Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? Jesse Bering Answers the Biggest Questions About Life

I hope I’m not alone when I say the national dialogue has grown truly and annoyingly tiresome. With all our bickering over Obama and Romney, jobs and money, racism and crime, overpaid athletes and overblown pop stars, or just the generally depressing state of the world overall, you’d wonder if we’re all sexually deprived, or frustrated (actually, frustration and deprivation probably come in pairs when we’re talking about sex).

At the very least, we’re sexually stupid. It’s hard to imagine how a nation that sells and profits from so much sex, hyper-sexualizes its youth via entertainment and fashion, produces so much pornography, and dwells ceaselessly on the apparent facts that black men have the largest human erections while Asian men have the smallest (which I really hope is bullshit) could be so obsessed with censorship, obscenity, abstinence education, and the devilry of contraception and abortion — oh, and how spooky gay people are. Moreover, we’re incredibly scared of talking about it openly and thus dealing with it practically and constructively. It seriously shouldn’t surprise people that the U.S. practically boasts some of the highest rates for STD transmission and unplanned, teen pregnancy in the industrial world. (I mean, how can crap like Teen Mom not be considered “boasting”?)

We need some game changers, or new voices — guys like Jesse Bering, Ph.D.

In Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?, a fabulous and timely compilation of his own essays, the research psychologist and Webby Award Honoree touches upon everything you’d feel too perverted to discuss even with the BFF you’ve seen naked and even once had a drunken threesome with. And he does it through a psychological, evolutionary, and historical lens. Autofellatio, premature ejaculation, cannibalism, masturbation, pedophilia, podophilia (foot fetish), asexuality, female ejaculation (my favorite), homophobia (as repressed desire — see the excerpt below) … and that’s technically not even the half of it; the breadth of this compilation (and of Bering’s understanding) is staggering.

Not that he offers us any real solutions for our frustration and deprivation, but he certainly — and gracefully — addresses our stupidity whilst writing with miles and miles of wit and sarcasm, a tremendous sense of irony, and of course valid research and scholarship. He provides incredible clarity, a fresh and interesting look at regrettably rated-R topics most of us don’t understand yet arrogantly take for granted through ignorance we won’t even admit to ourselves. And the best thing about What If is that it’s not embarrassed or bashful; Bering is far from uncomfortable, which invites readers to not feel so uncomfortable as well.

So, you may have noticed that a grade is missing at the top of this review. That’s no accident. Had I admitted what the grade was at the beginning, you might not have been compelled to read this far. Now that I’ve gotten all that gushing and swooning out of the way, I’m finally ready to grade it.

F

That’s right. You’ve read it correctly. I’m giving this book a big, fat, flying F. And the reason is simple: Bering and his publisher are charging people money for a book that includes content almost entirely available for free, as in in the public domain, on the Internet.

What if is a compilation of 33 of Bering’s essays that were posted to blogs one, or two, or more years ago, and each one is the focus of 33 corresponding chapters, not including the introduction; a clever Googler (like me) can take its table of contents  and use it to find all but maybe two of these chapters online because most of them are still posted, usually to blogs affiliated with either Slate or The Scientific American — and you don’t need to pay to subscribe to either of these blogs, or anything like that. Indeed, there are differences, but they’re incredibly minor (e.g., accounting for mere adjustments to date and time references, since the book was published in 2012 as opposed to 2009 or 2011 when many of the articles had initially been published).

Why should I buy this? Why should anyone buy this? Better yet, how can I bring myself to tell people to buy it (unless, of course, I were profiting from its print run)?

In short, this book is, for the most part, a total rip-off.

Sure, Bering’s scholarship certainly means well; and for American readers, in a country so publically uptight about everything that has to do with sex, from being able categorize someone’s actual sex or sexual preference to dwelling over the necessity of certain sex positions or acts (because we all know how freaky we are in private), the casual and humorous nature with which he approaches his informative and sometimes even exciting voice is certainly welcome. And hey, perhaps a hard copied compilation of all these wonderful posts has some value. Had he not been a blogger, and had all of these been written from scratch just for the book, I’d give this little pot of gold an A for a-a-a-awesome.

But I of all people — someone whose dream day job is to be a book editor who acquires and commissions scarce originality — can’t in good conscience award What If anything higher than an F. It simply doesn’t warrant its price tag.

Excerpt

The participants were placed in a private chamber and presented with three 4-minute segments of graphic pornography. The three video snippets represented straight porn (scenes of fellatio and vaginal intercourse), lesbian porn (scenes of cunnilingus or tribadism), and gay male porn (scenes of fellatio and anal intercourse). Following each randomly ordered video presentation, the participant rated how sexually aroused he felt and also his degree of penile erection. Can you guess the results? Both groups—non-homophobic and homophobic men—showed significant engorgement to the straight and lesbian porn and their subjective ratings of arousal matched their penile plethsymograph measure for these two types of video. However, as predicted, only the homophobic men showed a significant increase in penile circumference in response to the gay male porn: specifically, 26 percent of these homophobic men showed “moderate tumescence” (6-12 mm) to this video and 54 percent showed “definite tumescence” (more than 12 mm). (In contrast, for the non-homophobic men, these percentages were 10 and 24, respectively.) Furthermore, the homophobic men significantly underestimated their degree of sexual arousal to the gay male porn.