Published: April 18, 2024

Name: Molly Keating  
Advisor: Prof. Kira Hall, TA Velda Khoo 
Class: LING 2400: Language, Gender, and Sexuality 
Semester: Fall 2023
LURA 2024


In her 1992 article “Naming of Parts: Gender, Culture, and Terms for the Penis among American College Students,” Deborah Cameron argued that the terms used by college students to reference male genitalia indexed greater cultural ideologies about sexuality. Based on slang-term data she collected from male vs. female groups of college students, she argued that the men’s lists of terms for the penis indicated a conceptual schema depicting masculinity as an act of dominance and sex as an act of conquest. Thirty-one years later, my paper for the course “Language, Gender, and Sexuality” sought to investigate whether Cameron’s observations on cultural ideologies of sex and gender still hold in the contemporary United States. I conducted a new study that replicated Cameron’s to see if there may be changes in the data. If so, what might those changes indicate about shifts in these ideologies? Like Cameron’s, my study was not meant to be an exhaustive survey of American English terms for male genitalia. Nevertheless, I found that the conceptual schema has in fact shifted. Although the overall metaphorical categories identified by Cameron have not been subject to profound change, with only a few additions, the shifts I found do index a change in cultural perspectives towards sex and gender. Sex and masculinity remain as experiences of conquest and dominance, but they are expressed and reinforced differently.

Language does not exist in a vacuum and can impact our lives in a myriad of ways. The theory of linguistic relativity, also known as the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis,” states that the unique grammars of the languages we speak influence a speaker’s perspective of the world, directing their attention to what is indexed as paramount by the grammar. The theory suggests that the ways in which we use language indexes our perspectives on everything we choose to communicate. Likewise, the aspects we centralize in our choice of linguistic terms contain more than their base semantic meaning.

Adapting Cameron’s study design, I gave two groups of 4 men and 4 women 15 minutes to come up with and write down as many descriptive terms for “penis” as they could; together, the two groups of 4 men and 4 women came up with 209 terms. Despite the sharp increase in this “naming of parts,” as compared to Cameron’s original study, the categories within which each slang term fit did not change substantially. However, I found it noteworthy that the women’s group not only added a few categories beyond Cameron’s original findings, they also adopted a few categories from their masculine counterparts. The adopted female categories include weaponry, famous monuments, and personifiers. The differing results from Cameron’s 1992 study and my own 2023 study are shown in the two figures below.

Molly Keating Figures 1&2

The main changes can be seen in how Cameron’s supposed sexual ideologies are recirculated in this contemporary population. The consistent presence of personifiers within the men’s categories (such as the king, two-inch terror, and tricky dicky) demonstrates the male habit to characterize the actions of the sexual organ as agentive in its own right. Giving the penis a separate identity, and therefore autonomy, has incredibly dark implications in cases of sexual violence. However, the young men’s eagerness to poke fun by means of the personifiers illustrates a change from the “mythologizing the penis” seen in Cameron’s group. While laughing at terms like Milli-meter Peter, the men actively participate in and recirculate the values of masculinity they are attempting to distance themselves from. This recirculation of Cameron’s claimed ideologies is accomplished by the use of punchlines focusing on the same cliches of size and dominance. That is, terms like Milli-meter Peter and Two-inch Tony are funny because they minimize what should be prodigious.

Some of the most notable changes seen are in the weaponry category. For example, when discussing the addition of the penetrator, the men’s group wrote down an apology next to it on the list. Cameron did not record her participants, so it is unknown if her participants might also have distanced themselves from certain terms. Regardless, the agreement among the contemporary group, as seen in the exchange below, was that the implications of the term were offensive enough to apologize for its use. In their apology, the male participants are acknowledging the inherent violence of the term, whether knowingly or unknowingly. Given this acknowledgement paired with the decreasing use of this type of term in my study, it can be concluded that there is a growing awareness among men of the role played by language in sexual violence.


Molly Keating - Figure 3


This growing awareness is further demonstrated in the women’s group with the large increase in weaponry terms used to describe male genitalia. It seems that the women in my study are much more aware than their 1992 counterparts that men refer to their genitalia as weapons—as tools for violence—and they are able to cite these terms readily. Furthermore, the high number of monument terms listed by the women (e.g., Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building) demonstrate that despite male attempts to distance themselves from such representations, the mythologizing of the penis still lives on in contemporary US culture.


Title Image Credit 

"An Overabundance of Phallic Architecture". From High quality Phallic Architecture Blank Meme template.


  1. Cameron, Deborah. “Naming of Parts: Gender, Culture, and Terms for the Penis among American College Students.” American Speech, vol. 67, no. 4, 1992, pp. 367–82. JSTOR,