Trigger warning: mentions of sexual violence, racism, slavery.
Welcome back, friends! We’ve certainly covered a lot in The History of the Big Dick Parts I and II. As a recap, here’s the road so far. Imagine “Carry On My Wayward Son” is playing softly in the background.
- Humans generally have larger penises than our primate ancestors (it’s unclear exactly why)
- Humans have been drawing big dicks for a LONG time as a fertility symbol
- In the late BCs in Europe, people started equating big penises with undesirable traits (like being foolish and lustful), and smaller, flaccid penises became the norm in art for centuries to come—but penises were still a symbol of power
Now that we’re all caught up, we’ve reached the final frontier. If Europeans were into smaller penises for literal centuries—why are so obsessed with big dicks in the United States these days?
Sike! Even More History
We’ll make it quick. Ish.
Europeans’ love affair with the small, flaccid penis as an artistic ideal carried on long past the renaissance. As I’m sure many of us are familiar, the Christian Church adopted the small penis in their religious imagery—likely because a lot of early Christians had converted from Greek and Roman paganism.
The Sistine Chapel would look a lot different if not…
Creation of Adam, Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel (1512) (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
And an even more strict moral code was applied here with the institution of Christian values—chastity and purity in particular. At this point, western European cultures had broadly renounced hedonism, and sexual repression was all the rage—but that doesn’t mean the penis didn’t have significance anymore.
Penis Anxiety + Witches
The year is 1486 and some old incel named Heinreich Kramer wrote a book called the Malleus Maleficarum. In it, he argues that witchcraft is real, witches are usually women, and the Catholic Church should ~murder~ them for it. Most notably for the purposes of our discussion today, this dude believed that witches could hide penises with magic . Like a really involved game of “got your nose.”
Malleus Maleficarum (Title Page, 7th Cologne Edition), Heinreich Kramer (1520) (Photo credit: University of Sydney Library)
He asserted that women who were witches were lustful, spoke their minds, doubted their faith, etc. etc. Essentially… women who exerted their power through their thoughts, words, and sexuality… could steal penises. And it’s important to note that it’s penises they take—not a hand, not a nose. A penis.
While penises were small in artistic European renderings, they were still a symbol for power. Roman Catholic and Protestant men alike of this time were anxious that women who asserted their power could take power away from men—could take their penises away from them. Penis = power.
Penis as Power
Trigger warning: sexual violence.
Brace yourselves, because we’re about to get into some icky territory.
Sexual violence as a kind of psychological warfare and tool for social domination is not a new concept. From the Huns, Greeks, and Romans of antiquity to the Mongols of the middle ages, from WWII to the Vietnam War, the penis was (and is still) used as a literal tool of structurally-sanctioned violence and genocide [2-6]. And it’s a perfect example of the penis as a symbol of power. Wartime sexual violence is not about sexual prowess, fertility, or pleasure. It’s about cultivating a sense of power by taking agency away from others, and it’s almost always performed by people with penises, by said penises.
Sexual violence was also a tool used in the transatlantic slave trade—which has particular importance for the modern-day United States.
Racism + Penises
Welcome to the 1500s. Europeans have their sticky little fingers all up in Africa and Asia and the Americas, marking the beginnings of western colonialism. Why? Because they wanted land and resources and uhhhh free labor to expand their empires. And they wanted to convert people to Christianity . Remember the connection between sexual repression and the Church mentioned earlier? Yeah, that’s gonna be important.
In their quest to take control of people and lands outside of Europe, it behooved colonizers to believe that their way of life, culture, beliefs, and even race, were superior to those of the people they subjected. That they were “saving” and “civilizing.” And one way they did this was through moralizing sexual behavior. They categorized the kinds of sexuality displayed by colonized people as wrong, deviant—sometimes hypersexual, sometimes hyposexual. And this translated into the ways Europeans saw the bodies of colonized peoples.
In the words of Dr. George Paul Meiu: “Deeply fascinated with the bodies and sexual practices of racial and ethnic Others, metropolitan scientists and popular audiences read oversized genitalia, protruding buttocks, and large breasts to be iconic of an inherent hypersexuality in colonized men and women .”
Does this sound familiar? Because it should. Remember ancient Greece and that Fresco painting of Priapus with the huge, painful penis in The History of the Big Dick Part II? Remember how the Greeks (and eventually Romans) equated big dicks to “foolishness, animalism, and otherness?” History repeats itself.
European colonizers literally 20 centuries later did the same exact thing. They spread around the idea that big dicks meant hypersexuality and immorality and “otherness”—and they attributed it to a particular group of people. They attributed it to Black people.
Note: there’s actually no conclusive evidence that says there are meaningful differences in penis size across race. We’ll talk about this more in Part IV.
And a lot of those beliefs that cropped up 600-some-odd years ago are still with us today (but we’ll talk about that later). In the meantime, it’s important to clock that this Second Age of Big Penis Hypersexualization was a power play.
The Modern Penis
So last we heard, small to average-sized penises were still all the rage among Europeans and white Americans—but times they are a-changin’.
Feminism and Penis Envy
The year is 1908 and a guy named Sigmund Freud starts talking about penis envy . Here’s the gist of it: girls born without penises see a penis and realize—gasp—how inferior their genitals (and therefore they, as a person) are. So, they either need to accept their inferiority or... become neurotic (which at the time meant to be depressed, anxious, and unhappy) .
And this isn’t a coincidence. The First Wave of Feminism is in full swing throughout the western world at this point, and women have been expressing that they’re not super stoked to have absolutely no rights. And, under pressure from his peers in the psychoanalytic space, Freud, like other psychologists of the time, came up with a bunch of phooey about why women were acting this way.
While the first feminist movement itself was about societal power imbalances and women seeking to have more say in their lives and communities—theories, like those of Freud, chocked it up to a penis thing. Because uh… penis=power. You see the theme here? Let’s keep going.
Black Secular Music and Penises
The United States saw a huge shift in secular music after the abolition of slavery.
Angela Davis expresses this in ‘Blues Legacies and Black Feminism’: “Emerging during the decades following the abolition of slavery, the blues gave musical expression to the new social and sexual realities encountered by African Americans as free women and men ."
And secular music was a place where Black folks were able to express their sexual sovereignty and desires. From the absolutely iconic Bessie Smith and her 1927 classic “Empty Bed Blues” to Lil Johnson’s 1929 “Rock That Thing,” there was no shortage of saucy blues tunes.
Aaaand then there were songs about big penises. Dinah Washington’s “Big Long Slidin’ Thing” and “Long John Blues,” and Bullmoose Jackson’s “Big Ten Inch Record” are just a few instances of this. Perhaps this was a reframing and reclaiming of the hypersexualization of the Black penis as well as a reclamation of Black women’s sexuality. Regardless, blues and jazz were enormous social influences for over half of the 20th century—and Americans across race lines were starting to hear people singing about big penises… in a positive light. And this time it wasn’t strictly about power, it was about sexual agency, desire, and reproductive self-determinism—getting back to the penis’s earlier human roots in fertility and sensuality.
We continue to see this in the modern day with songs like Salt-n-Pepa’s “Shoop” and Nicki Minaj & Beyonce’s “Feelin’ Myself.” Songs that are just about sexual agency in which a big penis happens to make an appearance under cover of innuendo.
Big Dick Energy
Soooo… what happens when organized movements seek to question and upturn social institutions that typically grant the most power to men (specifically straight, white, cis-gender men)? If we look back on the social circumstances surrounding the creation of the Malleus Maleficarum and Freud’s “Penis Envy” theory, we can guess it’s going to have something to do with penises.
It’s always penises.
As women, BIPOC, and queer folks gain more rights and agency in society, the more anxious men (particularly white cis-men) become because this feels like a threat to their power and masculinity. And since we’ve been told for centuries that penises are tied to that power and masculinity, those threats, to some extent, are threats to the penis. And the more threatened traditional hegemonic masculinity becomes, the bigger the bravado... and the bigger the penises.
That’s right. The penises become metaphorically larger. Just think about the language we use surrounding male ego and power:
- When men are in some kind of power struggle (big or small), we’ll say they’re having a “dick-measuring contest” or a “dick-swinging contest.”
- If someone has a huge lift kit on their truck or tries to make their Toyota Corolla look like a sports car, we’ll say they’re “compensating for something.” And we’re almost always talking about penis size. Lord Farquaad’s castle in Shrek is a great example of this.
Shrek, DreamWorks Animation (2001)
- Then there’s Big Dick Energy, which recently popped up in the 2010s, and it just means to have the relaxed confidence of someone with a big penis.
- And if we look back to the 2016 election, a fair amount of anti-Trump rhetoric surrounded his alleged micropenis.
TLDR; things haven’t changed much. Penises have been associated with power and masculinity for a looooong time. With rising social justice movements through much of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, the penis has become an even bigger symbol. Literally. Plus, now that Ye Olde Society isn’t as sexually repressed as it has been, it’s not just the idea of the penis that’s gotten bigger. There’s a pressure to have a living, breathing big penis too.
But what happens when someone has the “most masculine” and “most powerful” attribute according to society and historical cultural conditioning… and it’s not all it’s cracked up to be?
Tune in for Big Dick Problems Pt. IV: I’ve Got 99 Problems and a Big Dick is One
- Smith, M. 2002. The Flying Phallus and the Laughing Inquisitor: Penis Theft in the "Malleus Maleficarum." Journal of Folklore Research 39 (1):85-117.
- Curta, F. 1996. Slavs in Fredegar: Medieval gens or narrative strategy? Acta historica 103: 3-20.
- Vikman, E. 2005. Ancient Origins: Sexual Violence in Warfare, Part I. Anthropology & Medicine 12 (1):21-31.
- Amitai, R. & Conermann, S. 2019. The Mamluk Sultanate from the Perspective of Regional and World History. Bonn University Press.
- Burds, J. 2009. Sexual Violence in Europe in World War II, 1939-1945. Politics & Society 37 (1):35-74.
- Lang, D. 1969. Casualties of War: An atrocity in Vietnam. The New Yorker.
- Lachenicht, S. 2019. Religion and Colonization. Oxford Bibliographies. 10.1093/OBO/9780199730414-0311
- Meiu, G. P. 2015. Colonialism and sexuality. The International Encyclopedia of Human Sexuality. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
- Gersick, S. 2017. Penis Envy. Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. 10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_616-1
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Neurosis. Encyclopaedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/science/neurosis
- Davis, A. Y. 1998. I Used to Be Your Sweet Mama. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism.