The Dos and Donts of Dick Jokes, or What Feminist Critics Got Right

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.

Dick jokes are awkward.

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.

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21 Responses to The Dos and Donts of Dick Jokes, or What Feminist Critics Got Right

  1. 1
    Manju says:

    this is one long post. heh heh.

  2. 2
    sanabituranima says:

    I never thought I’d see an Alas post linking to The Sun.

  3. 3
    Denise says:

    Dick jokes have always bothered me. It always seemed to me to be crossing a line to mock someone for something they literally can’t help. Although I do heartily endorse the “Yes, we all know your penis is monstrous” type jokes.

  4. This is a really fine post, Mandolin. Thanks. On a related note, people might be interested in checking out Part 8 of “My Daughter’s Vagina.” A relevant excerpt:

    When I went home at the end of the semester, I asked the only woman I could think to ask about what had happened between Maria and myself, my mother. This may seem strange to some people, but I’ve always been able to talk with my mother about sex, and I figured I could count on her to give me a straight answer [about why a woman would try to seduce me by trying to make me feel insecure about the size of my penis]. I was wrong.

    “The size of a man’s ego,” my mother told me after I had finished my story, “can be measured by the size of his penis.” To illustrate her point, she related a story about a man who tried to pick her up in a bar she’d gone to with her friends. At first, she refused him politely, but as he grew more and more insistent, she grew more and more annoyed until, finally, having had enough, loudly, so that all the people around them could hear, she offered him the following challenge. If he had a “baseball bat” between his legs, she’d be his for the night. If he didn’t, he should just leave her alone. The man protested that he’d “never had any complaints,” but my mother slapped her palm on the bar and told him that if he had what it would take to have her, she wanted to see it right then and there. If he didn’t…enough said.

  5. 5
    PG says:


    Because all the various masculinities in competition are so absurdly contradictory, and by their nature competitive with one another, denying the terms by which other masculinities are self-defined, mainstream masculinity must then partake in only the most basic and fundamental performance of self. The only thing left for masculine dudes to do that does not invite ridicule is to point at their genitals.

    “I have a penis.”

    We see this pathetic shell of a masculine performance perhaps most clearly on television programs designed to be appealing not to any particular ethnic, racial, gender, sexual, socioeconomic, etc. category, but for, you know, everyone. Television commercials about masculinity do this especially. They basically say nothing except “I have a penis and so I buy this product.” That is, it doesn’t say “I am a good man and so I buy this product” or “I am a wise and thoughtful man and so I buy this product” or “I am a refined and intellectual man and so I buy this product.” The commercial man is not, in fact, a man at all. He is little more than a visibly human shape that insists it has a penis.

    My own favorite formulation of this is Guy Fieri, the host of about a billion bad Food Network programs. He’s not smart and quirky like Alton Brown, classy and gentle like Michael Chiarello, arrogant and brilliant like Mario Batali, nor sexy and suave like the various Latino chefs who get briefly hustled on and off the Food Network sets. Guy Fieri is a Man Without Qualities. His only apparent motivation is feeding his very hungry penis.

    “I’m a guy. I like guy food.” He says this so frequently during each episode, with one hand pointed at all times to his own crotch, that one begins to believe it makes sense. Penises like to eat bacon, potatoes, cheese, beer, chicken, uh, and pretty much everything else. “Guy food” here seems to mean, you know, food. His penis will apparently crave salads, fish, roasted veggies, and so forth, as long as they have penis-approved recipe names.

    Why is he so terrified that we may forget that he’s already told us what kind of genitals are in his pants? He isn’t competing with anyone on any of his shows, like Bobby Flay or Masaharu Morimoto. He’s not constructing a traditional ethnic identity. He isn’t trying to fuck anyone, male or female, as far as I can tell. He’s just very concerned, it would seem, that, out of sight and out of mind, the shape of his genitals may escape our attention.

    It’s weird.

  6. 6
    Tom Nolan says:

    So: dick jokes are sometimes okay, but difficult to pull off, and have the potential to trigger people.

    So dick jokes are just like dicks themselves, really.

  7. 7
    FurryCatHerder says:

    I’m as offended by dick jokes as I am by vagina jokes. Why there’s even a discussion about when, why, how and what-EVER dick jokes should be told strikes me as … weird.

    Men are no less insecure about being too small or being too large, it’s just that “too big” isn’t talked about in public nearly as much as being too small. I’m sure many of us who’ve ever discussed the size of someone’s partner’s penis have heard stories about “he’s so big it hurts” or comments about gagging, or people lamenting about some guy having something that DOES resemble a baseball bat.

    No one much cares that I have an underwhelming amount of pubic hair, like I should be happy that I’m never going to need a good bikini waxing with a commercial lawnmower. What I get told is that I’m lucky, as if having my genitals exposed for all to see in the locker room is some kind of blessing. Likewise, I suspect there are men out there who’ve lost partners because of their baseball bat sized manhood.

    Rather than hoping we get dick jokes right, how about attacking the source of the problem — the cult of masculinity. The problem isn’t the penis in the pants, whatever size it might be. It’s misapplied masculinity — not the self-confident masculinity that never imposes itself on others — and that’s a head problem, not a pants problem.

  8. 8
    allburningup says:

    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.

    It is?

  9. 9
    FurryCatHerder says:

    It is?

    Yes, it is. They aren’t being mocked for BEING whatever it is they are, they are being mocked for being hypocrites.

  10. 10
    Denise says:

    Yes, it is. They aren’t being mocked for BEING whatever it is they are, they are being mocked for being hypocrites.

    Well, the quotation literally says “it’s okay to mock fatphobic people for being fat”, not “its OK to mock fat people for being fatphobic”. Perhaps that is what Mandolin meant. Personally, I would not mock anyone for being fat or gay, under any circumstances. Even if they are hypocrites. They are probably speaking from a place of deep self-loathing, and the last thing I want to do is be another voice in the world justifying their self-hatred. Mocking them for the hypocrisy doesn’t really make sense to me either, honestly. Fatphobic and homophobic people are probably just as likely to say, “Well of course they hate themselves for being fat/gay. That is the proper response to discovering yourself in such a loathsome state of being.”

  11. 11
    B. Adu says:

    Mocking penis size plays into many different phobias, mysogny for one, it is also cruel and unkind.

    @ Tom Nolan, shows funny and affectionate about the penis, different.

    As for mocking fat fatphobes and gay homophobes, I think it depends on your confidence in understanding the nuances of those experiences. I would not do the latter, I don’t think it’s the same as the former at all.

    Gay people (in general) are coming out of a state of extreme stigma, whereas fat people seem to be travelling in the other direction. Therefore, flaunting their self-loathing is direct collusion and quite stupid and disgusting; being out and gay requires real courage for most gay people.

    I’ve gone from feeling ashamed of being fat to not so, it’s been up and down, but the gains have been overwhelming.

  12. 12
    Angiportus says:

    I’m with Denise. Someone who’s fat starts bashing fat people, then you go right for their behavior, not their fat. That crap isn’t right from anyone.
    Some people think “if I insult myself first, then it’s okay to start in on the rest of you”, and it isn’t. If anyone starts saying bad things about their bodies, even if it isnt’ a warmup for a tirade about other peoples’, you up and tell them that bores you and there’s got to be other things to talk about; what do you think the weather is for?
    But if they skip that and just start dissing anyone else, seems to me someone ought to call them on it right off. As for hypocrisy, you might say, “If you have a right to be happy with your body, so do I [or whoever], so let’s not hear any more of that.”
    Seems to me the charge of hypocrisy is best aimed at behavior, not circumstance. No one can be proven to have caused their fat, but they might have some control over what they think and say, so you nail them for that.

  13. 13
    Jadey says:

    Attacking someone’s vulnerability to get back at them for attacking that same vulnerability in others is also hypocritical. It still sends the message that those identities are targets the moment you decide you don’t like someone and it still poisons the environment for the rest of us. There are other ways to argue with these people without taking the cheap shot.

    (Sorry, usually a lurker, but I found that isolated comment of Mandolin’s really offensive and hurtful. Otherwise a great post.)

  14. 14
    Mandolin says:

    Well, since the entire post is about how to mock a concept’s representations without mocking the physical manifestation of it, then yes. It’s okay to mock people for their hypocrisy if you can do it well and correctly and avoid condensing framwork and manifestation.

  15. 15
    FurryCatHerder says:


    “Hypocritical” might be one way to describe it, “counter-productive” or “maladaptive” might be another.

    No one is suggesting that the response a gay gay-basher is to call him a stupid faggot. What’s being suggested is pointing out to the gay gay-basher that they are also gay. One might go a step further and point out that attacking others for a personal trait doesn’t make one having that same trait go away.

  16. 16
    PG says:

    (please delete if this is too far off-topic)

    To the extent that we’re talking about hypocrisy and what’s OK to call out in a disagreement, what do y’all think about Person A pretending to be something they’re not (a race, gender, profession, whatever) for the purpose of challenging assumptions, and Person B looking up information about A that is easily available on the internet in order to say, “Hey A, your online bio says something different.” Is it breaching someone’s privacy to make facts about them, that are available online, known in a forum where they don’t want those facts disclosed?

    In a general sense, I think people ought to be able to comment online without having to disclose their names, etc., but I am not sure what norms ought to hold when people try to mislead others (even in a good cause).

  17. 17
    allburningup says:

    I think it is quite common to mock a gay-basher for being gay, while claiming, or pretending, or even believing, that you are mocking them for being a hypocrite.

    The OP wrote “It’s okay to mock homophobic people for being gay”, but it seems that perhaps they meant “…for being a hypocrite”.


    The OP counsels us to be careful of how we walk a fine line. Good advice.

    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.

    Yeah, I do too. :)

  18. 18
    Angiportus says:

    I can think of only 1 situation where a little-dick joke aimed at someone is appropriate, and it is this–if a man ever says something the least bit disrespectful about how fat a woman is, the woman gets to say, “Guys with short peckers always fuss about that.”

  19. 19
    B. Adu says:

    if a man ever says something the least bit disrespectful about how fat a woman is, the woman gets to say, “Guys with short peckers always fuss about that.”

    I think I’ll waive that ‘right’, thanks.

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