Magazine article The Spectator

The Penis Mightier Than the Sword

Magazine article The Spectator

The Penis Mightier Than the Sword

Article excerpt

A MIND OF ITS OWN by David M. Friedman Robert Hale, L20, pp. 368, ISBN 0709071108

Next time you're stuck for conversation at a dinner party, why not use one of these fascinating facts to break the ice?

1. In mammalian terms the male of Homo sapiens is spectacularly endowed - his penis, when erect, being roughly three times larger than a 400lb gorilla's.

2. In Pharaonic Egypt, Egyptian men were so fearful of vaginal blood that they would hire Aethiops (famed for the blackness of their skin and the enormousness of their members) to deflower their brides.

3. The biblical `sin of Onan' had nothing to do with every teenager's favourite pastime but in fact referred originally to `coitus interruptus'.

The reason onanism has for so many years been used to mean something else is the subject of an influential essay published in 1758 by a Swiss doctor called SamuelAuguste Tissot. Onanism: Or a Treatise on the Maladies Produced by Masturbation was not the first tract to claim that wanking made you (inter alia) blind. But it was argued with such passion that it caught the public imagination, especially after its cause was taken up by Tissot's friend JeanJacques Rousseau.

Perhaps you knew this already. Perhaps you knew why it was that St Augustine's teaching effectually managed to banish the penis (save that of the infant Christ) from Western art for 800 years, what Peter Abelard did to Heloise, where Freud got his ideas, what Andrea Dworkin and Susan Brownmiller contributed to the feminist debate and how British doctor Giles Brindley introduced his proto-Viagra drug to a convention of urologists in Las Vegas. But if you don't you're going to find this book far more than just another collection of wicked willy statistics to be kept in the downstairs loo. For by Friedman's fascinating account the history of the penis is (well, almost) the history of civilisation itself.

Fascinating indeed. It turns out to derive from fascinum, the penis replica found almost everywhere in ancient Rome: on chariots ridden by triumphant generals, in public bath-houses, in amulets worn round boys' necks. Like the Greeks, Egyptians and Sumerians before them, the Romans were willy-mad. `Hic Habitat Felicitas,' it says on the walls of Pompeii above and below a picture of an erect penis. But then this carpe them attitude was only to be expected when the average life expectancy was 25.

Suddenly, too late, I realised what fun I might have had if only I'd persisted with my Latin and Greek. …

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