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The Fraught World of Academics Attempting to Study Male Sexual Health

It turns out the only time men don’t want to talk about their dicks is when it’s in the name of science

Six years ago, Missouri State sociology professor Alicia M. Walker spoke with a dozen women whose male partners had above average self-esteem. She was surprised to learn that each of them also happened to be “very well endowed.”

This combo led Walker to consider a potential correlation between big dicks and heightened confidence, what you may refer to as “big dick energy.” In our size-obsessed society, she hypothesized, are well-endowed men more likely to be sure of themselves? No scientific data existed, but more than a dozen studies had previously confirmed the relationship between small penises and low self-esteem. Might the phenomenon also exist in the opposite direction? What other behaviors might be impacted? Condom use? Perceptions of one’s own attractiveness? Sexual competency?

Walker set off to conduct a comprehensive penis study, but she quickly realized the challenges of doing so: If participants were measured by a clinician at a physical site, the study was limited by performance anxiety and cost. The alternative — self-reporting — raised a slew of other validity issues since men notoriously lie about how big their dick is.

For six years, Walker was stuck. Then, last semester, she overheard a female student lamenting about receiving unsolicited dick pics. A lightbulb went off: What if participants self-reported, Walker thought, but also validated those claims with photos using the bone press method — the gold standard of dick measurement. Not titillating pictures, Walker assures me — more like ones you’d see in a medical textbook.

Within a week of the study’s launch, The College Fix ran a story with a clickbait headline: “Professor Asks Men to Send Her Pictures of Their Penises to Help Measure Self-Esteem.” News outlets all over the world picked up the story — including The Daily Mail, VICE and USA Today — many running the same provocative headline. Walker began receiving 500 emails a day, most from haters. A Michigan man, for example, called her a “feral whore,” a “fat pig” and claimed she was “so fat only n — –s would” have sex with her. “The racism of misogyny was common,” she notes.

One through line was an objection to Walker being a woman conducting a study about men’s sexual insecurities about their penises. Men took great offense at what they perceived to be Walker suggesting smaller men felt badly about themselves. Some said she couldn’t get a date because she was ugly. Others accused her of collecting child porn. All promised to contact university administrators and state legislators to demand they fire her. Less than two weeks after its launch, Miller was forced to cancel the study because, as she puts it, “We live in a world where the idea of a woman looking at dick pics is too upsetting for some people to stomach.”

Truth is, we’ve long lived in a world in which men’s insecurities discredit and undermine scientific studies about sex. Masters and Johnson’s landmark 1970 study on “Human Sexual Inadequacy,” for example, demolished entrenched myths about women not being as sexually voracious as men. Prior to that, the general consensus was in line with Sigmund Freud’s declaration that clitoral orgasms were “infantile and immature” and that women could claim sexual maturity only when they experienced a vaginal, penetrative orgasm. (Ironically, science has since shown that women experience far longer and more intense orgasms than men.)

Observing couples having sex in their laboratory in the 1960s, Masters and Johnson concluded women’s orgasms started in the clitoris and extended to the vagina. Any pleasure women experienced through penetration was due to the connection between the clitoris and vagina. Furthermore, women were capable of multiple orgasms, and men were not. They proved women could achieve five or six orgasms in as many minutes, while men had to leave the field for a “refractory” period of an hour after every performance. While feminists declared the clitoral orgasm the mark of a liberated woman, men discredited Masters and Johnson with studies claiming that large penises, long-lasting intercourse and simultaneous orgasms were actually responsible for female sexual pleasure.

Similarly, the medical community has long debated the validity of Niels Skakkebaek’s 1992 study revealing the decreasing quality of semen over the past 50 years. As Liberty Barnes, a medical sociologist and author tells me, she attended reproductive medicine meetings at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine and the American Neurological Association while researching male infertility for her book. “If somebody even mentioned Skakkebaek’s study claiming that sperm has been declining, doctors and scientists in the room would jump up and say, “That’s not true anymore! That’s been debunked!” (Shanna H. Swan et al. confirmed last summer that, indeed, sperm has declined 50 percent in 40 years on three continents.)

When Barnes began researching her book on male infertility, she applied to the institutional review board, the administrative body protecting the rights and welfare of human research subjects. There had been dozens of books written about infertility, all of which included interviews with women. But Barnes wanted her study to focus exclusively on men. “I got a lot of pushback from the institutional review board,” she explains. The study wasn’t approved because she was told the topic was “too sensitive,” and as a graduate student, she “wasn’t capable of asking men such personal questions.” They required her to revise the consent form to include the words, “You might cry.”

Ironically, one exception to the trend of men discrediting scientific studies about their penises involves circumcision. Amanda Kennedy’s PhD dissertation at Stony Brook University covered the history of circumcision in the U.S. and controversies around male circumcision. She spent months speaking with men in subreddits, online forums and message boards and was pleasantly surprised by their welcoming response. “On the whole, men were excited that I wanted to write about circumcision because they want mainstream coverage and for people to take them seriously. I didn’t get much pushback.” In fact, she says, men were very open with her about their insecurities approaching sexual partners, their shame over how their penis looked and their trouble maintaining erections.

Perhaps the responses Kennedy received departed from those experienced by Walker, Master and Johnson and Barnes because circumcision doesn’t threaten masculinity in the way that ineffective sperm or penis size so. As Kennedy suggests, maybe we remain uncomfortable talking about certain things because masculinity has received less investigation than femininity. It remains newer and more uncomfortable to think about men’s sexuality and the social context of masculinity or manhood.

“Women have a language to talk about these sorts of things,” Kennedy notes. “For a long time men haven’t been involved in the conversation about how their bodies and their sense of self is shaped. So the knee-jerk reaction is anger and defensiveness. Because categories like maleness, whiteness and wealth maintain their power by being uninvestigated. So when we finally do start investigating, it can be disconcerting for people.”