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Members Only: An Ode to the Phallus

Members Only: An Ode to the Phallus


'Just because I don’t wish to be socially dominated by men doesn’t mean that I find penises silly or unappealing,' writes Merryn Johns

As Merryn Johns write in her wonderful forward to the book Members Only, featuring the work of Giovanni (the pseudonym of one of Milan's top fashion photographers): "The admirably sculpted, finely chiseled physiques of the models, perfectly lit and defined to classical proportions, reveal Giovanni's abilities as artist above and beyond his commercial profession. Like Michelangelo, he sees the nobility in the nude--as well as its undeniable erotic appeal." Is it strange that Johns, the editor of the leading lesbian magazine Curve, would write an ode to the phallus? Not at all. She was invited by the publisher to write the foreword because they wanted a different perspective. After all, what gay male writer isn't already enthusiastic about penises? But a lesbian? That would be interesting...

As John tells Out:

"My inquiry was feminist: Images of naked women are everywhere because our culture is dominated by straight men. This establishment has decreed that the female nude is fit for public display, but the male nude is taboo! Outside of the paywall of porn, images of the male penis are hard to come by. Why? Putting images of the penis into circulation would make straight men uncomfortable, and reveal the limits of the phallus. Instead of being this immense and all-powerful symbol, it's really just a penis--a part of the body to be played with.

"My inquiry was also queer: Many lesbians have been brought up to fear or loathe penises, just as many gay men fear and loathe vaginas. I really wanted to bridge this schism. Enough of this genitalia terrorism, especially in a community that has more fluidity of gender expression than any other.

"So in this forward I wanted to flip the script. What might be the power dynamics of a world in which erotic representations of male anatomy were circulated in the same way as female nudes? I suspect a world in which women and queers actually had more power.

"And also: I might be a lesbian but I really like penises. I keep several in my drawers and have an imaginary one that pops out when I summon it."

Read the forward from the Members Only book (Bruno Gmunder) below.

It is impossible to enter an art museum or gallery, open a book or turn on the television, and not see the naked female form. Long gone is the nudity of men and boys commonly found in Hellenic Greece, perhaps because the cult of erotic nudity, as Plato argued, staved off barbarism, and was "inimical to tyranny." What then does it say about Western culture that the female nude is so ubiquitous, while women have little actual power in society? What would it mean to our society if images of naked men were circulated with as much pleasure and insouciance as those of women?

In contemporary Western culture, male nudity is not associated with an aesthetics of pleasure but an ethics of athleticism and physical prowess. If male bodies are admired, it's for their physical aptitude rather than their appearance--the modeling careers of Mark Wahlberg and David Beckham, for example, were launched off the backs of their previous careers as rapper and athlete. But the naked male, especially on screen, is usually described as shocking or gratuitous. Joe Dallesandro, the American actor who appeared in Andy Warhol's underground films, became a popular sex symbol within gay subculture, but not a star of mainstream films.


And Michael Fassbender's nudity in Shame distracted critics from his excellent performance. Even in the case of Michelangelo's 16th century "David," a loincloth was created for the statue at a later date, indicating that male nudity has long been too much for mainstream cultural tastes. But as Michelangelo wrote, "Who is so barbarous as not to understand that the foot of a man is nobler than his shoe, and his skin nobler than that of the sheep with which he is clothed, and not to be able to estimate the worth and degree of each thing accordingly?"

Is the dearth of cultural representation of the male nude the result of a fear of impotence or castration, as if to render the penis as an erotic object would denude it of its power? The penis itself may be sublimated in Western culture, but the phallus is omnipresent--Freudians and feminists alike attest to its figuration in everything from architecture to aviation.

While I identify as a lesbian--I am sexually attracted to women and their bodies--I also appreciate male bodies. Like the feminist art critic Camille Paglia, I endorse the penis--not simply to distinguish myself from sex-negative, anti-male feminists, but to assert my identity as an aesthete, free to respond to human beauty in its various forms. As Paglia told The Independent in 1994, '[M]y feminism is all about strong men, strong women. It's not about strong women, castrated men.' And, like many women, just because I don't wish to be socially dominated by men doesn't mean that I find penises silly or unappealing. Like many gay men I prefer aesthetics to ideology. I respond to beauty as a humanist, not as an ideologue, and therefore I see the beauty in this book's images. While some readers may find them explicit--pornographic even--I find their sensuality impossible to censor. After all, one of the strengths of gay culture has been its creation of an aesthetic that pushes traditional boundaries and challenges heteronormative ways of seeing.

The beautiful images in Members Only are the work of Giovanni, which is the pseudonym of one of Milan's top fashion photographers. The admirably sculpted, finely chiseled physiques of the models, perfectly lit and defined to classical proportions, reveal Giovanni's abilities as artist above and beyond his commercial profession. Like Michelangelo, he sees the nobility in the nude--as well as its undeniable erotic appeal.

The book's title alludes to the fact that faces are not the focus of these images. In fact, they have been excised completely. Like the models, Giovanni conceals his identity to protect his reputation because the male nude, especially that which exposes the penis, is still taboo. Mass media has made pornography ubiquitous--freakish and formidable feats from male porn stars are easily found online. But to depict the dick as an object of erotic beauty, to outline its sensual properties, to arouse the spectator, especially if the spectator shares the same gender as the object of their desire, is largely forbidden in mainstream culture. Giovanni's images display a vulnerability and virility unusual in pornography, straight or gay.

Thanks to the "beefcake" photographers of the 1930s through 1960s, who created male pin-ups for a largely gay male spectatorship, and the illustrations of artists such as Tom of Finland, there are surviving vintage examples of a nude male visual aesthetic. Gay U.S. fine art photographer Robert Mapplethorpe elevated this underground aesthetic and exhibited widely until conservative groups protested the homoeroticism of his work and many other queer artists were caught in a national firestorm of debate and censorship.

Today, the resurgence of right-wing politics has done little to stop the rapid increase in the consumption of erotica and pornography. In all of the "pornification" of disposable media, including an epidemic of ads for "male enhancement," this beautifully produced book is full of subjects who need no enhancement at all, but who pose readily and naturally, for our pleasure and our liberation.

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