Monday, 25 August 2008

Reconstructed males

There have recently been some fantastic investigative features in the print and electric press on the touchy subject of female surgical circumcision, also called cosmetic labiaplasty. One of the best, curiously enough, appeared in this month’s DIVA. This is a topic that needs airing and re-airing, but I’m going to take this space to tentatively suggest that there is also room in the feminist movement for a discussion of that curiously taboo subject: male genital mutilation.

In a culture of commodified testosterone, growing numbers of boys and men, some as young as three or four, some as old as eighty, are turning to genital mutilation as a form of self-harm. This in itself is not a new phenomenon, but as the culture of shame, anger and idolisation around the male sexual organ continues to increase, the phenomenon of boys and men damaging their own genitals, sometimes with extreme violence, is gathering pace. There are myriad individual reasons for this phenomenon, many of which are exacerbated by mental illnesses such as depression and paranoid schizophrenia, but the baseline reasons are fairly simple to grasp: a lot of boys have no frame of reference for what their penis should look like. Men are taught to see the appendage as a source of unimaginable sexual shame and embarrassment, or as a symbol of a sick, overzealous , hypermasculised culture in which they did not ask to be included, or, more frequently, both.

It’s not only the mentally ill who mutilate their genitals in private: you can pay a surgeon to inflict far more radical damage, a snip (literally) at £3-12,000. I’m talking, of course, about the booming industry of surgical penis ‘enlargement’, the nearest male equivalent to labiaplasty. We’ve all had versions of those relentless spam emails, offering in poor English to furnish us with a magnificent schlong for the price of a university education. Well, they keep coming because some people keep clicking – millions of anxious men and boys, in fact, all over the world, every day.

Yes, it’s fucking political. Male sexual neurosis is massively damaging, to feminism, to society, and to men themselves. This is not male apologism, or backsliding, it’s one feminist’s request for more discussion of a damaging socio-sexual taboo, in the context of a blog post in which I get to shout ‘COCK!’ a lot.

There, I’m glad I got that out of my system.

Gruesome butchery as labiaplasty undoubtedly is, the butchery involved boils down to a fairly straightforward amputation. Not so with penis ‘extension': I’ll spare you details of just what can go wrong, because Penny Red is a welcoming family blog, but suffice it to say: lots. And often. If you enjoy Bizarre magazine, you may click here now.

Thanks to the stalwart work of feminist writers and bloggers, there are now a lot of good, informative sites out there setting the record straight on what real female genitals look like. Sites that reassure women of all ages that they, too, are far less abnormal than they might have feared. Sisters working tirelessly and for free to undo the visceral harm done by the iconography of pornography and the language of fiction, erotica and women’s magazines in persuading girls that their vulvae should present as neat, hairless, odourless, tight pink slits with the sole purpose of funnelling equally tight, odourless, virginal vaginas, where all sexual sensation occurs. This is an ugly and damaging lie.

So where is the equivalent iconoclasm working to tear down the damaging fictions that young men internalise about their gender and physical sex?

The rhetoric of dickhood is entirely misleading, with emphasis on stiffness, straightness, rigidity, awesomeness, bestiality and hard, raging, pole-like qualities. The myriad of slang terms for the appendage range from the sublime – schlong, manhood, prick, dick – to the ridiculous – one-eyed trouser snake, luncheon meat truncheon! In fact, as most people are secretly aware, even the most impressive penis is no fearsome beast. They are extremely fragile things, normally soft, squishable and defenceless, generally flaccid, delicate , painful when struck, sensitive to touch and temperature. Freud was wrong. It’s not women who ‘envy’ the fiction of the perpetually hard, straining, bestial cartoon-penis – it’s other men,. That envy can largely be blamed on the shocking lie culturally perpetrated to convince young boys that their genitals are supposed to symbolise their masculinity and accordingly be other than the sweet, small, defenceless things they are.

If you’re laughing, stop. Now. I don’t believe it’s possible to call oneself a progressive feminist whilst taking the piss out of the sexual organs of just under one half of the human race. When it comes down to it, everyone’s genitals are ridiculous: messy, demanding, confusing and difficult to manage, with no instruction booklet and contents that generally differ wildly from the serving suggestion on the box. This does not mean that they are abnormal, inadequate or worthy of the childlike awe, tentative mockery, anger and aggrandisement that by turns characterise the treatment of the human prick in contemporary culture.

It is not surprising, then, that so many men and boys turn to surgery to change what they see as defective or abnormal, or to self-harm when they see a part of themselves as shameful and socially loaded in ways they reject. We just do not know how many men go through these experiences, how many operations are botched or how many wounds inflicted in private, because the subject matter is so sensitive that there simply isn’t enough data, and no comprehensive study has yet been done. All that we know is that it’s happening, and that it’s happening more and more.

The cultural markers of femininity are worn like a cloak and meticulously judged – from breasts to width of the waist and hips to degree of ‘curviness’ to hairstyle to set of the face and features. For men, only one specific part of the body is sexualised, and it’s kept under wraps, endlessly mythologised and certainly not featured in any fashion spreads. Feminists might argue that because women’s whole bodies are inevitably sexualised, men have it easier. Those feminists are right: men do have it easier. But that doesn’t mean that men don’t get a raw deal too – where little girls grow up seeing examples of perfect sexual bodies plastered everywhere they look, little boys experience the opposite – the cock is spoken of in hushed tones and never revealed, fictionalised, aggrandised, reduced to a few furtive glances in locker-rooms and arcane priapic symbols scrawled on playground walls and toilet cubicles.

In a perfect world, school PHSE lessons would include mandatory classes on sex and gender, in which children would be shown lots of photographs – not crude and misleading technicolour ink-drawings – of what real genitals look like. During these ideal lessons there would be open discussion of gender roles, physical sex, sexuality, feminism and gender egalitarianism. It won’t happen on these prudish little islands any day soon, not here where so recently we had laws banning the discussion of homosexuality in schools, but it’s nice to dream. Some girls dream of ponies. Today I'm dreaming of full-frontal PHSE photography with explanatory notes. It’s a vision thing.

The movement to reclaim the female body as a self-defined space is still a vitally important one, and it is perhaps just as vital to complement that discussion by extending its rhetoric to the male form. Talking about the realities of the female body in its many forms is a starting point for massive amounts of crucial feminist discussion of physical femaleness, of personal femininity, and of the difference and interaction between the two and the socio-political realities they produce. Talking about the male body in a similar way, and specifically about the cock – unlike for women, the only explicitly sexualised part of a man’s body – might just promote similar much-needed debate about physical maleness, personal masculinity and the difference between the two. Or at very least, it might make a few more people hesitate before doing inadvisable violence to the most sensitive parts of their body and paying for the privilege.


21 comments:

  1. That is a fantastic article, even by your high standards.

    Thank you. :-)

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  2. yeah good stuff
    Don't you think that humanism is more rational than feminism?

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  3. A disappointment. I thought for a moment there you were going to talk about the heavily under-critiqued practice of male circumcision for a second there. Far more mild a mutilation than FMG II or III, but roughly analogous to I (a prepuce is a prepuce). But the article as it stands is still an admirable one.

    I certainly share your vision, as forlorn as its distance from reality leaves me.

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  4. I've been meaning to write something on this as a balance to my piece on vaginoplasty last week. Now I don't have to :)

    I'd be interested to see some figures on the market for penis enlargement. If you pardon the pun, I would imagine it's undergone significant growth these last 15-16 years - ever since pictures from penis enlargement surgery made an appearance on The Word (remember that?)

    But anyway, cheers for the excellent post.

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  5. "Today I'm dreaming of full-frontal PHSE photography with explanatory notes. It’s a vision thing."

    Th'anatomy does make an appearance in science lessons, but only from a grimly biological perspective.

    "I thought for a moment there you were going to talk about the heavily under-critiqued practice of male circumcision for a second there.."

    Supporters of routine neonatal circumcision have been thin on the ground. Try this.

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  6. What do you mean by 'self-harm' as an alternative to surgery? I clearly have gaps in my knowledge here.

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  7. male circumcision (probably) reduces the spread of HIV:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medical_analysis_of_circumcision

    Some people are talking about trying to introduce the practice as a public health measure in Africa. Strange but true.

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  8. Woobegone: More on that matter can be read about here:

    http://www.circumcisionandhiv.com/

    Suffice it to say that the evidence is severely insufficient to demonstrate genuine causation with regards to protection of men, and clear in indicating no difference at all for protection of women.

    As for it being introduced in Africa, well that is truth but it through desperation more than proven effectivity on a national scale. Just imagine the ease with which the meme "Less likely" can be corrupted to "Can't" for an idea of why that's very unwise.

    But this presents something of a deviation from the original post's topic. My apologies, Miss Red.

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  9. James Grieves : I find that site very interesting. They really seem to be keen on "genital integrity" and on denying that circumcision can prevent the spread of HIV.

    I'm not an expert but I would recommend that you search PubMed on the topic before you accept the conclusions of that site. Most of the recent papers that I've seen agree that circumcision cuts the risk of men getting HIV.

    They disagree on whether it would be appropriate to roll it out as a public health measure, which is of course a legitimate debate, I don't think the argument that it will make people more careless is a very good one, since that applies to any hypotheticaal preventative measure, including a vaccine.

    It seems that some people (I'm not pointing the finger at you here, but at the people behind that blog) are more concerned about genital integrity in particular than public health in general. I find that perverse. I'd much rather have an immune system than a foreskin.

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  10. "It seems that some people (I'm not pointing the finger at you here, but at the people behind that blog) are more concerned about genital integrity in particular than public health in general. I find that perverse. I'd much rather have an immune system than a foreskin."

    Then wear a condom, surely? By a far a better habit to get into, and by far more likely to stop the spread of AIDs, than slicing skin off cocks.

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  11. It's unfortunate that the phrase "slicing skin off cocks" conjures up rather more of a vivid mental image than the phrase "HIV".

    Given that not all the men in the world use condoms, and given that according to the best available evidence circumcision reduces the chances of men catching HIV from women by more than half, slicing skin off cocks would seem to be a pretty good idea in fact.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18705758

    If it makes you feel any better, just pretend it's a vaccine. If circumcision were an HIV vaccine it would be hailed as a great discovery.

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  12. Stunning. As usual. I can never stop reading your posts! It's really refreshing to read things that promote sexual equality as opposed to the usual extreme feminist view.

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  13. James Grieves : I find that site very interesting. They really seem to be keen on "genital integrity" and on denying that circumcision can prevent the spread of HIV.

    It's a decent enough pair of points.

    I'm not an expert but I would recommend that you search PubMed on the topic before you accept the conclusions of that site. Most of the recent papers that I've seen agree that circumcision cuts the risk of men getting HIV.

    Coverage, my dear boy, coverage. As ever a "Breakthrough" gets a good deal of media attention and the follow ups a lot less.

    Not many people seem to have read the case against, quite unfortunately. This is a pity as the case is so very shaky: recently even the conductors of the initial experiments were forced to admit that they might be talking about the "Wrong sort" of circumcisions when compared the tribal variety.

    You will note that I did not say that there is no link, just that the present evidence is insufficient to make any claims that there are wholly soundly.

    They disagree on whether it would be appropriate to roll it out as a public health measure, which is of course a legitimate debate, I don't think the argument that it will make people more careless is a very good one, since that applies to any hypotheticaal preventative measure, including a vaccine.

    Well vaccines tend to be 90%+ effective, so its rather less important. If men think that they are safer post-operation then they are likely to act in a less moderate fashion sexually. Surely this rationally follows?

    It seems that some people (I'm not pointing the finger at you here, but at the people behind that blog) are more concerned about genital integrity in particular than public health in general. I find that perverse. I'd much rather have an immune system than a foreskin.

    Ah, you seem to have misunderstood. The point of "bodily integrity" is far more related to the matter of consent than anything else. In short if there truly is a compelling case it should surely be put to the adults who the body parts belong to.

    If this was solely the approach then I would find it far less objectionable: all the evidence gets presented (no "drives"), they are given the facilities which they can either use or turn down. That doesn't seem overly irresponsible.

    Its when subjective decisions start being made by people other than the subjects and babies start getting sliced up that the ethical problems begin.

    It's unfortunate that the phrase "slicing skin off cocks" conjures up rather more of a vivid mental image than the phrase "HIV".

    Its unfortunate that you imagine the prepuce to solely consist of skin.

    Given that not all the men in the world use condoms,

    The more we engage on measures to encourage usage the more the HIV rates decline. And how peculiar that you imagine they would be keener on circumcisions than condoms!

    Also, see the website I linked for a relative cost analysis of the procedure and lifetime provision. Condoms come out at a lower price.

    and given that according to the best available evidence circumcision reduces the chances of men catching HIV from women by more than half, slicing skin off cocks would seem to be a pretty good idea in fact.

    Depends. If they think that they have been somehow "Immunized" from HIV (by...I don't know, people proclaiming it as a "vaccine"?) then they'd probably be more likely to contract HIV as they would be even less likely to start wearing condoms (the only proven effective method on a national scale we have is trying to get people to do that more often) or be more selective in their sexual partners.

    Not to mention that the model you mentions makes no issue of consent and, if you just take that for granted, seems to assume that everyone will desire having part of their genitals removed whereas not everyone can stand coating it in latex!

    If it makes you feel any better, just pretend it's a vaccine. If circumcision were an HIV vaccine it would be hailed as a great discovery.

    ...Pretend? It isn't. It's the removal of an erogenous zone, not a pin-prick. Don't be preposterous.

    And if it was a vaccine then it would have somewhere closer to 100% than 50% effectivity. If, indeed, this even exists.

    Your statement amounts to saying that if my shed was a house extension I would be a very happy man, so I should just pretend it was one to cheer myself up.

    This isn't what we're dealing with. Pretending that you aren't arguing in favour of something objectionable but are instead arguing in favour of something else is no way to convince anyone.

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  14. The ethical issues are simple: if it reduces the number of people suffering horribly and then dying 50 years too young, it would be unethical not to do it - whatever "it" is.

    I repeat that I would rather have an immune system than a foreskin and I consider any man who disagrees to be in need of a psychiatrist.

    Now whether introducing circumcision would in fact reduce HIV rates is a very complex question. Certainly there are many issues to consider including whether it would make men more careless. (or maybe it would make them less careless because they no longer enjoy sex as much so have no reason to screw around? who knows?)

    I'm *not* saying we should do it, that would be presumptuous of me, because the only people who are qualified to make that decision are the experts who have studied all the ramifications.

    What I'm saying is that it's equally presumptuous, and pretty silly, to decide that circumcision is not the appropriate response to the HIV epidemic, based on some kind of generalized dislike of circumcision.

    If you don't like circumcision, good for you. But if circumcision is the way to prevent HIV, you'll need to learn to live with it, because you'll be seeing a lot more of it.

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  15. This is fucking brilliant. Much food for thought.

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  16. The ethical issues are simple: if it reduces the number of people suffering horribly and then dying 50 years too young, it would be unethical not to do it - whatever "it" is.

    Here you slip away from the issue of consent completely: the operation could happen during adulthood or it could happen during infancy. During infancy a subjective decision will occur without the subject's consent, during adulthood it will not.

    I repeat that I would rather have an immune system than a foreskin and I consider any man who disagrees to be in need of a psychiatrist.

    This is not the point under discussion, though. It is perfectly possible to have both.

    My advice to anyone attempting to avoid HIV would be not to fuck those who has been infected with it from it, or share their needles. And wear condoms when uncertain, obviously.

    Now whether introducing circumcision would in fact reduce HIV rates is a very complex question. Certainly there are many issues to consider including whether it would make men more careless. (or maybe it would make them less careless because they no longer enjoy sex as much so have no reason to screw around? who knows?)

    I'm *not* saying we should do it, that would be presumptuous of me, because the only people who are qualified to make that decision are the experts who have studied all the ramifications.

    What I'm saying is that it's equally presumptuous, and pretty silly, to decide that circumcision is not the appropriate response to the HIV epidemic, based on some kind of generalized dislike of circumcision.

    If you don't like circumcision, good for you. But if circumcision is the way to prevent HIV, you'll need to learn to live with it, because you'll be seeing a lot more of it.


    My "dislike" is fairly specific, as well as already outlined. There are a number of measures that have been proven in effectivity, that is to say distribution and education about condoms. Given that a large proportion of Africa's AIDS is spread through sex workers targeting them has proven especially effective.

    Your "pretty good idea" has not been shown to work as an AIDS-curtailing technique and now something thus untested and unproven is being tried out, with people left, right and centre (you included) tossing around the word "vaccine".

    I don't imagine that the results will be pretty.

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  17. "Here you slip away from the issue of consent completely: the operation could happen during adulthood or it could happen during infancy. During infancy a subjective decision will occur without the subject's consent, during adulthood it will not."

    Yes and proudly so. if it reduces the number of people dying horribly 50 years young, I really don't care about consent. Informed consent is fine under normal circumstances - this is an epidemic. People get drafted into the army in a war - it's the same principle.

    Also - although this is seperate - if you decided to let issues of consent dissuade you from preventing someone getting HIV, you'd be responsible for all of the people to whom they spread the virus - people who, presumably, did not consent to be infected. Whose consent is more important?

    "This is not the point under discussion, though. It is perfectly possible to have both."

    Of course it's possible - this is all about probabilities. If you live in an HIV-endemic area, and
    you don't have a foreskin, you're considerably more likely to still have an immune system. Fair trade.

    "Your "pretty good idea" has not been shown to work as an AIDS-curtailing technique and now something thus untested and unproven is being tried out, with people left, right and centre (you included) tossing around the word "vaccine"."

    Well three large randomized controlled trials have show it reduces HIV infection in males. This is enough evidence to get a lot of public health people very excited about it even if it doesn't constitute final proof yet.

    How do you explain why experts are so excited, if not because they see real promise in this? Do you think they're all circumcision-obsessed loons?

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  18. I hope that the persistence of this argument demonstrates to Penny and others the relative value which female and male genitals are held. Apparently having sections slices away from the unconsenting is something that people will advocate "proudly" when it comes to males, while with females it is outlawed and seen as an atrocity (including FGM I, the removal of the prepuce).

    Yes and proudly so. if it reduces the number of people dying horribly 50 years young, I really don't care about consent. Informed consent is fine under normal circumstances - this is an epidemic. People get drafted into the army in a war - it's the same principle.

    But informed consent is possible to obtain. Just wait until they're an adult and ask them what they want.

    And I really can not grasp why you would be "proud" to remove erogenous zones from the unconsenting.

    Also - although this is seperate - if you decided to let issues of consent dissuade you from preventing someone getting HIV, you'd be responsible for all of the people to whom they spread the virus - people who, presumably, did not consent to be infected. Whose consent is more important?

    ...What? If they are aware of the risks of having sex and aware of the paltry evidence that having an erogenous zone sliced off might reduce that risk then it is sort of their own responsibility, right?

    People never catch HIV through being uncircumcised, they catch it through having unprotected sex with other people who have it. I am not being "dissuaded from preventing" someone from getting anything. I am saying that the evidence should be presented to them and that they should make up their own minds, rather than having your (or any expert's) views carved into their flesh.

    Your argument is nonsense built upon stilts.

    Of course it's possible - this is all about probabilities. If you live in an HIV-endemic area, and
    you don't have a foreskin, you're considerably more likely to still have an immune system. Fair trade.


    If you think so, fair enough for you. If you live in Sub-Saharan Africa and have a prepuce to get cut off then feel free to act upon that. Just don't go forcing your viewpoint onto others bodies and robbing them of erogenous zones, please.

    Well three large randomized controlled trials have show it reduces HIV infection in males.

    Those were double blind tests. The people who were getting circumcised were not told "Hey, this is going to stop you getting HIV!" as they would be during any "Circumcision Drive".

    To imagine that this is going to be the effect of convincing a lot of people that they'll be safer if they go through a painful operation is highly disingenuous, even if you accept the validity of the studies (as I do not).

    This is enough evidence to get a lot of public health people very excited about it even if it doesn't constitute final proof yet.

    How do you explain why experts are so excited, if not because they see real promise in this? Do you think they're all circumcision-obsessed loons?


    Not all of them.

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  19. Very good article but your assumption that men have it easyier because the only part of there body relavent to the disscussion of the mythology surrounding the sexualised components of human anatomy is the penis seems flawed to me. Other symbols of a persons masculinity also often have similarly problamatic mythologies. Like the mans ability to protect his women based on his emotional and physical fortitude as well as commercial prospects is allways under scrutiny. No im not saying men have it easyier i cant say if they do or not it. I just would have been worth exploring these other aspects in your blog. Maybe it would have created to much of a tangent but i would have appriciated it... any ways fantactic read as usual.

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  20. Phalloplasty is useful for men that have had an injury or cancer to rebuild the penis and it is also used for men dissatisfied with their circumcisions to reconstruct the foreskin and also replace the lost length and girth if they were circumcised as a child the penis will be slightly smaller.Also men with micropenis can be helped with phalloplasty.A simmilar surgery can be used for women that have lost part of the clitoris due to injury or disease.The ligaments holding it inside the body are cut and the hidden shaft of the clitoris is pulled from the body.Phalloplasty is also used for women under going FTM/sexchange surgery.

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