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?”
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.