Pieces of My Gender Puzzle . . . Thank God!

Our bodies come from God, each one a unique gift to celebrate . . .

by Robin Gorsline

I read Malachi’s post last week (click here for “Puzzle Pieces of God”) with great interest and joy–I so admire his honesty and wisdom. And it caused me to begin looking at my own gendered experience, realizing that even as a cis-gender, monogamy-choosing, much-older, self-identified gay male, I have particular bodily experiences and am on a continuing relational journey with my own body.  Here, I am sharing some of that journey. By sharing our experiences, we hope to encourage everyone to spend time recounting, celebrating and/or changing, and sharing their own gender journeys.

I will start with my earrings, or more accurately my ears, as the most gender-nonconforming part of my body. Many years ago,  I began wearing long dangly earrings–usually, though not always, ones that would be worn by those who are identified as women. I don’t know how this got started exactly, but at least one reason is that I began wearing a hoop or stud earring in my left ear–at the time, in New York, in accord with a custom of many self-identified men to signal we were gay. I remember a child, , asking me why I only decorated one ear. Did I not like the other one? I did not explain my sexuality to this child, making some  dismissive comment about “what people do.” But it got me thinking.

author's photo
author’s photo

Soon thereafter I went to a street crafts fair and found a pair of earrings I really liked–they spoke to me, a poor graduate student, enough that I splurged and brought them (see picture). When I put one on it felt odd, because the dangle made me feel a bit off-center as I walked and it bobbled. Okay. I had my right ear pierced, and after going through the healing time, I put one in each ear. Yes!!! It felt good.

By this time, I had a pretty high-level job at a prestigious Manhattan non-profit, and did not feel comfortable or safe wearing them to work. But I wore them on weekends and to church (that’s a statement about MCC–in this case, church was the one public place I felt comfortable being me, something that does not happen to many people), and sometimes even put them on in the evening. And I began collecting earrings. My daughters gave me earrings for Father’s Day, and my birthday, too (the rest of my family barely mentioned it, a sign of their discomfort).

My earring collection (at least most of it)
My earring collection (at least most of it)

When I began seeking a church to serve, I wore earrings in my sermon videos so they would know how I presented myself. And when the Metropolitan Community Church called me to interview in Richmond, I packed my earrings and wore them during the entire visit. And they chose me to be their pastor!!! I felt so affirmed.

Some years later, I discovered that although most of the church was “okay” with my wearing them, they also felt my earrings were costing us new members. So I took them off in 2010 (and many, though not all, members thanked me), and did not wear them (except occasionally around the house to keep the holes open). I do not think their absence helped us recruit new members, but I did not put them back on in public until last fall. Now I wear them all the time.

And I am so happy. I present now as me.  Can’t imagine going back. But my gender experience/journey is not so easily pigeon-holed, and not just because of earrings (I have never wanted a cock-ring, although for many years I had a nipple ring, only removing it due to a medical procedure).


Along the way, I have been asked if I am transgender. I always answer “no,” because I have not felt a desire to change my gender. Some transgender people have wondered if I am afraid to fully embrace my trans-self. It has never felt that way to me. I have felt sometimes that they were trying to get me to change boxes–it almost seemed like a variation on the gender binary, even if they did not mean it that way. I have said, whenever asked, that I am simply being my version of a male-identified person (see more below).

But I also have understood that it is not that simple, and that it might seem to some that I am “playing” transgender–doing something a little transgressive but not out there enough to pose any real danger to myself (from my trans friends and many things I have read, I am well aware of the risks they often face, not to mention homicide rates among transgender women of color, and suicide rates, too).


Over the years, I have said many times, channeling Martine Rothblatt in The Apartheid of Sex: A Manifesto on the Freedom of Gender (you can buy it here), that there are as many genders as there are people; in other words, each one of us is a unique set of characteristics and behaviors and preferences, some of which are genetic and many of which are simply choices for pleasure, convention, and even aesthetics. The gender binary is really, in my view, a social convenience, and a way to keep one group (namely the male-identified) on top, and as we see in these “bathroom bills” and other regulations, to prevent the people who want or need to live outside the binary from being able to do so without penalty.

With Rothblatt and quite a few others, I even think that sexual orientation is overly, narrowly, constructed as three (or four, including asexuality) self-contained categories. But that topic is for another time.

Back to my body. One particularly important part about my relationship with my body and my gender is my relationship to nudity. I really enjoy being naked, seeing it, in part at least, as a celebration of the body God gives me. I have long enjoyed clothing optional beaches. My husband, Jonathan, and I met at a Radical Faerie gathering–if we were not naked at the moment of meeting, then it was not long after that we were, along with many other male-identified persons. Such is the nature of these gatherings. And over the six years we were friends before becoming a couple, I spent some delightful nude time with him and his then-partner and other friends.


I think I am somewhat of an exhibitionist, but I also think I like to be nude because I want to feel my penis, I want to be aware of it. When flaccid, it is very small, and I am often unaware of it. My testicles and scrotum are also small (and have become smaller due to testosterone supplements).

I have often thought, but not ever asked until now, if those with larger penises are more aware of theirs as they sit, walk, etc. Do they feel it rub against the fabric? (I would be glad for some responses to this question; feel free to share below or by email with me). I know some men (presumably with larger penises and/or scrota) seem to need to rearrange things “down there,” something that rarely happens to me.

When I am naked I can touch my penis easily, reassuring myself it is there, and if I go “commando” (without underwear) I can often feel the fabric of my pants rub against it. It is a real delight, not overtly sexual but certainly pleasurable (and that is true of social nudity, too).


This also may be a way to reassure myself of my maleness.  In this way, it is a gender issue: needing the affirmation of a penis to feel truly male-identified. When I become erect (something that is not so easy these days, with age and erectile dysfunction, but it is not impossible, thank God) or even somewhat rising, I feel very good, not only from those wonderful sensations, but also I think as an affirmation of my male-ness.

During my single years in New York, I sometimes put on a skirt (or at least wrapped a cloth around my waist) and went, without underwear, on the subway to a favorite gay bar in midtown. I really enjoyed the feeling of air against my genitals. But I also did that at home at times, and even at Faerie gatherings and the nude beach–because I like wearing a skirt. This is part of my gender expression.

What if I don’t really fit completely into any box? Better in some, not so well in others, but I have a piece of all. I like my penis, I like other penises, but I also wear often what many would call female earrings, and even clothes.


Rothblatt says, “Genitals are as irrelevant to one’s role in society as skin tone.” She is not denying the power of either in our society—white privilege and racism are alive and well, as is sexism—but she is suggesting that neither is determinative of our innate ability to be fully functioning, valuable, and necessary participants in the life of the world.

I see my gender/body journey as a continuing exploration of all the parts of me, parts that, in my worldview, come from God. I now claim wearing earrings, for example, as a call to model divine diversity.  We know that God does not want us to maintain the racialized body hierarchies we have created, even as we seem to have trouble overcoming them. In the same way, God continues to prod me, and many others, to do our part to overcome the humanly-created genderized and sexualized binaries and hierarchies.

I believe our bodies come from God, each one a unique gift to celebrate. It is way past time for us to unwrap and break down the boxes-which are often more like prisons really–and share, expose, live, our whole embodied truths.

We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!

What do you think? What is your gender experience, your embodied gender journey? Please share below, or write Malachi and/or me at the emails listed.


Puzzle Pieces of God: Examining Gendered Socialization

By Malachi Grennell

Last week, Rev. Robin and I wrote a bit about the “bathroom bill” controversy and our personal relationships with public bathrooms. This week, Robin is taking some well-deserved time with family, so I wanted to continue in the discussion of our relationships with our bodies by broadening out a bit and talking about social messaging.

As a trans person, my relationship with my body is something I have cultivated- and that hasn’t always been an easy journey. Social expectations tell me that I have to look, act, and speak in a certain way to be perceived as male while ingrained lessons and female socialization fight against those behaviors (since they often feel contradictory), and sometimes, I feel stuck: stuck in a binary system, stuck with a mismatched conglomeration of pieces that don’t fit together. When I think about my relationship with my body, it feels a little like I’m trying to put together a puzzle, but there’s no guiding image and


someone mixed up all the pieces from a bunch of different puzzles, so I’m not always sure which pieces I need and which are extraneous (or, perhaps, belong to someone else’s image).

The reality is, though, that every single one of us has to work to cultivate some kind of relationship with our bodies, and our social experiences are a part of that relationship. We have a plethora of messages about what women “should” do (e.g. shave body hair, have a trim waistline, grow hair long, wear makeup, etc.) as well as what men “should” do (e.g. have a certain penis size, build muscle, always be rational and logical without showing too much emotion, make the first move, be attracted to women). Some of these expectations are impossible due to genetic factors, while others are personal preferences. Regardless, though, creating the “perfect man” and “perfect woman” archetype is dangerous and damaging on many levels, not the least of which perpetrates systematic oppression through racism (the ideal body is a white one, based on white standards); sexism (women’s strengths are considered the inferior of a binary dichotomy: emotion is less valuable than reason, and women are assumed emotional while men are assumed rational); classism (those who can afford surgeries, expensive makeup, laser hair removal, etc. vs those who are “stuck” with the body they have); the list goes on.

I think it’s good to cultivate a relationship with your body that is healthy and positive, and if doing things like going to the gym or shaving your legs helps with that, then awesome! The difference is whether we do things because we think we are supposed to or whether we do things because we legitimately like doing them. Furthermore, are we perpetuating systematic violence and oppression with our expression of our bodies or simply striving to be the best “us” we can be, one that is created in the image of God?


The difference is in our intention and how we allow social conditioning to impact our decisions. When we think about our ideal body, is it a reasonable expectation of goals for the bodies we have? Or is it an unrealistic desire to look like the models in the magazines? The role of social conditioning on gendered expectations is powerful and pervasive and it can be difficult to untangle. The expectations of gendered socialization extend beyond our physical relationships with our bodies, but also focus on emotional and psychological components as well. And for most of us, our expectations are not limited to simply how we believe we should and shouldn’t behave, but extend to include how others should behave and further, assign motive to those behaviors.

Recently, I had an interesting experience. A few weeks ago, a lover came to visit and stay with us for a few days. It’s a somewhat complicated relationship, but he is someone that is a bit notorious for his sexual escapades in some circles, and would probably be referred to as “player” by many people. Overall, we had a good time, but at one point, I noticed that he didn’t seem particularly interested in having sex. I started to feel irritable and resentful and couldn’t figure out what was going on, and suddenly realized- I was feeling rejected. But further than that, I started to feel undesirable in general- and realized that I was assigning motive, intention, and judgement to the situation that didn’t need to be there.


I interpreted his lack of desire to be sexual as a rejection of me in general: because this one person wasn’t interested in having sex in this one moment, it meant that I was (in general) undesirable-a feeling that was exacerbated by the fact that he is such a player. If he doesn’t want me, then clearly I am not desirable. It was an interesting situation because it reminded me that, as someone who was raised as female, I was very much inundated with messages that my worth as a person directly corresponded to other people (specifically, men’s) evaluation of my sexual desirability.

The truth of the matter was, my friend was actually tired and starting to get a little sick, and felt comfortable enough to not feel a pressure to perform. But my reaction and response reminded me how much my socialization and upbringing still impacts me- even as someone who has worked through a lot of their baggage around gender and gendered assumptions. I thought I had overcome many of these ideas, but was an important reminder to me that this is constant work that needs to be revisited from time to time because those messages are still out there. Even if I don’t identify as female, I am tuned to hear those messages because they were targeted at me for so long.

Similarly, when I was working toward my undergraduate degree in traditional mathematics, I began to notice less and less women in my traditional mathematics courses- but plenty of women in the courses where math students overlapped with the teaching program. In short, many of the women in the mathematics program were training to be teachers- which is wonderful, except that, by my final semester, there was only one woman who remained in the upper-level math courses (she


and I quickly bonded and are still good friends). One of the things we talked about is the difference between men and women answering questions in class: men tend to have less fear of being wrong, whereas women tend to want to be absolutely sure and worry about “saying something stupid.” She and I often had similar fears about speaking up in class. Yet, for me, most people read and identified me as male and expected me to act according to masculine socialization, yet my brain was still operating from a place of female upbringing and socialization about “being wrong” in a math class. This discrepancy between how people expected me to act and how I was conditioned to act created some awkward social moments and made it difficult to connect to the some of the men in the math department… which was tricky because most of the students in the math department were men. It’s a form of social isolation that is subtle and difficult to identify, but it can impact our capacity to form relationships and make social bonds when we act outside of the social expectations of our perceived gender.

The goal, of course, should be to understand the social nuances of how gender presents itself and decide what fits and what doesn’t. The reality, of course, is much more complicated than that. The messages we get about how men and women “should” behave (never mind gender non-conforming folks, like myself) have lasting, and often damaging, impacts on how we relate to ourselves, our bodies, and other people…and these message can be so subtle, we don’t often notice them consciously.

We are all created in the image of God. To deem ourselves not worthy, less-than, or inferior is to claim that God is all of these things as well. We must combat the messages of how we believe men and women “should” behave. These archetypes not only create impossible standards that can be damaging for those who can’t attain them, but they are also rooted in systematic oppression- those who don’t fit a white, heterosexual, cisgendered narrative (and behave and present accordingly) become “othered” and pressured to compensate.

We are all pieces of a larger puzzle, reflecting the image of God. We’re not necessarily working off a guiding image, and sometimes it can be easier to want to be a different piece: a different shape, a different color, fitting into a different pattern. But without each of us living our authentic selves, being our authentic selves, the image is incomplete. No one piece is more important than another piece. In order to be able to see the image of God, we must first be able to truly see the beauty in the image of ourselves. Should we strive to be the best version of ourselves that we can be? Of course. But the best “us” that we can be is to reach for and honor the image of God within ourselves, rather than constantly trying to compensate for failing to be the image of God presented in someone else.

We Just Want to Pee in Peace

by Robin Gorsline & Malachi Grennell


North Carolina protest against HB 2

The recent passage of HB2 in North Carolina and the discussion of similar “bathroom bills” in several other states, causes us as people of faith to  consider how we respond when legislation is passed that targets vulnerable populations. We, as people of faith- and particularly those of us within Christianity- are reminded in these weeks following Easter that we are called to embody our love of Christ through our care for one another. If you love me, Jesus teaches in John 21:15-19, then care for My sheep, tend to My flock, feed My lambs. We also note that we can find no evidence that Jesus ever worried about who used which bathroom, and of course, he often crossed social boundaries of his time- including honoring those who transgressed gender norms (more about that here)

from Robin

revrobin2-023The controversy about individuals using the public restroom that corresponds to their gender identity (but not necessarily all of their body parts or birth certificate) continues unabated around the country. Legislators, school board members, and other guardians of the public trust are being bombarded with demands that individuals be required to use the public bathroom that corresponds to the gender identity noted on their birth certificate.

One can envision a leader in the movement to prevent people from “invading” the wrong restroom proposing a system of digital check-ins at restrooms in airports, shopping malls, schools, restaurants—everybody must carry a card with a chip that designates birth gender which must be swiped at the facility entrance. A loud buzzer will sound when the “wrong” card is swiped. They might even install cameras to record the attempt, and then publish the picture—a gender offender registry like those sex offenders’ registries (Steven Petrow suggests public restroom attendants here).

genital_fixation2_f warrenmars com
“Genital Fixation 2” by Warren Mars warrenmars.com

Such is our fixation on genitals, but the gender binary is neither natural nor necessary. From the moment of a baby’s arrival out of the womb and the declaration, “You have a boy,” or “You have a girl,” social rules work to make sure we are clear which box is ours, and maybe even more to the point, which box is not. Like the marriage debates where opponents of marriage equality insist that the only valid marriage is one with “procreative potential,” it all seems to come down to whether you have a penis and scrotum, or a vulva/vagina and mammary breasts. We are who our genitals say we are. In marriage, according to many who seek the old rules in place, there is supposed one of each, while in the public restrooms there can be many but they must all be the same.

Public bathrooms are not easy spaces for many people, including me. Part of that is that they are spaces designed to enforce the gender binary, and over the years I have grown increasingly uncomfortable in such spaces. And these are spaces that involve intimacy with our own bodies, and that includes draining our bladders and emptying our bowels—the latter being an activity associated with sometimes unpleasant odors and dirty substances.

Two businessmen using the bathroom

I am not always comfortable in public men’s rooms. More than smells and uncleanliness, I am reminded each time of my own body and how it compares with those of other men.  Some of that arises because I am aware that some men use these spaces for sex. I have not participated in that but when I lived in New York, I witnessed men (almost always men who appear to be white) displaying their penises (Port Authority Bus Terminal used to be notorious for that).

Men stand at urinals most of the time, and an awful lot of them stand with a wide stance (think former Sen. Larry Craig from Idaho) and even back a ways from the wall, so you almost can’t avoid seeing their penis. I know for some this is a deliberate effort to say, “Hey, look at me, I’m really hung.”

It reminds me that I do not have such equipment—a fact that continues to cause me some unhappiness (even after years of therapy and lovers who do not complain).  Of course, there are many men equipped like me, and I suspect that they, like I, almost hug the urinal to avoid disclosure.

One way I avoid this is by using a stall. But if I stand to pee, I am sure everybody can hear that the stream from my little guy is not like the Mississippi in the stall next to me, but more like a small gentle brook in midsummer. And if I sit, I often discover that some man before me has peed standing up and made the seat wet—this of course reminds me of male cats I have known and loved, marking their territory (and dogs, too, of course, including our beloved Cocoa).

Bottom line for me, I don’t feel all that good in public men’s rooms.

I have several experiences with unisex bathrooms, at the last MCC Triennial General Conference and at Creating Change, the annual activists’ conference sponsored by the National LGBTQ Task Force. In both cases, activists posted signs on certain gender-specific restrooms indicating that the particular facility was now unisex.

all gender restroom

At both, I was glad to use these facilities, sharing them with both those who appeared to be men and those who appeared to be women. In one instance, I met a female-identified MCC clergy colleague and friend. We both looked startled, laughed a little, and said, “Great to see you!” Later, we chatted briefly about the experience, each saying we were glad to meet a friend—it made it all seem real and even friendly.

In conversations with trangender friends, and with lesbian friends who look “butch,” I hear horror stories about people attempting to shame them for using the “wrong” restroom, even people calling security officials to evict the person, as Malachi relates below. I, for one, am making a commitment, here and now, and to be repeated personally with trans friends and acquaintances, to offer myself as a safe person, a friend, an ally, in any public situation where they feel the need of support. And I am going to educate myself to be more observant so I can be helpful when the need arises.

What all this says to me is how insecure we as a society are in our bodies. We have to police other people’s bodies to feel safe.

This is the real point I think. The history of public restrooms is not long, going back only into times when in industrial societies masses of people began working away from home. As long as it was just men, it was easy, but when women too began working away from home, it became necessary to create public restrooms. And in order to make sure women were safe, but also to make sure they knew their place, gender separated space was required (you can read a good article about this development here).

The safety concern remains. Women are still vulnerable far more than men to violence, mostly from men. So I understand why women may object to having someone who appears to be male in their women’s only space.

But I yearn for the day when we don’t have to police bodies. I have male genitals, and I enjoy them despite the anxieties I mentioned above. But there is so much more to me than them, and I know that is true about everyone.

Personally, I want all public restrooms to be unisex. But that is probably not practicable or acceptable. So, we have to be creative. Single-person unisex facilities may be possible in many cases. In workplaces and communities like churches and synagogues, we can experiment with multi-person unisex facilities, too, even setting up escorts or safety teams for those who are uncomfortable.  Surely, in these kinds of communities we can begin to build a new world.

I just want to pee in peace, in fully human space, a new world where we don’t feel the need to enforce gender rules, racial rules, or any of the myriad ways we set up hierarchies of privilege.

from Malachi

Malachi GrennellThe issue of bathrooms is, in some ways, complicated, and in other ways, remarkably simple. The reality is, every single person needs to be able to use to the bathroom. As a trans person, this is something I have struggled with for years: trying to figure out at what point in transition I “passed” well enough to switch bathrooms juxtaposed against my need for safety.  As a result, I got very good at holding my bladder until I could pee in the privacy of my own home (which has the unfortunate consequence of perpetual dehydration most days that I leave the house).

we just need to pee

I remember one experience in particular in which I was traveling with my mother. I didn’t yet feel comfortable using the men’s room, so as we stopped quickly at a rest stop, I walked into the women’s room. As I was in the stall, I heard the sound of escalating voices and quickly realized that someone had called security because “there was a man in the women’s room.” My worst fears realized, I sat in the stall, frozen, trapped, and unsure what to do. My mother, wonderful ally that she is, stepped in and said, “That’s my daughter; she’s allowed to be there.”

In that moment, she did the best thing she could have done. Having a gender 101 conversation in that situation wasn’t helpful. Calling me her “son” wouldn’t have been helpful (although she absolutely honors my identity and sees me as her son). What she did kept me safe and kept the situation from escalating further. When I finally came out of the bathroom, she gave me a big hug, and I knew it was time to switch bathrooms.

This was years ago, before these so-called “bathroom bills” were the subject of national attention. But just because the issue is finally receiving space for public discussion doesn’t mean that it’s a new issue: trans people have struggled with bathroom use as long as there have been gendered bathrooms.

Photo by Malachi Grennell
Photo by Malachi Grennell

On the other side, though, I do understand the role that women’s spaces play in providing an environment where women can  be vulnerable without worrying about the threat of violence. This past weekend, I was able to attend a showing of the Memorial Quilt, honoring stories of sexual assault survivors. While there are quilt squares that speak to a variety of experiences and each story is unique, the overwhelming majority of stories and experiences came from women. Women experience a disproportionate amount of sexual violence and trauma, and I can understand and appreciate that women’s bathrooms are one of the few places that women don’t have to keep their guards up. In no capacity do I believe that type of space shouldn’t exist.

But in the faces of the people walking around in the quilt, as well as the stories I was reading, there were also more queer stories, experiences, and faces than I was fully prepared for. Queer people- particularly queer women of color- are subject to harassment and violence every time they step out of the house.  As a survivor of sexual assault and trauma, I never want to do anything that contributes to another person feeling unsafe or uncomfortable. Balancing the bathroom issue is, for me, multifaceted and complicated, and often puts me in a position where I am risking my safety to protect someone else’s.

Red Emmas gender neutral br sign

We must find a way to create safe space for all vulnerable populations. The easiest solution, of course, is to create single use gender neutral bathrooms so that those of us who do not fit the binary can pee in peace. I have never met a trans person who sought to use a public bathroom for the sole purpose of making other people uncomfortable. To my knowledge, trans people go into a bathroom for the same reason as everyone else- to use the bathroom. We don’t want to invade your sense of safety and safe space, nor are we a threat to you in any capacity. We need our safe space, too. The difference is that no such space has ever existed for us.

I don’t believe that one person’s safety should come at the expense of someone else’s, but that sentiment works both ways. The reality is, the biological imperative to use the bathroom will reliably trump any politicized understandings we have of gender and identity. Trans people are not trying to take safe space away from women; we are simply asking that we be included in that safe space in ways that are appropriate. As people of faith, we can do so much to help facilitate this kind of space, including:

  • gender-neutral bathrooms in our places of worship
  • offering to go with a transperson if they need to use a public restroom
  • providing resources to support people when they have violence perpetrated against their bodies
  • having open, frank discussions about the intersections of oppression: a homeless, non-binary transfeminine youth of color faces a much different struggle with respect to bathrooms than an adult, college-educated binary-passing white transmasculine person does. Simply “being trans” does not mean that there is a shared experience, and as people of faith, we seek to open our doors to everyone, not just those who look and think like us.

There is an inherent vulnerability in discussing bathrooms. As Robin mentions, it is an intimate experience between ourselves and our bodies, often times full of shame, feelings of inadequacy and dirtiness. By forcing people to disclose the difference between their presentations and their genitals by “picking a door” creates a volatile situation in which that private experience becomes the subject of public commentary. And unfortunately, there aren’t simple, easy solutions (for a humorous, satiric take on signage, click here).

Making all public restrooms gender-neutral is not a viable solution, but neither is maintaining the binary dichotomy at the expense of people’s safety. Jesus reminds us that it is through our actions that we show our love for him. Our actions must be ones that are aimed at providing safe space for all, rather than stepping aside to allow bigotry to increase the body count of our queer and trans siblings.

Now, what about you?

We have shared some of our thoughts. We’d be glad to hear yours. Please feel free to comment, add your own experience, ideas, perspectives, in the comment space below.

Does Size Matter? Does Blood Count?

Let’s engage in real discussion about bodies and sexuality in ways that don’t require someone else to be put down . . .

We are a culture that is simultaneously obsessed with sex while instilling a sense of shame and belief that our bodies are inherently “not good enough.”  Remember Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl in 2009—the shock and horror expressed by so many at the sight of a female breast on national television resulted in moralistic finger-pointing and efforts to make sure such exposure would never happen again.

Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction thedailybeast com

As mentioned last week, advertisers take advantage of this by creating a sense of envy in each of us by portraying models that embody characteristics we find desirable. We compare ourselves to these models and find ourselves coming up short. Perhaps this is why we are addicted to sex scandals in the media: as uncomfortable, and even terrible, as it is for the people caught in the midst of a media blitz, it provides a sense of triumph for the rest of us:  we can see that these people and these bodies we had previously (and perhaps somewhat unconsciously) cast as superior in our minds are truly no different than, and perhaps morally inferior to, us.

The danger, however, is one that is instilled in each of us from childhood. From anti-bullying talks and lessons many of us heard from parents, we know that the way to feel good about ourselves should never come at the expense of someone else. Unfortunately, we see this happening time and time again, even showing up in the discussions and debates from presidential candidates. But even further than simply an underlying sense of shame and degradation, we see the roots of sexism and racism present in how these comments are both presented and interpreted.

penis to be proud of mobogenie com

Marco Rubio stated that Donald Trump has small hands and “you know what that means.” And, of course, many (if not most) of us do: small hands (or small feet) in some way indicates that a man has a small penis, and in this society, we have an underlying message that size=importance. And, of course, Trump took the bait and made sure everyone knew Rubio was wrong (“I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee.”).

There is a sentiment, perhaps unconscious but nonetheless real, among white men in particular that penis size has some bearing on their importance. The porn industry has played on this by objectifying and fetishizing the image of “big black men” with small, white women for years, promoting what began in our deep racialized past. Not only are comments such as these designed to humiliate and/or denigrate a person based on a barometer that has no bearing on fitness for high political office, but it is a sentiment predominantly perpetrated by white men because there are other assumptions rampant in this society that are directly related to the penis size of black men (and it has very little to do with holding high office). The racial double-standard is one that is easily overlooked, but must be discussed if it can ever be dismantled.

michelangelo David penis and hand this is cabaret com

To our knowledge, no one has talked about the size of Barack Obama’s penis. That may be because he does not present as a “big Black buck” fresh off the plantation,  but the loathing towards the President, expressed by so many people who consider themselves white, surely has some roots in this ugly mythology.

And of course, what does this equation mean in relation to the women who seek office, and those who seek to compete in corporate boardrooms and politics? If penis size=importance, then women are entirely left out of the discussion.

Or, if a woman is strong (e.g., Hillary Clinton), she can be seen as too much like a man, yet still held to different standards. She lacks a penis but she makes up for it by being “tough,” often seen as “strident,” meaning she is not soft and feminine (also see Freud and others on “penis envy”). Where a man is described as a “strong leader” or “innovative thinker,” women who display similar attributes are considered “control freaks” or often just considered “bitchy.”  This further connects to a distinctly feminine bodily activity:  menstruation.

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Donald Trump, reacting to Megyn Kelly’s unwelcome questions, stated that she was  “bleeding from her eyes… bleeding from her…wherever.” Clearly meant to insinuate that Ms. Kelly’s comments were the result of a hormone-induced menstrual cycle, it not only serves to put down Ms. Kelly, but also reaffirm the idea that women who are menstruating are not capable of having informed, logical discussions.  Women are expected to be emotional… but not too emotional.

It is striking that, while men are evaluated about their “manhood”  based on something they are ultimately expected to take pride in (their penis and penis size), women are judged based on something that they are supposed to hide and be ashamed of (menstruation). There have been outrages on social media platforms because photos of women- fully clothed- with spots of period blood on their pants were taken down as obscene (ironically, in a set of photographs designed to show the realities, struggles, and shame around menstruation).

tampax-pearl-updated2The truth is, these attacks are not only irrelevant to the discussion of presidential candidates, but they are reinforcing social stigmas and prejudices. Furthermore, they are creating a model as leaders that says we should behave this way–that when someone disagrees with you, you should bully them and shame them about something that is not relevant to the topic at hand. Rather than modeling adult, professional methods of disagreement, we see our potential future leaders resorting to tactics that are being undermined in kindergarten, elementary, and high school classrooms where young people are being taught alternative models of behavior.

And our concern is that in both these cases and others, political discourse is sexualized without anyone actually have to use the word “sex.” These are examples of sexual innuendo which is rife in our culture.

The use of (often barely) coded language reveals an essential truth, namely that the only way we can talk openly, publicly about sex and certain body parts is through circumlocutions, indirection, and in many cases through anxious humor (Rubio’s remarks were met with nervous laughter from the crowd, according to news reports).

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But it is no surprise to us that this sort of conversation is happening in public, since it clearly happens all the time in less public venues. The idea that hand/finger size correlates to penis size is pretty common, and there are many people who don’t think women can be trusted with challenging tasks because of their inability to be rational at least a few days each month.

Increasingly, what was once private, even taboo, is now becoming public. But there is a difference between ‘public” and being “open.” Most men and probably many women don’t know how to have easeful conversations about menstruation, and the entire culture is pretty much in denial publicly about male and female body parts “down there.”

This is true even as there is a trend on parts of cable television, and in film, to show penises, and as many continue to press for more women in leadership roles in business and government.

We are a society hung up on sex but afraid to admit it. And we surely are afraid to admit that we engage in all sorts of assumptions and judgments based on bodily appearance.

We must do better. Let’s engage in real discussion about bodies and sexuality in ways that don’t require someone else to be put down in order for us to feel empowered.