18 Penises Next Time, Please

Body (Photo credit: Wendy Nelson Photography.)

The great thing about genitals is that they get people talking.

I know that if I put the word ‘penis’ in my headline, for example, my number of views will increase.

The continued fascination with and criticism of women’s bodies churns on – we are still being told what parts we can show, what we can’t show, what we can wear and how we should represent ourselves. From the hijab to the mini skirt, women are judged by how they look.

Not so, men.

Look at the reaction to THAT performance of Miley’s last week. Although I can’t defend her blatantly sexual ‘twerking’ moves because, (whether she likes it or not), she is a role model to young girls, male musicians have been dancing suggestively since time immemorial and no-one seemed to mind too much. Think of the uproar Elvis caused when he began shaking his hips, but he wasn’t accused of being a tramp. Yet when a woman demonstrates her sexuality or desire, it is met with a sense of revulsion.

Women aren’t supposed to enjoy sex, are they? 

How much longer will the genders be judged by such very double standards?

We all have our opinions about nudity, objectification and sexualisation but I love it when something more humorously controversial stirs the feminism pot, provoking a cat fight in the media.

The image of eighteen vulvas on the cover of the Sydney University magazine, Honi Soit, did just that.

Evidently, ‘one’ vulva wouldn’t have sent a strong enough message.

You can see the image here.

The aim of the editors’ was to demonstrate that women are fed up of female genitals being ‘sexualised and stigmatised’ and for men to understand that real vulvas do not look like the waxed and de-labia-ed versions that many men expect from ogling them on porn – (which is apparently how our male teenagers are now sourcing their sexual education). The magazine set out to prove that the vulva is just like any other body part.

But there weren’t eighteen penises for us to measure and compare too.

We discussed our personal reaction to the cover at the family dinner table, (as you do) and once Kurt and the old man had popped off for a furtive gander of aforementioned vulvas, followed by the predictable reaction of ‘they’re gross’, (proving where they got their sexual education), our reactions differed considerably.

Out of a sexual context, the boys thought the vulvas were uninteresting, quite ugly really. Nerd Child felt that the image was as liberating as the magazine had intended.

The cover certainly set the cat among the pigeons. The original cover with the vulvas on full display was deemed too obscene and controversial even for a student magazine to publish, so the editors were made to block out the offending vulvas with black bars, out of fear of litigation. Somehow (!) the offensive original cover made its way to the printing press and was released, and the rest is history.

My initial reaction to the image was one of gratitude. I have never seen another vulva up close and personal, and like many women of my generation I too had begun to believe the hype that ALL women now have Brazilians and perfectly formed labia. It was also reassuring, upon close examination, to see that like penises and breasts, vulvas are all so VERY different and individual in their own way.

It seems you can still be educated in your forties.

I cancelled my impending Brazilian and the old man’s Father’s Day present of a back, sack and crack immediately.

Nevertheless something bothered me about that image. I’m no prude but I question if that image didn’t serve to titillate rather than make people think. And was it really necessary? Men aren’t told what is appropriate for their bodies. Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right in this country, so why did this magazine feel the need to draw attention to women’s rights in such an intimate way?

How come we didn’t get eighteen penises to gawp at? And if we had, would they have made the headlines too?

As the editors wrote in the cover article, women ‘are tired of being pressured to be sexual and then shamed for being sexual.’

I certainly agree with that point.

If the image did successfully highlight the fact that women shouldn’t have to conform to the ridiculous ideal of body perfection that the media persist in promoting, great. The worry is, of course, that the cover merely provided another Benny Hill moment for men.

The main aim of the image was to take away the shame about women’s genitalia – personally, I have never felt ashamed of mine. I don’t believe that every man wants every woman’s vulva to be landscaped and perfectly shaped just as I don’t think that every man’s penis is 10” long and permanently erect.

As a biology lesson, it was interesting. As a stand against objectification and sexism, I’m not so sure.

Give me an image of 18 penises next time, please, and I’ll decide then just how effective the idea was for making a stand for women’s rights.


17 thoughts on “18 Penises Next Time, Please

  1. I was enlightened by the 18 vulvas too. I showed my husband when it was released and he also found it interesting. I think these days, intimate body parts are shown at their ‘best’ and gives us an unrealistic expectation of what real bodies look like.

    I wasn’t surprised it was a university publication when I heard about it, or that it was censored. I agree with what they were trying to do in theory and they certainly have brought attention to the issue. Whether the publicity has helped or not…well when I see 18 penises, I too will be a better judge. Loved this piece Louisa.


    1. I think we are on the same track. Like my daughter I could see it was a brave stand and liberating but I find we are constantly bemoaning women’s nudity so to put it on the cover seemed a bit intimate. Agreed – we need the 18 penises for balance.


  2. Sexuality is a beautiful aspect to all reproductive life, from the self propagating amoeba to the soaring eagles. Ol’ Mother Earth created living organisms that way. I asked her why sexuality ebbed into daily existence? She shrugged and patted my auric field of energy.


      1. Perhaps it is the adolescent aspect of the mind that thrives on visual stimuli and propels the continual state of depictions. It’s good that there’s a thought about such sexuality, in that it helps the mind think.


  3. out of context most things look ugly or at the very least weird … think of ears, noses, even knuckles and knees … yet we seem to not mind them being on display … so yes vulvas are more personal … or “private parts’ but no less strange and to be honest 18 penises aren’t going to be a pretty sight either but I doubt women will do more than giggle about them


    1. Sadly, I think you’re right. Certainly if there’s a penis with similar proportions to my own. If my own experience is anything to go by there’ll be giggling and comments like “OMG! It’s soooo small!”, “that’s tiny!”, “baby dick”, and comparisons to anything from thumbs to cocktail sausages to belly buttons. For context, my penis is 2.5 inches and thin. I’m very insecure about it and dread the reaction women have to it when they see it.


  4. I wrote a song called “My designer vagina” because I was horrified to see a documentary where girls as young as sixteen were having SURGERY because they weren’t happy with how their vulva’s looked. I found it so incredibly sad that so many women are that obsessed with this skewed idea of “perfection” that they are obsessing now about their nether regions of doom. Hehe… that expression always amuses me.
    When it comes down to the deed, I don’t think men really care one BIT about what OUR bits look like. And neither should we! (Lord above…there are so many other IMPORTANT things to be worrying about.)
    However, like you, I was disturbed by so many vulva’s all staring me in the face. Oy…that’s just a bit too much I think.
    A lesson in anatomy? Mmm….I’m sure there are many places you could see ’em in their natural state (Google?….and that’s not necessarily pornographic sites either)
    No…I think it’s yet another case of “lets see how far across the line we can step with THIS!”
    Is absolutely nothing sacred anymore? No mystery….just everything waving and pulsating in our faces?


    1. I’m so glad you agree – I thought that maybe I was less liberal than I thought. I can’t believe the statistics about labial surgery either. Why would you ever contemplate that – never thought much about mine!
      Maybe this generation is as narcissistic as we are led to believe, in which case something needs to change.


      1. There ARE times, where surgery is warranted, and that is understandable, but really society has gone MAD. Narcissistic yes….but is it more than that? I think I will have to explore this more in my mind and blog about it. So I thank you for getting my mind fired up! 🙂


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