I was walking up the stairs to my sublet room in an apartment when, heading back from another day of 90 degree heat and humidity, before noticing the upturned cockroach on the flight of stairs leading to the roof (dead, luckily), and after sneering at the plastic bag with the discarded remains of that night’s dinner sitting in front of 4W’s door, I recalled perhaps the most important yet forgotten lesson of my still short life, one that goes back to middle school. I don’t know what sparked my remembrance of it; certainly there was no smoking gun or madeleine, and I doubt it was the cockroach. It is a tiny, piercing truth, with massive implications. The truth was spoken in Spring in 7th grade, on a day quite like any other, the kind on which you meet the partner of your dreams: an otherwise, unremarkable, ordinary day, until it wasn’t, and you might not even be able to assess the gravity of it all until later, until after the coffee has worn off, but while your heart is still skipping beats.
The small private school in Orange County that I attended from pre-school through 8th grade didn’t have any grass on which to run or play. Instead, we had a concrete field, comprised of a basketball court, a wall for hand ball, and a large tent, under which people would sit for plays and presentations. It didn’t stop us from playing football, and briefly, even baseball, but when the yearly President’s physical education tests came up, requiring that we run the mile, we would walk with our gym teacher, Ms. Boatman, several blocks to the nearby Boys and Girls Club, which had the grassy field of our lunch and recess hour dreams.
We were rounding the block, turning from Utica Avenue onto Delaware, when a very large pick up truck drove by, the type you don’t see too often out here in Manhattan, but that which is all too common in San Diego and Orange County: huge, exaggerated tires, a truck frame raised a whole Honda Civic above where all other bumpers rest, such that its headlights were certain to fill the rearview mirrors ahead of it with blinding light, come nightfall. The truck was black with tinted windows. The front ones were rolled down. The truck had music blasting, perhaps so that we (crowds of kids, single women, other men) could also hear the sound of what can loosely be referred to as music. It was probably whatever was popular on 106.7 KROQ at the time –Puddle of Mud., Limp Bizkit or Papa Roach – and it was combined with the sound of what can only be ironically referred to as a muffler, the type stretched wider than Ted Cruz’s asshole, which is gaping, after having talked out of it so often, for so long. The truck blasted so much noise such that all of our conversations – about Pokémon, politics, or the Smashing Pumpkins – were rendered inaudible, the size and the sound of the truck fully dominating the street. As it drove on by, Ms. Boatman’s trademark devilish grin began to form. She shook her head, her blonde pony tail tucked into her visor, sunglasses on, a sardonic snicker lying beneath her smile.
It should be mentioned that Ms. Boatman’s opinions of men were eagerly accepted by us boys, 7th and 8th graders, many of us, who, inevitably, at some point or another, whether in her time as our preschool teacher, or out there where we gathered for gym, had some kind of crush on her. She was – and I’m sure still is – an attractive, strong woman, athletically built, and consistently tan, as one could expect of someone who spent most of her days outside, running PE classes for children of all ages. In her pre-kindergarten class, in my first year at the school, I distinctly recall kissing her up the length of one of her arms, in a needless to say and certainly inappropriate manner. My eagerness to express affection, I’m sure, in a Freudian sense, was two-fold: she was attractive, kind, and also, even likely only a few months in, more of a mother than that which I had at home. Ms. Boatman – Ms. Mary when we were young – straddled a line for us between being maternal, yet single and young enough to be a Miss, between being an authority figure, as well as an authority on all those parts of the adult world that were slowly encroaching on our otherwise naïve serenity, as some of us more than others clung to cartoons and a fervent belief in cooties, while others were beginning to wonder what was underneath girls’ skirts, or what other boys might look like naked, and if their penises were the same. She was the one who sat our 4th grade class down, and explained to us that it was time to start wearing deodorant, no doubt fed up with the smells she had to endure each afternoon. She spent her weekends rock climbing and outdoors, more than once returning to class the following Monday with massive scrapes and scratches from her activities. She was tough, and you didn’t want to cry, complain, or show weakness in front of her, unless it was truly serious.
But that did not mean you could not be vulnerable. She knew, better than most, what went on in my home, as she was often the one staying late, waiting for my mother to pick up my little sister, and had – on more than one occasion – to refuse letting Cambria get in the car, late as it was, because of the smell of Chardonnay on my mother’s breath. It takes one to know one, in some sense, and Boatman, a weekend warrior and mountain biker, was a warrior of another sorts during the week. In 7th grade, our homeroom teacher, Ms. Hermanns, a pretty blond former sorority sister from USC, who I don’t think could even consider teaching class without a massive bottle of Pellegrino (unbeknownst to us, it was likely for nursing her hangover) and Ms. Boatman took to going out to bars in Newport Beach, both of them still single, some times detailing the escapades to us which they referred to in code as “going to the Library.”
Ms. Boatman was an authority of sexuality, in some sense, and we took her perspective on men seriously. If Ms. Boatman thought a guy was lame, he probably was. She was someone who had not had children, who had been both married and divorced, someone who had spent many years single in a place designed for people to take their twenties well into their forties. She was more than likely to have seen it all. If she liked your hair cut, it meant something. So, when she looked at that guy in the big black truck, blasting his way along a small suburban street, we listened when she said to us, quietly: “The bigger the truck, the smaller the penis.”
It was an addendum of sorts to the same sounding line my father had long since offered when waiting behind behemoth trucks struggling to pull out of parking spaces as we waited, which was “the bigger the truck, the smaller the brain,” but while my father’s line wasn’t exactly untrue, it always struck me as somewhat elitist, and it somewhat missed the point. He is a very pragmatic person, and has always privileged vehicles with greater miles per gallon, as he has always had to commute. I understood his perspective, but as I was struggling to define my place in the world, and trying to understand my own masculinity, I repeated my father’s criticism of large trucks at the height of America’s SUV craze, from inside my macho step-father’s Chevy Suburban, to which my step-brother responded “Who cares? They’re cool.” He had a point, it seemed, and it brought to bear one of the central issues of being male, of the binary line between what makes sense – don’t play with fire, don’t jump off the roof into the pool, wear a helmet – and what esteemed you in the eyes of other young men. Between risk aversion, and being sexy to other males ( I mean that’s what it is, isn’t it?) I learned early on that being a certain amount irrational was necessary in order to be “cool.”
Ms. Boatman’s dictum, however, set aside the elitism of I.Q. , and operated outside the binary of pragmatism and the aesthetic power of cool. It spelled it out better to me. The simple account of my father - that all people who buy those vehicles are just stupid - betrayed a resentment, one that didn’t fully explain it all, whatever it was. But Boatman’s words provided an interpretation. Men bought these trucks because they were compensating, or rather, overcompensating. Behind the pickup truck that requires a step-ladder, sits a man with a big problem, caused by a small member. Dissatisfied with the size of his penis – perhaps considered the most inherent symbol or manifestation of maleness – he had sought to project power, and more specifically, size, in other ways.
I was once in her car, as she was giving me and a few others a ride back to school from a class trip to the beach, when she looked over at the man in the Porsche at the stoplight next to us, and she laughed, pointing out his “bald spot and pinky ring,” I listened, even if I was not able to grasp fully what she meant. I saw an old guy, and an expensive car. She was illustrating a timeless truth: that men seek to compensate for deficiencies that lead to insecurities, by using objects as symbols, ones designed with the intention of connoting your status to the world. Now, in my 25th year, I can safely say this is fairly and consistently true, in the way “California Cuisine” inevitably means menus abundant in avocado, and that places to eat that advertise themselves as having the “best” anything in town are never very good at all.
But her truth also revealed another. It is unethical to judge a person for something they cannot control. This is the basis for doctrines of the free will in philosophy and theology, and why Kant posits that a just god could only damn us if we are free, and therefore truly accountable. It is unethical to judge someone for the color of their skin, their race, or who they find sexually attractive. None of these things are in our control, no matter what Scott Walker says. This includes bald spots. The clothes we wear, the music we like, both of which are matters of choice, even still are contextually contingent upon what my parents like, or don’t like, as well as my friends, what’s popular where I live, if I’ve taken music classes, etc. As transgender issues have finally come to the forefront in America, we as a society are beginning to take a hard look at how we judge people for what does or doesn’t lie between their legs, and moving beyond defining people based on their relationship to sex. We can no more choose our genitals than we can the color of our eyes or skin. So, it’s unfair to judge. And this doesn’t require tolerance. It simply takes an exercise in rationality, and possibly making an inch of an effort towards empathy.
It’s not just unfair to judge men for having a small penis. It’s also the secret to peace on Earth. Think about it: We’ve all heard of a Napoleon complex, of how men who are short in stature can be more aggressive, hotheaded. Just look at Tom Cruise, Kanye West, or Joe Pesci. They’ve had to compensate for their height in other ways, like how Floyd Mayweather compensates for being short and not loved enough as a child by boxing, and beating women. This also gives us generations of men ashamed and resentful over a plight they cannot control, who are mocked for it, who have overcompensated in the most heinous of manners. I’ve heard it said that war is the ultimate dick measuring contest, to quote my friend Will Kettler. It is true. I guarantee that if we could dig up Eva Braun and ask her, she’d tell you: Hitler had a small penis. Rumors dating back to the War linger regarding a story about a goat biting and mangling his genitals. Jake Barnes, Hemingway’s impotent hero from The Sun Also Rises, compensated by picking fights with the Jewish character he loathed, Robert Cohn, and eventually getting his ass kicked, and by fetishizing bulls, a creature more closely correlated to testosterone and virility than perhaps any other. Men, in our patriarchal capitalist system, objectify everything as commodities, as signifiers of value, even themselves. And by virtue of hegemonic ideology, we all know how things rank and stand in the popular world. It leads to overcompensation, and degrees in Finance. It’s why Elliot Rodgers, the boy who shot up Isla Vista, near the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara, was obsessed with how his vehicle fit into what he called “the hierarchy of cars.” He had to have an Audi.
You may remember the movie Bedazzled, in which the devil, played by Elizabeth Hurley, grants a modern Dr. Faustus played by Brendan Fraser a series of wishes, each of which comes with a catch. Fraser, after previously wishing to be sensitive, to be the kind of guitar playing, kitten canoodling man of many a young woman’s Dashboard Confessional dreams, only to watch the apple of his eye deem him to be too sensitive – read: too feminine – and run off with a fratty, jockish asshole, he requests to be, basically, Michael Jordan. The catch doesn’t come until he’s in a towel in the locker room, being interviewed by the girl he covets, when his towel falls, revealing a very small penis, at which point the girl leaves, disinterested yet again. The lesson here seems to be that you can have all the accomplishments and masculinity in the world, but with a small dick, it won’t matter. But as unseemly as it may sound to ask people to stop body shaming men, after eons of doing it to women inscrutably, our world will be vastly better for it, and devoid of a few more assholes, like Eric.
Eric was one of the biggest assholes I met in high school. He was a talented, popular wide receiver on the varsity football team, and a year ahead of me. He helped orchestrate one of my most indelible experiences with hazing, in which I was forced / duped into him putting his spread bare ass on my face, through a gimmick referred to as “the impossible sit-up.” I was naïve, embarrassed, and quickly concerned about pink eye. One night, he hooked up with two different girls, neither of which who knew about his foray with the other. They were all in Associated Student Body, or ASB, a club of popular, pretty kids, that was fairly incestuous when it came to sex. I learned from a friend that both the girls had remarked to her negatively on his fairly small, and possibly bent wiener.
The motivation for the hyper-aggressive, domineering attitude of those who feel the need to efface other men, and to disdain women as objects, has its roots in men’s relationship to their penis. The attitude they develop is a way of anticipating criticism and deflecting it before it can occur. To care about women – and what they think – would mean risking judgment. If he “doesn’t care,” then he can pretend to dismiss their criticism without concern. It’s what Leslie Jamison refers to in an essay in her book The Empathy Exams as “self-righteousness by way of dismissal; a kind of masturbatory double negative.” Small penis paranoia goes hand in hand with the degradation of women, objectifying and demeaning them. It’s a sad mechanism for self-defense. Behind every asshole riding a ridiculously and intentionally loud motorcycle, or sitting behind the wheel of a jacked up truck, tail-gaiting you aggressively and cutting you off, or posing in their Facebook profile picture with an assault rifle, sunglasses and a wannabe tough guy sneer, lies a man insecure about his penis, overcompensating for a self-perceived shortcoming in his masculinity. You know the type. If you look for them as they walk down the street, you can likely spot them without even needing to glance at their crotches. And anyway, science shows that “growers” and not “showers” – men with small flaccid penises versus the opposite – tend to be bigger when erect.[i] But citing science in a locker room doesn’t tend to get you very far. And so it was when Robert was pantsed outside near the football stadium and track, and the size of his flaccid dick revealed, he became a veritable legend, accepted, even though he flipped his long hair, and wore women’s designer jeans. He was, and I imagine, still is fairly secure.
It is beyond tempting to say that the onus shouldn’t be on us, that men with big issues around their fearfully small dicks need to just get over it. Despite the age old cliché that “size does matter,” many studies show it is more a matter of what one does with what one has. But, in the spirit of a better, more unified, less patriarchal and shitty world, let’s “be the better person” and take the high road. Let’s not judge people for that which they cannot control, especially about their bodies and sexuality. Just as beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, so do dicks, and imagine for one second the world we could live in where men aren’t overcompensating for their perceived deficiency in masculinity: stupid posturing and fights in bars over perceived slights; ozone destroying, road clogging, emission spewing trucks; fortunes wasted on collecting fancy racecars rather than funding charitable organizations; steroids, meat heads, the Jersey Shore – all of it, rendered moot by a small penis friendly world, and that doesn’t even include the big one: gun violence.
Guns, are, beyond a doubt, the easiest, most obvious and visible means by which men compensate for their “deficient” masculinity, for their feeling of powerlessness in a world they feel has alienated them. This is why they cling to them, and hate Obama: nothing makes them more fearful, and more likely to clench tightly the grip of their gun, than an educated, intellectual, tall Black man who is president, the most powerful man in the world. For some people, this is frightening.
I may be accused, especially with that last claim, of being overly reductive, of laying the blame for a litany of the world’s problems at the feet, or rather between the legs, of a particular group of men. But if Freud taught us anything – though he knew nothing about women – it is that our primal urges of our id, subconscious and bestial, are at the heart of our civilization’s discontents. Feelings of inadequacy are a powerful source of motivation, especially when complicated by issues of sexuality, identity and gender. It is getting better, but the more we are able to see sexuality beyond a binary of straight or gay, and gender as male or female, the more we see beyond dialectical logic, and can accept truths – those that are beyond absolute, and instead, multiple in their perspective – the better off we all are. Hybridization – like that seen in Donna Haraway’s piece “The Cyborg Manifesto”[ii] – complication, and difference (or différance) are good, and absolute homogeneity is beyond troubling. Male anxiety around the categorical rejection of values and traits ascribed to “the feminine” has too long lead to an iniquitous, patriarchal, polarized world. But we are making progress.
All that is left for us to do is accept dicks of all sizes. Of course, it would be nice if we didn’t have to treat some men with kid gloves. But in an imperfect world, a little effort and forethought to foreskin might be able to make it just a tiny bit better.