Is Small Beautiful?

4.17.2005

By Erik Piepenburg

It's something most gay men and straight women love to dish about. One could argue it's what makes a man a man. But for most of the 60 men sitting in a New York City auditorium last fall, the subject was a debilitating source of shame, anger, displeasure, and resentment. What brought these men together was a desire to talk frankly about a topic that's usually the stuff of punch lines or fighting words: life with a small penis.
'I initiated this group out of my own need to deal with an issue that was affecting my life,' says Robert Woodworth, who says his erect penis measures five inches. 'It was a coming-out process.'

Woodworth, 59, is the director of institutional services at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center in New York and the man behind an ongoing series of discussions about gay men and their penises. That initial discussion in November, called 'What Is Small Anyway?' led to the center's first facilitator-led, four-week support group for gay men who feel they have small penises. Five men ranging in age from their late 20s to late 70s joined the group to talk about showering at the gym, going to nude beaches, hooking up online, and other situations that put a public face on their most personal of private parts.

'It was a humbling experience,' says Charles Greenberg, a support group participant who says his erect penis measures three inches. Greenberg says participating in the group was helpful and made him less uncomfortable with being small. But is worrying about size something uniquely gay? Do straight men have the same fears as their gay peers? Or are we just obsessed with the male member?

Charles Silverstein, a psychologist and coauthor of The Joy of Gay Sex, believes that when it comes to who worries about penis size more, the gays get a bad rap. 'When straight men are undressing in the locker room, they're looking at each other to measure up,' he says. 'They may not be looking with desire, but they're looking.' And it's that gaze that Silverstein says is at the heart of any discussion about size: 'It's not about functionality or a fear of sexual activity, it's about aesthetics. It's about a man asking himself, How attractive can I be to another man with my winkie when he has a big schlong?'

What's so wrong with being small? Evolution obviously hasn't noticed anything amiss in a less-than-gargantuan penis. Greco-Roman sculpture deemphasized a large penis in favor of sometimes grossly disproportionate hands, torsos, and heads, body parts that were considered far more representative of the masculine than the penis. Depicting a whopper of a penis would have been considered vulgar. 'Most of the classical Greek sculptures have tame penises, not big ones,' explains Silverstein. 'Sixteen-year-old boys were the model of masculinity.'

Still, as evidenced by the turnout at the center, gay men clearly are worried about the size of their penis. Perhaps it's because we all have one, or because we have sex with people who also have one. Yet while many gay men are taunted about their small penis by family members or locker mates, the most painful experiences sometimes come at the hands of other gay men. Woodworth says he was first confronted with an anti'small penis bias in college when a sexual partner said to him, ''Oh, you're small.' He didn't say 'I hate it,' ' Woodworth explains. 'He just acknowledged it. But anyone who says that is by definition being critical.'

Greenberg, 63, says being around for the sexual revolution in New York, where action was readily available, wasn't exactly a nonstop party for men on the small side. 'I was rejected a lot,' he says. 'I'm a nice-looking man, but as soon as they felt my penis, they left. You know these size queens.'

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