Sex & Relationships

Measuring Up: How Our Culture's Obsession With Porn-Sized Penises Hurts Men

American culture sends men and boys harmful messages about the penis, which can lead to terribly skewed -- and harmful -- expectations.

In 2008, New York Magazine reported on a small group of men sitting in a bleak room on 13th street, commiserating, offering support, and trying to come up with something other than “small penis” to describe their "affliction":


"We’ve been throwing around other names,” says John Miller, a stocky man with a therapeutic manner. “People have suggested firecracker or sparkplug as words with positive connotations."

While New York Magazine ostensibly covered this “Small Penis Support Group” as an esoteric joke, the sentiment behind the group isn’t so rare. A small penis support forum,, boasts over 10,000 members. A user named “Nubdick” sums up the movement: “I’ve been ridiculed and made fun of by women so much that I've pretty much given up. It doesn't help that the media is constantly barraging us with 'Size DOES matter' -- from music to TV shows and movies, even advertising.”

Then there's a porn-world where every man is over 8 inches. In the phenomenon of monster-cock porn, in which guys (wearing realistic sheaths) give the illusion that a penis can rest on your heart. And let's not forget the e-mail spam that tells my vacant hotmail account, “Rachel, she knows you aren’t big enough.” Or the rigid male gender roles that prize stoicism, that discourage talk of emotions or inadequacies.

In small penis support groups, there are a number of men who aren’t actually small but just feel like they are. And time and time again on the forums, standard sized men say they are going under the knife for penis enlargement surgery--a practice that is described as “experimental at best” by the American Urology Association. A study by researchers at St. Peter’s Andrology Center and Institute of Urology in London followed 42 men undergoing this procedure. Researchers found that most of them had “normal” sized penises--and after the procedure, only 35 percent were satisfied with the results.

American culture sends a message about the penis that is confused, at best. In the wake of Rep. Anthony Weiner’s dick-pic scandal, the theme that “wangs are ugly” spattered the Internet, the media (wrongly) assuming that’s just how most women feel. The Washington Post even ran a sweeping op-ed in which writer Monica Hesse mused, all too predictably: “How about a picture of you, sweaty, cleaning out the storm drain? So sexy!” And before all this, the first big laugh in this summer’s blockbuster Bridesmaids comes from the two main characters joking that penises are ugly and look angry. 

So it seems like in American mainstream culture, “wangs are ugly,” but unlike the Greeks who dealt with penis anxiety by preferring petite genitals, we want ours super-sized anyway. Last year, a “kiss and tell all” account of how Mike “the Situation” Sorrentino had a “small penis” was passed around the Internet with zeal. Penis shaming, it seems, is culturally acceptable. Our mash-up mantra seems to be: wangs are ugly but we, as the '90s club-hit chimes, “don’t want no short dick man."

What we know about the average penis size in America, adds up to--sorry--dick. The size statistics we’ve been relying on--those of Kinsey or a widely used Lifestyle survey--asked men to measure themselves and self report their size, which unsurprisingly seems to only leave room for flubbing upward in inches. There is also the question of where to measure from, and erect or non-erect? Stretching the penis? All this considered, the most widely reported stats confirm average penis size falling somewhere between 5-6 inches.

Along with the pressure to be “well endowed” is more policing of Western male beauty in general. The Calvin Klein ad staring down on men on the bus conveys the message that desirable men are hairless with perfectly formed abs, a great haircut, and a bulge in the pants. Not to mention he has to spend $40 on underwear. 

According to Mark Simpson, a UK journalist and author who coined the term “metrosexual,” this pressure begins with porn: “Young men grow up watching almost infinite amounts of online porn in which the ‘star’ of the show is a large penis. And porn is really just the hardcore version of the increasingly visual culture that we’re now immersed in.”

Further, the popularity of hyper-realistic “amateur” porn presents a further conundrum (via GirlFriend videos or “college” style porn that gained popularity with sites like Dare Dorm). This porn promises “real men”...who all just happen to have porn-size cocks. Boys are inundated with unhealthy images about size, without decent sex ed to counter these pernicious messages. They are rarely told how little size has to do with actual sexual pleasure.

As sex-positive feminism has spread across American culture, more women then ever are owning their desires. That's great, but at times this has a dark side, as many women are increasingly also turning the tables to objectify men, from the universal girl-culture anthem in Salt n’ Pepa’s rapping (“You're a shotgun -- bang! What's up with that thang? I wanna know how does it hang?”) to a party for a new lady porn magazine I attended last weekend, where guys showed their dicks to get in the door. Later they were judged (by a bevy of straight females) in a “wet dick contest."

According to Simpson: “Women are now much more demanding, more critical, and more fetishistic about their male partners than they were in the past. They’re still nothing like as critical as say gay men, but much more than, say their mothers. Women are now much more likely to expect the male body to offer them pleasure, physical and visual.”

Race adds a whole other galaxy of issues and expectations of penis size. The pressure to “measure up” also presents itself uniquely in black culture. The wives-tale we’ve all heard about penises is that 1) shoe size correlates; and 2) black men have the biggest pair to fill. 

Studies have shown again and again that the race myth is not true, even revisited recently by Drs. Kevan Wylie and Ian Eardley, who set out to debunk penis myths. Yet according to a survey by Trojan, black men account for 22 percent of all condom purchases, and 40 percent of Magnum purchases, the brand’s “XXL” size condom. It sheds new light on female rapper Remy Ma’s line: “If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a baggy Magnum.” A post from a woman on the forum extrapolates:

“Why does every black man think they can wear Magnum Condoms? They have them up on their walls as memorabilia. They pull them out at clubs thinking broads are going to jump for joy...why?” 

One response reads: “I had sex with a friend.. and wondered what was going on with him putting on the condom...after he finally got it right he was holding it the whole time during sex...I look at the floor and see an empty Magnum wrapper! He was far from needing a Magnum! Women, we are partly responsible, sometimes blow our men up when it's less than perfect.”

In their study, Wylie and Eardley discovered that 12 percent of men thought their penises were too small. This has been called "locker room syndrome” or penile dysmorphic disorder. Wylie and Eardley calculate that an actual micropenis is 2.75 inches or less erect. But many men seem to remain deluded, and perhaps for good reason--Google brings up several stats for micropenises and Wiki lists micropenises as 2.5 inches smaller than average--but which average? 

If the subject lines in your spam folder didn’t tip you off -- “My 8-year-old brother has one like that!”--penis enlargement is big business. There are endless amounts of pills, creams and pumps that all promise to “add inches.” Not only do these items not work, according to the American Urological Association (AUA), many of them are dangerous. According to research from the University of Maryland, creams and pills have been reported to contain harmful moldyeastE. colibacteriapesticides, andlead. They also contain high amounts of feces--which Dr. Michael Donnenberg guesses are from raccoons and other animals “possibly grazing near the plants harvested for herbal ingredients."

But the Boston Phoenix reported that phalloplasty (surgical enlargement) is “the next big thing”--the dick job as the new boob job. The AUA, the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery and the American Society of Plastic Surgeons all have policy statements against cosmetic phalloplasty, but there remain a number of plastic surgeons willing to cut ligaments or inject penises with fat or silicone-- as long as the men are willing to shell out money. And as post after post on the Measurection forum shows, there are men hopping on surgery of “normal” size.

Measurection originally began as a phalloplasty support forum, but expanded as many members began to experience post-surgical complications. The founder of Measurection, John LaTreen, issued a statement about this:

“Because of financial motives, many of the surgeons have... painted pictures of maximal result and minimal risk. Unlike other cosmetic procedures, it appears there has been no standardization of procedures we have come to classify as "phalloplastic." Each surgeon goes off on his own as a total "wild card" doing what he or she feels works. Other cosmetic procedures are taught in the medical schools and teaching hospitals. Phalloplasty has not reached that point... The only surgeon now listed here is Gary Alter in Beverly Hills, California. Alter does not do girth enhancement, is critical of and does not do even lengthening on all men... He is here simply because he does do "reconstruction" of those who have been badly ‘butchered.'"

Penis enlargement surgery remains controversial, but if a safer surgery emerged, the dick job might be the next boob job;  the self esteem issues guys have wrapped up in their briefs seem plentiful compared to those in our water-bras. My hope is that by the time this surgery would become accessible, so would the conversations around penis size and sexual pleasure. Sex positive activists are working toward a multi-faceted sex education, which teaches that sex is so much more than penis in vagina penetration--that sexual pleasure is not restricted to, or often even related to penis size.  Studies show, too, that most women don't orgasm from PIV penetration alone. But maddeningly, penis shaming seems cemented in pop culture, whether it’s the assertion that small ones are laughable or that all penises are ugly.

Throughout time there have been different cultural attitudes toward the penis. Penises have long had their place in art, folk stories and ceremonies, like the mythical Kokopelli, who before being emblazoned on U.S. Southwestern tourist tees wielded a large penis--not a flute. Or in the Hindu Shiva Lingam ceremony where milk and yogurt are poured over phalluses. Some say penis obsession is a part of human nature. Some evolutionary biologists theorize that evolution has selected for larger, bendier human penises, which can better scoop out the sperm of competitors, or implant sperm more deeply into a vagina. 

But humans are more than the sum of our biology. And the way we talk about men’s bodies and penises is socially settled. In the feminist realm of arguments about body image and unreal media representations of women, the answer often is: show us a wider range of bodies. That’s a great first step. But why not also address that real sexual pleasure and function can exist outside of fantasy? In this case, outside of the symbol of the penis.