Don’t be a dick: it’s time to bring an end to penis shaming
Louis Staples unpacks the social pressures around penis size and speaks to experts on how to rise above it
words Louis Staples
Rowan* can’t pinpoint when he first started feeling ashamed of his penis. “It’s just something I’ve always been aware of, ever since changing rooms at school or watching porn,” he says. “I’ve always been insecure about it and I probably always will be.”
The research suggests Rowan isn’t alone. A 2014 paper published in the journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity suggests that 45 percent of men are unsatisfied with their penis size and want it to be larger. This was despite the fact that, in this particular study, only 16 percent of respondents had a penis below the average size. (If you’re asking, that’s anywhere between five and six inches when erect, depending on where you are in the world).
From Sigmund Freud to the present day, psychologists have long attempted to unpack why some men care so much about the size of their penis. And why, to some, their penis size feels connected to their masculinity and whether or not they’re a “real man.” But all of this focus on the internal psyche overlooks one major factor: the role that external peer pressure and body-shaming have in shaping men’s perception of penis size.
For Rowan, early self-consciousness about his penis size was compounded by moments of painful objectification and public discussion of his body. He specifically recalls an instance in his teenage years, when an ex-girlfriend discussed the size of his penis with her friends on MSN Messenger, telling a classmate that it was “tiny”.
Details of the conversation soon spread around his high school like wildfire and led to him being taunted about it. “Even now, I still feel quite sick thinking about it. I worry that any new sexual partners are going to think the same and tell people,” he says. “It can make dating, and particularly having sex with someone for the first time, quite nerve-wracking.”
What impact can penis shaming have on a person?
It goes without saying but the impact of being judged or ridiculed for the size or appearance of your penis can have a long-lasting impact on your self-esteem.
According to relationship and psychology coach Elle Mace, who specialises in body dysmorphia, penis shaming can affect someone in “every aspect” of their life, from their body confidence, relationships, friends and even in work and socially. “Low self-worth and self-esteem can affect a person’s whole personality and being,” she tells woo. “Even just one experience of penis shaming can be traumatic enough to lead to a lack of confidence and fear of sex and relationships.”
Unrealistic body expectations from pornography seem to feed into men feeling like their penises aren’t desirable or big enough. “Porn has played a big part in making men feel like their penis is small because they are comparing it to the porn sites,” Mace says. “When actually, they may have a normal size penis and feel inadequate for no reason.”
And according to Annabelle Knight, sex and relationships expert at Lovehoney, the idea that bigger is better isn’t strictly true. “A lot of the media we consume suggests that it’s desirable or even common to have an extremely large penis,” she says. “But that simply isn’t the case: the average penis size is around five inches and the most popular dildo bought at Lovehoney is six.” It’s worth noting that one consistency in penis size surveys is that men tend to care about penis size significantly more than women.
Penis shaming in gay culture
While women are broadly less concerned with penis size, the social pressure for men to have a large penis can feel particularly intense in gay relationships and culture.
According to a Dutch study undertaken at Utrecht University, penis length and size has a greater link to self-esteem in gay men. The study found that penis size “has considerable influence on how they [gay men] value themselves in general.”
Part of this could be down to gay porn having similarly unrealistic standards to straight porn when it comes to penis size. But there’s also the fact that men who have sex with men may be subconsciously comparing their penis size with that of their hookups and internalising ideas of inferiority.
Gay hookup apps like Grindr also have different norms, where it’s common for users to advertise themselves based on their penis size and send dick pics before meeting. Peter* tells me his penis is “completely average size”, but that he has often been blocked on Grindr after sending pictures of it. “Sometimes people will just block me without any warning after I send them a dick pic, or reply saying they’re ‘only into hung guys’”, he says. “It can make you feel pretty tentative about sending them but I suppose if it’s that important to people I’d rather know that upfront than end up with an awkward situation in person.”
Peter says there can be different expectations on “tops” – people who usually penetrate their sexual partners – and “bottoms” – people who are mostly penetrated. “I’m mostly a bottom so my penis size doesn’t hinder me that much,” he says. “Some guys are pretty obsessive when it comes to looking for a ‘hung’ top so there is probably more pressure on them.”
Melissa Stone, sex and relationships expert at Joy Love Dolls, thinks that this could end up taking away from the experience of sex. “If a person is feeling insecure and ashamed of their body, they may feel more anxious and self-conscious during sex,” she says. “This can lead to a lack of enjoyment and a negative attitude towards intercourse.”
Is there a “right” way to respond if someone tells you they're self-conscious about their penis?
Stone says it’s important to be understanding, supportive and to not make light of the situation if someone confesses to feeling insecure about their penis. After all, that’s a pretty vulnerable admission to make. “Reassure them that they should not be ashamed of how they look and that ultimately their penis size does not define them, that there are many other qualities that make someone attractive,” she says.
Knight also emphasises the importance of taking the time to listen. “It will likely have been difficult for them to share something that is so sensitive and personal, so try not to be at all dismissive,” she says. “Be cooperative with any actions they might want to take, for example if they want to have sex in a different way, and generally be supportive.”
Mace thinks it’s all about dialogue. “Have an open conversation about how it might affect your sexual relationship mentally or physically and ensure you have open communication,” she says. “Share how you can help each other to both be fulfilled and feel secure.”
How can someone rebuild their confidence after being penis-shamed?
Rebuilding confidence after being shamed can take time, particularly if there was a public element to the shaming. “The person has to detach themselves from the comment and the person saying it,” Mace says. “Focus on your own self-worth and you as a person and not just a specific part of your body which doesn’t reflect your worth.”
Knight thinks it might help to do some reading on the topic. “There's lots of stuff out there that will put your mind at ease that every penis is different, and size doesn’t matter,” she says. “Looking at actual data and research from sexual experts, outside of porn, will show that size is not as big an issue as made out by penis shamers.”
Stone thinks that speaking to a therapist could also help. “Rebuilding confidence after being penis-shamed can take time, but I would recommend perhaps talking to a therapist, or even talking to your partner if you have one,” she says. “Remaining positive such as practising positive self-talk, and focusing on the things that make them feel confident and attractive are always key.”
Is penis shaming becoming less acceptable?
While, in the past, public discussion of someone’s dick size was seen as a joke or light-hearted fun, it feels like wider society is beginning to catch on to just how damaging this can be for someone’s self-esteem.
One notable example is that, after the “Wagatha Christie” trial, Rebekah Vardy publicly apologised to Peter Andre for mocking his penis in an old magazine interview. With so much discussion about helping men to open up and addressing men’s mental health, it feels like the idea that size is everything might slowly be changing.
“The reason people penis-shame is to attack the person’s manhood, because we grew up in a society that made that connection,” Mace says. “But we have since had a big shift in manhood now being judged more so on feelings and emotional connection.”
- Names have been changed.
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