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A new study backed by the National Institutes of Health examines the association between self-perceived penis size and sexual health among men who have sex with men. While talk of penis size may inspire giggles, the study actually has some compelling conclusions about sexual health, body image, and mental well-being for gay men. FoxNews.com, however, chose to bury or ignore most of the valuable results, instead focusing on what was learned about gay men’s sexual positions. The article also largely highlights condemnation of the study from the Traditional Values Coalition, a conservative Christian organization the Southern Poverty Law Center identifies as a hate group for its anti-gay views:
“This country is broke and we cannot spend money on this kind of stuff,” said Andrea Lafferty, president of the Traditional Values Coalition, which drew attention to the report as part of a six-month investigation into NIH grants for examples of “institutional waste.”
“We’re spending money on wacky stuff,” Lafferty said.
Often times, studies produce answers that are not incredibly exciting, but that doesn’t mean the questions were not worth asking. For example, this study found that perceived penis size was not related to men’s frequency of partners, HIV status, or condom use. But the study did have a number of answers that are not only worthwhile, but might inspire more research. Here are some highlights of the “wacky stuff”:
- SKIN-TO-SKIN STIs: Men with “above average” penis sizes reported significantly higher incidence of viral skin-to-skin sexually-transmitted infections (STIs), specifically HSV-2 and HPV. Other research has shown that condom slippage and breakage play a significant role in the transmission of STIs, particularly among men with above- or below-average penis sizes.
- CONDOM AVAILABILITY: The study was conducted in New York City, where, as the study acknowledges, condoms for a “wider range of available sizes” are available “around the clock.” The same might not be true among rural populations, which means further research could reveal that effective condom use is less common when appropriately-sized condoms are unavailable.
- SIZE VS. POSITION: FoxNews.com was quick to share that penis size correlated with sexual position (the larger the penis a man had, the more likely he was to identify as a “top,” and vice-versa). What their story omitted, however, were the psychosocial ramifications of this result for the gay community. As the study asks, “Does their having a ‘smaller’ penis devalue these men’s sexual potential, socially-coercing them into sexual roles they may not have otherwise assumed?”
- BODY IMAGE ISSUES: Men with below average penises fared significantly worse on three measures of psychosocial adjustment. Studies have found that gay men have significantly worse body image than heterosexual men (PDF), and the “bigger is better” mentality adds to that. Given the correlation between size and position, the mental and sexual health consequences for some men could be quite complex and severe.
Fox and TVC might be quick to condemn this study as “bizarre” “institutional waste,” but that approach ignores the very real implications the study has for gay men. Given that HIV/AIDS is still rampant among men who have sex with men, any study that provides insight on how to improve the sexual health of that group should be applauded for every answer it offers.
The NIH has clarified that it did not fund or approve the research, though one of the postdoctoral research fellows was supported by a research training grant.