The Importance of Size and 4 Other Myths About the Penis and Testicles

They’re everywhere. Drawn in the snow, carved into school desks, brought up in jokes and anecdotes, sprayed in alleyway graffiti, featured in museums and pornography, and, for many people, they hang between their legs. But despite penises’ omnipresence, a lot of myths about them are still going around. And they’re shafting us.

I don’t know about you, but I think it’s high time we put an end to the myths! Here are five common ones about the penis and testicles.  

1. “Bigger penis = better penis?”

Illustration by Petitom

Although penis shape and size vary widely, large penises have long been culturally associated with power, fertility, masculinity, and social status (Filiault & Drummond, 2007; Pope et al., 2000). Unsurprisingly, many men worry about the size of their penises.

According to a U.S. study conducted among over 25,000 heterosexual cisgender men, 45% were dissatisfied with their penis size, wishing it were bigger (Lever et al., 2006). Other research shows that gay men are as (dis)satisfied as straight men with the appearance of their penises (Loehle et al., 2017).

But is bigger really better? To answer this question, we must first make a small detour and establish average penis size. According to one study, on average,  penises measure about 9 cm in length when flaccid and about 13 cm when erect (Wessells et al., 1996). According to the same study, the average circumference of erect penises is 12.3 cm. A more recent study with a large sample of participants found comparable results (Herbenick et al., 2014).  

It’s important to be aware of the norm, considering that most people who have cosmetic surgery to change the appearance of their penis overestimate average penis size and already have a penis well within the statistical norm (Mondaini et al., 2002).

Now for the question on everyone’s mind: do people who have sex with people with penises have a preference for larger penises?

All of the research shows that most heterosexual cisgender women’s sexual satisfaction isn’t at all affected by the size of their partner’s penis.

For example, according to an internet survey in which more than 26,000 women participated, 85% reported being satisfied with the size of their partner’s penis (Lever et al., 2006). In another study, only 13% of participants indicated finding the length and width of a partner’s penis to be “very important” (Štulhofer, 2006).

Comparable studies conducted among men who have sex with men are surprisingly hard to find. Several studies suggest that large penises seem to be generally sought after or valued by these men (Brennan, 2018; Filiault & Drummond, 2007) and that this positive evaluation is often tinged with racialized stereotypes (Han, 2014; Wilson et al., 2009).

However, this aesthetic preference has fluctuated throughout history (Filiault & Drummond, 2007), and some studies show that it also varies according to personality traits. For example, according to one study, men who score higher on narcissism scales are more likely to reject a potential partner because they have a penis they deem to be “too small” (Moskowitz et al., 2009).

2.  “Are circumcised penises more ‘hygienic’ than uncircumcised penises?”

Illustration by Petitom

If many people believe that a circumcised penis is more “hygienic” than an intact penis, the implication is that the latter would be naturally “filthy”, and that this “filth” can potentially harm the person’s health.  

First of all, the whitish substance that is found under the foreskin and that many people call “dirty”—smegma—is essentially composed of dead skin cells and oily substances (sebum) secreted by the sebaceous glands. When smegma is “fresh”, it’s neither smelly nor harmful to genital health.

On the other hand, when the penis isn’t regularly and adequately washed, this substance accumulates under the foreskin, gives off a bad odour, and creates an ideal environment for the growth of bacteria. Among other things, it increases the likelihood of developing balanoposthitis (inflammation of the foreskin), phimosis (when the foreskin can’t retract from the head of the penis), and balanitis (inflammation of the tip of the penis).

Moreover, in this sister article, Dr. Léa Séguin debunks several myths such as the fear of becoming “loose.”

Surgically removing the foreskin (circumcision) effectively eliminates or reduces the likelihood of developing these conditions, because smegma can no longer build up under the foreskin, but simply washing your penis every day or every other day will take care of that as well. Given that people don’t all secrete smegma at the same rate, the ideal washing frequency varies from person to person. Do what’s best for you!

“More hygienic” is sometimes a euphemism for “fewer urinary tract infections,” especially in children. This is technically true. Compared to uncircumcised youths, those who are circumcised have a lower rate of urinary tract infections (Morris & Wiswell, 2013).

That said, on average, studies show that only 4% of uncircumcised youths aged 0 to 16 develop such an infection, compared to about 0.5% of those who are circumcised (Morris & Wiswell, 2013). This means that, regardless of whether or not a child is circumcised, they’re unlikely to develop a UTI,  but that if such an infection occurs, it usually doesn’t cause any complications and it’s easily treated with antibiotics. On the other hand, circumcision can lead to complications in approximately 1.5% of cases (Weiss et al., 2010).

In short, good hygiene is more a question of regularly washing one’s penis than of being circumcised.

3. “If I haven’t ejaculated for a long time, will sperm accumulate and cause blue balls?”

Illustration by Petitom

The expression “blue balls” comes from the belief that if a person doesn’t ejaculate—whether during partnered sex or solo masturbation—their testicles will keep filling up, causing severe pain in the testicles and scrotum, but this belief is actually unfounded.

First, although ejaculation is an effective way to eject millions of sperms from the testicles, all sperms eventually get eliminated from the body, with or without ejaculation. You better believe it! Think about it: if sperm actually accumulated in perpetuity, people who had a vasectomy would be royally screwed.

Second, sperms, which are produced in the epididymides (structures located in the testicles), make up only about 1–3% of semen. The rest is produced by the prostate (up to 30%) and the seminal vesicles (up to 70%, Crooks & Baur, 2017), which are not located in the testicles.

Though there’s virtually no research on this, the pain experienced during sexual arousal that we often attribute to “blue balls” is real, but is rather due to a significant increase in blood flow to the penis, scrotum, and other pelvic regions. Ejaculating relieves pain not because the sperms have been evacuated from the testicles, but because the blood drains from these pelvic regions.

Fun fact: since it’s a matter of genital engorgement and all human beings experience this during sexual arousal, anyone can have “blue balls”, whether they have testicles or not.

4.  “My penis isn’t straight. Is that normal?”

Illustration by Petitom

Whether in pornography, anatomy textbooks, medical diagrams, or in drawings and graffiti, representations of erect penises are relatively uniform: they rarely point left or right. However, while many people’s penises point straight ahead, this is the exception rather than the rule.

Just like vulvas, no two penises are alike! There’s lots of diversity in terms of penis size, shape, and (a)symmetry. 

That said, while a slight curve is totally normal, a severely curved penis could mean that the person has Peyronie’s disease. Symptoms of this condition include a lump, unusual firmness or hardened tissue under the skin in a flaccid penis or a bent or severely curved erect penis that has become narrower in certain spots (much like an hourglass) or that has small dents (DiBenedetti et al., 2011).

It’s estimated that approximately 0.5% (DiBenedetti et al., 2011) to 3.2% (Schwarzer et al., 2001) of people with penises have this condition, but up to 13% report one or more symptoms of the disease (DiBenedetti et al., 2011). While the exact causes of Peyronie’s disease are unknown, several studies have identified risk factors, such as aging, smoking, diabetes, and trauma to the penis (Ostrowski et al., 2016). In any case, it’s important to take good care of your penis! If you have one or more of these symptoms, don’t hesitate to see a doctor.

5. “Can I really break my penis?” 

Illustration by Petitom

No, but… yes. Let me explain. If you define a fracture as always involving a bone, then no, you cannot break your penis. That said, although there aren’t any bones in the penis, the outer lining of the corpora cavernosa—the structures that fill with blood during sexual arousal—can “break” if the erect penis is bent too much or too suddenly (Amer et al., 2016). And yes, you can even hear it crack…!

This type of fracture can be accompanied by intense and immediate pain, rapid loss of erection, swelling in the shaft of the penis, and purple discoloration. Because a penile fracture accompanied by these symptoms could require emergency surgery (😬), don’t hesitate to go to the hospital right away.

  • Amer, T., Wilson, R., Chlosta, P., AlBuheissi, S., Qazi, H., Fraser, M. et Aboumarzouk, O. M. (2016). Penile fracture: A meta-analysis. Urologia Internationalis, 96(3), 315-329. 

    Brennan, J. (2018). Size matters: Penis size and sexual position in gay porn profiles. Journal of Homosexuality, 65(7), 912-933.

    Crooks, R. L. et Baur, K. (2017). Nos sexualités. Modulo. DiBenedetti, D. B., Nguyen, D., Zografos, L., Ziemiecki, R. et Zhou, X. (2011). A population-based study of Peyronie’s disease: prevalence and treatment patterns in the United States. Advances in Urology, 2011.

    Edwards, S. (1996). Balanitis and balanoposthitis: a review. Sexually Transmitted Infections, 72(3), 155-159.

    Han, A. (2014). I think you’re the smartest race I’ve ever met: Racialised economies of queer male desire. Critical Race & Whiteness Studies, 10(2). 

    Herbenick, D., Reece, M., Schick, V. et Sanders, S. A. (2014). Erect penile length and circumference dimensions of 1,661 sexually active men in the United States. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 11(1), 93-101.

    Lever, J., Frederick, D. A. et Peplau, L. A. (2006). Does size matter? Men’s and women’s views on penis size across the lifespan. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 7(3), 129. 

    Lisboa, C., Ferreira, A., Resende, C. et Rodrigues, A. G. (2009). Infectious balanoposthitis: management, clinical and laboratory features. International Journal of Dermatology, 48(2), 121-124. 

    Loehle, B., McKie, R. M., Levere, D., Bossio, J. A., Humphreys, T. P. et Travers, R. (2017). Predictors of men’s genital self-image across sexual orientation and geographic region. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 26(2), 130-141.

    Lynn, R. (2013). Rushton’sr–K life history theory of race differences in penis length and circumference examined in 113 populations. Personality and Individual Differences, 55(3), 261-266.

    Mondaini, N., Ponchietti, R., Gontero, P., Muir, G. H., Natali, A., Caldarera, E., … et Rizzo, M. (2002). Penile length is normal in most men seeking penile lengthening procedures. International Journal of Impotence Research, 14(4), 283-286.

    Morris, B. J. et Wiswell, T. E. (2013). Circumcision and lifetime risk of urinary tract infection: A systematic review and meta-analysis. The Journal of Urology, 189(6), 2118-2124.

    Morris, B. J., Wamai, R. G., Henebeng, E. B., Tobian, A. A., Klausner, J. D., Banerjee, J. et Hankins, C. A. (2016). Estimation of country-specific and global prevalence of male circumcision. Population Health Metrics, 14(1), 1-13. 

    Moskowitz, D. A., Rieger, G. et Seal, D. W. (2009). Narcissism, self-evaluations, and partner preferences among men who have sex with men. Personality and Individual Differences, 46(7), 725-728. 

    Plaut, A. et Kohn-Speyer, A. C. (1947). The carcinogenic action of smegma. Science, 105(2728), 391-392.

    Pope, H. G., Phillips, K. A. et Olivardia, R. (2000). The Adonis complex: The secret crisis of male body obsession. The Free Press.

    Schwarzer, U., Sommer, F., Klotz, T., Braun, M., Reifenrath, B. et Engelmann, U. (2001). The prevalence of Peyronie’s disease: results of a large survey. BJU International, 88(7), 727-730.

    Stulhofer, A. (2006). How (un) important is penis size for women with heterosexual experience?. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 35(1), 5. 

    Van Howe, R. S. et Hodges, F. M. (2006). The carcinogenicity of smegma: debunking a myth. Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, 20(9), 1046-1054. 

    Weiss, H. A., Larke, N., Halperin, D. et Schenker, I. (2010). Complications of circumcision in male neonates, infants and children: A systematic review. BMC Urology, 10(1), 1-13.

    Wessells, H., Lue, T. F. et McAninch, J. W. (1996). Penile length in the flaccid and erect states: Guidelines for penile augmentation. The Journal of Urology, 156(3), 995-997.

    Wilson, P. A., Valera, P., Ventuneac, A., Balan, I., Rowe, M. et Carballo-Diéguez, A. (2009). Race-based sexual stereotyping and sexual partnering among men who use the internet to identify other men for bareback sex. Journal of Sex Research, 46(5), 399-413.