Skip to main content

Just how many penis puns are there? For better or worse, Tom Hickman uses up most of them in his new book, God's Doodle: The Life and Times of the Penis. Hickman, a British journalist ranging far afield from his previous material, a biography of Churchill's bodyguard, now offers a giggly survey of the penis through history, mythology, medicine and literature, also tracing the relationship of man and member with women. He spoke with The Globe and Mail from his home outside Cambridge.

Your book will probably never get the attention or outcry that Naomi Wolf's Vagina did.

My book is an ironic, detached history. Hers was indulgent: She wasn't having her orgasms, so she went off and watched she-goats butting heads in a Greek field. It was bloody nonsense. That's just my opinion.

But it seems vaginas are taken more seriously than penises.

Vaginas are serious organs, but so are penises. The thing about penises is penises can't help but be clowns. You can't see a man running without thinking it's silly. Simone de Beauvoir said that every man thinks another man's is a "comic parody" but his own is something special.

"A man is nothing more than a life-support system for his penis," you quote playwright Joe Orton saying. An "eye that sees everything and understands nothing," is how some feminists apparently described it. Do men enjoy these characterizations?

Talking to people, I find that women have enjoyed it more than men. Men seem a bit embarrassed by it.

Can you imagine anyone talking about a vagina that way – "I'm with stupid"?

I think that's a matter of anatomy as much as anything else. The male genitalia is – here's another pun coming up – in your face, you can't avoid it, it's there. The female genitalia is basically internal so there's nothing to see. It's more complicated.

You stress this duality between men and their members, being "chained to a madman," in the words of Sophocles, or "A stranger letting space in their underwear," as Californian sex therapist Barbara Keesling puts it. Is that how men experience it, or is that a cheater's line?

"Thinking with his other head" – that was Bill Clinton. A man knows that he's more than the sum of his private parts, but there are occasions when every man thinks with his other head. The thing is a bit like a diviner's wand. Men get twitches. I don't think women get twitches in quite the same way.

Did some radical feminists really see the penis as a birth defect, as an "elongated clitoris?"

That just happens to be biological fact. That was part of their whole mantra, that women were superior. It was allied to the fact that sexually speaking, men go off the boil before they're 20 and women don't come to full boiling point until they're 30 or 35. If there's a God, he's a bit of a sadist when it comes to sex because he's really made something of a mismatch.

Where are we with size today? You suggest the average is likely shorter than those in the Kinsey reports, 6.2 inches.

With Kinsey, men sent their own estimations marked off on postcards. But there have been at least 15 hands-on studies – where either people have been pharmacologically induced, or not – and averages are smaller than Kinsey's. They've been down to 5 inches from up to 6.4 [in a Durex self-measurement study]. Men who are on the smaller side are less likely to put themselves forward for measurements. That's why I said that any of these figures are "lies, damned lies and self-measurements."

You point to studies that found women in love mentally up-size their partner's dimensions, downsizing them after a bad breakup. So size is relative to the quality of your relationship?

When a relationship is fine, you think everything is fine: He's lovely, he's got a nice sense of humour, he's courteous. Then when you fall out, you think, "Hang on, maybe the sex wasn't so good."

You also suggest many women aren't as enamoured with the organ as most men would hope they'd be. Is that the case?

Women are common-sensical. They know that men come as a package: They're a financial package, a partner package, and the penis is just part and parcel of the package. Men get this out of proportion sometimes.

You offer a dystopian conclusion, as posited by an Australian medical journal: a world where in-vitro fertilization eventually replaces sex. It's a world 1,000 years away, where the penis becomes redundant, shrinking to the "gorilla-like dimensions from which it grew," suggests evolutionary biologist Robin Baker. That's 1.5 inches, erect. A daunting prophecy.

I don't think we need to worry about it. It's hard to visualize. If most men had to choose, they'd have Beardsley-esque penises that they'd need to carry around with two hands. We sort of nod but when you stop to think about it, it would be awkward to get on with the rest of life, wouldn't it?

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Vital statistics

3 to 5 inches – average flaccid penis, according to Masters and Johnson

5 to 7 inches – erectile median, according to the Kinsey Institute

1 inch – the shortest erection Alfred Kinsey encountered

10.5 inches – the longest erection Kinsey encountered

10 inches – what many American men believe is an average erection, according to the Kinsey Institute

13.5 inches in length and 6.25 inches in circumference – the largest penis ever medically verified; published in the Atlas of Human Sex Anatomy, 1949

2.5 inches and under – what earns you the moniker "micropenis" from the medical profession

5.8 inches – average erection according to 2001 Lifestyle Condoms, which carried out a large-scale study (tape-wielding nurses measured 300 volunteers)

1.5 inches or less – average erection of gorillas and orangutans

3 inches – average erection of the chimpanzee, which shares 98 per cent of its DNA with the human male

42 per cent – of respondents who would opt for a 10-inch penis and annual salary of £10,000 over a 3-inch penis and £100,000 annual earnings, as surveyed by Cosmopolitan magazine

Source: God's Doodle: The Life and Times of the Penis, by Tom Hickman