By Jack Hafferkamp
Since theyre attached to just about half the worlds population, youd think people would know more -- or at least want to know more -- about the penis than they actually do.
In modern America, where we tend to think we know everything about everything, the phallus exists as a kind of stealth organ -- something that defines masculinity, but which is so bound up in fears, taboos and ignorance that its tough to get a realistic reading of what is actually going with men.
Oh, we certainly talk about the penis a lot, and one good measure of its importance in our culture is the number of terms we have for it. But aside from a bunch of funny names for the male organ of regeneration, what do people know about how it works or its symbolic meanings?
In point of fact, most people -- including those who sport them -- dont know dick about their willies. Thats why the title of Phallacies: An Unfettered Study of the Phallus Place in History, Art, Religion and Contemporary Life is a great pun. Its a documentary all about what men (and women!) dont know about the male "thing."
Did you know, for instance, that 65 percent of men think their penis small? And that 35 percent are convinced their dicks are too small? Or, more startling, that of those men suffering from chronic impotence, only 5 percent ever ask for help? And yet Viagra is the fastest selling drug in the history of Western medicine. What does that mean?
Its exactly these kinds of details that make Phallacies such a valuable video. Its an entertaining college-level introduction to the form, function, fears and symbolic meanings of that most masculine of a mans organs.
Host David Suzuki obviously has a good time trying to put the Western penis into a context that makes it possible to have intelligent discussion of the relationship of the penis to our notions of competence, masculinity, self-acceptance, sexuality, religion and even architecture. (Ever notice how the Washington Monuments obelisk looks like a big dick pointing skyward? Well, guess what, thats no coincidence.)
Another useful point made in Phallacies is about the role of the phallus in religion. In the West, weve worked overtime to separate sex from religion. This is not the case elsewhere. In India, for example, sex is seen as the necessary vehicle for keeping the divine life cycle moving. Sexuality is a part of the spiritual path.
Here, however, we have isolated sex as a "carnal" function, and hidden the phallus away behind a thick double standard that has, in various centuries, (including our own) celebrated the female form, while obscuring the male. Today, of course, we see naked, or near naked women everywhere. But naked men, especially if they are aroused, are certainly far more rare.
One intriguing argument suggested in Phallacies for why this is the state of affairs in our supposedly ultra-modern American culture is that in the West the phallus always has been held in such awe that mens strength derives in some part from the mystery surrounding the penis. If the penis were more visible it would be demystified; it would lose its aura and become ordinary. And thus so would masculinity -- or at least masculine vanity -- become ordinary.
This, of course, is a very powerful notion because it brings to the surface one of the basic assumptions of the patriarchy -- that men are somehow naturally superior to women. No wonder the idea of naked men so scares the fundies!
One other topic Phallacies takes on is the leg-crossing concept of "enhancement phalloplasty" -- that is, penis extension surgery, which is now being explored by a growing number of men. The show raises this question: Why would a man with a perfectly functioning penis, a man who says he has no complaints from his girlfriend, want to go to the trouble, expense and pain of a penis-enhancing surgery?
Because it make him feel more powerful.
Perhaps the most amazing thing to me about this 52-minute film, which is explicit but non-erotic, is that it was born as a TV show, part of the Canadian Broadcasting Systems program The Nature of Things. Whatever else one might say about Canadas curious censorship laws, you have to take your hat off to producer/director Vishnu Mathur and the CBC for having the courage to produce a product such as this. This is a program that would never appear on American network television.
And thats really too bad because this is exactly the kind of non-lurid, entertaining and educational TV that American men ought to be looking at -- instead of the usual mayhem, murder and bouncing balls. It would make better men of us.