The penis is not what defines a biological or a social male. Despite there not being any biological or evolutionarily robust reasoning, our society often associates the penis with social power, and worth. This is the phallus fallacy.
Like many, I caught the summer blockbuster movie “This is the End” and was struck by the extensive discussion about, use of, and reference to penises. The movie is a comedy about a group of celebrity males dealing with the apocalypse…so why the high density of penis talk? Was this just an anomaly of a film geared towards a particular demographic? No. A focus on the phallus is pervasive in our society and has a greater, and potentially more negative, impact than many realize.
If you Google the word “penis”…it takes .2 seconds to turn up 234,000,000 results. Searching “vagina” only turns up 144,000,000 (however a more pornographic label for female genitalia turns up many more…but that is another issue relating to the makeup of the Internet). The popular focus on the penis is prevalent across a range of cultural and historical contexts and, thus, is a relevant aspect of our psychology and social lives. Living in a social milieu where references to the penis (and its association with maleness) are so common can affect the way men and women see themselves and their genitals, and shape our perceptions about value and what’s considered “normal.”
Is this phallus focus reflective of some aspect of human nature that forces us to be particularly drawn to the penis?
There are a number of people invoking “evolution” who would answer “yes.” Their assertion is tied to the focus on male sexual activity as a central indicator of adaptive patterns (behavior that has evolved) due to its relationship to reproduction and thus the passing on of genes (which is important in evolutionary processes). Males are often seen as the primary sexual initiators and the penis does play a central role in facilitating reproduction. Because human penises are somewhat distinctive relative to the other apes (mostly in circumference, vascularity and mode of erection) some argue that this distinctiveness itself is a sign of something particular going on, evolutionarily speaking, with the human penis. However, it turns out that other aspects of the human reproductive system, male and female, are also equally distinct from other apes (and other primates). However, none receive as much popular attention as the penis. Interestingly, in contrast to the pop search engines, searching a range of scientific literature databases turns up roughly equal results for publications about male and female genitals.
There is substantial variation in size and shape of human penises and all except the most extreme are fully functional and there is at least as much, if not more, structural variation in some aspects of female genitalia. So in an evolutionary sense the penis is no more important or significant than any other part of the reproductive anatomy. There is no particular adaptation that makes the penis particularly worthy of so much societal focus.
Could it be that the attention is simply due to the fact that the penis is external and much of the other reproductive anatomy is not? It is relatively easy to see (when we are not covering it), and its erect state is often an indicator of sexual arousal (although this is not always the case). Because of its external position some other primates use the erect penis as a social display...is that what we have in humans? No, in primates who have phallic displays there are usually particularly striking colors involved (blue scrotum and red penis, for example). There are also displays using the female vaginal and peri-anal regions in some primate species. However, unlike other primates who use genitals to send very public social messages, neither male nor female humans are particularly well designed for using tumescent genitals as a display. And there is no evidence, across or within, human cultures that males successfully use the erect penis to attract women or to intimidate other males. So basic biology does not really give us a clear answer.
But something about culture does.
There are a range of cultures, including our own, where humans use symbolic imagery and material items to enhance or depict the “phallus” as a component in ritual and social interactions. In many cases the phallus is represented as a symbol of power (social, political, and/or reproductive). It is not always directly connected to “maleness” but as males are the ones with penises, specific social attention to it can set up or reinforce a divergent perception of sexual and gender roles, and worth.
So it’s not so much that we are naturally drawn to the penis but, rather, in some cultural contexts we do make a big deal about it. If the focus on the penis is not effectively explained by evolutionary pressures or basic biology, then it’s likely related to humans’ other favorite pastimes: politics and power.
Let’s go back to the example of the movie “This is the End.” Its constant use of penis jokes and penis imagery reflects the broader social scenario in the film: penises, their size, and who gets to use them= power. There is but one female with a somewhat potent (albeit brief) role in the entire film, and she is quickly moved out, and disempowered, by the threat of penises (via a rape joke sequence). Amongst the lead males, penis talk and the allusion to penile intromission are constant, and dominance and power are clearly associated with the individual who inserts the penis (or in the case of a demon, who has the largest penis). It is a film about guys, and their “maleness” is heavily tied to their penises.
The phallus fallacy, the ubiquitous focus on the penis in popular media and culture, may be acting to reinforce social and gender inequities. This is a problem. This fallacy is not compulsory due to evolutionary or biological realities and thus reflects not our nature, but our ability to superficially use aspects of biology to reinforce, or enforce, patterns of social power.
While there is absolutely nothing wrong with having a penis, or even using one, the heavy focus on penis talk in popular culture might not be the best way to maximize our health, welfare, and happiness.