Let’s say you’re trying out for the NBA. You’ve had dreams of being a professional basketball player your whole life and have been eagerly awaiting this chance to finally show off what you can do. There’s only one thing standing between you and basketball fame: you’re a fairly average player. Your skills happen to fall right about on the population mean, however one decides to measure that. While you manage to hit a few layups and jump shots, you also miss a number of them, and you don’t excel at blocking other players either. As a result, the recruiters are not impressed by your skills and decide to move forward with other players. When you go to tell your friends and family, they do their best to try and console you by assuring you that many people aren’t as good as you at the game and most people don’t really care that much about basketball anyway. A valiant effort on their part, but, ultimately, it is unlikely to prove effective.
The moral of that short story is that, in many social contexts, average is often not preferable. When people are recruiting basketball players, they aren’t looking for average ones; they’re looking for people better than average. The same frequently holds true for mating contexts: when people are seeking mates, they are not often looking for average ones; they’re seeking individuals who possess certain desirable traits at above average levels, regardless of whether those traits are physical or psychological in nature. Some notable examples might be traits like physical symmetry, intelligence, and ambition, with increasing amounts of these characteristics tending to make their bearer more sexually attractive in the eyes of others. If you want to do well for yourself in the mating world, you would do well to possess above-average amounts of those traits; if you don’t have them, all the worse for your prospects of attracting and retaining someone desirable.
One such trait that has made the news lately has been male penis size. A recent paper by Veale et al (2014) sought to assess the average male penis size, both flaccid and erect. As my posts dealing with sex tend to be the most popular, it was unsurprising to see the story gain traction in news headlines. One of the primary motivations for this study, as evidenced by both its title (beginning “Am I normal?”) and introduction, was to try and provide some degree of psychological comfort to men who are insecure about their size of their penis, despite falling within the average range. To do so, the authors conducted a metanalysis, examining reported penis size measurements across a number of studies. To be included in the analysis, the studies needed to, among other things, report mean and standard deviations of penis size collected by a health professional, and the study needed to have included 50 or more males over the age of 17. This left Veale et al (2014) with a total of 20 studies on penis size, representing approximately 1,500 subjects.
The analysis yielded the following picture: the average flaccid and erect lengths of a penis were about 9 and 13 centimeters, respectively, or 3.5 and 5.1 inches. The standard deviation of these measures were 1.5 and 1 centimeters, or 0.6 and 0.4 inches, respectively. While the sample was predominately from white populations, the data from non-white populations (about 700 individuals) did not appear to be exceptional. The authors end their paper as they began: by noting that previous research has found that knowledge of average male penis length can lead to men anxious about their size becoming more secure. While I don’t have any particular interest in making men uncomfortable about their penis size, as with the initial basketball example, I would note that data concerning the average size of a male penis doesn’t necessarily tell us much about whether a given man would be – for lack of a better word – rightly insecure about their penis size. The key piece of information missing from that picture concerns women’s preferences.
I would find it a rather strange state of affairs if men were anxious about the size of their penis (or bank account, or biceps, or….) if such matters weren’t actually important to others – in this case, women making mating decisions. So what do men and women think about penis size? After some fuss about cultural messages concerning penis size and products which promise to increase it, a 2006 paper by Lever, Fredrick, & Peplau report on some survey data from about 50,000 men and women between ages 18-65 concerning penis size. In this survey, penis size was assessed by having participants rate whether their or their partner’s penis was smaller than average, average, or larger than average; a similar question was asked regarding whether the participants wished their penis was smaller, larger, or neither.
About 66% of men rated their penis as being ‘average’ in size – which would accord well with a normal distribution – with 12% reporting that their penis was small and 22% reporting it was large – which would not. Men either seemed to be doing a little bit of rounding up, so to speak, or men with larger penises were biased towards taking the survey. In terms of male satisfaction with their size, 91% who rated their penis as small wanted to be bigger, 46% of men who rated it average wanted more, and 14% of those who said they were large wanted even more still. In general, the larger a man thought his penis was, the happier he was with it, and almost no men reported wanting a smaller penis.
How did the men’s ratings stack up against the women’s? About 67% of women reported that their partner’s penis size was about average, 27% thought it was large, and 6% thought it was small. Again, there either seemed to be some rounding up going on or a biased sample was obtained (perhaps because women weren’t sticking around in large numbers with partners who had small penises). On the matter of satisfaction, 84% of women reported being satisfied with their partner’s size, 14% wanted something a bit bigger, and 2% wanted their partner to be smaller. Those numbers are not quite the whole story, though: among women who rated their partner as ‘average’ or ‘large’, there was a high degree of satisfaction (86 and 94%, respectively); when women rated their partner as small, however, 68% wished he was bigger. Men’s worries are certainly not without a foundation, it would seem, and the market that tries to cater to those worries will likely continue to exist.
There are two important conclusions to take away from this data. The first is to suggest, as many would, that women are largely satisfied with their partner’s penis, so long as it’s average or above. The second point is that when women did express a preference for size, it tends to be towards the larger end of things; in fact, women were about 7-times more likely to desire a larger penis in their partner, relative to a smaller one. So men’s concerns in that area are anything but unfounded.
There are also two caveats to bear in mind: the first is that, as I mentioned, the sample of people filling out the penis survey might be biased away from the small side, or that their self-reports might not be entirely accurate. The second and more important point is that the response choices available on this survey might underestimate women’s preferences somewhat. For instance, this handy chart (which I have not fact checked) suggests that women’s ideal penis preferences might hang around the range of 6.5 to 8.5 inches in length, though many other sizes might prove to be enjoyable (if a bit less enjoyable than they otherwise might be). So while many men might be curious as to whether they’re normal, the corollary point is that women’s average ideal size would reside several standard deviations above the mean, using that 5 inches estimate. In much the same way, many men might be relatively unconcerned with a female partner’s smaller breast size – even satisfied with it – but find women with larger-than-average breasts more appealing, all else being equal. The question many men might be concerned with, then, is not whether they’re average relative to other men, but how well they manage to fill women’s desires.
References: Lever, J., Fredrick, D., & Peplau, L. (2006). Does size matter? Men and women’s views on penis size across the lifespan. Psychology of Men and Masculinity, 7, 129-143.
Veale, D., Miles, S., Bramley, S., Muir, G., & Hodsoll, J. (2014). Am I normal? A systematic review and construction of nomagrams for flaccid and erect penis lengths and circumferences in up to 15,215 men. BJU International, doi:10.1111/bju.13010