A friend once told me he had named his penis Willie because he didn't want a stranger making most of his decisions. David M. Friedman's amazing new book, A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis, takes the obvious question—who controls whom—to heretofore unexamined intellectual levels. It might not be a book for sensitive individuals of either sex—descriptions of castration techniques, anti-masturbation devices, penile-extension methods and the specifics of mating hyenas were enough to make the balls I don't have recede—but it's not a carnival sideshow of men with three testicles and donkey-like elephantiasis of the extremity, either. Instead, Mind could be the definitive work on what it means to have a dong, a captivating reconstruction—and at times deconstruction—of man's relationship with his pubic tuber, as well as a fascinating study of the impact the penis has had on political ideology, religion and society: everything you never knew and more you never even considered about your purple-headed sherbet slinger.
With equal parts candor and finesse, Friedman disassembles widely believed myths about the slithering sex snake: the size difference between black and white organs, for instance. Referencing the 1979 follow-up to the Kinsey Report, Friedman notes that although the average black penis is moderately larger than the average white penis in its flaccid state (3.78 to 4.34 inches vs. 3.16 to 3.86 inches, respectively), differences between black and white erections are almost negligible (4.96 to 6.44 inches vs. 4.83 to 6.15 inches, respectively).
Friedman also looks at research placing penis size in terms of survival of the fittest. As humans began to come down out of the trees, Friedman says, the drive to go forth and multiply and the ever-present threat of being eaten by a saber-toothed tiger made sure "that every man alive is descended from countless generations of well-hung, fast-spurting men." On the other hand, this also suggests that as man evolved, it was the other head that really mattered. Current stats reveal that an average 160-pound man has a schlong 5.5 inches long, while the average 400-pound gorilla sports just one inch of ugly muscle.
Of course, it's not all twigs and giggleberries for the much-maligned male member. The history of the penis is thick with suffering, from the metaphorical (the testosterone-causes-aggression debates of the 1970s, the anti-onanistic crusades of simpler times) to the painfully literal (raise your hand if you miss your foreskin, guys). Friedman flirts with the notion that circumcision in early pagan cultures may have been a fertility rite designed to emulate perpetual erection and then details the significant influence wielded by phallophobic church fathers. While early Greek culture considered the phallus a divine instrument capable of transferring knowledge and male virtue, Christians re-defined the skinflute as a direct pipeline to original sin: as a result of Adam's disobedience in Eden, man could no longer control the impulses of his penis, which is invariably and inescapably in conflict with God's will (just ask Jimmy Swaggart).
Friedman points out that modernity hasn't yet put control back in man's hands, so to speak. Just when God's cultural influence was starting to sag, Freud put some spark back in penis-related paranoia by insisting it is impossible to reconcile "sexual instinct to the demands of civilization."
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And things got harder from there. The 1970s, Friedman suggests, were "not an easy time to own a penis." Assorted behavioral scientists and anti-Freudian feminists—feeling not "castrated" or "envious" but "condescended to" and "lied to"—would spend nearly a decade trying unsuccessfully to prove a causal relationship between testosterone and aggression. Pseudoscientists and hardcore feminists alike insisted that anyone with a penis is a potential rapist, but by the end of the 1980s, the "diseased phallic imperative" (a variation on the bioevolutionary model claiming that men are born to be bad) was no longer seriously regarded in the scientific community. As it turned out, the idea that testosterone causes aggressive behavior was unsupportable. Says Friedman, "If testosterone is poison, there are a lot of men who are immune."
And then the 1990s witnessed the birth of the erection industry (nice work if you can get it, incidentally): according to Friedman, millions of Viagra users, with or without prescriptions, "are participating in one of the largest unsupervised (or barely supervised) medical trials in history." (Fun fact: sildenafil, a key ingredient in Viagra, works as effectively on the anesthetized and conceivably the comatose as it works on men with eyes wide open!)
So it's not just an owner's manual. Call it Of Men and Members: Mind is a lavish mosaic of historical facts and empirical data infused with energy. From fun phallocentrism to pee-pee persecution, Friedman tracks the Machiavellian machinations by which the poor little penis has been demonized, mechanized, psychoanalyzed, politicized and finally medicalized, all at the hands of the culture it helped to shape. By the time you finish turning all those pages, you'll be on an intimate first-name basis with that guy my friend likes to call Willie.
A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis by David M. Friedman; Free Press. Hardcover, 368 pages, $26.