Reading about the prosecution of a well-known fast food spokesperson has felt unnerving to me. In part because it’s always sad to hear about the type of activity he was convicted of. And in part because that particular well-known fast food spokesperson is featured in my (unpublished) book & is described in dialogue as being in possession of “this, like, absolutely monstrous pornography collection.”
Which seems like it would’ve been a totally reasonable detail to include if the book had been published earlier, but I’m worried that it’ll be distracting now. Even though it’s now more verifiably accurate.
I’d vacillated on using his real name — in one draft from 2013 those passages instead discuss a spokesperson named Garret who works for a fictional chain called Treats — but later that same year decided the connection to the real world was sufficiently important, and my information sufficiently accurate, that I should include the public figure. Especially because publicity itself was a minor theme of those passages. Myths come from somewhere, after all, and publicity is the first step toward myth-making. It’s interesting to look at the sort of actions that lead to publicity in the modern world versus the long-departed eras traditionally featured in epics. It seems unlikely that Homer would’ve versified over a man who had lost a lot of weight by eating food prepared by the same cook for every meal.
And the discussion of pornography is important for my work — my original impetus for the project was as a framework to write about violence against women. Providing an alternate perspective from Bolano’s masterful 2666, for instance. And hoping that, by making the story more accessible than his was (the police blotter portion of his book is pretty hard to get through for a lot of people), I could expand the audience for those ideas.
I subscribe to the school of feminism that believes pornography itself, i.e. explicit depictions of human sexuality, is okay — but there is plenty of pornography that is not. The biggest issue is that pornography and sex do not seem to be substitute goods. You might think they would be, that either would result in satiation and so people would not seek both, but most research I’ve seen suggests that pornography increases people’s desire to experience the depicted acts. With smiling footage between consenting adults, that’s fine. It’d be nice if more pornography depicted conversation — I don’t know of any wherein the actors ask “What do you want to do next?” or “Is this okay?” or the like… instead the actors mostly groan or shout Saxon-derived language about what should go where and how — but, still, if the participants look happy and the depicted acts are gentle, I don’t think there’s a problem.
And, sure, you might ask yourself “why?” The authors work in urology, though. If someone feels that his penis is too small and wants to try augmentation (and is, reasonably, discussing this with a doctor first and not just replying to those spam emails that guarantee enlargement), it could be helpful for the queried doctor to point at a graph and say, “actually, you’re perfectly normal.”
And, of course, there is the fact that many men are dissatisfied with their own penises. A study from Lever et al. surveyed twenty-six thousand heterosexual men and found penis-size dissatisfaction in a majority of respondents. This despite an overwhelming majority of heterosexual women being satisfied with their partners’ penis sizes, and, when women do complain, the complaints are more likely to be that a partner is too large than too small, and (to my knowledge) there are no studies indicating more effective orgasm (for women) from penetrative sexual encounters with larger penises; a majority of women don’t experience orgasm from penetrative sex alone.
The poet Adrienne Rich wrote the line “This is the oppressor’s language.” I borrow her phrase now for a small digression into male semantics. The dictionary definition of “vulnerable” is “susceptible to being wounded or hurt, or open to attack or assault.” The opposite of vulnerable” would be “impregnable” or “impenetrable.” The sex act, which can result in pregnancy, has as its modus operandi something men call “penetration.” “Penetration,” however, describes what the man does. The feminist Barbara Mehrhof has suggested that if women were in charge of sex and the language, the same act could well be called “enclosure”–a revolutionary concept I’m afraid the world is not yet ready for. (To further digress, in the Latin of Augustine’s day pudenda, mean “parts of shame,” referred to male and female genitalia alike. In modern usage the term refers only to female genitalia.)
So, my apologies, to both Brownmiller and to you, if my previous reference to her book scared you off. It’s well worth reading, and not as arduous as the front cover might lead you to expect.)
Let’s get back to Veale et al.’s study then, shall we? They looked at both flaccid and erect penis sizes. Which, sure, that sounds a little strange to me. The authors report that “there may be greater unreliability in the measure of flaccid stretched length.” I’m surprised any researcher would spend time measuring a flaccid penis. Temperature, activity level and more seem like they’d have a dramatic influence over this measure: there was a reason men thought it was funny for George Costanza to shout “I was in the pool.” Personally, there were some cold days last winter where, after volunteer-running with the kids on the local cross country team, I had trouble even getting a fingerhold to accurately use the bathroom.
But, for erect sizes, their main findings were that, unsurprisingly, self-reported measures seemed significantly larger than researcher-measured numbers. And a compilation of best-practice researcher numbers led to a revision of the average measure downward yet again (about thirteen centimeters, with a standard deviation of over a centimeter and a half).
And, yes, I am male, obviously I understand the psychological sway of these numbers. There is a story I used to tell about how I’d stopped reading Vonnegut and had begun recommending Murakami instead to everyone who told me they liked Vonnegut’s writing. My story was, approximately, “I used to read a bunch of Vonnegut. But I read ‘Breakfast of Champions’ when I was in middle school, and every male character in that book, he describes their penis size. Which, sure, maybe he was making an important point by doing that, but he also mentioned the average penis size and said it was eight inches. And, poor little middle school me, I felt horrified! Barely half that! Wasn’t until my best friend in college told me the real average was something like five inches that I stopped worrying.”
And, yes, I really did think he’d written the number “eight” in his book, although clearly I was wrong. I just looked up the passage to quote it for this essay and apparently the number he included was the, at the time, scientific best guess. Five point seven inches. I guess I was a poor reader in middle school?
So, yes, a man thinking his penis is too small can feel very down about himself. Despite sexual partners not caring. Despite sexual partners who do care more often wishing a penis was smaller.
Men worry about penis size despite, and I think this is a very important point, zero exposure to images of erect penises while out in public. If you’re comparing yourself to someone else, you’re probably either in a bedroom with him or else watching pornography.
Both (I hope — and let’s assume this for the sake of simplifying my point here) experiences you specifically sought out for pleasure. And no one will see yours to know how big it is unless (under those same “the world is a nice safe place” assumptions) they like you enough that you’ve stripped down and are aroused.
And still penis-size anxiety is a big enough deal that researchers are devoting effort to clarifying the numbers, and the results of those studies get trumpeted in headline-grabbing news articles.
Obviously, I think the psychological effects of body-image dissatisfaction are a bigger deal for women. Because the criticisms levied in popular culture are often about things that are always on display (breast size, for instance, and weight, and a face that’s wrinkle-free and child-like smooth). You can’t go through the checkout line at the grocery store without passing imagery that the average woman would pale in comparison to; even exceptionally beautiful women can’t live up to the magazine-cover ideal, because those magazines feature exceptionally beautiful women who, apparently, still aren’t beautiful enough and need to be photoshopped into further cartoonish perfection.
Presumably you’ve read an article or two complaining about this practice.
I don’t have anything of merit to add to that discussion.
Still, I was pretty surprised, and displeased, to see the most recent Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition cover. Not because it’s basically pornographic (I think it is, oddly enough because I’m relatively liberal, so I don’t think genitalia should demarcate a hard and fast line between something being pornographic or not), and not even for the reasons Jennifer Weiner discussed in her New York Times article (quick summary: “Great. A new part of my body to feel bad about”).
No, the thing that upsets me is the cartoonified lack of hair. Which I think is dangerous, societally, because it serves to normalize child pornography.
Sure, sure, I realize that many women in pornography have presented smooth, shaven fronts for a few decades now. But there’s a difference. Perhaps the biggest issue is that those images weren’t eye-grabbingly present while walking through the grocery store.
Because, look, adults have pubic hair. Children don’t. And, yes, there is an increasing trend for women to remove the pubic hair near their genitals, but I’d say that many who do so are being influenced by the same pornography-inspired culture that I believe is harmful to children in the first place. How many of those women would decide to do so if they didn’t realize that many other women were? The whole phenomenon can be sourced to male desire. And in part, I assume the motivation is to make women appear more childlike, akin to the linguistic juvenilization inherent in using the word “girl” to describe grown women (e.g. Flo, the progressive insurance “girl”. Or the pervasiveness of using “girl” as the default noun for collegiate women, which in my meanders through our local campus seems much more common than the use of “boy” to refer to collegiate men, even though the women are typically both physiologically and psychologically more mature).
And, sure, you could argue that what they’ve done for the Sports Illustrated cover is simply to use photorealistic editing to create an image like women’s smooth fronts as depicted in classical art. But that style of painting comes from eras when pedophilia was not highly frowned upon: prepubescent girls were often married off and subject to spousal rape. Even in the United States, explicit pornography featuring children could be purchased openly until the 1970s, and former child pornographers were even called upon to testify on behalf of the defense for several prominent abuse cases (as detailed in Ross Cheit’s “The Witch-Hunt Narrative”). All of which is to say, just because something was done a certain way in our horrible past, doesn’t mean we should keep doing it.
I don’t think I’d be as upset about this (“this” meaning, again, the Sports Illustrated cover, which, yes, look, as a heterosexual male, I’m well aware that it’s titillating, but because of the stylized appearance of the cover model it’s titillating in a way that normalizes and even encourages sexual arousal in response to children. In my opinion.) if children weren’t actually being harmed. Like, if actual children were not being preyed upon, then, okay, maybe it’d seem more acceptable for pornographic actresses to be depicted in a childlike manner. Weird, to me, because I think that by encouraging that sort of visceral response to childlike images you would be directly contributing to a world in which children were more likely to be harmed later, but in absence of any evidence of real-world harm, I could see abandoning my argument.
The problem is, many children are harmed. If you’re curious about this, or simply worried that you’re in too good a mood right now and are looking for something to really gutpunch you with shame for not doing more to help, you could pick up Holly Smith’s “Walking Prey” or Lydia Cacho’s “Slavery Inc.” (p.s. thank you, Elizabeth Boburg, for translating the latter. Why is your name not on the cover? With my library’s edition, the only way I even knew to thank you was from tiny font on the copyright page. Your name appears nowhere else).
“Walking Prey” is primarily Smith’s story about her own youthful travails. She was taken advantage of by older boys repeatedly while growing up, sometimes in ways that could reasonably be considered sexual abuse, and eventually tricked by an older gentleman into running away with him, under the auspices of starting a career in music. Instead, he had her work the streets; due to her own ignorance and destructively low self-esteem, she figured that’s all she’d ever be able to do. Another sex worker took her to a street known for underage women; the sort of emotionally-deadening experiences you might be able to imagine then ensued. One pair of buyers, after finding out her age (although she lied and said “seventeen,” not fourteen) wanted to take her back home. In Smith’s words:
“I have been asked why I wouldn’t accept help from these two “johns,” and I can understand why this might be difficult to conceive. But I must reiterate here a sentiment from chapter 1: as a society, we must stop blaming children for their actions, or lack of actions. No child victimized through sexual exploitation or commercial sexual exploitation should be blamed for his or her circumstances. For those who believe these men really sought to help me, I want to know why then didn’t they call the police? Why didn’t they ask for my age before paying me for sex? We need to stop placing responsibility on those children and teenagers who are so obviously broken that they believe prostitution is their only viable option.”
Or, right, there’s “Slavery Inc.”, also a very brave book, but whereas Smith’s bravery is in her unflinching display of her own past mistakes, Cacho is brave in that her words might well get her killed. She took great risks to research her book, and had already suffered for prior publications (she was imprisoned and tortured for her previous work exposing a child pornography ring), and at least one of her collaborators for this book was murdered while she was writing it. Cacho is apparently tough as nails, and I’m glad she’s out there doing her work.
But, right, the reason why I mention Cacho’s book is that she documents the thriving network of human traffickers and international sex tourism that often targets children. And these issues are, apparently, dastardly to attempt to combat. I’ll quote a passage below that addresses some of the difficulties (although it’s worth noting that Cacho doesn’t even mention certain problems, like the fact that you might be tortured by criminals for drawing attention to these issues):
“It is globalization’s Achilles’ heel: the inequality of cultures, economies, and legal systems, as well as the disparity in intervention capabilities among countries and regions, make it practically impossible to follow cases such as those presented here, no matter how well documented they are. Political will or its absence is a key factor in understanding why human slavery has remained a horrific issue; focusing on isolated cases makes it seem like a criminal phenomenon, a complex conundrum of disparate, individual stories, exaggerated by the fevered imaginations of NGOs. Beyond opinions and sociological hypothesis are the facts: these women and girls show us the route like sailors in the middle of the night who point to land and warn of the obstacles that must be faced in order to arrive there alive and on time. Their stories, with concrete details, such as addresses, names, telephone numbers, travel routes, false passports, photographs, and even telephone recordings, are dismissed, just as the voices of the first domestic-violence victims who fled their homes were ignored as they sought better lives free from subjugation and humiliation.”
Or there’s this passage, where she addresses the fact that child prostitution depends upon clients who want to exploit them, which is, after all, the whole reason I think the Sports Illustrated cover is bad, since it normalizes erotic urges toward child-like objects:
“Few men are working to eliminate trafficking and violence against women; and not many of them express publicly the need for a transformation of masculinity, to make it less focused on the objectification of women. Meanwhile, the number of clients accessing child pornography and brothels where adolescents are enslaved is increasing. Clients are seeking ever-younger girls because they usually do not know how to defend themselves and it’s easier to get them to cooperate and to work as prostitutes. However, as Victor Malarek states: “In the majority of investigations and reports on this tragedy, they, the principal consumers of prostitution, are unknown, and, in the end, they become the lost link.”
And that’s my point: children suffer horrific sexual abuse because of adult male demand. In which case, why would we want to encourage the sexual objectification of children? Or of photoshopped women stylized (zero wrinkles, smoother skin, no pubic hair) to resemble children?