Illustration by Kissi Ussuki
by Jo Murphy
Size: We’re obsessed with it, especially when it comes to penises. But is size truly an essential anatomical factor of really good vaginal sex? Or does it do little more than give most people with penises performance anxiety while robbing most people with vaginas of orgasm? Our understanding of sex, to a degree, has been conditioned by porn that tells us sex should be a hard-and-fast, penetrative rush towards climax—no clitoris needed.
So, what’s this doing to our sex lives? For starters, according to 45% of people with penises surveyed by Psychology of Men and Masculinities, their penis doesn’t size up. Around 68% of them said their erection measured between 4.6 and 6 inches while only 2.5% boasted more than 6.9 inches. So, can a person with 5 inches match a person with 7 in the bedroom?
The Vagina Matters Just as Much as the Penis
Finding the right phallic fit isn’t just about the size of the penis. It’s also about the height of their partner's cervix. The vaginal canal is usually between 7 to 12 cm long, depending on how high or low the cervix sits. If you can insert your longest finger all the way in, your cervix is high, meaning you’ll probably appreciate a longer penis that can reach your sweet spot—this is especially important if you enjoy the thudding sensation against your cervix. (For the record, some vagina-havers hate this.)
This means it could be easier for someone with a longer penis to give certain vagina-havers more pleasure, but what about girth? When a vagina is relaxed and empty, the vaginal walls are compressed against each other. When you insert something, like a penis or a finger, the walls will bend and move so that space is created for it. If you insert your finger into your vagina and press it against the walls, you’ll feel how soft, moist, and accommodating they are. When the finger is removed, the vagina returns to its compressed state.
You’d therefore think that penis width wouldn’t make much difference. You’d be wrong. The vaginal walls have pressure-sensitive rather than touch-sensitive nerve endings, so the more “full up” a person feels, the more fun they’ll have with penetrative sex—hence a long, skinny penis is generally not as pleasurable as a shorter, fatter one. A thicker dick allows a vagina-haver to feel what’s known as “containment,” or the feeling of fullness when something is pressed against the vaginal wall.
So: Size does matter, at least when it comes to the very specific act of p-in-v penetration. But people with especially short or skinny penises need not worry, since 90% of people with vaginas say they rarely experience orgasm through vaginal penetration alone. What’s more, 84% of people with vaginas say they are happy with the size of their partner’s penis. (Whether they’re telling the truth or simply saying what they think they should say is another matter.)
Most people with clitorises can achieve orgasm regardless of penis size, meaning sex isn’t all about penetration. Sadly, however, if a person has a large penis, they might have learned that a big dick is all they need to make their partners scream—yet they might be screaming in pain, since a penis that’s too big will not sit comfortably inside the vagina regardless of how stretchy it is. Porn has much to answer for in terms of unrealistic sexual expectations, so how are these affecting our real-life sexual experiences?
The emphasis that western culture places on body shape has long been an issue for women and non-binary people. The equal emphasis placed on cis men’s sexual performance is damaging for people with penises, too. “For as long as sex has been discussed, from the Bible to sex education, we’re taught that the man penetrates the woman, and often does so in a position that is active while the woman is passive,” psychosexual therapist Catriona Boffard explains. “Plus, it’s the norm to talk about the male orgasm, and not the female. Almost all of us have grown up putting men first in the race for pleasure.”
Not that it’s much of a race. A penis-haver needs around three minutes to achieve orgasm on average, while a vagina-haver needs anything between 20 and 90 minutes, says relationship therapist Silva Neves. Yet cis men might not actually be having that much fun since this cultural idea of “masculinity” can restrict their experience. “The emphasis is on performance, on being the one to take control and penetrate,” Neves explains. “But there are other ways to be masculine, and to enjoy sex, and this becomes easier to understand if a man can explore his body beyond his penis.”
Research says traditional gender roles and expectations reduce sexual pleasure as they encourage cis women to “surrender” while cis men must “earn” their manhood. Mixing up these gender roles, however, can be sexually liberating as well as a loving act between a consensual couple. Maybe you could introduce anal play to really mix things up as you explore sex beyond the penis.
“When a man understands how penetration feels,” Neves says, “he can better understand his female partner’s experience, which can bring people closer together.” Boffard agrees: “Sex is the most vulnerable state we find ourselves in since we have to let go emotionally and psychologically. For men to experience this during a sexual encounter might enable them to become more comfortable with both vulnerability and breaking gender rules.”
All cis men would benefit from exploring sexual pleasure beyond vaginal penetration, no matter what size their penis is. Oral sex, anal play, and masturbation with hands or toys can help to emancipate real life experiences from the size-based fantasies that overshadow them. Size may matter, anatomically speaking, but good sex (plus orgasm) is about communication, compassion, exploration, and respect—no matter your body shape or penis size.