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“In the last few decades tens of thousands of penises and testicles have been through my hands…”

(Review by Stephen L.)

How do authors signal to readers that they are an authority on a subject? They flaunt scholarly credentials, pose professorially for the dust jacket photo, and, most importantly, get other well-known author friends to blurb about how their book is “haunting,” “masterful” and a “tour de force.”

Dutch urologist Mels van Driel prefers to tout his hands-on experience.

“In the last few decades tens of thousands of penises and testicles have been through my hands,” he writes. “Eventually one feels the urge to dig deeper.”

Van Driel gave into that (sweet, instinctive) urge, and the result is “Manhood: The Rise and Fall of the Penis.”

At nearly 300 pages, it’s a work that he is hyping as “an unprecedented history of the penis.” Of course, like most men are prone to, van Driel is exaggerating the size of his contribution to the field of sexuality. But who cares?  He seems nice enough, so let’s spend a couple minutes digging deeper into his work.


Van Driel is a proper academic, and like all proper academics, he has a particular focus. His specialty is balls. Yes, in the never-ending rivalry between the willy and the balls, van Driel states at the outset that he is siding with the latter. “In the wake of [Sigmund Freud’s phallic theories], increasing attention was paid to the penis at the expense of the testicles. This book attempts to redress that balance.”

Like, woah! Can’t you just imagine the hush of nervous anticipation that descended over the room when he told his urologist friends this thesis? This is, like, a totally bold, totally counterintuitive stance VD is taking here! (You don’t mind that I call him VD, right? Van Driel is a mouthful.)


Unfortunately, after Chapter One: The Testicles and the Scrotum, VD loses interests in his balls-are-just-as-important argument. He doesn’t return to them until Chapter Five: Castration. Frankly, that chapter and the following one about ailments of the ball-sack made me terribly uncomfortable. I covered my eyes and chanted “La La La” through large swaths of these pages, so I don’t know how well he defended his balls argument. Apologies.


I can tell you, however, that VD is a master at the non-sequitur. Take Chapter Two: The Penis, for instance. He is in the middle of explaining the operations of the corpus spongiosum (the tissue surrounding the urethra) when he pauses to bemoan the “relatively little attention [that] has been paid to the glans in poetry.” What? Turns out that as much as VD is fascinated by penises, he is fond of literature, too.

The bookish side of VD really comes out in Chapter Nine: Spilling One’s Seed. You see, he believes masturbation is pretty much useless and compares it to “picking scabs or squeezing spots” on your face. To support this ridiculous belief he quotes Rousseu, Gogol, Goethe, Kierkegaard and Philip Larkin. Obviously VD didn’t have access to the latest issue of Rolling Stone. In it, modern-day poet John “Your Body Is A Wonderland” Mayer says

that he has masturbated “out of serious problems in my life” and that the activity is akin to a “brain bath.” See VD! Masturbating does have some redeeming value!


“Manhood” is filled with Latin names, non-titillating diagrams, and statistics measured using the metric system. It can be pretty dull. VD is like a groom who has anticipated sleeping with his bride the whole wedding day, but once he reaches the bedroom he is too tired to perform.

He does sometimes rise to the occasion. I’ll end on a story he tells about the phenomenon known as “shrinkage.” A man named Mario has just returned back to the beach after a naked swim in some chilly water:

“Mario had no inkling of danger when he sat down in his chair to get his breath back after the cold dip. The cold sea had caused his testicles to shrink, so they dropped between the wooden slats of the lounger. When a little later the sun did its work and the testicles expanded to their true size again, the damage was done. His rescuer had no alternative but to cut the lounger in half and release the unfortunate victim!”

Just one more example of balls always getting the shaft.

Manhood: The Rise and Fall of the Penis
By Mels van Driel
Reaktion Books. 288 pp. $35