Laura Dodsworth doesn’t have an average day job. For the past year, she’s been photographing men’s penises for a photography project.
The resulting work, ‘Manhood: The Bare Reality’, isn’t as gratuitous or sordid as it might sound. The book, which features 100 penises in total, explores men’s attitudes to their bodies, masculinity, sex and sexuality.
The result is a menagerie of men’s experiences: from the 20-year-old who quit porn after he became addicted and unable to have a healthy sex life to the 58-year-old who has spent his life embarrassed about his penis size.
It isn’t the first time Dodsworth has asked her subjects to strip off. Her debut work, ‘Bare Reality’, featured 100 women’s breasts alongside inspiring personal stories that tackles negative body image and female representation in media.
Now, she’s turned the lens on the boys.
“Breasts and penises are not direct counterparts but they respectively embody ideas of what it is to be female and male,” she told HuffPost UK. “Manhood is a word for penis. It seemed like a good starting point for a conversation about manhood and masculinity.”
The men self-selected to be part of the project and are all anonymous. Whether they were asked directly by Dodsworth, recommended by a friend or replied to social media, all the participants were “100% happy to take part”.
But when it came to stripping off in front of her, Dodsworth says the men’s reactions were varied: “Some were really comfortable with getting naked. Some were a bit shy. Some were proud.”
Dodsworth said she felt “surprised” and “moved” by the men’s honesty in front of the camera.
“We never know someone’s story till we ask… Men stepped into the space with a real hunger. I don’t think men are given much opportunity to be honest and raw about their lives and feelings. I had never heard men talk like this. Some of the men said they had never talked like this to anyone, including their partners. It’s a real privilege to be able to offer these stories to the world.”
She discovered through the interviews that many men carry body image pressure - particularly about the size of their penis or sexual performance.
“That anxiety bleeds into all aspects of their lives. I thought so many had carried around unnecessary shame and fear about their bodies. Because penises are more taboo men don’t see a big variety of real ones around,” she said.
Dodsworth hopes that the book will challenge society’s rigid expectations around masculinity, by offering a range of men’s experiences and attitudes
“People’s interpretation of the stories and the visual impact of the photographs will be unique to them - we all bring different experiences and ideas to our interpretation of any art, but I hope they come away with warmth, feeling inspired and think more deeply about what it means to be a man,” she said.
“I think a lot of the men in this project would have benefitted from reading Manhood when they were younger and it would have dispelled myths and put their minds at rest. Many of the men who have taken part have done so specifically to help other men, and younger men, by relating their experiences.”
I’m kind of intrigued about this opportunity to talk about my relationship to... I don’t want to say penis and I don’t really like saying cock... Rufus, yeah, Rufus. (laughs) My penis, Rufus, is kind of a barometer of my health, my happiness and my fitness. My sense of my wellbeing is related to my sexual energy.
I’ve always felt most in communion with my body and with another person’s body when I feel that my overall fitness, health and energy are high. Ironically, the only time I’ve ever worried about Rufus is when I went through a period a couple of years ago where Rufus wasn’t rising and it was a sign of another health condition. I’d never even thought about how stress can affect your body and your sexuality. If it wasn’t for that I would probably
never have realised I had high blood pressure or that stress can have a negative effect on
your desire to have sex.
I knew there was something wrong because the desire was there, but Rufus just wasn’t. I was like, ‘Man, what are you doing? You don’t seem that bothered. I’m bothered, the whole team is bothered, what’s up with you? Come on, man.’
I’ve got quite an active mind and I’m often juggling stuff which is to do with deadlines, work, writing and different projects, and the only time my mind is completely silent is during sex. A partner once said to me, ‘Well, what do you think about when we have sex?’ and I said, ‘What do you mean, what do I think about? I’m just like... I’m here with you. You’re
naked, we’re making love and what else is there? There are no thoughts!’ And then I thought, ‘Oh, you fantasise about other things? Other people? Really?’ For me sex is almost about vacancy. It is a moment of complete embodiment, of being totally calm in the world, do you know what I mean? It is about being fully present.
The penis is a tool of communication. It’s a kind of a gateway to losing who you are and your ego, to actually be fully absorbed into the beingness of another person, as well as into a different you, a more primal you. I think there is nothing greater than being fully present in sex. It is a spiritual journey. We can play with power and sex, but bear in mind that it’s play. I think there’s an opportunity for a creative and renewing exchange. And Rufus, whatever you want to call it, is part of your gateway to that.
I’m the first black man in the project? Where do I start? That’s such a head-fuck. When you’re a young black man you experience inordinate attention and focus on you as a sexual being, especially in the club sphere. Men are men, and we like an easy time; we’re insecure, we don’t want to be rejected. And it’s intoxicating to have people give you attention in a very sexual way. It’s like a simple vocabulary. ‘I don’t have to do any work, I
don’t even have to buy any drinks, I don’t even have to be handsome’. (laughs) Fuck! It’s
intoxicating, but, like any addiction, it has its downside. It’s not necessarily a very individual
attention. This is not really about me, this is about a persona of black men, you know: penis size, greater sexuality, up for it. It’s a thrill ride and I’ve participated in it, but with a degree of self-loathing afterwards, because I think, ‘What the fuck? I’ve just been someone’s Mandingo fantasy’. And I’ve done it, not because I’m black, but because I’m a
bloke and an advance was made and I know that there’s not much expected of me. As a man you can compartmentalise all that stuff, but there’s a part of you that wants people to want more from you, to be curious about you. It’s not that black men are more hyper-sexual, it’s just that men, given the opportunity, would want to be as sexual as possible, to have their cake and eat it.
I grew up in a working-class environment and would sometimes go to down-home black clubs and I would be approached by white women who said, ‘I don’t date white men, I just date black men’. The side of me that is postgraduate-educated, goes ‘Woah! Why? A man’s a man. What’s that about? This is a fetish that makes no sense’. Sometimes these women end up as victims of it because they’re looking for hyper-masculinity and they pick
out certain kinds of men.
I think it has a damaging effect on some black men I know who accept and internalise that sense of themselves. When you’re a minority in a society you internalise how a majority society sees you. You begin to create your identity partly out of response to the projection. And also the projection can become the tool of solidarity. The projection can be a means of bolstering our sense of self or our self-esteem.
Women and men both enjoy sex, are curious about sex, and boast about sex in different ways, but I think men are more afraid and less understanding of the emotional nature of sex and compartmentalise it. In compartmentalising there is a sort of self-brutalisation that goes on, because sexual exchange is always more than just a conversation and a cup of tea. There is something of yourself that you pass over. I think in some ways women are perhaps more in tune with the emotional investment that comes with sex, the sense that there is a boundary that is being crossed that is more than mechanistic and more than just
pleasure. That doesn’t mean to say that all women want to stick with every man they sleep with, but I think that there is a different quality of understanding of that exchange for some
women. Sorry, it’s really hard to talk in these bold terms because all the time I’m thinking that’s bullshit because of all the exceptions. So I’m just using these broad brush strokes with these massive caveats.
I think maybe we’re just afraid to be idealistic. We’re all afraid, we don’t know how to name what it is that we’re doing. In ancient societies we worshipped the phallus and the vagina and there was a reason for that. If we acknowledged that sex isn’t just about gratification, there is a broader communication, I think we’d be more respectful. I think sex needs to be put back on its fucking pedestal.
I’m really into sports, but I don’t particularly care for appearance. I like to look good but I think of my appearance as more of a byproduct of sport. It’s common for people to go to the gym, work out loads, but there’s nothing useful about the muscles they’re building. If I was in a bad situation I’d be able to get out of it comfortably because of my fitness level.
Parkour is my main sport at the moment. I used to do a lot of running as a kid, and when I got bored of that I moved on to rock climbing. I’m quite a competitive person when it comes to sports and if there is a competition to be had, I’ll normally try.
I know a couple of gym bunnies, but I can’t really get along with those people. For some reason gyms all have these walls of mirrors, and you people that obviously lift loads of weights stand there and take their picture for Instagram or Facebook or whatever. It’s really narcissistic.
Loads of people use steroids. When I was in college, a couple of guys were taking steroids, injecting it into their butt cheeks, or getting their friends to, which is a bit weird. They had such bad anger issues. I don’t know if it’s the kind of person that does that sort of thing or if the steroids lead to the anger issues, but they were so prone to anger that if you made a joke that was slightly denigrating towards them they would flip. It was just banter, a joke. One guy literally started shoving me around the car park and I was like, ‘You do realise if you hit me you’ll get chucked out of college and you’ll lose your job?’ and he said, ‘I don’t care.’ I was like, ‘How can you not care?’ It’s just a bit worrying really.
They weren’t unintelligent, they were fine at their college work, but they never intellectualised anything. They didn’t think about their feelings, or what stuff meant to them. They were always about, ‘Oh, when we went to Ibiza and were banging some women’. The idea of going on a holiday just to drink and try and have sex with loads of drunk women doesn’t appeal to me at all. I think if you’re a relatively nice person you just find someone that actually wants to have sex with you for a good reason, not just because they’re drunk.
I’ve quit porn. Actually I quit masturbation entirely for quite a long time.
I used to have issues ejaculating with my ex when having sex. Hand jobs and blow jobs were fine, but that was normally because they were on the rougher side. I think ejaculating became associated with my hand and watching porn. I had issues with being on top too. I think that’s because when watching porn I would lie still, whereas when having sex I actually have to be up and mobile.
My new girlfriend did some research on it. There are a few issues. Watching porn is nothing like actually having sex. Also the feeling of the hand is nothing like actual sex or another person – there’s this thing called the ‘death grip’. What happens to a lot of people is they grip too tight when masturbating and they get used to it and then sex doesn’t feel tight enough. I mean, some people are very tight, but they’re not that tight. For me, a mixture of all of these led to my problem. My girlfriend and I are having sex perfectly fine now. Well, we’re getting there. There are still some issues, but obviously people have things in sex where you have to work things out and it’s good to have discussions about it.
Shall I tell you how we met? We met doing parkour and we were friends for a while. A few years ago she wrote up a sex contract as part of an art project but she never got the chance to use it. One night she asked me if I wanted to sign her sex contract with her. I said no at first. Then I mulled it over and thought, ‘What’s the worst that could happen, really? Like, I’m friends with her, but what’s wrong with sex? Why not?’ I messaged her to ask if I could change my mind. And then she sent over the contract. It’s a great idea, but it took me a while to get over how weird it felt at first.
The one we signed was called ‘Three Mergers’, as in having sex three times, and then you decide where you want to go from there. You can sign another contract, or you can just leave it and not do anything again. You can cut it off at any time, but the idea is you sign it like you would anything else. So you sign this contract and then you do the deed. Obviously it’s not properly legal in the UK.
Our first kiss? OK, that was awkward. It was on this sofa. (laughs) It wasn’t in the contract, but we decided beforehand it would be a bit weird if we didn’t kiss while having sex, or building up to sex. We went to kiss each other and the first thing that happened was our teeth clashed and we both went ‘Ow’. Then we went to try again and it flowed a lot better.
We got to the bedroom and I told her I had issues with staying hard and ejaculating. I didn’t want to say beforehand, it felt really awkward. I wasn’t undressed at that point and it’s never too late to say no. She said it was fine and we’d work through it. I didn’t lose my erection, but I didn’t ejaculate having sex.
Porn is an addiction in the end. In the same way that gambling isn’t a physical addiction, it’s not actually in your blood, but it gets into your mind. I used to use porn every day.
Quitting porn and quitting masturbation was like a reset. After several weeks I could orgasm during sex again. It had to be quite rough, fast sex to start with, but at that point I could. Then it changed from being kind of awkward and a bit annoying that it wasn’t happening to, ‘Oh, I can orgasm with sex now, this is good’. And then it kind of slowed down and got really good. I would like to be able to orgasm from more gentle sex. It still has to be a bit faster than I’d like. I still have issues with coming when I’m the one moving, and not lying down. That’s getting better too, I’m very close.
A lot of older men who started watching porn later in their life actually don’t have many issues because they’ve been with women, they know what sex is actually like. The problem is when people start young on the iPhone that their parents got them, they don’t have to sneak to the computer or anything, they can just watch it, every single night, hardcore, softcore, they can watch people getting fisted, elbow deep up the bum if they really want to, that kind of thing. They can watch anything they want and that’s when it gets to be an issue. If you get brought up with things from a young age then they stick with you. If you hit puberty and get straight on to porn, which happened to me and to a lot of people my age, that’s when it becomes a big issue and affects you later on.
I lost my virginity to the wife of my grammar school teacher. He was sent to France as a spy and resistance fighter. They had made an arrangement that while he was in France and there was no way they could keep in touch, that if they were sexually interested in someone else, they could have a relationship. They were both in love and would remain that way throughout the war, but it was an arrangement. I was 18 and went to stay with her when I had my embarkation leave. I was about to go to Africa. I knew them both and was fond of them both.
I was in a single bedroom. In the morning, the door opens, and in comes this woman, in her robe. She took it off and kneeled beside the bed. And there was this 18-year-old naïve boy. Man? Boy. Not sexually experienced at all. I’d never had sexual intercourse. It was an act of kindness. I immediately fell in love with her, of course.
I loved her. I’d loved her before. I’d had great feeling for her, but this was incredible.The next day we went out with her daughter, and bought some shopping. I went back to my unit and went off. I left with an enormous pleasure. On the other hand, I was in the army. War wasn’t something I’d chosen, I was called up.
I had an easy war. I was a driver and a wireless operator. I didn’t come in contact with the enemy. I didn’t have difficult tasks, I just operated a radio. I didn’t like being conscripted, but I didn’t object. It was a justifiable war and I expected to be conscripted.
After my school teacher’s wife, my next time with a woman was with a prostitute in an Arab brothel in Algiers. I don’t actually remember having relations there, but I think I did. Then, in Italy, I went to a Naples brothel. I stayed all night. That’s unusual in brothels. When I woke up and looked at her, I thought she was lovely.
I no longer have an attitude towards masculinity. I am affected by dementia now. A psychiatrist said I have dementia and prescribed drugs. It affects the way you think as well as your memory. Up until the age of 87 I still had normal feelings about sex and attraction, but these completely cut off and disappeared with my dementia. If I look at a pornographic image I have no sexual feeling. I am physically incapable, I couldn’t get an erection now. I occasionally masturbated until a few years ago, but it’s not there for me now, it has disappeared completely.
The absence of sexual feeling doesn’t matter to me at all. When I was younger it would have been disastrous. You know, if a man can’t get an erection, he'd go and see a doctor and get it sorted. Like all men, it was a major interest, but I have no interest in it now. I have been married twice and had a number of affairs that mattered to me a great deal.
Life has changed for women and men during my life. There is a more liberal relationship between men and women and an improvement. There is more partnership between men and women. Although when I was young there were plenty of men who weren’t sexist individuals.
My last relationship was in my 70s and that was with a woman in her 50s. We had a sexual relationship, we went on holiday, I looked after her children. We’re still friends now.
Longevity is increasing. My grandparents died in their 70s, but they were more like people in their 90s now. Ageing happens later now. Up until I was 87 I felt normal in most ways. OK, I couldn’t ride a bike as well as a young man.
I would claim I am a male feminist. What’s the word that covers all the different problems? This dementia... There are other forms of oppression, like class oppression. That’s it, I remember, I’m an intersectional feminist. I believe very much in that.
I’ve spent my life feeling my penis is too small. For as long as I can remember I have felt shame about it. I believe how I feel about my penis shaped my life, particularly up to my mid-20s. I’m doing this to help other men.
My teenage years were difficult for me – I’d look at other guys in the showers at school and think they were bigger than me. I felt ashamed and ‘less than’. I was worried about it being too small to function. I went to an all-male school and then an all-male college. I was worried about being ‘revealed’ somehow.
As I felt my penis was very small, I didn’t have sex till I was 21. I wanted to have sex before that, but every time I got close I went, ‘Ah, she’s going to discover my penis is so small’. In the end when I finally had sex it was with someone I felt very close to and trusted, and I was relaxed about it. It stopped me having more sex earlier, with women I didn’t feel so close to. I’m not saying whether that was a good or bad thing.
At times I’ve gone to public toilets and been too tense to pee. That still happens sometimes. If you are lined up with lots of people sometimes you worry people are checking you out.
If I’d had a larger penis I think I would have moved in the world of men with more confidence. You see men stroll through the showers and gym all confident and ‘Look at me,’ and I don’t, I’m in the corner with a towel. That seems minor, because I’m not in changing-rooms that much, but I think it would have given me more confidence. It’s kind of interesting.
I’m successful in my life, so I don’t think a small penis has held me back in my life. I’m a business leader, a leader of groups, I perform on stage. It feels like it’s more of an inner wound, and it has served me by giving me humility. Instead of walking through life with a swagger I’ve always been a bit tentative. I’ve also thought more about who I can trust and who I can’t.
I looked at penile enlargement in magazines and thought it was a complete waste of time. I knew that the journey for me was accepting how my body is. I also don’t like my nose. The way forward is to make friends with the body I have. I never thought about body surgery seriously.
Size has never been a factor with partners. In fact, it’s been the other way round. A couple of partners have said they like my size because it doesn’t hurt and they can take me orally more easily. Close female friends have told me that large penises have been intimidating or painful. I remember overhearing one female friend say to my partner that she could never go out with a man who didn’t have a large penis because she wouldn’t feel like he was a real man. I thought, ‘Wow, that would rule me out then’. I wondered how many other women think that. It’s never been as issue with my partners though.
I made my closest friends at college, but much about the environment was horrendous. The attitudes to women were Neanderthal, terrible. Behaving with women like that now would be unimaginable. They were seen as sexual objects to be preyed on, seduced, grabbed, grappled with, fucked, and that’s it. There were about five men to one woman overall at university and it was hard to get a girlfriend. All the guys were seriously frustrated.
I know men who got raped by other men at university, although it would have been seen as ‘high jinks’. A guy I know was pinned down while a few other men performed oral sex on him. He acted like he saw it as some sort of initiation and thought it was a laugh. Whether he really saw it like that I don’t know. I would call it rape.
There was a regular night of absolute debauchery at college, with everyone getting drunk, hardcore pornography around, and throwing things out of windows. It’s a whole other story about public school and that kind of life. People might get stripped naked. I remember one time people grabbed me and ripped off my clothes, and I was super worried they would rip off my pants and start laughing at me, but they didn’t. I think they must have sensed my terror and stopped. That fear was with me all the time.
I was abused twice on trains when I was 11. The first time I was travelling home from school. It was a 45-minute journey. I would normally travel in the small compartments. I was sitting in one corner and this guy got into the same compartment. At one point he looked over at me and said, ‘Oh you look just the right age to be advertising yourself’. I was wearing shorts and I’d accidentally left my flies open. He came to grab me. I pushed him away. He carried on talking to me and asked me to go home with him. I was so innocent. I said I couldn’t go with him because I had a piano lesson. He said he had a piano at his house. Fortunately, although I didn’t say anything when I got home, my mother was sensitive enough to notice that something was up. In the end I told her what had happened. My older brother travelled with me on the train for the next couple of weeks to see if we could see him again, but we didn’t. About a month later, I saw him and I went running to the station master and told him to call the police. The police came to pick me up, but of course he had gone hours ago. I realised later how nervous it made me. For a long time I was worried I was being followed by guys.
Maybe about nine months later I was travelling home from school, in a single compartment, putting out football cards. A guy sat opposite me and said, ‘Oh, you want to be a footballer?’ I said I did. ‘Why don’t you come over here and I’ll see if you have the body to be a footballer.’ He started feeling my thighs and legs and said I had the right body. Then he said, ‘I’m going to give you something really hard to see if you have the strength to be a footballer.’ So I was standing in front of him, facing away, and I put my hands behind my back and squeezed this thing. I didn’t know what I was touching at the time, I didn’t know what an erect penis felt like. It was only about five years later I realised what had happened.
I’ve done a lot of work around it, a lot of work on anger. I still occasionally feel really angry about it.
Manhood: The Bare Reality, published by Pinter & Martin, is out 15 June 2017 £14.99 (eBook £9.99). Pre-order yours here.