This week on LWON’s occasional series Thank God It’s Penis Friday, we bring you wisdom from not one but two authors of newly released books about private parts. (Count your blessings, people.) Florence Williams is the author of BREASTS: A Natural and Unnatural History; Jesse Bering is the author of Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? And Other Reflections on Being Human. Here they discuss breasts, smegma, and how to engage readers of science writing with the right measure of humor. — TGIPF from The People of LWON
Florence Williams: So with Naomi Wolf’s Vagina book just out, there’s yet another addition to the body-part genre. What’s up with this recent spate of books? Do you think it’s true what The New York Observer wrote — that we’re entering the Genital Age?
Jesse Bering: Well, as the Observer also mentioned, maybe it’s just about sales. It was a strategic decision to title my book that way, but honestly, I also wanted a fun title that plays with the audience a little bit. Because really, when have we ever not been interested in these body parts?
FW: One reason all these body parts might be so interesting is that they’re where culture meets biology. They are all subject to mutilation and ritualistic alteration. Breast augmentation is more popular than ever. And male circumcision is in the news a lot lately. These body parts are symbolic of so much more than just their functions. We’ve loaded them with all sorts of significance having to do with beauty and sexual control and oppression, at least with female circumcision. Why do you think we’re so interested in surgically altering these body parts?
JB: I used to study chimps, and one major difference between us and them is that we’re “natural psychologists,” which means we also see ourselves through other people’s eyes. You don’t see chimps modifying their bodies physically. They are not interested in how they look to each other, most likely because they don’t have the cognitive capacity to do so.
FW: You’ve taken on the topic of male circumcision, somewhat reluctantly.
JB: Yeah, I wrote about it two years ago in Scientific American, summarizing the African HIV research on virus transmission rates. The issue of male circumcision is definitely not my cause célèbre or my favorite topic to be associated with, but I also happen to think that the health-related benefits of circumcision are difficult to dispute when the whole corpus of current research is taken together. Obviously, though, because it involves the prophylactic removal of a body part — often someone else’s body part, in the case of neonatal circumcision — people feel incredibly strongly about it, which is understandable.
FW: What’s the purpose of a foreskin anyway?
JB: Lots of conjectures out there. One is that smegma (which is essentially shed epithelial cells and agglutinated oil secretions) facilitates sexual intercourse through lubrication. And it offers some protection of the glans penis, which would have been great in the era before Fruit of the Loom.
I’ve also spoken recently to Gordon Gallup about this — he’s the evolutionary psychologist from SUNY-Albany that did the original work on penis-shape evolution that earned the titular spot in my new collection of essays. He’s got a very speculative, still untested hypothesis that smegma may also serve an adaptive spermaticidal function to prevent “self-cuckoldry.” Basically, the idea here is that when a guy has sex with a girl, he’s likely to retract (or “pull out”) with his coronal ridge some of the sperm cells from the last guy she had sex with.
That’s adaptive, because he displaces his competitors’ semen with his own. But it also means that some of the other guy’s live sperm cells can become lodged under his own foreskin, and if he soon has sex with another female, he runs the risk of impregnating her with the competitor’s sperm attached to his penis! Gallup thinks that the viscous properties of smegma may help to immobilize or kill these foreign spermatozoa, thus reducing the chances of such self-cuckoldry. And remember, this whole system would have evolved tens of thousands of years ago. Our ancestors didn’t have the luxury of just hopping into the en suite shower and scrubbing their genitals clean after every bout of sex.
FW: That’s funny, because Gordon Gallup figures into theories about the development of breasts, too. The guy gets around! He believed that permanently enlarged breasts evolved in humans as a signal of fertility. The theory goes that men could tell if women were of reproductive age by the size and firmness of her breasts. Kind of a silly theory, though, because a woman’s breasts are biggest and firmest when she’s already pregnant or breastfeeding — not exactly her best fertile moments. So many anthropologists believe breasts evolved for men, it’s hilarious. I had fun writing about that.
These body parts are misunderstood on a lot of levels. For one thing, they are often treated with derision and slapstick humor in our culture. I write in my book that this certainly prevents us from taking breasts seriously. This seems as true of penises.
JB: All the dick jokes! Now we look at them as a source of humor but they are also neglected. Penises are simultaneously scary and funny. They are ridiculous looking.
FW: Whereas everyone loves breasts.
JB: Yes. Even for someone like me who loves them — at least when they’re attached to people I find attractive — a “beautiful penis” kind of sounds like an oxymoron.
FW: As science journalists, we know these attitudes can make it challenging to be serious. When the book came out, I had to do quite a bit of FM rock radio. I’d almost kind of forgotten that a lot of adults are still in the 6th grade when it comes to talking about breasts.
JW: Yeah. We had a promising interview lined up with ABC Radio, I believe, that never panned out because I wasn’t even allowed to say the title of my book on the air.
JB: Yes, we went back and forth with the producer about how to talk about the book without saying the title. I was like, what’s the point of that, how are people going to know what book I’m talking about so they can buy it and read more? Clear Channel won’t say it either, and for months, iTunes wouldn’t print out the word “penis” in the title, only use those weird asterisks like it’s a curse word. The penis is literally an unspeakable body part in our society. Even commercials avoid it, instead using coded language like “male enhancement” or “erectile dysfunction.”
FW: Wow, and I thought breasts were oppressed. At the same time, books on these topics get some attention. Do you think it’s important for science writers to be entertaining and funny?
JB: There’s good humor and bad humor. Too much can flood the science, and I’ve probably been guilty of that in the past, but you learn as you go. It has to be properly placed, not too obnoxious. I’ve seen a lot of science writers try and it’s more off-putting to me than engaging. With my humor, I try to tone it down a little, not make it so obvious, keep a distance, or you run the risk of overdoing it.
FW: Although I feel compelled to try to retain my readers. I think humor can help. I think a lot of science writing is too dry for a wide audience.
JB: I think humor can be important to remind readers that you’re human and not some robot and you’re right there with them. But in moderation. I don’t really want to be seen as just the silly penis guy. A penis is what it is, and it’s only silly because that’s how our minds strangely perceive it. My writing isn’t superficial, if you can get past the title, but getting a bit deep sometimes doesn’t mean it’s dry either.
FW: A lot of the stuff you write about is inherently controversial, like the biology of rape and male circumcision. Do you have any advice for science writers taking on controversial topics?
JB: It’s easy to become a bit gun shy in response to vehement reactions. I try to keep a neutral tone, but people read into everything. Simply describing a human phenomenon in objective scientific language without decrying it as evil rubs many the wrong way, as though it’s an apologia or endorsement. Anyone writing about controversial issues in science is vulnerable to activists that can subvert your neutrality, and writers who take on challenging issues really need to beware of what they’re getting themselves into. There are a lot of very smart readers out there that will get what you’re trying to do and see it as admirable, but plenty of others who will see it through their sociopolitical lens and won’t be so friendly. But c’est la vie. Someone needs to write about this stuff, right?
FW: That’s exactly why we need science writers to tackle these topics and not the activists. I hope you keep writing about them.
JB: Thanks, you too.
Top photo by Florence (it’s a 400-year-old gate in Japan).
Florence Williams, the author of BREASTS: A Natural and Unnatural History, is a contributing editor at Outside and a board member and former staffer of High Country News. You can follow her on Twitter here. Jesse Bering, the author of Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? And Other Reflections on Being Human, is a contributor to Scientific American and Slate magazines. You can follow him on Twitter, too.