Commentary Sexual Health

Easing Penis Anxiety in the Age of Bing and Google

Martha Kempner

A New York Times writer recently found that users identifying as men asked more questions of search engines about their penises than about their lungs, livers, feet, ears, noses, throats, and brains combined.

In a recent piece for the New York Timeseconomist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz argues that relying on classic research methods like surveys to determine humans’ typical sexual behavior may be inaccurate—because people lie in order to look good, even to scientists. Instead, he suggests a new place for us to look for insights on what people are really thinking, feeling, and maybe even doing: search engines, where people are far less likely to fib in their search for help. Of course, as Stephens-Davidowitz acknowledges, Google data is a small sample of what people are thinking, and it is suggestive rather than definitive. Still, his findings offer an unmistakable window into Americans’ psyche around sexuality.

Unfortunately, one thing is especially clear. People are still really worried about their own and their partners’ bodies—mostly, what constitutes “normal” in a world full of misinformation and unrealistic media portrayals. In this two-part series, we’ll remind readers that there’s no need to turn to Bing or Google; genitalia come in lots of different shapes, sizes, and scents that fall into the category of “perfectly normal.”

Part One will focus on typical penis size and girth, evidently the biggest concern many individuals seem to have when it comes to sex and their bodies. In fact, Stephens-Davidowitz found that users identifying as men asked more questions about their penises than about their lungs, livers, feet, ears, noses, throats, and brains combined.

Most Aren’t That Big

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As we said, men want to know how big penises typically are and how to make them bigger. Oddly, some individuals asked Google how big their own penis was, which Stephens-Davidowitz notes is a question better asked of a ruler. We can’t replace a ruler either, but we can tell you what the research says about most penises.

The most recent study comes from researchers at Indiana University who surveyed 1,661 men and asked each to measure both the length and girth (which can also be thought of as the width or circumference) of his penis when erect. As Rewire reported when the study was released in 2013, “The largest penis in the survey measured in at 10.2 inches long, while the smallest was 1.6 inches. Most fell firmly in between, with the average penis measuring 5.6 inches in length and 4.8 inches in girth.”

This is similar to the results of prior research. A 1996 study, for example, found that the mean length of flaccid penises was about 3.5 inches; the average erect penis was about 5.1 inches long. And, just like in the Indiana study, the mean circumference of the erect penis was 4.8 inches. Two-thirds of the men studied were within one inch of these measurements. Interestingly, this study found no correlation between the relative sizes of the flaccid and erect states, which means catching a glimpse of someone in the bathroom or locker room tells you nothing about what they look like in the bedroom.

Characteristics such as race or sexual orientation are also not good predictors of penis size. You know what else isn’t a good predictor? The size of someone’s feet—turns out that’s just an old wives’ tale. A study of 104 men in London found no statistically significant correlation between penis length and shoe size.

There is a correlation between height and penis size. A few studies have found that taller people tend to have longer penises. And here’s a really odd one: At least two studies have found a relationship between the length of someone’s index finger and penis.

But Men Are Worried

Surveys suggest that men who are shorter and heavier tend to think they have smaller penises (regardless of actual size), while those who are taller and thinner give their member a higher estimation. There’s even one study among men who have sex with men that suggests those who perceive their penises to be smaller than average have poorer sexual health outcomes, which could be a result of riskier sexual behaviors. Such results suggest that perception of penis size is part of a man’s overall body image—that the pressure to conform to a certain “ideal” of height and weight extends to genitalia size as well, possibly as a result of a porn culture that overwhelmingly shows large penises.

And Stephens-Davidowitz points out that Google searches show men think about these issues more than we as a society might realize. He writes: “We do not often talk about male body insecurity. And while it is true that overall interest in personal appearance skews female, it is not as lopsided as stereotypes would suggest.” In fact, his analysis of Google AdWords found that interest in “beauty and fitness” is 42 percent male; “weight loss” is 33 percent male; and “cosmetic surgery” is 39 percent male. Obviously, some of these searches could have been done for a wife or girlfriend, but probably not all of them. For example, 20 percent of “how-to” searches related to breasts asked, “How to get rid of man breasts.”  

Speaking of surgery, it’s worth noting that surgery is the only way to actually increase penis size, no matter what late-night commercials and tubes of cream might say. Penile implants, however, require serious surgery, which cuts the suspensory ligament and is followed by weeks of traction that includes hanging weights on the penis. This results in added length, but only in the flaccid state. And attempts to add girth have even more problems, often resulting in uneven distribution of the added fat tissue, which can have an overall lumpy effect. One study found that most men who have the procedure are not happy with the results.

Bigger Does Not Equal Better

The real question that Stephens-Davidowitz’s research should make us ask—maybe not Google, but definitely ourselves—is “why do we care so much about size?” That bigger penises are synonymous with better penises isn’t all that surprising, given Americans’ overall preference for more, in everything from French fries to McMansions to enormous SUVs. But in reality, size has nothing to do with sexual pleasure, at least not where straight women are concerned.

The issue of how heterosexual women feel about their partner’s penis size has been studied since scientists started studying sex at all. Masters and Johnson, the pioneers of sex research, concluded after watching hundreds of couples have sex that size was irrelevant or a minor factor in women’s sexual pleasure. They reasoned that since the vagina stretches only as much as it needs to, it shapes to the size of the penis inserted within it rather than having a specific requirement.

More recent research suggests that most heterosexual women (85 percent) are happy with their partner’s penis size and attributes, and only 14 percent wanted something bigger. Other studies have shown that when women do want something larger, it is usually additional girth they are looking for, not length.

That said, Stephens-Davidowitz’s research shows we may have it all backwards—more than 40 percent of complaints about partners’ penis size on Google was that it was too big, not too small. This makes sense as a large penis can stretch a vagina to the point of discomfort, and can also bump against the cervix.

Unfortunately, there is not a lot of research as to whether, or to what extent, the size of a partner’s penis matters among men who have sex with men.

Easing Anxiety

Overall, it’s just important to remember that penises tend to be smaller than we think, or at least smaller than the porn industry would have us believe. And that’s OK. We can also remind individuals that the penis they have is very likely the only penis they’re ever going to have, and that regardless of whether it’s an inch longer or three-quarters of an inch narrower than most, they should really try to enjoy it. Finally, we would suggest that anyone who has a male partner or male partners should recognize how pervasive penis anxiety really is, and try to treat them with empathy and sympathy on the matter.

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