The Elevation of the Penis

Aubrey Beardsley illustration for Lysistrata by Aristophanes (Wikimedia Commons)



Penises are exploding all over the news cycle. At second glance, though, two are the same article, “Inside the Secretive World of Penile Enlargement,” co-published by Pro Publica and The New Yorker. (The New York Times piped up a few days earlier to tell us about a newly approved gel that “helps men get an erection within ten minutes.”)

Schadenfreude would come easily. Women with small breasts have been made to feel less-than for centuries, as have any women without the classic Barbie’s impossible proportions—which amounts to all of us. Still, I cannot bear to read about men who rushed for penile enlargement surgery and wound up losing all sensation, experiencing pain and difficulty peeing, walking around with a permanent semi-erection that made them reluctant to hold their children on their laps, having their implant buckle at the corners or fracture into pieces or jut out and cause their wife pain or get infected and form festering holes. “An engineer with gallows humor played me a video of the snorting crunch his penis made when air moved through a hole,” writes Ava Kofman, author of the Pro Publica/New Yorker piece. “He had two holes, and the skin between them eventually eroded so that a corner of the implant emerged, pearlescent.”

Why? Why, why, why, would men put themselves through such a risky surgery, inserting something static into an organ that expands and contracts? What made size the ultimate measure of a man?

Academic sources will not suffice. This requires oral history.

“Sweetheart, can we talk about penises?” I ask my husband.

Spocklike, he arches one eyebrow.

“I want to know why guys think size matters so much,” I explain.

“My assumption,” he says carefully, “is that a., it’s a sign of superiority over other males, and b., it’s a very sincere, deeply held belief that women only like very big penises, and if you have a small penis, you will never fully please a woman.”

“Is it truly to please, or to feel like a stud?”


“Well, women just want to feel something,” I inform him. “A large penis makes an effortless impression. Crude and easy, erasing any further expectations. Because who wants to admit that they are regularly disappointed by a selfish lover? But really it’s about lowering expectations. Fingers, lips, and tongue are far more artful, and they can create a far more intense response—if the man takes the time and trouble.” I pause for breath and remember the first part of the answer. “Whatever gave y’all the idea that a big penis meant superiority?”

He shrugs. “We are a hierarchical society, and a pack species, and we have to have ways of classing one another within that hierarchy. We do it in this country with money, principally, but also education and looks. And for many men, it’s just ‘My dick’s bigger than yours.’”

I think of dick pics, men who expose themselves to strangers, the admiring phrase “big dick energy.” “Okay. You’re a historian. What started this obsession with size?”

“I have no clue.”

“Reproduction was vital, I get that. Big maybe implied more sperm, shot farther into the female body?”

He says that is likely. “If you look at ancient artifacts, you see the penis being emphasized.”

“But not in ancient Greece,” I point out. This leads to an argument about whether Michelangelo’s David, inspired by those Greeks, is circumcised. We blow up a photo and peer at the marble. “Circumcised!” I announce. “Nope,” Andrew maintains. “Michelangelo wasn’t Jewish.” An online citation of an old article in the Scientific American holds the answer: “He is circumcised in the old (former) way called the little milah in Hebrew, which is appropriate for the time at which David lived. At that time, circumcision was only what might be called a ‘tip clip.’”

“Score one for historical accuracy in art,” Andrew says dryly.

And what are we to make of the unremarkable size of David’s organ, even as he manfully faced Goliath? According to art historian Andrew Lear, a small, flaccid penis was idealized by the ancient Greeks because it represented self-control. In The Clouds, Aristophanes summed up the treasured attributes of a man: “a gleaming chest, bright skin, broad shoulders, tiny tongue, strong buttocks, and a little prick.” Small penises were considered more refined and aesthetically pleasing, the mark of a man who was civilized, prudent, and capable of leadership. Large penises were reserved for fools and lustful, depraved satyrs.

Why did this insight not endure? In recent years, men have used vacuum pumps, hung weights from their penis, and gotten the suspensory ligament snipped to add an inch or so (at the risk of wobble). They have agreed to cadaver-skin grafts or fat injections and, more recently, injectable fillers branded HapPenis. And then came a silicone implant called Penuma (suggesting a Penis that would make you a New Man).

Its inventor, Dr. James Elist, calls his patient newsletter “Inching Toward Greatness.” A billboard in Times Square advertises his product as “MANHOOD REDEFINED.” GQ teased a story about the Penuma as “huge news about your manhood.”

One of the men interviewed for the investigative piece spent more than half his life savings on the surgery. Then he went home to heal and saw “corners of the implant protruding under the skin, like a misplaced bone.” Then he lost sensation in his penis.

Yet all sorts of men continue to opt for this procedure, and if Elist’s survey is to be trusted, the majority wind up well satisfied. A seventy-four-year-old Baptist pastor tells Kofman he feels like “a wild stallion.” But for those who encounter problems, reversing the procedure can be harrowing—and they can wind up with an even smaller penis, as the organ contracts to seal up the vacuum.

I should not have written “even smaller.” Not only does it sound condescending, but it is inaccurate: one of the most disturbing facts revealed by the investigation is that most of the men who underwent this procedure already had a penis of average size. Medium, not small. They maybe just overestimated what “normal” is, because of all the porn and cultural distortion, all the vying, the posturing, the locker-room comparisons.

Even among the surgeons who implant penile prostheses, “it’s all about who has the biggest whatever and who has the biggest numbers,” according to Dr. Faysal Yafi (who is one of them).

No wonder the Penuma was recently improved (bigger and better, in the American fashion) and rebranded as the Himplant.

“Does penis size also symbolize other aspects of masculine excellence?” I ask my poor husband, who has been wincing as I read off bits of the article.

“Could be,” he says. “I’m not an anthropologist. Size was meant to represent virility, potency, the ability to impregnate, and maybe all of that was seen as linked to being a superior warrior and hunter, because testosterone is involved in that, too.”

“But why would that attitude persist in the modern world?”

He gives me a look. “Do you honestly think that in popular culture it is now okay for a guy to be average or small? I’m not a stereotypical guy, so I can only imagine what they think and feel. Because even I—I make light of it, I know I’m at best average, and my response is to be honest and joke about it and admit I’m never gonna get asked to pose for a nude centerfold. But penis size is important in a guy’s self-esteem, self-respect, self-image.”

All those years women complained about men objectifying us, and we failed to notice how harshly they were objectifying themselves.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.