Why ‘Sausage Fests’ Should Be Reserved For Barbecues

There’s been a lot of talk about ‘sausage fests’ over the past few weeks, with the first all-female Miles Franklin shortlist sparking memories of the all-male lists of the recent past - which were given the meaty nickname. Writer Paul Mitchell tells why the term is not just confronting and demeaning, but risks reinforcing the idea that men are just their genitals. (‘Which many men think anyway.’) So, should we rethink our language?

The Age told me last Wednesday morning that this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award has an all-female cast. I didn’t get time to wonder, however, if the Stella Prize had any influence on this, or why short fiction collections were again absent: I was too busy reading that this year’s list showed the Award had ‘fought back from its recent reputation as a “sausage fest”’.

A sausage fest. There’s probably no more demeaning way of describing the male in a group setting. A whole cucumber salad? Bit too wet liberal and far too hard and crunchy. A python pit? Gives the male too much potency and threat. A worm farm? Even if it that analogy shrinks the penis and makes it dirty, the worm is still pretty powerful, especially when it comes to eating the dead.

No, if you want to put down a group of men, sausage fest is best. Because sausages, generally, are low budget, used for meals when there’s not much else you can afford. Or you’re feeling uninspired in the kitchen. They’re disrespected. They’re usually rolled on the barbecue first, used as a snack before the real meal arrives. They’re sticky before they’re cooked. They’re all the same. They appear hard, but they’re soft inside. And, best of all, you can bite them, chew them, digest them, and crap them out.

I know the Miles Franklin Award was so described by women angry with the number of men populating the long and shortlists. I know that women have endured this kind of terminology for centuries. But I’m confident that today’s mainstream – and even non-mainstream– media don’t make a habit of employing a term for their genitals that’s equal parts supermarket aisle and football change room. (Even if some in parliament do.)

But the reporter put sausage fest in inverted commas. She was quoting those women who’d used the term to describe the previous Miles Franklin lists. Before these women did this, the last time I’d heard the term was when I was single in a bar. A bloke turned to me and said, ‘This joint’s crap. It’s a sausage fest.’ I agreed with his assessment, but even then I hated the term. I looked at all those men drinking their beers and thought, you know, deep down they may not want to be known only by their appendage. Even by other men.

We want men to be men. Whatever that means. In an age in which true gender equality, at least in the West, seems to be slowly getting closer every year, there are millions of words on pages and screens right now trying to figure that out. But we know what we don’t want men to be: mindless, violent (especially towards women), sexual predators, and concerned only with their physical prowess (or lack thereof).

So when highly intelligent women join in the gender stereotyping, even if it’s to assuage their righteous anger, their actions are unhelpful in the battle to change men’s attitudes to women. By using the aforementioned term, even as a joke – and even if it’s been effective as a wake-up call for those who choose literary awards lists – they contribute to reinforcing the idea that men are just their genitals. Which many men think anyway.

I have two boys. One is 13, the other three-and-a-half. I want them to grow up with a healthy attitude to their bodies, their sexuality and towards women. They are also both voracious readers. What are they to make of our literary community describing men with a term that belongs at a barbecue?

Do we want this image to continue? Do we want boys being told they’re mindless, pink and pudgy, vacuum-packed with stupidity, while also showing them that, hey, they’re linked together in this ridicule so they can feel strong in numbers?

If intelligent women tell boys their penises are on the same level as sausages (I really don’t want to disparage them here, there are some terrific gourmet ones, but they’re not exactly cuts of wagyu!) then that’s the way they’ll think about them. And that’s also the way they’ll treat them and act with them.

Portrait of Paul Mitchell

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