Penises, Guns, and Safer Sex Ads

(Cross-posted on Feminste)

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.)