Does the Size of Your Penis Affect the Frequency of STIs?
So, apparently users of the cheater's dating site, Ashley Madison, were surveyed about their sexual habits. The survey found that the women sexted more than the men did and were more likely to have real-life meeting after online ones. I'm not even gonna bother writing any more about that. It's a volunteer survey on a site that's already full of a self-selected subset of the population (i.e. people who are dumb enough to go on a well known website to try to have an affair) and the only real reason to report on it that I can see is to fuel traffic to the Ashley Madison website.
Instead, this week I'm gonna talk about this article on perceived penis size and behavior in gay men (or Men who have Sex with Men, as the research community defines it). The news angle everyone's taking on this one is horror at the fact that government money was used to fund a study about gay men's penises (even Jezebel, of all places). Which is a little ridiculous because 1. Government funds are involved in some way or other in just about every study that takes place on an academic campus, ranging from the silly, to the not obviously-immediately useful, to the really important and 2. The study actually has some important findings with respect to gay men's health, in particular how penis size affects gay men's susceptibility to STIs.
The researchers surveyed 1,065 New York men who had sex with men (including bisexuals and men who identified as straight but had sex with other men - hence the MSM term in research). The researchers approached men on the street at gay, lesbian, and bisexual community events and asked them to fill out an anonymous survey. The street-approach method is better than self-selecting methods at generating a random sample, but the nature of the events the men were approached at indicates that the sample was still somewhat self selected (i.e. men who were comfortable with homosexual sex even if they didn't self-identify as gay). The survey participants ranged in age from 18 to 90 and included men from a range of backgrounds and ethnicities. 89.2% identified as gay, 9.4% as bi and 1.1% as queer and 0.3% identified as straight but had sex with other men. Most of the men were HIV negative, but 12.5% were HIV positive.
In addition to general demographic info, the men were asked whether they considered their penises to be below average, average, above average, or "way above average." They were also asked whether they had contracted an STI in the last year or at any time in their lives, whether they preferred to top or bottom, and about various aspects of mental health. The idea being that since our society considers penis size to be an indicator of a man's virility and power, men in an entirely penis-focused community who felt they did not measure up, so to speak, might have more mental and physical health issues.
Most of the men actually had pretty high penis-related self esteem. 53.9% considered themselves about average and 35.5% considered themselves above average. Only 6.9% (or a total of 73 men) considered themselves below average (there's a missing 3.7% there who perhaps neglected to answer the question). Of those men who felt they had below average penises, 79.2% wished their penis was larger. Only 40.5% of men who considered their penises average had the same desire (and 14.7% of those who were well endowed wished they were even more so). Men with below average penises were also slightly more likely than others to lie about their penis size, but not by much (45.2% versus 38.6% for average men and 30.1% of those above average). Not surprisingly, the men who wished they had larger members were the most likely to lie about their size.
Fortunately, perceived penis size had no impact on men's use of condoms or frequency of sexual partners, or HIV status. Unfortunately, penis size did have a relationship to STIs. Men who reported above average penises were more likely to have contracted genital warts, herpes, gonorrhea, Chlamydia, and UTIs. Penis size also had an effect on the sexual position men preferred. Above average men were most likely to prefer to top (41.6%), although a good 20.6% were bottoms and 37.8% were open to both. Average men were most likely to be versatile (40.5%) and about evenly split on top versus bottom (30.7 and 28.8%, respectively). Below average men had a slight preference for bottoming (38.9% versus 31.9% versatile and 19.2% top). From a public health perspective this might be expected to make them more vulnerable to STIs, but the data from this survey don't indicate that that's the case. Men who considered their penises below average were unfortunately also more likely to score low on measures of gay life-satisfaction (the distinction between that and general life-satisfaction is not entirely clear to me, but I guess it has meaning in the sociology community).
The first and most obvious problem with this study is its reliance on men's perceived size rather than their actual size. It's hard to tell if the men who reported having below average members had lower self esteem and therefore lower satisfaction and a reluctance to top or believed they had smaller penises because of low self-esteem (not that preferred sexual position necessarily has anything to do with self esteem, but there are likely some men out there who let insecurities define their behavior, just as some women might prefer positions they think obscure parts of their bodies they don't like). It also seems like there's some size-inflation going on. The researchers assumed that because most gay men are generally exposed to more penises in real life than heterosexual men they would have a more accurate ability to gauge their own size, but if that were the case than the majority would consider themselves average and about equal numbers would report being below and above average. It's possible that the men who declined the study (83% of those approached agreed to fill it out) were on the small end and too embarrassed even for an anonymous survey, but it seems just as likely that the majority of those approached had a slightly inflated sense of their own penis size. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. When it comes to judging ourselves, we're usually more harsh than anyone else would be and given how much self esteem many men invest in the size of their penises, it's probably better to believe yourself above average even if you're not. Not as good as living in a society that didn't consider the issue important to a man's self-worth, but better than nothing.