August 2, 2012

Size Matters: Perceptions Of Penis Size And Condom Use

Men may be criticized for worrying too much about size. However, penis size and shape can have real effects on sexual health.

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An illustration from the 1940s with of a man with two snails on his erect penis.

An illustration from the 1940s with of a man with two snails on his erect penis.

Bring up “perceptions of penis size” and you’re more likely to induce eye-rolls than public health initiatives. But according to a June 2012 study by Indiana University researchers Michael Reece and Debra Herbenick, it shouldn’t be so. In their poll of African-American men who have sex with men, a sizable percentage reported condoms being too long, too short, too tight, too loose… in summary, not meeting men’s needs in the size department.

Condoms play an important role in preventing STIs and unwanted pregnancy. So what does it mean that many cisgender men feel their penises are the wrong size for the condoms available? Instead of falling back on the stereotype of men using discomfort as an excuse to have unprotected sex, new research encourages us to really investigate the role of penis size and shape on individuals’ sexual health.

Does Size Matter? Our Ideas About It Do.

Dr. Kinsey and his research team calculated a typical range for erect penile length to span from 5 to 6.5 inches in length. This result, published in 1979, helps to correct some societal misconceptions about penile length. Still, the over-emphasis on large penises in mainstream pornography and media still contribute to insecurities about genital size.

Researchers who conduct penis size perception studies often challenge feelings of inadequacy by insisting that men care far more about penis size than their female partners do. Though this argument is well-intentioned (and reasonable), it ignores the fact that penis size signifies a lot more than just straight women’s sexual pleasure in our culture.

Some argue that instead of writing off men’s anxiety over penis size as juvenile, insecure or misguided, we should acknowledge the penis-centered society we live in. The social status of large penises has real implications for people’s mental and physical health- among them, condom discomfort and disuse.

Fit and Feel of Condoms

Condoms are available for a large range of penis sizes. But in a culture that privileges large penile length, some men may be too embarrassed to attain condoms designed for shorter-than-average penises.  Conversely, the way that “obsession” with penis size is ridiculed in our culture might make some men self-conscious about purchasing large or “Magnum” condoms. Either way, Reece and Herbenick speculate that ill-fitting condoms may be directly connected to decreased condom use.

As the study shows by using a “Fit and Feel Scale,” ill-fitting condoms are identified not only in terms of length but in relation to feel on the head, base and shaft of the participant’s penises. Because there’s a wide variation in penile shape and erectile curvature as well as length, there’s not a perfect, custom-size condom for every penis.

Part of the problem in choosing the right condom may be the difference between flaccid and erect penis sizes. Men with above- or below-average flaccid penile length may fit right into the average range once erect- simply put, flaccid penis size is not a good predictor of erect penis size. Penis size also tends to be perceived in terms of length only, meaning men with penises above the average of 4.8 inches in circumference may not think of themselves as having large penises.

What’s Next?

Information about penis size is often still based on Alfred Kinsey’s original study from 1948.  It’s unlikely that the average size of the human penis has changed much since then, but if companies want to design condoms that fit correctly and feel comfortable, it’s important to have up-to-date information about people’s bodies.  For now, men should be encouraged to experiment with different condom sizes.

While the cultural significance of large penises probably won’t disappear anytime soon, sex education programs can help alleviate shame about penis size by addressing the way the media over-estimates average length and correcting inaccurate ideas about large penises. Ultimately, more research is needed on the ways that perceived and actual penis size affect the health of individuals and communities.