25 Oct “Penis Passion” & Reframing the Way We Love Dicks
Author and thinker bell hooks addresses our collective understanding of the penis and what we might do differently.
There have been a couple of issues that I have avoided discussing here, which have kept me away from this platform for an extended period. The most prominent one is an email I received from a reader a few months ago essentially trying to shame me, and classifying the work that appears here as a homosexual-tinted front for Men’s rights ideas and advocation. I was initially amused by that letter, and then later grew increasingly disturbed by that read on what I have to say. Not because it was accurate, but because I worried I had planted seeds that allowed that perception to root.
I know that I am not a supporter of or even a closet sympathizer with MRM nonsense. And I know that there is a way to examine and celebrate male bodies and male sexuality, that does not come at a cost to women or women’s rights. That men should learn to love and understand their penises and the penises of other men is not a denial or exclusion of women. But, rather, is something that can take place independent of the interactions between men and women, and at a detriment to neither group.
Because of this letter, though, I’m going to make a conscious effort to refocus the things we talk about here, and, in the coming weeks, revisit some of the more popular posts that may be misinterpreted as male superiority screeds, or may no longer be appropriate for this site at all, couched in the context of more recent events.
Today I want to look at some of the more interesting and salient portions of an essay written by author and scholar bell hooks, which appeared in July 1999 in Lion’s Roar. Penis Passion is hooks’ personal examination of the weight and significance of the penis as an idea, as well as a literal physical appendage. This is interesting to me, because I rarely (if ever) consider in any real way what my penis or the idea of Penis means to women. Mostly what I consider (and what many like-minded men consider), is the way my own penis compares to other penises, and the ways my relationship with Penis affects my broader life.
But hooks illustrates that (unlike my own) the female perspective on penis has historically been and remains, to some degree, fraught:
“Like many young women who came of age in that intense ecstatic moment when sexual liberation and the feminist movement converged, I let go all the fear of the penis that had haunted my girlhood. These fears were rooted not in envy of the penis and the male body, but in rage that it had to be feared. In those days the message about the male body that females received loud and clear was that whether wanted or unwanted, penis penetration could change a girl’s life forever.”
This idea – that deep and sustained fear of the idea of penis is implanted so early in a person’s life – is one that had entirely escaped my personal experience; I’d never imagined that girls thought anything at all about penises (certainly not in the ways that I did), and definitely not about the threat imposed by their mere presence:
“That sense of girlhood fascination and appreciation of the penis changed when warnings about sexual danger and the threat that the male body would destroy female innocence became the norm. In those days there was no discussion of female passion. In my sexual imagery the wand became a weapon, something males used to bring us down, to destroy us.”
I have never experienced the profound distress implied in these ideas. I have always come to sexual engagement with other men feeling at the very least equally matched; their “weapon” comparable in size, shape, and power to my own. Threat of permanent alteration of my personhood was never a part of any thought or action in the sexual realm. As for my equipollent innocence, I had no use for it and cast it away as rapidly and violently as I was able; a masturbator from the age of 11, I sought out sexual engagement from peers constantly without regard for the impact their penis would have on who I was. The notion of “purity,” so puzzlingly highly prized in females, is rarely thought to be a boon for western males.
It is easier, from my 30s, to see this as a luxury rather than the default position from which most people (men or women) approach sex. hooks describes the nature of coming in contact with male sexuality as an adult, with the grounding of girlhood fear about penis reframed by modern changes:
“No wonder females rejoiced when birth control and feminist insistence on female sexual agency made it possible for us to think about the penis in a new way. We could see it as an instrument of power and/or delight. We could go down between male legs, abandon ourselves to mystery, and rise up satisfied and pleased with the knowledge that we could give and receive sexual delight.”
And perhaps it is the nature of coming into contact this way as an adult, which allows one not to take for granted the way the penis is understood, culturally. My having a penis and my largely unashamed entrance into sexual behavior gave me no real reason to worry about the violent way Penis is presented:
“Reading lots of erotica, both gay and straight, I was dismayed to find that overall, the penis is still primarily represented as a weapon, as an instrument of indelicate and painful penetration. Talked about in terms of force, whether in descriptions of pleasurable consensual sex or forced sex and bondage, no one seems to have much to say about the penis that challenges and changes sexist representation. To identify the penis always and only with force, with being a tool of power, a weapon first and foremost, is to participate in the worship and perpetuation of patriarchy. It is a celebration of male domination.”
This is, of course, quite true. Nifty is rife with stories of coercion and force, and the concept of more mature characters dominating younger ones to teach them, punish them, or just out of uncontrolled lust is prevalent in almost any brand of homosexual erotica. With the penis being described as the primary facilitator for this domination. It is, in fact, a struggle to find stories like this one, which present the power dynamic and sexual conquest factor to be more or less equal between the protagonists.
“Changing how we talk about the penis is a powerful intervention that can challenge patriarchal thinking. Many sexist men fear that their bodies lose meaning if we value penises for the sacredness of their being rather than their capacity to perform.”
I would push back against this notion, gently, and argue that this fear is not related to “sexist men,” exclusively. We are taught, almost as entire collective gender, that penis size and performance are the very hallmarks of broader power and success in life. Endless erectile dysfunction medication ads reaffirm this notion to anyone watching television or reading subway ads. It is no wonder that our stock is placed, however subconscious or indeliberately, in the perception that we are capable of conquest.
Though hooks is not wrong in thinking that reframing our view as the real key, it is a steep learning curve for men to learn to value their penis as a sacred instrument of pleasure and connection, because it runs counter to everything they have ever been taught.
It is in this sacred contextual understanding of the phallus that hooks concludes her essay:
“Returning to a blissful sense of the sacredness of the body, of sexual pleasure, we acknowledge the penis as a positive symbol of life. Whether erect or still, the penis can always be a marvel, a wonder, a magic wand.”
I don’t think there is an easy solution to any of it. But I think that the path to normalizing Penis, for all genders, is paved with learning and understanding. Which is what we’re truly doing here on this blog; examining the nature of how we view our penises, and the penises of others, and how that impacts our very lives and existences. Shedding light on things seen as only done in darkness allows us to feel safer and teaches us to embrace the interconnectedness of humanness.