October 27th, 2017
| Survivor: Penile Cancer
I recently read a post about a sex offender and a crime he had committed. A comment on the thread said that the punishment for this crime should be to "chop his penis off." This was, it seemed to be generally agreed, a suitable punishment for such an abhorrent crime: the worst penalty a man could receive, bar death itself. Others then agreed, and perhaps it was a mob mentality, but maybe it wasn't. I do not think many would disagree if you asked them on the street, to be honest.
For me and guys like me who live without a penis due to medical complications, this puts a bit of perspective on our place in a world that thinks of the penis as the ultimate source of masculine power and identity. Violently removing the penis for sexual predators would be done with the intention of taking away his power, of humiliating him, and of ensuring he never has sexual pleasure again.
But if the penis is defined as the only way men can access these aspects of humanity, we are tying a violent criminal punishment to a reality that good men already live with. We say they have no power, we humiliate them, and we claim they can not experience sexual pleasure. We invalidate their existence as men completely.
Men like me… we have battled through the worst trauma a man can face. We have fought chemotherapy, radiotherapy, lymphedema, cellulitis, infections, pain -- and that is just the physical battle. Yet our success, the"new home" we have made out of our bodies, if you like, is being compared to the most radical, cruel, extreme sentence being suggested to punish a sexual predator.
We exist in a world in which we are constantly surrounded by imagery and themes that reminds us that sex should be such a big part of all our lives. I hear things, see things, catch passing jokes, overhear conversations, so often referencing sex or the male form, and to me it's like hearing it on a loudspeaker. At one time, it would turn me cold and send a shiver through me, each time a reminder that this is a reality for me. Not only did I nearly die, but this is how I have to live. It's a hard balance to adjust to. Walking down the street, no one would have a clue, yet inside it can be torture.
Whether inflicted as a punishment or chosen for the preservation of life, having a penectomy (surgical removal of the penis) causes a huge amount of trauma, distress and psychological damage -- and that doesn't go away after the surgery. Three years post-op, I am still living with this infinite "punishment," as others have called it. If I'm being honest, it can feel that way. At times, it feels like a living torture.That said, I am not ungrateful to be alive, but it does come at a challenging cost.
This may sound strange, but the whole trauma of the experience was probably locked away as it was occurring so I could focus solely on recovery from the operation and just trying not to die. I do not know how you could prepare for this even if you had the time to – it is just off the scale. Ask a heathy man how he would feel having this done and my guess is he would cross his legs, scrunch up his face and say no, no way could he cope with that. But I had to -- otherwise, I would die. It's not hard to see where the enormity of the trauma comes from: a massive operation, an amputation and the real possibility of death. No wonder our minds shut down to the reality of this.
When I lost my penis, I also lost so much more than just a physical appendage – even today, I do not think I have fully unlocked the fullest extent of the trauma. It felt like I lost my everything for a while. The huge struggle that followed surgery took away everything from me – it was all encompassing. The battle was to live. Nothing else mattered. All of my energy was routed to this one goal. My social drive, my confidence, my direction: everything went into recovery. I was pushing this as hard as I could, beyond what probably I should have been doing. Every day a few more steps, just trying to do more to pushout of the pain and trauma – trying to find "me."
Without a penis one does feel different -- how could you not? But what I do not really know is how much of this is really down to the cancer and how much down to the amputation. Do I still feel like a man? No, not all the time. I find it hard to accept that the physical side of my relationships has changed and that sex is no longer a thing that can be enjoyed as before. I still feel at odds with my body. I still find myself very uncomfortable, there are certain places I find difficult to go to, I have friends that I am unable to see. But between dying with my "manhood" and living without the biological symbol of it, I chose to live.
Being a man in this often greatly oversexualized world does come with responsibility, that much is true. But in any context, be it a sexual offender or not, we cannot equate the phallus as the end-all-be-all badge of acceptance for men in our society. Despite the alienation I have to navigate in today's culture, despite the physical hardship, despite the huge physiological trauma, which at times still hangs over me, I am slowly learning to redefine myself based on my character. And that is how all men should intend to live their life, whatever they have below the belt.
The penis does not maketh the man, but it can destroy him.
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