A Man's Best Friend: Getting to Know Your Penis,
Part 2

Continued from previous file

Lying Down on the Job

The ability of the penis to rise reliably and regularly to the tasks demanded of it is central to the gay male sexual lifestyle as it has evolved since the 1970s. The penis is required to be ready for action at all hours, in all kinds of circumstances, often with total strangers. And for the last 15 years it has been required to do all this while wearing a bag over its head.

No wonder the penis sometimes fails to report for duty. Penile failure, traditionally and bluntly called impotence, is now more sensitively described as erectile dysfunction. It can be a source of embarrassment and frustration. For heterosexual men, it can ruin marriages and prevent the production of offspring. For gay men, of course, it can have much more serious consequences: Saturday nights at home alone and a bad reputation at the sauna.

There are two types of erectile dysfunction: primary and secondary. Primary erectile dysfunction is the inability to get an erection under any circumstances, while secondary erectile dysfunction is the inability to get an erection with a particular partner or in particular circumstances. Not surprisingly, sex therapists believe these two problems have quite different origins.

Primary erectile dysfunction, which is much less common than secondary, is usually a medical condition. The healthy penis becomes erect when sexual arousal causes it to fill with blood (see sidebar). The problem may therefore be neurological (inability to feel sexual arousal, or to communicate it to the penis) or circulatory (inability to pump enough blood into the penis). These problems can have a number of causes: diabetes, heart disease, alcohol and drug use and (most commonly) obesity can all cause erectile dysfunction. So can advancing years.

This is a delicate subject, especially with men embarking on the treacherous terrain of middle age. It is true that, on average, the frequency, reliability and firmness of erections declines gradually with age. But age on its own does not lead to erectile dysfunction. Men of any age who maintain good general health can and do get satisfactory service from their penises. The most common cause of erectile dysfunction in older men is circulatory disease, induced by obesity.

Secondary erectile dysfunction almost never results from physical causes. If a man can get an erection at all, he can get one anytime, unless something is inhibiting him. As we all know, the flesh will not function if the spirit is unwilling. The most common reason men can't get it up is that they're with the wrong partner: either one they don't want to be with, or one they know they oughtn't to be with. This can produce anxiety, guilt or fear of discovery: none of them very arousing sentiments. Of course, the anxiety, guilt or fear can be completely unrelated to what is happening in the bed: a bad day at work or financial worries, for example.

Some heterosexual men suffer from what sex therapists call the 'Madonna and whore syndrome': a separation between their emotional and sexual lives. They have a partner to whom they are emotionally committed, but are only sexually aroused by encounters with women outside their marriage, often prostitutes. A version of this is common among gay men (perhaps we could call it the 'whore and whore syndrome'): the long-established couple who no longer have sex with each other, but instead take their respective penises to the sauna.

Depending on the cause of the problem in a given case, erectile dysfunction is usually treatable. In cases of complete erectile dysfunction, penile prosthesis offers the best hope. This technique has been used since the 1930s, but has become much more common since the development of the inflatable prosthesis, which allows the penis to rise and fall in a naturalistic manner. In the United States, 25,000 penile prostheses are implanted every year. Men whose problems are caused by obesity will be advised to lose weight before more radical interventions are attempted.

For those whose problems with their penis are psychological in origin, more subtle approaches are needed. Masters and Johnson pioneered sex therapy for erectile dysfunction in the 1960s, using relaxation, sensate focus and guided intercourse techniques. Nearly all psychological sex therapy is couple-oriented. It assumes that the cause of erectile dysfunction lies in the relationship, and for married and other heterosexual couples this is, no doubt, usually true. This approach may be transferable to gay male couples, but it doesn't seem to hold much promise for single men. Perhaps they have no trouble getting their penises to perform.

Raymond Rosen and Sandra Leiblum, in their work Erectile Disorders, do address the penile problems of gay men. They note that the HIV/AIDS epidemic has "increased the risks and anxieties attendant on sexual exchange," and that "fear, anxiety, somatic symptoms, insomnia, increased use of alcohol and drugs, and sometimes a period of social isolation" are not uncommon. They argue that primary erectile dysfunction is rare among gay men: the problems are nearly always psychological, and tend to occur frequently among men in relationships. In one study of gay male couples, 45 percent reported problems with erections.

The opposite of impotence is priapism, the inability to get an erection to go away. This may sound like the sexually active man's idea of heaven, but in fact it is a far from funny condition. Priapism is usually caused by a blockage in the vessels that carry blood out of the erectile bodies. After a few hours of erection, the erectile bodies will get damaged, which could cause impotence and damage to the erectile bodies. It can also become very painful.

All a Matter of Timing

After erection problems, the most common sexual problem in men is premature ejaculation: cumming too soon. Most sex therapists say that premature ejaculation is very common, at least among heterosexual men, but we need to remember here that what constitutes "cumming too soon" is an entirely subjective question. Most animals, including our cousins the great apes, ejaculate almost immediately on penetration, and there are obvious evolutionary advantages in this. It has only been with the discovery of sex as a recreational activity that the ability to go for hours without cumming has been thought desirable.

Kinsey found in 1948 that 75 percent of American men cum within two minutes of penetration, but another survey has found that only 35 percent feel they came too soon. This suggests that for 40 percent of men, two minutes of sex is enough. Well, that may be OK for heterosexuals, but it wonąt do for gay men! We have higher expectations of quality in our sexual encounters. In 1978, Bell and Weinberg found that only 27 percent of gay men reported premature ejaculation. That of course was before condoms became mandatory for anal sex: one of the benefits of condom use is to reduce somewhat the sensitivity of the penis and make the timing of orgasm easier to control.

There are several factors governing the timing of ejaculation. These include age (younger men tend to cum quicker), amount of sexual experience (practice makes perfect, or at least better), length of time since the last orgasm (if you haven't cum for a week you're more likely to pop too soon) and degree of sexual excitement (if you're with a new and/or particularly hot partner, you may cum quicker than if you're having a routine bonk with hubby).

Premature ejaculation can have physical causes. But most sex therapists argue that it is more often psychological in origin: with anxiety and sexual guilt being the most likely culprits. Therapists agree that the two factors likely to reduce the problem are more frequent orgasms (through masturbation) and less anxiety about sex.

Perils of the Penis

The well-tended penis is a joy forever, but it requires a little maintenance. The penis is a fairly robust organ, despite its sensitivity. Our ancestors roamed naked across the tundra, their Palaeolithic penises exposed to the sun, rain and sabre-tooth tigers. Somehow, the species survived and prospered. But like all our organs the penis has had to adapt to modern human urban lifestyles, and has encountered some new hazards along the way. The result is a series of possible ailments of which the penis-owner ought to be aware.

The Urethra

Infection of the urethra (urethritis) causes a burning sensation while urinating and, if accompanied by an infection of the bladder (cystitis), may induce more frequent desire to urinate. Sometimes the infection is caused by a venereal disease, like gonorrhoea or a Chlamydia infection, but more often by ordinary bacteria. Another cause of urethritis is a narrowing (stenosis) of the urethra, possibly the result of an earlier infection, resulting in difficulty in urinating.

The Foreskin

The foreskin is, in normal circumstances, very elastic and can be retracted easily to reveal the glans. But infections can cause it can shrink to such an extent as to cause difficulty urinating. When retraction of the foreskin is not possible, the glans underneath cannot be cleaned properly, causing further infections and narrowing.

The opposite of a narrowed foreskin is the so-called Spanish Collar, where the foreskin remains lodged behind the ridge of the glans, gets irritated and starts swelling, making it impossible to get it back over the ridge again. This condition is rather painful and usually requires medical attention.

The penis does not stand alone in any of its functions. It is accompanied by two nearby organs which carry out roles vital to penile operations: the prostate and the testicles. Some consideration of these penis-associated organs is necessary if the overall set-up is to be understood. Also, both the prostate and the testicles are more likely to cause health problems for men than the penis itself.

The Prostate

Three things can go wrong with the prostate: infection, enlargement and cancer. Prostate disorders are quite common in older men, though most are treatable if detected in time.

Prostatitis (prostatic infection). In prostatitis there is an infection of the glandular tissue of the prostate. Usually, prostatitis is a rather mild disease, and a lot of men don't even notice it. But prostatitis can cause low grade, fluctuating pain, low in the abdomen, around the anus, in the groin or in the back. There can also be an increased desire to urinate and some irritation when passing urine. These symptoms are caused by the enlarged prostate pressing against the bladder and irritating it.

Prostate enlargement, or benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), is the natural enlargement of the prostate over a number of years. Why this happens is unknown. An enlarged prostate does not always produce problems. Some men have a very large prostate but have no difficulty passing urine, while others can not pass urine at all. When BPH does give trouble, it usually starts off with a loss of strength of the urinary flow. This is caused by the enlarged prostate constricting the urethra. The flow will diminish over a period of years, so it often goes unnoticed: many men think that a diminished flow comes naturally with age.

Prostate cancer. Cancer of the prostate becomes increasingly likely with age. But fortunately prostate cancer is slow-growing, and early treatment will prevent it spreading to other parts of the body. It is unknown how prostate cancer develops, although testosterone is necessary for its existence. Prostate cancer can go undetected since it often causes no pain. But it can usually be detected by digital rectal examination. Middle-aged men are advised to have regular checkups for possible prostate problems. Later cancers can only be treated by surgery, if at all.

The most serious disorder of the testicles is testicular cancer. This is a very dangerous but fortunately fairly rare disease, usually striking young men between 16 and 30 years of age. It is an aggressive cancer which grows quickly and spreads early and easily, which makes treatment difficult and time-consuming. Since the tumour is usually painless, sufferers tend to think that it is not serious. A tumour of the testicle often shows itself by a fast enlargement of the testicle.

Other Penile Problems

Some people have naturally curved penises, up, down or sideways, and within limits this causes no harm to the owner or his partners. It may even hit spots that a conventional weapon will not reach. But bending of the penis in later life, called Peyronie's disease, can be a serious problem. It can be caused by scar tissue in one of the erectile bodies, for instance after an accident, causing the penis to curve during erection. Sometimes this problem requires surgical correction.

Venereal diseases are of course the most common ailments affecting the penis. Gonorrhoea and non-specific urethritis (NSU), commonly known as 'drippy dick', are rampant among young men of all sexual orientations, although the advent of safe sex has greatly reduced their incidence among gay men. They appear as a clear or yellowish discharge from the penis, accompanied by pain during urination. Both are easily treated with antibiotics. If left untreated, they can spread up the penis into the prostate and bladder, causing serious problems.

Syphilis is a more serious disease, which (unlike masturbation) can indeed send you mad, blind and sterile if left untreated, as Henry VIII could tell you if he were still around. Its initial symptoms are a small, hard, painless sore in the genital (or anal) area. This is followed by a rash on the torso and limbs, swollen glands and a mild fever. These symptoms all disappear without treatment, but this just means that the disease has entered a latent phase: it will return in more serious forms in later years. Syphilis can be treated with antibiotics if detected in its early phases.

Genital warts and genital herpes are caused by viral infections. Warts appear as small, painless, cauliflower-shaped sores on the genitals, while herpes appears as clusters of small painful blisters, which burst after a day or so and become open sores. Both are highly infectious and can have serious consequences: warts in the anal area may require very unpleasant surgery. Like all viral diseases, neither infection can be cured, but warts can be treated with chemicals or lasers. Herpes outbreaks can now be prevented and/or treated with acyclovir-based treatments.

In general, any sore, blister, lump, rash, discharge or pain on, in or around the penis should be regarded as potentially serious and taken to the doctor at once. All venereal diseases are to some extent treatable, and most can be eradicated. Failure to treat them will lead to you passing them on to other people, and may also lead to more serious medical consequences. You should also remember that the kinds of sex which led you to contract a venereal disease may also have exposed you to the risk of HIV infection.

Size Isn't Everything (Yeah, Right)

Queen Victoria, thanks to nineteenth century royal myth-makers, has acquired an unfair reputation for prudishness and sexual ignorance, as shown for example by the silly story that she didn't know what a lesbian was. In fact, as Lytton Strachey and more modern biographers have related, Victoria had a vigorous sex life: she had nine children by Prince Albert and may have had an affair with her Scottish servant, John Brown, after Albert's death.

But even that inveterate gossip Strachey didn't reveal the most important fact of Victoria and Albert's sex life, though as a well-informed queen himself he doubtless knew all about it: the fact was that Albert was hung like the proverbial donkey, something which Victoria was certainly smart enough to appreciate the value of. Albert died young (from overwork!), but the princely penis has been commemorated by having a penile piercing device, the Prince Albert, named after it.

The late Peter Blazey pointed out in one of his OutRage columns the relationship between penile and political power: "Big dick men succeed in politics," he wrote. To prove his point he cited three politicians who to his knowledge are extremely well hung: Andrew Peacock, Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser. In Peacock's case, Blazey's claim was based on personal observation; in those of Whitlam and Fraser, on gossip (but Mungo McCallum in one of his Nation Review columns agreed with him about Whitlam).

The penis-power relationship is not confined to Australia. President Lyndon B Johnson, one of the most aggressively powerful and domineering of modern American presidents, "may well have had the crown champion of presidential cocks," according to Gary Griffin in his pioneering work Penis Size and Enlargement. According to Griffin, LBJ took great delight in demonstrating at swimming parties that he had the biggest cock in Texas, and his (heterosexual) sexual conquests were notorious. King Charles II, Aristotle Onassis and Marshall Tito were other power figures with famously big cocks. In the Tower of London museum you can see Henry VIII's codpiece (a sort of 16th century jockstrap), evidence of the much-married king's formidable endowment.

Nor is penis-power confined to politics. Some of the most widely-circulated gossip in Hollywood concerns who does and does not have a big one. This information, curiously, seems to be of more interest to men than to women, not because of latent homosexuality but because of a sort of adolescent penis-envy. Thus the rumoured penile prowess of (to name but a few) Warren Beatty, Sean Connery, Harrison Ford, Steve Martin, Matthew Modine, Donald Sutherland and James Woods seems to have played no small part (as it were) in their successes, while the dimensions of deceased stars like Charlie Chaplin, Rock Hudson, Cary Grant and Steve McQueen continue to enhance their posthumous reputations.

Set against this is the notorious fact that genital inadequacy, real or imagined, can lead men to overcompensate by seeking to rule and dominate those around them: a variant of the well-known 'small man syndrome'. The Emperor Napoleon, for example, suffered from an endocrine disorder that caused his genitals to be very small, though he married twice and fathered a son. His form of compensation was to conquer first France and then Europe. Hitler, another would-be world ruler, had only one testicle and probably never had satisfactory sex. This leads naturally to suspicions about how the pint-sized Billy McMahon got to be PM: Peter Blazey left us no gossip on this and Sonia isn't saying.

As Blazey observes, the relationship between size and power probably has something to do with self-confidence. The knowledge that one has the biggest dick in the class gives well-hung boys a head start in fields, like politics, that depend on a healthy (some would say excessive) dose of ego. This self-esteem seems to stick for life: Peacock, having failed to become PM, cheerfully walked away from politics, serene in the knowledge of his continuing sexual success. John Howard, by contrast, is as patently insecure as ever, even though he has reached the top. May we speculate that he is Little Johnny in more ways than one?

All this, of course, depends on a culture that values big dicks. Modern men, in their usual smug way, may like to assume that this is a law of nature, that it has always been thus. But this is not so. Ancient Greece, for example, was as penis-centred a culture as it is possible to imagine: a recent feminist writer called her history of Ancient Athens The Reign of the Phallus. But the Greeks considered a big dick a sign of coarseness and animality. Greek art shows barbarians and satyrs with big, ugly, knobby cocks, while gentlemen (and their boyfriends) have demure little phalluses even when engaged in paederastia. Classical Indian art makes a similar distinction: well-hung gods are generally bad guys in the Hindu pantheon.

So what is an average penis, and when is a dick too small or (gasp) too big? The seventeenth century French doctor Nicolas Venette, with a self-confidence typical of the Enlightenment intellectual, had a firm answer to this. "Nature, which does nothing without a plan, established laws for all body parts," he wrote. "The member of the man, according to these laws, should not usually be more than six inches in length, and three or four inches in circumference. If the penis is bigger or thicker, it takes too much artifice to make it move." Venette opined that men with excessively big ones should not be allowed to marry.

Modern research agrees with Venette. Several modern studies, of hundreds of American men of all races, show that 15cm (six inches) is the average size of an erect penis. About 25 percent of penises are almost exactly 15cm, while 80 percent measure between 13cm and 18cm. Only 10 percent are under 13cm and another 10 percent are more than 18cm. The Really Big One, measuring 22cm (nine inches) or more, is a one-in-a-thousand rarity. The late porn star John Holmes was one of these, measuring 22.5cm at full erection (which he rarely achieved). Contrary to male mythology, there have been very few authenticated and natural (that is, not artificially enlarged) penises longer than this ever seen.

Some photos purporting to show humungously long dicks are obviously fakes. With the advent of computer graphics, many more are not-so-obvious fakes, but fakes they still are. Others show very big flaccid dicks, leaving the viewer to assume that they will be twice as long when they are erect. But this is more mythology. Penises only get erect when they are filled with blood, and the bigger they are the more blood it takes to fill them. But all humans have the same amount of blood, so men with very big dicks often have difficultly getting them erect. There is in any case no fixed correlation between flaccid and erect penis sizes. A 12cm flaccid cock may look impressive, but it will probably still produce only a 15cm erection. 'Hang small, stand tall,' as they say, and they may be right.

In any case, what is the point of a big penis, other than as a sort of male status symbol, a twentieth century tribal totem? As both women and many gay men know, there are limits to the practical uses to which a really big dick can be put. As Dr Venette observed, "they [big dicks] irritate women and signify nothing special". An American doctor testified: "In my 20 years of practice, I have never had a woman ask me to make her husband's penis larger. I have often been asked to make it attached to a nicer fellow." Gay men are probably more size-obsessed than women, but even the most voracious size-queen knows that nine into one won't go, at least not without the risk of permanent damage.

Mere medical statistics and practical considerations, of course, have little impact on popular mythology, and penis size seems to have become permanently entrenched in the culture as a symbol of masculine worth. Gay men are, of course, among the worst offenders in this. Gay male culture simply drips with big-cock-worship (or megalophallophilia as I like to call it), with donkey-dicked actors like Jeff Stryker and Al Parker raised to celebrity status, and some of the best-selling videos titled Like a Horse, A Matter of Size and The Bigger the Better. The novels of the late Gordon Merrick were one long paean to the big dick: his characters literally swoon when confronted with the all-conquering phallus.

One of the most persistent myths about cock size is that different races have different sized dicks. The usual belief is that blacks have bigger dicks than whites, while whites have bigger dicks than Asians. This mythology has been reinforced by size queens like the explorer Richard Burton, who spent most of his life measuring dicks in exotic parts of the world, out of a mixture of scientific curiosity and prurience. Burton concluded that the Senegalese had the biggest dicks in the world. This mythology is happily shared by blacks and whites, gays and straights (though not, one imagines, by Asians).

Modern research (doubtless also conducted by size queens, though now under the guise of comparative anthropometry) confirms that black men appear to have bigger dicks than white men. But rigorous study shows that this is an illusion. Black men's dicks are (on average) longer when flaccid, but no bigger when erect, than white men's dicks. That is, about 80 percent of both black and white erect dicks are 15cm long, give or take a centimetre or so. It does appear, though, that Asian men are, on average, a centimetre or two smaller. But this is because Asian men are on average shorter than whites, and all races have dicks in proportion to their height. Since Asian men are now becoming taller as they adopt Western diets, we may expect their dicks to grow in proportion.

Gary Griffin suggests that a big cock is better for sex. "A large penis is better equipped for a variety of sexual positions and deep penetration. It is more capable of stretching the sphincter muscles of the vagina and the anus to provide greater sexual stimulus." Many people seem to agree, though personally I think this greatly exaggerated. Most sensible people know that technique is far more important than size, and that penis size doesn't really matter, either for sexual satisfaction or self-esteem. Most of us know that the obsession with penis size that permeates gay male culture is all a bit childish. But that doesn't seem to make the slightest bit of difference, as the boom in penis enlargement technology, genuine and bogus, demonstrates. Few of us are sensible about sex. As someone once said, "I'm not a size queen, but I can be impressed".