The Sunday Magazine·Q&A

Spiky, hypodermic, or long: Biologist who studied animal penises says it shouldn't be a 'measure of a man'

In her latest book Phallacy: Life Lessons From the Animal Penis, Emily Willingham researches remarkable examples of penises in nature to learn what this body part can tell us about human masculinity.

'We're just adding to the pressures of this impossible masculinity,' says Emily Willingham

Be it souvenir statuettes of Egyptian god Min in Sharm El-Sheikh or an ancient statue of Priapus in Pompei, society has centred penises as 'the measure of a man.' But according to biologist Emily Willingham, it's time we stopped doing that and think about them contextually. (Magnito/Shutterstock and BlackMac/Shutterstock)

Emily Willingham's research started with gonads and progressed to genitalia.

The U.S. biologist studied a plethora of animal penises, including corkscrew penises on ducks, hypodermic penises on bed bugs and eight-foot penises attached to blue whales.

Now, she has an entire book about penises.

In Phallacy: Life Lessons From the Animal Penis, Willingham explores the organ in animals to shed light on the human version and challenges the notion that the penis makes the man.

While writing her latest book, U.S. biologist Emily Willingham studied a plethora of animal penises to find out how humans use theirs. (Penguin Random House and Gina Logan)

"When we reduce an entire human being to this body part and say that's what you have to have — if it doesn't measure up, literally — then you're not enough of a man, we're just adding to the pressures of this impossible masculinity," she said.

She went on to coin the word intromittum to describe the organ in neutral terms "because these structures don't occur only on the males of species."

"I thought, we need some general term that describes them — this thing that extends out and passes sperm to a partner, that usually involves the insertion," she told David Common, guest host of The Sunday Magazine.

Here is part of their conversation.


How do you get through a day without using puns galore?

Well, it's difficult, David. The struggle is real. [Laughs.]

What are some examples of top-rated, fascinating male sex organs in the animal kingdom?

One of the characters in this book is the seed beetle, which is not much to look at in terms of its whole body. But when you home in on the genitalia of this animal … It has spikes and little jaws. And one species leaves jaw marks on the genital tract of its mate. That one's pretty exciting.

You've come up with another word for this sex organ. What is it and how do you make up a word that's better than penis?

There are dozens of words across the species that specialists have introduced to describe these organs. They are all different. They can come from different parts of your body. They aren't all made from the same thing.

I thought, we need some general term that describes them — this thing that extends out and passes sperm to a partner, that usually involves the insertion. In science, we decided to make a fancy term: intromission. I decided to call it an intromittum — a neutral term — because these structures don't occur only on the males of species. In some species, you also find them on females. I thought a neutral term that captures this broad category would be really helpful.

How does the human penis stack up when you look at the animal kingdom?

It doesn't win any of the medals if you do it in proportion. There's a barnacle that wins because it has a penis as many times the length of its body. If you do it in terms of species like ours, the primates, we have a 22-way tie in terms of the size and what we have that decorates the penis, as it were. If you do it in absolute length, the blue whale is going to kick our butts because it's much longer than a human's.

Penises have taken on a rather outsized role in our culture. You've traced the origins of that — tell us more.

I took a look around at different cultures. It's not going to be uniform across humans. But there's a coincidence in a lot of cultures between the rise of agriculture. We started staying in one place and cultivating crops and livestock. [There was] this centring of phallus symbols as protective with some fairly obvious associations with fertility, which makes sense because people with penises tend to have more muscle mass and be stronger.

Egyptian fertility god Min (left) carved on a column in the Great Hypostyle Hall in the Karnak temple complex in Luxor, Egypt. And a fresco of Priapus (right) from the House of the Vettii in Pompeii, Italy. (Andreas Wolochow/Shutterstock and BlackMac/Shutterstock)

Over time, it got transmogrified. An example is Egyptian god Min. He's depicted with a flail, which is used for harvesting grain, but he also has a penis that is erect and parallel to the ground … The Romans had Priapus, which started out as a scarecrow figure, but then came to represent just priapism — the constant state of being erect.

From there, the penis kind of replaced the body — the entire person — until we get to the point now where people use it as a unit of measure for an entire man. That doesn't seem quite fair to men to me.

How does such thinking affect boys growing up and the men they become? And society?

When we focus on this body part, we use it as a unit of measure for what makes a man. Then we decide the penis makes a man and a man has to have a penis. And one of the life lessons from this book is that that's not the case either … When we reduce an entire human being to this body part and say that's what you have to have — if it doesn't measure up, literally — then you're not enough of a man, we're just adding to the pressures of this impossible masculinity that we impose on boys that makes them think they have to fit into a certain kind of box, that any other expression is verboten. It's not fair to them, not authentic and not even biologically sound.

How should we talk about penises in the human world?

We should think about them contextually. We shouldn't centre them as the measure of a man … We need to dispense with this whole essentialism about it and talk about other body parts we have that can enhance intimacy and pleasure between sex partners. Take that conversation outside of this one body part that we keep focusing on.

You write that we should focus on the brain. Why?

That's what makes us human. A penis doesn't make us human — lots of animals have those. Lots of animals have brains — but they don't have ones like ours. We're our only representative of our genus, the only existing Homo genus brain on earth. We're so interesting in the way that we can use our brains expansively and express behaviourally, in so many different ways relative to other species. We should celebrate that rather than trying to suppress it.


Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Interview produced by Sarah-Joyce Battersby.

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