In a culture of commodified testosterone, growing numbers of boys and men, some as young as three or four, some as old as eighty, are turning to genital mutilation as a form of self-harm. This in itself is not a new phenomenon, but as the culture of shame, anger and idolisation around the male sexual organ continues to increase, the phenomenon of boys and men damaging their own genitals, sometimes with extreme violence, is gathering pace. There are myriad individual reasons for this phenomenon, many of which are exacerbated by mental illnesses such as depression and paranoid schizophrenia, but the baseline reasons are fairly simple to grasp: a lot of boys have no frame of reference for what their penis should look like. Men are taught to see the appendage as a source of unimaginable sexual shame and embarrassment, or as a symbol of a sick, overzealous , hypermasculised culture in which they did not ask to be included, or, more frequently, both.
It’s not only the mentally ill who mutilate their genitals in private: you can pay a surgeon to inflict far more radical damage, a snip (literally) at £3-12,000. I’m talking, of course, about the booming industry of surgical penis ‘enlargement’, the nearest male equivalent to labiaplasty. We’ve all had versions of those relentless spam emails, offering in poor English to furnish us with a magnificent schlong for the price of a university education. Well, they keep coming because some people keep clicking – millions of anxious men and boys, in fact, all over the world, every day.
Yes, it’s fucking political. Male sexual neurosis is massively damaging, to feminism, to society, and to men themselves. This is not male apologism, or backsliding, it’s one feminist’s request for more discussion of a damaging socio-sexual taboo, in the context of a blog post in which I get to shout ‘COCK!’ a lot.
There, I’m glad I got that out of my system.
Gruesome butchery as labiaplasty undoubtedly is, the butchery involved boils down to a fairly straightforward amputation. Not so with penis ‘extension‘: I’ll spare you details of just what can go wrong, because Penny Red is a welcoming family blog, but suffice it to say: lots. And often. If you enjoy Bizarre magazine, you may click here now.
Thanks to the stalwart work of feminist writers and bloggers, there are now a lot of good, informative sites out there setting the record straight on what real female genitals look like. Sites that reassure women of all ages that they, too, are far less abnormal than they might have feared. Sisters working tirelessly and for free to undo the visceral harm done by the iconography of pornography and the language of fiction, erotica and women’s magazines in persuading girls that their vulvae should present as neat, hairless, odourless, tight pink slits with the sole purpose of funnelling equally tight, odourless, virginal vaginas, where all sexual sensation occurs. This is an ugly and damaging lie.
So where is the equivalent iconoclasm working to tear down the damaging fictions that young men internalise about their gender and physical sex?
The rhetoric of dickhood is entirely misleading, with emphasis on stiffness, straightness, rigidity, awesomeness, bestiality and hard, raging, pole-like qualities. The myriad of slang terms for the appendage range from the sublime – schlong, manhood, prick, dick – to the ridiculous – one-eyed trouser snake, luncheon meat truncheon! In fact, as most people are secretly aware, even the most impressive penis is no fearsome beast. They are extremely fragile things, normally soft, squishable and defenceless, generally flaccid, delicate , painful when struck, sensitive to touch and temperature. Freud was wrong. It’s not women who ‘envy’ the fiction of the perpetually hard, straining, bestial cartoon-penis – it’s other men,. That envy can largely be blamed on the shocking lie culturally perpetrated to convince young boys that their genitals are supposed to symbolise their masculinity and accordingly be other than the sweet, small, defenceless things they are.
If you’re laughing, stop. Now. I don’t believe it’s possible to call oneself a progressive feminist whilst taking the piss out of the sexual organs of just under one half of the human race. When it comes down to it, everyone’s genitals are ridiculous: messy, demanding, confusing and difficult to manage, with no instruction booklet and contents that generally differ wildly from the serving suggestion on the box. This does not mean that they are abnormal, inadequate or worthy of the childlike awe, tentative mockery, anger and aggrandisement that by turns characterise the treatment of the human prick in contemporary culture.
It is not surprising, then, that so many men and boys turn to surgery to change what they see as defective or abnormal, or to self-harm when they see a part of themselves as shameful and socially loaded in ways they reject. We just do not know how many men go through these experiences, how many operations are botched or how many wounds inflicted in private, because the subject matter is so sensitive that there simply isn’t enough data, and no comprehensive study has yet been done. All that we know is that it’s happening, and that it’s happening more and more.
The cultural markers of femininity are worn like a cloak and meticulously judged – from breasts to width of the waist and hips to degree of ‘curviness’ to hairstyle to set of the face and features. For men, only one specific part of the body is sexualised, and it’s kept under wraps, endlessly mythologised and certainly not featured in any fashion spreads. Feminists might argue that because women’s whole bodies are inevitably sexualised, men have it easier. Those feminists are right: men do have it easier. But that doesn’t mean that men don’t get a raw deal too – where little girls grow up seeing examples of perfect sexual bodies plastered everywhere they look, little boys experience the opposite – the cock is spoken of in hushed tones and never revealed, fictionalised, aggrandised, reduced to a few furtive glances in locker-rooms and arcane priapic symbols scrawled on playground walls and toilet cubicles.
In a perfect world, school PHSE lessons would include mandatory classes on sex and gender, in which children would be shown lots of photographs – not crude and misleading technicolour ink-drawings – of what real genitals look like. During these ideal lessons there would be open discussion of gender roles, physical sex, sexuality, feminism and gender egalitarianism. It won’t happen on these prudish little islands any day soon, not here where so recently we had laws banning the discussion of homosexuality in schools, but it’s nice to dream. Some girls dream of ponies. Today I’m dreaming of full-frontal PHSE photography with explanatory notes. It’s a vision thing.
The movement to reclaim the female body as a self-defined space is still a vitally important one, and it is perhaps just as vital to complement that discussion by extending its rhetoric to the male form. Talking about the realities of the female body in its many forms is a starting point for massive amounts of crucial feminist discussion of physical femaleness, of personal femininity, and of the difference and interaction between the two and the socio-political realities they produce. Talking about the male body in a similar way, and specifically about the cock – unlike for women, the only explicitly sexualised part of a man’s body – might just promote similar much-needed debate about physical maleness, personal masculinity and the difference between the two. Or at very least, it might make a few more people hesitate before doing inadvisable violence to the most sensitive parts of their body and paying for the privilege.