I doubt that the exhibition succeeded in knocking the phallus off its pedestal.
I’m not an expert on sexuality , gender and bodies, but I’m in touch with reality. To get to know this world better, I went to the Ghent University Museum or GUM, to the Phallus expo, an exhibition about penises.
Because it was very hot outside, I was glad to enter the air-conditioned establishment. The entrance was dark and didn’t feel very welcoming, especially compared to the botanical garden outside. I took the elevator up to the third floor, where, in a room full of strange objects, the museum guide was waiting for that day’s visitors. After a brief explanation of how the museum works, I was allowed to roam around freely.
Phallus is a temporary exhibition within a permanent collection of curiosities. The objects you find at GUM are old teaching materials that are no longer useful in the digital age of the 21st century. After passing a life-size papier mache horse, a huge iron penis, Aboriginal masks, stuffed animals and metal plants, I climbed the stairs and entered a small, dark room with many penis-shaped objects.
The exhibition promises to put the male genital organ on a pedestal, with the idea that it will later take it down. The space is full of male perspectives on sexuality and the medical world. This criticism is also discussed in the section on sex toys and documentaries about vaginas. For example, in his book De humani corporis fabrica libri septem , the biologist Andreas Vesalius says that the vagina is just a penis turned upside down . An idea that goes with the social and Christian theory of the time that the vagina was meant to receive the male genital organ and produce children. Basically, the vagina was considered a channel for receiving sperm and nothing more. That is why, in its beginnings, medicine did not pay any attention to the vagina .
In the room full of penises I got explanations about all things penis. I saw the stuffed penis of a bat and the testicles of a dog. I was kind of disappointed that I didn’t see any duck penis, because I knew it was super special and coiled, just like a duck’s vagina . Hanging on the wall were several sculptures of micropenis that you might have seen in the past at circuses or freak shows. I even saw models of female and male genitalia just like the ones I saw when I was little in sex education classes and I didn’t understand a thing.
In the center of the room was a male body model, erect and upside down. Why would she be sad? Why did he have an erection? It remains a mystery.
The exhibition also tells us how we develop our sexual organs. Basically, they all grow from the same tuber. Research has shown that the vagina is really not that different from the penis. I learned this from June Pla’s book, Jouissance Club , which explains everything about sex and the sexual organs. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about orgasm. For example, we know that a woman’s clitoris is a single point, when in fact, inside the body, it also has a glans, a foreskin, and swelling tissue, just like the penis.
So we all have penises? It seems so. The exhibition also had a video about intersex people . I learned that until a few years ago, intersex babies were operated on by doctors who decided their sex without asking their consent. It seemed absurd to me. But it seems they have recently realized how absurd that is. Now they are waiting for these children to grow up and decide for themselves what they want. So now there is a new generation of intersex people. Will it multiply in the future? I am very curious.
Ok, so I learned a few new things about the penis, including that the average penis size in Belgium is 14.5 centimetres, but far too little about the vagina. I don’t feel that the exhibition succeeded in knocking the penis off its pedestal, but rather confirmed its status. For an exhibition that wants to criticize phallocentric thinking, it remained too focused on the phallus.