Sacred phalluses, male circumcision in South Korea and Tom Cruise’s (unseen) member in Magnolia: these are all on the agenda for an academic event titled Performing the Penis.
The round table, at Brunel University London on 3 March, has been organised by Meredith Jones, reader in gender and media at the institution, who researches bodies and body modification.
Justin Parsler, senior lecturer in games design at Brunel, will be speaking about “penis physics”. He is himself a games designer, explained Dr Jones, and will be talking about what is thought to be the first game that allows you to customise your genitals. “One of the things you can do is choose your penis size, through a crazy little button you can move up and down to make your penis bigger or smaller,” Dr Jones said.
Dr Jones’ own paper will describe an experience that left her “in shock”: while working on a project about cosmetic surgery in Bangkok she was invited by a surgeon to witness gender transition surgery.
“It was done under the cheapest conditions,” she recalled. “The woman being operated on was awake but heavily sedated throughout the two hours that the operation took. I saw her penis and testicles basically being cut off. I saw her penis being turned inside out, sewn up and pushed into a cavity inside her body in order to make a vagina. I saw the surgeon construct a clitoris and labia at very high speed without washing his hands. It was a very confronting scene to see.”
Such material may be compelling, but what is the value of such research?
Several papers, responded Dr Jones, will address important policy issues. PhD student Evelyn Callahan, for example, will be looking at the different steps people have to go through to get the surgery or hormonal treatment they desire on the NHS.
Another paper will examine the prejudice and suffering experienced by intersex people. More generally, Dr Jones argued that strict gender norms can cause terrible suffering and that the round table is intended as “part of a whole movement to make our world much more inclusive, much more interesting, much more accepting”.
So will the event be a fairly solemn affair, focusing on stereotyping and injustice?
Not at all, replied Dr Jones. “I think a lot of the day will be absolutely hilarious. I think we’ll have a really good laugh – there’s actually nothing funnier than penises,” she said. Her only regret is that the budget didn’t run to “a penis-shaped cake for our lunch”.