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A Cut Below


Tracts conceived by crusaders seeking to eradicate the foreskin were published by pornographers seeking to avoid censors.

For several years now, I have been collecting a strange series of books put out by two mostly forgotten publishers, Panurge Press and Falstaff Press. Both operated in the first half of the 20th century, flourishing in the late 1920s and 1930s, and both focused on so-called “gentleman’s” titles: unexpurgated literature, curiosa, and pornography. More than bizarre curios, they’ve drawn me in because of the way they illuminate a strange moment in the history of American censorship that had vast consequences for almost all the dicks in America. The presses themselves emerged from a quirk of American obscenity laws, which left a strange lacuna that allowed them to operate.

One of the books, published anonymously in 1931, tells the story of surgeon who treated a man with “a very long but thin and narrow prepuce that had always been an annoyance to him.” The man, after witnessing the benefits of circumcision for his two children, “arranged to do it all by himself, and give the family and the surgeon a sample of his courage and a simultaneous surprise party.” The surgeon recounts what he saw:

When I at length arrived at the scene of carnage, I was directed to the wood-shed, on the outskirts of which hovered the family, frantic with fear and apprehension; within, in the darkest corner, with wildly dilated eyes, and performing a fantastic pas seul, was a man with a huge pair of scissors dangling between his legs, warning all persons as they valued his life not to approach or lay a hand on him. He had shut the scissors down so that it clinched the thin prepuce, and there his courage and determination had forsaken him. He lost his presence of mind, and was not even able to remove the scissors. He had simply given one wild, blood-curdling yell—like the last winding notes from Roland’s horn at Roncevalles—that had brought his family to the wood-shed door, and they had sent for me.

Though violent, this passage doesn’t depart too far from the hallmarks of the genre. Asking why a book like this would be distributed with pornography, even as a disguise, points the inquirer to the governing irony of gentlemen’s titles: The restrictions on publishing sexual material often activated the erotic content of otherwise innocuous or boner-killing stories. Their fate becomes even more juicy when the role of this censor-evading smut in promoting circumcision as an anti-masturbation cure comes to light.

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Fully Operational


A building erects the present in the midst of a nostalgic dream.

51 Astor, a new building on the eastern edge of Astor Place in New York City, looks like something Will Smith would kill in a movie. It is mirrored, angular, black, and malevolently futuristic. Critics ranging from the New York Times to parents of NYU students, as they carry sleek TVs from Volvos to dorm rooms, have lambasted the building. Many activists and developers think the building brings a dash of midtown to an area that ought to be bohemian. At the end of an eloquent critique of 51 Astor, Justin Davidson of New York magazine says it “obliterates the personality of an open-skied funky square.” A fake Twitter account for the building, @51deathstar, which loans it a lonely, hollowly needy persona, recently tweeted in its voice: “Hey East Village! Sorry I had to destroy you. My dad made me do it and he’s kind of a dick.”

To understand why people ascribe this building so much power, a few facts are helpful. In 2011, the building received a $160 million construction loan from Bank of America, rare these days for speculative office spaces in New York City. Its flagship tenant is IBM, which plans to bring Watson, the Kasparov-beating hero to young ­iPads everywhere. In the lobby is a sculpture by Jeff Koons called Balloon Rabbit. It stands 14 feet tall and weighs 6,600 hundred pounds and is made of genially stacked shiny, semi-tumescent metal parts. The building’s first retail tenant is Ian Schrager, who as the founder of Studio 54, was once the don of decadent, Warholian nightlife in New York. Then he was convicted as a tax evader; now he’s a hotel magnate. One thing is clear: This building isn’t bashful. Its commitment to its attitude is total.

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How Many Licks


What are we actually getting at when we talk about “sucking dick”?

What is a dick, who has one, and what does its sucking entail? Unpacking such questions is key to understanding the spectacle of the dick and the mouth. It is a sex act with an amended symmetry: two heads that become faceless by the nature of their encounter. They are differently faceless, differently consuming one another—one literally, through the mouth, and the other through the idea of a mouth. The cultural imaginary around dick sucking, almost more than other sex acts, has as much to do with what came before as it does with its physical presentness. It comes to us as stories, as histories, as gay-artist retrospectives, as breakfast. If there is something long, and an opening, look hard enough and eventually there is a dick and it has been sucked.

Sucking dick is imagined and reimagined as a particular set of power relations—something more extended and impactful than asskissing, perhaps. Roman poet Catullus actually used irrumare (to force dick sucking) to describe a boss who treated others very poorly. The overquoted and over-orientalized Kama Sutra, meanwhile, has a chapter on the eight different types of “mouth congress” and then goes into a detailed account of who does and doesn’t approve of or practice the congress and its variations. There is an understanding that it’s not an act for those privileged by caste, class, and other markers of social standing. Dick sucking often gets marked as a submissive act, but a very much not passive one, and always with the impending threat of the bite. Outside of a penetration-centric framework, the mouth can actually be imagined as having a great deal of power, or at least a momentary hegemony through enclosure. The sites of giving and receiving are constantly under question. (Did I give or take head or dick or pleasure? Neither or both or all of the above?) One hears, “I want your dick in my mouth,” and also “I want you to suck me off.” A dirty mouth and a cleaned dick, the switch.

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Bend It Like Benglis


Lynda Benglis’s portrait of herself scandalized not because it supplanted the phallus but because it ridiculed it.

In the December 1974 issue of Artforum, five editors published and co-signed a letter “publically disassociating” themselves from portions of the previous issue. The letter cites the “extreme vulgarity” and “brutalizing” effect of an advertisement placed in the November 1974 issue by and for a New York artist, a sculptor, appearing as herself in the image. The editors condemn the uncouthness of the ad as a harmful mockery not only of the editors’ personal sensibilities but also of the larger (and conveniently undefined) “aims of [the women’s] movement.” Another grievance: As art writers and editors, these five felt professionally compromised by their forced complicity with the artist’s self-exploitation—or worse, self-promotion, “in the most debased sense of the term.”

Professional feminists agreed, with Cindy Nemster accusing the artist of “making a frantic bid for male attention.” Art historians were scandalized. School principals pulled their schools’ Artforum subscriptions. The magazine received more letters for a single issue than it had in its 13-year history. In Philadelphia, a man reportedly stormed into a museum, waving his copy of the issue, and toppled over one of the artist’s works. In a no less extreme reaction, the two women among those five editors—Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson—would soon quit the magazine to start October. Everyone knew their departure had begun with an advertisement.

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Dick Picky

dick picky Critique My Dick Pic has convinced its proprietor that the female gaze is not homogeneous. Traditionally functioning as little more than late-night infomercials, often with hilariously utilitarian demonstrations of size, dick pics have been shared en masse on dating sites and social apps for years. The dick-pic economy is thriving, replicating a whole host of our cultural malaises in miniature: Aggressively insecure men harass women whose disinterest is irrelevant to them, blithely sailing past boundaries to demand that their manhood be looked at and validated; scornful women pass them on to girlfriends with less-than-smiling emoji. Dick pics are routinely shared the first time without consent on the part of the recipient and are widely loathed for this reason. Yet they’re also intimate, amateur portraits of the genitals of men, sometimes very lonely men, which gives rise to a kind of dual nature: The dick pic is hostile yet pitiable, aggressive but also acutely pathetic. They’re also almost invariably ugly. Dick pics are, on the whole, dull and artless, inexpertly captured and painfully unerotic.

A year ago I started Critique My Dick Pic, a blog that is not safe for work unless your workplace is chill. The premise is simple: Men and other people with dicks send me photos thereof, and I critique the photos with love. I have a general policy of being gentle about people’s bodies, including their genitals (the blog’s motto is “100% ANON, NO SIZE SHAMING”), but I was also feeling particularly magnanimous toward dick pics the day that the blog was born. I’m often asked why I started CMDP, and the truth is that I woke up one morning to a dick pic so good that I felt inspired to change the others. That’s all it was—one excellent, well-planned pic from a person whose dick I explicitly wanted to see. I was jarred by how unnecessarily rare that move was and struck by the conviction that people with dicks could do better.

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