When I decided to pose for a naked centerfold, it seemed like there could be no happy ending. I was not an actor in search of marquee appeal, nor was I interested in becoming a masturbation toy for an imaginary body of readers. I hoped that a series of naked pictures of a writer, presented in a short essay collection on a variety of mostly nonsexual subjects, would be a hallmark of how a naked body welcomes erotic adornments and postures but can never be defined by them, especially when viewed in context of the subject’s writing. I also thought the accompaniment of nakedness would make clearer the dumb, objective seriousness we often project on writing.
I called the essay collection Poshlost, a Russian word Vladimir Nabokov defined as “corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic, and dishonest pseudo-literature.” Nowhere are these qualities more entrenched than in pornography; the false strains of dignity are shown in its bisection into soft and hardcore varieties—a distinction that has its echo in writing, divided into good and bad, serious and not serious.
I wanted to see if it was possible to create a form that joined the imperial truth-making of writing with disjunctive artifacts of nudity. And that was how I came to be naked one day, having pictures of my penis taken.
Writing is the opposite of physical nudity: it is a form in which a person is most insulated from the prejudices of the audience. Yet all writing is a confessional revelation. Even considering impersonal ideas in an objective voice, a writer draws those ideas in a particular voice. Writing is an invitation to self-criticism, and the best writers can do is to make themselves as open as possible to a reader interested enough to engage them. Self-criticism is, in that light, a gift to the reader. Which is a lucky thing, because posing naked for photos is a terrifying experience that can only be negotiated by the solemn conviction that writing about it is also a gift. The opposite thought—“This is a career-ending experiment driven by a self-destructive ego”—would simply be too much.
And while nudity isn’t ultimately much of a gift, its stigmatization—especially of the male variety—has given it a peculiar sociopolitical currency that makes it seem more unusual than it is. The first proscriptions were a product of political and religious collusion that flourished alongside the Enlightenment, beginning in the sixteenth century with the removal of Fra Bartolomeo’s naked St. Sebastian from a church in Florence, after some women admitted they had fantasized about the comely martyr. Subjects for male nudes painted in that era increasingly became heroes of mythology, instead of the contemporary figures, taking cover in the privileges of the unreal. Soon even the unreal became objectionable, culminating with the absurd fig leaf covering of Michelangelo’s David. This was prompted by the unwelcome feelings Queen Victoria experienced after gazing upon the legend’s member.
Anthony Weiner, Brett Favre, and Kanye West thought their genitals spoke so impressively for their whole selves that they sent photos to women as a seductive prelude. In each case, the leaked penis became cause for public mockery.
In more recent times, discomfort with the public revelation of man-sex has acquired the disfiguring tint of sociopolitical power relations, transforming the penis into a vessel embodying all of the structural and political antagonisms toward women that have been a part of Western civilization since time immemorial. As the Leopold Museum’s spokesperson Klaus Pokorny observed, after agreeing to cover three penises visible on posters for the museum’s “Nude Men” exhibition, the naked man “unfortunately is often still associated with sexual abuse in a way that pictures of naked women aren’t.” Penis is patriarchy, and patriarchy is violence. To show one’s penis is to endorse its metaphorical power and the historical privileges that have come with it.
I was afraid of these implications, that one must always interrupt the personal flights of experimentalism in deference to the deeper tidal sway of politics. I didn’t want a fight with patriarchy, nor a re-entrenchment of it. I wanted to try and strip myself out of it, to enter a vacuum where my being and body wouldn’t be seen as relative to anything other than the words I had written. Of course this was futile, and the desire to not be attached to the time, place, and culture that produced me was a cliché of suburban self-actualization. Not everyone gets to pick fights of such little consequence, and that I’d chosen to fully invest in this particular battle against the prohibition of male genitals, relevant only to the narrow culture of leisure-class straights who shrink the struggles of the world into coy-guy-in-a-towel shots of Cosmo and the stiff and leaking pornography of Playgirl. And yet I wanted to create something to enshrine, and if possible celebrate, the absurd distinction between dialectical seriousness and mammalian irrationality.
In recent years, the boundary between public seriousness and impulsive vulnerability has been weakened by a regular parade of public figures caught in private moments of genital self-regard. Public figures like Anthony Weiner, Brett Favre, and Kanye West thought their genitals spoke so impressively for their whole selves that they sent photos to women as a seductive prelude. In each case, the leaked penis became cause for public mockery, not for any unusual traits in the organs but because their deluded owners presumed it could speak for a person’s desirability as a whole. Each had the same absurd incongruity of, say, an applicant for an office job including a photo of their hands against a keyboard with their resume. And yet this is the implication of the male centerfold, our most basic sexual trait becomes the one that is most insistently withheld from view, and those who are caught with their penis in plain sight are secret egomaniacs or exploited models willing to sell images of their body to an anonymous masturbator waiting in the wings.
If someone says you wrote a stupid sentence, there’s a way to reasonably answer. If a person says you have a stupid penis, what can you say in response?
Self-exploitation and egomania were familiar qualities to me as a writer. There are no doubt other important qualities involved, just as there is no shortage of other important body parts beside one’s genitals. But the unwillingness to acknowledge the egotism of telling other people’s stories seemed to me a variation on the deceptive posturing of Cosmo’s centerfolds, who bathe in the suggestion of male sexuality but can never expose the instrument itself. As a writer, I’d come to mistrust objectivity and careful elisions I sensed in other writers’ work. In science, one states one’s biases and the limitations before presenting any experimental data, but in other forms of writing, admitting subjective limits is impermissible, an affect of the narcissist incapable of addressing a subject without neuroticizing the world into a personal metaphor. And even in the wallows of confessional narcissism, writerly deceit is at work, creating aphoristic certainty where there is only disorder. I wanted to see if it was possible to create a form that joined the imperial truth-making of writing with disjunctive artifacts of nudity meant to intrude on that process from a world where critical analysis is as superficial a pastime as breaking wind or stretching a limb. And that was how I came to be naked one day, having pictures of my penis taken.
I knew a very good documentary photographer who was willing to work for free and wouldn’t be put off by seeing a friend naked on a Saturday afternoon. I had known her for years and yet I stammered and stalled as she finished setting up the basic arrangement of lights and held the camera at ready. I suddenly felt a wild surge of inadequacy, like every micrometer of fabric covering my nubby penis, doughy stomach, and bicep-less arms were life preservers keeping me from falling into a vacuum of physical ridicule. If someone says you wrote a stupid sentence, there’s a way to reasonably answer. If a person says you have a stupid penis, what can you say in response? Please accept my penis and its diminutive stupidity as a gift. By the time my hands reached the top button on my pants, no such thoughts were left in my head, and my fingers searched the edge of the cold metal disk on my jeans as if it might be hiding some good reason not to move forward.
But I couldn’t find any and so I slid the button through its loop and down went my pants. The first hour was agonizingly awkward. I was stiff and afraid of looking at my own body. I desperately stared at my friend after each click of the iris, hoping to catch in her reactions some cryptic opinion on whether I looked pathetic or not. She offered minimal guidance and I struggled to think of something to do with my body. I grabbed a stuffed animal a roommate had given me and tried to play with it. I made wobbly attempts at yoga poses. After each nervous movement I looked back into the lens waiting for approval.
In the second hour I ran out of anxiety. I let myself take longer glances at my body as I moved around, played with different props—a puffy winter coat, a gooey piece of cake that I thought would look good on camera, matching the sense of indulged artificiality. I was less concerned with imagining how other people would judge my body and slowly became aware of how pleasurable it felt just to be naked, the spotlight-warmed air blooming around my skin as I moved through postures that had no functional purpose. My rhetoric abandoned me and I became a simple body for a short while, not in the lathered sportsman sense, but in the restful comfort of an early morning alone, nerve endings and muscle tissue slowly merging back into wakefulness.
To me, my posing naked felt reckless and inappropriate and to anyone born after 1985, I imagine it would seem anti-climactic and regressive, a rebellion against social standards that no one really takes seriously anymore.
When it was over I rushed to the computer to look at the hundreds of photos we’d shot to see what was usable. They were absurd, offering a parallax view of my own body, parts of which were overly familiar and others of which seemed totally alien (my god, the bottoms of my feet!). All of the tension and stress of the early photos translated as emptiness on camera, like a mannequin left in a slightly unnatural pose. The shots looked inhuman. Then the smiles started, at first massive fissures of teeth and fleeing tension that made of my face a kind of metaphysical fire hydrant shooting out a burst of subterranean relief.
Then I was a person again, not quite myself in the flattened frame and stark light, but human, a lost celebrity who never made it out of the star factory, a textured canvas awaiting the intrusive brush strokes of my public. I don’t know what the consequences of these naked pictures will be and have only the rhetorical flotilla of an essay collection to keep them from being turned against me.
Is there any fear more universal in the time of sexting and Hunter Moore than having one’s naked self appear as the first entry in a Google search? This fear is as much a generational affect as a warning of impending risk. When I was going through my own pubescence in the early 90s, the Internet hadn’t yet turned porn into a public utility. Plastic surgery procedures more than doubled every year during the late 90s. People freeze-framed Sharon Stone’s barely visible vulva in Basic Instinct. Howard Stern prostrated himself before strippers and sex actors. The suggestions of nudity were everywhere, but the only worthwhile forms of it seemed to be outside of my own body, and the bodies of everyone I knew. Nudity was a privilege of the already perfect, and we were surrounded by laughingly happy examples of how imperfect we were.
This sickness seems to have lost its potency in the generations that followed. The sacred commodity of nipples and genital roughage was irrevocably cheapened by the Internet, while the tricks of perfecting the body were made obvious, both in Photoshop and at the gym. Soon most middle-class fourteen-year-olds possessed the tools to capture and distribute their own nudity, and they did. And my fearsome awe of genitalia seemed more absurd with each passing year. To me, my posing naked felt reckless and inappropriate and to anyone born after, say, 1985, I imagine it would seem anti-climactic and regressive, a rebellion against social standards that no one really takes seriously anymore.
The technological membrane separating public and private selves has become translucent, making visible the inelegance of SMS nudity, Skype-flashing, and Tumblr gifs of naked pelvises rising and falling in perpetuity. And yet the more conditions change around me, the more I discover I’m married to my own fearful questions, artifacts of what my nudity would have meant twenty years ago. Will these pictures automatically disqualify me from any job I might ever apply to again? Am I taking a swan dive into the gnashing teeth of corporate America’s pious human resources machine? Is it too late to invent a fake name for the whole project? M. Scott Rubywad, or Theodor Woodthrust III? I probably should. I put my clothes back on, after all. But even clothed, these nagging fears outline a mental nakedness around which my social being contorts. Why else would a grown man sit in a cake without any pants on? This is the kind of absurdity that requires grand rhetorical accompaniment, the compression of an entire lifetime of experience into one frozen pose, even while the sagging tubules at the bottom of the frame reminds everyone that even the heartiest metaphorical vessel eventually collapses on itself.
Visit this website to view the photos discussed above.
Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The Believer, n+1, Slate, The New Inquiry, and Bookforum. He’s author of the sex memoir Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men.