Penis Envy: How Size Influences Self-Esteem

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[“Penis Envy” was published in February, 2012 on PsychologyToday.com and removed two weeks later after public controversy.] 

The center of a man’s existence is his penis. At the root of his self-worth is how he feels about the size of his penis and what he thinks about its ability to please his partners. tweet

Issue Nine ("The Contemplative Life"), GALLERY: "Through the use of different forms of expression including installation, painting, performance or video, Laquet questions the imagery of savagery, of what remains of contemporary beliefs for each of us and creates familiar bonds between the social sphere and ritual habits. Laquets philosophical and poetic approach results with works where tenderness and violence mingle closely."

At least that is how many men seem to experience life.

As men, our relationship with our penises is a complicated affair related to our sense of power. For some, life is a dick-wagging contest, a competition played out in the boardroom, bedroom and on the playing field. The guy with the big dick proudly asserts his entitlement with authority while the guy with the small dick bullies co-workers and acts like a-know-it-all.

There isn’t a man who hasn’t compared the size of his penis to other men in the locker room or at the urinal, a sizing-up that leads to either a prideful smile or a sense of inadequacy. It’s the shame, that’s coined a catch phrase: “I’m a grower, not a shower.”

One handsome, straight, young man told me, “Men think about their penis at least ten times a day.”

How often have men worried if they are going to measure up, literally, when getting naked with a new partner’s previous lovers? Will a grin or a smirk greet the bared private part? And when it’s two men about to have sex, isn’t there always that moment of anxiety when they wonder whose dick is bigger?

Then there’s foreskin. Prefer cut or uncut? Do you want to change that ?

Of course, if a guy deals with all these size issues and actually starts having sex without a panic attack, there’s always the matter of sexual performance nagging at him. Will he be able to sustain his erection? Let’s face it. There isn’t a man whose uncooperatively limp penis hasn’t embarrassed him at some time during sex.

All of this pales in comparison, though, to the mortal fear of premature ejaculation or taking too long to come and boring, no pun intended, one’s partner to death.

It’s a wonder any man ever has sex.

A penis is tied to a man’s sense of his virility. Beyond athleticism, job prestige or earning potential, the powerful penis is considered the true physical manifestation of masculinity. A man is supposed to spread his seed and have the proper tool to do it with.

Perhaps the anxiety begins in boyhood when, all too often, the first unforgettable penis comparison happens with a much bigger one – a father’s or older brother’s.

Into adolescence, popular films and shows like “Hung” and “Sex in the City,” where attractive women vocalize their preferences for well-endowed men, doesn’t alleviate the anxiety.

Watching pornography – as do most men – can set off alarm bells. The average human penis is about six inches long, but porn stars set the gold standard higher, at a whopping eight-plus inches.

The rationalization that “It’s not the size of my penis that matters, but who I am as person” doesn’t really seem to put the matter to rest.

To find out more directly what women think, I spoke with my daughter Alyssa, a fellow psychotherapist in Portland, Oregon, whose practice is largely female.

“Most men don’t speak about their penis to their partner, so most women take it for granted that men don’t worry about their penises until they come across the man who asks more than once for reassurance,” she told me. “My male clients express their concern more about maintaining an erection or pleasing their partner at first, but then as they get more comfortable with me, they might acknowledge that size is a concern. There’s isn’t a man with whom I’ve discussed this who hasn’t measured his penis and then gone online to see how his size stands up against others. I think the insecurity comes from a deep sense of male competition that’s inbred in our culture. Most men fear that that they will not be able to attract and keep a mate. Will she will fantasize about another man and leave me for someone better endowed?”

Some female patients have told Alyssa their partners’ sizes was not something they remembered except for those penises outside the average range. One woman said, “The really thick or really small ones are hard to forgot for different reasons, but, personally, I place more of an interest on our emotional relationship than on the size of his penis. When I see a nice one, I think it’s a lovely bonus.”

“I once had a patient who came to therapy,” Alyssa said, “because he felt that his penis was betraying him. When faced with the opportunity for intercourse, his penis would rarely comply. He was erect during masturbating but limp when faced with the actual prospect of intercourse with a woman. Until the therapy progressed, he did not make the connection that his emotions influenced his performance. Instead, he thought his penis had a mind of its own.

“Some women envy men for their ability to become quickly aroused and reach orgasm, but most don’t envy what Freud assumed: that women envy men simply because they have a penis.

“One women had the perfect rejoinder: ‘Men can’t fake it. We can. So we have the power.’”

My own patient Sam, 30, worried about the size of his penis for as long as he could remember. He felt ashamed and depressed because of it.

By the time he came to therapy, he believed his penis was shrinking. He measured it regularly, his findings showing daily fluctuations. On some days, it even grew. Yet this is what he told me: “Overall, the data proves it’s getting smaller.”’

I had once read about Koro, a culturally specific syndrome from Southeast Asia in which there’s an overpowering belief that an evil spirit has the power to shrink a penis until it eventually disappears. But that was not quite Sam’s case.

When I asked Sam about his sex life, he told me he was still a virgin, too shy and self-conscious to have sex. He said he masturbated excessively and wondered if that might be the cause of his problem. When I asked what he thought about when he masturbated, Sam told me that he fantasized having an enormous penis that every woman admired. Unfortunately, though, Sam’s penis embarrassed him.

Naturally, the first thoughts I entertained were that Sam felt deeply inadequate and was metaphorically expressing his obsession with the small size of his penis.

But the truth was actually more interesting.

Sam’s father, a warm and affable fellow, worked as a rabbi in a local synagogue. To earn extra money he served as a mohl in the religious ceremony called a bris, when baby boys are circumcised eight days after birth.

After performing a bris, Sam’s father would make jokes at home. “That boy was hung like a horse. Not anymore!” Sam’s mother, Paula, a math teacher, stifling a big laugh would reply, “Oh, Murray. How many centimeters?”

Sometimes in jest, his father would chase young Sam around the table with his “butcher’s” knife.

Sam was a handsome boy who did well academically. But even his popularity in school didn’t spare him some needling about his father’s religious duty. Sam took it all very personally. He internalized the teasing and began to taunt himself. He focused his attention on his penis and increasingly lived in fear of losing it.

Obvious, right? But when you’re caught in an obsessive spiral, it really is not so clear.

It took several sessions for Sam to make the connection between his past experience and present concerns, and when he did his family’s sense of humor returned.

During the fourth session, I handed Sam a ruler and asked him to go into the restroom and measure his penis. “Four-and-a-half inches flaccid,” he said when he returned.

I took the ruler and went into the bathroom to measure myself.

I came back and sat in my therapist chair. “You’re bigger than I am Sam.”

After a moment he said, with a hearty laugh, “I belittled it.”

It was the perfect beginning to our therapy.

Now Sam could learn to have sex.

As for myself. I have an average sized penis that has certainly changed with age. Like every other part of my 67-year-old body, it has more wrinkles than it once did and works better sometimes than others.

But, of course, it has something that a younger penis does not have: years of experience and the wisdom that comes with that.

Double Header: For more on genitalia and their symbolic short-comings, turn now to Psychology Tomorrow review of “Unhung Hero: A Cultural Dictum” and cock-umentary by Patrick Moote, reviewed by Adam Neal. tweet

 

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