Issue 242 | Correspondence | The Sun Magazine


The October 1995 issue was my first Sun, and I eagerly read it from cover to cover. I’d just left a nonprofit that helped Vietnam veterans, so I cried, forgave, and rejoiced as I read. Sure, I noticed the photograph on the front cover, but to me it simply announced The Sun’s openness.

I was surprised and slightly amused by the readers’ comments in the Correspondence section of the December 1995 issue. After all, we have been inundated by images of women’s bodies forever. Are men’s bodies any different, more hallowed or exempt?

Please don’t give in to giving us only what’s comfortable.

Joy Jenko Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

I think you missed the point of your readers’ negative reactions to the October cover. It doesn’t sound to me as though they “find the sight of a penis offensive,” as you suggest, but rather that they object to the way it is depicted and the implied connection with warlike aggression. The fact that the penis is temporarily “detumescent” is overshadowed by the menacing feel of the whole picture.

Perhaps the photograph is appropriate for an issue on war, if you mean to suggest that testosterone is at the root of aggression. But, regardless of what you intended, both my husband and I thought the cover tasteless, and he found it insulting.

Juditha Dowd Califon, New Jersey

I hardly noticed the cover photograph of the October issue until I read the responses to it and looked again to find what was so offensive. I saw a photograph that was taken from a unique perspective and exuded power and sexuality. It is a provocative image. It stirred up some people’s shame, sense of victimization, and fear of sexuality and nudity. Each person saw the image through the filter of his or her own experience.

As you said in your reply, it is telling that we still find nudity, particularly male nudity, so offensive — even more so than symbols of violence. My partner and I are two women who were not insulted or offended by this image. While we recognize that all responses to the photograph, negative or positive, are valid, we find the implicit and explicit suggestions to censor it disturbing.

Marla Bergman and Terry Owens San Francisco, California

Just when I feared I had slipped into the mainstream, along comes a rash of letters protesting a perfectly appropriate photograph of a marble penis. I’m with Sy: it’s the sword that’s disturbing. The penis is a beautiful, nonviolent, noble ally to all human life, even if it does sometimes seem that we’re being “pissed on by the prick of God.”

Brian Knave Berkeley, California

I was neither surprised nor offended by the October cover photograph. I was surprised by the reaction of some readers. If the statue had been female, I doubt anyone would have raised an eyebrow. Nude women in art are depicted from all angles, and everyone agrees they are beautiful. But show a nude male and people are offended. Male genitalia are considered rude and crude by some only because they happen to hang out instead of in.

Paul S. Olympia, Washington

I have to admit I thought the photograph on your October cover a bit odd. Still, it was only a picture of carved marble. You would have thought you’d printed Mapplethorpe, the way your mail read.

Art has always been controversial, thank God. I think the fact that photographer Jennifer Warburg was able to get such a rise out of some of your readers is a triumphant sword she can dangle above all our heads. That’s what art is for sometimes.

Michael Richards Columbia, Missouri

I was amused by the variety of reactions to your October cover photograph. Personally, I thought it delightful. My six-year-old son, who is still figuring out the finer points of male anatomy, ran to show his best friend the picture of the man with three penises! Several of my women friends were also amused, especially when they heard my son’s interpretation. Perhaps one day we will remember how to celebrate our bodies — in all their sizes and shapes, male and female, clothed and nude, and from any angle.

Gloria Baldwin-Wilson Kalamazoo, Michigan

When I first got the October issue, I didn’t even notice the cover. When I did look at it, I saw a photograph of a sword and a penis, a picture implying a relationship between the two, or perhaps a meditation on shape and form and line, or even a reflection on classical and modern conceptions of the male role.

What really shocked me was the letter writers who rattled their sabers, crying, “Censor me! Censor me!” They reminded me how closed-minded the American public still is on so many levels: artistically, culturally, emotionally. I still vote for honesty. Tell them to send their money to Jesse Helms, not to The Sun.

Andy Couturier San Francisco, California

Regarding readers’ responses to the October cover photo:

Apparently the penis mightier than the sword.

Catherine Madsen Amherst, Massachusetts

As a manuscript reader for The Sun, I am disheartened by the fact that some subscribers saw the October cover as insulting and aggressive. Although I understand their reaction, it seems a narrow one. There is another reading that, for me, carries a larger truth: With his body so exposed, the warrior’s weapon is useless — and what is more ludicrous and tragically wasteful than war?

One of the readers offended by the photograph had an essay in the November issue [Matt Curtis, “Saying Its Name: When Illness Is a Secret”], a beautiful piece about sickness and fear and redemption. On several occasions prior to this, the letters page has been mired in argument about whether or not the mostly male editorial staff has a masculine agenda. When I think about these two events — the women accusing the men, the male writer offended by the photograph — I feel that we really are hopeless. We’ve learned to see inside, but have forgotten how to recognize the hesitant son, the troubled brother, the father twisted every which way by love.

I know well the petty humiliation and bias, and acts of oppression large and small heaped upon my gender. I am keenly aware of domestic and random violence targeted at women and children; every sane person is devastated by the knowledge of these crimes. I would never wish to undermine or dismiss another’s pain, especially another woman’s. But I cannot see how the penis on this relic should be so culpable, so awfully unsuitable, when it has something to say that might be important. If everything is to be connected — gender, symbol, rage, violence, love — then we cannot stop making these connections where it suits us, say, when our sense of victimhood is pricked.

Colleen Donfield Raleigh, North Carolina

I knew I couldn’t trust you. You have met my lowest expectations, and, believe me, I have pretty low ones.

Your December cover photograph of a window being invaded by vines is an in-your-face insult to all your readers who feel they were window sashes in a former life. How dare you? I know, “It’s just a photograph.” But I’ve heard that one before.

Every time I look at this obscene cover, I feel like I’m looking out a window from a weird angle. It fucks up my whole day! Why didn’t you just send this filth to Better Homes & Gardens, where it belongs? Judy Nisenholt is obviously sick. I suppose she takes pictures of floors without any carpeting, too.

J. H. Dennis Wilmington, Ohio

In Derrick Jensen’s interview “Limiting the Future” [December 1995], David Ehrenfeld claims that we will never succeed in understanding the human mind, ecosystems, or physiological functioning, and therefore we should not try.

It’s a good thing Ehrenfeld wasn’t around in the days when we did not yet understand the germ theory of disease. Ehrenfeld may throw in the towel if he wishes and rest his hope on the beneficent intervention of a supposed God, but I prefer to put my money on humanity’s continuing attempt to understand all it can.

His essay “Forgetting,” on the other hand, was right on target with its argument for a reduction in university administration and a greater priority for teaching.

Michael Hannon Los Angeles, California

David Ehrenfeld’s observations concerning the failure to transmit vital knowledge to future generations reminded me of an experience I had while serving with the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. I came across a pamphlet titled “Lessons Learned from Vietnam.” The preface touted it as something akin to The Complete Works of Aristotle. You can imagine my surprise when, upon leafing through it, I discovered nothing but the most rudimentary rules of soldiering, such as making sure your canteen is full before going out on patrol. These were things we should have learned during the Revolutionary War! The effort to pass this on as newly acquired wisdom would have struck me as comical were it not for the fact that our nation was engaged in a real war, with more men dying every day.

Randall Patnode’s story “Crimson Tide” (in the same issue) was a fitting finale for my musings on war and death. I saw much of myself in Bradley, the middle-class boy who pays the ultimate price for the folly, blundering, and ineptitude of leaders and statesmen. But I was much more fortunate: I came home with no more than some hearing loss and a constant ringing in both ears brought on by all the rifle fire.

Dennis P. Roberts Spokane, Washington
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