Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 5, March 29, 2002


Book Review

A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis

By David M. Friedman

The Free Press; ISBN: 0-684-85320-5; $26.00; 2001

Reviewed by David S. Hall, Ph.D.

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This is a very interesting book, one of the more enjoyable reads in some time, that is if you don't mind reading about castration, lynchings and medical horrors. Friedman, a writer of some note, has developed a combination of science, history and mythology into a fairly comprehensive whole. He has divided the history of the penis into six eras, each with a humorous title descriptive of the era.

The first, "The Demon Rod", begins with a witch's burning for having had intercourse with the Devil. In rather gory detail, he often describes the horrors inflicted upon, or because of, a penis. He moves quickly to Bobbitt and Clinton, and reviews the way the penis has been made an evil thing, the cause of original sin and moral weakness. He defines the Virgin Mary's sanctity as her lack of contact with a penis. Reviewing mythology and history, he includes inscriptions on the walls of Karnak, circa 1200 BCE, listing the number of penises cut off various classes of prisoners, the use of circumcision for religious identification and purification, Augustine, and other Christian efforts to demonize male sexuality. Handbooks for confessors in 6th Century Ireland listed the length of penance for various sins, for example, seven years for premeditated murder, ten for coitus interruptus, fifteen for anal intercourse and life long for oral sex. The penis is worse than the poleaxe. There was one exception, the penis of Jesus. That Jesus was sinless and still had a penis proved that man could overcome his lust and live a pure life. In religious art of the 14th to 16th Century only Jesus was shown having genitalia, other men had them hidden. (The same is true today in the religious right's efforts to ban all nudity in any art, and our Attorney General's orders to cover the nude statues that often showed up behind him in press conferences.)

Chapter two is titled "The Gear Shift" and begins with Leonardo de Vinci's work on anatomy and art. He recorded in his famous notebooks more information on the male organ than any man had ever done before his time. He dissected many a corpse, and drew details previously unknown, but for unknown reasons added a duct for sperm from the spinal cord to the glans, consistent with the prevailing beliefs in the source of life. Man's relationship with his organ could be redefined scientifically, thus the shift. He draws his title from a quote from di Vinci: "Often a man is asleep and it is awake, and many times a man is awake and it is asleep. Many times a man wants to use it, and it does not want to; many times it wants to and man forbids it." Most men have found this to be true. Friedman continues this chapter with a discussion of the scientific understanding of the penis and semen through the 18th and 19th centuries. He covers the masturbation fears and attempts to defeat the desire to do so.

Chapter 3 is titled "The Measuring Stick" and takes up from the intersection of early science and the exploration of Africa. Many of the explorers who returned from Africa spoke of the huge size of the "Aethiopian Penis". Many had one in a jar in their medical museums. Combined with careless reading of some Bible passages, and later playing loose with Darwin's theories, this led to the conviction that white people were the superior people, and black people were more nearly animals. A large black penis was a punishment from God. Many scientific and religious papers were written on this subject. This leads to coverage of the period of slavery, and the fear the white master had of the black penis. Lynchings were often preceded by cutting off the offending penis and testicles, and sometimes by making the victim eat them before being hung. This section is quite horrific. Friedman continues the chapter with the more recent discussion of the penis of Clarence Thomas which he allegedly compared to "Long Dong Silver", and Thomas's comparison of the Senate hearing to a lynching. Then follows Robert Mapplethorpe's travails as a photographer of the black penis.

Chapter 4, "The Cigar" is Freud and Darwin all the way. For someone who has not studied Freud, this is an interesting summary of his life and theories, with some clever asides thrown in.

Chapter 5, "The Battering Ram" is the conflict between feminism and the penis. In particular, he interviews and quotes Andrea Dworkin at some length. He reviews work with the penile plethysmograph, and attempts to "cure" those who's responses to inappropriate stimuli are noted. Sperm "wars" and Hitler's testosterone shots are covered, as are hormonal research and attempts to use testicular extracts and implants to increase male potency.

The final chapter "The Punctureproof Balloon" begins with what might be the most unusual presentation ever at a scientific meeting. The American Urological Association was meeting in Las Vegas in 1983, and Dr. Giles Brindley  presented his research on injecting the penis to improve erections. At the end of his scientific data, Dr. Brindley dropped his trousers and presented the audience with the results of a shot he had given himself just before coming on stage. He even walked through the audience to allow the doctors there to examine his penis and convince themselves he was not kidding. This was the first step in stripping the penis (pardon the pun) of its mystery, psychic significance, and making it just another organ with blood vessels and tissue and neurotransmitters. The "finicky nature" of the penis was finally under the control of the medical profession. What follows is a review of the history of impotence treatments, going back to 1700 BCE, including some spectacular and horrible medical blunders. Some details of the history of Viagra are included, as are some of its predecessors. Friedman also reviews the current controversy on the medicalization of sexual dysfunction, quoting Leonore Tiefer on the economic motivation of the drug companies to make erections all about bodily functions and not about interpersonal interactions. This debate continues and will continue for a long time to come. So will many new drug discoveries to "improve" the male's ability to become aroused and functional, whether the female in question is a 'participant' or an 'audience to a performance'.

The book as a whole is well written. There are occasional footnotes on the page, but most of the references are in the back of the book listed by page numbers. The more research oriented reader is used to having footnotes that can be quickly examined rather than end notes that require continual page changing.

To quote Dr. James H. Barada, Director of the Center for Male Sexual Health in Albany, NY "Anyone who has a penis, or knows someone else who does, should read this book."