Picture credit: Tobias Titz/Getty
Artillery Row

Let’s change the cultural meaning of the penis

Our genitals do not entitle us to anything

Consider the penis. Yes, I know. Since men, to quote Mary O’Brien, “have fashioned their world with a multiplicity of phallic symbols which even Freud could not catalogue exhaustively,” many of us might feel we consider it quite enough already. But perhaps we’re just not doing it the right way?

I’ve been thinking about this ever since seeing extracts from Kat Hyatt’s zine “Lesbians are dying out”. Available in (amongst other places) Glasgow Women’s Library, it purports to offer “explorations of transphobic logic”. Quite how it is doing this is not especially clear. 

The impression is more of an anti-gay conversion therapy pamphlet, in which the concept of “sinner” is replaced by that of “bigot” or “transphobe”. Shame on you, lesbians, for excluding the bepenised from your sex lives! May you burn in social justice hell! (That the zine is written by a lesbian may seem baffling, but I guess fear of damnation from the likes of Judith Butler and Owen Jones can do that to a person.)

The zine includes a cartoon of a panicking grey-haired woman with “TERF is a slur” on her t-shirt. “I don’t want to have sex with someone with a p-p-penis!!” she stammers, as phallic fruit symbols rain down on her. Silly woman! (We are supposed to think.) Silly, unsophisticated, bigoted woman! Penises, the zine goes on to tell us, “are just another body part with cultural meanings that can be changed”. 

This is true. None of the cultural meanings of the penis are carved in stone (metaphorically, that is. Actual phallic stone carvings are ten a penny). It strikes me as weird, however, for this assertion to be made in a zine that reinforces some of the most boringly standard, patriarchal, desperately in need of changing cultural meanings which have ever been ascribed to the penis: it’s really important! It has to go wherever its owner wants it to! Disrespecting the penis insults the very selfhood of the penis-owner! The mere existence of non-penis-owners who want to go their entire lives without ever having sex with a penis owner is a crime against penis-owning humanity! 

You might still not want to have sex with any penis-owners, but really, who cares what you want?

I am guessing that the creator of the cartoon does not think this is the message she is sending. Nonetheless, by “changing the cultural meanings” all that is actually being advised is that lesbians stop thinking about the cultural meanings. If you stop associating penises with male dominance and entitlement — or just men in general — you’ll feel more well-disposed towards penises, or something. Then penis-owners — ideally ones who don’t call themselves men — will be able to have sex with you in a way that has nothing to do with dominance and entitlement, but gentle persuasion. You might still not want to have sex with any penis-owners, but really, who cares what you want? Vagina-owners, as the great Freud taught us, only reach full maturity once they cease to be interested in their own pleasure. 

This is not serious politics. If it were not so deeply lesbophobic, I would find it almost funny. “Hey babe, how about changing the cultural meaning of cocks, one shag at a time?” As if this form of moral coercion isn’t utterly mundane. As if ridiculous aubergine cartoons can’t just be slotted in alongside penises scrawled in school textbooks, or dick pics sent to female colleagues, or any number of LOOK AT THE PENIS reminders that women are confronted with every day. 

But imagine if we did really want to actually change the cultural meaning of penises. Right now, for instance, an estimated 146.2 million women are missing from the world, some never born, some killed by infanticide or neglect shortly after birth, all because they were the type of human who does not have a penis. Last year, over 68,000 rapes were reported to have been committed by people with a penis in England and Wales alone. The majority of the world’s poor don’t have penises. There has never been a US President who didn’t have a penis. I could go on, and on, and on. 

What I am suggesting here — and this is basic feminism — that there is nothing about having a penis that should make these things inevitable. Penis-owners are not more valuable humans. Their lives are not worth more. They are not more deserving of power and authority, nor are they less capable of controlling any urges to harm others. They are not more worthy of space, money or respect. 

They do not have these things because vagina-havers — stupid, self-defeating vagina-havers — keep noticing the disparity in treatment and status. It is because some penis-owners make the choice to take things that don’t belong to them. They could make different choices. One very easy choice could be, for example, to accept that when someone says “I do not consider penis-havers as potential sexual partners”, that should be respected. To change the cultural meaning of penises involves penis-havers no longer thinking they have a God-given right to everything. 

In order to successfully monitor our transformation of the cultural meaning of the penis, it will of course be necessary to have words with which to identify penis-havers. Penis-haver won’t do because, as we all agree, a penis is just one body part (and a pretty ridiculous one at that). Hence I propose we use “men and boys”. Not all penis-havers may be happy about this, but since one of the unfortunate cultural meanings which we are seeking to eradicate is “possession of a penis means you get to be included in any category of your choosing”, they will just have to deal with it. It’s for their own good, after all. Who wants to spend their whole life being a dick?

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