Phallus Rising Or, The Prisoner of Joy
The phallus, we must always keep in mind, is an idea, not a body part. ?Susan Bordo, The Male Body: A New Look at Men in Public and in Private (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 358 pages, $25). The contemporary system of self-control blends with its multitude of goods and spectacles begging for indulgence, with the needs of a moralistic society whose conscience owes much to Victorian precedent. ?Peter N. Stearns, Battleground of Desire: The Struggle for Self-Control in Modern America (New York University Press, 434 pages, $28.95). The relationship between a man and his private parts is never serene; there is always an element of intrigue, mystery, open conflict in the mix. ?Ron Carlson, "A Note on the Dink" in Body, edited by Sharon Sloane Fiffer and Steve Fiffer (Bard, 203 pages, $23).
At a moment when the bookstalls are jammed with works that redefine the body, as well as reexamine gender, it's passing strange that coitus?lovemaking, in short?is never described there, or analyzed. To find it missing from hardcore feminist texts (Natalie Angier's Woman, for example, or Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth) is at least logical?since the ubiquity of heterosexual screwing must be blamed on politics, not nature.
But to find the Action missing in a pro-male polemic like Susan Bordo's The Male Body is astonishing. What is more critical to the nature of both the male and female bodies, which seem to have been molded primarily so that they "fit," if not lock in heat? What tells us more about the multidimensional interaction between the two genders, psychic, strategic and physical? How can you devote reams of copy to the prick, Mrs. Bordo (as Angier has lately raved about the clit-wick), without describing it in the fire of combat?
If you and I were writing The Male Body, or Angier's recent Woman, or one called Man (the most conspicuous non-book of the hour: its very title, not to say the necessity of a non-female author, must terrify our "paternalist" publishers, quaking at the prospect of an Ultra-Right-Feminist, or URF, backlash), you or I, simple-minded authors in search of a big market, would try to grab the reader by the throat. We'd launch our bodybook with an exhaustive analysis of this crucial and dramatic event. Yes, the making of love is always different, just as the phrase "I love you," uttered more often than any single sentence in any language according to Roland Barthes, signifies totally disparate meanings. Given the seismic rise in education, travel and sexual freedom, contemporary intimacy surely takes thousands of extraordinary forms.
But heterosexual fucking?indeed all fucking?still has certain inevitable stages, as does life, deserving research and study: It begins (Act I), with a move usually by the male, yet beckoned on by the female in countless ways that deserve demographic analysis, if not mathematical tables. A signal step is taken (Act II) that leads to foreplay from which no one expects to emerge untouched?be it the unhooking of a bra or the unzipping of a fly, according to the vin du pays. The middle of this affair (Act III) is its key, rather like the knocking on the gate in Macbeth: Here the prick and the clit begin to both rise and moisten, as the "other" brings it on, via words, stroking, licking, spanking, panting. Can foreplay ever go on too long? Anthropologists tell us no, that certain classes, races and regions devote hours to this art, with many non-Western males from 21 on able to delay ejaculation indefinitely.
As for the final eruption and orgasm, what ecstatic descriptions of this moment were once written to define and celebrate this sacred and transforming sensation, in poetry and prose? Yes, most of the authors spoke from the prick up, not the clit, because more men than women were taught to write and read until well into this century. Now we can hope to hear a double chorus, once past our momentary obsession with terror and domination. Perhaps in the next century, freed from gendercide, we will hear the verbal music of ecstasy again, from both genders.
Hidden off in the corners, the molten poetry and prose of love is in fact beginning to pour in, primarily from progressive-left feminists. Joined by liberated males, these testimonies are likely to be in contradictory bipolar languages, because the organs speaking differ from each other as the land from the sea. As for the entire drama, Acts I through IV, here is where any serious study of the "new" body, the "new" Eve, the "new" Adam, must inevitably begin. And this so far unwritten chapter must combine description with cultural analysis, history, demographics and precise percentages, in the manner of Prof. B. Goldstein's forgotten classic, Human Sexuality (1976), which precisely studies the time spans allotted to foreplay in several cultures.
Until the quintessentially human act of fucking is granted the same serious attention accorded domestic and state-sponsored violence, we'll remain deaf, blind and dumb to the implications of every issue raised by body and gender. This barrier stands whether the theme be the history of phallus worship?the "culture" of the dong, so beloved by Bordo, who sees its aura as more important than its real-life presence; the alternating up-down size of the male member; the recent intrusion of the once-banned straight male bod into modeling, fashion, film, photography and advertising, Bordo's pet subject; the double explosion of gay esthetics and sustained male-bashing; anti-hetero feminism; or even the continuing obsession throughout our society with the Lolita epic?to which Bordo turns in the conclusion to her book?with its tantalizing opposition of older man and teenage woman, two opposites who exploit and torture each other to the point of death.
All begin, all lead back to the orgasmic moment we simply won't deal with in 1999. I repeat: Not a single one of the recent blockbuster studies of the body?not even those written by enlightened scholars like Helen Fisher?make room in the index for words like "coitus," "intercourse," "love" or "lovemaking." Why?
Properly seen, The Male Body, despite its good-natured centrist flaws, offers more than one hint. For this reason, it's a critical text. If Bordo ignores hetero-ecstasy in the face of her good-natured pro-male position, she forces us to see what we have truly become: a nation of self-indulgent sensualists in Augustinian drag. Bordo begins and ends her book with lyric testaments to her father, a handsome young man who wrote dashing poems but never conquered life (he ended up working for his relatives)?and never permitted his daughter to see him in the raw. She even roils us with descriptions of her excitement as a young girl when she not only saw but held a few erect penises. But she won't allow herself to express deep, repressed passion for the male body in anything like a testament to its lean and useful beauty, in the manner of Shakespeare counting his lady's ways or Mailer confessing helpless awe before a pair of half-revealed boobs, to say nothing of the bewitching female armoire just beneath them.
Bordo rails at the male's voyeuristic skills, his ability to sing the praises of the female body?thus relegating her gender to the status of the unquestioned "beautiful" object. But she never sings in lyric praise for hard chests, flat bellies, muscular legs or stiff pricks. Her book skirts (sic) sensual passion and focuses instead on the "culture" of maledom and the penis. It even asks "Does Size Matter?" and "What Is a Phallus?" and, in a chapter entitled "Hard and Soft," alleges that the erection is overpraised. Turn our eyes away, she argues, and focus on larger issues than the merely physical.
Let's examine this amazing network of propositions for a moment. For whom indeed does the behavior of the phallus make no difference?save for here and there a high-IQ eunuch? Is the phallus indeed an "idea," rather than the physical wonder where life gets launched? And where does this allegedly all-powerful paternalist "culture" dictate phallic praise in an age when every 11 p.m. news hour and every tabloid cover broadcasts the reverse?endless evidences of heterosexual violence, never pleasure?
When was the last time you heard a rapper or a diva croon about love, pure love? Take a look at your subway car next time you ride?see the long rows of battered women, sometimes stretching an entire car (a woman is beaten every 12 seconds, we are told, by "husbands and boyfriends").
Domestic violence is horrible. I watched too much of it growing up under a violent stepfather to have any illusions about its vicious effects. But "violence" is hardly the only by-product of intimacy between the genders. Ecstasy tops it roughly 1496 to 1, if we are to believe the contrarian truths offered by researchers and statistics.
To answer my first question above, then: Despite her early enthrallment with Bobby Cohen's erect prick in schooldays ("I felt my first bolt of sexual heat not getting 'felt up' but touching him, and finding that he was hard"), Bordo means to convince us our culture is obsessed with hardness, due to Paternal Politics; that we deliberately ignore the phallus' varied cultural meanings and functions, particularly in its inert or "soft" state. Though often critical of the URF feminists, she joins them in berating Pfizer and Viagra ("let the dance begin" indeed). Ignoring the awesome billion-dollar market motivation first in Pfizer's corporate mind, she sees the meticulous research devoted to coaxing the penis to stand up as one more fatherly plot. Replaying St. Augustine, the early church father who convinced generations of Christians that the Genesis story literally condemns sex?rather than pride, for which screwing is simply the metaphor?Bordo quotes Mailer's ironic quip, "a stiff prick has no conscience," with sober approval.
St. Augustine also hated uncontrollable erections because he believed they meant the soul was giving way to Satan. URF feminists hate erections?or profess to hate them?not because they signify irrepressible sexual excitement but because they token the politics of "domination."
Let's speak for a moment now the incorrect unspoken truth: Virtually all women are fascinated by erections. When the phallus rises, in my experience, politics are not an issue for either side. Knowing that stiffness works wonders on their distaff companions, any man normally finds ways to bring it (the upswing) on, provided that the element of provocation is either nearby or strip-dancing in a fantasy inside his cortex. Your average male is also certainly aware that the potential of pleasure, if not propagation of the race, dwells on the tip of his solid shaft.
Now, pleasure and propagation are humane values, up in the same league with science, politics, literature and the Sistine Chapel (where more than one healthy prick can be viewed). No man who has watched a woman behold with wonder his member going up can forget it. Nor can he believe the current URF rhetoric that ignores this self-evident truth. When Monica allegedly begged the President to let her finish the oral sex they began, she broke the mute seal that proto-Victorianism has pasted across the mouths of her gender. She spoke up, loud and clear, for pleasure, didn't she? (And he, the prude, refused!)
In his failed 12-year attempt to stop Augustine's reading of Genesis from becoming papal policy, Bishop Julian of Eclanum, his main rival in the fifth century, summed up a classical thought, expressed often in the past, which I ask you to consider: God made bodies, distinguished the sexes, bestowed affection through which bodies would be joined, gave power to the semen and operates the secret nature of the semen?and God made nothing evil.
The assumption that erections are a secondary matter (they don't last long, our expert points out), that Satanic males use them to dominate the gender (to which in fact they're nearly always responding, quite helplessly, as Mailer argues in The Prisoner of Sex, driven by testosterone and romance), denies women their unquestioned moment of power, not the reverse. In fact, this is the takeover moment most women savor. In her loins Bordo is not a self-conscious Augustinian enemy of sexual pleasure. She means well. Rather, she is a failed acolyte of the Bishop of Eclanum. Often she admits how she enjoys rolling in the hay with us. She even quotes an acknowledged sensualist like Diane Ackerman, whose studies of the senses and perfumes are classics, when she calls the penis "terrific" and "fascinating."
But the author isn't bold enough to admit that the male body's animal function is joyful and life-giving, in crying need of celebration, not relegation to the status of "idea." She edges around the undoubted male pursuit of sexual joy as well as his testosteronic brain capacity, which has produced mountains of literature and science as well as X-rated videos. But no songs, no tropes, no exuberant praise. Again I ask: Why?
"I don't have a penis," Bordo says at one point, admitting a physical fact that Angier, Wolf, MacKinnon won't acknowledge. But it does not stop her from rating maledom from a perch far out in gender space. The heroes parading through her book are mostly storybook males?Cary Grant, Babe Ruth, James Dean, Marlon Brando. You can bet she is fondest of the p.c. twins Grant and Dean, because they are "fragile" expressions of virility, not really men of steel. And of course she sees the emergence of the nude male model as a stealthy triumph for the gay community. Only now, she concludes, are "straight guys flocking to the modeling agencies, much less concerned about any homosexual taint."
Now Bordo, an historian, ought to know that the straight male body has been front and center in many cultures for thousands of years; witness the Sistine Chapel and the naked Apollos all over Italy. Further, she again ignores the law of the market. It is the exploding market of empowered "straight" girls that is prodding Madison Ave. to provide gold to male models, gay or straight. I well remember the lonely "hunt" by Cosmopolitan for a bare-assed male centerfold in the 70s. I joined the long list with several of my creative-worker pals, dreaming of cash rewards. Alas, they gave in to Burt Reynolds' celebrity, but it doesn't alter the fact: Hand me or my brothers a fat check?or a champagne partner?and we'll undress as fast as Mia Hamm or Brandi Chastain.
In the late 90s, however, heterophobia is briefly but securely in the saddle, obscuring these elemental truths. The centerpiece of this phobia, reversing the malady that long penalized gays, is simple: joyful celebration of one gender by the other?particularly his or her distinctive differentials, i.e., "masculine" or "feminine" traits?is forbidden. Instead, we're now engaged in a furious drive to find unisex similarities, ignoring difference and contradiction. This is why Bordo can't rhapsodize properly about Bobby Cohen or Marlon Brando. And when she or some of her more vicious sisters admit "difference," it must be given a functional, nonesthetic grade.
Take the female miracle we know as "multiple orgasm," a delight for any nearby male lucky enough to witness one. Women are the superior "sex which is not one," Bordo says, echoing an infamous phrase. Because women are potentially in constant heat all over their bodies, thanks to a multiplicity of sensitive body parts, from nipples to ears to feet soles to clits to thighs. Whereas men are focused, Bordo says, on one organ and one event.
Well, la ti da. Since I do wear a penis I must dissent. If I am confined physically to one point of contact, I'm not confined visually or intellectually. I usually spend, with my gender, large portions of the day thinking about sex and looking at women (an endless stream of studies, including the Kinsey Institute's, back me up). Often masturbation occurs without effort, on elevators and in cars. Such events, such streams of consciousness, are more than diversionary: They probably produce much of the amorous music and poetry we revere (surely Shakespeare had several hard-ons while he composed his sonnets, if not Romeo and Juliet). It's probably forbidden to publish articles even in The New England Journal of Medicine recommending erotic reverie as a reinforcement for the state of mind we call "sanity"?as financial, violent, or takeover scheming does not?but we all know it's a soul-satisfying way to spend idle time.
Bordo acknowledges the developed art of male voyeurism, but she doesn't like it. Guess why? It relegates women to "objecthood." It leads straight guys to worship Mia Hamm for her body rather than Michael Jordan, whom we merely admire, etc., etc. Though she hails the arrival of male cheesecake in Calvin Klein ads, she finds them curiously reluctant to lay men out in passive repose, unlike languid women, who "require no plot excuse to show off their various body parts."
Here is where heterophobia wounds as it blinds. Another truth that can't be uttered in the 90s, perhaps the most discomforting, is again quite simple: Naked women are absolutely more interesting to behold than men, at least when they stand still long enough for prolonged inspection, if not meditation. Of course the male body deserves the subdued reverence that Bordo calls for. I applaud her surely doomed call for full-page images of phallic arousal in Vogue, GQ and beyond. But He still doesn't match the complexity of She, of the corpus that captivated poets and divines for centuries before the E.R.A.
Most of us know precisely why: The multiple orgasm itself depends on multiple points of visual and tactile interest. I can't believe I need to prove my point here, simply to remind you of it?and refer you to Anne Hollander's classic study of this distinction in Seeing Through Clothes (1978). To look at a male's body is a quick read, she argues, partly because of the single-focus, partly because his body "stops," in effect, at the crotch, cutting itself into two parts, while a woman's body is an uninterrupted sweep, from head to toes, with an infinite number of variations. This is why Mia Hamm rivets more of us as a potential nude study than Michael Jordan, who is poetry mainly when he runs, moves, shoots and scores. The essence of the male "difference" is rooted in action, not in repose?which obviously doesn't mean women don't or can't move, physically or politically. The traits that divide men and women are as subtle, as fascinating, as those that seem, for the moment, to unite them.
The URF writers now dominating the Sexual Theory market are obsessed with merging the genders into one boring blob, as is the market, as is Hollywood, as is political campaigning. One tv commercial and film after another shows women shouting down males, leveling them with guns or corporate power, wearing helmets while they rip up the streets with power drills. And you can count on the fingers of one hand how many times we have seen your average female politician wearing a formfitting dress. But She is not He. Neither is Air Force Col. Eileen Collins, commander of the latest NASA mission. Strip them and they will still merit more sheer esthetic reverence than Michael Jordan or myself. When Brandi "Hollywood" Chastain tore off her jersey on national television, she revealed not a flat, muscled chest but two black-bra-enhanced spheres that received endless attention, commentary and replay, from every known gender. If Michael had done the same, his chest might have gotten a tenth of the attention that we gave Brandi's.
None of this means women are superior to men?God knows there are plenty of ways even I can outperform Hillary, Judith and Brandy (certainly I can jump higher, write and design websites faster and yell louder). It simply means the genders are two, not one, demarcated most of all by bodies that are equal but separate. In her attempt to blend these double differences into invisibility, Bordo does both The Male Body and the intricacies of the male-female template immense disservice. She cannot admit "feminine" traits that 20 years of demagoguery want to ignore or blame on cultural imposition, particularly those that seem gentle or nourishing (motherhood is almost as invisible in these texts as screwing), or, perish the thought, seductive. Worse, she can't extol "masculine" traits?ambition, size, strength, single-minded focus, proud fatherhood (single dads are the fastest-growing parental demographic) and, most of all, the raging romanticism that "speaks its desires" frontally, in song, story and bars.
This reluctance girds her refusal to read Nabokov's archetypal tale of an old man's desire as anything other than perversion. In her long penultimate chapter on this gender-driven epic, she savages not only Humbert, the supposed aggressor in the tale, but coy, clever Lo herself. A tragic tale of two people driven to self-destruction by their opposing lusts is reduced to a second-rate case of harassment filed in a provincial court.
The Male Body ends with another hymn to her father, who becomes a "feminist," finally, by admitting in his last days that he believes Anita Hill, not Clarence Thomas, after first daring to debate the case with his daughter. Rather than reveal the labyrinthine truths about the singularity of its subject, therefore, the book joins the heterophobic parade of pundits who see the coming ascendance of the Passive Postmodern Male.
Don't bet the farm on this widely predicted event. When our phobic blinders are widened, we'll see that a combination of social, economic and mind-changing events in the past two decades are moving us toward differentiation, not singularity. Permit me to isolate one simple cause among many others. As history tells us, the rise of economic and political dependence for women increases sexual activism among the gender that is normally mute about the dictates of its loins. This trend is already charging ahead, to the discomfort of the puritanical lock on our public discourse, media and print, on genderism. The percentages of women who?since roughly 1980?are enjoying pre- and extramarital affairs have spurted like the object of their desires. They are marrying later, having tons of kids out of wedlock (I am speaking of prosperous white professional girls, not just black welfare mothers), spawning fewer "legitimate" kids with a certified hubby and divorcing at a European rate.
All of this was not only predicted but welcomed in a book based on a conference at Barnard in 1982, Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, about which you've heard little because its thesis (that heterosexual intimacy is a life-enhancing pleasure) does not "fit" our current phobia. While the wide range of essays and manifestos here take care to discourse on the dangers implicit in the AIDS epidemic and domestic violence, the focus is on mainstream fucking, how to enjoy it, how to induce the often self-absorbed male to attend to women's sensual needs and, most of all, how to end centuries of silence about what your mainstream woman wants in bed (we must "name our desires," said Barbara Ehrenreich). Though this text is rarely recalled in the late 90s, it has proven singularly prophetic.
Women are now naming their desires and acting upon them. The result is not less heterosexual joy and abandon. It is more. Not for a moment do I deny that this sweet little secret is a secret. The press, the publishers and the electronic media see the women's movement not as an aphrodisiac but as a signal rebuff to maledom?and certainly the phallus. Of course the properly terrified Ron Carlson, handed the nasty assignment of writing about the dong in Body, a collection of essays about eyes, arms, boobs, legs, asses, feet, wants to hide. He can't even bring himself to call the life-launching shaft more than a "dink," about which neither gender, in his eyes, wishes to speak, or notice. And the calm, erudite Prof. Stearns, viewing the "battleground" of desire, sides in the end with our pompous, moralizing pols and pundits, predicting that our Victorian instincts will chain us down again, 100 years after we broke free.
Do not believe, friends, the going line. Forget the URFs, the media moralists, the Limbaugh crowd. Speak up. Are you enjoying the game of sex and gender more than ever before? Among those of you who can think past the 90s to the 80s, 70s, 60s or even the 50s, the answer has to be a resounding yes for many reasons, but most of all the one I cite above. As the two genders gradually discharge their dependent debts to each other, as they come together in the new garden on equal turf, they're certain to meet their irreplaceable opposite for the first time, as Luce Irigaray, the heretical French feminist, prophesied a decade ago. We no longer confront each other as functional, stereotypical marriage partners, with duties and dependencies shrouding their inner dispositions. We must therefore reconsider the whole question of place, to move on to another age of difference. Man and woman are always meeting for the first time, because they cannot be substituted one for the other.
I thought of Irigaray recently when women pundits began to heat up over Viagra (which not a few of them now use). She popped into my mind again when a network of highly placed women scientists grumbled openly about how little research has been conducted on female sexuality. "I suspect most male researchers are more interested in male genitalia," announced one professor of psychiatry, casting doubt upon her analytic powers. Dr. Vivian W. Pinn, director at NIH of the Office of Research on Women's Health, argues that it's time to focus as intensely on women's "sexual functions" as we do on breast cancer and menopause.
Exactly! Bring on forbidden data! The more each gender knows about the "other"?beyond the sexist/feminist shibboleths we've been fed?the more amour will prosper, at least on its physical level.
What is going on before us?the baring of the male body, the baring of female desire?cannot be underestimated. Certainly it matches the balancing of the national budget for surprise. We're involved in an act of metaphoric seduction, insertion and withdrawal on an extremely high level. No wonder its consequences can't be publicly acknowledged: the epidemic of illegitimacy among middle-class whites, for one example, which only the armor-plated Sen. Moynihan dares discuss on the Senate floor.
Though all this is occurring before our eyes, in response to deep psychic and economic changes, we can't think it out or face it, given the legacy of the centuries when doomsday Augustinian morality drove us to fear any open discussion of sexuality-as-pleasure. In this context alone, Bordo's flawed, failed book isn't bad news. Its appearance, along with a small countercurrent of recent pro-male books written by sex-theorist women means the penis is on a survival track. Susan Faludi may be ready to fire a countershot in her next book, Stiffed, but the trend is still unpredictably upright. Yes, we are decades away from seeing an erect penis on the cover of a national magazine, not to say its immersion in an organ of equal power. This visual miracle, which would resemble a Mideast-style declaration of gender peace, is still far off?unless we speak up, defying political fashion, soon.
The author invites you to speak further on this issue on two contrasting websites: [ www.nypress.com/art/wickprick ](/art/wickprick), and this.is/METABODY, a site sponsored by several museums and universities since 1997.
Sign up to get our newsletter emailed to you every week!
- Enter your email address in the box below.
- Select the newsletters you would like to subscribe to.
- Click the 'SUBSCRIBE' button.
Man-made disasters may be the worst kind
Time and tide at Wesbeth
Mad Dog Coll, felled in a phone booth
From one brother to another
Scaled-back Jane St. project approved
City proposes street fair changes
Out & About
Man-made disasters may be the worst kind
Time and tide at Wesbeth
Mad Dog Coll, felled in a phone booth
From one brother to another
Scaled-back Jane St. project approved
City proposes street fair changes
Out & About
Collaborating in harmony
Underground no more