Memory can sometimes be a strange beast. While thinking about this piece, I suddenly remembered an article that Cath Elliot wrote on the Bad Sex in Literature award two years ago under the title, Flaccid prose and the first comment the article provoked:
flaccid is an unnecessary man-hating word to use in the title. I’m all for feminism, but not man-hating.
It struck me as odd why anyone, the commenter in particular, whom I assume to be a man, would find the word – just the word – offensive. For me, describing the unerotic depiction of literary sex, written mostly by men, as “flaccid” is an example of Elliot employing the English language at both her creative and acid best. But oozing from the depths of a corrupt imagination, the word “flaccid” is a probably used as an accusation of something else, something accused as man-hating and deeply un-feminist. Somehow a flaccid penis = an inactive, disappointing, poor-performing male-associated sexuality. Did the commenter think the word implied those things, too?
I’ve been thinking for some time about the neglect of the penis as an object of visual pleasure, and the censorship that deems the male genitalia as “overtly sexual”. My thoughts come from the frustration with the hypersexualisation of women’s breasts in the media, whatever shape and size they might be, as acceptable and even harmless. Representations of the penis, especially when erect however, have been treated with more sensitivity, perhaps more nervously, and have an aura of taboo. Though I have to admit it’s not fair to equate the erotic symbolisms invested within the representation of women’s breasts with the penis and say ‘heck, yeah’ to equal opportunity objectification, I think it’s more important to explore examples in film and media that prefer to maintain the double standard in the treatment of sexualised and dehumanised anatomies.
There are clearly double standards in the practice of objectification of bodies. Female nudity – full frontal or partial – has long been a tool to beautify and sex-up commodities, homes and gardens, film narratives, calendars, book covers, just about everything that it has become banal. The banalisation of women’s naked bodies makes the images of naked breasts on British TV after 9 pm no big deal, because female breasts are not considered pornographic. Erect penises, however, are. The censored video of Girls’ ‘Lust for Life’ on the American MTV channel is a case in point. The original video, termed the “hardcore XXX gay porn” version, depicts the singer singing into another man’s penis and naked women frolicking about. In the edited, “clean” version, the offending penis went out while the breasts stayed.
Could the heterosexual male’s fear of being aroused by the sight of an erect penis be an issue here? Because surely, erect penises have hardly made a mark in the cinematic world dominated by male moguls and directors. Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane was apparently ground-breaking in the controversial sense when it became the first film to show an erect penis in a love scene. But to pass with an 18 certificate by the BBFC in 1976, Jarman altered the aspect ratio of the bottom half of the film to shrink the offending appendage to its erm, flaccid(?) state for the censors’ viewing. Things have changed little now, but the film nonetheless enjoys an uncensored version on British TV today, an artistically-rendered display of homoerotic affection on film, and 2 seconds worth of historical hullabaloo.
The two examples above have been material made by and for gay men. Images made for a heterosexual audience however have often been stereotypically cheeky and comical (think Chippendales and The Full Monty) and not necessarily masturbation material. With that in mind, it’s interesting to note the similarities in the ways the male nude is represented for the straight female gaze – tanned, muscular, and exceedingly fit – with those usually made for the gay men’s gaze.
The nervous uncovering of men’s bodies for viewing pleasure has a lot to do with the psychoanalytic and consuming power of the gaze: when men expose their bodies (read: penis), their masculinity is put under intense scrutiny. Just as many women are insecure about their bodies, men are too. The insecurity that men feel about the size/shape of their penises and their sexual performance are perennial issues as old as the hills, but it has found its way to self-censorship in public discourse and the media unlike the insecurities many women have felt about their bodies in general – women’s insecurities attached to their notions of femininity and bodies have been exploited mercilessly.
An example of female exploitation reinforced by the hidden male sexuality/penis is particularly evident in Dennis O’Rourke’s ‘The Good Woman of Bangkok‘, a cinematic sex diary of a man’s sexual adventures with Thai sex workers. Although O’Rourke readily admits to the camera to being a client of one the sex workers, images of himself having sex with the sex workers are deliberately self-censored, keeping his sexuality and performance a secret. Here in the most exploitative of situations the power of the gaze is linked with the hidden penis; to watch is to exploit, being watched is to be exploited.
The penis is considered the “proof” of masculinity. But beyond that, across different cultures, it is valued as a symbol of mythic power and even seen as sacred. Exposing it for everyone to see, women and gay men alike, the penis risks devaluation not just of itself, but a man’s very notion of masculinity. It takes a man with a fragile identity to view himself this way of course, but it doesn’t help that we live in a homophobic society and in one that limits female arousal to six-packs and tight asses. So what now you ask? More naked men’s penises to empower the female gaze, and to deconstruct heterosexual masculinities and the meaning of the erect penis? I’m not exactly sure, but by pointing out the hidden-ness of the penis in our increasingly pornified media and popular culture is one way to start.