This special issue brings together interdisciplinary work exploring the relationship between bodies, masculinity, and the penis or phallus. The symbolism, significance, and meaning of the phallus or penis has varied historically and across disciplines. In the psychoanalytic tradition, “the subject…can only assume its identity through the adoption of a sexed identity, and the subject can only take up a sexed identity with reference to the phallus, for ‘the phallus is the privileged signifier’” (Segal 2007: 85). Jacques Lacan's work has inspired feminist critiques of “phallocentrism” in high and popular cultural texts since the 1970s (Segal 2007). Elizabeth Stephens (2007) describes the ancient Greek ideal of small penises as indexing self-control and rationality, while the Romans celebrated virility and power, which they associated with a large penis. Other scholarship has explored the racialization of penis size, such as the stereotype of Black men as possessing large penises, indexing hypersexuality and often depicted in racist terms as representing aggression or lack of civility (Lehman 2006).
Scholarship in the 1990s and early 2000s examined representation of the penis in media and popular culture, including comedy films with their representation of anxieties about “premature ejaculation,” penis size, masturbation, and a variety of other painful, vulnerable, or humiliating penis-centric scenarios (Glass 2001: 546). Recent research has also noted a focus on penile aesthetics, in which men are increasingly seeking changes to the size and shape of their penis via surgical means (Allan 2020; Sharp and Oates 2019). Alongside this, an increasing turn toward biomedicalization emphasizes penis function and virility, notably through wide availability of drugs such as Viagra (Flowers et al. 2013; Potts 2000). Biomedicalization problematizes penile function (i.e., inability to achieve erections) in the context of the digital era where male bodies, and the erect male penis, have greater visibility than ever before via internet pornography and social media. More recently, research has explored the advent of the “dick pic” and its infiltration in digital and mobile technology, highlighting concerns about men's capacities for perpetuating technology-facilitated sexual violence as well as raising questions about the possibilities for men's bodies to be objectified and desired in new ways (Paasonen et al. 2019; Waling and Pym 2019).
With new forms of medical, digital, and mechanical technology providing transformative ways of understanding the penis beyond the assigned male-sex body alongside new ways of thinking about gender, sexuality, and sexual practices, it is timely to explore recent writing about the meanings, uses, and applications of the penis in relation to masculinity, bodies, and sexualities. This special issue seeks to do just that. “Masculinity, Sex, and Dicks: New Understandings of the Phallus” brings together five pieces spanning sociology, public health, law and legal studies, and cultural and literary studies to explore new meanings and interpretations of masculinity, bodies, and the phallus. These articles explore themes of men's sexual desires, spiritual celibacy and fitness practices, men's first experiences of ejaculation, and the phallus within literary texts and filmic representations.
The issue begins with Michael Valinsky, who presents a politically engaged textual analysis of the work of controversial French writer Guillaume Dustan. Dustan enraged HIV activists in the 1990s with his erotic portrayals of barebacking (condom-less sex) in an era when “use a condom every time” was the dominant HIV prevention message. Valinsky argues that the eroticism of Dustan's texts produce an embodied response to the experience of bareback sex drawn within the specter of illness and death. As Valinsky writes, “Dustan breaks open a space for intergenerational encounters with trauma, illness, and death as he considers the interpersonal and political implications of bareback sex and the promise of seropositive cum.” From literacy analyses to visual representations, Hanieh Bakhtiari examines eroticism and the phallus in the film Shame (2011), which features full-frontal penile nudity. Noting that the penis is often hidden in representation in film, she explores the possibility of vulnerability and volatility in the generation of space between the corporeal penis and the abstract penis. She argues that such representation rejects the often-rigid construction of heterosexual masculine sexuality, highlighting alternate meanings to how the penis can be viewed, read, or understood in film.
Sohini Saha provides an ethnographic account of the Hindu spiritual practices of brahmacharya (celibacy) as found within bayam samities (gyms) and akharas (wrestling spaces) in India. She notes that the phallus is more than just a symbol; it holds special meaning and purpose through the discipline, control, and restraining practices of brahmacharya to achieve ascetism. Saha contends that the retention of sperm through cultural practices of celibacy is culturally perceived as supporting men to reach their full physical potential in the gyms and wrestling spaces. Like Saha, Herng-Dar Bih also explores the role of sperm through examining Taiwanese men's first experiences of spermarche (ejaculation). Bih pays special attention to the affects generated in discussions of first experiences. Bih finds that men's feelings about their first experiences of spermarche are complicated, mixed, and entangled, with many noting a lack of adequate sexual health information to prepare them when spermarche occurs. This confusion is compounded by broader social taboos concerning masturbation and touching of the penis. Bih notes an urgent need for more comprehensive sexual health education to support young men in better understanding their bodies and first spermarche experiences.
We complete this issue with Chris Ashford and Gareth Longstaff, who explore “raw dicks” and men's sexual desires for other men via the construction of “alt selves” in digital spaces, specifically Twitter and OnlyFans. In examining the relationship between historical and contemporary legal and policy reform regarding same-sex sexual practices and online selves, they argue that desires for “raw dicks” are seen as transgressive—and charged with illicit eroticism—in the context of contemporary queer politics that emphasize the socially acceptability of queer identity and sexuality. This results in deemphasizing the erotic and sexual nature of contemporary queer identity. The authors seek to promote a queer erotic aesthetic that does not rely on queer sex being equated with illegality and underground desire.
Pulling this special issue together has been a difficult task. It would be remiss of us to not acknowledge the significant impact that COVID-19 has had on the world and the period in which this issue occurred as part of the broader feminist and queer politics that underpins the ethos of this journal. Several proposed articles for the issue were unfortunately withdrawn by authors as their teaching and academic workloads increased substantially in the scramble to move to an online-only teaching environment. The languishing feeling of lockdowns, of which both guest editors experienced in long bouts in Melbourne, Australia (which held the title of longest time in strict lockdowns globally), diminished motivation and passion for research and writing. This was compounded with home-schooling and increased caring commitments and increased precarity concerning academic employment. We are very grateful for those who were able to contribute their work to this issue.
Allan, Jonathan A. 2020. “The Foreskin Aesthetic or Ugliness Reconsidered.” Men and Masculinities 23 (3–4): 558–78. https://doi.org/10.1177/1097184X17753038.
Flowers, Paul, Darren Langdridge, Brendan Gough, and Ruth Holliday. 2013. “On the Biomedicalisation of the Penis: The Commodification of Function and Aesthetics.” International Journal of Men's Health 12 (2): 121–137.
Lehman, Peter. 2006. “A ‘Strange Quirk in His Lineage’: Walter Mosely, Donald Goines, and the Racial Representation of the Penis.” Men and Masculinities 9 (2): 226–235. https://doi.org/10.1177/1097184X06287757.
Paasonen, Susanna, Ben Light, and Kylie Jarrett. 2019. “The Dick Pic: Harassment, Curation, and Desire.” Social Media + Society 5 (2): 2056305119826126. https://doi.org/10.1177/2056305119826126.
Potts, Annie. 2000. “‘The Essence of the Hard On’: Hegemonic Masculinity and the Cultural Construction of ‘Erectile Dysfunction.’” Men and Masculinities 3 (1): 85–103. https://doi.org/10.1177/1097184X00003001004.
Sharp, Gemma, and Jayson Oates. 2019. “Sociocultural Influences on Men's Penis Size Perceptions and Decisions to Undergo Penile Augmentation: A Qualitative Study.” Aesthet Surg J 39 (11): 1253–1259. https://doi.org/10.1093/asj/sjz154.
Stephens, Elizabeth. 2007. “The Spectacularized Penis: Contemporary Representations of the Phallic Male Body.” Men and Masculinities 10 (1): 85–98. https://doi.org/10.1177/1097184X07299332.
Waling, Andrea, and Tinonee Pym. 2019. “‘C'mon, No One Wants a Dick Pic’: Exploring the Cultural Framings of the ‘Dick Pic’ in Contemporary Online Publics.” Journal of Gender Studies 28 (1): 70–85. https://doi.org/10.1080/09589236.2017.1394821.