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The Tale of the Four Foot Phallus

By Hans Schouwenburg

Until its renovation in 2010, the former Arts and Humanities Library of Utrecht University (Letterenbibliotheek) housed a rather unusual treasure. It was not a rare book, incunabulum, or any other peculiar curiosity from the special collections. Nor was it proudly displayed in a cabinet or carefully stored on a bookshelf. In fact, although all too well known to many, this particular historical source frequently remained unnoticed to the library’s visitors. In order to admire it one needed to walk quite a long way to the study booths on the third floor.

Here one could behold a great many inscriptions on walls and in toilets. Thousands of graffiti decorated the rooms, including the corpus’ pièce de resistance: a drawing of an enormous cock (Figure 1). Almost four foot in size, the detailed image of a circumcised and erected penis, complete with blood vessels and hairy bollocks, contrasted sharply with the feeble shape of the figure who owned the monster. Further inspection would teach the startled visitor that, although definitely the most explicit, this particular donger was not the only example of phallic graffiti. More than fifty penises in different colours, sizes and forms, some soft and hairy, others erected and ejaculating, looked you in the face.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Why would anyone decorate the pillar of a university library’s study booth with a giant cock? And more importantly: what has all this to do with the history of science? In this essay, I will argue that penis graffiti has played an important role in Utrecht’s student culture. As a result, the four foot phallus and other examples of penis graffiti, form a valuable source for university historians who are interested in the cultural history of student life.

Fraternity Dongs

Comparative analyses between graffiti in men and women’s toilets in university buildings suggest that men draw phallic symbols on walls while women do not.[1] My own investigations at Utrecht University Library confirm these findings. Generally, men’s graffiti tends to be ‘erotic’ in nature (e.g. cock and bull stories about sexual adventures), while women’s texts and drawings are ‘romantic’ (e.g. declarations of love).

Furthermore, like the observations of social scientists in the United States, who uncovered connections between fraternity culture and stereotypical gender attitudes, male dominance and hypermasculinity, penis graffiti at Utrecht’s University Library usually went together with references to the studentencorps .[2] Next to a drawing of an erected phallus, for example, one could read: “The only thing sorority girls desire is fraternity dong in their bum” (“Het enige dat uffen willen is een corpspik tussen hun billen”). In similar vein, the opposite wall displayed another frat rat’s rod (“corpspik”) ejaculating on the face of a sorority sister (“uf”) (Figure 2) .[3]

Figure 2

Figure 2

In these and other cases, fratters use the phallus symbolically to construct a corporate identity. By highlighting their own fertility and sexual skills, they define themselves against other groups. But why cocks? And why do fraternity students make such an effort to advertise their collective identity via graffiti?

Ritual Conflicts

Utrecht’s student culture forms a shattered landscape. Students from competing unions are engaged in ritual conflicts: playful battles following strict rules and customs, in which they vigorously try to outstrip one another. Two groups in particular join battle: fratters (corpsballen) and non-corps students or knorren (pigs) as they are insultingly called. The roots of these ritual conflicts lie in the 19th century when theology students from lower social backgrounds, who obtained bursaries to study, decided for financial or ideological reasons not to join the corps, which until then had been compulsory.

Corps students, in their turn, called these deserters ‘nihilists’, a derogatory term which originated during the French Revolution and referred to people who stood aloof from politics .[4] When groups of ‘nihilists’ decided to form their own unions in the 1880s, corps students tried to emphasize their self-proclaimed superiority by calling them ‘pigs’ in Amsterdam, ‘grunters’ in Leiden and Delft, scoundrel (boeven) in Utrecht and ‘boenders’ in Groningen. [5] These parodic battles still continue today on the walls of the University Library.

Pen Wars

The graffiti corpus indicates that corps students construct their identity along two pillars: hedonism and materialism. They take pride in their prominent social-economic position and boast about sexual adventures with sorority girls and the size of their penis. They see themselves as members of the aristocracy, as people of old money, who identify politically with the conservative liberal VVD. These very qualities, however, are ridiculized by others. Non-corps students describe the fraternity’s materialistic and hedonistic self-image as “simple” (simpel), “boring” (saai), “mentally empty” (leeg) and “stupid” (dom). For them corps students are conservative snobs (ballen) and braggers (brallers) without an opinion of their own. Binge drinking makes them fat, ugly, lazy and mentally incompetent.

Corps students, on the other hand, still see students from other societies as inferior knorren, “paupers” who belong to the working class and cannot afford to rent an apartment in the city centre. Knorren, they say, are badly dressed – they even grow moustaches – and are ill-equipped to sexually satisfy women. In short: the qualities which corps students attribute to themselves – sexually active, wealthy and highly potent – are negatively applied to non-corps students and nihilists. Thus a parodic hyperbole of the identity of the ‘other’ becomes symbolically central to the constitution of the group’s own identity. Parody, caricature, hyperbole, and animalisation are among the symbolic techniques which are employed in these playful pen wars.

In some cases non-corps students creatively turn these mechanisms upside down. One student portrayed a master knor who humiliates two corpsballen while smoking a fag (Figure 3). The knor is notably far more potent than the poor fratters, who are violently attacked with their own weapons.

Figure 3

Figure 3

University History

The four foot phallus is a visual advertisement for Utrecht’s student corps. It serves as a symbolic weapon in the playful pen wars between knorren and corpsballen. It aims to demonstrate the self-acclaimed superior fitness of fratters over non-corps students, and underlines qualities (sexual potency, the capacity to give pleasure) they use to define themselves vis-à-vis others.

Penis graffiti, then, has an intriguing story to tell about student culture. I therefore strongly recommend this source to everyone who is interested in the cultural history of student life. For those who dare to look beyond the filth a fascinating world arises. A world that would otherwise remain concealed behind the safe walls of the fraternity clubhouse.

o-o-o

Hans Schouwenburg is a PhD candidate at Maastricht University. He wrote his MA thesis about graffiti in the Utrecht University Library, in which one will find more amusing examples (link: http://studenttheses.library.uu.nl/search.php?language=nl&qry=schouwenburg). Next year he will publish a block-calendar (scheurkalender) which contains an anthology of the toilet graffiti he encountered during his research (link: http://www.literatuurplein.nl/boekdetail.jsp?boekId=845524).

References

[1] Sechrest, L. and L. Flores (1969) ‘Homosexuality in the Philipines and the United States: The Handwriting on the Wall’, The Journal of Social Psychology 79, 3-12 and Sechrest, L. and A. K. Olson. (1971), ‘Graffiti in Four Types of Institutions of High Education’, The Journal of Sex Research 7.1, 62-71.

[2] Robinson, D., Gibson-Beverly, G. and Schwartz, J. (2004) ‘Sorority and Fraternity Membership and Religious Behaviors: Relation to Gender Attitudes’, Sex Roles 50.11/12, 871-877; Bleecker, Timothy and Murnen, Sarah K. (2005) ‘Fraternity Membership, the Display of Degrading Sexual Images of Women, and Rape Myth Acceptance’, Sex Roles 5.7/8, 487-493; and Murnen, Sarah K. and Kohlman, Marla H. (2007) ‘Athletic Participation, Fraternity Membership, and Sexual Aggression Among College Men: A Meta-analytic Review’, Sex Roles 57, 145-157.

[3] In Utrecht’s student culture ‘uf’ refers to members of UVSV the female branch of the studentencorps.

[4] De Coster, Marc (2007) Groot scheldwoordenboek: van apenkont tot zweefteef, Antwerpen: Standaard.

[5] According to Pieter Caljé (personal correspondence), the term ‘boenders’ may refer to the German town Bunde, from where students came who refuse to become members of the Groningen Studentencorps.

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1 Comment

  1. […] a previous article I showed how fraternity students in the Utrecht University Library use phallic symbols to define […]

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