Most condoms manufactured and distributed today consist of a “standard” length and width.1 While the exact dimensions vary slightly across condom companies, there seems to be a widespread assumption that condoms (like baseball caps) are “one size fits all.” As some evidence of this, if you have ever been to an event where free condoms were handed out, did you notice different stations giving out condoms for differently sized penises? Probably not. At events like this, the only way the condoms differ meaningfully is usually in terms of novelty (i.e., color, flavor, packaging, etc.). This “one size fits all” mentality has increasinly been recognized as a factor that may be undermining safe sex practices because when condoms do not fit well, men are less likely to wear them. As some evidence of this, let’s consider the findings from a new study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.
In this study, 463 gay and bisexual men were recruited at a series of community events held in New York City.2 The men represented a relatively diverse group in terms of age (ranging from 18-83) and race (61% White, 39% non-White). Each of the men completed a written survey in privacy in which they were asked questions about their penis length and girth (i.e., circumference), their experiences with condom fit and feel, as well as their condom use habits and experiences with condom breakage.
Over half of the men (51.4%) reported a penis length between 6-8 inches (15-20 cm) and a circumference of 4-6 inches (10-15 cm). That said, I don’t know how much stock I would put in these numbers because the penis measurement question was rather imprecise, with subjects being given only given six categories to choose from (e.g., for length it was < 2 in., 2-4 in., 4-6 in., 6-8 in. 8-10 in., and 10+ in.). It’s highly likely that most men around 6 inches in length (the number most scientists consider to be average) self-selected into the 6-8 inch club instead of the 4-6 inch club, so there may be a little overestimating going on here.
As for the question of condom fit, most men reported that the average condom is “just right” for them in terms of length (71.7%) and circumference (61.3%); however, that leaves a substantial minority who felt that condoms usually fit poorly, with most of those men reporting that the typical condom is either too short and/or too tight. Along these same lines, almost one-third of the men reported an experience with a broken condom (31.7%) and even more reported problems with a condom slipping off (42.2%) during the past three months. Researchers also found that men with longer penises were more likely to have experiences with condom breakage.
One other finding worth noting is that participants with larger penises and those who felt as though the average condom was too tight were significantly more likely to have engaged in unprotected anal intercourse recently.
Together, these findings tell us that condoms are not a “one size fits all” device and that a substantial number of men have difficulty finding condoms that fit well. Moreover, the results suggest that ill-fitting condoms may contribute to riskier sexual practices because those who had the most problems with condom fit were the least likely to take sexual precautions. Of course, these data are limited and the results should not be generalized to all men, or even all gay and bisexual men for that matter. However, they do suggest that efforts to promote safer sex may be more effective to the extent that a wider range of condom sizes become widely available and are easy to acccess.
1Herbenick, D., & Reece, M. (2006). Penis length and circumference as contributors to condom breakage, slippage, and perceived discomfort. European Journal of Sexual Health, 15(S1), 35.
2Grov, C., Well, B. E., & Parsons, J. T. (2013). Self-reported penis size and experiences with condoms among gay and bisexual men. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42, 313-322.
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