Talking Dick
With Karen Gordon
Photos by Jim Morrison


In 1999, the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s banner science show The Nature of Things aired a show on the male penis. It was one of the highest rated episodes in the show’s history. They rebroadcast it in February 2000. The head researcher and writer for the show was Karen Gordon. When DRAGÜN magazine approached her about contributing an article, she pointed out the biggest problem with the topic is that people just don’t talk about it. She therefore suggested we have a conversation with her about the male penis based on her research. Here is that conversation.

DRAGÜN: Penis size, is it a North American obsession?

Karen Gordon: No it's not at all. We went to England, for instance, and did some man-on-the-street interviews and some of the people we talked to actually thought it was a British thing. There was still that sense that they could beat America or they had to have bigger penises than them. We talked to Dr. Robert Stubbs in Canada who does penis extension surgery and his clients come from all over the world, all different walks of life, different countries. He told us stories about men coming from as far as India and Jamaica. Until recently, very few doctors who practised that kind of surgery were seen as legitimate.

D: What do you mean by legitimate?

KG: Lots of doctors think it's not legitimate, but the doctors who perform it now are getting results that seem to be more positive or at least they are doing less damage. It is highly controversial, incredibly controversial. Some doctors think that the doctors performing the surgeries are quacks. They are making money off the psychological problems of specific men, or a certain kind of man. On the other hand, people like Dr. Whitehead, president of the American Academy of Phalloplasty Surgeons, are trying to set standards and certify doctors so that when you go to somebody and say you want this done to you, you know that they are using a technique that is, at the very least, not harmful. Early doctors that performed the surgery butchered people. There was one doctor in California whose license has been taken away because he essentially just had an in and out shop, a factory line. There were very bad results. One of the earliest techniques for widening it used fat grafts; they would inject fat, and of course, the penis doesn't have any fat.

D: Because there is no tissue to contain the fat it would become displaced and you'd have big lumps wherever it settled. Nasty.

KG: Yeah, it was awful. The latest techniques are more successful but still horrible. I talked to someone who had gone for the surgery. He was 26 at the time and had not researched it. The procedure requires that during the post-op period you have to wear heavy weights on your penis to keep it stretched to make sure that scar tissue doesn't retract the work that's been done.

D: I hear the weight weighs up to eight pounds?

KG: Yeah it does, so he decided not to do that. Then on top of it the doctor did a fat graft. The graft was awful. He had to get the doctor to agree to donate his services to take the fat out. After it all, he felt permanently scarred, damaged.

D: More so than before he went for the surgery?

KG: Yes. It was interesting talking to him because his level of self-awareness wasn't high. Few of these doctors ask the men to go see psychiatrists or psychologists. The attitude is that for all the plastic surgery you say you need, like a nose job, someone will say you don't. People do it because it's going to make them feel better. Most doctors say it's not the job of the plastic surgeon to psychoanalyse the patient. It’s a fine line between wanting to look more “socially normal” and their psychological state. For most normal people, we just want to feel good and we want to appear more attractive within the range of normal.

D: So is the problem really in the big head not the little head?

KG: Well, according to the doctor we talked to in New York, most of the time, yeah, it's psychological. Men don't see themselves as normal.

D: There are not a lot of people requiring penis augmentation, they just think they do because they do not feel normal?

KG: Yeah, according to the research. Interestingly, our crew went in to shoot a surgery and had set up and when the patient was brought in, the crew was shocked. Shocked because the patient was very normal. Moreover, the doctor confirmed it. However, when I spoke to the patient, he was convinced that his whole life he'd felt that he wasn't as competitive in the world of business or in the world of women because his penis was too small. However, in reality it was normal.

D: We hear that women do not care about size. Okay, after the cameras are off, late at night, deep in the bedroom is this true? Do they care?

KG: I think that they do. But that's a bit misleading because I was talking to a friend of mine last night and her preference is not big, in the sense of 10 inches or 8 inches. Her preference is for wider.

D: Girth over length.

KG: I think that there is a problem with too small. It's a medical problem if you have what is called a micro penis but that is a very small (no pun intended) portion of the population.

D: What's the size number there?

KG: I think it's two inches or something and the percentage is very small. It’s a birth thing. If that's the case, the person should go to a doctor; they shouldn't have psychological issues. They should see what can be done and then deal with it. But the worse thing is that up until now, on every level, size, performance, health, men just don't talk to their partners or their doctors.

D: Is that across the board with all health issues?

KG: My impression is that it is across the board and that it's a masculinity issue. But the penis and sexual functioning and masculinity are so closely related. It's like there's some big norm floating around out there and a means test and nobody actually knows what that is but men are trying to measure up to it.

D: And they're assuming it's high.

KG: Some people out there believe that they are normal. However, adolescence can be awful. If when growing up your masculinity is compromised or if you don't have confidence, chances are you're going to focus a bit of that anxiety onto your sexual performance. You feel you're inadequate and then you do not want to tell anybody because you have to keep this façade of masculinity up. It all links together to make some very unhappy people, which is sad.

D: I was watching a skit on MADtv last night where these two women were in this college bar and this geeky guy came in and they totally diss him. They were playing trivia, and he keeps guessing all the right answers. Then one of the girls picked the sex category and he didn't know any of the answers while the girls knew them all. The question came up, “What is the length of the average male penis?” A woman answered six inches. The guy says, “No it's not. It's 10 and a half.” She goes, “No it's not.” He says, “Well that's what I got.” All of a sudden, they are totally into him. When he goes to leave, people start chasing after him.

KG: (laughs) That's funny.

D: Yeah it is but what does it reinforce? I mean how many people after watching that show, say “Oh okay, I don't have ten and a half. I guess I am not desirable.”

KG: I don’t know, I still think it's funny.

D: I would say there has not been a young adolescent boy to man growing up looking down at himself saying, “Is this the right size?” or “Is this growing right?" In college, a guy once said, “Oh you should never look down at your penis because the angle that you're looking at it will make it look small. What you should do is go out and get a full-length mirror, stand somewhat back from it, and then look at yourself on a profile. There you'll get a good judge of what you've got.” The process involved in coming up with that thinking means that there's an obsession.

KG: True. There's certainly sort of an obsession. Again not for everybody, there are some people happy with what they are packing.

D: I find it interesting that such a large portion of society is normal but are thinking they are not normal. The people who need surgery or need to go look at their plumbing are such a small percentage of society. Nevertheless, many people think they belong in that small percentage.

KG: Yeah. It's so sad and especially that people who do have problems avoid it. Every doctor had a story about somebody who came in after years of problems, one man after twelve years. He never even talked about it with his partner. They just stopped having sex. Finally, she dragged him in. Now can you imagine, here's a person who feels like his masculinity has been compromised, and his wife stays with him for twelve years although they never discussed it. I mean that speaks to a bunch of things, but it certainly speaks to the fact that you're not going to lose somebody by having a problem.

D: What kept him from talking about it?

KG: Shame and fear.

D: Because it is attached to his masculinity?

KG: Yes. It’s attached to his notion of masculinity and where is he getting that? Society. The limits that he put on himself. You know, men don’t complain, men don’t cry, men don’t fail. And if you fail at the level of the most basic thing you do to demonstrate your masculinity, which is get an erection and have sex with someone, then you are going to have issues. I mean the pain for men must be immense.

D: It’s almost a simple equation. Your penis is attached to your sense of masculinity. If the penis doesn’t work properly as you imagine the masculine penis does, you don’t feel masculine. Then your whole psyche goes into flux.

KG: If you get men to understand and explore their own masculinity and what scares them, then you may fix physical problems. However, how many men are into exploring their masculinity? That is the bigger issue. Problems with the penis can be fixed, you may not like what your biology is doing to you at that time but you can go get help and you can do the best you can with it, which is better than sitting around at home. Sometimes it can be a simple case of bad plumbing; some men are born with bad plumbing. As they get older, they are going to find they have erection problems because they have poor veins that they inherited from their dads.

D: So the blood circulation is not right and there are things to do about that?

KG: Yes, and you know you may have to have an implant, but the whole point is at least you can do something about it. Moreover, if you are comfortable with yourself, you talk to your partner, and you work things out, you can be very happy.

D: We’ve put sexuality in a box all by itself, a box that no one wants to open.

KG: Yeah, there is a big discomfort level around it. Facets of our lives are compartmentalised with levels of behaviour attached to each. There are ways that you are supposed to act and certain things are considered unnatural. Sex is something natural that people treat as unnatural. However, every time you suppress natural human behaviour, you create perversions.

D: Yeah, it’s comes out in aberrant ways.

KG: It’s naïve to say to people, “Don’t express yourself sexually.” Because all you’re going to do is make people mentally ill. Also physically ill. You know there are tribes that when you hit adolescence you’re taken off somewhere and initiated into sexuality in public ceremonies.

D: There are tribes where young men have a period of homosexuality where they are expected to go off with the other men and…

KG: Yeah. What they’re doing is expressing openly that you’ve now come into your time of sexual activity. I think we don’t acknowledge it as a society. Whenever we do so, it is jokingly or underhandedly. We look at poor adolescents going through all of these hormonal bursts and feel sad about it because it’s awful. It’s terrible to try to control what’s going on hormonally. Your body changes so quickly. We don’t shepherd them as much as we could. We don’t answer those big questions.

D: We are uptight as a society.

KG: I think we are becoming relaxed about it and we need to relax more. And just like eating, like sleeping, like thinking, like loving, like all things that we think of as normal, we have to reconcile that to our sexuality. There are different ways that people handle it. I mean some people have tons of sex and they think that they are doing the right thing. Some people have limited sex, and are scared of it. Life is short, you should be happy, and both extremes have repercussions.

The full text of this article can be found in the Spring 2000 issue of DRAGÜN magazine

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