Earlier this week in Boston, a man underwent surgery for what is the first successful penis transplant in the United States. The lucky guy — if you’d call him that — is Thomas Manning, whose own penis was removed due to cancer. It took 15 hours to replace his penis with that of a deceased donor. Manning’s new extremity is expected to allow him to pee regularly in a few weeks, and function sexually within a few months. Science is once again breaking down barriers, and making what seemed impossible, possible. Apparently future transplants will focus on veterans who have injuries to their genitalia, a unique group with an alarming suicide rate; this is certainly a cause for concern, and the procedure could very well save lives. This is part of the reason why Manning has chosen to speak out publicly about his procedure in order to combat “the shame and stigma associated with genital cancers and injuries.”
It’s no secret that our dominant ideas about manhood and masculinity rely on that one dangling piece of anatomy for validity. The penis is the signifier of masculinity. In fact, the symbolism of the dick is often allowed to stand in for masculinity itself, and all of its attributes — strength, competence, vitality, dominance, courage, etc. Remember when Marco Rubio called out Donald Trump’s small hands and basically made a not-so-subtle jab at his penis size? And remember how Trump felt so affronted that he addressed the issue during the nationally televised Republican debate? For Rubio, Trump and the others that think like them, the penis plays an important part in determining who can be trusted and is competent enough to get a job done. Not even issues like politics and running the country can escape the importance of the dick and the role it plays in our culture.
With this kind of societal messaging, it makes perfect sense that men who find themselves with injured or missing privates might find living a little less worthwhile. Despite the trivial ways that discourse about penises can manifest, as was the case with Trump and Rubio, it still reveals that one of the privileges of being cis and male is that those bodies are affirmed and humanized in a way that others are not. Female and femme bodies are objectified as things to be looked at, which leads to completely different narratives about their bodies and how they’re understood to function. Menstruation would probably be a performance enhancing badge of honor, as opposed to shameful and dirty, if it happened to men and their ‘johnsons’ instead of to women and their vaginas. Another example of the different way male and female bodies are treated can be seen in the way products designed for women after mastectomies, or the harsh results of chemotherapy like hair loss, are marketed. These products and procedures are usually advertised as making women feel beautiful and feminine again, not more functional as human beings. Men and their dicks get repaired, women get their bodies remodeled.
Anyone who has been faced with an injury or disease that causes major external organ dysfunction knows that both the repair and the remodel are necessary. But what are some of the other implications of putting so much emphasis on dicks and anatomy to validate, and in many cases, create gender? The risks become glaringly clear when we consider the recent moral panic over trans bathroom bills, for example. Supporters of harmful bills like HB2 in North Carolina that prohibit trans people from using the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity do so because of preconceived ideas about people’s private parts. It matters that trans women are usually at the center of debates about safety in restrooms. The assumed presence of a penis, with all of its potentially dangerous power, is an unspoken component of these debates. Meanwhile, trans people across the gender spectrum are still struggling for access to gender affirming surgeries like the one Manning received earlier this week. While surgery for trans people are usually completely different procedures, they satisfy the same need to feel closer to one’s own humanity — and the experiences of trans people aren’t often framed as epic journeys of tragedy, loss, and ultimately redemption by way of science and medicine.
Everyone deserves to feel affirmed in their bodies, including cis dudes. And I can’t think of a better defender or advocate for this right than the dick itself.