Reflecting on the phallus
What a dick!
Dick. Cock. Peepee. Schlong, prick, johnson, weiner, Lil Frank… All names for the same thing: the penis.
The smallest member of society gets a lot of attention, with people obsessing over its shape, size, and function in art and in pop culture. That can partly be explained through biology: it’s natural for people to feel attached to penises – literally, in the case of cis men – as everyone has a relationship with them at some point: we all have our origins there, after all.
‘When you hear someone rev their engine on the street, usually the comments are going to be: “Ooh, someone has a small one”’
But despite all the noise around dicks – or maybe because of it – there is a lack of reflective thought and dialogue around penises in society. What is a penis? Does it make you a man? And what is with our phallic fascination? This is what the new art exhibition PHALLUS: Norm & Form, opening at the University Museum on May 26, will address. It looks to challenge some of the rigid sex, gender, and scientific norms that culture has attached to the penis, and that UG students wrestle with just as much as anyone.
‘We may seem like an open society’, says arts student Richard, ‘but we are not very good at just talking honestly and maturely about these things.’ Which is a shame, he thinks, because it is always better to ‘just be open and realise that someone else has had a similar experience to you’.
‘It’s in your pants doing its own thing, like it has a free will’
When he first became sexually active, it was a Reddit forum called ‘BigDickProblems’ that helped him. ‘I stumbled upon it a couple of years ago when I was looking for condoms.’ There, he could ask questions and get ‘actual advice’ about the widths and types of condoms, but also read about concerns that it turned out others were having too.
‘The internet is kind of perfect for this’, agrees psychology student James. ‘You are going to google so much stuff about your dick, because you’re always going to wonder whether you’re normal.’ To him, finding out about himself and his penis has ‘always been a kind of thing of self-discovery’.
They might play a role in masterpieces of Western art, but for much of history, penises, like vaginas and breasts, were shrouded in shame by religion. And even today, nudity is still frowned upon in many places in the Western world – there are few situations where you can just let it hang out there.
That taboo is also part of the reason there is so much humour around them, thinks psychology student Patricia. ‘It just comes down to the fact that we don’t talk about it a lot. And I think there’s a lot of discomfort about bringing up these conversations.’
‘When you’re called up in front of a class when you have a boner… It’s your worst enemy at that point’
It is not just that though, according to James: ‘They are funny looking, to be honest. They’re a bit pathetic, especially if they’re just hanging around.’ But he agrees that men find it difficult to have serious conversations about penises: ‘When I talk to my friends about dicks, it is only in a humorous way, because how do you seriously ask someone how their penis is doing?’
According to assistant professor and psycho-sexologist Charmaine Borg, pornography may promote a problematic sexual script that exists in our culture already: ‘The idea that men should always be ready; that means with an erection, always with a high sexual appetite, that they should always need to be able to penetrate and come and have full control of the situation.’
‘When you’re horny, you have a completely different state of mind’
These myths can strongly affect men and how they relate to their penis, because if a man cannot fulfil these requirements – maybe they come too early, or don’t stay hard long enough – it can lead to anxiety and a belief that they are not a good sexual mate and therefore less of a man, she says. Moreover, ‘it will make them anxious for the next time, and anxiety fuels these problems’.
Richard admits that he can sometimes be insecure about the size of his penis. Though not many people would look at it as an issue, because having a large dick is looked at as something positive in our society. ‘In ancient times, if you had a small one, then you were a proper intellectual’, he says. ‘Now, there’s more of an emphasis on whether you have a big one or not, as if something is going to change about you if you have a small one.’
Being a man, James says, has to do with ‘certain character strengths that have nothing to do with dick size.’ He echoes a point made by the transgender community: ‘There are probably great people out there, great men, who don’t have a dick.’
‘I speak for most men when I say that you are going to have weird situations in the bedroom where you’re like, whoops’
And yet, so many notions of masculinity are wrapped around the penis, which can positively or negatively affect some people’s image of their manhood depending on whether they match the ideal penis that is promoted; a big, long, straight monster of a thing.
Richard agrees with Borg that pornography can be damaging. ‘I think a lot of insecurities stem from porn, because young men look at it and think that is the proper dick and then look at theirs and why they don’t have one like Johnny Simms.’
But it’s not just men who suffer, says Borg: the narrow image of sex as mainly reproductive and penetrative is also damaging to women, because it largely excludes elements of female sexuality and sexual pleasure. Sex is so much more than just penetration, she says. In fact, only 30 percent of women are able to achieve orgasm from penetration alone.
‘Being aware of the size of your dick in comparison with others is also a thing, so I just keep it to myself’
The lived experience of this sexual norm is very different for men and women too. ‘The first time you see a penis is in the context of sex, and that’s just a very scary situation’, says Patricia. ‘It’s like you have to be invaded or something. We say that a woman loses her virginity and the connotation is that it’s taken away from her at that moment of penetration.’
‘Sex can be so colourful, so much more than just penetration’, agrees James. When men feel insecure and unhappy with their penis, it can have a damaging impact on their mental health, he says. ‘But that problem doesn’t lie with your dick, it lies with society. You really shouldn’t judge yourself so much because of what is happening down there.’
Richard and James are pseudonyms.
PHALLUS. Norm & Form
The exhibition PHALLUS. Norm & Form, was developed by the Ghent University Museum (GUM) and was on view there from March 24, 2022 to April 16, 2023. The expo is the result of two years of GUM’s research into how science studies gender and the role of society.
Many artworks that were on display in Ghent can also be seen in Groningen. These include works by Sofie Muller, Maria Fernanda Cardoso, Murielle Scherre, David Hockney, Man Ray and Vajinsky.
In addition to the exhibition, visitors can also participate in various activities in a public program put together by experts from the University of Groningen, the UMCG, Rutgers, Women INC, COC Groningen and Drenthe, and experts by experience.
The University Museum Groningen is open Tuesday through Sunday from noon to 5. On school vacations, the museum is also open on Mondays. For more information, see: rug.nl/museum.
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