The Quantified Penis

New numbers help us know how to feel about ourselves and others.
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Actor Lionel Barrymore portraying Grigori Rasputin, 1932 (AP)

Before (or possibly after) nineteenth-century Russian mystic Grigori Rasputin was poisoned, shot, rolled in a carpet, and thrown in a river, some say that his murderers severed and preserved his penis. Among those claiming dubious propriety over the well-traveled organ is the collection of Dr. Igor Knayazkin in a museum of erotica in St. Petersburg. Whoever it once belonged to, the piece attracts its share of gawkers and conversation not just because of its mythic background, but because it's a solid 12 inches.

Today's penises are not beyond the reach of the quantified self movement. For all the subtleties of modern relationships, all the outlets people have to connect creatively and intellectually and live deeply, the noble charities we espouse or profess to, humans really do care about the size of their/others' sex organs. We count calories, steps, friendships, VO2 maxes; in a way it makes more sense than ever that we should measure and compare our genitals to understand ourselves in quantifiable terms.

Even though a man can do no more change the size of his penis than he can the size of his cranium or color of his eyes, it does matter to potential partners, as a biological and cultural imperative. Among others. So this week researchers led by Dr. Debby Herbenick with the storied Kinsey Institute at Indiana University's Center for Sexual Health Promotion published an academic article that lays claim to the most accurate data yet on human penis sizes, as they vary by age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. The most interesting part is probably the explanation of why these sorts of studies are done, and what's on the research forefront:

Numerous studies of penile dimensions have been conducted and various rationales have been presented for such studies (e.g., related to clinical and/or surgical interventions, to understand the potential effect of prenatal influences on sexual orientations and various bodily dimensions, to present data for a specific nationality of men). However, given the disproportionately high number of studies of penis size to the relatively small number of studies of vaginal and/or vulvar dimensions it is also perhaps the case that penile dimensions have simply captured more of the public's attention -- as well as that of (mostly male) scientists who have published scientific research related to penile dimensions.

Certainly it is easier to measure a penis than it is to measure the vagina and such ease of measurement may, in part, account for the differential number of reports (it does not account for the strikingly few studies of vulvar dimensions, however). Yet we would be remiss not to mention that a greater understanding of female genitals is warranted and that, given the consistency in findings related to penile dimensions, it is perhaps time to turn greater attention to the study and understanding of female genital dimensions in future research or other aspects of either male or female genitalia.

The findings, though, are of course not interesting. I don't even care about this stuff. ... I guess it is sort of interesting that of the 1,661 erect penises measured in the study, the largest by a significant margin was 10.2 inches. Only 35 were longer than 7.5 inches. The average was 5.2 inches long, and 4.8 inches around. Also penises seem to get longer with age, the racial and ethnic differences were negligible, and sizes seemed to vary based on the manner in which the erection was obtained. And when asked if anyone else was present during the measuring process, most people said they were alone or with their sexual partner, but 16 people said they did it with "a friend." Okay, actually I could go on.

The point is that now we have numbers to which we can compare ourselves or our lovers (or friends), so we can know if we should be satisfied or listless. Once science figures out the best way to measure vaginas, if everyone will just be open about their measurements, it will be easy for, say, Match.com to pair people who are a good fit. Some day we will all make perfect sense.

Presented by

James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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