DOCTORS CANNOT AGREE ON THE RIGHT WAY TO MEASURE A PENIS.
You probably think it’s pretty easy to measure a penis. Whip it out. Grab a ruler. Get it hard. Have a look. Men do it all the time, with a ruler or tape measure or other device, whether out of boredom, curiosity, insecurity, or any number of other motivations. Scientists do it all the time as well. Their efforts have generated data on average penis sizes, which many media outlets, educators, and average men take as gospel.
But think for a moment about all the ways you could measure your penis and you’ll pretty quickly find it’s not as straightforward as it seems. Do you measure from the top or the side? Flaccid or erect? Morning or evening? Scientists have been pondering these issues for decades, developing varied measurement tactics. But as researchers report, “little data exists on the best technique to measure penile length.”
That could be cause for concern, as getting a solid sense of average penis sizes is important for more than just personal interest. Accurate measures may aid in developing better-fitting condoms with lower tear rates or help men with confidence issues who believe their penis is smaller than average. So it’s worth taking a look at when, where, and how some of the most common figures on average penis sizes were determined and understanding exactly how much uncertainty remains.
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Doctors have been trying to gather solid data on average penis lengths since the early 1940s. One of the earliest papers on the subject dates from1942, when two researchers in New York measured nearly 200 boys’ and men’s members by stretching them while flaccid and placing a wooden ruler atop them, butted up against their pelvis. But the first study of average penis lengths to garner attention came from the father of sexual research, Alfred Kinsey. His investigation, published in1948, concluded that the average stretched penis was about 6.59 inches long. And because he asserted his expertise of science in sexual matters, others assumed he really did know the best way to do this research.
In retrospect, though, Kinsey used shoddy science.
He interviewed 4,000 mostly white and college-aged men and asked them to estimate their penis size. They were each given a take-home card with instructions to measure themselves, then send the card back with data. Some 2,500 replied. Kinsey’s figures have been an inch to an inch and a half longer than many subsequent clinical studies found, as often happens when you ask people to measure their dick and just tell you about it. Thanks to Kinsey’s influence and the fact that no one questioned his methodology, length data was a little spotty throughout the mid-20th century.
In fact, experts contend that all the data gathered before 1980 on this subject is completely unreliable. More often than not, modern researchers have turned back to the 1942 methodology of having a clinician stretch a flaccid penis and measure it with a ruler laid atop it and pushed through the fat toward the pelvis. (Jamming the ruler against the pelvis emerged gradually as the best way to control for body-fat levels, which can make penises of exactly the same size seem to differ.) This was the gold standard most experts used in their clinical studies, which concluded that the average erect penis is 5.16 inches long and has an average circumference of 4.59 inches.
But this data came largely from Caucasian and Middle Eastern men, making it unlikely they’d captured a truly global penile average. Seeking to get a better sense of natural erections, and possibly pull data from a wider field of subjects than expensive and geographically restricted clinical studies permit, at least some researchers have opted for self-reporting that tries to control for the kind of overstatements that proliferated in Kinsey’s data. Debby Herbenick, Ph.D., a professor and sexuality researcher, and her colleagues at Indiana University published a notable paper in 2014 based on 1,661 self-measurements pulled from a larger study on condom fit. Investigating how condom fit influenced function, they found an average erect length of 5.57 inches.
Herbenick’s study revealed yet another wrinkle for researchers, however.
She believes her team was the first to explore how the mode of arousal may influence the size of an erection. “Men who reported receiving oral sex in order to get their erection for measurement,” she says, “had a longer measurement” on average than men who used other methods of stimulation. This raises all new questions about how researchers can find a real average when it’s possible that different types of arousal might yield perceptibly different measurements of the same penis, even on the same day.
Ultimately, there are no studies that have measured the naturally erect male penis. So we really don’t know what the average size of a truly wild, representative erect penis is. Experts are still dreaming up new ways of taking penile measurements and muse about using 3-D imaging or thermography technology for more accurate readings, to be conducted perhaps while a subject watches an erotic film in isolation to get naturally aroused. That plan might provide a more reliable measurement—of girth as well, a metric that has been far less studied and debated. But it would likely do little to tackle the sample-size and composition issues that plague measurement studies, or the issue of unclear turgidity differences across time and stimuli. The truth is, creating a practical study that could tackle all of the complications of penis measurement is way harder than you’d expect.
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