No, really: Penises are not shrinking

Rush Limbaugh is wrong about that. But here's the long (and short) of what science really does tell us about size

Topics: Love and Sex, Science, Rush Limbaugh, Rush Limbaugh penis size,

No, really: Penises are not shrinking (Credit: Luso via iStock)

I’m often struck by the different ways we talk — and don’t talk — about men’s and women’s genitals. Recently, when women’s reproductive parts have made the news at all, it’s been in regard to political attempts to control what happens to women’s bodies (via policies related to contraception, transvaginal ultrasounds or “legitimate rape”).

But the politics of penis size? It’s forever about size.

Days ago, a new (and, I think, seriously flawed) study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine claims – as its title says – “Women Who Prefer Longer Penises Are More Likely to Have Vaginal Orgasms (but Not Clitoral Orgasms).” Those who take the time to read the full study, however, will find that penis size doesn’t seem to be terribly important to women’s orgasms.

Buried in the study are data that demonstrate that most women in the study (about 60 percent) thought a man’s penis size didn’t influence whether or not they had an orgasm. And 6 percent of women said they were less likely to experience orgasm if a man had a longer than average penis. Oddly, the researchers didn’t present any data (or maybe didn’t ask about) orgasmic ability when having sex with a man with a smaller than average penis, even though plenty of women can and do have such an experience. Biased, much?

The study’s publication comes on the heels of a recent Rush Limbaugh comment in which he attributed the alleged shrinking, over the past 50 years, of men’s penises to women (well, specifically, to “feminazis”). Referencing an Italian study on the topic, he said: “I think it’s feminism … it’s tied to the last 50 years — the average size of [a male's] member is 10 percent smaller than 50 years ago — it has to be the feminazis, the chickification and everything else.”

Of course, this is ludicrous. But let’s take Limbaugh at face value, and just examine his idea from a scientific perspective. Have men’s penises truly shrunk over the past 50 years? The source of these comments has been identified as an Italian study described on a website called and that site doesn’t identify the specific study the data are supposedly from. This makes it impossible for anyone to understand or judge the reliability or validity of the data.

As far as I can tell – being a scientist who studies sexual behavior and penile dimensions specifically – there has not been a downward trend in men’s penile length. In other words: I know my way around the penis and I haven’t yet found evidence that men’s penises have been shrinking on a global scale. For one thing, there are few data on adult male penis size from 50 or 60 years ago (Alfred Kinsey’s team published some data, though the response rate was relatively low), so historical comparisons are difficult to make.

On an individual level, it is common for men to notice some shrinkage with age. After all, their muscles get weaker, testosterone levels decline with age, and many men experience poorer cardiovascular health (which is linked with erectile function) associated with age and various lifestyle behaviors related to smoking, eating and exercise.

At the group level, the size of a man’s erection has also been linked with a higher Body Mass Index, which the chacha brief mentions (several studies have found this to be the case). This is likely for two reasons: 1) Men with a great deal of abdominal fat may find that their fat obscures part of their penis; and 2) many but not all men who are obese also have other health issues such as cardiovascular health problems or diabetes, each of which can contribute to erectile problems.

And because we’re talking about the measurement of erect penises rather than flaccid penises, the intensity of the erection matters to the measured size. A less intense erection will result in a smaller erect penis than a more intense (harder) erection. (It’s important to note here, too, that obesity, heart disease and diabetes do not always go together; one can be thin and still have heart disease or diabetes and a slew of research suggests that fitness, and not just fatness, is relevant to health.)

But back to erections. Here are some things you should know about penis size and how it’s considered in research so that you can make sense of penis size studies and media headlines:

Penis size is measured in different ways. Some studies measure men’s penises in a flaccid – meaning soft or non-erect – state. In other studies, researchers report the length or circumference of men’s penises when erect (hard) or when stretched (which is just like it sounds). When you come across articles about penis sizes, make sure you get a sense of what kind of penises they’re measuring (flaccid, stretched or erect) so that you can understand the results.

Penis size depends on who measures it. In some studies, researchers or healthcare providers measure men’s penises. While these studies have the advantage of having the same folks measuring penises over and over again – and thus being consistent across study participants – there’s a downside. In at least one case, a number of men were unable to get an erection, knowing that a nurse was going to measure their erect penis. Other studies rely on sending men home to measure their own penis and then report the measurements. Of course, what they do to become erect (e.g., masturbate, have sex with a partner, fantasize, etc.) can also influence the intensity, and thus the overall size, of their erect penis.

Penis size doesn’t seem to have changed over the past few decades. Rid yourself of any ideas that penises are undergoing mass shrinkage (or growth). Although the average penis size varies by study, penile length and circumference are always within a small, limited and definite range of sizes. Studies that enroll very few men have less stable averages simply because there are fewer observations on which to draw. If you look mainly at the studies that measured the penises of 100 or more men, however, the numbers are far more stable and the difference from study to study is only about a centimeter or two.

Averages are only one piece of the puzzle. When I teach human sexuality classes to my students at Indiana University, I try to get them to think beyond averages and look at the larger picture. For example, although the average erect penile length is often around 5.1 to 5.8 inches (depending on the study), few men are exactly average. Most men cluster around the average, however, with some studies finding that about 95 percent of men fall within 2 or so inches of each other.

Size only matters a little bit. Because most men are similar to each other in terms of size – within an inch or 2 in either direction – size alone doesn’t account for the difference between lovers. Technique matters. Having a partner who listens to what you want matters. Being a partner who knows what you want, and can ask for it from a partner, matters too. An excitement and love for sex play a role in how good sex feels. And study after study finds that intimacy, connection and affection are important to women’s and men’s sexual satisfaction. Penile size? Vaginal size? For most people, and in the grand scheme of things, they tend to play only a supporting role in how people experience sex.

Debby Herbenick, PhD, MPH is co-Director of The Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University's School of Public Health-Bloomington, a sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, and author of five books about sex and love. Her most recent is Sex Made Easy: Your Awkward Questions Answered for Better, Smarter, Amazing Sex (Running Press, 2012).

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>