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illustrations of various male genitalia with different shapes, colors and sizes

Illustrations: Marta Pucci

Reading time: 4 min

Male genitalia: biological norms vs. societal expectations

When people think of penises, the first thoughts that probably come to mind are “big” or “small.” Like breasts, penis characteristics go beyond a size binary.

External male genitalia consists of both the penis and testis. The penis is defined as the erectile organ of copulation by which urine and semen are discharged from the body, AKA the body part used for sex that excretes ejaculation and urine. The testis is defined as a typically paired male reproductive gland that produces sperm and secretes testosterone, colloquially referred to as “balls,” which are held within the scrotum (1, 2).

In regards to male genital aesthetics, people primarily focus on circumcision and penis size.


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Circumcision is the removal of the foreskin—the protective barrier to the head of the penis — for cultural, social, medical, or religious (often Jewish and Muslim) reasons. According to the World Health Organization, circumcision is likely to be the most common surgical procedure globally.

It’s typically performed during infancy as a simple procedure and is common in the United States, Canada, West Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, where about 8 in 10 males are circumcised. Adolescent and adult circumcision is more complicated, but possible when done under proper medical settings (3).

Circumcision is so typical in the United States that uncircumcised penises are commonly stigmatized. Comparatively, fewer than 2 in 10 males in Europe and South America are circumcised (3).

People have been questioning with the ethics and need behind circumcision; some believe it could be a human rights violation (as it’s non-consensual for infants) and are calling for more transparency on medical benefits. With foreskin removal being almost universal in the US, parents also fear if their child is not circumcised they will face stigma, like being shamed in sexual situations or locker rooms.

However, research has demonstrated there are health benefits to circumcision, a position supported by both the WHO and the CDC. Research has shown circumcised males are about 60% less likely to contract human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) from an infected partner—and are also somewhat more protected from other STIs including human papilloma virus (HPV) and genital herpes (4). Evidence shows properties in the inner foreskin have greater susceptibility to HIV infection (5, 6). Additionally, studies have shown female partners of circumcised men have reduced risk of human papillomavirus (HPV) and bacterial vaginosis (7).

Other concerns about circumcision include fear of decreased penile sexual function, sensitivity, and/or pleasure, but most studies find little difference—which suggests these factors are largely dependent on individual experiences (8–10).

Ethnicity, religious belief, social norms, and perceived health and sexual benefits are the driving factors behind circumcision (3). With controversy and varying prevalence globally, the main elements relevant to foreskin are sexual behavior and social attitudes. Maintaining penile hygiene and practicing safe sex will help prevent against infection and disease, and is necessary with or without foreskin.

Reasons for circumcision, or avoiding circumcision, vary. Nobody should be shamed for having, or not having, foreskin.


Hereditary traits and evolution are factors in determining penis size variation, which include female mate choice, genetics and fetal exposure to hormones.

Penis length has historically been a source of obsession when it comes to male body image. A long penis is typically associated with traditionally masculine characteristics — like power, dominance, and strength — as well as being a tool of superior sexual pleasure (11). Size has been found to serve as a psychosocial factor in many sexual relationships.

But contrary to popular belief in heterosexual relationships, many people perceive penis width as being a more important factor in their sexual satisfaction, with the idea of “fullness” as being psychically and psychologically satisfying. Another reason for width emphasis is the base of the penis serving as a source of greater clitorial and external genitalia stimulation (12).

In homosexual male sexual activity, people with generally larger penis sizes were more likely to identify as “tops” (anal insertive), the seemingly dominant role. People with smaller penis sizes were more likely to identify as “bottoms” (anal receptive), the seemingly submissive position (13).

Penis size shouldn’t make or break a sexual experience. Genitals and their features shouldn’t determine how a person behaves, feels, and chooses to present themselves (in and outside of the bedroom). Receiving pleasure isn’t just based on a singular penetrative object and entails many other factors such as intimacy, positioning, rhythm and more (14).

Size doesn’t matter

It’s only as big or small as you make it. Circumcised or not, everybody with a penis should practice cleanliness and engage in safe sex for optimal reproductive health.

Furthermore, features of male genitalia have less impact on attraction for heterosexual preference, with personality and external grooming as priorities (11).

Sexual attraction and pleasure depend on many other crucial traits besides penis characteristics, like sincerely wanting to satisfy your partner, communicating needs, emotional connection, respect, trust, and much more.

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