The Penis Book
I was at a play when I saw the naked man. He was naked for about three minutes on stage, a shocking thing to witness. His chest and belly were hairy and his stomach protruded out beyond his toes; he stomped around onstage emitting a series of brutish, huffy grunts. His naked penis flopped around a bit as he tromped, and then, just as quickly as he appeared, he turned and propelled himself back off stage. His nakedness was meant to shock the audience (I had heard about this scene long before I got to the play, which was a hipster, punk-rock revisiting of Monzaemon Chikamatsu’s 1705 kabuki play, Drum) but aside from the standard shock that comes with seeing a male, rather than a female, nude onstage, I felt struck by a sudden, secondary confusion: how is it that 90% of women want to date these funny, hairy creatures? So I turned to June sitting next to me and asked her. She sighed and said, “They do come more attractive than that.”
This familiar thought—why do women find men attractive—has crept into my mind every so often throughout my dating life, usually in reaction to fears I’ve felt about my partners’ desires. Every woman I’ve dated has been, to varying degrees, bisexual (whether any of them identified with that complicated and taboo word is another essay). With each girlfriend I wondered, but didn’t ask, what sleeping with men was like for them. I often wondered if my own boyishness attracted my partners to me, and at times, distractedly, I would wonder if they wished I were more boyish, or if they occasionally wished I were not a woman at all. I felt too scared to ask any of my past girlfriends this because then they might answer, “honestly, yes” and I wasn’t sure I could hear that. To complicate the issue, the thought wasn’t entirely unpleasant (which is of course why I spent so much time thinking about it—I firmly believe our biggest fears are actually points of intrigue); often times the same thoughts that made me nervous (what if she wishes I were more masculine) also turned me on—what if I were more masculine? If I ever allowed myself to think about it, I secretly found the concept arousing. Well, arousing and terrifying. And with June I found myself genuinely curious to understand her better—what she had experienced. With June I felt a sense of open trust, like it might finally be the right time to explore my confusing mixture of desire and fear; the naked man at the play was merely a conversation starter.
And so when June and I began tentatively discussing the possibility that she might find it sexy if I wore a dildo and if we fantasized it as more than a random hunk of silicone, I blushed, became momentarily entranced by a stain on the linoleum tiling, then shrugged sheepishly and agreed to try it out. We went to a toy store and chose a dildo she thought would match her body (a long, soft, flexible silicone) and my hang-ups (it was bright pink and smooth; I felt shy about the veins and ripples of the “realistic” dildos). Nonetheless, the first time I slipped it into its leather harness and saw my reflection in the mirror I experienced a dizzying exhilaration—my buzz-cut hair, my compact frame, my smooth, slender, curveless hips and thighs now adorned with this extra accessory suddenly snapped to form an image I had secretly fantasized over for years—as a child, as an adolescent, as a young woman and later dyke. What would it be like to walk around in the world as a guy? I felt faint and a bit like throwing up, yet we “tested out” the new dildo every spare minute for months. I spent those months in a breathless, lightheaded daze, a sort of extended panic attack—or maybe I was simply out of shape.
When I tried explaining to friends that the simple act of wearing a dildo in bed was provoking an existential crisis, most of them seemed more confused by my problem than I was; how could sex affect a gender identity I had been wearing for years? It was like I was coming out as a “casual dresser.” One friend of mine laughed and said, “Of course you’re upset because you’re having nonstop enjoyable sex. Why can’t you relax?” But I didn’t feel like I was having sex, I felt like I was morphing. My biggest issue with “being queer,” and by queer I mean participating in the invention of a distinct community and lively culture organized around sexual behaviors, is that one risks becoming defined by what one does in bed. When I came out sixteen years ago, I didn’t identify with or use the term “lesbian.” The word seemed to truncate my array of possible desires, both in terms of sexuality and gender expression, into a finite and tidy package, but it was a package my parents could easily understand. I started calling myself a lesbian the day I came out to them, and though my terminology has changed over the years (I’d rather use the word queer now, for instance) I’ve nonetheless thought of myself as a sexual identity ever since. If my external appearance falls along the masculine spectrum, and my sexual acts with my female partner now include fantasizing I have a penis, do I need to rethink who I am at core? And who decides who I am, anyway: me, or the people looking at me? I can’t begin to explain how many people in my life have taunted me specifically for wanting to be a man because of my look. I have early kindergarten memories of boys chanting, “You want to be a boy, you want to be a boy,” over and over again during recess. In middle school boys would sing the Roy Orbison tune, “walks like a man / talks like a man,” whenever I walked past them. And since cutting my hair (I used to wear it long, down to my hips, and even then the boys saw through it) I’ve been screamed at by countless men driving past in cars and yelled at or stared at in countless women’s restrooms across America. It would be literally impossible to count the subtle and not-so-subtle reactions my hetero-normative counterparts have put me through over the years. It’s a Herculean task to proudly embody a look that inspires in others such anger and revulsion, especially because I share some version of their revulsion. If men are disturbed by my version of masculinity, I am deeply repulsed by theirs. That is, my own associations with masculinity include the caricature enacted by the naked man in the kabuki play: a stomping, aggressive, violent jerk who steals the scene, defiantly unconcerned over his appearance and actions, much like the man who yells obscenities at me out his car window. Who wants to be like that?
A straight friend suggested, over drinks, that fantasizing about having a penis is not a queer desire, but one most women ponder at least fleetingly, if not regularly. “I have this same conversation all the time with my straight friend Lauren,” she stated, while I gulped at my Guinness. “Of course it would be sexy to feel a woman’s hot wet cunt all around your throbbing—” I waved my hand at her “—but you’ll never feel the sensation, just not going to happen, and that’s the real bitch of it. You can wear a strap on, but you’ll never truly have the sensation,” she sighed, and lit up another cigarette. I wasn’t sure I needed to feel that particular sensation, but her reaction struck a chord. What if my desires are not queer, not gendered, not feminist, but are among an array of benign human predilections, such as an unbridled craving for chocolate covered macaroons or a thing for antique colonial furniture? What would my life be like if I let go of the array of hang-ups I’d taken on in the guise of protecting myself against sexism and homophobia? I can’t do much about other people’s thoughts, or actions, or hatreds, but perhaps this was a good excuse to interrogate my own boring assumptions about the world, to recognize my life as my own.
I realized I needed to let myself see men as beautiful. June, thoughtful as she is, suggested I have an affair, but I tend to examine life by “looking it up,” so, like anyone with an Amazon.com account would do, I ordered a penis book. I needed to explore, without having to get involved, what they look like, why my partner might find them attractive, why I myself might find them attractive, and most importantly, I needed to see some appealing images to replace these extreme stereotypes of men I find so barbaric. I searched online and found the perfect solution: a book of photographs taken by a gay man. I could see from its description that the book contained no text aside from an introduction: just page after page of nude portraits of male models focusing on the penis. The photographer intentionally left the models’ faces out of every shot, so as not to distract the viewer or reveal the identity of his subjects. Perfect!
When I got the package in the mail, I opened the padded envelope and sat down on the couch to take a look. I flipped it open to a random shot in the middle and was so shocked by the unobstructed image of sprawled naked man that I shrieked, immediately shut the book, and got up and got a beer. I paced the apartment. I tried to open the book again: still shocked! It took me a few tries, but finally I could sit still and look through every page. I felt such relief to find so many varieties of slender, striking men sporting all sorts of penises: thick, short, long, erect, semi-erect, etc. How helpful to view these strange creatures through the filter of an appreciative photographer, one who can more readily see what I struggle to: beauty. Honestly, I find a similar percentage of either gender attractive, despite the gender I choose to have sex with. I have a handful of lovely male friends whose kindness, intuition, and thoughtfulness rivals that of my female friends. It doesn’t help that pop culture seems to reinforce the least appealing forms of masculinity as though most men are terminator robots. My most distressingly negative impressions of the “way men are” come less from experience but from movies, advertisements, television shows, and plays.
A few months later, on the walk home from the Coney Island mermaid parade, a man with smooth skin and cute spiky hair, sporting a tank top over a long, lanky, well-tanned muscular chest, called out to me, “Hey! Where did you get that bike?” He and his boyfriend stopped to look my bike over, chat for a minute, and then move on. June said to me, “Wait, that was your type, wasn’t it? Your type of man?” I smiled and thought how sweet it is that June considers what type of man I would desire, that she has my type pegged. And she was right, of course, he was my type, though what I was thinking about was how cool his spiky haircut was, and how much I would like it…for myself.