The Power of Pudenda, Part One: The Long and Short of It

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The Long and Short of It by Nicholas Weinstock  

The Book of the Penis  
by Maggie Paley   
(Grove Press, 1999, hardcover, 242 pages)  

Once I got married, I figured, all the walls would come down. Spending that much intimate time with one woman — time in and time out, as it were — I would inevitably get to know everything about her body, and she would quickly become blasé about mine. Men are supposed to be easy, after all; what’s to know besides where to turn him on?
So it comes as something of a surprise that the larger-than-life power of the penis endures, that

Amanda, my sophisticated wife of two years, still ogles the item as I put on my pajama bottoms, that she hoots at my occasional tall (and small) tales of fellow inhabitants of the locker room, that she bursts into raucous applause when a male member is flashed, however fleetingly, on a movie screen. For an extension of flesh the approximate size and personality of, say, a stick of butter, the penis continues to command an inordinate amount of awe — at least as much from the men who own them all their lives as from the women who own them for minutes at a time. And for what amounts to a human gearshift with a paltry two speeds, the myth and mystery surrounding the dick is difficult to explain.


It is the search for such an explanation that beckons and ultimately eludes Maggie Paley, the courageous author of Book of the Penis. “I’ve only managed to skim the surface of the subject,” she confesses in her preface, leaving it to others “to plumb its depths” and leaving her readers both appreciative of her honesty and admiring of her attempts to abstain from tempting metaphors of stiff tasks, swelling data and penetrating analyses. “What you have in your hands is an explorer’s book,” she declares as she leads us into the wide world of “penis madness.” And if her bold journey is at times stumbling and often sideways, it nonetheless proves an entertaining tour.


After all, for a long time the thing had been only furtively discussed. It was over two decades ago that a bearded psychologist entered my fifth-grade class to mark our one and only day of public school sex education. He led the boys, in an effort to get us comfortable talking about sex, in a

mass recitation of the word. Penis. Good. Penis. Excellent. Penis. Penis. PENIS. PENIS! Once the shouting had died down, we returned to our manly pact of silence that remained

pervasive until recently. Paley dates the current conversational acceptability of the noun “penis” back only a few years to the spectacular 1993 case of John Wayne Bobbitt (the news item that also popularized, if less enjoyably, the verb “to lop”). I might argue that date back further, recalling the nationwide guffaws that greeted a 1982 “penis breath” joke in Stephen Spielberg’s E.T., but the point’s well taken: men think more often and less deeply about their penises than just about anything else in the world, and are only now beginning to discuss them openly.


In celebration and support of this trend — of a brave new world where a rumored bend in the president’s member is yakked about on public television — The Book of the Penis gives us the gift of gab. Every paragraph dangles with “cocks” and “balls”; “pricks” and “hard-ons” jut up from every page. There are even flesh-colored illustrations and an eight-inch ruler on the book’s spine, raising the brief hope for a possible scratch ‘n’ sniff section or a 3-D pop-up in the middle. The overall effect, a humdrumming of the previously unmentionable, is undeniably a breakthrough, but that’s as far as the book can go. The author’s limitation, it seems, was her
reliance on male subjects to speak articulately about their own anatomy. “My aim,” Paley laments, “was to find out what penises mean to men, and how this affects their relationship with the world, with each other and with women.” The problem is that we men don’t have the slightest idea, and even if we did, we’d be unlikely to divulge it to a penisless person conducting a survey. Unsurprisingly, the straight men Paley cornered “didn’t have all that much to say about it”; the gay men were somewhat “more forthcoming,” but “shy.” As a result, our clearly intelligent author is
left with a clear lack of data. And in the face of such a dilemma, the book — oh, what the hell — falls limp.


Stymied by an absence of groundbreaking interviews, our intrepid author burrows into facts and figures, some of them useful, some just silly. Paley demonstrates her keen writerly intuition by addressing The Size Question without delay — page eleven — and by announcing good news: most of us (Boogie Nights special effects and Tommy Lee home movies notwithstanding) are normal. “Very few American men are more than nine inches long when erect,” comes the verdict, “and very few

are officially undersized” — a diagnosis reserved for towers of power that don’t reach three and two-thirds inches. These are the sort of statistics we appreciate, but others included are of dubious worth. It’s mildly interesting to learn that penis is Latin for “tail,” and that the term “testify” may come from the biblical-era practice of swearing an oath on one’s testicles, but of
what value is the guess that codpieces worn by men in the fifteenth century “must have made them feel perpetually aroused,” or the bullet-pointed allegation that “[d]uring the wedding scene in The Little Mermaid, the clergyman appears to have a hard-on, though Disney denies that he does”? At times such semi-information seems downright inaccurate: nowhere in my own all-American history is the nickname that high school boys are said to be awarded “based on what their penises look like: the snake, the toad, the purple creeper.” More often — see the section titled “Fish and Animals with Notable Penises” — it just seems that Penis Madness has claimed another victim.


Regrettably, much of The Book of the Penis reads like a survey course on foreign cultures and flamboyant extremists who expound on their penises far better than the vast and muttering majority of American guys. So my wife will continue to gape and wonder; men will continue to scratch, fondle and exaggerate; and sensible authors like Maggie Paley will continue to pose sensible questions about our “penis-centered world” full of “penis-looking things” like cars, guns and skyscrapers, and be unable to answer them. Naked as we may seem, we are emboldened and protected by something uniquely male: a silence as rigid and dumb, and ultimately inexplicable, as the glorious and idiotic penis itself.

Read the review of
Cunt: A Declaration of Independence
by Nicholas Weinstock’s better half.

©1999 Nicholas Weinstock and Nerve.com