Discourses regarding penis size

Within a patriarchal ideology men are often portrayed as the hunter with power and physical ability as the mark of a man. Since biblical times a man’s worth was often linked to his penis size and ability to perform sexually. The discourse of penile penetration for satisfactory sexual intercourse is often associated with another discourse: namely, that penis size – and by implication the size of the erection – is directly coupled to the pleasure afforded. Erections have always been important to men: the discourse regarding the size of the male penis was circulating even in biblical times. In 1 Kings 12:10, King Rehoboam boasts that his little finger is thicker than his father’s waist to indicate that he – Rehoboam – was a more capable and powerful king than his father. The Hebrew word that was translated as ‘little finger’ could have referred to his penis, as in antiquity a man’s penis size was seen as an indication of his power and abilities.

Dr Abraham Morgentaler (2009), Professor of Urology at Harvard Medical School and a medical doctor who specializes in male reproductive and sexual health, also comments on the discourse of penis size. He states that man’s obsession with penis size is nothing new. Ancient drawings in the ruins of Pompeii provide clear evidence of this obsession:

“Painted on the wall, with only minor decay since the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in the year 79 AD, was the picture of a nobleman with an enormous erect penis, the length and girth larger than a man’s leg, placed on an ancient scale, with sacks of gold balanced on the other side. Some time ago I rediscovered that image on the Internet and have occasionally used it in lectures, with the quip that men have always viewed a large penis as worth its weight in gold” (Morgentaler 2009).

Closely linked to these ideas of strength and virility are the dominant discourses which see a man’s sexuality as instinctive and natural, as well as the idea that men are always ready for sex. Research shows that erectile dysfunction (ED) is a common problem: up to 52% of men older than forty are affected by it. Moreover, 50% of men will at one stage or another struggle with impotency due to varied factors. Finally, when men have challenges regarding their sexual function it influences their self confidence as well as their self esteem. I suggest that if discourses which link maleness to sexual functioning are internalised, sexual challenges will have an exponentially greater effect. The implications of these discourses are that if a man does not conform and perform to these standards, he is ‘unnatural’ or not a man.

Patriarchal discourses which symbolise men with strength and power can be very damaging to the male sexual experience. Discourses of strength and power portray men as unfailing. Therefore, if a man should ‘fail’ sexually, he has ‘failed’ as a man. Since this implication is often too overwhelming for men to acknowledge, many men find it almost impossible to speak about their sexual challenges. It is not only men that are exposed to discourse regarding male sexual functioning: many women have also internalised these discourses regarding male potency.

Extract adjusted from my doctoral study: Spies, N 2011. Exploring and storying Protestant Christian women/s experiences living in sexually unhappy marriages. DTh thesis, University of South Africa, Pretoria.