Two Books from Jesse Bering


265 pp., New York: Scientific American, 2013.

Why is the Penis Shaped Like That?

301 pp., New York: Scientific American, 2012.


Jesse Bering
Why Is The Penis Shaped Like That?J

‘Terminology is important here, because at least one team of psychiatrists writing on this subject distinguishes between autofellatio and self-irrumatio. In nonsolo sex, fellatio sees most of the action in the sucking party, while irrumatio has more of a thrusting element to it, wherein the other person’s mouth serves as a passive penile receptacle. (Hence the colorful and rather aggressive-sounding slang for irrumatio—“face-fucking,” “skull-fucking,” and so on.)’ So writes Jesse Bering in a chapter entitled ‘So Close, and Yet So Far Away: The Contorted History of Autofellatio’, in Why is the Penis Shaped Like That?.

From this quote, with its combination of technical specificity, curiosity, and wry humour, you get a sense of why Jesse Bering is such an entertaining and intelligent guide to being human. He focuses in these two non-fiction books primarily on sex, with not unrelated forays into religion, culture, and suicide, and he forces his readers to rethink their ideas and to recognise the cultural and historical contexts surrounding sex. For example, in Perv, he discusses how nymphomania, hypersexual disorder, satyriasis, and so on ‘reflect[ing] our own moral biases’ and the time period in which someone lives.

In Perv, Bering explores various aspects of sexual deviancy, often touching on subjects that might make people uncomfortable. He explains how men are more likely to have fetishes or ‘deviant’ sexualities than women and how early in life sexual preferences are firmly in place, especially for men. He notes that for sexuality, there are four aspects: sexual orientation, erotic target, erotic behaviour, and erotic age orientation. For the last of the four, he notes that there are ‘six general outcomes: pedophilia (prepubescent), hebephilia (pubescent), ephebophilia (older adolescent), teleiophilia (mature adult), gerotophilia (the elderly), or none (again, if the person will be asexual).’ It is pedophilia and hebephilia that are the most upsetting in our society, but ‘[t]elling a pedophile that he needs to be attracted to grown-ups, not kids, is like telling a lesbian that she just hasn’t found the right guy, trying to convince a transsexual woman that her gender dysphoria is only a phase, or attempting to persuade a straight man that he’ll really enjoy being anally penetrated by another man (maybe you’ve had better luck with that last one than I have).’ Bering goes on to suggest a potentially radical partial solution to pedophilia and hebephilia: allowing people with such erotic age orientations to have appropriate pornography to masturbate to, as research suggests that they are then less likely to abuse actual young people.

Jesse BeringElsewhere in that book, he discusses topics including the linking of gay men with excrement, how women have more of a ‘rift between the subconscious and the conscious’ when it comes to arousal, sex between minors and adults, and more, and he raises questions such as, ‘Which is worse, for instance, a stud manager forcible collecting the semen of a prized racehorse by “electroejaculating” the animal for commercial gain (which involves inserting an electrified rod to its prostate) or a zoophile gently masturbating his companion horse with the sole intent of bringing it satisfaction?’ The former, he points out, is legal, while the latter is not. But why?

Why is the Penis Shaped Like That? is based on Bering’s columns for Scientific American and Slate magazines, so the chapters here tend to be shorter and funnier than those in Perv. They are always backed up with scientific evidence and often Bering deepens his discussions by describing intriguing characters and stories. Here his topics range over foot fetishes, polyamory, brain damage, pubic hair, and, yes, the shape of the penis.

Bering is himself a gay man, as he points out regularly in his work, so there is a definite male bias; in Why is the Penis Shaped Like That?, there are just four sections on women – on fag hags, female ejaculation, the way girls can cruelly treat one another, and the female orgasm – but these are probably the chapters where he sounds the least engaged. Nonetheless, his books are fascinating, funny, brave, and worth reading by anyone, because they help explain why sex is so essential to our humanity, and they show why disgust and moral outrage are cultural rather than intrinsic, which suggests that we ought to attempt to move past such feelings.

So why is the penis shaped like that? You’ll have to buy these books and go on a sexual journey with Bering to find out.