Everyone has seen a cartoon penis somewhere. Carved into a desk in Wheeler Hall. On a BART map. Strategically located on a fraternity composite. And, probably most commonly, on a bathroom stall.
I’ve seen students who take pride in crafting cartoon dicks in random places: on the hallway announcement board, on my friend’s dorm door — very elaborate, very hairy, very excited. I’ve seen them grace greeting cards: 15 cartoon penises summoned to say, “You’re a huge sack of dicks, but I like you.” Nowhere is safe, people.
Although I don’t mind a well-placed, comical cartoon penis here and there, it provokes an important inquiry: Where are all the cartoon vaginas?
While I’ve heard of the stray vagina graffiti in maybe a few campus bathrooms, it’s pretty apparent that the Sharpie-crafted world of bathroom art is one big sausage fest.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why there is such a relative prevalence of dick drawings, but one possible answer dates back to a former UC Berkeley professor of anthropology who studied bathroom graffiti. Alan Dundes, a folklorist, wrote a paper about the motivations for taking marker to stall in a 1965 analysis from university bathrooms around the United States, coining the term “latrinalia.”
In his study, he claimed that men wrote more latrinalia than women because men are jealous of the fact that women can “make” babies. Men, he said, deal with this inability to make babies by finding “substitute gratifications” — one of which is shitting. Yep, shitting. Dundes argues, “When a man defecates, he is a creator, a prime mover.” He is living up to the societal expectation for man to be a productive actor — to “make a living” and “make something of himself.” This “make” metaphor further extends to genitalia, as “a man is expected to make out, to make a woman, and to make love.”
Although Dundes’ original finding that men write more latrinalia than women has been disproved by more recent studies, his work suggests that sexual bathroom graffiti, like pictures of penises, may result from a male need to prove themselves as capable producers and providers.
Looking back on history, it appears dick drawings have always played some part in our lives. Archaeologist Andres Vlachopoulos discovered ancient erotic graffiti on the rocky peninsula of the Aegean islands in 2014. This ancient artwork appeared just like the cartoon penises we see today, as it depicts balls and all with a steamy description next to the picture: “Nikasitimos was here mounting Timiona,” both of whom were men.
Vlachopoulos maintains that this graffiti is quite rare — not because it describes a sexual act by two men, which was socially acceptable in ancient Greece, but because it addresses a sexual act at all. He believes the sexual nature of the penis graffiti means it was a sign of triumph, a way to claim to the space. It acted as a symbol of the men’s territory in the same way that people and animals “mark” their territory with urine.
While I doubt every cartoon penis drawn in the 21st century signals a sexual act transpired, history would suggest that pictures like these do express sexual desire. Now, the overwhelming and uneven amount of penis graffiti compared to vagina graffiti could be linked to the idea that male sexuality is not only more accepted in society but also more expected and that traditional male identity focuses more on his genitalia. It’s common to talk and joke about male dick sizes, but female identity and genitalia have not historically been defined or even talked about in such overt ways, whether in society or on bathroom walls.
Even when vaginas do make their way to public art, they’re not positively associated with sex. Look no further than the Sheela Na Gig statues, stone figures found most prominently adorning 12th-century Irish churches. While these female figures are overtly sexual, depicting a woman grabbing and opening her own vagina, the most common theory about why these statues exist is that they were warnings against the sin of lust for a population that was mostly illiterate. Therefore, unlike the depiction of the Grecian lovers discussed above, the image of a vagina was supposed to scare people and berate them about sex rather than celebrate the act of sex.
The lack of cartoon vaginas in our lives may very well be due to a modern discomfort with female sexuality. But the tides may be turning. One doesn’t have to look too far to see that vagina cartoons are up and coming (ha!), as threats to female reproductive rights have occupied a larger part of the national discourse.
The “Pussy Grabs Back” protest slogan exemplifies this irony — vagina drawings may become more commonplace in response to the limited conceptions of female sexuality that permeate male-dominated political bodies. It’s a hopeful sign that along with a lot else, a cartoon vagina is on its way to a stall wall near you.
Contact Marlena Trafas at [email protected].