My Daughter's Vagina, Part 2

To read Part 1, go here.

You have to wonder what kind of research he did and how he did it. Did he interview women? Create a list of all the possibilities he could imagine and ask them to check off on a list “all descriptions that apply?” Did he talk to men, get them to narrate their sexual philosophies and techniques? Did he observe what he wrote about firsthand, somehow get permission to stand behind a wall constructed so that he could spy on the couples who had agreed to be his informants? Or did he just make it all up? It’s impossible to know, but when Sheikh Nezawi wrote The Perfumed Garden in the sixteenth century–it was translated into English by Richard Burton in 1886–he devoted an entire chapter to “The Divers Names of the Virile Member.” Some are self-explanatory, like Generative Organ, Hairy One or Bald-Head. At least one, The Pigeon, is interesting as a metaphor because of the way it feminizes the penis: “It is so called because, after having been swollen and at the moment when it is returning to its state of repose, [this kind of penis] resembles a pigeon settling on its eggs” (54). In most cases, however, Sheikh Nezawi treats the male genitals synechdocically, making it clear that, in describing certain kinds of penises, he is also describing the men to whom they are attached. Here, for example is The Creeper:

This name has been given to the penis because, when it gets between a woman’s thighs and sees a plump vulva, it starts to creep on her legs and pubis, then, approaching the entrance, it continues to creep until it has taken possession. When comfortably installed, it penetrates completely and ejaculates. (59)

And here is The Knocker

It is thus named because, when it arrives at the door of the vulva, it gives a light knock; if the vulva replies and opens the door, it enters; but if it gets no reply, it knocks again until successful. By knocking at the door we refer to the rubbing of the penis on the vulva until it becomes moist. The production of this moisture is what is called opening the door. (59)

My son will soon be nine years old. Especially during the first years of his life, when he began to learn the names for the parts of his body–though I am aware the question is relevant even now–I thought a lot about how the way we talk about our genitals in this culture expresses and, in part, creates the way we feel as a culture not just about the male body, but also about sex and the people we have sex with. Never before had I been confronted on a daily basis with the realization that someone else’s understanding of who he was, of what it might mean for him to live in his own body, hung quite literally on my every word.

When he was two, for example, my wife would tell me stories about how he occasionally got erections when she washed his penis in the bath. “I don’t like it like this,” she told he would say, starting to cry. “I want it to be soft,” and he would try to push his penis down, which of course did not have the result he desired.

One night, I happened to be home when this happened, and I walked into the bathroom to find my wife crouching at the edge of the tub, talking to our son in a very soothing voice, while he sat with the water running behind him, breathing the last gasping breaths of what had obviously been a two-year-old’s very heavy cry. When my wife explained that he was crying because he’d had an erection, I leaned over the edge of the tub, took our son’s face in my hands and said, “Sometimes my dool gets hard when I don’t want it to. I just wait and it gets soft again. You do the same thing. Don’t get upset. Just wait and it will go back to being soft.”

My son’s eyes widened with a feeling so big it left him speechless. I kissed his cheek and walked out, back to whatever it was that I’d been doing. Later, my wife told me that after I’d left the room, he’d turned to her and said, in Persian, which is her native language and was his dominant language at the time, “Maman, dooleh baba sefteh!” (Mom, Dad’s penis gets hard!) We puzzled briefly over what, specifically, he might have meant, and I tried to remember if, when I was a boy, any of my adult male relatives had talked to me about my own body in a similar way, offering themselves as a reflection of my biological maleness and the stance I might take towards it. I don’t think anyone ever did, but I did recall a moment when I was no older than six or eight in which I caught a glimpse of what I might have learned if someone had.

My father and I were in the locker room getting ready to leave the beach. His back was to me and he was talking about something I couldn’t listen to because he was naked. My eyes wandered among the whorls of black fur that ran from the nape of his neck, along his shoulders and arms, down is back and into the dark cleft of his buttocks. When he turned around, I could see where the hair of his back met the hair of his front in the bush between his legs. His penis hung like a pendulum, swinging slowly between his thighs when he walked, and I wondered if it got hard like mine did, if he played with it like I’d begun to do. I wanted to run and throw my arms around him, to pass through his skin and know what it would mean to live with such size. I was hungry with the prescience that his body would someday be mine, that my body was his in the making.


Dool is the child-language word for penis. We used it with my son when he was very young because it’s the word my wife used with him. At the time, as far as I knew, the word functioned neither as a metaphor nor any other figure of speech and referred only to penis. In this, dool contrasted starkly with what my wife told me would have been the child-language word she would have used for vagina if we’d had a daughter. Jish–which I have heard both children and adults use–is also an informal word for urine and is the word people use when they say the Persian equivalent of I have to pee.

Over the years, however, I have learned that there is at least one figure of speech–doodool talah, literally “golden penis”–which makes of the word dool something more than a word for children. I have heard the term most frequently from my wife in moments when she feels herself so full of emotion for our son that she lays her hand across his crotch and calls him doodool talah, a gesture which always reminds me of the passages in Roslind Miles’ Love, Sex, Death and the Making of the Male where she talks about the ways in which, according to her, women, or at least mostly women, acculturate men to identify with their penises. One scene that I remember most vividly–though my copy of the book is in storage and so I cannot cite page numbers right now–was a man’s description of how his nanny would tell him it was time to put “little Johnny” (meaning his penis) to bed and how she would stroke him as he fell asleep. (When I lived in Korea, I had a lover who, while she was stroking my perineum, told me that was often how mothers calmed their sons when it was time to put them to sleep.)

I don’t know if I agree with Miles that such conditioning–as I think she would put it–lies at the core of phallocentrism, not only as a theoretical construct, but as men’s lived experience, but I do often wonder what my son has internalized from, what meaning he will give to, the fact that his mother has told him over and over again that his penis is golden, that he is her golden penis.

If English were my wife’s native language, and the choice entirely mine, I’d have taught my son to call his penis his penis, nothing else. He’s got plenty of time to learn the other names that organ goes by and to negotiate the layers of meaning with which they will shape the way his body and his sexuality are seen, both by himself and the society in which he lives. According to the Thesaurus of Slang, published in 1988 by Facts on File, there are one-hundred-forty-three of these alternative names, a quick read-through of which reveals some obvious categories of reference:

Food: meat, banana, cucumber, kosher pickle, baloney, sausage, salami, frankfurter, tootsie roll, peppermint stick, jelly roll.

Tools & Machinery: dipstick, divining rod, pike, piston, machine, roto rooter, instrument, fountain pen, hammer, poker, tool, plunger, cherry picker.

Weapons: bazooka, gun, spear, sword, rammer, battering ram, dagger, pistol, peace maker.

Animals: serpent, snake, one-eyed monster, one-eyed wonder, pecker, pup.

Emotion: love muscle, rod of love, heart, joy-stick, Mr. Happy.

Many of these words–in addition, of course, to the old standbys: cock, dick, prick, schlong–have been familiar to me for a very long time (though I have to admit that divining rod and pup were new to me), and I have always thought them to be underwhelming in their imaginative potential, not to mention (bazooka, spear, hammer, roto rooter) scary. Fountain pen–I’m a writer, what can I say–and divining rod seem kind of fun, but the impression I am left with when I read through the full list of which the above is a subset is the impression I had, even as a teenager, when I was an avid reader of Penthouse Forum–both the letters in the magazine and the standalone publication–and I would laugh out loud at the linguistic contortions the letter-writers would go through to avoid using the word penis. Not only did the constant repetition of expressions like love muscle or rod of love become ridiculous–accompanied as they always were by a number of inches, as in “he (or I) slammed into me (or her) with his (or my) nine-inch kosher pickle”–but the descriptions the letter writers came up with often de-eroticized, for me anyway, the act they were describing. I remember reading one Forum letter and thinking that I could not imagine , from either a male or female perspective, a less appetizing metaphor for a woman giving oral sex to a man than “swallowing his salami whole?”

One surrogate term for penis did capture my imagination, though I learned it from my friends, not anything that I read. Like the description of The Pigeon in The Perfumed Garden, “skin flute” seemed to me to break free, at least potentially, of the demeaningly simplistic and single-minded point of view that gave rise to those other expressions. The only time I ever heard “skin flute” used, however, was in reference to masturbation–“He’s playing the skin flute!”–which my friends never said in anything other than a derisive tone of voice I found hard to comprehend. To me, the idea of masturbation as a kind of music-making, of the giving of sexual pleasure as a kind of musical composition or improvisation, was fascinating. I”d just begun in my high school music theory class to learn about tension, release and resolution, and I remember how, in a lecture on a specific composer–I think it was Wagner–my teacher had us listen to a symphonic work in which the music seemed like it was going to resolve at any moment, but instead moved always a half-step up, raising the level of tension, changing the key and sending the melody off in a new direction, though still reaching for the resolution it required. I don’t know how I decided this, from I knew from then on that I wanted sexual pleasure, my own and my partners–when I had one–to be like that; and I practiced (at that time I practiced alone) as both the instrumentalist and the instrument, discovering not only the hows and wheres of touching myself, but also methods of breathing and of holding and releasing the pleasure until it sometimes seemed I could sustain it indefinitely.

To some it may sound like I am talking about Tantric sex, but I’m not. I didn’t know at the time that such a thing as Tantric sex even existed. Indeed, as wonderful and exciting as this sexual awakening was for me, I did not think I had discovered anything other than what those with more sexual experience than I had already knew. I thought everyone saw sexual pleasure in more or less the same way that I did. I did not understand how wrong I was until I got to college.


“For me,” our dorm stud laughed, “it’s not even a question. If I don’t get laid, I don’t feel like a man.”

We were talking about the parties being held that night on campus, and someone had just turned the conversation towards whether or not any of us would “get lucky.”

“If I don’t fuck a woman at least two or three times a week,” the stud continued, “it’s like there’s this emptiness that starts growing inside me.”

“Why?” I wanted to know.

ait!” He looked around at the rest of the guys in the room. “Don’t you guys all feel the same way?” Some nodded their heads, and then one of them turned to me. “What do you do when you’re horny and you can’t get laid?”

“I masturbate.”

At the word masturbate, a tension entered the room that had not been there before. Suddenly, it seemed like my friends, including the stud–who just moments ago had been waxing eloquent about his need to fuck women–did not know what to say. Then, as if on cue, they all started speaking at once, though what they were saying had nothing to do with my question. All they wanted to know was why I didn’t have a girlfriend, and they offered to introduce me to women who were known to “put out.” With a woman, they explained, and it was clear from their tone that they assumed I was a virgin, “it”–meaning ejaculation–was entirely different from when you were by yourself. The simple fact of her skin, warm and moist and slippery, against yours was guarantee–and that was the word they used guarantee–that coming inside her was like no other pleasure you would ever feel. Even if she didn’t know what to do, they said, it didn’t matter. The bottom line was her skin against yours.

My own experience was quite different. Sure, I liked to fuck, and oral sex sometimes left me quite literally weak in the knees, but it was not uncommon for me to feel, after sex, that I could’ve done it better myself. After all, who knew better than me where and how I liked to be touched? When I tried to explain this to my friends, however, they insisted that the problem–though they never defined precisely what the problem was–had to be with me. When they had sex, they said, the sensation was always, uniformly great. Personally, I found this hard to believe, but the more sexually active I became, and the more I found myself with women whose entire idea of male sexual pleasure could be summed up by the in and out and up and down of an engine piston–and the more deeply I came to understand that women had learned this idea from men–the more I began to realize that my friends’ idea of sexual pleasure was not rooted in the “bottom line” of skin on skin, as they had claimed, but on being an engine piston and knowing they had used a woman as their “casing.”

The political meaning of intercourse for women is the fundamental question of feminism and freedom: can an occupied people–physically occupied inside, internally invaded–be free?  I think of my student Cassandra, who wrote so eloquently about how sexual penetration was painful for her, a legacy of the sexual abuse she survived as a child at the hands of a woman, and about how, despite the pain she felt, she would fake orgasm to protect both her secret and the ego of the man she was with; and I think of my other student, Esther, who wondered in the conclusion of an essay about her own abuse if there was a mark on her, visible only to men, inviting them onto and into her body, and I think of the list she made in that essay of all the men who have put their hands and mouths and more on her and in her, as if they were responding to such a mark; and I think of the daughter I do not yet have and may never have, and of my wife, and of the women who were my lovers before my wife, and I am humbled that all of these women were and are and will be able and willing to trust me, and I am astonished, because I don’t always know if I can trust myself.

Cross-posted on It’s All Connected.

This entry posted in Feminism, sexism, etc, Gender and the Body, Rape, intimate violence, & related issues. Bookmark the permalink. 

28 Responses to My Daughter's Vagina, Part 2

  1. 1
    Shira says:

    When my brother was two, he was horrified to learn that he would never be able to breastfeed. He had thought, up to that point, that boys came out of their fathers, and girls came out of their mothers, and he somehow had very clear memories of being breastfed by our father.

    This is an incredible essay.

  2. Thanks, Shira. You remind me that when my son was little and my wife was pumping breast milk for me to feed him when she was not at home, he actually began to refer to the bottle, in Persian, as “mameyeh baba,” or daddy’s breast.

  3. 3
    Diana Boston says:

    As a woman, it has always bothered me that men make up names for their penis. Added to that, it’s usually a name that reminds one of a weapon, like your list above. To me, it’s incredibly unmanly to 1) call your penis a weapon or anything else (says a lot about the culture though) and 2) act like your penis is a separate entity.

    I’ve thought long about WHY this bothers me and I think it always comes back to patriarchy. When a man cannot use the correct name for his penis and calls it some ‘other’ it’s almost as if he’s not taking personal responsibility for his sexuality. And sure enough, another main theme in our culture is that men cannot control their sexuality. This argument finds its way into issues like rape and how women are partly to blame because their appearance makes it impossible for a man to control himself, ooops, no, control his ‘other’ thing that’s not REALLY a part of him.

    Just today on another blog there is talk about Kenneth Ecott who claims he was sleeping when he raped a woman. I suppose everything else was sleeping except his penis right?ummm, no, maybe his big gun or something?

  4. 4
    Robert says:

    Diana –

    We “other” our penises because they don’t act like the rest of our bodies. I can tell my arm to get firm, and I can tell it to relax, and it does so; doesn’t work that way for Bob Jr. He pretty much lives a life of his own.

    And yeah, I’m responsible for that “life” because it’s a part of my life, no question there. On the other hand – not to be too defensive about things – what business is it of yours? “As a woman”, I would think that your attitude toward’s men’s relationship with their genitals would be one of curiosity, indifference, or incomprehension. Instead you’re lecturing us about what the “correct” name for things is. What’s up with that?

  5. 5
    Myca says:

    We “other” our penises because they don’t act like the rest of our bodies. I can tell my arm to get firm, and I can tell it to relax, and it does so; doesn’t work that way for Bob Jr. He pretty much lives a life of his own.

    It’s interesting, because I think this is both true and not true.

    On the one hand, as an adult, if I get an an inconvenient erection, I can mostly make it go away by consciously shifting my attention elsewhere (If we hear any inspirational power chords we’ll just lie down until they go away).

    On the other hand, this was not true for a big chunk of my life, it was certainly not true (and was scary) as a child, and even now I will occasionally wake up in the middle of the night due to a painful erection I’m lying on in some way.

    I think that it’s possible to recognize the psychological impact of that without absolving men of responsibility for their sexual behavior. I mean, we may not have full control over our penises, but Christ, we’ve got full control over our hands, legs, hips, and every other part that’s involved with having (consensual or non-consensual) sex with someone.

    Robert’s point is well taken, though. Richard’s son wasn’t crying because he was looking for excuses to not control his penis. He was crying because he couldn’t, and it terrified him.


  6. 6
    Diana Boston says:

    You know, sometimes my hair blows the wrong way, or my vulva gets engorged with blood but I don’t start calling it something ridiculous or claiming, like most men do, that it has a life of its own. No. It’s MY body that’s doing that. It’s not some mystical ‘other.’

    I think you missed my entire point and did get defensive and of course explained the very thing most men do: claim a different name for your penis and go into how it has a life of its own as if it’s separate from you.

    What business is it of mine? Last I checked this is a public place that anyone can comment on. A little pretentious eh?

    And this comment by you: “As a woman”, I would think that your attitude toward’s men’s relationship with their genitals would be one of curiosity, indifference, or incomprehension.

    I don’t know what inspired that comment above. My attitudes and beliefs were clearly expressed in my post.

    My point is that the phenomenon of calling a part of your body something other than what it is and ascribing it a life of it’s own, independent from you, may have very far reaching social impacts that I briefly discussed. I don’t see the need to attack me. Call your penis anything you want. I just think it’s absurd.

  7. Robert and Diana: I am hoping that your exchange will not escalate. Robert, I think Diana has a point: you were being defensive, and your comment about what you think a woman’s attitude towards men’s relationship with our genitals would be was, at best, presumptuous. Diana, while I think your point about the connection between what Robert calls men’s “other[ing]” of our penises and the patriarchal notion that men can’t/don’t have to be responsible for our sexuality is a good one, a very good one that I hadn’t actually thought of in those terms, I wouldn’t dismiss so easily Robert’s expression of his experience of his penis as “liv[ing] a life of its own.” (Which is quite something different from saying it does, in truth, have a life of its own.)

    My guess is that most if not every male reader here will identify with that experience–and I think it would be very interesting to hear from any who don’t–and so I am going to issue a challenge to the men who are following this thread: Let’s see if we can’t talk about that experience; why does it so often feel like our penises have lives (or minds, to reference the other common expression) of their own? How do we give meaning to that experience in our lives? How does our relationship to that experience shape the way we think about sex, not only in terms of how and when and why and with whom we have sex, but about what it feels like to experience our bodies as sexual? And let’s see if we can do it in a way that takes Diana’s critique of the naming phenomenon into account.

    I would start, except that I have to go pick my wife and son up from the airport, and the way my life will be for the next few days, I will only be able to check back here occasionally. (And so I would ask other moderators to take charge if anything does get out of hand here.)

    By the way A Mind of Its Own is the title of a very good book on the cultural history of the penis. The last chapter, if I remember correctly, contains a thorough explanation of the biology of the “mind of its own” phenomenon (if I have time, I will post some of the relevant passages from the book), which scientists have figured out only fairly recently.

  8. 8
    Jake Squid says:

    My guess is that most if not every male reader here will identify with that experience…

    I believe that you are correct about this. This is the reason that I, like Diana, find penis naming so disturbing. Slang terms for “penis” are one thing, but actually referring to it as “little so & so, ” is just bizarre to me. It’s like naming your legs or fingers. Legs do things that are seemingly out of our control (cramps, spasms), yet we don’t refer to legs as having lives of their own. Hell, I’ve suffered severe intestinal cramps for years – totally out of my control – yet I’ve managed not to name my intestines. Why? Because they are part of my body. So count me as one who just doesn’t get it. Not that I think that this is limited to men – I’ve known women who named their genitals.

    (I think that the previous paragraph may come off as more hostile than I intend. Well, I hope I can be forgiven for not figuring out how to modify that.)

    This is just one example of how my views of sex, sexuality and gender differ from yours, Richard. Not to say that I’m not interested in reading the remaining parts of your essay. You write well and, I think, are able to get your meaning across clearly and that will enable me to at least understand how you view specifics of those subjects. In fact, if there was anybody I was going to have an in-depth conversation about personal views of masculinity & sexuality with, it would be you because you really seem to have analyzed things to a great enough depth to be able to communicate your ideas in an understandable manner.

    I think that a large part of the reason that we view what it means to be a man so differently has to do with how we were taught, what we were taught, by whom we were taught and the circumstances surrounding that education as well as the personal experiences resulting from that learned view. From my POV, you have a much more traditional view of masculinity than I do as well as a more, for lack of a better term – but I’m open to one-, gender essentialist view.

  9. 9
    Mandolin says:

    “(I think that the previous paragraph may come off as more hostile than I intend. Well, I hope I can be forgiven for not figuring out how to modify that.)”

    It did not come across as hostile. You used “I” statements.

    Since Richard is out of action for a while, I’m going to make this request of everyone on the thread: use “I” statements.

    This is a personal topic. We are talking not just about sex, but about intimate views of sex. It’s fine to criticize things, but everyone, please try to center your response within your own world view. For instance, “I find… x creepy” is fine. Telling someone else what their reaction has to be is not.

  10. 10
    Robert says:

    I was overly defensive. My apologies.

  11. Jake:

    A quick clarification, now that my wife and son are jet-lag sleeping: I don’t think I have taken a position on men naming their penises; what I have said is that I find certain metaphors/slang terms for penis intriguing. Personally, I find the idea of naming my penis ridiculous, and I tend to agree with Diana’s analysis of that habit as being connected to rape culture. That said, I am also aware that when I was younger it certainly felt at times like my penis had a life of its own–and, for the record, I have heard women talk about their hair on days when it wouldn’t “behave” as having a life of its own, and my mother makes the same comment about her feet, which twitch all the time because of peripheral neuropathy–and I think, precisely because of Diana’s analysis, that it would be worth exploring how the penis-with-a-life-of-its-own metaphor, which is certainly alive in our culture (I think, actually, Adrienne Rich uses that phrase precisely in Compulsory Heterosexuality) both emerges from and shapes–or shapes, and so emerges from–the experience of the male body.

    And thanks for the kind words about my writing; I am interested to know why you think I have a gender essentialist view of masculinity, though please understand if I don’t respond right away.

  12. 12
    Jake Squid says:

    I don’t think I have taken a position on men naming their penises…

    Yeah, I could easily have misinterpreted. I’m even more tired than usual lately. WRT your clarification, the penis-with-a-life-of-its-own metaphor just creeps me out. I realize that it exists and is absurdly common. That’s what disturbs me – how can so many folks be able and/or willing to disassociate a body part?

    I am interested to know why you think I have a gender essentialist view of masculinity…

    I don’t mean to say that you have a gender essentialist view of masculinity. I mean that you have a more gender essentialist leaning(?) than I do. Like I said, I’m not sure that’s the right term. (But it isn’t surprising that I would think so. I’m not sure that I know anybody who is less of a gender essentialist than I am.) It’s part of what I see as your more traditional (than mine) view of masculinity. I’m looking at the continuum of definitions of masculinity here, not saying that we’re polar opposites.

    I’m interested in what you mean by the penis-with-a-life-of-its-own metaphor
    “both emerges from and shapes–or shapes, and so emerges from–the experience of the male body.” I’m both not sure exactly what you mean and certain that it is excluded from my experience of the male body which therefore leaves me curious about the views of others on the matter.

    I am also aware that when I was younger it certainly felt at times like my penis had a life of its own…

    Well, there have certainly been times when I wasn’t in control of whether or not I had an erection. But I don’t see that as significantly different than the times I haven’t been able to get my hair to lie right. For me, there is a significant difference between not being in control of part of my body and feeling that the body part has a life of its own. The real feeling of a body part “having a life of its own” is something that I’ve never had and don’t feel that I’m capable of having. Given that, you can see why that notion may be both alien and creepy to me. Kinda like Ash’s hand in Evil Dead 2. Come to think of it, feeling that a body part has a life/mind of its own must be horrifying to anyone who experiences it.

    Back to the quote, though… it seems to me that openness about bodies and sexuality would do a lot to ameliorate that disassociation. Hmm, looks like it may be time for me to do some sexual anthropology reading.

    No worries about delays in your response. I know how that goes.

  13. 13
    Robert says:

    Come to think of it, feeling that a body part has a life/mind of its own must be horrifying to anyone who experiences it.

    It doesn’t feel that way to me. It’s like being a superpower and having a satellite country that is definitely in your camp, but which sometimes goes off on a crazy tangent. Amusing, if you have perspective on it, or irritating if you don’t, but not horrifying. It’s not like the satellite country has nukes or you worry about it getting you into a war; it just might embarass you.

  14. 14
    Diana Boston says:

    First, I just want to say thank you to Robert for apologizing. Second, I think exploring this topic of body dissociation in the specific case of males is fascinating. Our culture stereotypes men by proposing that they aren’t in control of their sexual nature and a lot of men perpetuate that and see nothing wrong with it. It’s quite possible that the dissociation of the penis to an ‘other’ gives a man some notion that whatever happens sexually can be easily dismissed by some process whereby it becomes the ‘other’s’ fault and thereby responsibility for a rape is easily justified in the male mind.

    Also, you would predict that the victim of rape would be blamed for ‘turning on’ the man to the point where he obviously couldn’t control himself. Yes, that’s exactly what we have seen in rape cases.

    I’m wondering if this process of dissociating with your own penis not only dissociates a man from his sexuality, but his morality and finally, his personal accountability.

    It’s her fault. She dressed a certain way. Women are not supposed to tempt men. Eve tempted Adam. Muslim women cover themselves head to toe. Western women develop strategies to look as unsexual as possible using a variety of ways to stop males from paying attention to them. ( I know many women who do this, including myself).

    I really want to explore this more. Those are just my preliminary thoughts.

  15. 15
    Robert says:

    Our culture stereotypes men by proposing that they aren’t in control of their sexual nature and a lot of men perpetuate that and see nothing wrong with it.

    I think that the proposal is that we aren’t in control of our sexual desire. We are in control of, and responsible for, our sexual behavior. Men who rape aren’t “out of control”; they are consciously choosing evil.

    I can’t help what I like; I can help what I do.

  16. 16
    Diana Boston says:

    I looked up desire in the dictionary, just because I had a sneaking suspicion that the definition contained something crucial, and it did. Way down at #6 I found “sexual appetite or a sexual urge.”

    An appetite for something tends to imply that this is a regular human behaviour. We all have an appetite, well, most of us. This is why I don’t think we’ve really come to a good understanding of this phenomena.

    All to often we find men acting on that desire in the form of sexual assault.

    I think Richard is right. We need to hear from more men on how they see their penises as ‘other’ and what that has to do with their sexuality and sexual behaviour.

  17. 17
    Michael says:

    Perhaps it was in an essay by Octavia Paz that I saw these two similes laid side by side:

    ‘…the ears lay on the table like a bag of dried apricots';

    ‘…and the blood of children ran through the streets,/ without fuss, like the blood of children’.

    I cannot recall exactly the argument Paz (if he was indeed the author of this essay) was making, but I think it involved asserting that at times a moral imperative demands that we call things simply by their names. And I am sure that he also recognised that much of the force of Neruda’s line (about the blood of children) derived from our subverted expectation of metaphor. The sudden identity (where we expected simile) startles us into recognising a fatal singularity.

    But of course it is not just in poems that we call things by the names of other things, and of course our genitals are not the only parts of our bodies that we are in the habit of naming variously (affectionately, derogatorily, familiarly, clinically, humorously, etc.)

    The head (bean, box, block, cabbage, crown, noggin, noodle, etc.) is surely as variously termed as the penis (and of course the latter is often referred to as the former).

    The mouth (pie hole, chops, gob, kisser, smacker, etc.) and the nose (conk, honker, sniffer, and of course, pecker) often have affectionate or derogatory names attached to them (as does the face as an ensemble; the eyes, too, are often affectionately termed; the ears perhaps less so).

    The buttocks and anus are so commonly called otherwise that it feels strangely formal to refer to them so.

    There’s no need for me to go on. The way we name different parts of our bodies of course depends on where we find ourselves speaking about them, and to whom. Certain usages would sound, ‘clinical’, ‘vulgar’, ‘offensive’, ‘endearing’, ‘hillarious’, ‘familiar’, ‘normal’ in particular settings and otherwise in other settings.

    Common usage is never innocent, to be sure, but nevertheless, I think it’s worth simply mentioning that the penis is not the only member that we name ‘otherwise’. Nor is the penis the only part of the body that is often experienced as ‘other’. Our faces are very commonly felt to be something that we bear, something that precedes us, something gifted to us or inflicted upon us.

    Faces and penises (vaginas, anuses, and hands, too) are sites of particularly complex social exchange. Shouldn’t we expect (and desire) the language that describes and implicates those sites to be equally complex?

    Our bodies are not wholly ours, they are made and defined, excited and inhibited in exchange and encounter with other bodies. Our experiences of our own bodies are always to some degree mediated. Certainly, discussion about the implication of how we speak about our bodies, and speak differently about different bits of them is valuable; the politics and psychology of representation is always contentious. Our practices of naming, as many of these comments insightfully point out, reveal much about our systems of value and sociality. We can critically consider these practices or hold to different practice, but it is unlikely that we will ever achieve an economy of anatomical nomenclature (why would we want too?). There may at times be a moral imperative to call things simply by their names, but things are rarely simply named. In any case, it is surely too simple to imagine that it is simply ‘silly’ not to always call a penis a penis.

  18. 18
    Magniloquence says:

    I’ve known women to name their breasts and their vulvas/vaginas. I don’t have specific names for them, or any of my other body parts, but I do talk about my hair not behaving, or my legs not doing what I want them to do, or bits of me moving without my consciously thinking about them.

    Although I can see the line one might draw between the othering of one’s penis and the abdication of responsibility for it, I’m not so sure that they are causally connected. [Edited to add: That is, I think they’re independent phenomena. However, that doesn’t mean that people don’t use them in the way that you’re talking about, similar to the way people use getting drunk; it wasn’t me, it was the _______. We accept it in the realm of the polite fiction, even if we all actually understand that the mechanism is incorrect. That doesn’t excuse bad behavior at all, of course… but I think it’s a factor independent of this particular phenomenon.]

    What I was most strongly reminded of in this thread was the research I did (and read) for my thesis… people create independent personas all the time, and they integrate characters they create into their own identities all the time.

    When I’m talking about what my character does in a game, I might say “I just got a new axe” or “[my character] had a really rough day today” or “We explored the dark caverns with so-and-so.” That doesn’t mean I’m not clear that my character is a bunch of pixels on a screen, or that I think I’m an elf or a witch or a giant cow-creature. It’s more complicated than that, more fluid.

    And that’s what I feel goes on a lot when people talk about parts of themselves as other entities. “Wow, my breasts just won’t leave me alone today!” I know that they’re a part of me, and that I am responsible for them … but I’m expressing a feeling in a way that is nevertheless true (for me).

  19. 19
    Michael says:

    And I should add (should have said at the outset), this is a wonderfully intelligent, moving and brave essay. Thank you for it. This was the first post I read here (I’ve just read part one and comments). Really impressed with level and tone of exchange here.

  20. Two quick things–I can’t believe I am writing this at 5:30 am NY time:

    1. In her essay Compulsory Heterosexuality–which I have not read in a long time and my copy of which is currently in storage–Adrienne Rich mentions the “penis with a life/mind [don’t remember which] of its own” as part of patriarchal ideology, along the lines of what Diana has talked about in her comments. It seems to me that this is something men live in relation to, whether we internalize it as part of how we think of our genitals or not–as Jake has stated rather absolutely that he has not. This is not the same thing as the metaphorical thinking about our bodies that Magniloquence is talking about, which goes on all the time and which, as Michael points out, we extend to many parts of our bodies other than our genitals. When I suggested it would be interesting for men to talk about the penis-with-a-life/mind-of-its-own (PWALOIO) metaphor, I was thinking of both these things. Jake, for example, has written:

    Well, there have certainly been times when I wasn’t in control of whether or not I had an erection. But I don’t see that as significantly different than the times I haven’t been able to get my hair to lie right. For me, there is a significant difference between not being in control of part of my body and feeling that the body part has a life of its own.

    While there is a way in which I, for one, would agree with him now–though I still think things are more complicated than that–it certainly did not feel when I was younger that having an erection was in the same category as having unruly hair. In other words, the stance towards the body that he talks about is one that I arrived at; it was not the one most easily available to me, and while I don’t have time right now to work through how I arrived at this position, what I was suggesting was that it would be interesting for men to talk about how we arrived at the positions we currently hold. Robert’s distinction between not being in control of our desire and being in control of our behavior, for example, is another position it would be worth hearing about how it was arrived at. (Why? Well, for example, it is not clear to me that having an erection is always an expression/manifestation of desire; sometimes, in my experience, desire has come after I already have an erection.)

    2. Jake asked what I meant by the PWALOIO metaphor “both emerg[ing] from and shap[ing]–or shap[ing], and so emerg[ing] from–the experience of the male body.” I guess what I was thinking about was, in the first case, how one might come to that metaphor through experiencing unwanted erections and/or the inability to have an erection when one wants one and, in the second, how the imposition of that metaphor as an ideology shapes the way men think about our bodies.

  21. 21
    Erik says:

    I remember when in high school my female friends discovered that many of us boys had names for our penises and teased us about them. They asked me what my name for my penis was and I told them I didn’t have one. I remember feeling horrified as they decided that they were going to name my penis for me. I told them no, I didn’t want them to, but they didn’t stop. They cycled through a list of names and then settled on one.

    I remember feeling violated, but not really understanding why. Maybe because I always felt like my penis was part of me and they were somehow othering it for me.

    Truly weird.

    Regardless, I don’t have a name for it to this day, and I can’t imagine naming it. It’s my dick, it’s attached. It’s as much a part of me as my hand or my nose. My ability to control my erection is roughly equivalent to my ability to balance while doing a dancer’s pose or a shoulder stand in yoga. Just because I have a hard time controlling it sometimes doesn’t mean it’s not me.

  22. 22
    Erik says:

    And I really enjoyed the essay, Richard.

  23. 23
    acm says:

    Just today on another blog there is talk about Kenneth Ecott who claims he was sleeping when he raped a woman. I suppose everything else was sleeping except his penis right?ummm, no, maybe his big gun or something?

    a little off-topic, but I wanted to address this from Diana. I’ve had two male friends who had problems with making sexual advances in their sleep — whether it was kissing or rolling on top of sleeping partners or initiating sex without apparent awareness of the partner’s interest or lack thereof. scary for the sleeping partner, and for the sleeper, once awakened. with advance warning, a sleeping partner can simply take steps to awaken the sleeper (independent of the sexual action); without such knowledge, severe misunderstandings (and, I could imagine, violation) could definitely occur. it’s a known syndrome, and quite apart from the mere separateness of penis and guy…

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  25. 24
    Kay Olson says:

    I’m belated in reading this series, but really enjoying it, Richard.

    This from Jake Squid in comment #12: For me, there is a significant difference between not being in control of part of my body and feeling that the body part has a life of its own. The real feeling of a body part “having a life of its own” is something that I’ve never had and don’t feel that I’m capable of having.

    This makes me think of the language used to describe impairment and disability. Traditionally, the language tends toward describing lack of control. For example, a tumor grows “wildly”, “out of control” or “rampant.” Paralysis of legs might be described as “loss of all ability to move or control.” And it’s common in both personal memoir writing or medical parlance to see references to impaired body parts like, “the legs” in a depersonalizing sense, separating the body part from the person.

    That is the traditional language of conveying disability. Disability theory attempts to turn much of that on its head, exploring what an “unruly” body might be or describing the spasticity of cerebral palsy, for example, as “exhuberant flailing.”

    The cultural description of penises as “having lives of their own” is quite different from traditional language describing disability, isn’t it? And, I suspect, not just because lack of control of an erection isn’t an impairment in terms of bodily “abnormality.” Agency changes without the person owning the body losing social status if lack of control is described as this extra, other life.

    Language about disability can be interpreted quite easily as “feminizing” or “emasculating.” Paralysis is apparently often literally seen as emasculation in the way strangers will ask men with paraplegia or quadriplegia about their penises, sex lives, erection capability, etc. with the goal of learning, “Can he get it up?” And the cultural idea that a penis has a life of its own manages to convey loss of control while escaping this sense of feminization or submission or outright loss, I think.


  26. Kay:

    First, thanks for the kind words!

    Second, I don’t know why precisely, and I have just spent a long time writing Part 9, which I just posted, and so I don’t really have the energy right now to unpack why, but what you wrote put me in mind of these passages from A Mind of Its Own, by David M. Friedman, which is a really interesting cultural history of the penis. He is writing about one root of the ideology of the penis with a life/mind of its own in Christian thought:

    Augustine’s epiphany was tautological: he was powerless to control the penis because he was powerless. Free choices is an illusion. Adam’s birthright at Creation was freedom, defined by Augustine as the ability to obey God, yet Adam scorned that gift because he wanted the “freedom to do wickedness.” Adam’s sin deprived his descendants of the freedom to choose not to sin. The ultimate embodiment of this, Augustine wrote, is “disobedience in the member.” After Adam and Eve flouted God’s will by eating the forbidden fruit, they experienced two new sensations: shame at their nakedness an sexual stirrings they could not control. “We are ashamed of that very thing which made those being ashamed, when they covered their loins.” That “very thing” is a spontaneous erection.


    Before sinning, Adam and Eve had mastery over sex, procreating as an act of volition, “the way one commands his feet when he walks.” But since leaving Eden men have become powerless over, and tortured by, erections. “At times the urge intrudes uninvited,” Augustine wrote in City of God. “At other times, it deserts the panting lover, and, although desire blazes in the mind, the body is frigid.” For the Greeks and Romans, an erection was like a change in heartbeat: involuntary, and not susceptible to blame or praise. But for Augustine the cause and the effect of original sin is lust, the symptom and the disease is the erection. With this one stroke, this one man transformed the penis more than any men who yet lived: the sacred staff became the demon rod. (pages 38-39)

    Wish I could unpack this further, but there are some other comments I have to get to.

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