Why we should free the penis from shame

The penis is a very sensitive subject. As a symbol of masculinity and male sexuality, it plays a big role in male shame. It seems to be very weird, inappropriate, uninteresting or frightening to look at an artwork that contains a penis. This is in stark contrast to the vagina, the female sex that pleases us, stimulates us and is generally seen as a beautiful art object. Why does the penis suffer so much from shame? 

My first encounter with an erect penis

I remember well the parties in my high school days where I felt so uncomfortable when a boy was dancing with me and got an erection that pushed against my buttocks. I felt flattered and at the same time ashamed and scared. Why does he do this? Later I found out that men do not always have control over their erection. Not that we women have control over our vagina, but at least you cannot see it from the outside that the vagina is doing something. Poor guys.

The penis during my twenties and thirties

My mixed feelings about men and their penis continued when I was older. I remember guys feeling extremely awkward and defeated when they could not get an erection during sex after a hot night at the club with too many drinks. On the other hand I also remember enough men who fiercely penetrated me, ejaculated after 3 minutes and made me feel guilty that it took me – in their eyes – a very long time to get an orgasm. But my ‘angry vagina’ never forgot to explain these guys how my sex was different from theirs and that there were probably a lot of women who faked orgasms because they are such lousy bed partners.

Receiving my first dick pic

Fast forward to my time at the Fotoacademie when I started photographing naked men. I was curious, excited and at the same time scared. Would I be safe photographing naked men alone, as a woman? Dozens of men had registered within two days to model for me. Many men sent a nude picture right away and I also remember very well a guy who immediately sent me a huge dick pic (see my project ‘100 grams’). I was frightened to death. In the next advertisement I wrote that I did not need nude photos but rather a portrait. That reassures me more than a dick pic. Seeing an erection (from a man other than my own boyfriend) remained unpleasant for me for a long time, but my photo project changed that for the better. Men got an erection all the time and I learned that this does not automatically mean that a man has a sexual intention, let alone that he does something with it.

The awkwardness of a naked man and his penis

The reason I started with the project is that I have never seen a male nude in our visual culture, especially not naked men photographed by a woman. Only when I started my project I realised I never had an opinion about the naked male body nor about the penis. And I turn out to be not the only one because most visitors to my exhibitions who see a picture of a naked man for the first time have the same thing. The ‘naked’ penis (especially the ones without pubic hair) was the topic of discussion. “I don’t really think a penis is a beautiful body part for a man.” However, during my project, I came to appreciate the male body and the penis. Not only sexually per se but as a part of an object of art. The male nude fascinates me, even more than the female nude, because it is such an unexplored area in art.

The penis: being always number two

Why is it that we don’t really like to look at a naked man, let alone a penis? Why do we think a vagina is attractive and a penis isn’t? The vagina has always been put in the limelight. The penis has always been number two – or actually has been totally ignored. In my opinion, this is a result of the absence of naked men in our visual culture and years of denial of female sexuality. But with the penis, there is more to it, it seems. And this is not just a general shame on the genitals, because vaginas are generally seen as something attractive to look at whereas a penis is more likely to be seen as awkward or funny. What I realised during the years is that, unlike heterosexual men and women, queers seem to be less awkward about the penis or even celebrating the penis and male sexuality. There is a lot of erotic queer art that is very sexual, shamelessly depicting an erected penis like it is the most normal thing in the world.

Killing the myth that women don’t like penises

I have always heard that women just aren’t that interested in a penis – or the sexual male body – because for them the mind is much more important. Personally, I think that’s bullocks and if you look on the internet, you find out that women do have an opinion about the penis. And as with other types of preferences, penis preferences vary widely. Interestingly, not many articles seem to talk about the aesthetics of the penis, but rather the functionality: what a woman prefers when she has sex. But don’t get yourself fooled. Women still seem to rank other characteristics like trustworthiness and overall attractiveness as more important than penis size and girth. Female sexuality has been ignored and condemned for so long – as a woman you are seen as a whore if you enjoy sex unlike men for whom it is a kind of normalcy – that we still know little about it today. I think if there is more room for female sexuality, we will be baffled by all the interesting things we will found out about it. Just because the Playboy couldn’t touch the female audience, it doesn’t mean women don’t like looking at a naked man. If only they let women make such a magazine instead of a man.

Phallophobia: fear for the erect penis

The penis is not only considered as something we do not really like to look at or something we are indifferent to. In fact, it can have a very negative connotation. Especially the erect penis. When a man has an inflated penis, this is seen as a sign of sexual arousal. Although this can be a positive thing, it is also often experienced as something dangerous, scary, strange, inappropriate or dirty. The erect penis can be very powerful. Sexually, because it can penetrate bodies without permission, but also politically, because the abuse of power at this level is carried out to a large extent by leaders of the male sex. The so-called ‘penis politics’, a word used for a man in a position of authority using gender to control and dominate. This phallophobia – a fear of the erect penis and in a broader sense an excessive aversion to masculinity – seems to be merely a symptom exhibited by women.

Masculinity: the failures of a penis

On the other hand, a limp penis is also not really something positive. The penis is also strongly connected to masculinity. Not being able to get a penis erect, is by many seen as a failure. Also, the size of the penis still seems to matter a lot, but mostly to men, because women seem more forgiving when it comes to penis appearance than men are. A man with a small penis is less of a ‘man’ and this probably also explains why men are so afraid to show their flaccid penis because in a relaxed state a penis looks smaller. I came to learn that you have a ‘blood’ penis or ‘flesh’ penis. A ‘blood’ penis grows when sexually aroused and a ‘flesh penis’ doesn’t. So you can figure why it’s so important for men to explain which one they have. It is interesting that we think that bigger is better – which is promoted by the porn industry – while in ancient Greece the penis was never a symbol of manliness and a big penis was actually rather vulgar. According to the Greek, potency came from the intellect needed to power man’s responsibility to father children, prolong the family line and the city-state.

Lack of attention for male shame

In any case, it is clear that the penis – and in a broader sense male sexuality – suffers a lot from shame. Shame experienced by the viewer, but specifically, shame experienced by men themselves. According to an article by Aneta Stepien ‘Understanding male shame’ there is a lack of attention for male shame. A part of this has to do with the fact that men are often seen as the perpetrator (shamer) and women as the victims (shamed). As Aneta notes this image has been promoted by feminists. This is understandable since women have been victims of various forms of abuse for a long time (and still are). By viewing men as victims of any kind, feminist criticism of patriarchy would refrain from acuity. I also sometimes recognize this resistance to seeing men as victims, but if you look at it from the perspective of psychology, it makes sense. Perpetrators of violence have often themselves been victims of violence or ‘victims’ of shame. Aneta gives the example of this: “in certain cultures where honour in men is really important, loss of this honour results in violence known as ‘honour killing’, that is a killing of a family member, in this case, a woman, who is believed to have brought dishonour upon the entire family.” I am not justifying the violence, not at all. But if you understand that the violence comes from a culture that puts huge pressure on men and justifies violence as a solution, you also understand where we need to look for solutions.

The reluctance to exposing men in our society

Another reason for the lack of attention for male shame, is that shame is associated with vulnerability. Men seem to have a stronger feeling of ‘shame for shame’, because it makes them vulnerable, soft and therefore, threatens their manliness. The shame for the penis and in general male sexuality explains for a large part the disinclination to expose men in the way women have been exposed within cultural representations. In the article Aneta points out that within Western culture a male’s body is not made an object of study in the same way as female bodies.

“The penis remains shrouded in mystery’. It is protected and hidden from sight. What is actually just a piece of flesh gains unassailable stature and power. “

“The penis is the most powerful symbol of manliness. It is impulsive, the least uncontrollable of all the male body parts. Therefore, the penis provides constant opportunity for shame because it can expose a man’s lack of control over it, such as failure to have an erection.”

Trapped in the paradox of masculinity

The fact that the male body has been rather concealed from public discourse, puts men into a strange paradoxical relationship with their penis. On the one hand, it is a source of pride for men and culturally seen as a symbol of their manliness. But on the other hand, there is a great concern among men to show their penis, which actually undermines their claim to power or status. So the penis can reassure manliness, but it can equally undermine it, which may be one of the reasons why the penis remains hidden from public view. Many men seem to be trapped in a dichotomous concept of masculinity. Like I mentioned before, masculine behaviour has long been something powerful, dangerous and poisonous to women and this is still repeated on a daily basis to men. However, when a man refrains from this, he is seen by society as effeminate and vulnerable. The latter seems to happen mainly among men themselves, but women also unconsciously desire ‘masculine’ behaviour.

Overcoming male shame: visual culture

How can we solve this shame on the penis, on male nudity and male sexuality? I think that starts by acknowledging shame. The shame that the spectator feels, the shame we have created for female sexuality – which plays a major role in this – and especially male shame. And this is the hardest part because those who have to acknowledge this are also men themselves. Secondly, we need to figure out how we deal with shame as a society. And I find that particularly interesting because women have been working on their emancipation for a long time, but men seem to have no interest in this at all. Maybe because not all men feel this kind of shame and if they do, they are not aware that they are part of the solution. Or maybe they realise, just like women have seen, that fighting an ancient system is very hard. Maybe we have to start with small steps. In the book ‘Shame! and Masculinity’ by Ernst van Alphen, there is an interesting essay by Ernst himself. In this essay, he describes the influence of visual culture on male shame. He explains that until now, we have dealt with shame in our visual culture in two ways: denying it and showing no signs of male sexuality or, by refusing any representations of shameful male sexuality in the visual domain. Ernst proposes another solution: shame on male sexuality is something we have to work through and overcome. To illustrate this statement, he puts forward two female artists who have been working on this topic: Ina van Zyl and Marlene Dumas.

Huge penises by female artist Ina van Zyl

The artist Ina van Zyl painted huge penises. Shame is an important theme in her work. She does not only paint penises by the way, but also vagina’s, portraits and flowers. Her work raises the question: how is it possible that the depiction of an erect penis is able to work through shame? As Ernst puts it:

“The zooming in and blowing up of the penis is rather uninhibited and shameless. With this she exhibits them as autonomous beings. Her shameless depiction of masculinity, or better ‘male conditions’ is a way of facing shameful masculinity. By facing it, she overcomes its shamefulness, so that we can again enjoy the touching visibility of a penis, either erect or hanging.”

When I read this, I felt recognition. This is exactly what happened to me as well while photographing naked men and their penises. Maybe we should give drawing lessons at school in which students draw a penis from a living male model. But I think that’s probably way to progressive. Recently we had a huge explosion of criticism on a tv program here in the Netherlands in which children could ask questions to naked people who are standing in front of them.

Marlene Dumas: the penis as a touching male body part

Not many people know this, but Marlene Dumas has also developed a special commitment to depict penises in different forms, states and sizes. The drawings of soft penises like ‘A Fragile Male Object’ and ‘Soft Focus’ show a touching male body part. It is very interesting how Marlene plays with the perspective on the penis and also dares to put some humor in it. In ‘Sketch for a Monument of the Peace/Watercolor with Sculptural Pretenses’, little figures adore a flaccid penis so that it becomes almost a sort of peace monument. There is no power or male authority involved, only a touching male body part. The erect penis in ‘The making of myth’ refers to the myth of the phallus. Ernst writes about this:

“As a symbol, the phallus stands for power and control. Women can also be phallic, in possession of this power, but according to the myth, exclusively beings in possession of a penis are in possession of the phallus. Both Van Zyl and Dumas do not give rise to the suggestion that the penis and phallus are the same. Then, even the erect penis is nothing but a special condition of a male body part.”

Acknowledging male shame

I always get a bit irritated when I hear people talk about ‘the crisis of the man’: “These days you can’t even be a man any more”. That is not because I don’t think there is a problem, but because it is way more complex than that. Men are exposed to two antagonistic sets of imperatives and ideals resulting in a quandary that is experienced as stressful because it appears so utterly irresolvable. In addition to that, I think society does not really acknowledge male shame. As Ernst van Alphen puts it: recent Me Too scandals have led to two powerful affects in people: anger and shame. The affect of anger directed to the perpetrators, expressed by inflicting shame on them (shame on you!) is very easy to understand. However, we tend to forget that the perpetrator’s behaviour also arises from shame. An affect of shame that is much more difficult to locate because it is not the shame experienced by victims, but by perpetrators – in this case men. It’s the same kind of statement as Aneta Stepien made, but Ernst shows that this is a global phenomenon. It is a very difficult statement to make because you don’t want to deny the pain felt by women. But I do think that this is an important starting point for finding solutions. Judging, punishing and incarceration is a temporary solution. We really need to take a closer look at the shame problem. Maybe there should also be a Me Too for men: who else feels oppressed by the stereotype of masculinity, by the cultural values of honour and pride, by the suppression of male shame? A Me Too statement to which every person can relate to – men, women, queers or how I like to say it: all human beings.

Revisiting the values that make us shameful

So although the anger towards the toxic behaviour of men is understandable, it is unlogical we are not actually looking for – or even denying – the source of the problem which is: male shame. Denying or suppressing shame is one of the main instigators of violence and abuse of power. So how can we do this? How can we find each other and help each other with this big issue of shame? Aneta Stepien proposes that “if we reflect on the judgment of the self or others that provoke the feeling of shame, we can arrive at its source; namely, by whose values is something shameful. This enables revisiting of judgments and necessary alterations of our relationship with others. Avoidance to revisit or share the shame, protects it, which results in the self being cut off from others in a prison.” We need to revisit our values. Art, culture, journalism, media and philosophy can help to share perspectives and to create social dialogues on different levels. A mix of rational discussion and emotional experience.

Normalising the penis

The penis is a difficult topic because it is woven into a web of complex themes. It is related to nudity, sexuality (which is embedded in power relations), concepts of masculinity and the taboo on male shame. Freeing the penis from its complicated position starts with more openness to showing the naked male body (including the penis) in our visual culture and sharing perspectives on male sexuality so that it can be normalized and we can talk about it. This is a challenge as society seems to be getting more and more squeamish, especially about the naked male body. I can hardly show my work with male nudes anywhere, which frustrates me sometimes since female nudes are shown everywhere. Sometimes I don’t even include photos of a penis into open calls or presskits because even if they like my work, they would never put that artwork on show in an exhibition or place it in a newspaper or magazine. I don’t want to participate in this nonsense, but well what can you do? What worries me the most is the general denial by media and museums that we unconsciously keep the male nude out of our visual culture and that we often also censor the male nude. It is such a pity because in my projects I’ve experienced how the male nude body and male sexuality gets normalised if you look at it more often and talk about it more often. I believe there is one thing that is certain: hiding, denying, and censoring does not solve anything, it only makes the problem bigger and more dangerous.

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