Men Talk About Their Penises (NSFW)

The penis carries a lot of baggage. In pop culture, it's often depicted as comical (how many comedies are powered by male nudity gags?). Perhaps it's causing its owner grief in some way — by failing to perform sexually, for example — and is a spectacle for onlookers to ridicule. Either that, or it’s shown as threatening, as in some porn: a disembodied symbol of aggression with a mind of its own (consider the term "thinking with his dick"). Rarely is it presented as just another body part — sometimes sexual, yes, but also functional in other ways, and most of the time just there, one among many parts of a body that belongs to a person with a mind that is not, in fact, controlled by genitals. And it's time we looked at it this way.
Outside of porn, or maybe art museums, we have few opportunities to witness penises in this way if we do not either have one or have a partner — at the very least, a sexting partner — who does. The scarcity of explicit representations of male genitalia in mainstream media led to an internet frenzy when Game of Thrones' latest episode featured a close-up of a penis, held by its owner as he inspects it for warts.
Reactions to the new cast member were mixed. Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke was delighted, appearing on The Late Show to advocate for "junk equality." Others were disappointed that the penis shot was so aggressively unsexy, particularly in contrast to the frequent and sexualized female nudity on Game of Thrones. One Twitter commenter argued that "a closeup of a flaccid penis being examined for genital warts is not 'equal-opportunity nudity.'"
The argument offers an interesting study in our relationship to nudity — especially male nudity.
"Given how much symbolic baggage these body parts carry, it’s difficult and I think worthwhile to try to have a conversation about the more personal relationships that people have with their bodies," Lisa Wade, PhD, an associate professor of sociology at Occidental College, tells Refinery29. "The symbolism of our sexual body parts is so strongly gendered. It’s not the same in every society, but in contemporary American society, the idea that women’s sexual body parts are desirable, perhaps beautiful, and perhaps fragile and vulnerable, is a really common way of thinking about them."
But penises, she continues, are portrayed as "instruments of power" and "symbols of virility and strength" — and people who have them are left wondering whether they measure up. "They are constantly in a position of wondering, Am I, as represented by this body part, going to be able to live up to these expectations?" Dr. Wade says. "[Penises can] become not instruments of power, but instruments of humiliation."
A respect for individuals' personal relationships with their penises guided Geoffrey Berliner when he shot the 14 following penis portraits, accompanied here by the subjects' thoughts on their genitalia. Berliner — the executive director of the Penumbra Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to photography education, research, and outreach — developed these portraits as tintypes through the Penumbra Tintype Studio, hand-pouring chemicals on thin metal plates to create direct positive images of the penises. It's a technique that was popular during the Civil War, and a far cry from the iPhone dick pics to which some of us may be accustomed.
"I didn’t approach this in any other way than I would approach making portraits," Berliner says. "Each one of the subjects I met, I sat down, I talked to each man, and got to know them a little bit and then worked with how they were interacting with their penis. Each person had a particular attitude toward his penis, moved it a certain way, held it a certain way."
"I could say it’s portraits of penises, but a penis is always attached to a person," he continues. "It’s really a portrait of a person that’s cropped. I don’t see them as just pictures of penises."
Dr. Wade says that depictions of genitalia that fall outside of power-and-humiliation narratives could help people of all gender identities develop better relationships with their bodies. "More diverse representation of anything is almost always better," she says. "When we complain about media images, the answer is we need more diverse images, not less media." And while some argue that sexual anatomy shouldn't be shown in any public context, the reality is that it already is — in porn.
"There’s pornography everywhere," Berliner says. "There is a time to be sexual, but there’s no reason why you have to just look at a person for their penis, or look at a woman because of her breasts. Showing the penises as they were, in an artistic sense, [and] connected to a person is a way of normalizing the way we look at the human body."
"The only reason I can think of to want to minimize representations of sexual body parts is a belief that they are inherently problematic body parts — dangerous, disgusting, immoral, or shameful," Dr. Wade adds. "The only reason to do that would be to say, Well, unlike the elbow, these body parts are X. Maybe we need [more diverse] representation particularly because these body parts are so powerfully symbolic."
Click through for 14 portraits of penises, along with some thoughts from the people to whom they are attached.
Creative concept and reporting by Kelly Bourdet.
1 of 14
Photographed by Geoffrey Berliner / Penumbra Foundation.
“I'm really comfortable in my body. I do a fair amount of nude modeling, and male nudes are still considered taboo. I think society is definitely scared of male nudes.

"Most artists, they're looking for somebody who has a unique look. So, a lot of times, they're not looking for the perfect body per se. They're looking for interesting and unique people."
2 of 14
Photographed by Geoffrey Berliner / Penumbra Foundation.
"[In terms of my own penis,] I haven't really been uptight about it. I'm probably considered average, but I don’t really worry about [it]. Maybe some guys do. I don’t know. It works when it needs to."
3 of 14
Photographed by Geoffrey Berliner / Penumbra Foundation.
“With most men that I grew up with, it was definitely, you know, 'Who’s got the bigger dick in the room?' It was very important to people.

"So, obviously, when I was younger, I was definitely more shy. Especially changing in the gym around other guys. But as I got older, I realized physicality isn't as important as personality. I consider myself to be an amazing individual. I'm very confident in that. So I came to realize that it really doesn’t matter what I look like. Now, it doesn’t bother me if somebody sees my penis or whether they think it's good or bad. I mean, I am who I am. Nothing really bothers me about myself."
4 of 14
Photographed by Geoffrey Berliner / Penumbra Foundation.
"I like to participate in projects that challenge society's taboos about what they view as not viewable. And definitely, there is a gigantic taboo surrounding male genitals. I mean, [society thinks] it's okay for women to show their breasts or even be completely nude in even extremely graphic and violent pictures. That’s completely acceptable. But even anything as simple [as a] male nude...people are up in arms that they’ve got it burned in the back of their retinas."
5 of 14
Photographed by Geoffrey Berliner / Penumbra Foundation.
“I've taught in medical schools, talking to second-year medical students about male anatomy and what to do when it’s their first time actually being in a room and approaching a patient [who isn’t wearing clothing]. So that’s definitely putting myself out there, because I'm sitting there in...nothing but a hospital gown and demonstrating how to give a male genital exam...and then they have to actually do it.

"It's actually pretty empowering to see — you see the lightbulb go off in their heads when their textbook knowledge meets their hands-on knowledge. It doesn’t feel offensive or graphic, even though they're touching you, because it's completely a learning environment. And you really do see them, like, connect... Like, Oh, my gosh, I saw that in a textbook and now I actually have hands-on knowledge of it."
6 of 14
Photographed by Geoffrey Berliner / Penumbra Foundation.
“I work in finance, but I don’t have a lot of creative outlets, which probably is not all that surprising. So one of the things I do, and I've been doing for years, is I model for projects like this one.

"I've been doing nude modeling since college [but] I stopped for a long time. Then, in 2008, when the financial crisis started to rear its ugly head, I was actually working in a bank. At the time, the bank was in so much trouble that the word came down that we were not to call any clients, we were not to solicit any trades, we were not to try to go out and raise new assets. That kind of leaves you with nothing to do.

"And as it turned out, there was an art museum down the street from where I worked, and they had put up an ad saying that they desperately needed a male model. And I said, Well, I'm not doing anything today.

"I think that what men are sort of told, in one way or another, over and over and over again, is this: If you don’t ‘measure up,’ you're not going to be able to measure up. We have tons of expressions in English about 'the measure of a man' and it's not just about your character.

"Every day, there's zillions of spam and magazine ads that are...promoting pills to somehow make [your penis] bigger. [They imply] that if you're not well-endowed or if you're even average, it's probably a cause for concern."
7 of 14
Photographed by Geoffrey Berliner / Penumbra Foundation.
"I grew up as a very skinny, lanky dude, and I'm also there were just all of these identity issues that took me some time to get over. Today, I technically identify as queer because I have slept with women up until a few years ago. But currently, I'm exclusively sleeping with men, both because it's new to me and because that’s just where I'm at right now."
8 of 14
Photographed by Geoffrey Berliner / Penumbra Foundation.
"My penis is uncircumcised and, especially since I grew up in a very white, heteronormative place, most penises were circumcised. So the girls expected penises to be circumcised, generally. [In college,] there were definitely times when [women] would be like, Oh, he's uncircumcised...I don’t know about that. And those...reactions don’t really help the ego...and your sense of self."
9 of 14
Photographed by Geoffrey Berliner / Penumbra Foundation.
“Yeah, I'm confident. Why not?”
10 of 14
Photographed by Geoffrey Berliner / Penumbra Foundation.
"I have a lot of pride in my body. I'm really happy with the size of my penis. I'm happy with the shape of it. I am circumcised, and sometimes I wish that I wasn’t, because sometimes, when guys are circumcised, the head of their penis can get really rough...on [uncircumcised] guys, that doesn’t happen.

"I'm happy with my penis and I'm happy being nude. Well, actually not always. Sometimes I am."
11 of 14
Photographed by Geoffrey Berliner / Penumbra Foundation.
"I grew up struggling with finding my sexuality. I’m from the Dominican Republic, and I'm homosexual, so I was in a place that I wasn’t really comfortable being gay. It is judged a lot. It's just not part of the culture. We are born and raised in a way that we have to get married, have kids, create a family, all of that.

"In my culture...people would show off their bodies at the beach or somewhere that requires showing the body, but otherwise Dominicans are very reserved. We didn’t discuss our bodies or sexualities. But here, people are just very open-minded. Everything is just freedom, no judgment, and that’s what I love about here."
12 of 14
Photographed by Geoffrey Berliner / Penumbra Foundation.
"I’ve had compliments on my penis, and I've had one person tell me that she preferred it a little bit thicker. That’s about it.

"To me, I don’t think that anybody should be concerned with [the size of their penis]. It's yours. Better cherish it."
13 of 14
Photographed by Geoffrey Berliner / Penumbra Foundation.
“I don’t know if I’m totally confident [in my body], but I’m comfortable enough to do this."
14 of 14
Photographed by Geoffrey Berliner / Penumbra Foundation.
"I definitely send dick pics on dating apps. I'm gay, so I think it's just something gay men are more comfortable doing with each other. Even if I am judged [negatively because of that], it’s like, Okay, bye. There's really no consequence to it. I think it's worse to be judged in person. You know, you get into bed with someone, and then there's some sort of problem. I think that would be worse than to just be rejected before you even meet up."

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