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).