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.