dicks dicks dicks: Hardness and Flaccidity in (Virtual) Masculinity
Amanda Phillips / Georgetown University
The Tearoomis a game that depicts dicks/firearms and blurs the lines between the two
I shift in my chair, the soft lump between my legs a secret marker of my gender expansion. At the time, I wasn’t ready to disclose the centrality of packing devices to my sense of personhood. My first floppy dick had been condom filled with hair gel; like transmen and other masculine of center women, I have used any number of improvised genital devices to suit the mood and occasion, from socks to overpriced strapons. Today, there are many options for those who want an all-purpose dick that can slide discreetly into your pants but is ready to spring into action when necessary. My tastes in everyday dickwear, however, are strictly squishy.
This is one of the many things about my body that fails to square up with expectations about my gender. Society wants masculinity to be hard, from its cock to its biceps to its steely, impenetrable self-assurance. The first thing one can think to do with a flaccid dick, in fact, is to make it hard again. The centrality of hardness is no different in the virtual world. Robert Yang’s The Tearoom, a game that critiques homophobia, toxic masculinity, and gun culture, features flaccid dicks in the shape of firearms that slowly lose their fleshiness to become fully erect metallic weapons before shooting off their loads (See Figure 1). This metaphor brilliantly captures the convergence of masculinity, hardness, and the digital, and it gestures toward the harm that these can cause. Yang’s game also, however, exhibits what was at the heart of my friend’s amusement with floppy dicks: even in queer cultures, and perhaps especially in gay male culture, a hard cock is the focal point of sexual activity and identity.
My first digital dick, of course, came from Second Life. The virtual world that launched a thousand webcam careers has a robust genitals market. Second Life avatars are like virtual Barbie dolls: choosing a “sex” grants one the secondary curves of a gendered body, but these avatars are nothing but smooth surfaces all the way down. The gendered sliders of the customization interface allow users to tweak these surfaces, adding a groin bulge here or a breast augmentation there, but if you want extra bits and bobs, you’ll have to wear them like the accessories they are.
Second Lifebody shops are a smorgasbord of gender. Dog cocks, dragon cocks, nipples, labia, clits, and dilating anuses can share virtual retail space with the vanilla human penises on offer. Each part comes with a fantastic set of controls, allowing the user to enlarge, shrink, change angles, and even change the type and volume of fluid coming out. Amongst all this variety and customization, however, Second Life dicks are never floppy. Even when “soft,” they arc rigidly downward (See Figure 2). There are pages upon pages of physics scripts for sale in the marketplace that add jiggle and bounce to breasts and buttocks, but a search for “male physics” turns up only a handful of options. .PictureMe.’s “Aesthetic Niramynth Avatar Physics” hosts unsurprising complaints: “TOO JIGGLY mens [sic] boobs don’t move like that…and if they do they need to get back to the gym… Hence the words HARD BODY?” [ (( Online commenter (2017). Re: Aesthetic Niramynth (Natural Physics). [Video File]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/3VhiiCEHqTo))] “The Aesthetic avatar has hard tight abs, which wouldn’t move at all on a toned muscular male body; but this product has them bouncing like Santa Claus on the run. Completely unrealsitic [sic] and, thereore unuseable [sic].” [ (( Online commenter (2017, April 5). Re: Aesthetic Niramynth Avatar Physics (Natural Version). [Product Review]. Retrieved from https://marketplace.secondlife.com/p/Aesthetic-NiramythAvatar-Physics-Natural-Version/11004691))] Too much jiggle spoils the man.
Our masculine bodies must remain firm and disciplined, ready to penetrate enemy ranks with bullets that rip through flesh. On the digital battlefield, they reach what Colin Milburn calls the “maximum hardness” of a pumped-up cyber warrior (181). [ ((Milburn, C. (2015). Mondo Nano: Fun and Games in the World of Digital Matter. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.))] Death in gaming is a loss of this illusory control: the entire body becomes as useless as a floppy dick. When digital soldiers twist into their final repose, they expose the instability of their ultrahard gamic masculinity. Unpredictable, accidental bodily positions confront them: face down, ass up; hips thrusting toward the sky; arms crossed over the head as if tied to the bedpost; in suggestive embrace with a fellow fallen soldier. Ragdoll bodies are always already erotic, even when they make us laugh. Why not, then, floppy dicks?
The ragdoll’s unmaking of the hard, controlled masculine body has given way to games that put uncontrollable bodily performance in the service of gender experimentation and masculine anxiety. Bo Ruberg has made a compelling account of how Octodad engages queer modes of embodiment by asking the player to perform rituals of passing. [ (( Ruberg, B. (2016). “Passing for Human: ‘Octodad’ and Queerness as a Video Game Mechanic.” Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference, Atlanta, GA.))] Ian Bryce Jones writes about the comedic potential in so-called dehiscent performance, where the disconnection between avatar and gamer bodies are central both to humor and to what he describes as an ecstatic experience of being out of one’s own body. [ (( Jones, I. (2016). “Do the Locomotion: Obstinate Avatars, Dehiscent Performances, and the Rise of the Comedic Video Games.” The Velvet Light Trap 77 (Spring): 86 99.))] For the sake of exploring the erotics of the floppy dick, it is important to push Jones’s use of the ecstatic into its sexual registers. Does a flailing phallus, with its inability (or outright refusal) to obey its handler’s iron will, offer us another way to think about the erotic potential of soft masculinities?
Mount Your Friends, for example, is a ragdoll game that challenges the gamer with constructing a tower of scantily-clad, beefy, customizable men. The tower’s base, to which the first avatar must attach, is a goat – that unsubtle symbol of climbing ability and voracious sexuality. The avatar’s dick helicopters freely as he struggles to mount his friends, an uncontrollable reminder of the fluid vitality pulsing through an otherwise stiff body and the trace of a physics engine aching to pull him back down to earth. While the ostensible goal is to fling the avatars higher and higher up the tower, the real star of the game is the dick itself, which concentrates the anxiety of the ragdoll all in one: a failure to remain super hard, an inability to control one’s body, the terror that a latent queerness will burst forth amongst your friends and betray you. Your friend’s dick flops all over you – face, body, hands – while he mounts you. You laugh. You love it. You go for another round.
The spirit of Mount Your Friends has been distilled in Genital Jousting, a multiplayer party game where the avatar is the uncontrollable phallus itself. The gamer controls a genital creature consisting of a penis, testicles, and anus, and scoots it around a playing field with other dicks, competing in various sporting events and accidentally-on-purpose fucking each other in the ass. Genital Jousting imagines sexual penetration beyond the realm of ultrahard raging cocks. It is phallus worship of a different order, allowing dicks and dildos to caress each other in flaccid abandon, twisting into wild orgiastic configurations and triumphantly squirting at the end of a good match (See Figure 3).
The fixation on hardness restricts masculine individuals to a limited range of emotional and physical responses. Anger and violence, with their obvious shows of strength and rejection of weakness, predominate. So does a toxic cocktail of oppressive behaviors: hardness must repudiate fatness, disability, femininity, transness, and, frequently, homosexuality in order to maintain its integrity. Yang’s bathroom simulator explores these contradictions well. On the other hand, games like Mount Your Friends and Genital Jousting, in asking us to laugh at, play with, and celebrate the floppy dick, relax our expectations of hard masculinity and help us to imagine a world through the lens of what Vincent Del Casino, Jr., calls “flaccid theory,” which challenges accepted truths about normative sexual and gender practices. [ (( Del Casino, Jr., V (2007). “Flaccid theory and the geographies of sexual health in the age of Viagra ™.” Health & Place 13.4 (Dec): 904-11.))] This thinking begins with the phallus itself but allows us, in the manner of other queer theories, to think about other totalizing cultural expectations that move us further from a just society. By cultivating rather than ridiculing or avoiding flaccid masculinities, from the queer packy to the homoerotic digital jouster, we can find an alternative to the strong men and hard bodies that compose our current nightmare of toxic masculinities.
In my own life, I take the absurdity of my detachable, stretchy, floppy dick as a reminder that everyone bears the burdens of masculinity in different ways. The world would be a better place if we would give our dicks a little twirl now and then and fling them across the room, just for fun. Splat.
Just… watch out for the dog.
1. The Tearoom image of gameplay (author’s screen grab)
2. An example of dick depiction in Second Life (author’s screen grab)
3. An example of gameplay from Genital Jousting (author’s screen grab)
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