Cultural Encyclopedia of the Penis – [Book Review]


Cultural Encyclopedia of the Penis
Michael Kimmel, Christine Milrod, and Amanda Kennedy, eds. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2014. 251 pp.

Cultural Encyclopedia of the Penis” is a new publication (October 2014) from Rowman & Littlefield following fast on the heels of its companion “Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast” which was released in September. I’m told that they’ve been warmly received by anthropologists, as they both sold out rather quickly at the R&L booth at the meeting of the American Anthropological Association this past December in Washington DC. As a budding scholar (ahem) of global masculinities, I thought it would have been silly to not take the opportunity to review Cultural Encyclopedia of the Penis, if not simply for the title and synopsis, definitely because of Michael Kimmel’s involvement. Kimmel, one of three editors (in addition to Christine Milrod and Amanda Kennedy), is one of the more well-known sociological scholars on men and masculinities in America. Of more than a dozen books on the subject, perhaps his best-known is “Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys become Men,” a book that I would highly recommend for undergraduate- and graduate-level students of Gender Studies. While some of Kimmel’s work is not without some anthropological blindspots (he is not an anthropologist after all), one should be able to approach Cultural Encyclopedia (henceforth, CEP) trusting that a book written by over 90 authors would ultimately deliver on its claim to being “cultural.” It should be noted that this review is written without any knowledge of the content and style of Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast, which was edited by Merril D. Smith.

The book begins with a wonderful introduction by the editors that purports the encyclopedia to be presented in a Saussurean spirit of signifier/signified structuralism. The cover says it all: a clever trick that presents a penis-and-testicles motif that can also be seen as a torso and thighs. Indeed, this volume is replete with examples of the penis in the visual arts, literature, science, technology, medicine, archaeology, behavior, psychology, and more. The introduction is perhaps one of the most valuable readings in the book, as it reviews the multitudinous ways in which the penis can be imagined, manifested, symbolized, used, empowered, effeminized, and exploited. It is here that the reader is introduced to the many versions of the “cultural penis,” as a primer for what is in store in the pages that follow.

Oddly enough (and something of a full disclosure), as a Millennial (albeit, an older variety), thinking about the structure of this book has made me realize that I don’t really know what to expect from something claiming to be an encyclopedia beyond the fundamental idea that it is a collection of summaries of information (Check!) on a variety of topics (Check!) related to a particular theme (Check!), which is arranged alphabetically (Check!). It is strange for me to read an encyclopedia that can’t be clicked, edited, or augmented. Nonetheless, the CEP, as one would expect from an encyclopedia, is a collection of entries written by scholars and experts from all over the world who represent many different fields of study. There are, in my count, a total of 94 contributors to the encyclopedia, including the three editors. Of the 94 involved, I counted four anthropologists, plus Lisa Jean Moore (who is technically a sociologist, but has been known to straddle the line, so we’ll count her as one of ours for now).

Entries, of which there are 160 (sort of), can be a short as a paragraph or as long as four pages, depending on the topic. Each entry is followed by a “See Also” list of related topics, a “Further Reading” list of related (or cited) literature, and the name of the author of the entry in question. Despite some rather brief entries, I appreciate that every one of them is followed by resources for further reading (unless, of course, the entry simply refers the reader to another entry, e.g. Skoptsy [200] which simply refers to Castration or Eunuchs).

The entries themselves are written from a number of fields of expertise – gender studies, theology, urology, sexology, sociology, history, fashion, and even a little ethnographic work, though many of the entries rely too heavily on Freudian interpretations for my taste. They run the gamut from directly-related topics (e.g. Frenulum, Penazzling) to the seemingly irrelevant (e.g. Chippendales). I would have liked to have seen more non-Western beliefs and practices represented here, for instance, dhat, semen loss, semen practices, sperm competition, or traditional medicines.

Some entries are highly technical and tight while some are loose and vulgar, the latter sometimes akin to reading Urban Dictionary or even 4chan. Others balance the two somewhat impressively; for example, see “Cock Supremacy” (43) which relies solely on the word “cock” while making a Bourdieusian argument about the performance of masculinity. This polyphony, at first, was distracting but later I came to appreciate it – this may not be the case for casual readers who are not reviewing the book from cover-to-cover. Ultimately, each entry serves the purpose of familiarizing the reader with a basic understanding of the topic, and if the reader needs more information, they can at least approach that endeavor with a baseline.

The basic understanding to which I refer, however, is relative. What I mean here is that in many cases, the baseline established by an entry is woefully myopic at best, biased at worst – either Eurocentrically or biomedically. This criticism is rooted in my frustration with reconciling the claim of the book’s title and introduction as a Cultural encyclopedia, when in actuality it is more of a Western Popular Biocultural encyclopedia or Our cultural encyclopedia. I’ll give you two examples: “Circumcision (male)” and “Semen.”

“Circumcision (male),” which is arguably the most fruitful topic of cultural discussion in this book,  is instead the most dissatisfying read for the anthropologist (39; if you’re wondering, there is no entry called “Circumcision [female]”). The entry begins with a basic biomedical description of what it is (overlooking the fact that there are many forms), where (in the West) it is practiced, and the ways in which it is performed (in the United States). The entry moves on to describe circumcision as it relates to religion (i.e. Islam and Judaism) and hygiene. After a brief discussion of HIV/AIDS and global health in sub-Saharan Africa (ignoring the role that circumcision plays in the construction of masculinity), the entry finishes with intactivism, which is largely a Western phenomenon. Ultimately, the offering on circumcision was flat. If we return to the idea that this book gives readers short introductory crash courses, we see here that one could walk away from this entry with a baseline understanding that doesn’t even suggest that circumcision might be more nuanced than the idea with which they may have approached the book in the first place.

If Circumcision (male) is an example of the Eurocentrism that one might find in this book, Semen is the prime example of the biomedical (191). Offering less than a page of information, the entry on Semen revolves strictly around its chemical composition and function, which are objectively Western scientific understandings and interpretations; so where is the “cultural?” – at best, this is our cultural. The author seems to ignore the power and/or danger that is often ascribed to semen in different cultures, but at least Lisa Jean Moore picks up the slack in one of her entries, “Ejaculation (male)” (55; there is no entry called “Ejaculation [female]”). (Redundancy is no excuse; the entries for “Public Restroom” and “Tea Room” are nearly identical.) Likewise, all six paragraphs on the topic of “Erection,” save three sentences, are about anatomy and physiology. Unfortunately, this theme of the biomedicalized penis or Eurocentric penis runs rampant through the entire book. Do not misunderstand: my problem is not with the presence (or even abundance) of Western topics – as far as I know, “Gloryhole” is a strictly Western phenomenon – but that non-Western perspectives of global phenomena are so frequently excluded.

To conclude on a more positive note, I did find a great deal of value in topics such as Art & Artists (13; Marcos García-Diez and Javier C. Angulo), Bhutan Phallus (22; Richard W. Whitecross), Ejaculation (male) (55; Lisa Jean Moore), Gastronomy (77; Amy Marsh), Hijra (82; Shane P. Gannon), Koro (104; Robert E. Bartholomew), Koteka (105; Jenny Munro), Lingam (107; Rohit K. Dasgupta), Lynching (109; Neal A. Lester), Penis sheaths (148; José Blanco F.), Penis snatching (151; Louisa Lombard), Race (179; Neal A. Lester), Sambia Turnim (189; Jenny Munro), Size (196; Jared Del Rosso and Jennifer J. Esala), and Viagra (236; Leonore Tiefer).

Of these, both of Lester’s entries on Lynching and Race are two of the most provocative discussions of how the penis is viewed and symbolized with respect to hierarchies of power. Koro is a wonderful example of a culture-bound syndrome related to the penis – it’s a shame there aren’t more. Sambia Turnim, an entry on the Sambia of Papua New Guinea, seamlessly combines cultural interpretations of the third gender with the biomedical, though it would have made a prime place to mention semen practices. Likewise, the entry on Viagra turned out to be an excellent articulation of how one might call attention to the subjective nature of a biotechnology, with only the space in which it was intended to introduce a topic.

At the end of the day, CEP is a tough sell. It don’t find it particularly useful for my needs, except maybe to familiarize myself with wider literature through “Further Reading.” Many of the entries fall short of what one should expect from a cultural encyclopedia, but undergraduates may find value in the crash-course presentation style (with a lot of cross-cultural supplementation, of course). And while it’s not a criticism of the editors or authors, the cover price is astronomical, even for the academic consumer (about $80 for the hardcover OR the eBook). CEP will make a fine (if pricey) book to leave on the coffee table for my more conservative guests.

Dick Powis is a PhD student in Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, and is also pursuing a graduate certificate in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. His research interests include men and childbirth, prenatal screening technologies, and reproductive health in urban settings in Senegal. Read more at