Public Penises 

Where did they go?

I lied last week. I need three columns, not two, to explain the popular preoccupation with the oversized penis. The previous week's column can be found at

The penis has never been big enough to contain its psychic reality. Its image, until recently cloistered even in American pop culture, once was ubiquitous and laden with meaning.

The Athenian Greeks, for example, decorated their homes and streets with hermae, columns representing Hermes, each featuring an erection. In seven annual festivals devoted to Dionysos, Athenians paraded enormous statues of the penis through streets, which were permanently decorated with sculptures of naked young men.

Romans became infatuated with the god Priapus, whose statue they sat in the garden, his oversized penis given extra attention with a coat of red paint. There was a tradition during the Renaissance to represent Christ grabbing his penis, sometimes erect. Perhaps that was inspired by St. Augustine's obsessive riffing on the penis whose habit of spontaneous erection he called proof of original sin. (Thus Christ's penis would be the most explicit evidence of his incarnation in the world of sin.) Renaissance men wore cod pieces, brightly colored crotch coverings that seemed to enlarge the penis.

How did an organ, once more freely exhibited than female genitalia, become so taboo? The blame is usually ascribed to the church and St. Augustine's demonization of the phallus. Patriarchy's need to hide the most visible and competitive expression of male power while objectifying the female body is another explanation. Some thinkers theorize that intense jealousy of the extra-large penis -- men with them were rewarded in Rome (whereas the Greeks actually preferred small ones) -- survives but was repressed by making the exhibition of the penis taboo, thus leveling the playing field.

You can see in this explanation the seeds of Freud's theories. He believed that a healthy persona -- and civilization itself, for that matter -- was the outcome of the resolution of phallic anxiety, the castration anxiety to be exact. One of his earliest case histories, "Little Hans," is about a boy who becomes terrified of the huge penises he sees on carriage horses in the streets of Vienna. Freud theorizes that Little Hans had displaced fear of his father, as his rival in the classic Oedipus complex for the mother's love, with fear of the horse penis.

Hard to imagine, isn't it, that the penis -- the comparatively huge and powerful penis of the father -- is literally the central image of psychology's foundational theories? Even Jung, who split from Freud, wrote that his intellectual life was initiated at the age of 3 by a dream of encountering a huge penis on a throne.

So, 100 years ago in Vienna, Freud was discoursing about the penis and the need to liberate it. More than anywhere else in the world, America, a nation founded by Puritans, disappeared the penis from sight. Where did it go?

As is usually the case, when the dominant culture represses some aspect of itself, it becomes part of the culture of an oppressed minority. Sometimes this functions as projection. African-American men, for example, are stereotyped as macrophallic. Whether the black penis is actually larger as a rule than the white one is beside the point. What is more important is that black men bear the phallic anxiety of white people. In the most horrific example, they were ritualistically castrated before lynching. That jealousy and fear of the large penis, its equation with subversive power, concocted fantasies of the rape of white women. Lynchings have ended but now the stereotype is more explicit than ever and black men are broadly fetishized as macrophallic and hypermasculine -- but remain relatively disempowered in actuality.

While straight men remain anxious about the size of their penises but largely sublimate the concern, gay culture has made a fetish of the big dick. This is not a politically correct statement, of course. Indeed, when I wrote the article for an academic journal that inspired my dissertation, the editor called my piece the "most radical" on gay sexuality she'd seen. Then, in an almost comical symbolization of the way the culture hides the penis, she deleted all images I submitted, along with descriptions of them. Then, she wrote in big letters on the proofs: "You have failed to provide evidence of your thesis."

The evidence is abundant. Not only is it explicit in pornography and the routine conversation of gay men, it is symbolized in the idealized contemporary queer body -- hairless, hypermasculine, muscular, the bigger the better. The body has become hyper-phallic in part as a response to AIDS. Since penetration itself is dangerous, the erotic has become as visual as it is tactile. And, as I demonstrated last week, that body has penetrated mainstream culture, disrupting old notions of gender and sexuality. Somebody had to do it. Why not the very people the culture attempted to castrate -- gay men?

Cliff Bostock will speak 7:30-8:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 20, at Outwrite Bookstore and Coffeehouse, 991 Piedmont Ave. (at 10th Street). Free. For a full calendar of events of Listen to Your Body Week, see


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