Only 55% of men are satisfied with their penis length (and women have vulva issues)

01 Oct 2020

25% of people are not satisfied with their own genitals. Women are critical of their labia; men are critical of the length of their penis. This was shown in a study conducted by Radboud university medical center among visitors to the Lowlands Festival last year. ‘However, there is higher satisfaction regarding their partner's genitals.’

Children’s neurologist Barbara Kortmann regularly meets mothers during her consultation hours. Many of these mothers do not think it is normal for the labia minora of their 14-year old daughters to suddenly grow. ‘They end up making it a medical issue’, says Kortmann in her office at Radboud university medical center. ‘Yet those girls did not have to come to me at all.’ Kortmann believes that if people knew that genitalia come in all shapes and sizes, such as a protruding labia minora or a longer foreskin, they would worry a lot less.

The DSD (‘differences in sex development) team at Radboud university medical center, to which Kortmann belongs, felt these concerns were reason enough to analyse how people look at their own genitals and those of their sexual partners. Last week the team published the results of this research, with the deliberately intriguing title, ‘What is in your trousers?’

Vulva Questions

Even before the publication of the results, the study attracted attention because the research team decided to search for respondents at the Lowlands music festival last year. In a tent decorated with ‘genital selfies’ (polaroids of participants), 1472 festival-goers (39% male, 61% female, and 0.3% other) filled in a questionnaire. Everyone was over the age of 18, and 91% were under the age of 41.

‘We did not look at their genitals ourselves,’ says Kortmann, ‘but we had participants identify their genitals using standardised drawings of various natural variations.’ She picks up the research and shows an example of the ‘vulva questionnaire’, a front view of five vulvas, each with labia minora in different sizes. ‘Participants had to indicate which vulva they had, and then how satisfied they were with it.’ The same questions were also asked about the size of the labia majora, the labia minora, the size of the clitoris, the length of the foreskin, the thickness of the penis, and the size of the head of the penis. They were also asked to answer the same questions about the genitals of their last sexual partner.

‘vulva questionnaire’ used in the research. Participants with a vulva had to pick the image that best represented the size of their labia majora and minora.

Example of the

And, were people generally satisfied?

‘Approximately 73% of women and 72% of men are satisfied with their genitals (editor’s note: though this is not always the case, participants with a penis were identified as men and those with a vulva as women). However, there is higher satisfaction regarding their partner’s genitals. Approximately 91% of people with a male partner and 89% of people with a female partner are satisfied. We already assumed that people would be more critical of themselves than of their partners. I think you compare yourself more than your partner to the ideal of beauty.’

People are fairly dissatisfied with their genitals, you said in a previous interview with Vox, possibly because of the ‘ideal image’ shown in pornographic images. The fact that three-quarters of the people are satisfied seems rather high.

‘It depends on how you look at it. It also means that a quarter of the people are not satisfied. A quarter of the people in the study are not satisfied with something that you do not see on a daily basis and which is basically healthy, normal tissue. If you were to ask the same thing about a forearm, I think a majority would say: ‘Yes, I think my forearm is fine the way it is.’ But if we asked the same question about their nose, I think we would again see a high level of dissatisfaction.

So genitals are more comparable to a nose than a forearm?

‘That is an absurd comparison, of course, but there is apparently something different about genitals.’

Barbara Kortmann. Photo: Radboud university medical center

Why?

‘We should ask why this is the case using in-depth interviews, but we have not done that in this research. We did look at who was more dissatisfied. Men are generally a little more satisfied. On average, women with larger labia minora are more dissatisfied than women with almost invisible labia minora. And, in particular, men are less satisfied with the length of their penis. Only 55% are satisfied with the length. Just under 80% indicates that they feel their penis is of average length. This means that quite a few of them are not satisfied.

‘People who have had more sexual partners and people who are positive about their sex life are also more satisfied. We do not know which came first. It may be that people who are satisfied with their genitals enjoy their sex life more, and as a result have more partners. Or it could be the other way around.’

Does the research setting at Lowlands matter? Respondents are hanging out with their friends, having a few drinks, and then participate in this study.

‘We were present the entire time and always told couples who wanted to fill in the questionnaire together that that was not the intention. We noticed that people generally filled in everything in a concentrated way. Afterwards, many people wanted to have a chat, and the polaroids resulted in a great number of conversations and discussions. For example, some said that they never knew that it was possible for the opening of the urethra to not be in the head of the penis. Very few people know that hypospadias exists at all, even though it affects one in 250 boys.

We also asked how much alcohol someone had consumed and whether they had taken drugs. We looked at whether that alcohol had an effect on satisfaction, because somebody who had something to drink might be in “too good” a mood. But that did not seem to be the case.’

What is the next step in the research?

‘I would like to repeat this study at a secondary school to see what the situation is in a younger group that has not yet had a sexual experience with a partner. And I would like to know why some people have become dissatisfied.’

Can you do something about it then?

‘Yes. During my consultation hours, I see many young people and young adults who are worried about very small things. In the United States, labia corrections are performed on girls at an early age. What if they could now grow up knowing that all these variations are just normal?’

Will this research help?

‘By going to Lowlands and publishing this research, we are helping to make genital variations visible. So that it is not only the porn industry that defines what is ideal and what we think is normal.’

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