I wrote this a long time ago, but I never got around to posting it, which is why the articles it refers to are old. I think it’s still more or less relevant though.
The fellas and lasses over at Feminist Critics have a tag for issues called What Feminism Got Right. Well, here. This is something Feminist Critics (the site, not the general population that might be so titled) Got Right.
So, let’s start with a personal anecdote. When I was in college, I had an acquaintance who decided to try to commit suicide because of his penis size. Also, because I wouldn’t date him, and neither would my boyfriend. (He’d decided we were to Become Polyamorous on his say-so.) Also, although I didn’t know this at the time, because he had profound issues with paranoia, delusion, and depression, and tried to commit suicide about once a week, particularly if he could find a (usually several years younger) female to reassure him that no, he shouldn’t do it! He was smart and good and wonderful and unique and worthwhile! (For the record, I do think that he would have hurt himself if the women he trapped into spending their evenings reassuring him had failed to reassure him. Just because his attempts were manipulative and a plea for attention didn’t mean that they weren’t also genuine.)
But anyway. The first time I talked him down, the initiating trigger was that his penis was so much smaller than my boyfriend’s.
So, already there are mixed feelings. There’s pity for Manipulative Suicidal Dude (MSD?) because this angst over his penis size was obviously deeply felt, and very painful for him, enough so to trigger suicidal thoughts — even if a lot of things did.
Simultaneously, I have the same sense of WTF? about the whole situation that I had then. The overt reasoning for why the MSD was so upset about his theoretically small penis was that the small penis proved he was “less of a man” than my boyfriend. As evidence for this, he proffered the fact that I was dating boyfriend instead of MSD. Therefore, boyfriend’s bigger penis was better able to please me. Or something.
However, the whole theoretical centering of me as the issue — alas my small penis shall never please ye! — seems suspicious. For one thing, boyfriend’s penis was indeed big. And, consequently, it was often painful. I do not like big penises, not because of aesthetics or morality or anything, but out of simple preferring not to hurt.
But, of course, no one was asking me.
That doesn’t mean other women don’t like big penises, and I do remember conversations in college in which other girls would say, “OMG, I had a threesome with very-good-looking-blond-boy-on-our-hall, and he’s ENORMOUS!” or, with a cat-who-seized-cream smile, “I love my boyfriend’s (expletive expletive superlative indicating very large) penis.” I also remember that my shudder of oh dear god, how can you possibly like that, ow? was not totally unique to me.
So, we have here an issue in which the women’s opinions really aren’t being solicited. My “ow” was irrelevant to the point of being written out of the scenario in favor of my wholly imaginary (sorry, ex-boyfriend, but yeah) “ohhhhhh.”
The real meat, if you’ll excuse me, of this competition wasn’t heterosexual — with me involved — it was homosocial. It was between boyfriend and MSD. This was fairly overt. MSD, in pre-suicide-attempt complaints, said that he couldn’t stand to live because Boyfriend outdid him in all ways. He had a better car, bigger dick, and a girlfriend (namely me) — and why, there’s that pesky woman showing up again, but not as a person, as a reward object.
So, there’s an undeniable ugliness here. Dick-size contests, in my experience, have been primarily homosocial, with women and women’s experiences both used as an excuse and effectively ignored.
But that’s only one salient pole (cough) of analysis.
In a number of other ways, MSD’s insecurity about his penis seems, to me, to be a good parallel for some kinds of women’s body insecurities. For instance:
1) MSD’s penis, by the reported averages, wasn’t actually small. It was actually perfectly penisly average.
Now, partly MSD was here a victim of statistics. A lot of penis size studies used to be based on self-reporting. When given the chance to say where their penises were size X or size X+1, men proudly reported themselves as X+1, leading to studies that yielded an average of X+1 inches — which I believe for years was 6 — when in fact, the actual data-as-measured produced an accurate measure of X, or 5. So, the majority of dudes were mistakenly told they were genitally sub-average.
Let’s look at women’s dress sizes. The majority of women think they are too fat, and that their bodies are unacceptable. They aren’t victims of specific studies with incorrect methodologies, but of widespread and systemic cultural beliefs and portrayals of women which create a visual default of a size X, when the majority of women can be found at size X+8-10.
There’s also 2) It didn’t matter the least little bit that MSD’s penis wasn’t actually small. Nor did it matter that I (or other women) reassured MSD that, even had his penis been small, that was still fine, because we preferred that or didn’t care. Because the problem that MSD was experiencing had very little to do with actual bedroom antics with women. It had to do with self-perception based on unrealistic ideals and associated with concepts of masculinity as divorced from the actual performance of masculinity.
When I write that I prefer penises on the average-to-small side — which I do — I can’t help but think of all those so-helpful men who launch themselves into threads on women’s bodies to assure us lamenting lasses that “they think curves are hot” and “I’ve never seen the appeal of skinny bodies anyway.” The reaction to this is inevitably, and justifiably, grumpy. Thanks, we reply, but we don’t need you to stigmatize skinny ladies (or, in the parallel, large penises) on our behalf.
And besides, we point out, the problem isn’t whether or not we can find a dude who wants to fuck us. We’re married; we’re asexual; we’re involved; we’ve had more sex in the past week than you’ll have in the next ten years; we get enough ‘reassurance’ of our ‘sexiness’ from strangers with roving hands on the subway. The problem is the social attitudes which malign our bodies as gross, which mean that our wages go down as our waistlines increase, which indicate we will be treated poorly by strangers in public places, and so on.
Although women’s anxiety over body image is often framed as being a woman’s desire to be (or be seen as) more attractive, that’s a red herring. If that were the case, if our problems were solely based on the need to have partners who are attracted to us, then our body image problems would vanish with the introduction of men who are attracted to us. I’m married; I don’t want to attract any more men; my body image issues persist, though thankfully my eating disorders don’t.
As woman gain weight, their femininity and worth is called into question. As men’s perception of their penis size declines, their masculinity and worth is called into question.
The problems are very different in scope, in the kinds of social consequences that exist, and in how publicly the insecurities are paraded. It seems unlikely that a poorly endowed man will suffer lowered wages, mistreatment in public spheres, and so on.
However, there’s a pain here that can be understood, via analogy, to be somewhat similar in its core.
So, dick jokes.
Liberals’ use of dick jokes are premised on the idea that all liberals (all feminist liberals?) should theoretically understand that penis size — beyond extreme cases — is more or less irrelevant to sexual experience. We’ve all heard the stats about how the sex-sensitive nerves in a woman’s vagina can be more than adequately rubbed, prodded, and pleasured, by all but the most diminutive dicks. We all theoretically know that there are lots of ways that couples can sexually pleasure each other besides penis-in-vagina intercourse, and that there are grave problems with the elevation of the model of an enormous tree trunk thrusting into a delicate woman as if it were a battering ram.
So, to some extent, we’re saying: “Here, we all know that this isn’t something that matters. Isn’t this framework in which masculinity is based on cock size ridiculous? Yes, it is.”
However, we’re doing something else, as well. We’re tapping into the framework that penis size = masculinity.
There’s a cultural narrative that penis size is related to masculinity. With dick jokes, liberals are identifying people with an abusive, unhealthy, or anxious masculinity that leads them to do asshat-type things. They’re then making overt the connection between masculinity and penis size, and subverting that relationship by making the comments that would apply to the masculinity directly about the penis size. (Rather than saying, “You don’t need to be so anxious about your masculinity, dude. You’re a man no matter what you do,” we say, “You don’t need to worry that much about your dick, dude. It’s the way you use it that matters, not the size.”)
Both of these uses of dick jokes become unfunny when the joke moves from a theoretical framework to talking about an actual penis. In the first case, in which liberals are reassuring each other through humor that everyone knows dick size is irrelevant — well, you know, not everyone knows that. Or if they do *know* it, they don’t necessarily feel it. The cultural meme saying that a man is robbed of all masculinity if he has a small penis continues to have power even when one intellectually knows that it’s bunk.
In the second case, the joke works as long as it’s clear that what the liberal is targeting is not an actual penis, but an inflated sense of masculinity. The moment that an understanding of the poking at the framework disappears — that’s the moment when the joke starts to go flat, or look nasty, or both.
It’s absolutely vital to maintain the separation between mocking what a penis stands for, and mocking actual penises. I hope that liberals will, by now, accept that when you insult something as ‘gay’ or someone for being ‘fat’ you aren’t able to actually confine your meanness to just that person you’re targeting; you end up more generally aiming at all fat and gay people. If Rush Limbaugh, for instance, is mockable not just because he’s an asshat who extrudes pre-digested food products whenever he opens his mouth, but also because he’s tubby, then you’re saying that tubbiness is an objectively bad thing which can therefore also be used to malign people with whom you agree.
Now, it’s okay to mock fatphobic people for being fat, because they are trying to hurt other fat people while ignoring their own bodies. It’s okay to mock homophobic people for being gay when they try to use their influence to hurt other gay people.
And it’s pretty much okay to mock over-anxious masculinity by mocking penises, as long as you can make sure that your text never condenses the concept and the physicality. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to attain that level of precision in a humorous text. Combine that with the actual trauma that you can expect to have inevitably been experienced by some, probably young, guy in your reading audience, and you end up with a difficult situation.
So: dick jokes are sometimes okay, but difficult to pull off, and have the potential to trigger people.
I think liberals might be better advised to make fun of big penises when they want to lampoon the connection between anxious masculinity, and dicks. I find it both more amusing and less fraught when a liberal responds to some bloviating, hyper-masculine, stomping asshat with, “Yes, thank you, we all know your penis is enormous,” rather than suggesting the penis is small. It gets across all the same points about the silliness of the construction of American masculinity as something that can be easily lost, but it has less potential for triggering innocent bystanders.
And anyway, everyone’s penis is tiny compared to this.