Against Penis-Size Shaming

I’ve seen a lot of links going round over the last day or two to this study, or to newspaper reports of it. It’s a meta-analysis of various studies of the size of the human penis, and utterly unsurprisingly it comes to the same conclusions as every study on the subject ever. My knowledge of the subject comes mostly from Richard Herring’s book Talking Cock from around 12 years ago, but the numbers he cites in there seem to match those (9cm flaccid, 13cm erect) in the study to as close as makes no difference.
The reason for doing this study was, apparently, because many penis-owning people(*) worry about the size of their penis to the point of developing body dysmorphic disorder about it — where they’re convinced to the point of obsession that they have a tiny penis even when it’s normal sized. The study’s authors hope that by putting accurate information out, they will help prevent this worry in some cases.
I suspect this is a futile hope. The information has been out there for years, and I suspect it’s made little or no difference to those people.
In part, this is understandable simply as a function of the existence of clothing. Most body-image worries have to correlate somewhat with reality — if I think I am fat, I can look at all the people around me, see that maybe one in fifty has the same kind of huge, pendulous, belly that I do, and think “OK, I’m probably in the fattest two percent or so of the population”. That might not be a pleasant thought (while I’m a proponent of body positivity, I’m not so good at not internalising the fat-hatred so prevalent in our society), but it’s not a *worrying* thought, it’s not a thought that causes anxiety, because it’s a known factor.
And what seems to cause anxiety in most people is not knowing important things — “does he really like me?” “is my boss looking for reasons to sack me?” “is there a terrorist on the plane?” “is my husband having an affair?” — it’s the element of unsureness that does it, or at least contributes a lot to it.
And in the case of penis size, unlike other body image problems, most people who are worried have no way of knowing for sure where they are on the scale, because very few people see enough penises in the course of their lives that they have the same kind of statistical sampling that you can get on fatness by just looking around the office.
So it’s possible that the study will reassure those people a little (although the two percent who really do have significantly smaller penises might be feeling mortified), though having anxiety myself (though not on this particular subject) I can imagine the thought processes that will immediately dismiss the data that conflicts with the fixed ideation.
But you know what would make much more of a contribution to curing those people’s anxiety? Not teaching people that having a small penis is something shameful.
This isn’t an issue I was really aware of until I read Talking Cock, the book I mentioned above, but it’s quite shocking reading the anecdotes Herring collected about people feeling suicidal over what is, or should be, a complete irrelevance. Reading his book, it’s clear that there are a LOT of people suffering in silence, ashamed of a body part they can’t change.
Although why this should be a surprise to me when roughly 80% of the spam that gets sent out is offers to increase penis size I don’t know. (Wait… everyone else does get that too, right? It’s not just me? Oh God…)
But I think the single biggest contributor to this anxiety and stress is the fact that we tell people, all the time, that having a small penis is a shameful thing. There’s a horrible pop-Freudian idea that awful men are awful because they’re “compensating” for having a small penis. So we get people saying of Jeremy Clarkson “he must have a tiny cock”, or calling Richard Littlejohn “Richard Littlecock”, or sharing images saying that fat-shaming men “are too tiny to satisfy a big woman anyway”, or whatever. (NB I’m not singling out any one individual for saying this stuff, because it’s absolutely endemic in our culture).
Now, firstly, I think these things are probably wrong — I don’t think Richard Littlejohn or Jeremy Clarkson’s problem is *insecurity*, I think their problem is that they have never in their life felt insecure about anything. I think a little insecurity might give those men enough empathy that the opinions they are paid to have might be less harmful…
But either that pop-Freudianism is right (though why it would be when Freudianism has roughly the evidence base of homeopathy, I don’t know), in which case by encouraging the idea that having a small penis is shameful you’re making people more likely to turn into Clarkson or Littlejohn, which seems counterproductive, or it’s a load of crap, in which case you’re saying that Clarkson and Littlejohn are like that because of a physical attribute shared by millions of completely harmless people *who already feel bad about that attribute and are completely unable to do anything to change it*.
When people say Eric Pickles or John Prescott are horrible because they’re fat, they rightly get jumped on because there are millions of non-horrible fat people, and we at least have actual evidence that those men are indeed fat. I have no knowledge whatsoever of Richard Littlejohn’s penis (and I am eternally grateful for the fact), but it’s considered OK even among feminist, liberal, anti-body-shaming people to claim that his horrible behaviour is the result of an unrelated physical attribute.
And this shamefulness is so deep-rooted in our attitudes that even in writing this I’ve thought, dozens of times, “Oh God, what if what I’m writing makes me sound like I’m someone with a tiny penis? People will think that’s the only reason anyone could care about it! Everyone will make fun of me for saying this!”
Which is ludicrous. I’ve written enough about not shaming people for their bodies, and enough about issues that don’t affect me on a personal level like trans rights, that anyone reading this blog for any length of time will know that I try to defend anyone being bullied, and yet I still have this very real fear that I am making myself a target with this post. I literally can’t imagine how terrifying it would be for someone who was single (and so worried that their penis size would affect them finding a partner) or who cared even slightly about their appearance (as anyone who’s met me knows I don’t).

I don’t really have a conclusion here, except “if people being ashamed about their penises is bad enough to become a genuine medical problem that needs research, maybe stop making them feel worse about them?”

Oh, and one final thing I shouldn’t have to say, but given the response to some of my anti-TERF posts recently I probably do — this post should NOT be taken as IN ANY WAY endorsing “men’s rights” arseholes. It is possible to care about an issue that primarily affects men while still thinking that overall women have things worse, and that the problem is in fact a symptom of horrible patriarchal thinking. Comments from MRArseholes will not be allowed through, and their IP addresses will be added to the spam filter.

(*) There is no good way to talk about this subject without either referring throughout to “men” (and thus excluding those people who have penises but don’t identify as men) or to “people” (and thus *including* a rather larger group of people who have no penises and shouldn’t be included) — phrases like “penis-owners” just make the sentences they’re in come off as ridiculous. I’ve chosen to use “people” throughout but to acknowledge this here, as the least worst of a bunch of bad options).

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16 Responses to Against Penis-Size Shaming

  1. I can see why you abandonned the clickbait experiment before tackling this one!

  2. Mary Lea says:

    This post has rather shamed me, actually. It’s something I’ve been guilty of, and I never even realised I was doing it. For one example, when I was in a cafe nursing my son, when he was a few days old, a truly obnoxious man oggled me, then exposed himself and started (there’s no other way to say this) masturbating. Nobody in the cafe did anything – they just looked away. (Seriously.) I heard myself saying ‘I’ve seen bigger on ultrascan.’ Which it took him a moment to get, but when he did, he wilted and left.

    Now, I’ve always been rather proud of myself for thinking of a quick remark that cut him down to size, so to speak, but I’ve just realised that it was in fact a very bigoted comment, and not something anyone should be making jokes about in public. (To be fair the public shouldn’t have been sitting there pretending not to see a nursing mother being sexually harrassed.) And I’ve done it inversely as well – as I’m sure a lot of other mothers have. I was encouraged when changing my son’s nappy in the company of other mother’s to see that he was ahead of the pack. (I have no idea how it’s swinging now that he’s eighteen, just so you all don’t think I’m a pervert.)

    But the thing is, now I do feel like a pervert – not much better than that (literal) wanker in the cafe all those years ago. Because I’ve made penis jokes to put down men, and never even wondered about the cultural effect of these attitudes. I’m very aware of how hurtful it is when men wolf whistle, curse, or make suggestive comments about what they want to do to you – yelling ‘big tits,’ and ‘fatty’ and ‘who’s the dog when you’re out walking your own dog’ – these things I recognise as sexual stereotyping and harassment.

    But it never once dawned on me that I was guilty of the same. Or that I was contributing to a fear that could have effected my own son. So, thank you for this post. And I apologise for having been part of the problem.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I think in that particular circumstance, no-one in the world could possibly blame you for that comment — I think mocking the penis of a man who’s actually exposing himself and sexually harassing someone in public is entirely acceptable, in a way it wouldn’t be in any other circumstance.

      • Andrea says:

        Andrew, the problem with that comment isn’t that she was mocking the pervs penis, it’s that she was mocking *everyones* penis who is as small or smaller than him.

        • Thirty9 says:

          Thank you Andrea. As a man with a penis well below average it always hurts to hear people use small penis as an insult, especially when it’s used against people deserving ridicule (ie. perverts, jerks) because it makes me feel that through no fault of my own I’m just as much of a terrible human being as that person who exposed himself to Mary Lea.

          • Mary Lea says:

            Just to let you know, I am profoundly sorry to have ever used this as an insult, and would never, ever do so again. It never dawned on me before this post just how incredibly cruel and thoughtless my behaviour was, and I am deeply ashamed of myself for having behaved in such a way.

        • This is something that I’ve had to explain to other women who use small penis insults. Just because you think you are using the insult against one person doesn’t mean it will not hurt someone else. By using the small penis insult you are basically saying having a small penis is bad. The thought that you can say guy A having a small penis is bad but guy B having a small penis isn’t is just ludicrous.

          This is something I’ve battled with since I was very young. Through remarks from people like my mother, my first girlfriend and others I came to hate my penis and the pain it caused me. I’m a pretty shy person and having small penis worries just made it so much harder for me to be around women or approach them. I dated two young girls when I was 18-19 (no sex of any kind was involved) and after that women pretty much vanished from my life. The very few times I did get almost close to women I ended up getting hurt.

          I finally met someone when I was 43 but being a virgin so long screwed me up. I was unable to have a normal sex life. We were together 8 years and sex once. It was a pretty much intimacy free relationship. She died ten years ago and women have been virtually absent from my life since.

          All those years (decades) of worrying about my size and dealing with the seemingly endless jokes and insults from people and the media really killed my confidence. About 10 years ago when the song “Short Dick Man” came out that really sent me into a suicidal hell. For two or three years after that song came out I would go to work everyday and think of all the ways I could kill myself. That song really made me hate myself and hate women. They made a song that has a woman saying the absolute worst things you could say to a man and girls loved it.

          So now I’m 56 and virtually no sex life, very very little physical contact with women. I hate my life so much. There’s no way I can do anything about it now. I’m just waiting to die basically. Hopefully one day I’ll summon up enough courage to do it myself. I think I’ve earned it.

  3. The Freud thing is interesting. He certainly did think that things like cars, swords, guns, canes and wands were “phallic symbols” – in dreams, in literature, and in actual fact. But what he seemed to be saying was “Guns, cars, swords and penises are examples of the same kind of thing — a sort of symbolic male boasting.” So when we say “When the Cowboy has his guns taken off him, its symbolic castration” we don’t mean “You have to understand that what really happened in the story is that the sheriff chopped off the cowboy’s penis, but the writer couldn’t say that, so he put in a symbol”. We mean “the gun is much more important to the cowboy than just a weapon; it’s the thing which shows that he’s male”. So far as I recall, Freud doesn’t talk particularly about size. But somehow, because ha-ha-willies “everyone knows” that Freud said that men with small genitals buy big cars to make up for it. (It might, in fact, be that the “Jeremy Clarkson has a small penis” joke represents a truth: big cars are partly about boasting, and partly about boasting to other men, and we might suspect that someone who spends a lot of time and money on boasting actually feels inferior. )

    (*) Problematic usage of “man”, “male”, “guy” “masculinity” etc acknowledged.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Yeah, I can certainly see that Freudian interpretations of artistic symbolism can be useful — especially of art created after Freud entered popular consciousness.

      • Mary Lea says:

        I actually don’t think there is anything else I could have done in that moment – I certainly couldn’t kick him in the nuts (which was my first thought) because I had a baby in my arms, and obviously my first thought was not to get in any kind of physical confrontation. But the thing is, this is the most justifiable example I can come up with of my own penis shaming. It is something I’ve done over the years, and not questioned. And that’s wrong.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Yeah, in that situation the important thing to do is to stop the harassment as quickly and forcefully as possible without endangering yourself. There’s no fault at all there.
          As for the general case, I think *everyone* has many similar unexamined, potentially hurtful, assumptions. It just comes from living in the society we’re in. I think the important thing is how one responds when they’re pointed out, and it seems to me that realising your error and deciding not to do it again is about as good a response as one could hope for.

  4. Emily says:

    I think penis size is a proxy for “being good in bed” which is even harder to compare and statistics about penis size won’t make any difference to that.

    It’s something that mainstream culture obsesses over but doesn’t give any tools for working to improve. Men are supposed to be effortlessly good at sex, without needing to ask. From either side, we are discouraged from talking about – women are told that any criticism is fatal to a man’s ego and it’s selfish and demanding to focus on your own pleasure. Men are discouraged from anything as effeminate as talking or listening to a woman but masculinity is tied to sexual performance. It’s deeply fucked up.

    (Using binary genders here because I’m talking about a mainstream viewpoint that only recognises binary genders and polices those fiercely.)

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I suspect you may be right. I really, really, *really* don’t get the whole “you’re magically meant to know these things, and if you actually ask the other person what they want or like then it spoils the magic” thing. I think neurotypicals* think that they can read other people’s minds much, much better than they actually can…

      *NOT ALL NEUROTYPICALS. Yes, I know…

  5. andrewrilstone says:

    The other thing which occurs to me is…well…isn’t there a danger that we could all end up being just a little-bit po-faced? Half the good jokes in the world are dick jokes. (I once read a review of a book which said that ALL jokes are dick jokes, if you scratched beneath the surface.) Isn’t a certain amount of all-*guys-in-the-locker-room-together actually quite fun? I’m sure parents sometimes do say “well-he’s-never-going-to-be-shy-in-the-shower” about their *boy babies, but isn’t the whole point of saying it that it’s a funny thing to say because it’s meaningless and inappropriate? I dunno. I get that you could make this defense about all kinds of things (“oh that comedian isn’t a bad-racist, he’s a joke-racist”). I just worry about us all turning into caricature humourless lefties.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Possibly. I think, though, that there can be jokes about any subject that don’t have, as it were, collateral damage. I think it’s definitely possible to have dick jokes that don’t cause people to be shamed, in the same way it’s possible to have jokes about race that aren’t racist jokes, or jokes about gender that aren’t sexist jokes.
      (The Richard Herring book I referred to in the post is, to an extent, an example of that — it actually evolved from a standup routine, which is pretty much *all* dick jokes, but which has quite a lot of material about exactly this subject. It’s not perfect by internet-social-justice-person standards, but I find it very hard to imagine anyone being upset by it either.)
      Penises are inherently funny, ugly, strange objects. I don’t think anyone will stop making fun of them. But in my experience, when people think about the consequences of their speech, the result isn’t an end to jokes, but rather funnier, cleverer jokes. The “humourless PC lefties” of the 80s gave us Blackadder and The Young Ones, while now that PC is apparently behind us and offensiveness is “just a bit of fun” we have Top Gear and Mock The Week.

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