We’ve seen it in study after study: men worry about what their penis looks like. Is it too short? Too long? Too thin? Is the glans too fat? Will that birthmark be a deal breaker? Relax. A study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine last month suggests that women don’t really notice those details.
The study focused on the effect of a birth defect called hypospadias. In about one out of 250 male babies, the urethra is a little misplaced — opening somewhere on the lower surface of the penis instead of at its tip. No one really knows why hypospadias happens, but there’s been a fair amount of research into how it happens. When the penis is developing in utero, both the tissues of the penile shaft and the tissue that forms the urethra grow outward from the foetus’ body, and the urethra — which starts as a flat plate of tissue — folds and fuses to form a tube. But if one of the chemical signals that controls penile growth misfires, the tube could stop fusing too soon. Depending on when the signal stops working, the opening to the urethra could land anywhere from the lower surface of the glans (most common) to the base of the penis (rarest).
Hypospadias is often corrected surgically to prevent problems with both urination and (eventually) ejaculation. But even the best surgeon can’t put the urethra at the exact spot it normally opens. And that small difference in penile appearance can make these men feel embarrassed and abnormal.
Turns out they don’t need to. Norma Ruppen-Greef at University Children’s Hospital, Zurich tested whether women would find a surgically-repaired penis off-putting by showing a group of heterosexual female volunteers photographs of flaccid penises and asking them to rate whether or not they thought they looked normal. They were all told that they would be rating the appearance of surgical repairs. What they weren’t told was that half of the photos they saw were of circumcised but otherwise normal penises.
Ruppen-Greef’s team found that the women they tested weren’t able to consistently see a difference between the penises with a normally placed urethral opening and the penises with a repaired hypospadias that had been near the tip of the glans — they thought both options looked normal. The women did notice that hypospadias repairs that had started further down the shaft of the penis looked less normal, but when asked to rank different aspects of penile appearance, the location of the urethral opening fell at the bottom of the list.
This study didn’t test what homosexual men thought about penile appearance, so we don’t know whether gay men are more critical about their partners. But it did get consistent results for what women did want to see, penis-wise: a neat and balanced cosmetic appearance.
[Seifert et al. 2008, Moore and Persaud 2008, Baskin 2012, Ruppen-Greef et al. 2015]
Picture: Loozerbor via Flickr; Hypospadias types from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention