Let's hear it for the willy

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ONE OF the best things to have arrived in popular culture over the past decade or so is the ubiquitous use of the word 'willy'. It is second only to the entry into general consciousness of the vulva and the comedian Lea de Laria's concept of the 'wide-on', a revolutionary contribution to the language of desire.

A willy used to be an item owned only by little brothers. Now, for the first time in modern history, the very sound of men's sexuality connotes something cuddly. That, more than all the iconography of aggressive anatomy, has allowed the item to infuse the popular imagination, to become universal: it's the sweet thing you play periscopes with, wee with, wank with, have babies with, let other people play with, drive cars with, go to war with. It is not that the word has reinterpreted the uses of the willy, rather the word is an index of how popular culture has got the measure of it, in all its diversity.

There is a lesson in this: the willy word has become sayable. It can be said as easily and as wittily by girls as by boys. The willy word has been appropriated by girls. That is what has transformed its value in popular culture. The old vernacular was too angry and aggressive, too penetrating and even painful to become part of our everyday imagination. The item was fetishised not by women but by men. Now little girls can recognise willy cars when they're counting licence plates with their dads as comfortably as they can play I-Spy.

The willy word is sayable because it is not dangerous. It connotes an item at play and at rest, it can conjure its pleasures as well as its absurdities and its atrocities.

Two versions of the willy are circulating: the traditional and the revisionist. Among the traditionalist advocates are Health Minister, Brian Mawhinney, and angry American eccentric, Camille Paglia, scourge of feminists and saint of the Sunday Times. Neither is known for making friends and influencing people: Mawhinney made a name for himself this year by banning a book and Paglia made a name for herself by accusing women of not loving the willy enough.

Revisionism is having a good year. Its hero is Nick Fisher who, you will remember, is Just 17's agony uncle whose book for the Health Education Authority, Your Pocket Guide to Sex, was pulped on the instructions of Mawhinney. Penguin thought better of it and salvaged it word for word. Now Pan has published Living With a Willy: The Inside Story. 'There's no doubt about it, the willy is a fabulous organ,' he tells his young readers. In 117 rude and raunchy pages he offers not myths about the mighty willy but reassuring irreverance.

Where traditionalists' celebrate men's organs and orifices as blunt instruments, the revisionist offers relief about size - it is irrelevant; only other boys care how big it is, girls don't care. He is wonderful about wanking - it is educational, enlightening, good fun, great relief when the going gets tough, and helpful when you are trying to help someone else get to know you. He is reassuring about virginity, loss of. 'It's daft,' he says, that suddenly you are something else when a penis has entered a vagina, and boys would become better lovers 'if they forgot about their dicks for a while'. He is brave about premature ejaculation - a myth created by men who assume that women's desire is an effect of their own and that heroic penetration is what produces women's pleasure.

When I canvassed my 20-year- old nephew, who loves falling in love, he reckoned that 'every little lad should read it because they are told so much by older lads that you take as writ when its just utter bollocks'. This beautiful boy, who has always enjoyed his precious bits, liked it because it said 'loads of good things about wanking and premature ejaculation. And he emphasises the loving, sensual side of sex.'

Fisher is the most entertaining challenge we've had all year to the antique fetishisms promoted by Camille Paglia in her book Sexual Personae and on television. Paglia says: men have got it, it's hot, but women can't deal with the penis. Wrong, says Fisher, men can't deal with the penis. A penis is an extension, an arm, says Paglia. Wrong, says Fisher, it's lovely and it's little. When they wee they make 'an arc of transcendance,' she says. Wrong, says Fisher, when they wee they wee.

Behind Fisher's fond mockery and modesty lies a passion for pleasure and an endorsement of women's critique of what Germaine Greer has designated the 'frightful British fuck'. But the traditionalists can't take the challenge to grandiosity and omnipotence - the quarrel with the willy as a magic wand, a conceit that has doomed women to the missionary position as the modus operandi of real men's sex. Add to this a moral injunction that Mary Whitehouse would support, and you have the Government's encyclical on sex education: unhappy and unsafe. Traditionalists represent women's sexual anatomy as lacking, as contingent and dependent, as if it were merely an answer to men's action rather than having its own fabulous faculties. But Fisher likes women and willies. His counsel is that if boys took their willies less seriously, then men might take sex more seriously.

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