I found these two articles on the net some time ago. They both address that most powerful and vulnerable part of our manhood--our genitals. Penises are not usually the subject of ordinary conversation--we men have some dignity, after all. Still, here among just us fellas, it's good to discuss in the open what we rightly call man's best friend.
Jeff Seeman's article is a little dated and he jumps to some conclusions I wouldn't jump to. Nonetheless, his heart is in the right place and we need to hear what he has to say.
The Hatred of Men's Genitals
Jeff Seeman: "The Hatred of Men's Genitals". Everyman. Nov/Dec 1995. Issue #16. Page 8-9 & 22-23
Appeared in Everyman as "Ladies and Genitalmen: Sexual Mutilation; It's Enough To Make You Laugh!"
THE HATRED OF MEN'S GENITALS
Imagine, if you will, the following scenario. One night while his wife lies sleeping, a man takes a knife and proceeds to sexually mutilate her. The media, reporting the incident, don't generally refer to the act as "sexual mutilation" however, but more often say that the husband "cut up his wife's vagina". And the reaction of society is almost universally...laughter! Jay Leno and David Letterman trade jokes about it on late-night television while radio stations play song parodies about the incident. Newspapers and magazines join in the hilarity by publishing cartoons and limericks about the hapless woman. And enterprising clothing manufacturers rush out a line of novelty T-shirts and women's underwear, complete with artificial blood stains and witty sayings like "Love Hurts" and "A Cut above the Rest". Funny, isn't it?
Of course, the scenario described above would never happen. No one in their right mind laughs at the sexual mutilation of a woman. But when Lorena Bobbitt forcibly amputated her husband's penis while he slept, our society did little but laugh. In fact, virtually the only people who objected to the onslaught of sick humour were feminists who, ironically, were concerned that laughing about the incident might lead people to take violence against women less seriously.Not that society's reaction to the Bobbit case is an isolated incident. I remember a baseball game in which a wild pitch bounced off the ground and struck the catcher's groin. Despite the fact that the man was obviously in tremendous pain (or because of it?) the sportscasters could barely contain their amusement.
And then, of course, there are numerous movies that evoke laughter by depicting injury, even serious injury, to men's genitals. The Burt Reynolds football movie "The Longest Yard" features a scene in which the opposing team's quarterback is "sacked" by hurling the football, at close range and with great velocity, directly at his groin - not once, but twice - until the man is carried off the field on a stretcher. In the slapstick comedy "Folks", Tom Selleck falls from a building and lands on a flagpole, legs spread apart, which results in his losing a testicle. Imagine any movie trying to play a woman's losing a breast for laughs! "Married to the Mob" contains the hilarious spectacle of philandering mobster Dean Stockwell being threatened by his wife, as she points a handgun directly at his genitals. In the James Bond adventure "The Man With the Golden Gun", the sight of Japanese schoolgirls executing deadly-accurate kung fu kicks between the legs of men is played for laughs. And in a parallel to the Bobbitt case, "Pele the Conqueror" features a scene in which a woman punishes her husband's unfaithfulness by, you guessed it, amputating his penis while he sleeps. The film audience reacted to the bloody scene with laughter and applause.
Since the Bobbitt incident, I have noticed how casually some women speak of sexual violence towards men. A friend of mine, expressing frustration with her boyfriend's emotional upset after a nasty divorce, told me "Sometimes I just want to cut his...knees off." The long pause before finally settling on the word "knees" led me to believe that another part of his anatomy was originally intended. "If my husband gets out of line, I can always do a John Bobbitt on him," I overheard a woman laugh with her friends in an elevator recently. Even my girlfriend, normally the most sensitive and compassionate of women, once responded to my playful teasing with the mocking remark "Do you like your penis?" implying, I presume, that she would sever it from my body if I didn't behave. I don't believe I've ever heard a man make such casual, joking references to the rape or sexual mutilation of women.
Mocking and ridiculing men's genitals is also becoming a popular feminist tactic. A male friend of mine recently attended a benefit dinner to raise funds for battered women's shelters. He was mortified when one of the guest speakers, feminist radio talk show host Victoria Jones, commented from the podium on how silly it was for men to be so concerned about their penises given how ridiculous-looking they were, a comment which drew laughter from the mostly female crowd. Responding to the bobbitt affair in a sarcastic piece called "Members Only", Boston Globe columnist Diane White proceeded to mock not only Bobbitt himself, but every other man on the planet, quipping snidely that "when one man's organ is filleted by a vengeful woman, every man grabs his groin and howls in sympathy," and finally concluding that "it's men who have penis envy. They go through life comparing theirs with every other man's and worrying." Just imagine if a male columnist were to write a similarly sarcastic, insensitive piece after the sexual mutilation of a woman, a piece which mocked, say, women's fears of masectomy and ridiculed them for comparing their bodies with those of other women. Such misogyny would never be accepted in a mainstream newspaper, nor should it.
And then, of course, there's circumcision, which our society seems to find endlessly amusing. On a recent episode of "Seinfeld", Jerry was invited to the bris of his nephew. To the credit of the show's writers, they did mention the case against circumcision. But to their discredit, they put this argument into the mouth of the jerky Kramer, a character whose overall buffoonery made the anti-circumcision case seem like the ravings of a lunatic. All of which led the Elaine character to shrug and announce "Off with their heads!"
Interestingly, when circumcision is performed on women, society reacts quite differently. Alice Walker's novel "Possessing the Secret of Joy" and her subsequent work of non-fiction (with Pratibha Parmer) "Warrior Marks" brought to public attention the practices of some African tribes of ritual female genital mutilation, a fact which shocked and outraged many. Yet this outrage did not extend to the plight of male children in this country, sixty percent of whom are shortly after birth, usually without anesthesia. In fact, on the same day that the Op-Ed page of The New York Times featured a serious opinion piece about female circumcision in Africa, the Op-Ed page of The Boston Globe featured yet another cartoon about the Bobbitts. The message? Female sexual mutilation is tragic; male sexual mutilation is comic.
All of which leads to one question. Why does our society find sexual violence against men so funny? Surely this is due, at least in part, to sex role stereotypes. Traditionally, women are seen as fragile and vulnerable while men are seen as tough and insensitive. Hence, we react to violence against women with alarm and to violence against men with callousness and humour. We are taught that men don't feel very much and therefore can't really be hurt. Men also buy into this belief system, which explains why as many men as women make Bobbitt jokes. Masculine socialization in our culture is a process of progressive desensitization. So, by the time most men reach adulthood, you can yell at them, insult them, threaten them, slap them, hit them, kick them and even sexually mutilate them, and they will still shrug it off and make a joke of it, as if to say "See? You didn't really hurt me. I can take it. I'm a man."
This may explain why violence against men isn't taken as seriously as violence against women, but there's a deeper issue here. For if Bobbitt's finger had been amputated rather than his penis, it would not have inspired such an onslaught of jokes. The question, then, remains: Why do we find sexual violence against men particularly funny?
The answer most frequently cited in the media, not surprisingly, is the feminist perspective. Feminism has established a mind set in our society that views all men as oppressors and all women as victims of male power. The fact that this theory of the power relationship between the sexes is ridiculously simplistic and is contradicted by the day-to-day experiences of most people doesn't seem to have lessened its attractiveness as an ideology. In fact, the tenets of feminism have been so often repeated in the press and academic literature reinforced in books, moves and television programs that they are accepted without question by many women and men. According to this theory, a man's penis is the most obvious symbol of his male power. When a man's genitals are injured, the theory goes, we laugh because it represents a diminution of his power, a sort of "fall of the mighty." Further, if men possess ultimate power in society, then when they are hurt it doesn't really matter. Many feminists responded to the Bobbitt incident by saying "With so much violence being committed against women every day, who cares about one man?" Some claim that the Bobbitt affair has made them feel more empowered, a situation analogous to my feeling empowered whenever I read about a woman being attacked and raped. (For the record, I don't; I just feel angry and sickened.)
But if this is truly the reason why we as a society laugh about sexual violence against men, it has disturbing implications. For one thing, our laughter extends not only to the John bobbitts of the world, but also to all the newborn boys who are circumcised. Are we claiming that infant boys have power over adult women (including, presumably, their mothers), and that they join the "oppressive patriarchy" from the moment of birth, so that we as a society are justified in mutilating their genitals and laughing about it?
Another disturbing aspect of this theory is its complete lack of compassion. For example, I believe that there is far more evidence to show that African-Americans are members of an oppressed class in our society than there is to show that women are. But if a white man were lynched, most people would not laugh and say "With so much violence being committed against blacks every day, who cares about one white?" Anyone espousing such a view must be so absorbed in his or her political ideology that she or he has completely lost touch with basic human decency.
But the feminist perspective cannot completely answer our question. For there are many people who reject feminist ideology yet still laugh at sexual violence against men. Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko, for example, held a contest to see which reader could come up with the funniest limerick about the Bobbitt case. Somehow, I don't see Royko as a textbook feminist. Neither, I think, were the two sportscasters mentioned above, who were so amused by the catcher's groin injury. No, while feminism may provide part of the answer, the reason for society's amusement over injury to men's genitals lies deeper than that.
In "Why Men Are The Way They Are", Warren Farrell states "The impact of men's taking sexual initiatives is enormous in a culture that considers sex dirty." Farrell argues that even after the sexual revolution of the sixties, our society's attitudes towards sex are as puritanical as ever. Further, we expect men to take full responsibility for initiating sex. In other words, sex is dirty and men do the dirty work. This results, I believe, in the vilification of male sexuality. Men become, by implication, the "dirty" ones, and their genitals are the instruments by which they do their evil deeds. Women, on the other hand, are traditionally seen as chaste and virginal; their sexuality is essentially ignored. The result is a perfect "no-win" situation: male sexuality is vilified, female sexuality is marginalized. This view of human sexuality, reinforced by many religions, has persisted in our culture through generations, and has burrowed its way into our collective unconscious, even when we think we are rejecting it. Further, we are living during a time when not only is male sexuality being shamed by religious and traditional attitudes on the right, but also by feminists on the left. The result is that, more than ever, men are seen as dirty, tainted with the sin of lust, and their genitals are seen as evil.Female circumcisions and clitoridectomies that are performed in some African tribes have been viewed as an attempt to repress female sexuality. Interestingly, we don't see male circumcision this way. Male circumcision is generally defended on grounds of personal hygiene, yet there has not been an increase in infection or other hygiene problems in countries that have all but eliminated the practice. Why, then, does it persist? It is true that doctors charge for performing the procedure and may therefore by reluctant to discontinue it, but I believe that the whole truth lies deeper than that.
In many indigenous cultures, males are circumcised at puberty, as part of an initiation ceremony. But if the purpose of circumcision is the promotion of good hygiene, it would be done earlier in a boy's life. Instead, the ritual is performed just as the male is entering his adult sexuality. Is it possible that this action is an attempt to punish and suppress male sexuality, just as female circumcision is an attempt to repress female sexuality? In "Knights Without Armour" psychologist Aaron Kipnis writes that "Men...circumcised as adults report that their sensitivity and capacity for experiencing sexual pleasure are dramatically reduced following circumcision." Perhaps this is not merely a side effect of the procedure, but the reason it has become an accepted practice.
In "Not Guilty; The Case In Defense of Men," journalist David Thomas discusses the male initiation rituals of certain tribes of Australian Aborigines who, in addition to circumcising young men without anesthesia, also perform other mutilations on their genitals. Thomas describes a ritual in which "Small wedges of flesh are...cut from around the tip of the penis, producing deep lacerations which penetrate the urethra. The penis is then beaten, repeatedly, with the handle of the circumcision knife. Finally, the penis is rubbed vigorously with salt and nettles." I fail to see what benefit to personal hygiene could be accomplished by this. Rather, I suggest that the tribe is punishing and repressing male sexuality.
There is another, more subtle factor to consider regarding society's attitude towards men's genitals. Frequently in our culture, the male body is presented as laughable, even when violence towards it is not being depicted. In films, for example, men's bodies are often portrayed in a negative light. Specifically, the tone of men's and women's nude scenes are frequently quite different. In most female nude scenes, the woman's body is viewed as beautiful and erotic. But in many male nude scenes, the man's body is seen as ridiculous, laughable, suitable for derision. For example in such art house favourites as "A Room With a View", "The Return of the Secaucus Seven" and "Don's Party", nude men are presented as objects of laughter, not beauty or eroticism.
Our culture has not attached the same aesthetic value to men's and women's bodies. Feminists have expressed outrage over this fact, claiming that women's bodies are being objectified. But while there's validity to that argument, it's only one side of the coin. Objectification may also carry appreciation. Our culture is filled with images celebrating female beauty, both in art and in the popular media. Conversely, the beauty of the male body is virtually ignored. Traditionally, the only thing that mattered about the male body was how much work it could do - how much it could lift, carry, chop wood. [Note that this is also objectification. -Ed.] The female body is associated with works of art; the male body with the "arts" of work.
Over the past decade, images of male beauty have begun to make their way into poplar culture, mostly due to the increasing outspokenness of gay men in our society. But most people, regardless of gender and sexual orientation, still view women's bodies as more attractive. Animal rights activists have noticed that people tend to care more about the plight of puppies than lizards, simply because puppies are "cuter". Perhaps a similar consideration plays a role in how people react to sexual violence against each gender. As mundane as it may seem, perhaps we have greater concern for women's bodies simply because we perceive women as "cuter".
Most men don't even seem to like their own genitals, or, at least, don't have much respect for them. Listen to how we name them: dick, cock, prick, pecker. We use some of the same words to describe individuals we detest. By contrast, a woman rarely uses a derogatory word like "cunt" to describe her own genitals.
Kipnis states that "at every stage of a man's development, there is negative imprinting about the phallic aspect of maleness. Men are often taught that there is something wrong, nasty or even evil about thepenis." As children, we learn not to touch it and not to let anyone see it. When being bathed, we probably found that our genitals were not touched the way the rest of our bodies were. And if we were ever caughtmasturbating, we were probably harshly shamed.
As a result, men end up alienated from their sexuality and their own genitals. When a man commits rape, we see it as an expression of his hostility towards women. But in committing rape, a man takes a part of his body which capable of expressing beautiful acts of love and intimacy and uses it to commit a heinous act of violence. Such a man must surely be alienated from his own sexuality and, indeed, his own body.
Last year, while in California attending a workshop on sexuality and spirituality, I experienced a rare and wonderful moment of epiphany. I suddenly became aware of the fact that my genitals were actually the source of life. This isn't to say that I learned anything new on an intellectual level about human reproduction. But I had never really thought about men's genitals that way. My genitals, my penis and testicles, are the source of human life on this planet, just as a woman's ovaries and vagina are. If one stops to think of it, that really is quite amazing.
In Sanskrit, the word for penis "lingam", which translates roughly as "wand of light". (And incidentally, there is an equally beautiful Sanskrit word to describe the vagina - "yoni", meaning "sacred space" or "sacred temple".) What if men in our society grew up thinking of their penises as lingams, rather than pricks or cocks? How might their relationships with their bodies and with their sexuality be different? Cold a man commit rape if he saw his penis as a "wand of light"? Would he really be able to perform such violence if he thought of his genitals as the source of human life? If men's bodies were sacred temples, wouldn't laughing about genital injury be like laughing at the desecration of a church?
Some time ago, I found myself soaking in a large hot tub with some good friends. There was an even mixture of men and women, and all of us were nude. One woman, looking around at the men's genitals, commented that penises were like "beautiful flowers on men's bodies." No matter how long I live, there will always be a place in my heart for that woman; for her warmth, her compassion and sensitivity. And I can't help but wonder; if all our society viewed men's genitals in such a light, how different might our world be?
PONDERING THE PENIS
If we did a quick penis check of our many relatives in the so-called animal kingdom just to see how many penises we could see, we would come up mostly empty handed. That doesn't mean that they aren't there: they just aren't visible unless they are being used for sex. That pretty much goes for everything from insects to elephants. Nature doesn't leave her penises hanging out and about, that is until you get to our own immediate group, the primates.
For whatever the quirky and unique evolutionary reasons, our group has lost the protective sheaths and much of the retractile mechanisms most of our other mammal brethren use to pull and keep the penises up and out of the way. Our foreskins are likely remnants of a sheath and we also maintain some ability to "retract" our penises under stress, but if someone or something wanted to grab, bite or sting the human penis, it would still very much be there, try as it might to hide. Add to this, our upright posture and you have a creature that not only can not retract his penis, but one that moves through his world penis first!
This thrusts the human penis into the unique position of being much more than its dictionary definition! They can really only sense pressure, touch and temperature, yet these sensory abilities are exquisitely fine-tuned. So while we don't usually think of our penis as a "sense organ", it certainly has taken on that role. And since many things can often perform duties for which they were not specifically developed, in the hands of such an inventive species as ourselves, it should come as no surprise that the penis would be leveraged from what might appear to be a real liability into an invaluable asset.
Thanks to its very rich sensory quality, the human penis is on "duty" at all times. Yet its most common habitat, underwear and pants, is mostly one of acute sensory deprivation or often downright discomfort, giving naturism a special appeal for men, and very likely explaining why so many will so readily shuck their clothes when given the chance. From a cool refreshing breeze, to a dip in the lake, to the very act of swinging to and fro with each step we take, the unencumbered penis adds a rich sensory dimension to the male experience. For whatever reason it was that Mother Nature left our penises out "in the cold", we can hardly complain about the end product.