserting something — anything — into the anus, which, of course, is practiced by heterosexuals too, but whatever.
“But wait!” you’re wondering. “Richard Gere isn’t gay, is he?” No, as far as anyone knows, he isn’t — he’s currently on his third marriage, all of which have been to women. But for years, there were rumors that he was gay because he gained fame early on in a Broadway production of Bent, playing a gay Holocaust victim. As his fame rose, rumors continued to swirl, only fueled by the fact that he refused to dignify such questions with an answer, saying once, “Cosmically, there’s nothing wrong with being heterosexual, homosexual or omnisexual. The accusation is meaningless, and whether it’s true or false is nobody’s business. What difference does it make what anyone thinks if I live truthfully and honestly and with as open a heart as I can?”
Which is a well-intentioned and reasonable response! However, Mr. Gere, if you really have engaged in gerbiling, it’s important to note that this is decidedly not okay — just consider the poor gerbil. To continue this aside, it should also be noted that, while gerbiling is most certainly cruel to animals, Edwards says that it’s a matter of geography that determines whether or not the act is actually illegal. “It depends how a state defines animals,” she explains, as some states only have anti-cruelty laws for cats and dogs. For Gere, the legend says that he was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Hospital in California. If that’s true, Edwards says that this would be illegal, as in California it would be a misdemeanor to “maliciously and intentionally main, mutilate, torture, wound or kill any animal.” As for New York, where Gere grew up and where The Lords of Flatbush was filmed, the act would also be illegal, with Edwards citing several codes that would criminalize gerbiling, including “improper confinement.”
Getting back on track, what exactly does The Lords of Flatbush have to do with this, especially since Gere wasn’t even in that movie? Well, enter Sylvester Stallone, who — according to Sly himself — is often cited as the originator of the Richard Gere gerbil story.
Gere was originally cast in The Lords of Flatbush, but he and Stallone didn’t get along, so Stallone had Gere fired. In the years since, Gere and Stallone’s grudge has been well documented, which might explain why some have attributed the gerbil story to Stallone. But Stallone himself has claimed that Gere is responsible for Stallone’s reported involvement in the lore. “Richard was given his walking papers [on The Lords of Flatbush] and to this day seriously dislikes me,” Sly told Ain’t It Cool News back in 2006. “He even thinks I’m the individual responsible for the gerbil rumor. Not true… but that’s the rumor.” In an effort to follow up on this, I reached out to Stallone’s people, but as you might imagine, I didn’t receive a reply.
Another potential origin of this legend — or perhaps something that helped to popularize it — was a supposed fax sent shortly after Gere starred in Pretty Woman, his biggest movie to date in 1990. Supposedly, an anonymous hoaxer forged a complaint from the ASPCA, scolding Gere for his mistreatment of a gerbil, and the joke was faxed all around Hollywood, as joke faxes were kind of a thing back then.
The story has also been kept alive by a plethora of jokes in popular culture, one of the earliest of which was in a 1992 sketch from In Living Color.
It’s similarly cropped up in Scream, The Simpsons, 1998’s Urban Legend, and even classic mom-friendly British sitcom The Vicar of Dibley. It also appears in a 1990 stand-up special with Sam Kinison. Kinison’s routine is extremely homophobic, but it’s notable because it takes place in 1990, when a) Kinison was under fire for his exceedingly anti-gay material; and b) this was the height of Kinison’s career and the year that the massively popular Pretty Woman was released. Gere and the gerbil came up in Kinison’s act several times around then, meaning that it may very well have been Kinison who cemented the story into the public consciousness.
Much like the gay rumor, Gere declined for years to address the notorious gerbil story, finally relenting in 2008 in an interview with Metro, where he said, “Lots of crazy things came up about me at first, especially from the tabloids. There is an infamous ‘Gere stuck a hamster up his bum’ urban myth.”
Wait… a hamster? For the entire history of this story, the rodent in question has always been a gerbil — there’s even a version of the tale where the creature was Gere’s own pet named “Tibet,” but even then, it was still a gerbil. The gerbil is one of the few details that have never wavered about this story until Gere himself finally acknowledged it. Was this a simple case of mistaken rodent identity? Or did Gere cleverly sidestep the question by “mistakenly” saying it was a hamster?
When I repeatedly reached out to Gere’s representatives to follow up on this detail, I — once again — received no reply, so I couldn’t get Gere to clarify this gerbil v. hamster detail. But in fairness to the man, why should he respond to such a dumb question? He’s addressed it all he needs to, which is to say, barely at all, and the one time he did, he single-handedly managed to muddy the waters by introducing an entirely new type of rodent into the deal, which is frankly a brilliant maneuver.
No, if there’s any true takeaway from the whole Gere-gerbil deal, it’s how to deftly handle such an insidious rumor: simply not giving it the oxygen it craves. By comparison, any other action just seems — and 10 points if you accurately predicted this ending — like a pain in the ass.