4 min

The allure of the penis

The long and the short of it

Credit: Capital Xtra files

I am beginning to get a complex. These past months, whenever I open my e-mail account, I get more spam than I do messages from far-flung friends. A lot of the junk mail suggests I need help getting my handling of hard cash in order. I laugh those ones off as I am a child of parents who lived through the depression.

The ones that prick my curiosity are those endless ones promising fail-proof methods for enlarging my penis or a magic pill so that I can be transformed into a mythical satyr for hours and hours of unrelenting rutting. While it seems in Canada we have been told that the government has no business in the bedrooms of the nation, it appears there is a good deal of business to be made from governing what goes on between the sheets.

Fascination with the penis has stood the measure of time since mankind’s beginnings. In some of the first written poems from the Middle East, the penis of the god Enki created the world. Over in Egypt, the god Atum was heralded as a self-made man, having given birth to himself after taking his hand as his lover. Taken with the solitary pleasure, he followed this up by fathering a host of other gods and goddesses.

The Greeks took the penis to new heights. Not only did men exercise buff naked in the gymnasium – the word comes from gymnos, meaning naked – but Greek society celebrated the male member on their decorative pottery and statues in varying stages of stiffness. In fact, one type of statue, hermae, was two-headed – the one above the shoulders and the one below the belt fully erect – were the only distinguishing features. The Greeks commemorated the penis, exaggerating its size and the uses it could be put to, in festivities such as the ones honouring the god Dionysius. Yet, in fact,they preferred the slim penis they saw dangling from young men bending and flexing their muscles at the gymnasium. Young men who, for more-than-willing older Greek men, were ripe for giving a hand or a gland to help them blossom into full manhood.

The Romans, on the other hand, were put off by the idea of penetration but it did not stop them from having their own penile fixations. For young men, it was a locket, which contained a small likeness of an erect penis, to wear around their necks so as to ward off sexual advances during the period they were becoming men. Romans believed that size mattered, sometimes promoting soldiers higher in the ranks based on the longer and wider rule of thumb. For the Romans, the penis was a pleasure dome, which was the route by which new Romans sprang forth to ensure the longevity and continued might of the empire.

In the centuries since classical times, the penis remained a point of interest for scholars, writers and doctors. Throughout this time learned men have made claims on the nature, functioning and morality of the pound of flesh. These claims were often based on their era’s misunderstanding of its enhanced presence. But two widely different men set the tone for our take on it.

The first was St Augustine, a man who brought the same zeal to his sex life as he did to his brand of Christianity. As a young man, Augustine admitted in his Confessions, he was a man of affairs. When he finally chose to settle down with one woman, he refused all occasions of the flesh as he believed in a dogma that viewed sex as inherently evil. The penis, which had a will of its own, had to be conquered, subdued and refused. He brought this viewpoint to his writings and teachings: sex equates with lust, the fall of Adam and the inherent wickedness of men. Semen is the projection of sinfulness.

The second person to influence our thinking was Freud, who put forward notions of penis envy, castration fear and all neuroses being essentially phallic. For Freud, the penis and its up and down manner reflected man’s behaviour – hunger for power, use of others, abuse of ourselves and mortality. It was all in the genitals.

Although their heads may have been centuries and philosophies apart, the penis is where Augustine and Freud were joined at the hip, so to speak. While one viewed the erection as intrinsically linked to man’s spiritual fall, the other connected it to the innate parricide wish to which, he believed, all men are prone. One man preached divine intervention; the other proposed analytical deliverance.

Throughout the history of sex, there has always been fear of “otherness.” For Christians, it was Jews and their circumcised penis. For white men, it was black men and their well-endowed manhood. Gays were also perceived as “other” since the point of sex between men was about spilling seed for pleasure rather than for procreation.

Luckily for us, we are alive in a time when the August-Freudo teachings, which spoke largely within the context of heterosexual input, can be put aside. Paralleling the rise of feminism and equally challenging the dominant male thinking on sex was gay liberation. So, society no longer views homosexuality as a spiritual or psychological disease, except for those who link the right with righteousness. We, inclined to the Greek way, can take pleasure where we find it. Or so I thought.

Judging by the flaunting on my e-mail, preoccupation with size and rigidity continues unabated within both hetero and homo sapiens. In 2000, an estimated $50 million was used to promote the “inviagrated” penis and sales were predicted to reach a possible $1 billion. Where once it was the spiritual and philosophical musings of prominent men that held sway, now it’s the potent almighty dollar of the pharmaceutical industry that, having discovered the secret of how to keep a good man hard to the touch, promises us the fashioning of a comely gift that keeps on giving.