Scientists have finally answered the age-old question that has plagued sexual politics since time immemorial: do the aesthetics of penis size matter to women? A small caveat: the phalluses in question are flaccid CGI penises on hairless, silver models of a men, and the experimental subject group is comprised of 105 Australian women. This little hitch has not stopped news sources from hailing the study's findings as definitive, because since when has an evolutionary pseudo-science experiment's lack of reliability ever prevented the media from making stereotypical generalizations about gender? (Literally never.)
"Science proves women like men with bigger penises," reads a deadline on NBC news. The phrase "Size Does Matter" is featured in the headlines of articles from TIME, The Huffington Post UK, Medical News Today, and Business Insider, among others. "Women Prefer Bigger Penises, May Have Shaped Evolution," alleges National Geographic. "The Final Word On Penis Size?" asks Science.
The experiment, however, is hardly the final word on anything, especially not on evolution. The procedure consisted of biologist Brian Mautz and his team asking 105 Australian women to each look at 53 life-size computer-generated images of opalescent gray men, each of which had a different height and shoulder-to-hip ratio (ranging from "the dancing baby from Ally McBeal after puberty" to "extremely virile and tall man"), as well as varying flaccid penis lengths. Each woman was asked to rate each gray-skinned, completely bald man on an attractiveness scale of 1-7. The team's findings are as follows:
Surprisingly, larger penis size and greater height had almost equivalent positive effects on male attractiveness. Our results support the hypothesis that female mate choice could have driven the evolution of larger penises in humans. More broadly, our results show that precopulatory sexual selection can play a role in the evolution of genital traits.
How is it scientifically sound to extrapolate something presumably evolutionarily hard-wired into all womankind from surveying a small group of women from a very specific cultural, geographical, and historical location? The idea that women prefer larger penises is far from unheard-of or revelatory, but to trace the origin of this alleged predilection to the cradle of human evolution is to engage in a lazy form of pseudo-science that reflects, rather than reveals the reason for, contemporary attitudes about sex and gender. (Side note — the ancient Greeks thought that small and thin penises were preferable; they saw a smaller phallus as more elegant and aesthetically pleasing, which goes to show that admiring well-endowed men is not necessarily an innate human trait).
While it may not seem like that big of a deal, science that presents constructed notions of gender as an objective fact tends to perpetuate and legitimize sexist attitudes. When the media spins evolutionary psychology's findings as definitive, it reinforces the belief that men and women are hard-wired in specific ways (usually opposing, often justifying hierarchical gender roles). This is the same kind of reporting that lead CNN to claim that women vote differently when they're on their period. It's responsible for the circulation of studies that claim that men are hard-wired to sexually harass women and that rape is an evolutionary strategy. More trivially, it's the reason articles are published about the "fact" that girls prefer pink to blue because of a genetic predisposition — despite the fact that blue was originally marketed as the feminine color, whereas pink was meant to be masculine.
The belief that a scientific study of gender roles can be completely objective is specious, because the way in which we comprehend gender relies on an assumed opposition between masculine and feminine which is not innocent of structures of dominance.