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No wonder then, that as feminism has progressed many anti-sexist women feel there is no way to engage the penis that does not reinforce male domination. While many feminists as a political act have chosen lesbianism or celibacy as a way to resist sexist sexual subordination and have no interest in the penis, those of us who enjoy penis passion often find ourselves silenced by the assumption that mere naming of our pleasure is traitorous and supports the tyranny of patriarchy. This is simply faulty logic. Submitting to silencing makes us complicit. Naming how we sexually engage male bodies, and most particularly the penis, in ways that affirm gender equality and further feminist liberation of males and females is the essential act of sexual freedom.
When women and men can celebrate the beauty and power of the phallus in ways that do not uphold male domination, our erotic lives are enhanced. In an essay published in the anthology Transforming a Rape Culture, I wrote how I had to change my sexist thinking about the penis— letting go my erotic fetishization of the hard penetrating dick, to embrace an eroticization of the penis that was more wholistic. My penis passion was enhanced when I stopped thinking of it solely in relation to performance, to penetration. I enjoyed learning how to be sexually aroused by the sight of a non-erect penis.
Continuing in the tradition of the first contemporary feminists, who were also advocates of sexual freedom, I believe we still need to see more visual images of the penis in everyday life. In a contest of mutual sexual pleasure rooted in equality of desire, there is room for a politics of sexuality that is varied, that can include hard dicks, rough sex, and penetration as gesture of power and submission, because these acts are not intended to reinforce male domination. But without this progressive sexual context we end up always creating a world where the penis is synonymous with negativity and threat.
The presence of life threatening sexually transmitted diseases has been used by sexual conservatives to reinforce anti-penis sentiments. Many women have returned to a fear of the penis that is practically Victorian. Despite the sexual revolution and the prevalence of feminist thinking, it has not taken long for sexist social mores to triumph over the new ways of thinking about sexuality introduced by the feminist movement and gay rights. The vision of the phallus as always and only an instrument of force is conservative and lacking. But it still reigns supreme. I feel dismay when I read lesbian erotica where all the symbolic phalluses used in sexual play are described using sexist vernacular, reinforcing the sense of the phallus, whether real or symbolic, as a weapon. Clearly, we must continue the work to create a liberatory sexual frontier, places where the penis is precious and can be cherished.
Changing how we talk about the penis is a powerful intervention that can challenge patriarchal thinking. Many sexist men fear that their bodies lose meaning if we value penises for the sacredness of their being rather than their capacity to perform. After a romantic meal with a man who captivated my sexual interest, as we sat in my living room listening to music, I asked him to show me his penis. He responded in alarm. We were fully dressed. We were not engaged in sexual foreplay, but the mood was erotic. He appeared alarmed at the thought of his penis being looked at apart from a context of performance and wanted to know why I wanted to see it. I responded that I wanted to see it to see if I liked it. He asked: "Will you know if you like it by looking at it?" I responded: "I will know that I like looking at it."
I shared this story with friends, and again and again males and females responded as though I had threatened his masculinity. I believe that the sense of threat arose simply because I was asserting the primacy of the female gaze, a female sexual agency not informed by sexist conditioning which separated pleasure in the male body from penis performance.
Returning to a blissful sense of the sacredness of the body, of sexual pleasure, we acknowledge the penis as a positive symbol of life. Whether erect or still, the penis can always be a marvel, a wonder, a magic wand. Or it can be likened to a caterpillar, as Emily Dickinson tenderly declares: "How soft a Caterpillar steps—/I find one on my Hand/ From such a velvet world it come."
bell hooks is the author of Wounds of Passion, published by Henry Holt and Company.
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