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Step away from the ruler: Penis size studies are pretty worthless
Other than to fuel male insecurities, that is
Most of the studies don't measure up, anyways.
Most of the studies don't measure up, anyways. (Thinkstock)
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ast week, an exciting new study answered the question we had all been wondering: Which state is home to the men with the largest penises? Apparently, you now have an excellent reason to visit North Dakota.

But before you book the next flight to Bismarck, let’s examine how exactly this conclusion was reached. The results are dependent on the rigorous scientific standards of Condomania (supposedly our nation’s first online condom store), which decided North Dakota was home to freakishly large genitalia based on the orders the company received for condoms above average size.

There are some obvious flaws to the study. For one, it’s based on the assumption that the subset of men who buy condoms online is representative of the state as a whole. Also, men could be ordering condoms in the wrong size, either mistakenly or purposefully — if you’ve ever spent some time in the company of middle school boys, you'll know what I’m talking about.

It’s clearly an excellent PR move for Condomania. And it goes without saying that media outlets devour the penis-size bait, despite the dearth of scientific validity. As the constantly proven cliché goes, sex sells.

But Condomania isn’t the first organization to release a purported finding about male genital size this year. One study this summer claimed the average American male penis was 5.6 inches when erect. An Australian study allegedly proved that women were more attracted to men with larger penises, giving generously endowed men an evolutionary advantage.

While this latter study certainly had scientific validity, it wasn’t confirmation that even a great sense of humor or an extensive knowledge of craft beers is but poor compensation for a less-than-huge penis.

Nevertheless, some media outlets certainly made it out to be. This trend of giving disproportionate significance to scientific studies that confirm sex and gender norms does not apply exclusively to penis size reports. Tara Culp-Ressler at ThinkProgress writes:

Under the guise of being backed by scientific authority, news outlets will often tout studies’ results — or sometimes, selectively highlight certain results — to reinforce gender-based stereotypes. Of course, citing research also sets up a situation where it’s more difficult for opponents to take issue with the those studies, since it may appear as if they’re objecting to scientific fact simply because they don’t want to believe the truth. [ThinkProgress]

And while women are more likely to be evaluated on their physical attributes, from their breasts to their butts to their thighs, there isn't the same obsessive focus on measuring their genitalia.

Dr. Debby Herbenick at the Kinsey Institute brings up this issue, noting that "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 perhaps the case that penile dimensions have simply captured more of the public's attention."

She explains that the wealth of penis research may also be attributed to the fact that men continue to dominate scientific fields, and are basically more concerned with measuring up against each other than comparing the ladies.

But all this penis-gazing reflects a pretty obvious male insecurity that many media outlets are more than happy to exploit. As Kristine Guttierez at Jezebel notes, men do not "not openly talk about their penises the way women try to encourage each other to embrace their breast size." That men are more hesitant to openly discuss their sizes with each other probably only fuels the insecurity (see this Reddit thread on average penis sizes for proof).

Ultimately, even when these studies about penis sizes are likely accurate, we’re too quick to conclude penises are meant to be size X because almighty evolutionary proof says so.

Maybe it’s the time to step away from the rulers and remember the old adage: It’s not the size of the ship, but how it sails.

Emily Shire is chief researcher for The Week magazine. She has written about pop culture, religion, and women and gender issues at publications including Slate, The Forward, and Jewcy.

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