'the face is like the penis!' (inappropriate erections)

I’ve just read Malcomlm Gladwell’s Blink – been meaning to read it for ages, finally got around to it – and easily the best quote in the whole book (from the point of view of a sex educator, at any rate) is:

Silvan Tomkins once began a lecture by bellowing, “The face is like the penis!”

Upon reading which I collapsed in a hail of giggling mirth etc.

Gladwell goes on to say:

What he meant was that the face has, to a large extent, a mind of its own. This doesn’t mean we have no control over our faces. We can use our voluntary muscular system to try to suppress those involuntary responses. But, often, some little part of suppressed emotion – such as the sense that I’m really unhappy even though I deny it – leaks out.

And Dr Tomkins was precisely right, of course.

I thought it was worth including on the blog because it’s an excellent way to think about the ways that the sexual inhibition system responds not just to physical threats like the proximity of a predator or or the risk of unintended pregnancy or disease transmission; it also responds to social appropriateness, and aren’t we glad.

“Now is not the time!” Your brain subconsciously/implicitly tells your penis when you notice something sexually relevant in the middle of your grandparents’ golden anniversary party. And lo! the erection is forestalled. Huzzah.

It doesn’t always work, as any 14 year old boy can tell you. Erections “leak out,” as it were. Pubescent boys – bless them – get inappropriate erections because their bodies are suddenly and massively flooded with so much testosterone (and thus their SES is vastly increased, goes the hypothesis) that their SIS can’t keep up with it. So when the wind blows the wrong way or their teacher wears a shirt with buttons down the front, the poor kid spends the afternoon with his books in front of his lap.

Romance novels tend to fetishize the inappropriate erection, as though it implies that the love interest’s appeal is so great as to overwhelm the hero’s defenses, you see. But in fact they’re more a measure of the guy’s innate levels of SIS and SES.

Take it as a compliment, absolutely! And there’s certainly nothing threatening about an erection in and of itself. It makes no demands, requires no attention – it’s the man attached to the erection who might do that, and any man worth is sodium chloride knows that his erection is his own responsibility and no one else’s.

But also don’t take it as an insult if it doesn’t happen, or if it happens when you’re not around. Erections come and go. Men without physiological erectile dysfunction get several of them every night, during REM sleep. No biggie. And in real life it is truly awkward for a grown man to get an erection in public. Really. Broadly speaking, it’s the kind of thing that’s only funny or sexy after the fact.

I want to say that the face is a more reliable source of information about how desirable he finds you, because his body isn’t busy trying to prevent him from generating a conspicuous tent in his trousers. And for lots of men that’s probably true: the eyes tell a story his dear penis just isn’t allowed to tell until he’s got you all to himself.

Sadly men are still culturally trained to use that “voluntary muscular system” Gladwell mentioned to suppress emotions that you’d rather he did’t suppress. Just as his body suppresses erections for good cultural reasons, his face is under tight cultural reigns too – some more than others.

So the face IS like the penis. Both respond innately; both inhibit in response to social motivations. Both can tell you something – but not everything – about how he feels about the fact that you’re there.

And the next man I see, whoever he is, may wonder why I start to giggle when I look at his face.