I walked out of The Worst Person in the World—the Oscar-nominated romantic comedy–turned–drama about one young woman trying to figure out life and love—feeling like The Dumbest Person in the World. Or maybe The Most Naïve Person in the World. Perhaps just The Most Confused Person in the World? At the risk of becoming The Most Sheepish Person in the World, I’ll explain why.
You know the chapter of the Norwegian hit—it’s divided into 12 chapters—where the main character, Julie, meets a man named Eivind at a party, and they stay up all night flirting? I’ve seen that part described as “endorphin-soaked,” “perfectly choreographed,” and “lightning in a bottle,” among other swoony words of praise. But something held me back from feeling the full force of all that choreography of lightning and endorphins: It was the secret Julie confesses to Eivind while the two are sitting on a bed, away from the noise of the party: “I actually think sex is best when the dick isn’t too hard,” she says. “Because in a way, then I’m the one who makes it hard, you know?”
No, I do not know. The idea gets repeated not long after: Julie publishes an essay about the sexual politics of blow jobs, and in it, she writes, “I like it flaccid. So I create the stiffness instead of having it thrust upon me.” This made a little more sense, but not really. I’ll spell it out: I’m no sexpert, far from it, but I have never heard of anyone being excited to see someone’s flaccid penis, particularly in the context of sex. Isn’t an erect penis more what you hope for there, all things considered? And if you do encounter an erection mid-rendezvous, can’t you assume it had something to do with you? Moreover, if a person is so keen to be “the one who makes it hard” or “create the stiffness,” to use Julie’s wording, then how can she profess to “like it flaccid”? Something did not add up.
I mean no “kink shaming,” as I think people say, and I fear that dwelling on this makes it seem like it’s a more important part of the movie than it is—it’s 42 words altogether, a tiny fraction of the film’s dialogue. But it is a clear character motif—almost an in-joke—so much that eventually, when audiences stare down a flaccid penis on screen, it inspires knowing laughter. I needed to know what was happening here. Was Julie meant to be being provocative? The film, which was directed by a man, Joachim Trier, who co-wrote it with another man, Eskil Vogt, has been critiqued by some for a lack of dimension in its portrayal of a woman’s inner life—was this a reflection of that, Julie’s preference for flaccid dick merely a man’s idea of what a woman would consider taboo? Or was this … a real interest some people have?
“I guess everybody’s got their thing,” said Charles Welliver, a urologist who is the director of men’s health at Albany Medical College and a frequent source for Slate’s How to Do It advice column, after I summarized the relevant parts of the movie to him. One of Welliver’s specialties is erectile dysfunction, so he knows a thing or two about flaccid penises. For that reason, I felt somewhat validated when he agreed that Julie’s preference was a bit odd: “It’s a little surprising that this is this fictional character’s interest,” he said, “because I feel like in most cases, a partner looking at a flaccid partner would be like, ‘What is going on? Why are you not excited to be doing this?’ ”
Alas, Welliver spends most of his time dealing with men who want their penises not to be flaccid, not women (or other people who have sex with men) who claim to want the opposite, so he thought I might have better luck finding insight into this situation elsewhere.
One place I did not have luck was with the director and writer of the film, Trier, whose representative didn’t get back to me when I requested to interview him about flaccid penises. I’ll grant them that going limp on me was at least thematically appropriate.
In lieu of the director himself, I reached out to a native Norwegian speaker to see if there were any nuances to the dialogue I was missing, maybe something that got lost in translation from the original language to the English subtitles. No dice: My Norwegian pronounced the translation pristine.
My luck only started to change when I discovered, in depths of the internet I am not used to exploring, an article with the intriguing title “4 Reasons Why Soft Penises Are Underrated.” Here we go! I got in touch with its author, Pamela Madsen, a New York–based sex educator and the founder of a company that organizes retreats centered on women’s sexuality and arousal. Finally, someone with answers.
“I did not see the movie, but I understand the quote,” Madsen told me pretty much the second I got her on the phone. “Her turn-on is that she wants to be the seductress. She loves that feeling of control. What she’s saying is, ‘You know, I like to take it a little slower. I like him to start maybe not even thinking about sex.’ Instead of putting herself in the role of receptor, who just receives the man, she wants to have more what we might call penetrative energy.”
OK—Julie liked to initiate sex. But I still had trouble grasping the import of the flaccid dick in the process. I thought of the proverbial pot of water on a stove: Watching it change states as it starts to boil is famously considered unworthy of our attention, even actively counter to the goal. How is this different?
Carol Queen, who has a Ph.D. in human sexuality and works at Good Vibrations, the San Francisco sex shop, said she also got what Julie was saying, and she explained it to me like this: “So many women, and I would imagine also men and nonbinary people who are interested in people with penises, like the penis as interest-meter concept, the penis as flag, saluting your sexiness. Encountering a fully erect penis would be a version of that, but maybe even more interesting to some, and clearly to this character, is having the penis sort of wake up to you as a monitor of how your ministrations and seduction techniques are going.
“I have heard people talk about this before, so this is not just this completely individual person in a Scandinavian movie,” Queen said. More specifically, “I’ve heard people talk about when you take it in your hand and it starts to twitch and the blood flows in and you can feel it getting harder in your hand, and that’s hot.” Well then! But couldn’t the same scenario leave a person feeling inadequate, if she was trying to turn on her partner and her partner didn’t seem to be responding quickly? It’s certainly a risk, Madsen told me: “For a woman to go to those places, she has to feel safe in her own body.”
Queen said she couldn’t estimate how popular Julie’s penchant was, just that she’d seen it. Anecdotal evidence was good, but I yearned for data, so I called Kristen Mark, a researcher at the Institute for Sexual and Gender Health at the University of Minnesota Medical School. Several years ago, Mark conducted what she entertainingly dubbed a Penis Perception Survey, a study of more than 14,000 people’s views on all things penile, and she found that many of the results went against the societal grain.
“There’s this perception that a flaccid penis is gross, or that it’s just hanging there, and like, what is it even doing?” she said. While she couldn’t provide numbers, in actuality, “I’m sure a lot of people feel [how Julie does]. There’s this physical indication of what you’re actually doing when you’re interacting with someone in a sexual way. There’s this evidence of it. I think that that evidence of holding that level of influence over someone else’s body physically and being able to see that happen physically can be a real turn-on for some people.”
Mark and the others convinced me that there were people who held this preference in real life—my sincere apologies for doubting it!—so I decided to talk to some of them. Via a couple-years-old Reddit rabbit hole I went down while researching this subject, I got ahold of a 26-year-old woman in Germany named Ruth to ask for her take on Julie’s opinion.
“I like what she said, and I definitely agree,” she wrote to me. “Making a flaccid penis hard is, in a way, a turn-on. You know that YOU are the one who made it stiff.” Another woman told me: “I find a flaccid penis more attractive for two reasons. One, all we ever get to see are hard dicks. I mean, I’ve done online dating off and on for years and all the pics these guys send are hard. I think that makes it more exciting and something different to see. Two, it always reminds me of what it’s like after sex when we’re cuddling or showering together.”
They made it sound like the most obvious thing in the world (to me, The Dumbest Person in the World). So I was heartened that Ruth also remarked that it was somewhat surreal that I was asking her about this.
“You have no idea how often I’ve asked my husband why there’s so little confessions on the internet about liking flaccid penises,” she wrote. “Aren’t other couples touching each other a lot? Nor see each other naked a lot? No one’s talking about it. It’s so weird.” Ruth herself felt strange articulating it: “I sound like a penile poet now, according to my husband.”
Ruth added that she also finds soft dicks cute, jiggly, and fun to play with, in a mostly nonsexual way. Then there are people who do find soft or only semi-hard penises appealing in a sexual way, several of my sources told me. Meanwhile, sex researchers and educators, like Madsen with her article on why soft penises are underrated, acknowledge the importance of tearing down the idea that the hard dick is the be-all, end-all when it comes to sex. Julie’s interest in flaccid penises in the movie is related to all these things but some more than others. “There’s a lot to be said about how we fetishize the hard penis and how it needs to be a certain size, and that can place a lot of pressure on men and their sexuality and feeling like they always do have to be hard and ready,” Mark said. The film “is maybe allowing for an opportunity to think about that differently.”
I’ve come a long way since walking out of that theater: I now confidently say I get what Julie meant. But I stand by one of my original points: Julie, fictional though she may be, does not actually like sex with flaccid penises! There’s a way in which what she says sounds like it counters the fetishization of the hard penis—she likes them soft—but it also really doesn’t, if you think about it: “The person in the movie is not expecting that she’s going to get met with a fully erect penis right out of the gate, but I’m quite sure wants to see that arousal and erection happen as she goes for it and would consider it disappointing if it didn’t happen,” Queen told me. Madsen agreed: “This woman has an expectation that that cock is going to get hard. She would feel devastated, she would take it personally if that cock didn’t get hard.” Julie, all I ask is that you be honest about this: Let’s call a spade a spade, and a hard dick a hard dick.