My penis size obsession: All my life I've worried about measuring up

Some women make small d*ick jokes, but it seems to me this is an anxiety we men have created for ourselves

Published January 4, 2016 12:30AM (EST)

 (<a href=''>ruigsantos</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(ruigsantos via Shutterstock)

I think I first experienced anxiety about size when I was around 5 years old, as my friend Billy and I were pissing outside together. No, I don’t remember why we were pissing outside. And no, I don’t know what compelled me to actually look at his dick, except that I was young and hadn’t learned proper pissing-with-other-dudes etiquette yet. But what I know is that I had only ever seen my brother, my father and myself naked before that moment. It made sense to me that my dad’s penis was larger than mine—everything about him was larger. But this kid was my age and my size—except for one part.  And that part was bigger. Shockingly so. I couldn’t tell you why this realization bothered me—I was years away from knowing anything about sex, and close to a decade away from worrying about the role size might play in satisfying a lover. Nevertheless, at that moment, realizing that I was clearly smaller than my friend, I felt inferior for the first time in my life. I may not remember many details of that day, but I remember that feeling quite clearly.


In their 2007 study of gay men’s perception of penis size, researchers Murray J. N. Drummond and Shaun M. Filiault noted the way culture seems to equate a man’s value with the size of his penis:

Stereotypically, men’s penis size is linked with Western cultural notions of masculinity. That is, a large penis is indicative of one being ‘more’ of a man. As Pope and colleagues state; “genitals symbolize virility, procreative potency, and power” all of which are critical to accessing what is termed “hegemonic masculinity” Furthermore, other analyses of Western masculinity suggest men are expected to occupy space or ‘penetrate’ space, dictums which both lend credence to the need for a large, penetrating penis. Accordingly, and based on such cultural stereotypes, a small penis draws into question a man’s sexual prowess and his overall masculinity. Based on such symbolism and cultural observations, it is little wonder that a large number of men present each year for penile augmentation surgery, despite the risky nature of the procedure and the fact that many of those men are of a normal size. Seemingly, then, penis size is a major body image concern for many if not most men living in Western nations.


The ceramics class I took my senior year of high school was taught by a local artist who didn’t have very much classroom experience. As a result, class sometimes seemed a little chaotic. The music would be turned up a little too loud if the Beastie Boys came on. People would just take the hall pass from the teacher’s desk without permission in order to roam the school. Conversations were often shouted across the room as we halfheartedly molded our ashtrays and pots. The teacher would try to get us to quiet down, to treat her with some measure of respect, and to focus our energies on creating art.  But she’d tried too hard to make us like her, to convince us she was laid back and cool, the first week of class. Rookie mistake.

One day the group of stoners in the class were sitting at their table, laughing louder than usual.  Eventually, one of them—an African-American kid named Lamar—got up from his seat, grabbed the hall pass, and left the room. His friends were all still laughing, but he seemed pissed.

“What is going on?” the teacher demanded, and the laughter died down.

“Something funny happened at a party on Saturday,” Gabe, the only talented artist in the class, responded.  “It’s not a big deal.”

For the life of me, I don’t know why the teacher followed up.

“What?” she asked.  “What happened?”

Nervous laughter, then Gabe answered.  “Well, Lamar… fell asleep.  In the bathroom. Some people found him in there. Naked.”

At this point, I think the teacher realized she didn’t really want to know.  “OK, OK.”

“And it turns out that certain ideas about black guys… aren’t true.”

At this, the teacher turned red as the table full of stoners started laughing again. I was embarrassed too. For her. For him. For me, too, I suppose.

I tried my best to ignore them, focusing on the clay in front of me, and I managed to succeed.  I didn’t notice anyone getting up from their table and going toward the chalkboard when the teacher wasn’t looking.  And I didn’t notice Lamar had returned to the room until the yelling began.

“Who did it?” he demanded loudly.  I looked up to see him standing in the front of the room, eyes wide, mouth shut tight as if he was containing rage, or tears, or both.  “Who the fuck did it?”

The teacher seemed just as confused as I was, and I think we probably both looked behind him at the same time, toward the chalkboard.  Someone had taken a small chunk of clay—maybe an inch long, and very thin—and affixed it to the board.  Written beside it, with an arrow pointing towards it, were the words “Lamar’s pee-pee.”

He walked through the room slowly, making eye contact with all of us. I don’t think he actually thought I would do such a thing—the stoners kind of scared me back then. I thought all drugs were dangerous and led to a life of reckless criminality. And I’m pretty sure he knew it was one of his friends. But when he looked at me, I could tell that he wanted to hurt someone, and I could understand. And though it would be years before I would start to think about how racial stereotypes probably make anxiety about penis size even more acute for young black men, I felt like this was the most humiliating thing I’d ever witnessed.


According to research conducted by the makers of Lifestyles-brand condoms, the average erect penis is about 5.8 inches long. Some other surveys suggest that the average is slightly smaller.  Surveys that rely on self-reporting from men suggest, not surprisingly, that the average is higher.  But it’s probably safe to say that the average is somewhere between 5 and a half and 6 inches long. Lifestyles reports that the average girth is 4.972 inches. Obviously, there’s some small deviation in other surveys, but not much.


TSA screener Rolando Negrin accepted a plea deal in 2011 to avoid a felony conviction after using a police baton to assault a co-worker who had seen what he was packing through a whole-body scanner image and had taunted him about it.

In 2012, drunken John Clinton stabbed his wife to death but argued that he should be charged with manslaughter rather than murder because she had been “galling him” about his bedwetting habit and small penis.

Also, in 2012, Florida skinny-dipper Adam Brown was charged with threatening his neighbor with a rifle when she made fun of his size, pointing the gun at her face and asking, “How do you like the size of this?”  Even when police arrived, he refused to put his gun down and wound up getting shot by an officer.


My first college girlfriend wasn’t really my girlfriend at all. She was a female friend with whom I occasionally got drunk and made out. Occasionally, if we were both really turned on, I might get to rub a breast over her sweater.  But she had a boyfriend back at home, and eventually felt like she couldn’t continue French-kissing me, so we decided to go back to just being friends. We hung out with the same people, so just going our separate ways wasn’t really an option. But, to be honest, I probably wasn’t very mature about the whole thing.

My friends and I always made fun of each other—none of us was particularly thin-skinned—but she and I would sometimes each take the “friendly teasing” a little too far. I knew that a boy in her high school used to harass her by calling her “fire crotch”—a reference to her red hair. So I started calling her that too—in that “ironic” way so I could claim that I didn’t actually mean to upset her, even though I knew exactly what I was doing. She would come back at me too, of course, and she tended to give as good as she got with her jokes about my own nerdy interests in comic books or lack of success with women. But in hindsight, I realize I was being the asshole in these exchanges.

One night, all of our friends were gathered in one friend’s room for conversation and binge drinking. She was telling a story about being in her high school’s band, and referenced that she had loved playing the flute.

“Skin flute, you mean,” I replied with a snicker.  Yes, I really was that stupid and immature.

She paused in her story, then replied, “Yeah, I’ve played the skin flute.  Or, in your case, piccolo.”

She had, of course, never seen my penis.  But our friends didn’t know that.  They just knew that we’d fooled around for a while then stopped. And as a virgin, I had been kind of happy to have my friends think I was more sexually experienced than I was. Though not anymore.

The room was silent. I couldn’t come up with anything to say.

She smiled. She knew she’d finally beaten me. But she gilded the lily by asking, “No clever comeback, piccolo prick?”

All of our friends looked back and forth at us.

“Oh, I’m just kidding,” she replied.  “I’ve never even seen his dick.”

I felt entitled, somewhat, to some type of righteous indignation. She had, after all, told a roomful of our mutual friends that I had a small penis, and then—to set the record straight—made it clear that we hadn’t done anything below the waist. But even though I was embarrassed, I had to admit that she’d done a masterful job of insulting me. Her comic timing was excellent. She’d shut me up after I’d been rude to her for several weeks. The truth is, I think we wound up becoming friends again after that comment. I certainly never tried to use sexual innuendo to embarrass her—or any other woman—ever again.


In a 1998 New York Times article, attorney Leon Friedman described a literary method of avoiding defamation lawsuits while writing unflattering, thinly-veiled depictions of real men—describe the character as having a small penis. As Friedman told the Times, ''Now no male is going to come forward and say, 'That character with a very small penis, 'That's me!’''

This “rule” only sounds like a joke—in fact, this method is quite well-known among lawyers and writers who wish to malign other people. Apparently, the idea that a man would rather be the victim of libel than have people think his penis is small is just common sense.


I was once having sex with a woman I wasn’t in a relationship with. We understood going into it that this was a one-night stand. We were friends, and we liked each other, but she had another guy she was more interested in and I was really only looking to get laid. And I was pretty drunk, too. That’s probably important.

I don’t want to brag, but she came a couple of times, and I was still going. In fact, that’s not a brag at all, really. I was young and inexperienced and was pretty sure that going longer was always better, but as we fucked I realized I wasn’t even close to coming. I was hard, but not quite able to finish up. And I realize, in hindsight, that it probably started to become unpleasant for her, lying there while a guy she wasn’t all that into was thrusting away at her.

“Ooooooh,” she moaned.  “Your dick is so big.”

At this point, I almost had to stop. I realized she was trying to flatter me, to push me to the point of no return by telling me what every guy wants to hear. But it had the opposite effect. Why would she say such a thing? I knew I wasn’t particularly massive—in fact, at the time, I suspected I was smaller than average. Was she trying to reassure me, presuming I was insecure about it? Did she feel sorry for me? Was this charity?

Honestly, I don’t remember if I came that night, or if we both just eventually fell asleep.  But I do remember her telling me my dick was big, and I remember my certainty that she was lying.


Adult film star John Holmes claimed to have a 15-inch penis. His ex-wife claimed it was 10 inches. His business manager says 13 and a half. Ron Jeremy is reported to have a 9 and a half inch penis. Certainly, the adult film industry seems to feel that bigger is better—with the exception of some very specific fetish porn (some cuckold websites, SPH or “Small Penis Humiliation” videos), the actors all seem to be endowed with at least 7 inches.

With 13 and a half inches locked behind his zipper, actor and writer Jonah Falcon is believed by many to have the largest dick in the world. In a 2010 interview with Samantha Bee for "The Daily Show," he explained that he was not interested in acting in porn because it would be “the easy way out.”


My wife’s bachelorette party was a week before our wedding. Her friends got her very drunk, very fast, and she told me the next day that she had wound up passing out about two hours into the festivities. It wasn’t quite what she was planning, and I had a feeling that perhaps the party had been a disappointment. When I saw Erin, my wife’s matron of honor, a few days later, she put my mind at ease.

“It was so much fun,” she said.  “Emily was drunk, but she was funnier than I’ve ever seen her.  It was awesome.”

“Really?” I asked. “Well, that’s good.”

“Yeah, at one point, she was ranking the dicks of every guy she has ever been with by size.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she answered, laughing.

“Well…” How to ask this?  “I mean, where did I rank on the list?”

Recognizing her folly, Erin stopped laughing and quickly tried to cover. “Oh, she… she left you off the list. Women don’t talk about their current partners that way.”

I didn’t want to call Erin a liar—she was my friend, too. Plus, I’m just not that rude. And though I’m not particularly anxious about the size of my dick, I still felt like I needed to know now—especially since all of our female friends knew. So I eventually asked Emily. As it happens, I’m closer to the top of the list than the bottom, if we’re going largest to smallest, though she added that there wasn’t much deviation among the men she had been with. Her list of previous lovers is not particularly long, but there are enough on there that I’m content that she knows what is out there and I’m not disappointing her. Not that I was all that worried until Erin brought it up.

Of course, a truly confident man wouldn’t have felt the need to ask in the first place.  And probably wouldn’t know how many penises his wife has had intimate contact with. And how would I have felt if she had told me I was smaller than most of the men she had been with?  How would I have felt if her total number of sexual partners was significantly higher than mine—like, say, if she could discuss the length and girth of 30 or 40 different men? How confident would I be if the answer to the question wasn’t what I wanted to hear?


In some ways, I think guys are taught from a very young age that we are in competition with each other. Little League, action movies, gym class—we’re raised to think that part of masculinity involves beating another boy or man at something. But as we enter adulthood, we find that competition no longer plays such a crucial role in our lives. Who, for example, brags, “I can write committee reports better than any guy in my office?” or “I’m so attuned to my wife’s needs, I can intuit when she has had a tough day without her having to say anything, and I know to take the kids out for ice cream so she can have some much-needed alone time?” This is masculinity in the real world, but it’s not the sort of thing that tends to impress other dudes.

So perhaps bragging, joking or insulting over penis size is an easy way for some guys to feel better about themselves, now that it’s clear that their days on the football field are over and they’re not likely ever going to have to fight a ninja. It’s juvenile and stupid, but perhaps it’s understandable?


A study conducted by researchers at King’s College London indicated that 30 percent of men say that the are dissatisfied with their equipment, 35 percent report that they are very satisfied, and the remainder fall somewhere around satisfied or dissatisfied.

Surveys of heterosexual women consistently report that their partners’ penis size is not much of a concern for the vast majority.  And though size preferences among gay men remain a subject of some debate, a 2007 study of the issue found that only 7 percent of gay men said that the penis was their “favorite” part of a man’s anatomy.

The point is, penis size seems to matter most to the guy with a ruler in one hand and his dick in the other.


If I’m honest with myself, I have to admit to feeling relieved when my wife told me where I was on her personal experience spectrum. As much as I may tell myself that I don’t care about these things, I have to confess that this is, in fact, a subject I have worried about at times in my life. Knowing that most women say it’s not important, and knowing that my wife says she’s happy with what I’ve got, there is still a part of me that sometimes imagine that it’s all a lie—that, in fact, my wife (and all women) have had the experience of being filled by a 12-inch monster cock and been more fulfilled by it than anything I could ever hope to provide. So much of our culture tells us that this is so, after all. Pornography, sure, but also just the way men—effete liberal and burly conservative alike-- talk to each other about the subject. How often do guys call each other “dick-less” or “needle-dick the bug fucker” or some variation of that type of insult?  How often do we joke about guys who collect assault rifles or drive massive, gas-guzzling trucks trying to “compensate” for their lack of size? Obviously, some women make small dick jokes too, but it seems to me that this is an anxiety that we men have created for ourselves.


Actually, there is one guy I can think of who doesn’t seem too insecure, and for whom the legal and literary “small penis rule” did not apply.  New Republic contributor Michael Crowley alleged in 2006 that science fiction writer/ political conspiracy theorist Michael Crichton had maligned him in his novel "Next." Crowley had published an essay criticizing the right-wing paranoia on display in Crichton’s previous novel, "State of Fear," and Crowley alleged that Crichton had retaliated by putting a fictionalized version of him in his follow-up novel. The character, Mick Crowley, was described as a Yale graduate with a small penis, “a Washington-based political columnist who was visiting his sister-in-law when he experienced an overwhelming urge to have anal sex with her young son, still in diapers.”  The real Crowley is a Yale-educated Washington-based political columnist who does not rape babies and whose penis size is none of our business.

Crowley didn’t sue for libel, but nor did he keep his head down and hope that no one would make the connection, either.  He wrote a response for the New Republic wherein he described Crichton’s maligning, but concluded that he found the attention from Crichton “strangely flattering.”

“To explain why,” he wrote, “let me propose a corollary to the small penis rule. Call it the small man rule: If someone offers substantive criticism of an author and the author responds by hitting below the belt, as it were, then he’s conceding that the critic has won.”


The challenge in writing a personal essay about penis size, of course, is in figuring out how to end it. That is to say, do I give my own measurements? The principle of absolute honesty would suggest I should. Maybe. Unless you thought the number was too high. Then, all my insistence that men create unnecessary anxiety for ourselves will strike you as being dishonest.

Which is not to say that the number really would be very high. But if the number seems low, well, then the essay seems merely self-serving, doesn’t it?  “Well, of course he thinks we shouldn’t be focused on penis size! He’s hung like a muskrat.”

You see the dilemma I’ve created for myself here. In the end, perhaps, what’s between my legs is a matter best kept between my wife and me. You can feel free to imagine I’ve got a cocktail shrimp down there. Or, a thick, throbbing member that would make Jonah Falcon gasp.  I honestly don’t care at this point—it’s my dick, not yours— and if I don’t care, you probably don’t either.

By William Bradley

William Bradley's collection of personal essays Fractals is forthcoming and is now available for preorder. This essay comes from a manuscript-in-progress concerned with toxic masculinity and misogyny in America. More of his work can be found at

MORE FROM William Bradley

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Average Penis Size Body Image Editor's Pick Life Stories Toxic Masculinity