Laurie Toby Edison

Photographer

“Groin Gazing”: Taboos, Penises, and “Fashion” Photography (NSFW)

Laurie and Debbie say:

Photographer Claire Milbrath did a fashion photography shoot for Vice (a print and online magazine) called “Groin Gazing,” in which casual clothes are (apparently) being sold to men (sexual orientation unknown) by means of torso and groin shots, showing (apparently) erect penises under the clothes on offer.

brown shirt, brown jeans, bowling ball

Tracy Moore at Jezebel picked this up:

I think it’s all just great. The beauty of it is that the spread can function on multiple levels — 1.) it’s a bunch of dudes’ clothed boners. 2.) They are depicted as types, with no heads or faces, as women are often shot in spreads (“dismembered”) 3.) The effect is a powerful one: It wordlessly comments on how women are shot while also upending a lot of assumptions about what hetero women want, like, enjoy, think about, when it comes to men and images.

Moore seems quite confident that the photography is directed at women, and is making women happy (and she has some tweets to back up her claim). The spread, however, raises lots of issues:

Because of the amazing level of taboo about penis pictures in our culture, we can’t even be sure of Moore’s first point. Is it a bunch of dudes’ clothed boners? Or a bunch of dildos under clothes? (Is that why a lot of the dicks look so much alike? Is that why the poses each have very generic names, like “the baseball player” or “the boy next door”? The dude above is “the chongo.”) How different is this from lingerie ads before the entire female body became acceptable media fodder?
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We can’t help but notice that the penis taboo has two very separate aspects. The taboo against erect penises is primarily an erotic taboo. Outside of gay male porn, there are very few places we can see photographs of erect penises, or learn anything about what they’re like, except for the ones we might have an opportunity to see in real life. That makes Milbrath’s photos (or the earlier Calvin Klein ads) a target of curiosity: how long? how thick? curved? Also, if you take a minute to try to imagine the men in these pictures, in these poses without clothes, the effect changes drastically, in part because the erect penis is so strongly linked with erotic/pornographic imagery. Also, if they were nude, we could see their real bodies, not just a photographic fantasy, and that would change everything.
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The taboo against relaxed penises is primarily a male-protective taboo. With the exception of Laurie’s photographs (more of which can be found in Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes), there are even fewer places where anyone can see photographs of relaxed penises, and most men are uncomfortable showing them except in situations even more intimate than sex. Jonathan D. Katz addresses this issue in Familiar Men. Katz says:

Female nudity can be ubiquitous, but to present the male body threatens to give the lie to the rich meanings we associate with it. All of which may explain why it’s so rare to see naked or near-naked men in art, advertising, popular media, or that host of other venues in which the female body is now coin of the realm. … I think novelist Dorothy Allison said it best when she remarked that she thought the penis was the original source of the literary concept of irony, that something so small and vulnerable could be accorded such impressive powers. To see a penis is to know that it couldn’t possibly be a phallus.
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Given the intensity and complexity of the taboos, who is the audience for this work? Straight women (who seem to be having a good time, and who maybe buy clothes for their partners)? Straight men (who are the bulk of the audience who theoretically might buy the clothes)? Gay men (the only group which has lots of access to erotic penis pictures whenever they want)?

And why are the photos headless? Moore thinks it’s a comment on headless shots of women, and she’s almost certainly right. But this choice, along with the generic names for the men in the photographs, also functions as a comment on penises and taboos: the topic is so charged the men have to be anonymous.

Thanks to Alan Bostick for pointing out the Jezebel article.

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

2 Responses to ““Groin Gazing”: Taboos, Penises, and “Fashion” Photography (NSFW)”

  1. Lynne Murray Says:

    I saw the Jezebel article and had a non-visual reaction as a heterosexual female raised in the 1960s without much exposure to penises, erect or not. Due to automobile backseat sex, I literally only saw an erect penis after having tactile exposure on several occasions. So my reaction on seeing this series of photos? An impulse to touch–lol!

  2. Lizzie Says:

    I was puzzled, as a child, when I read books about sex with descriptions of intercourse. The only penis I’d ever seen was Michaelangelo’s David and I couldn’t figure out how intercourse could possibly work.

    I also felt erect penises long before I saw them in any state.

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