Penises, Guns, and Safer Sex Ads

This is a guest post by Laurie and Debbie. Debbie Notkin is a body image activist, a feminist science fiction advocate, and a publishing professional. She is chair of the motherboard of the Tiptree Award and was one of the two guests of honor at WisCon in May 2012. Laurie is a photographer whose photos make up the books Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes (edited and text by Debbie Notkin) and Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes (edited by Debbie Notkin, text by Debbie Notkin and Richard F. Dutcher). Her photographs have been exhibited in many cities, including New York, Tokyo, Kyoto, Toronto, Boston, London, Shanghai and San Francisco. Her solo exhibition “Meditations on the Body” at the National Museum of Art in Osaka featured 100 photographs. Her most recent project is Women of Japan, clothed portraits of women from many cultures and backgrounds. Laurie and Debbie blog together at Body Impolitic, talking about body image, photography, art and related issues. This post originally appeared on Body Impolitic.

Laurie and Debbie say:


The brilliant Lisa Wade at Sociological Images has a thought-provoking piece about penis/gun imagery in safer sex ads, like this particularly vivid one:

gun pointed into naked woman's vagina

She situates the conversation in an anthropological context which demystifies the penis, which you can read at the link. After sharing images, Wade draws a brief conclusion:

While I am all for encouraging sexual pleasure and safer sex, I would prefer that such efforts not conflate the penis with a weapon. Doing so only contributes to the idea that the penis is inherently useful for enacting violence and women’s bodies naturally vulnerable to violation from men.

We would take it somewhat further.

First of all, sexually transmitted disease is not a weapon men use against women. It transmits from any gender to any gender, depending much more on who does what to whom than how people are shaped. In the 20th and 21st centuries, positioning safer sex as protective of women erases the history of why we talk about safer sex at all. This imagery also conflates AIDS and other STDs with rape and abuse, adding an indefensible layer of confusion to both issues.

Second, the penis, like any part of the human body, is a natural organ. Because of its role in sex and reproduction, and its inherently vulnerable nature (which Wade discusses), all kinds of social, cultural, and commodified images get layered onto it.

It isn’t a weapon. It isn’t ammunition. It isn’t a toy. It isn’t a measuring stick. Putting a condom on it doesn’t disarm it.

bullet in a condom

It’s a body part of half the human race. It can be used as a weapon. It can be used as a toy. It can be used as a measuring stick.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about these safer sex ads is that they don’t show penises. What “disarms” the penis is making it visible as a part of the relaxed body. As Jonathan D. Katz says in Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes, “To see a penis is to know that it couldn’t possibly be a phallus. If male power is premised on the cloaking of the male body, then it is to its uncloaking that we must turn for our collective liberation.”

(Penis photographs by Laurie Toby Edison, from Familiar Men.)

41 comments for “Penises, Guns, and Safer Sex Ads

  1. Willemina
    October 25, 2013 at 11:45 am

    Those ads are awful on so many levels.

    There’s a gun safety rule, never point the muzzle at non-targets. The first image conflating a gun with a penis made me think you could even draw an abstinence only message from it, though the Portuguese just warns about using a condom. All around shitty stuff.

  2. October 25, 2013 at 11:52 am

    For me, having a penis is kind of something that has always been there. Perhaps not being born with one makes a person aware of the threat it may pose to someone else, and its phallic nature.

    I’ve sometimes felt a need to associate the phallus with violence, but more subliminally than anything else. Sex may have an aspect of dominance (and submission) to it, but it can be appreciated without fear of power and control being used for violent and hurtful ends.

    Penetrative intercourse by its very nature can easily by used by others for their own nefarious ends. And yet, it is very natural and harmless if taken literally. As a man who finds other men attractive, my view of the phallus is most often an erotic one and an appreciative one, not full of fear and anxiety. Again, I’m sure my upbringing is partially a result.

    • Annima
      October 25, 2013 at 12:18 pm

      In what way has sex an aspect of dominance and submission other than the state of mind? I never understood that one. And what exactly is the phallic nature of the penis? Because from what I see, it’s not dominant or threatening by itself, it’s because it’s associated with threatening/ hurtful things. It’s compared to weapons like sword, guns, etc, sometimes buildings (towers for example, it’s actually pretty funny:D ). By the same logic vagina is an invincible cave that overwhelms the penis and takes it in (don’t forget women give birth and it doesn’t break, it’s actually pretty cool and tough). O, and the penis doesn’t actually penetrate the vagina, it just wants to be in, deeply, wholly surrounded, tightly held by the muscle.

  3. October 25, 2013 at 8:45 pm

    Regardless of the reason for pointing a gun at a woman’s vagina, seems to me that it would always convey a sexual violence against women message on some level.

  4. October 25, 2013 at 11:59 pm

    That first picture is horrific. I don’t give a damn what its purported message is: it screams of violence against women to me.

    • Asleif
      October 28, 2013 at 11:54 pm


  5. Bagelsan
    October 26, 2013 at 3:24 pm

    First of all, sexually transmitted disease is not a weapon men use against women. It transmits from any gender to any gender, depending much more on who does what to whom than how people are shaped.

    Well, yes, but it’s also a weapon that men use against women, just like pregnancy can be. It’s not worth it to totally erase that history/reality in the service of demystifying the dick (although I agree it needs demystifying.)

  6. October 28, 2013 at 3:15 pm

    Okay, uh, having read the original Sociological Images article at last:


    Helliwell was appalled. It sounded to her Western ears like a case of attempted rape. It was frightening, not funny. But, when she explained to the local women that what he did was bad, one replied, “No, no bad, simply stupid.” Helliwell turned to the woman who had been approached by the man and said, “He was trying to hurt you.” She replied, “It’s only a penis. How can a penis hurt anyone?” The Gerai had no word for “rape.”

    I often think of this story when observing the way that women’s and men’s genitals are represented in Western culture. I find the Gerai’s perspective intuitively pleasing.

    Oh, really. Intuitively pleasing. I suppose if the woman HAD been raped, the total lack of societal acceptance if she felt traumatised by having someone shove something into her body would have been “intuitively pleasing” too?

    Fuck that article and its “brilliance” and “thought-provoking”ness. I’ve never even been raped and I felt nauseated reading that. Fucking disgusting. You don’t have to engage in minimising rape and say how you find the idea that a penis couldn’t possibly potentially hurt someone “intuitively pleasing” in order to argue that the (perceivedcis)male body isn’t pathologically violent.

    • October 28, 2013 at 3:22 pm

      I mean seriously. I’m fucking furious.

      Of course the penis shouldn’t be regarded as a weapon and only a weapon, any more than a hand shouldn’t be regarded as a weapon and only a weapon. But we don’t tell someone who got punched that they’re contributing to pathologising the hand, and I’d really appreciate not being implicitly chided for grasping the pathetically obvious fact that a penis is a common tool for the infliction of sexual violence in the form of forced intercourse. Is the problem the penis? No. But is the alternative saying that denying that nonconsensual penile penetration (attempted or succeeded) is only traumatic because it’s culturally considered traumatic? That is one fucking step away from those creepy bastards who argue that child rape victims are only traumatised because society told them to feel ashamed of it. In fact, it’s no steps away from it, it’s just circumspect.

      Oh, and “Western” society has a problem with this, huh. Someone please go inform this exoticising shithead that lots of us Mysterious Magical Easterners feel quite the same way about having someone else’s body shoved into ours without our permission, THANK YOU VERY FUCKING MUCH.

      • pheenobarbidoll
        October 28, 2013 at 3:56 pm

        Also- not having a word for rape is only good when there is no rape. Otherwise, rape survivors simply have no word to describe what was done to them. That’s not a plus in my book.

      • October 28, 2013 at 5:35 pm

        Yep. Muted group theory 101 right there; not having a word for a thing isn’t necessarily a happy happy fun time. I imagine a society full of telepaths would have all sorts of words for types and gradations of thought violations that we don’t need to. Does that mean that if they invade and violate us, because we don’t have words for telepathic mind-violations, that we weren’t violated? WTF!

        You’d think someone whose blog is titled “Sociological Images” could understand something I learned in first-year communications theory. Or is intelligence too interdisciplinary to hang out with the cool kids?

      • pheenobarbidoll
        October 28, 2013 at 7:02 pm

        Hell, I know it and I didn’t take any classes on anything about it. Soooooooo yeah.

      • October 28, 2013 at 7:10 pm

        Well, yeah. It’s not exactly a hugely difficult thing to learn. But I do expect someone whose author name has a PhD on it to at least have pretensions towards a clue along with their pretensions to everything else.

        Unless, of course, it stands for “pretty huge douchebag”, in which case, fly your d-flag!

      • pheenobarbidoll
        October 28, 2013 at 7:39 pm

        I always thought it stood for “piled higher n deeper”

    • moviemaedchen
      October 28, 2013 at 3:33 pm

      This, all of this. Word.

    • October 28, 2013 at 4:08 pm

      I read the article, mac, and felt the same way you did. I found the attitude displayed in the article far more offensive than the ads.

    • October 28, 2013 at 4:33 pm

      You’re spot-on, mac. I found the article disgusting as well for the reasons you mentioned.

    • Safiya Outlines
      October 28, 2013 at 7:01 pm

      Aaaaarrrrggghhh! What, what, what!

      This tallies with my First Rule of Feministe;

      Do not trust Guest Posters whose bio is longer than their actual posts.

      • October 28, 2013 at 7:14 pm

        Eh, well, I don’t disagree with Laura and Debbie’s post itself. But holy shit, that quoted article!!! “What what what” was about my initial response, too.

        (All in all a good rule though *grin* )

        @Ally, Steve and MMC – I”m glad it wasn’t just me, so thanks for chiming in, too!

      • October 29, 2013 at 12:13 pm

        Eh, well, I don’t disagree with Laura and Debbie’s post itself.

        I think I actually do. I mean, almost every woman I know here has had some man expose themselves to her on the subway, and to say something like:

        “Perhaps the most interesting thing about these safer sex ads is that they don’t show penises. What “disarms” the penis is making it visible as a part of the relaxed body. As Jonathan D. Katz says in Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes, “To see a penis is to know that it couldn’t possibly be a phallus. If male power is premised on the cloaking of the male body, then it is to its uncloaking that we must turn for our collective liberation.””

        Is that not basically saying women should feel safer because a man’s penis is exposed? So the fear that nearly every woman who has told me about this has experienced is basically their problem? When a man’s penis is ‘uncloaked’ it has no power? I don’t think so.

      • October 29, 2013 at 12:14 pm

        *when I said ‘here’ in my first sentence above, I mean where I live, not here on Feministe.

      • AMM
        October 29, 2013 at 3:09 pm

        Not exactly to disagree with Fat Steve, but I always figured that what made a man’s exposing himself an agressive/threatening act was the background culture of sexual assault. Our culture assigns a meaning to a man’s exposing himself that is quite different from what it assigns to a woman’s exposing herself, and that is based on the cultural trope that sex is about men dominating/conquering/raping women.

        You can see this by imagining how people would react if a woman exposed herself in exactly the same way.

        It’s our culture’s framing of sex and male sexuality that makes the penis seem like a weapon and allows a man to express hostility by the simple act of exposing a part of his body.

      • October 29, 2013 at 3:16 pm

        Seconding those who object both to the original and to the blog posted here.

        In addition to the racism in the original article, I feel like both of these articles are examples of “sex positivity gone all wrong”–another reason why I have largely lost patience with “sex positivity.”

      • pheenobarbidoll
        October 29, 2013 at 4:31 pm

        It’s not just the background culture of sexual assault. It’s threatening even in a place you’re sure you won’t be assaulted. The penis doesn’t just seem like a weapon when it’s being used as one. Exposing it like that is using it as a weapon, even if the assault isn’t physical.

    • October 28, 2013 at 7:50 pm

      mac, THANK YOU. I’ve never been raped either, but the idea that “ooh look it’s just a silly soft little appendage, how could that hurt anyone” was just too horrific and fucking STUPID for words. Way to erase the physical trauma of so many rape victims. Hell, way to erase the physical pain plenty of people go through in consensual penetrative sex.

      • October 29, 2013 at 6:25 pm

        Speaking as one of those people…god, yes. Let’s not even get into how even being totally into the penetration doesn’t necessarily make the penetration anything but FUCKING HELL OW. The penis isn’t even a totally harmless thing for people who maybe really really want a penis.

      • October 29, 2013 at 7:00 pm

        I mean seriously. Thank fuck I’ve got a female-bodied partner; I’d have been pretty upset discovering how rarely I can enjoy penetration if I’d fallen for a penis-having person, I’ll tell ya.

      • October 29, 2013 at 7:41 pm

        Seconding ALL that. In some ways I’m bloody grateful my beloved (male) is across the veil – lovemaking doesn’t hurt there and can’t hurt my physical body here.

        TMI: I’ve had one pap smear in my life. That speculum’s nowhere near the size of a penis but it was too painful for me to let the doctor finish. The idea that something being forced into your body is trivial or not painful is just mind-bogglingly stupid.

        It struck me last night that even the tongue gets used as a weapon in sexual assault, and it’s one of the more delicate and vulnerable body parts. It makes the whole “you’re only scared of penises ‘cos someone told you to be” BS even more BS-y.

      • ldouglas
        October 29, 2013 at 9:43 pm

        In some ways I’m bloody grateful my beloved (male) is across the veil

        Sorry, what does this mean? Google didn’t help.

      • October 29, 2013 at 11:44 pm

        Across the veil = the afterlife. Sorry, I was being a bit obscure there!

    • Henry
      October 29, 2013 at 4:58 pm

      It is with great sadness that I report the recent disappearance of Dr. Helliwell. From what accounts I can scrape together, she was sent to study a society where the killing and consumption of humans was reported to occur. Her last dispatch read: “This society has no word for ‘cannibalism’. I find their perspective intuitively pleasing. I shall send another dispatch after supper.”

      I see the “Noble Savage” theory lives on in 2013, I thought it had been fully debunked by now.

      • October 29, 2013 at 6:21 pm

        *ugly snortlaughing*

      • pheenobarbidoll
        October 29, 2013 at 6:31 pm

        ::snortlaughs along with Mac::

      • October 29, 2013 at 7:43 pm

        ::snortlaugh #3::

      • October 29, 2013 at 8:47 pm

        Noble savage stereotypes and bad linguistics seem to have a real affinity for each other.

        Reminds me of that horrendous book that argued that the Hopi have no sense of time because they do not have a grammatical future tense.

        Turns out (shockingly!!!) they understand the future tense perfectly well. They just express it using “context clues.” Whoops.

      • Kerplunk
        October 29, 2013 at 11:07 pm

        I just want to point out that it was Lisa Wade, not Christine Helliwell who finds the Gerai perspective described by Helliwell as “intuitively pleasing.”

        Helliwell, on the other hand, is reported as saying “He was trying to hurt you” to the woman whose bedroom was invaded. Helliwell’s article is only available to members of Jstor, so I can’t comment on her perspective.

      • Kerplunk
        October 29, 2013 at 11:08 pm

        Ugh, delete “as” in the first sentence.

      • October 29, 2013 at 11:20 pm

        Eek. Yeah. I somehow concluded he was talking about the Soc Images blogger (thus, Wade) and laughed. No offense to Ms Halliwell.

      • Henry
        October 30, 2013 at 1:53 am

        *Ms. Wade then. My apologies to Dr. Helliwell.

  7. LotusBecca
    October 29, 2013 at 9:12 pm

    Penises aren’t inherently dangerous, but then again nothing is really inherently dangerous. Everything exists in a context. The context that makes penises (on men) dangerous (for women and other non-men) is patriarchy and rape.

    I think that all aspects of men’s bodies are potentially dangerous under patriarchy and rape culture: faces, arms, hands, genitals, feet. I think the reason that the penis is considered especially dangerous is because it is viewed as symbolic of the male. Generally, it’s not much more integral to men’s sexual violence than, say men’s hands or men’s abdominal muscles are. But because men view their penises as a magical source of their maleness and power, the penis carries greater symbolic danger than the abdominal muscles do.

    The way to fix this is to abolish patriarchy. How to do that is anybody’s guess. But I don’t think men being clothed is particularly integral to patriarchy’s functioning. As people pointed out, flashing is often a form of sexual violence also.

    I don’t think what’s needed so much is to “demystify” the penis as to destroy the power base that privileges men in this society. If men no longer have privilege over women and non-binary people than whatever mystique does or does not exist surround their genitals will not longer be a source of danger.

  8. love-love?
    November 8, 2013 at 5:47 am

    The penis as a weapon is a mindset which too many “men” unfortunately stroke their egos with.

    Patriarchal society is the virus of human condition. Every single injustice throughout OURstory can be traced to the mindset of domination to keep power and control in the hands of a select few.

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