Lately, the penis has been getting a bum rap. It’s hard to explain why.
In the forties and fifties, Life Magazine routinely published photographs of young men naked while off-duty during World War II and in the locker room after a game. None of these “regular joes” nor the magazine’s readers thought twice about the nudity.
A surprising number of today’s strapping young millennials do not hesitate to show off their junk online, yet they dress and undress under towels at the gym. Despite the ubiquity of male underwear ads, we mock guys who allow even the basic contours of their equipment to be seen in public. What’s up with that?
Some believe that the disappearance of the communal shower in the ’90s is responsible, as a younger generation of men grew up hosing off at home after high school athletics. Others cite our increasing body-consciousness, amplified by social media. I think something else is up.
Although the conventional wisdom about our society’s relationship to the penis is that Americans are prudes, underneath our alleged Victorian mores there has always been an approach-avoidance attitude towards the male nude. Edwardian sports clubs routinely measured their members to make a “scientific” record of the genomically perfect male (unfortunately as part of the much-discredited eugenics craze). More recently, Harvard revealed that it has maintained a log of the exact dimensions of every body part of several cohorts of undergraduate men for its controversial “Happiness Project.”
In the art world, Philadelphia has always been the center of the action—and censorship. Thomas Eakins, whose extraordinary paintings captured the male form in elegiac detail, was relieved of his responsibilities at the Pennsylvania Academy for the Fine Arts for allowing women to “draw men from life.” R. Tait McKenzie and Joe Brown gained much renown and some ridicule for their 20th Century sculptures of young male athletes at Penn. The Institute of Contemporary Arts mounted a retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work in 1990 that eventually put the role of art on trial. Nonetheless, until The Leopold Museum’s exhibition in 2012, there had never been a blockbuster show of the male nude anywhere in the world, and there has still not in the US.
Over the past century, American pop culture’s perception of naked men has also evolved. An entire generation of youth in the ’60s promoted some very casual attitudes towards nudity and sex. Asserting that what was fair game for men was also appropriate for women, Playgirl introduced full-frontal, male centerfolds in 1973, and began featuring men sporting erections. In 1982, Bruce Weber photographed Tom Hitnaus in Calvin Klein briefs, whose torso and unretouched penis towered over Times Square. Decades of actors, models, and athletes have now “jockeyed” for bragging rights in a multi-billion dollar men’s underwear game.
So given these trends how do we explain today’s young men’s reluctance to be seen naked?
I think the answer is obvious: At a fundamental level, we are completely of two minds on male nudity. Notwithstanding our appreciation for celebrity males who have no problem taking it off, most young men are taught from a very early age to be ashamed of their bodies, especially the penis.
This was confirmed for me by my own experience posing naked for photographer Bek Andersen a couple of years ago. During the shoot, I learned that she has been overwhelmed by men’s sense of shame during her photo sessions. Her observation is that men’s embarrassment is deeply embedded in their core, going well beyond what personal modesty would dictate. Couple that shame with the lack of authentic conversation among men about the realities of sexual intimacy, the strange macho code that dominates our preconceptions of what it means to be a real man, the way we are taught to mentally measure ourselves up against other men, and more recently, the 24/7 revelations of sexual assault by far too many bad actors . . . is it any wonder the most men think that it’s best to hide their junk?
I would assert it’s not the penis that is the root of all evil. As we all know, responsible deployment of our God-given gifts can be both (re)productive and pleasurable for all parties. It’s when men exercise or exhibit the penis inappropriately that causes big trouble.
So why do we shoot the messenger?
We all know why, as the recent litany of misdeeds by men reveals. It’s not the penis, but men behaving badly that are the problem.
So let’s reclaim the innocence and beauty of the penis, give it a fair shot, and enable it to occupy its rightful place as a key attribute of the male anatomy that should be celebrated, not condemned.
Over six hundred years ago Michelangelo unveiled a colossal male nude that captured the spirit of the Florentine Republic and the High Renaissance, making a game-changing statement about the triumph of reason over brute force that has influenced generations since.
It’s time for another revolution in our thinking. We need an exhibition of the male nude here in the US as an important political statement that American males are ready to get naked, be more transparent, open, accessible, even vulnerable, in order to banish the old power-aggression models that serve no one—men or women—so that we might push forward a more balanced responsible model of being male.
I challenge any major US art institution to take up this cause. I guarantee you there are plenty of men who are ready to enlist for this movement, allowing their bodies to be photographed as a public statement of their personal commitment to a new order.
Collectively, such a group of men would be our own American Davids.
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Photo credit: Featured image: Shutterstock
Inset: Jörg Bittner Unna [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons