Let's get real about penis size

New research about what’s average for male genitalia highlights exactly why conversations about size matter.

Banana penis size comparison

Evan-Amos/Wikimedia Commons.

Here’s a number for you: 5.16 inches. Or, for metric-system purists, 13.12 cm. According to a report just published in the British Journal of Urology International, that’s the average length of an erect penis. When flaccid, an average man’s manhood is 9.16 cm (3.6 inches), with a girth of 9.31 cm (3.7 inches).

The endless possibilities for juvenile wiener-based humour aside — insert (ha!) your own joke here — the most interesting part of the study is not the numbers or the data. It’s what the researchers titled it: “Am I Normal?” That question gets at the heart of what is for many guys a deeply shameful and frightening source of insecurity — not just the literal size of their package but what their junk represents.

Every expectation about masculinity, from courage to wealth to power is summed up in expressions like “that dude has balls” or “pissing contest” or jokes about how a guy bought a monster-sized truck to compensate for being less than monster-sized himself. So when those researchers went around measuring penises, they were, in many men’s opinion, also assessing a man’s very worth.

The British team behind the report drew its data from 20 separate studies from around the world involving the penis size of more than 15,000 men. They have cautioned that while it is not fully representative, they hoped it might  “reassure the large majority of men that the size of their penis is in the normal range.”

They even created a graph that doctors can use in counselling men with “small penis anxiety,” a condition that can lead to depression and even suicide. Many sex educators and sexual experts would agree with this assessment. I spoke to a staff person at a sexual health centre recently who told me that the number one question that they get from young men is a variation on “Am I big enough?” Or, “Am I normal?” That fear isn’t new, but it’s certainly been heightened by the ubiquity of porn and its well-endowed performers with their medically enhanced staying power.

As a woman, it’s tempting to roll your eyes over all this, considering the scrutiny our appearance is subject to, the myriad ways we are reduced to our body parts and the barrage of messages we get that we are inadequate or weird right down to our own genitalia. But the attitudes and forces behind these judgements of men’s bodies and women’s is the same: the reductive and confining categories of femininity and masculinity, of what “normal women” and “normal men” should be and look like.

A while back, New York magazine profiled a man who is among the two percent of those with “micro-sized” penises. His condition and situation are rare, but I suspect he speaks for a lot of men, including those in the so-called normal range, when he says “I’m a pathetic little nothing, really; that’s what it’s made me feel like. I was raised around all these macho uncles and teachers who expected men to be men and we all know what that really means.”

For all the obsession over size, this new study was the first of its kind to examine it so broadly and fully. Researchers have also suggested in may help in designing condoms that fit better, ultimately increasing their use in contraception and disease prevention — which would be a seriously positive public health bonus. But the real benefit of studies like this is that it might take a subject that guys only joke about and brag about, and transform it something that they can actually start talking about.