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Curious Case of Penis Envy

Betty L. came to the clinic with a curious case of penis envy.

Just one year ago, an attractive redhead, Betty L., came to my clinic and said: “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, Doctor. I have a wonderful husband, twelve splendid children, a girlish figure, and a brand-new house in an expensive neighborhood. But I feel I’m missing something.” Like many other women her age, Betty L. lacked a penis but was unable to verbalize her sense of inadequacy. She was aware only of a vague, liquid emptiness, a throbbing gap, a bittersweet bodily vacuity, if you will, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on or around, “as if a thing that should be there isn’t.”

During one of her early analytic sessions, Betty L. reported a dream in which she was a vacuum cleaner, roaring hungrily across a room—engulfing pins, pencils, knitting needles, telephone receivers, empty toilet-paper rolls, exhaust pipes, ski poles, candlesticks, flutes, bassoons, oboes, children’s thick pink waxy crayons, whole salamis, lamp stands, baseball bats and pool cues, cucumbers, Coke bottles, guns, cannons, candles, pitons, potted cacti, swords, spears, rifles, table legs, ax handles, nails and hammers, snakes, stick shifts, fishing rods, vanilla ice cream cones—voraciously sucking huge bananas one after another and even two at once into her great, gaping, writhing, pulsing, shrilly whining vacuum.

At first she thought this dream reflected anxiety over her performance as a homemaker. House-proud, she feared she wasn’t cleaning as thoroughly as she might and that, as she put it, “the dirt was catching up with me.” Pressed for a more profound interpretation, she hesitantly revealed she’d been a Hoover vacuum cleaner and thought the dream might have something to do with her latent paranoia about the FBI and feelings of guilt at the wished-for death of J. Edgar Hoover, whom she identified with her detested mother.

In fact, the dream revealed nothing other than her longing—the universal and perfectly understandable female longing—for a phallus. Her case had all the elements of classic penis envy: traumatic childhood glimpse of a baby brother’s penis; invidious comparison of her own small clitoris with that majestic organ; castration fantasies and anxieties; a terrified feeling that she’d been shortchanged, even mutilated; resentment of the mother for having brought her into the world a girl; guilt; persistent craving for a penis; and the unfortunate development of a masculinity complex. In short, Betty L. had refused to resign herself to her inferiority, to accept her unique femininity and exult (passively) in it. Instead, she had stubbornly insisted on engaging in masculine activities like moving, growing, thinking, and breathing.

With my help, Betty L. was soon able to unlock psychic secrets buried by a lifetime of repression . Psychoanalysis enabled her to verbalize her darkest longing. One afternoon toward the end of a session, she bolted upright on her couch and boldly screamed: “I want cock! That’s it. That’s what I want! Cock! I’ve always wanted it! I can’t deny it anymore.” She grabbed eagerly at various penises that were nearby and she had to be restrained. Even as I nodded therapeutically, I knew her cure was imminent. Betty L. had made the long journey in her sexuality from infantile fixation on the clitoris to mature female vaginal response.

Her progress was confirmed by a subsequent dream that revealed she no longer lusted vainly for the penis she could never have, but had resigned herself maturely to her fate. In this dream, she was not the aggressive, strident Hoover of before. Instead she had ripened into a refrigerator—”a Frigidaire, I think it was”—cool, motionless, and fairly quiet. In place of her former boisterous eagerness there was a passive poise, insouciance, the bare minimum of ticking and whirring necessary to show life. No longer demanding bananas, she was placidly receiving anything put into her. Her life consisted of sitting patiently, awaiting the copious convulsive discharge of giant grocery bags from the SuperMart, complacently producing ice cubes, then defrosting automatically each month, like clockwork. She was a real woman, smiling in a faint, mysterious enamel way, accepting her electric destiny, a happy icewife.

Soon afterward I knew I had cured Betty—and persuaded her to compensate for her biological inadequacy—when she became pregnant with her thirteenth child. For years, she had in fact achieved that normal sublimation—having babies to replace the longed-for penis. But then she’d reached a stalemate at the number thirteen. She was superstitious, as women often are. Her cure included a rigorous regimen of drugs, electroshock therapy, brain surgery, and group-encounter sessions. Even so, it was only when we convinced her she could also have a fourteenth child that we counteracted her atavistic fears.

Betty L. has just turned thirty-eight. She now has a luxurious country estate, an increasingly prominent husband, a new expensive face lift, and thirteen rosy sons, all of whom have splendid penises. Not all cases are closed as successfully as hers. Today, in fact, the incidence of penis envy is on the rise, as evinced by the epidemic spread of women’s lib. Women’s infantile desire to make their own decisions, support themselves, command equal pay for equal work, enjoy a sexual single standard, and have the right to free abortion on demand is simply the wish to be a man and have a penis. A thousand analysts more learned than I have said as much.

What is to be done? Step One is understanding. The penis is a versatile, convenient, outstanding organ, and it is perfectly obvious that a woman should want one. Wouldn’t you want one too, if you didn’t already have one? Countless men say they hanker to “become real men,” even though they already are. It’s realistic that women should emulate men in this respect as in others. The superior sex is woman’s natural source of guidance, after all. The time has come for members of my profession to admit that penis envy is a natural and justifiable human lust, to be commended and encouraged. Instead of reprimanding women for wanting bodies that are perfect and complete, we analysts must take a modern and humane approach and show a bit of insight. We should no longer chastise women. Rather, we should seek to understand them.

Step Two is an intensive program of compensatory help. Many women simply can’t bear large numbers of children. And we wouldn’t want them to if they could. World resources are dwindling, and we have a population problem. Mother Earth herself is steadily growing less able to nurture all her children. It is unfair to her—stimulating as it may be for the other mothers concerned—for us to insist that women solve their penis-envy problems by becoming pregnant every year.

Granting that this is so, most women will simply have to forgo their lust for large families and settle for second best by becoming poets, statesmen, and philosophers. People who have penises should help women to adjust, in the same generous way that they help other handicapped people. Just as our technical experts have produced hearing aids for the deaf and spectacles for the astigmatic, they should work to equip women with the penises they need to qualify for jobs as board chairmen, ships’ captains, engineers, editors, mathematicians, even psychoanalysts. Men should aid women in every way to keep up with the competition, occasionally offering them the use of their penises, if necessary. I would go so far as to suggest that women be given opportunities to participate in business and world affairs even without penises. Surely the present and future mothers of America deserve no less.

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