I remember the first time I played Show Me Yours I’ll Show You Mine. Some people call it Doctor. If you’ve never played, worry not: the rules are the simple. Show me yours. Then I show you mine. And who is the winner? Everyone.
It’s a fascinating game in every way. It’s taboo, breaking the rules your parents and teachers imposed upon you, so that’s awesome. But it also grinds against our personal comforts at the expense of satisfying curiosity — a paradox we’re faced with frequently in life. It’s doesn’t mean anything while at the same time meaning everything. And it’s something many people are ashamed of, or won’t talk about doing, but a lot of people do. Just ask someone, right now, “Did you ever play Show Me Yours I’ll Show You Mine?” I just asked a friend sitting beside me in this coffee shop and got a bashful smile and a reluctant yes.
It’s a game we played as kids, but many of us still play as adults (because alcohol). Yet, for many of us, we’re just as bashful as adults as we were when we were 5 years old (not bragging). Can you imagine playing Red Rover at a work retreat with the same glee and wonder as you did on the playground? There is NO WAY Sue from accounting is gonna break this grip! We mature in so many ways but one.
I also remember the first time I got in trouble for playing that game. I was terrified. And more recently, viewing this game from the “adult” lens, I’ve heard friends talk about disciplining their kids when they are caught playing. “Sam, you know about sexuality and gender stuff. What should we do? Is this okay? Is it normal?” I generally have a rule in these circumstances of replying Socratically, “What do you think? Did you play that game as a kid? Are you okay? Are you normal?” Which is ultimately code for “There is no way in hell you’re outsourcing the guilt for whatever punishment you’re about to mete out to me. You’re on your own, friend.”
Why are we so afraid of genitals? A lot of us treat them with the fear and reverence of Voldemort. You-Know-Who. “I’ve got a rash on my He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named!” Sometimes I’ll yell penis or vagina on stage just because. It’s outlandish. Those words! One of my favorite shows, Scrubs, features Elliot Reed, a doctor who is unable to say the proper words for sexual anatomy and instead has a ton of hilarious replacement words.
We refer to our genitals as our private parts. Worse, we think of them as our family jewels. “Behold my treasure! Worth a king’s ransom, if I do say so myself. And I do. I say so.”
We are Troy. We are the Achaeans.
The Trojan War is pretty famous. You’ve probably heard of it. It makes a great analogy for how we view our genitals and how we view (or, more commonly, don’t view) other people’s genitals. Also, this isn’t a sponsored message (though there’s a lot of power and duplicity in the message of that brand, if you know what I’m talkin’ about). So, how are we Troy, the city with fabled impenetrable walls, as well as the Achaeans, the enemies who breached those walls and destroyed the city?
We internalize a message that our genitals are valuable, sacred, meant to be defended and safeguarded, and that we are gatekeepers and the world is full of would-be keymasters. This makes us unique. There’s one of us, and everyone else. It’s worth noting that this message is often more vigorously [phrasing] reinforced for people with vaginas, but people with penises are also taught to protect their nethers.
At the same time, we’re navigating a confusing and mixed-message world that pushes us to want to enter other people’s Troy. We want to see their Helen (if you know what I mean), and are encouraged to devise a number of strategies to do that. If you’re doubting this line of thought, just start to google any celebrity’s name and see what it auto-suggests. Like so:
“Sorry to put you on the spot here, Jon. But we really wanna see your Helen. And I know you haven’t lowered the gates, so we’re gonna find a way around that. We are Achaeans. We have the internet. We will see your penis.”
To wrap things in a nice horse-shaped package [phrasing]: we simultaneously are working to keep something in obscurity while we are trying to uncover it.
Our Two Signature Moves When Confronting The Unknown
Humans. So simple in their complexity. When facing the unknown, humans generally react in one of two ways with millions of subtle variations: fear or curiosity. </robot-voice> Xenophobia versus Wanderlust. Terrifying Abyss versus The Final Frontier. Couch Potato versus Couch Surfing Potato.
When faced with talking about, thinking about, interacting with genitals, and all the unknowns and taboo circulating all of this, a lot of us react with fear. Let’s dissect [phrasing] genital xenophobia.
Our Puritanical history taught us to be afraid of genitals, and to keep our genitals covered up and secret because otherwise… I’m not really sure, exactly, but because bad! This perspective leads to encouraging abstinence, to keeping your private parts private. The common sense benefits of this are that you don’t end up engaging in sexual stuff until you’re ready, you’re less likely to get sexually transmitted infections, and you won’t have oops babies. Unfortunately, common sense is often the best way to be completely wrong about humans. The opposite is true on all three accounts.
I also blame genital xenophobia for a lot of the unhealthy and dangerous interactions we have with gender — ours and other people’s. Why do half the emails that fill my spam folder have some variation of “penis” and “enlargement” in the subject? (“Hugify Your Wang Today!”) Why is acknowledgement of menstruation met with public shaming? Why do people react with violence against trans* folks?
On the other hand, many of us have the urge to explore genitalia, to uncover the covered, to boldly go where no man has gone before (If you read between the lines, Star Trek is really just about space doin’ it). People born with penises are affirmed in this exploration — we’re told we are “biologically evolved” to wander. People born with vaginas are shamed if they do, because biology.
Biologically, again, our common sense is met with a scientific “nope.” The “research” (scare quotes!) that has people believing that men have evolved to spread their seed and women have evolved to keep a one-farmer garden is more than just questionable, it’s nonsense. The exact opposite is true. We’re biologically inclined to find one partner and to latch on to that person like the Kraken to a pirate ship, but with our genitals (how’s that for powerful imagery?). And if you don’t believe me, read my friend Andrew Smiley’s book Challenging Casanova. You finished? Cool. Let’s continue.
But the curiosity that’s created by the societally-required unknown surrounding genitals leads to genital wanderlust. And, like genital xenophobia, this creates a lot of not-so-healthy interactions with gender. Why do you think teens have entire websites dedicated to asking strangers about their genitals? (some of which are wonderful, necessary sites due to this phenomenon, like Scarleteen) Why are young people being convicted of pornography for taking and sharing nude photos of themselves? Why is sexting a word? Why is one of the first questions many trans* people are asked some version of “what do your genitals look like?”
Let’s Be Naked All The Time
Hahahaha kidding. Sorry to freak you out. I bet you were all, “Wow, Sam, this took a sudden turn,” then you read my “hahahaha” and you were all, “Phew. That made me really uncomfortable. I’m happy you were kidding. Ever the jokester, Sam.” Don’t worry, friend. This isn’t a healthy gender article red herring nudist manifesto. I’m not a nudist. But I am totally serious. Sorry for the double gotcha. Now let’s take off our pants and talk about this seriously.
Whoa. How uncomfortable does that idea make you? Pretty freaking uncomfortable, right? Me too. I know I’m publicly anti-pants, but I’m only genuinely comfortable with that idea in private. I’m just as freaked out about people seeing my penis as you are. Interpret that sentence however you’d like. It’s a visceral, powerful discomfort. I’ve had dreams of forgetting to wear pants in public situations (like at school). You know, like in the movies. And by dreams I mean nightmares. Pantsless Nightmares (the title of my forthcoming memoir). I’d like to think of myself as normal (ha!), and this is forever in the back of my mind, lurking below the surface of my mind ocean, waiting to Genital Kraken my Thought Pirate Ship (how’s that for confusing imagery?).
But I do believe that the world would be a happier place if we didn’t wear clothes. And I don’t think it would be a 24/7/365 Worldwide Sex Party, like the conservative reaction to this article might misinterpret (also, that’s the title of my forthcoming fictional memoir, AKA my A Million Little Pieces). Okay, let’s slip into something more comfortable, and break this down list-style.
1. If we removed the unknown of genitals, we’d remove the fear and the curiosity.
You might be saying, “But there are a lot of positives to the curiosity! But romance!” And I would reply by arguing that relationships would be healthier and more fulfilling if the romance was about who you were on the inside, not about the genital surprise you get to unwrap after five dates (or one, or ten, or marriage — freak what you feel).
2. We’d become more comfortable with ourselves.
If the only comparison you have for your own genitals is what you’re able to find in porn or same-sex relationships, you’re likely not getting a broad or representative perspective. Anyone who has seen hundreds of real-life genitals (like a doctor, or someone who has sex with hundreds of people) can tell you that genitals are like snowflakes: no two are identical. Sure, this wouldn’t relieve all the comparison pressure, but it would definitely help clear the air. Like the way we view our noses.
3. I’m going to stop this thought experiment here.
Because I know I’ve likely lost you. This is too much. Too radical. Too hypothetical. It’s like skipping learning to walk and jumping right to olympic hurdles. And I know that, because I’ve thought about this a lot. I’m sorry for pushing you so hard. I normally wouldn’t. But I wanted to take you here, and to walk you down this thought road, because I think that there is a lot of value in going here hypothetically, even if there is no intention of going here societally.
But Let’s Actually Not.
We don’t need to become a nudist planet to move past the uncomfortable and unhealthy relationship a lot of us have with our genitals. It would be the microwave, Easy-Bake™ attempt to solve an incredibly complex, slow-cooked gumbo of a problem. And it would also terrify so many people that it would likely backfire and cause more harm than good. Too much challenge leads to recession, not growth.
But we can gain a better understand our own genital xenophobia and wanderlust, how those things influence and distort our understanding of gender, and come up with healthier approaches to how we relate (or don’t) to our own genitals and other people’s.
Let’s work to create a culture where genitals aren’t a taboo subject. Starting from a young age, using the proper words (sorry, Dr. Reed) is a great way to start. Teaching a person with a penis to call it a hoo-hah isn’t helping anyone, especially that kid. We need to demystify genitals if we want people to have a healthy relationship to their bodies, and be able to have healthy relationships with one another.
Let’s work to create a culture where people aren’t shamed because of their genitals. This is a lot to ask, because we shame people for just about every other part of their bodies, but I’m asking it anyhow. Diminishing the taboo will help, as it will hopefully lead to more open dialogue. Exploiting self-consciousness in advertising will also help, and we can stop (as individuals, with our dollars) supporting companies that do this. But above all, as I always say, the best thing you can do is work to make sure that the people in your immediate life are unashamed of who they are.
Let’s work to create a culture where sex and genitals are decriminalized. I mean this as it relates to comprehensive sex education, trans* persons’ rights, reproductive justice, and sex workers’ rights. For something we call our “private parts” we sure do a lot of public policing. If we satisfy the first two cultural shifts, this one will follow naturally. But changing the law can also change the culture, and that’s why I support pushing legislation in these areas as a means to remove the taboo and shame on an individual and interpersonal level.
Ultimately, I want you — your whole you — to be able to be happy. These are my three arguments for how we can make that happen. My three requests. Maybe you have other ideas, and I’d love to hear them. I’ve shown you mine. Let’s continue this conversation and you can show me yours.