Phallophobia: What Is It And How Do You Get Over It?
The Debrief: Think Phallophobia – the morbid and irrational fear of penises – sounds like a bad internet joke? Well it nearly ruined 30 year-old Emma's life...
Photograph by Molly Cranna
At 6pm on a Wednesday afternoon last year, Emma was on her bus on the way home from work trying desperately to fight off a panic attack. Her heart began to beat irregularly and jump up into her throat and a ball of nausea tightened in her stomach. She felt herself slip down into an empty disabled seat as her vision began to blur and form into a tunnel as she suddenly struggled to remain conscious and get enough air into her lungs. Emma had had panic attacks before, but none had come on this strongly or suddenly. But it wasn’t a pile of unopened bills on her coffee table, or worries about work that had bought it on. Emma had a panic attack because the attractive young man sitting opposite her on the train was wearing shiny gym shorts, and she could see the curvature of his penis.
It might sound strange to you, but for Emma seeing a man’s penis is akin to the feeling that some people have when they experience vertigo or the extreme ‘fight or flight’ response your body has when you believe you’re being followed home. Despite being an outwardly ‘normal’ 30 year-old woman who holds down and good (and stressful) job in HR, Emma has suffered from phallophobia – or the morbid and irrational fear of penises – since her early 20s. Initially manifesting itself as an inability to be intimate with her boyfriend, she described to The Debrief how her phallophobia soon became so acute that it ‘literally took over my life, preventing me from doing the most basic things like going to the gym, the cinema or the beach for fear that I might see a penis. I even stopped going online because I’d worry about accidentally seeing porn.
Just thinking about a penis was as scary to me as you might feel thinking about being attacked by a shark or being brutally murdered
‘When my condition was at its worst, I had to take annual leave from work because there was a male member of staff who wore tight suit trousers in my area of the office and the worry about seeing his “bulge” was so stressful that I’d be in tears every morning on tube. Just hearing about sex or a penis was enough for the fear to set in and I’d desperately want to run away. If I tried to ignore it, that’s when the panic would set in in earnest. A panic attack might seem like an extreme reaction, but it’s something I’ve been struggling with for years. Just thinking about a penis was, for a very long time, as scary to me as you might feel thinking about being attacked by a shark or being brutally murdered. It would keep me up at night and invade my dreams – for a long time I was utterly, utterly miserable.’
‘Phallophobia and Medorthophobia – the overwhelming fear of an erect penis – is a little known, but surprisingly common phobia that can seriously impair the quality of life of the sufferer,’ Dr Ellen Hunt explains. ‘Unlike when either men or women consider themselves to be asexual or find the thought of a penis unattractive or unappealing, Phallophobia and Medorthophobia refer to people who experience extreme terror at the thought, mention or sight of a penis (either or erect or flaccid) and that fear manifests itself in mental and sometimes physical symptoms. These symptoms will vary from sufferer to sufferer, but generally speaking most people will experience general anxiety, extreme terror when faced with certain types of situations and a broad lack of sexual desire. There are various reasons why these types of phobias might develop, but one of the most common causes is due to a trauma – usually sexual – which occurs during childhood or young age. Many of the clients I have seen who suffer with this phobia have been sexually abused or molested by an adult male as a child, for instance.’
After three five years of conversational and hypnotherapy, Emma has not only got a control on her phobia but is beginning to understand its root cause. ‘I think the fear started when I lost my virginity when I was 21. I was painfully shy and susceptible to panic attacks throughout my teens, so I was quite a late bloomer sexually, but I was very much in love with my boyfriend – who I’d been with for a year before we decided to have sex – and I wasn’t scared or anxious to lose my virginity to him. Actually, I was really excited because we’d never done anything more than kissing before.’
I knew I had turned a corner when I was able to watch the scene in Trainspotting when Ewan Mcgregor had his penis out without flinching or fleeing the room
But when the time actually came to attempt a sexually relationship with her boyfriend, Emma quickly realised it was not going to be the amazing experience she had anticipated. ‘He had an extremely large penis, which was incredibly painful and I bled a lot – there was blood all over my sheets and even up the walls of my bedroom when we turned on the light. For a number of days afterwards, I had a really sharp, jabbing pain in my vagina and womb and my vagina was very red, swollen, itchy and uncomfortable. When I started to get hives and a serious fever, I decided to go to the doctor, who told me I was going into anaphylactic shock because I was allergic to my boyfriend’s semen and told me to take some antihistamines and use a condom whenever we had sex again. I was so traumatised by the experience that I struggled to let go and enjoy sex for the rest of our five year relationship and, despite forcing myself to do it occasionally, I would live in constant fear the condom would break and I would have another allergic reaction. My doctor told me that there was no reason to assume that I’d have the same reaction with another man, but my sex drive had completely disappeared by the time our relationship ended and I think that’s when the acute fear really began.’
After the panic attack on the bus, Emma decided she couldn’t let her fear control her life anymore and, fearing that she’d end up in a mental asylum, she decided to seek help from her doctor. She was prescribed beta blockers and a course of conversational therapy, but it wasn’t until she tried hypnotherapy that she started to see a real difference in her life. ‘I knew I had turned a corner when I went to my friend’s house and was able to watch the scene in Trainspotting when Ewan Mcgregor had his penis out without flinching or fleeing the room. I have since gone back to work and I’m now in the very early days of a new relationship and, although we’re yet to have full penetrative sex, I have been able to be intimate with him and we’re enjoying some heavy petting and oral sex. I hopeful that, with more hard work from me, we’ll be able to have a fulfilling sex life soon and, thankfully, my boyfriend is very accepting, patient and understanding. When I first tell people about what I’ve gone through lots of them laugh, but having come through the other side I can now fully appreciate how not funny phallophobia is.’
It Can Happen To Men Too
When Jacob, a 25 year-old law intern, was nine years old he was sexually assaulted by his uncle. Throughout his teenage and adult life, he was so traumatised by the experience that developed an acute fear of sex, specifically of becoming aroused or ejaculating. He has booked and appointment with his GP and is hopeful that, with therapy and medication, he’ll be able to overcome his Medorthophobia and have a normal sexual relationship.
‘You have no idea what it feels like to be absolutely, overwhelmingly terrified of what most people consider to be a “normal” function of your own body. My overwhelming memory of being abused by my uncle was seeing (what seemed, at the time) his terrifying, huge, adult erect penis and whenever I started to get erections myself I would be instantly transported back to that moment and a fear so overwhelming I couldn’t carry on with my normal day-to-day life would take me over for anything from 10 minutes to a few hours. It would get even worse if I ejaculated, so when I started to get wet dreams in my mid-teens I would wake up absolutely distraught and unable to go to school. I started to drink coffee just before I would go to sleep so I could stay up all night and prevent it happening, which meant I was exhausted at school and my grades suffered. Eventually I dropped out. I haven’t been able to carry on a normal relationship with anyone because I’m terrified about telling them my fears. I’ve found online forums where people who are suffering from the same thing have spoken through their own treatment, so I’ve booked an appointment with my GP and I’m praying it will make a difference – I don’t want to be terrified of my own body any more.’
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Photo: Molly Cranna
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