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Are you a penis whisperer?

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There’s probably no part of your body that you spend more time thinking about than your penis. If you’re a gay guy, you also spend quite a bit of time also thinking about the penis of other guys.

But how well do you know your penis? Here’s some penis-related facts you might find useful in a pub quiz or if you’re running out of dinner party conversation.

What are the bits that make up the penis?

There’s three key parts that you need to be familiar with.

Radix. Corpus. Epithelium.

  • The root of the penis — this is referred to as the radix. The radix is the attached part, consisting of the bulb of penis in the middle and the crus of the penis, one on either side of the bulb. It lies within the superficial perineal pouch.
  • The body of the penis — this is referred to as the corpus. The corpus has two surfaces: dorsal — posterosuperior in the erect penis, and ventral or urethral — facing downwards and backwards in the flaccid penis. The ventral surface is marked by a groove in a lateral direction.
  • The epithelium of the penis consists of the shaft skin, the foreskin, and the preputial mucosa on the inside of the foreskin and covering the glans penis. The epithelium is not attached to the underlying shaft so it’s free to glide to and fro.
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What’s the structure of the penis?

A man’s penis is made up of three columns of tissue — two corpora cavernosa lie next to each other on the dorsal side and one corpus spongiosum lies between them on the ventral side.

A man’s penis is made up of three columns of tissue.

The enlarged and bulbous-shaped end of the corpus spongiosum forms the glans penis, which supports the foreskin, or prepuce, a loose fold of skin that in adults can retract to expose the glans. The area on the underside of the penis, where the foreskin is attached, is called the frenum, or frenulum. The rounded base of the glans is called the corona. The perineal raphe is the noticeable line along the underside of the penis.

The perineal raphe is the noticeable line along the underside of the penis.

The urethra, which is the last part of the urinary tract, traverses the corpus spongiosum, and its opening, known as the meatus, lies on the tip of the glans penis. It’s a passage both for urine and for the ejaculation of semen.

The raphe is the visible ridge between the lateral halves of the penis, found on the ventral or underside of the penis, running from the meatus — the opening of the urethra — across the scrotum to the perineum, which is the area between the scrotum and the anus.

The human penis differs from those of most other mammals, as it has no baculum, or erectile bone, and instead relies entirely on engorgement with blood to reach its erect state. It can’t be withdrawn into the groin, and it’s larger than average in the animal kingdom in proportion to body mass.

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How big should a penis be?

Measurements vary, with studies that rely on self-measurement reporting a significantly higher average than those with a health professional measuring. A 2015 review of 15,521 men — measured by health professionals — concluded that the average length of an erect human penis is 13.12 cm (5.17 inches) long, while the average circumference of an erect human penis is 11.66 cm (4.59 inches).

The average length of an erect human penis is 13.12 cm.

On entering puberty, the penis, scrotum and testicles will enlarge toward maturity. During the process, pubic hair grows above and around the penis. A large-scale study concluded that penile growth is typically complete not later than age 17, and possibly earlier.

Penile growth is typically complete not later than age 17.

Penis size difference is most likely caused by genetics, but there are some studies that suggest that environmental factors such as fertility medications, diet, or exposure to chemical pollution could have an impact.

How do erections work?

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An erection is the stiffening and rising of the penis, which occurs during sexual arousal, though it can also happen in non-sexual situations. Spontaneous erections frequently occur during adolescence due to friction with clothing, a full bladder or large intestine, hormone fluctuations, nervousness, and undressing in a non-sexual situation. It’s also normal for erections to occur during sleep and upon waking.

The primary physiological mechanism that brings about erection is the autonomic dilation of arteries supplying blood to the penis, which allows more blood to fill the three spongy erectile tissue chambers in the penis, causing it to lengthen and stiffen. The now-engorged erectile tissue presses against and constricts the veins that carry blood away from the penis. More blood enters than leaves the penis until an equilibrium is reached where an equal volume of blood flows into the dilated arteries and out of the constricted veins; a constant erectile size is achieved at this equilibrium. The scrotum will usually tighten during erection.

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How does an ejaculation work?

Ejaculation is the ejecting of semen from the penis, and is usually accompanied by orgasm. A series of muscular contractions delivers semen, containing male gametes known as sperm cells or spermatozoa, from the penis. It’s usually the result of sexual stimulation, which may include prostate stimulation. Ejaculation may occur spontaneously during sleep — this is known as a nocturnal emission or wet dream.

Ejaculation has two phases — emission and ejaculation proper. The emission phase of the ejaculatory reflex is under control of the sympathetic nervous system, while the ejaculatory phase is under control of a spinal reflex at the level of the spinal nerves. A refractory period succeeds the ejaculation, and sexual stimulation precedes it.

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Photo by Jesper Aggergaard on Unsplash
Photo by Jesper Aggergaard on Unsplash

Are we living in a post-HIV world?
In recent years we’ve seen a seismic shift in the effectiveness of treatment for HIV, as well as the emergence of PrEP — medication that prevents you from acquiring HIV.

This combination of factors has contributed towards a dramatic change in the attitude of gay men towards HIV, health, and sex.

It’s been difficult for public health policy to keep up, but it’s also difficult for older gay men like me to get our heads around the changing landscape of sex.

Official reports indicate that AIDS has killed over 35 million people worldwide. It’s estimated that around the world there are currently over 37 million people living with HIV.

In June of 1981, when the beginnings of the HIV pandemic were first being identified, I was approaching my ninth birthday. Lucky I guess, too young to be impacted by the first devastating waves of the virus that killed so many young gay men.

As I was beginning to discover sex, the public health messages very strongly articulated that sex without a condom equalled death.

It’s a bit hard to describe how that constant fear of infection and death shapes your view and experience of sex. I guess I’ve got no way of knowing what things would have been like without that — I like to think that it might have been something like San Francisco in the 70s, or a long, lust-filled summer on Fire Island.

I survived. I was careful. I was lucky.

It wasn’t until I saw the 2003 documentary The Gift that I became aware of the fetishisation of HIV, and a growing movement of men who embraced the risk and health consequences of fucking without condoms, of letting guys cum in you, the thrill of raw, or ‘bareback’ sex between men. It was an uninhibited hedonism best captured by the porn of Paul Morris and Treasure Island Media.

It’s easy to judge and disapprove of risk-taking behaviour, but there was something incredibly compelling about this type of no-holds-barred sex — no fear, no care for consequences.

The improvements in medication and the emergence of PrEP have now made bareback sex the norm. Not only in porn — where it’s now highly unusual to see anyone using a condom — but also in everyday life.

Health professionals sensibly remind us that condoms are still worth wearing as they protect us from a whole range of sexually transmitted infections, not just HIV, but the reality is that for many men sex is better when you don’t have to wear a condom.

For me, it’s a bit of a mind-trip that testing positive for HIV is no longer a death-sentence, that you can have sex without a condom and not worry if one of you might have the virus. That you can have no-holds-barred sex, with no fear, and no care for consequences.

It’s fantastic that today’s young gay guys, who are just beginning to discover and explore sex, don’t have to worry about HIV. Obviously they need to learn about it, they need to have access to PrEP, and they need to understand the full gamut of sexual health, but it’s just part of life.

Let’s not forget our history, let’s not forget the people we’ve lost, but let’s be thankful that young guys today are growing up in a world that’s something a bit like San Francisco in the 70s, or a long, lust-filled summer on Fire Island.

We may now be living in a post-HIV world.

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