Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Talkin' Bout Penises

I got an erection the other day. Let me tell you what happened. A couple ounces of blood started pumping into that tube, and was quickly absorbed by the now relaxed smooth muscle tissue of the corpora cavernosa inside. What relaxed that tissue? Well that’s the hot part. It was an increase in the levels of cyclic guanosine monophosphate, caused by the nitric oxide inside the blood that pumped in there. Thankfully, there was no reason to let the phosphodiesterase-5 enzyme go to work to break that cGMP down, so I was able to get as busy as I wanted to be.

I love penises, so as soon as I saw a book called “A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis,” I was sliding my hands up and down it and wrapping my lips around the words, “I’d like to purchase this, please.” David M. Friedman’s book appeared on the shelves in 2001, but I never heard of it until a couple weeks ago. It’s a fascinating introductory course to the ways penises have been helping to shape history, and occasionally into the ways history has helped to shape penises.

Friedman divides his examination into six areas, roughly corresponding to chronological order. Chapter 1, “The Demon Rod,” is all about dicks in religion. We’re all familiar with the right wing conception of sex as original sin, but Friedman runs us through the different ways its been viewed throughout the centuries, and in different (admittedly European and American) cultures.

Here’s where I learned two of my favorite etymological facts. For the ancient Hebrews, the penis was such an awesome organ that oaths to God were made by cupping another’s package. This custom, long since faded from practice, gave us our modern word “testify.” Later, in Rome, boys were given a locket containing a replica of an erect penis called a fascinuum, which they wore until they became old enough to be considered men (i.e. when they had real life erections usable for sex, apparently.) Now, whenever we refer to something as being “fascinating,” we really mean it’s “as powerful or intriguing as an erection.”

Of course, that’s lots of fun, but the chapter on religion hits its stride when it gets to St. Augustine, the man who single-handedly did more to fuck up people’s sexuality than any other in history. He decided that it wasn’t his fault all those years he kept sleeping with every woman that would have him. He was a sinner because he was born that way, and the sign of that in-born sin is the lust that springs from the penis. So, to Augustine, we were all supposed to control our lust, and shape it to whatever the church decided it was meant to be, which, it turns out, was a few lines here and there about men cleaving to women and sowing seeds into the next generation. It’s amazing, but this sort of tripe caught on, and for 1500 years or thereabouts, western civilization has been all about keeping penises flaccid and vaginas dry as much as possible.

On to Chapter 2, “The Gear Shift,” in which we learn the many ways science misunderstood what was going on with that knob. Naturally enough, since all the philosophers, scientists, priests, and other folks in power were men, there was a lot of curiosity about the penis and how it worked. Sadly, much of that curiosity was applied to preventing masturbation, especially after the 18th century when self-abuse started to be seen as a particular waste of energy (literally, to those minds). Still, there is a lot of medical progress strewn about in between the false starts and vicious attacks.

Chapter 3, “The Measuring Stick,” takes a look at the history of racism as viewed through the lens of the African penis. From the European and American perspective, the black penis was a thing to be especially feared. I think Friedman’s stretching a point to make it such a focus of racial animosity, but there’s no denying the horrifying impact of his collection of stories revealing the myriad ways in which whites have cut off, patronized, and sometimes even glorified the phalluses of the men they enslaved.

Friedman seems particularly animated in Chapter 4, “The Cigar.” Here we come to Sigmund Freud, the man who took the penis and placed it squarely at the center of every emotion known to humans. That he was obviously completely nuts in this regard doesn’t change the real breakthroughs he made towards helping people with neuroses. But, my goodness, what must have gone through his mind leading him to believe that every little boy is afraid of losing his penis and every little girl wants to have one? Here was a guy who clearly thought too much, and the only way to forgive him his sins is to acknowledge that there just wasn’t enough being thought about in this regard. That he was so often wrong doesn’t take away his progress at asking questions. Friedman lets us in on the secret karmic kickback to Freud’s constant cigar smoking, too, a mouth cancer so severe he was forced to wear permanent dentures amid pain which made it very difficult for him to speak during the last two decades of his life. Sometimes a cigar is just a carcinogen.

Then comes the maelstrom, a flurry of far too short takes on feminism and the penis in Chapter 5, “The Battering Ram.” It’s not that Friedman isn’t fair here. He does a decent job giving an introduction to the thoughts of dozens of feminist and anti-feminist thinkers, and he even goes to the trouble of meeting Andrea Dworkin for lunch just so he can assure us she seems like a decent sort. But, as much as I enjoyed the anecdote from a pre Ms-magazine Gloria Steinem about Norman Mailer’s lack of potency during their encounter, I had to say my head was spinning a lot in this chapter. As with any survey as broad as this one, the closer we get to my own experience, describing the modern world, the more I’m aware is being left out. Friedman does a great job of showing how complicated and various the many strains of modern feminism have been, but he leaves us with more questions than answers here.

Chapter 6, “The Punctureproof Balloon,” however, does the same thing on purpose and provides compelling tales of the ways in which science has learned to give men control over erections. Here’s where I learned what happens inside when I start thinking nasty thoughts. (Damn you,Augustine, there just isn’t any better way to say that and still be cute.) And, there’s a whole lot more detail than what I put in the first paragraph. The story which led up to Viagra and Cialis and beyond is really a lot more interesting than I ever thought it would be. There is a nasty zone war between the drug and surgical approaches to curing impotence and the mental health interests. While of course it’s great to have a drug which can make erections happen (though Friedman makes sure to point out that we still have no idea what the long term effects of these drugs might be), there should probably be a much stronger alignment between physical and mental reactions. Everybody likes to say sex is 90% mental, but it’s probably more likely to be 50/50.

The odds are virtually non-existant that anybody out there knows everything that Friedman covers in this breezy, frequently funny and occasionally horrifying 307 pages. So, if you like penises, or you like people who like penises, or you just want to find out how penises relate to our history, you’re not likely to find a better source than this book.

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