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On Penis Envy

Coveting Thy Neighbor’s Member

The #MeToo movement has exposed powerful men for the dicks they are—by revealing what their penises want and have done. The surfeit of allegations has been dizzying and disturbing. It makes one question whether the bad among us outnumber the good. In a crusade sparked (in part) by the casual justification of “locker room talk,” one cannot help but think about male sexuality as a zero-sum game. Unchecked power and privilege are outflanking self-control and respect.

The penis just can’t help but steal focus, can it?

If men simply stopped — posturing, groping, and talking — we might just create some space for reflection. There’s no doubt in our minds that sexual harassment is aberrant. And yet, men and woman find progressively more creative ways to rationalize it (see the 2017 Alabama special election). This premise subjects everyone—but women primarily—to secondhand sexual abuse. It is the pathological impact of male defense mechanisms.

Let’s pretend that all men, on either side, stopped defending the accused or suggesting some cynical #MeToo witch-hunt. Perhaps we would examine our own primitive anxieties—those for which the penis has come to serve as a sort of weapon of self-defense. Simply, consider commonplace slurs: weak men are “pussies,” aggressive men are “dicks.”

The parallel brings to mind Freud’s initial explorations into the differences between the sexes—specifically his ideas about the active masculine and passive feminine. Sure, reading Freud today requires a certain degree of cognitive dissonance. Sex in the bourgeois Vienna of the early 20th century was necessarily different from our enlightened 21st-century sensibilities. After all, back then, a woman’s sexual desire was always subject to that of her male counterpart. And casual sex was seen, if at all, as something only men did.

Wait a minute…

Irony aside, Freud relied on some controversial theoretical bargains—the concept of “penis envy” in particular. Plenty of more capable feminist theorists (even at the time) have done much to dismantle the more troubling aspects of this idea. But it still bears explanation—and might serve us yet.

In short (perhaps not a great transition), Freud saw penis envy as universal to a young girl’s psychosexual development. It is the basis of the psychic trauma she experiences in first perceiving a lack—not having a penis. In maturity, the girl finds a substitute for the penis she can never possess in her impulse to have a baby. Metaphorically castrated, she eventually strives to find the penis of a suitable replacement who will fill that lack (as it were) and give her the child she so desires.

Again, remember that Freud distills his ideas about inherent masculine and feminine behaviors to a more basic level: that of active and passive. The imagery is fairly self-explanatory. But it’s important to keep in mind that he saw everyone—male or female—as having some degree of both active and passive instinct.

Ever the sadist, Freud doesn’t spare young boys. The corollary to penis envy is “castration anxiety,” a psychic experience (though sometimes literal) where the boy first realizes that he can never possess his mother because dad is calling the shots. Imagine the child who sees his dad’s larger penis in the shower and worries he may never “measure up.”

Freud saw the essential distinction between the sexes as one of theoretical interiority and exteriority. And penis envy came from the feelings of lack he perceived in his female patients (albeit a self-selected sample set). By now, we can safely dispense with any oversimplified application of penis envy in a clinical sense. For one thing, many practitioners have proven that Freud’s understanding of women was lacking. Then again, as often happens with Freud, he preemptively defends any inadequacy—in effect, neutering future detractors. In this case, he is famous for asking the French analyst Marie Bonaparte, “What does a woman want?”

After 30 years of practice, Freud was at a loss.

But I’ve noticed a blind spot in our thinking when it comes to penis envy—a “hole,” we could say. Returning to the topic of the insatiable penises with which we have been inundated of late: men, by virtue of their biology, tend to wear their desire on their sleeves. As such, our sexuality is presentational—located in external genitalia.


As a young boy, I remember the anxieties we had about penis size — the question of who among us had the largest and, therefore, would be king of the sexual jungle. The idea, I suppose, was that sexual pleasure (for some partner in a distant future) lay at the end of a long and mysterious tunnel that could only be reached by the lucky few in possession of an erection to match. At the time, we took our ideas of what sex meant from the softcore romps we watched on late-night cable. Pre-internet, one was lucky if he had an uncle with dusty back issues of Playboy—not that we learned much about the mutual orgasm from an airbrushed centerfold.

In the wake of the AIDS crisis, our public-school education necessarily emphasized the practice of safe sex over the pursuit of pleasure (for ourselves or our partners). Needless to say, my middle-school science teacher never articulated the intricacies of desire. Masturbation was considered a “gateway drug.” And the female orgasm would be relegated to the mystery it is of popular conception—a distinctly male concept that implies a puzzle to be deciphered or, for many sad sacks, an unsolved cold case.

Just as Freud’s idea is that a woman naturally overcomes her penis envy through her healthy relationship with her spouse, we assume that male maturity is an inevitability. #MeToo has fairly disproved that. Humans are aggressive, but men compete to a pathological degree. Just consider the “dick-measuring contest,” an idiom for a petty competition where the outcome is irrelevant. An example is men comparing golf handicaps and fantasy-football scores. Or simply think back to the 2016 Republican presidential primary debates.

Having been both subject to and of the metaphorical contest, I have no doubt that it captures something fundamental about how men think. We have a unique capacity to invest in pointless battles. And I’m particularly interested in the meaning that precedes these petty debates. The dick-measuring contest of the mind is very real—and very unconscious.

Perhaps there’s a psychoanalytic implication to the unexamined impact of penis envy in men. To be clear, this does not excuse boorish and predatory behavior. The current dialogue is and should be focused on the victims. Society (especially male) needs to do some focused listening. As an analyst-in-training, I wholeheartedly endorse this.

And yet, we love to speculate about the size of famous men’s penises. Note the viral (virile?) series of photos showing John Hamm “going commando.” And there are millions of dick pics, famous or otherwise, littering the world’s dating apps and text threads. (Linking to examples might undercut my argument.) I wonder what it means to the gossip hounds who finally have an answer for how big John Hamm’s ham is or what The Game’s piece looks like. In our collective imagination, dick size seems to correlate not only to a man’s sense of accomplishment but also to his sense of entitlement.

More importantly, I’m curious what these photos mean to their subjects. The Game of course took a selfie, so we can guess what he thinks. But we can also speculate what it might mean to the men not featured in those photos. Consider the celebrities with legendarily small penises. We find satisfaction in discovering that a titan of industry “disappoints” below the belt.

Which brings us back to our president. I’ve had an ongoing debate since Trump assured the world there was “no problem” with the size of his, ahem, hands. Surely he has a tiny dick, my friends insist. The argument is that a small penis requires over-compensation (e.g., a sports car). And yet, in another frame, a man with a large penis might embrace the power and entitlement of being the dick-swinging winner of the greatest dick-measuring contest on Earth. So, which is it: Does Trump over-compensate or feel entitled? As always, the muddy nature of human complexity requires an ambivalent “yes” to both.

And we can telescope out (the innuendos are unavoidable): the racialization of penis size could be an entire doctoral thesis. The fear and desire that white America has of and for the black male body is as fundamental to our history as foundational myths like the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. On the other end of the spectrum (need I repeat “as it were”?), supremacists localize their disdain of the Other in clichés like “you know what they say about Asian men” or the “Irish inch.” And Jewish men have built an entire entertainment industry on our symbolic (and canonical) castration.

At this point, it bears noting that I’m not suggesting a sympathetic turn on the part of society to some“problem” of male sexual identity. Women have had it far worse for millennia—and, if 2016 proved anything, will continue to do so for some time.

Instead, I’d like to pose a simple question to my fellow man: How does it feel to know you might never have the biggest dick in the room?

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