Or, The Prisoner of
phallus, we must always keep in mind, is an idea, not a body part.
Bordo, The Male Body: A New Look at Men in Public and in Private (Farrar,
Straus and Giroux, 358 pages, $25).
The contemporary system
of self-control blends with its multitude of goods and spectacles begging for
indulgence, with the needs of a moralistic society whose conscience owes much
to Victorian precedent.
Stearns, Battleground of Desire: The Struggle for Self-Control in Modern
America (New York University Press, 434 pages, $28.95).
between a man and his private parts is never serene; there is always an element
of intrigue, mystery, open conflict in the mix.
Carlson, “A Note on the Dink” in Body, edited by Sharon Sloane
Fiffer and Steve Fiffer (Bard, 203 pages, $23).
At a moment
when the bookstalls are jammed with works that redefine the body, as well as
reexamine gender, it’s passing strange that coitus–lovemaking, in
short–is never described there, or analyzed. To find it missing from hardcore
feminist texts (Natalie Angier’s Woman, for example, or Naomi Wolf’s
The Beauty Myth) is at least logical–since the ubiquity of heterosexual
screwing must be blamed on politics, not nature.
But to find
the Action missing in a pro-male polemic like Susan Bordo’s The Male Body
is astonishing. What is more critical to the nature of both the male and female
bodies, which seem to have been molded primarily so that they “fit,”
if not lock in heat? What tells us more about the multidimensional interaction
between the two genders, psychic, strategic and physical? How can you devote
reams of copy to the prick, Mrs. Bordo (as Angier has lately raved about the
clit-wick), without describing it in the fire of combat?
If you and
I were writing The Male Body, or Angier’s recent Woman, or
one called Man (the most conspicuous non-book of the hour: its very title,
not to say the necessity of a non-female author, must terrify our “paternalist”
publishers, quaking at the prospect of an Ultra-Right-Feminist, or URF, backlash),
you or I, simple-minded authors in search of a big market, would try to grab
the reader by the throat. We’d launch our bodybook with an exhaustive analysis
of this crucial and dramatic event. Yes, the making of love is always different,
just as the phrase “I love you,” uttered more often than any single
sentence in any language according to Roland Barthes, signifies totally disparate
meanings. Given the seismic rise in education, travel and sexual freedom, contemporary
intimacy surely takes thousands of extraordinary forms.
fucking–indeed all fucking–still has certain inevitable stages, as
does life, deserving research and study: It begins (Act I), with a move usually
by the male, yet beckoned on by the female in countless ways that deserve demographic
analysis, if not mathematical tables. A signal step is taken (Act II) that leads
to foreplay from which no one expects to emerge untouched–be it the unhooking
of a bra or the unzipping of a fly, according to the vin du pays. The middle
of this affair (Act III) is its key, rather like the knocking on the gate in
Macbeth: Here the prick and the clit begin to both rise and moisten,
as the “other” brings it on, via words, stroking, licking, spanking,
panting. Can foreplay ever go on too long? Anthropologists tell us no, that
certain classes, races and regions devote hours to this art, with many non-Western
males from 21 on able to delay ejaculation indefinitely.
As for the
final eruption and orgasm, what ecstatic descriptions of this moment were once
written to define and celebrate this sacred and transforming sensation, in poetry
and prose? Yes, most of the authors spoke from the prick up, not the clit, because
more men than women were taught to write and read until well into this century.
Now we can hope to hear a double chorus, once past our momentary obsession with
terror and domination. Perhaps in the next century, freed from gendercide, we
will hear the verbal music of ecstasy again, from both genders.
in the corners, the molten poetry and prose of love is in fact beginning to
pour in, primarily from progressive-left feminists. Joined by liberated males,
these testimonies are likely to be in contradictory bipolar languages, because
the organs speaking differ from each other as the land from the sea. As for
the entire drama, Acts I through IV, here is where any serious study of the
“new” body, the “new” Eve, the “new” Adam, must
inevitably begin. And this so far unwritten chapter must combine description
with cultural analysis, history, demographics and precise percentages, in the
manner of Prof. B. Goldstein’s forgotten classic, Human Sexuality
(1976), which precisely studies the time spans allotted to foreplay in several
quintessentially human act of fucking is granted the same serious attention
accorded domestic and state-sponsored violence, we’ll remain deaf, blind
and dumb to the implications of every issue raised by body and gender. This
barrier stands whether the theme be the history of phallus worship–the
“culture” of the dong, so beloved by Bordo, who sees its aura as more
important than its real-life presence; the alternating up-down size of the male
member; the recent intrusion of the once-banned straight male bod into modeling,
fashion, film, photography and advertising, Bordo’s pet subject; the double
explosion of gay esthetics and sustained male-bashing; anti-hetero feminism;
or even the continuing obsession throughout our society with the Lolita epic–to
which Bordo turns in the conclusion to her book–with its tantalizing opposition
of older man and teenage woman, two opposites who exploit and torture each other
to the point of death.
all lead back to the orgasmic moment we simply won’t deal with in 1999.
I repeat: Not a single one of the recent blockbuster studies of the body–not
even those written by enlightened scholars like Helen Fisher–make room
in the index for words like “coitus,” “intercourse,” “love”
or “lovemaking.” Why?
seen, The Male Body, despite its good-natured centrist flaws, offers
more than one hint. For this reason, it’s a critical text. If Bordo ignores
hetero-ecstasy in the face of her good-natured pro-male position, she forces
us to see what we have truly become: a nation of self-indulgent sensualists
in Augustinian drag. Bordo begins and ends her book with lyric testaments to
her father, a handsome young man who wrote dashing poems but never conquered
life (he ended up working for his relatives)–and never permitted his daughter
to see him in the raw. She even roils us with descriptions of her excitement
as a young girl when she not only saw but held a few erect penises. But she
won’t allow herself to express deep, repressed passion for the male body
in anything like a testament to its lean and useful beauty, in the manner of
Shakespeare counting his lady’s ways or Mailer confessing helpless awe
before a pair of half-revealed boobs, to say nothing of the bewitching female
armoire just beneath them.
at the male’s voyeuristic skills, his ability to sing the praises of the
female body–thus relegating her gender to the status of the unquestioned
“beautiful” object. But she never sings in lyric praise for hard chests,
flat bellies, muscular legs or stiff pricks. Her book skirts (sic) sensual passion
and focuses instead on the “culture” of maledom and the penis. It
even asks “Does Size Matter?” and “What Is a Phallus?” and,
in a chapter entitled “Hard and Soft,” alleges that the erection is
overpraised. Turn our eyes away, she argues, and focus on larger issues than
the merely physical.
examine this amazing network of propositions for a moment. For whom indeed does
the behavior of the phallus make no difference–save for here and there
a high-IQ eunuch? Is the phallus indeed an “idea,” rather than the
physical wonder where life gets launched? And where does this allegedly all-powerful
paternalist “culture” dictate phallic praise in an age when every
11 p.m. news hour and every tabloid cover broadcasts the reverse–endless
evidences of heterosexual violence, never pleasure?
the last time you heard a rapper or a diva croon about love, pure love? Take
a look at your subway car next time you ride–see the long rows of battered
women, sometimes stretching an entire car (a woman is beaten every 12 seconds,
we are told, by “husbands and boyfriends”).
violence is horrible. I watched too much of it growing up under a violent
stepfather to have any illusions about its vicious effects. But “violence”
is hardly the only by-product of intimacy between the genders. Ecstasy tops
it roughly 1496 to 1, if we are to believe the contrarian truths offered by
researchers and statistics.
my first question above, then: Despite her early enthrallment with Bobby Cohen’s
erect prick in schooldays (“I felt my first bolt of sexual heat not getting
‘felt up’ but touching him, and finding that he was hard”),
Bordo means to convince us our culture is obsessed with hardness, due to Paternal
Politics; that we deliberately ignore the phallus’ varied cultural meanings
and functions, particularly in its inert or “soft” state. Though often
critical of the URF feminists, she joins them in berating Pfizer and Viagra
(“let the dance begin” indeed). Ignoring the awesome billion-dollar
market motivation first in Pfizer’s corporate mind, she sees the meticulous
research devoted to coaxing the penis to stand up as one more fatherly plot.
Replaying St. Augustine, the early church father who convinced generations of
Christians that the Genesis story literally condemns sex–rather than pride,
for which screwing is simply the metaphor–Bordo quotes Mailer’s ironic
quip, “a stiff prick has no conscience,” with sober approval.
also hated uncontrollable erections because he believed they meant the soul
was giving way to Satan. URF feminists hate erections–or profess to hate
them–not because they signify irrepressible sexual excitement but because
they token the politics of “domination.”
speak for a moment now the incorrect unspoken truth: Virtually all women are
fascinated by erections. When the phallus rises, in my experience, politics
are not an issue for either side. Knowing that stiffness works wonders on their
distaff companions, any man normally finds ways to bring it (the upswing) on,
provided that the element of provocation is either nearby or strip-dancing in
a fantasy inside his cortex. Your average male is also certainly aware that
the potential of pleasure, if not propagation of the race, dwells on the tip
of his solid shaft.
and propagation are humane values, up in the same league with science, politics,
literature and the Sistine Chapel (where more than one healthy prick can be
viewed). No man who has watched a woman behold with wonder his member going
up can forget it. Nor can he believe the current URF rhetoric that ignores this
self-evident truth. When Monica allegedly begged the President to let her finish
the oral sex they began, she broke the mute seal that proto-Victorianism has
pasted across the mouths of her gender. She spoke up, loud and clear, for pleasure,
didn’t she? (And he, the prude, refused!)
In his failed
12-year attempt to stop Augustine’s reading of Genesis from becoming papal
policy, Bishop Julian of Eclanum, his main rival in the fifth century, summed
up a classical thought, expressed often in the past, which I ask you to consider:
God made bodies, distinguished the sexes, bestowed affection through which bodies
would be joined, gave power to the semen and operates the secret nature of the
semen–and God made nothing evil.
that erections are a secondary matter (they don’t last long, our expert
points out), that Satanic males use them to dominate the gender (to which in
fact they’re nearly always responding, quite helplessly, as Mailer argues
in The Prisoner of Sex, driven by testosterone and romance), denies women
their unquestioned moment of power, not the reverse. In fact, this is the takeover
moment most women savor. In her loins Bordo is not a self-conscious Augustinian
enemy of sexual pleasure. She means well. Rather, she is a failed acolyte of
the Bishop of Eclanum. Often she admits how she enjoys rolling in the hay with
us. She even quotes an acknowledged sensualist like Diane Ackerman, whose studies
of the senses and perfumes are classics, when she calls the penis “terrific”
author isn’t bold enough to admit that the male body’s animal function
is joyful and life-giving, in crying need of celebration, not relegation to
the status of “idea.” She edges around the undoubted male pursuit
of sexual joy as well as his testosteronic brain capacity, which has produced
mountains of literature and science as well as X-rated videos. But no songs,
no tropes, no exuberant praise. Again I ask: Why?
don’t have a penis,” Bordo says at one point, admitting a physical
fact that Angier, Wolf, MacKinnon won’t acknowledge. But it does not stop
her from rating maledom from a perch far out in gender space. The heroes parading
through her book are mostly storybook males–Cary Grant, Babe Ruth, James
Dean, Marlon Brando. You can bet she is fondest of the p.c. twins Grant and
Dean, because they are “fragile” expressions of virility, not really
men of steel. And of course she sees the emergence of the nude male model as
a stealthy triumph for the gay community. Only now, she concludes, are “straight
guys flocking to the modeling agencies, much less concerned about any homosexual
an historian, ought to know that the straight male body has been front and center
in many cultures for thousands of years; witness the Sistine Chapel and the
naked Apollos all over Italy. Further, she again ignores the law of the market.
It is the exploding market of empowered “straight” girls that is prodding
Madison Ave. to provide gold to male models, gay or straight. I well remember
the lonely “hunt” by Cosmopolitan for a bare-assed male centerfold
in the 70s. I joined the long list with several of my creative-worker pals,
dreaming of cash rewards. Alas, they gave in to Burt Reynolds’ celebrity,
but it doesn’t alter the fact: Hand me or my brothers a fat check–or
a champagne partner–and we’ll undress as fast as Mia Hamm or Brandi
In the late
90s, however, heterophobia is briefly but securely in the saddle, obscuring
these elemental truths. The centerpiece of this phobia, reversing the malady
that long penalized gays, is simple: joyful celebration of one gender by the
other–particularly his or her distinctive differentials, i.e., “masculine”
or “feminine” traits–is forbidden. Instead, we’re now engaged
in a furious drive to find unisex similarities, ignoring difference and contradiction.
This is why Bordo can’t rhapsodize properly about Bobby Cohen or Marlon
Brando. And when she or some of her more vicious sisters admit “difference,”
it must be given a functional, nonesthetic grade.
female miracle we know as “multiple orgasm,” a delight for any nearby
male lucky enough to witness one. Women are the superior “sex which is
not one,” Bordo says, echoing an infamous phrase. Because women are potentially
in constant heat all over their bodies, thanks to a multiplicity of sensitive
body parts, from nipples to ears to feet soles to clits to thighs. Whereas men
are focused, Bordo says, on one organ and one event.
ti da. Since I do wear a penis I must dissent. If I am confined physically to
one point of contact, I’m not confined visually or intellectually. I usually
spend, with my gender, large portions of the day thinking about sex and looking
at women (an endless stream of studies, including the Kinsey Institute’s,
back me up). Often masturbation occurs without effort, on elevators and in cars.
Such events, such streams of consciousness, are more than diversionary: They
probably produce much of the amorous music and poetry we revere (surely Shakespeare
had several hard-ons while he composed his sonnets, if not Romeo and Juliet).
It’s probably forbidden to publish articles even in The New England
Journal of Medicine recommending erotic reverie as a reinforcement for the
state of mind we call “sanity”–as financial, violent, or takeover
scheming does not–but we all know it’s a soul-satisfying way to spend
the developed art of male voyeurism, but she doesn’t like it. Guess why?
It relegates women to “objecthood.” It leads straight guys to worship
Mia Hamm for her body rather than Michael Jordan, whom we merely admire, etc.,
etc. Though she hails the arrival of male cheesecake in Calvin Klein ads, she
finds them curiously reluctant to lay men out in passive repose, unlike languid
women, who “require no plot excuse to show off their various body parts.”
where heterophobia wounds as it blinds. Another truth that can’t be uttered
in the 90s, perhaps the most discomforting, is again quite simple: Naked women
are absolutely more interesting to behold than men, at least when they
stand still long enough for prolonged inspection, if not meditation. Of course
the male body deserves the subdued reverence that Bordo calls for. I applaud
her surely doomed call for full-page images of phallic arousal in Vogue,
GQ and beyond. But He still doesn’t match the complexity of She,
of the corpus that captivated poets and divines for centuries before the E.R.A.
us know precisely why: The multiple orgasm itself depends on multiple points
of visual and tactile interest. I can’t believe I need to prove my point
here, simply to remind you of it–and refer you to Anne Hollander’s
classic study of this distinction in Seeing Through Clothes (1978). To
look at a male’s body is a quick read, she argues, partly because of the
single-focus, partly because his body “stops,” in effect, at the crotch,
cutting itself into two parts, while a woman’s body is an uninterrupted
sweep, from head to toes, with an infinite number of variations. This is why
Mia Hamm rivets more of us as a potential nude study than Michael Jordan, who
is poetry mainly when he runs, moves, shoots and scores. The essence of the
male “difference” is rooted in action, not in repose–which obviously
doesn’t mean women don’t or can’t move, physically or politically.
The traits that divide men and women are as subtle, as fascinating, as those
that seem, for the moment, to unite them.
writers now dominating the Sexual Theory market are obsessed with merging the
genders into one boring blob, as is the market, as is Hollywood, as is political
campaigning. One tv commercial and film after another shows women shouting down
males, leveling them with guns or corporate power, wearing helmets while they
rip up the streets with power drills. And you can count on the fingers of one
hand how many times we have seen your average female politician wearing a formfitting
dress. But She is not He. Neither is Air Force Col. Eileen Collins, commander
of the latest NASA mission. Strip them and they will still merit more sheer
esthetic reverence than Michael Jordan or myself. When Brandi “Hollywood”
Chastain tore off her jersey on national television, she revealed not a flat,
muscled chest but two black-bra-enhanced spheres that received endless attention,
commentary and replay, from every known gender. If Michael had done the same,
his chest might have gotten a tenth of the attention that we gave Brandi’s.
this means women are superior to men–God knows there are plenty of ways
even I can outperform Hillary, Judith and Brandy (certainly I can jump higher,
write and design websites faster and yell louder). It simply means the genders
are two, not one, demarcated most of all by bodies that are equal but separate.
In her attempt to blend these double differences into invisibility, Bordo does
both The Male Body and the intricacies of the male-female template immense
disservice. She cannot admit “feminine” traits that 20 years of demagoguery
want to ignore or blame on cultural imposition, particularly those that seem
gentle or nourishing (motherhood is almost as invisible in these texts as screwing),
or, perish the thought, seductive. Worse, she can’t extol “masculine”
traits–ambition, size, strength, single-minded focus, proud fatherhood
(single dads are the fastest-growing parental demographic) and, most of all,
the raging romanticism that “speaks its desires” frontally, in song,
story and bars.
girds her refusal to read Nabokov’s archetypal tale of an old man’s
desire as anything other than perversion. In her long penultimate chapter on
this gender-driven epic, she savages not only Humbert, the supposed aggressor
in the tale, but coy, clever Lo herself. A tragic tale of two people driven
to self-destruction by their opposing lusts is reduced to a second-rate case
of harassment filed in a provincial court.
Body ends with another hymn to her father, who becomes a “feminist,”
finally, by admitting in his last days that he believes Anita Hill, not Clarence
Thomas, after first daring to debate the case with his daughter. Rather than
reveal the labyrinthine truths about the singularity of its subject, therefore,
the book joins the heterophobic parade of pundits who see the coming
ascendance of the Passive Postmodern Male.
bet the farm on this widely predicted event. When our phobic blinders are widened,
we’ll see that a combination of social, economic and mind-changing events
in the past two decades are moving us toward differentiation, not singularity.
Permit me to isolate one simple cause among many others. As history tells us,
the rise of economic and political dependence for women increases sexual activism
among the gender that is normally mute about the dictates of its loins. This
trend is already charging ahead, to the discomfort of the puritanical lock on
our public discourse, media and print, on genderism. The percentages of women
who–since roughly 1980–are enjoying pre- and extramarital affairs
have spurted like the object of their desires. They are marrying later, having
tons of kids out of wedlock (I am speaking of prosperous white professional
girls, not just black welfare mothers), spawning fewer “legitimate”
kids with a certified hubby and divorcing at a European rate.
All of this
was not only predicted but welcomed in a book based on a conference at Barnard
in 1982, Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, about which
you’ve heard little because its thesis (that heterosexual intimacy is a
life-enhancing pleasure) does not “fit” our current phobia. While
the wide range of essays and manifestos here take care to discourse on the dangers
implicit in the AIDS epidemic and domestic violence, the focus is on mainstream
fucking, how to enjoy it, how to induce the often self-absorbed male to attend
to women’s sensual needs and, most of all, how to end centuries of silence
about what your mainstream woman wants in bed (we must “name our desires,”
said Barbara Ehrenreich). Though this text is rarely recalled in the late 90s,
it has proven singularly prophetic.
now naming their desires and acting upon them. The result is not less heterosexual
joy and abandon. It is more. Not for a moment do I deny that this sweet little
secret is a secret. The press, the publishers and the electronic media see the
women’s movement not as an aphrodisiac but as a signal rebuff to maledom–and
certainly the phallus. Of course the properly terrified Ron Carlson, handed
the nasty assignment of writing about the dong in Body, a collection
of essays about eyes, arms, boobs, legs, asses, feet, wants to hide. He can’t
even bring himself to call the life-launching shaft more than a “dink,”
about which neither gender, in his eyes, wishes to speak, or notice. And the
calm, erudite Prof. Stearns, viewing the “battleground” of desire,
sides in the end with our pompous, moralizing pols and pundits, predicting that
our Victorian instincts will chain us down again, 100 years after we broke free.
Do not believe,
friends, the going line. Forget the URFs, the media moralists, the Limbaugh
crowd. Speak up. Are you enjoying the game of sex and gender more than ever
before? Among those of you who can think past the 90s to the 80s, 70s, 60s or
even the 50s, the answer has to be a resounding yes for many reasons,
but most of all the one I cite above. As the two genders gradually discharge
their dependent debts to each other, as they come together in the new garden
on equal turf, they’re certain to meet their irreplaceable opposite for
the first time, as Luce Irigaray, the heretical French feminist, prophesied
a decade ago. We no longer confront each other as functional, stereotypical
marriage partners, with duties and dependencies shrouding their inner dispositions.
We must therefore reconsider the whole question of place, to move on to another
age of difference. Man and woman are always meeting for the first time, because
they cannot be substituted one for the other.
of Irigaray recently when women pundits began to heat up over Viagra (which
not a few of them now use). She popped into my mind again when a network of
highly placed women scientists grumbled openly about how little research has
been conducted on female sexuality. “I suspect most male researchers are
more interested in male genitalia,” announced one professor of psychiatry,
casting doubt upon her analytic powers. Dr. Vivian W. Pinn, director at NIH
of the Office of Research on Women’s Health, argues that it’s time
to focus as intensely on women’s “sexual functions” as we do
on breast cancer and menopause.
Bring on forbidden data! The more each gender knows about the “other”–beyond
the sexist/feminist shibboleths we’ve been fed–the more amour will
prosper, at least on its physical level.
going on before us–the baring of the male body, the baring of female desire–cannot
be underestimated. Certainly it matches the balancing of the national budget
for surprise. We’re involved in an act of metaphoric seduction, insertion
and withdrawal on an extremely high level. No wonder its consequences can’t
be publicly acknowledged: the epidemic of illegitimacy among middle-class whites,
for one example, which only the armor-plated Sen. Moynihan dares discuss on
the Senate floor.
this is occurring before our eyes, in response to deep psychic and economic
changes, we can’t think it out or face it, given the legacy of the centuries
when doomsday Augustinian morality drove us to fear any open discussion of sexuality-as-pleasure.
In this context alone, Bordo’s flawed, failed book isn’t bad news.
Its appearance, along with a small countercurrent of recent pro-male books written
by sex-theorist women means the penis is on a survival track. Susan Faludi may
be ready to fire a countershot in her next book, Stiffed, but the trend
is still unpredictably upright. Yes, we are decades away from seeing an erect
penis on the cover of a national magazine, not to say its immersion in an organ
of equal power. This visual miracle, which would resemble a Mideast-style declaration
of gender peace, is still far off–unless we speak up, defying political
invites you to speak further on this issue on two contrasting websites: www.nypress.com/art/wickprick ,
and this.is/METABODY, a site sponsored by several museums and universities since