Why Are Evangelicals Googling About Penis Size?
A new academic study looks at the shame gendered by a religious system of enforced masculinity
In a tweet, social scientist Samuel L. Perry posed a thesis: Evangelical subculture fosters masculine insecurity, especially when it comes to a self-perception of penis size. “But how to study penis insecurity?” Perry wrote. If you tried to survey people, he thought, everyone would lie. “But NOBODY lies to Google.”
This month, Perry and Andrew L. Whitehead, sociologists from University of Oklahoma and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis respectively, published a study in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (JSSR) in which they found the preponderance of evangelicals in a given state consistently predicts greater numbers of Google searches for terms such as “male enhancement,” “penis pump,” and “penis enlargement.”
While at first blush, the study might prompt guffaws at Christians privately searching ways to grow their girth, the factors Perry and Whitehead point to within evangelical subculture belie more troublesome mechanisms of warped manhood. When Robert Aaron Long, the suspect in the massacre that resulted in eight dead in Atlanta, was arrested, he told the police he had a “sexual addiction.” He’d blocked several pornography sites on his computer and was reportedly fixated on guilt and lust. He attended a conservative, Baptist church and had sought treatment at a Christian addiction center.
Certainly, insecurity over penis size and shame over porn usage or sex are not identical problems, but they exist in the same constellation of shame bred by a subculture that requires a narrow understanding of what it means to be a man. Sometimes the shame poisons inward; sometimes it lashes out.
The majority of conservative, white evangelicals believe in some form of complementarianism — the idea that God made men and women physically different, with complementary but differing roles where men have positions of authority and headship. In this way, Perry and Whitehead write in their study, within evangelicalism “whether or not a person has a penis is expected to orient social arrangements and hierarchies.” For people who grow up in conservative, Christian communities, the idea of masculinity is central. “What a man is like, what a woman is like, and how we know what women and men should be like is central to understanding your own identity, the community’s identity, and how power is distributed within organizations, within marriages,” Whitehead told me by phone. The way a man performs masculinity becomes a sign of faith embodied, and within evangelicalism, there have been decades of messages insisting Christian men must not be soft.
Achieving what’s deemed “proper masculinity” is a means of separating good, Christian men from other cultural influences. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, warned in 2001 that God designed boys with a “masculine will to power” but that liberal feminism aims to make men “feminized, emasculated, and wimpified.” Christian authors like John Eldredge, whose books have sold millions, encouraged men, made in their warrior God’s image, to find their “warrior hearts” and respond to God’s invitation to battle. Eldredge also wrote how all men are haunted by a sense of inescapable insecurity, at least in part, tied to fears about their penis size.
Pastors like Douglas Wilson define men’s role in (assumed heterosexual) sex as penetrative, colonizing, conquest. Promise Keepers emphasized the strength and hardness of men’s bodies. With a penchant for rhetoric that ranges from salty to abusive, megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll denounced men who relinquished their masculinity, writing on his website: “We live in a completely pussified nation.”
As Kristin Kobes Du Mez describes in her book about Christian masculinity, Jesus and John Wayne, Driscoll — who was such a fan of Braveheart he used the pseudonym “William Wallace II” — once handed men at one of his services two stones, telling them God was “giving them their balls back to get the courage to do kingdom work.” He directed blame at the biblical Adam for having plunged humanity into “hell/feminism” by relinquishing his “delegated authority as king of the planet” by listening to his wife. “Every man since has been pussified,” Driscoll claimed. In this construct, Perry clarified, Adam’s great sin is understood as passivity. He followed his wife’s impulses instead of leading her.
The way a man performs masculinity becomes a sign of faith embodied.
There’s a clear conception of what a “real” man of faith should be. While there are certainly other voices within evangelicalism, some of the loudest in recent decades used phallic symbolism to valorize male strength. They castigated Christian men as emasculated if they embraced egalitarianism between genders. Demonstrations of manly domination became not just signs of power but of spiritual worthiness.
This puts Ted Cruz in another light at this year’s CPAC, attempting to embody Mel Gibson’s William Wallace with an animal yell of “Freedooooom!” It’s not just a movie line or awkward viral moment, it’s the language of evangelical masculinity reduced to two, prolonged, sweaty syllables.
Other social scientists have demonstrated the degree to which a geographic area containing a greater proportion of a certain religious tradition can influence factors such as cohabitation rates, teen birth rates, crime, gender attitudes, same-sex policy outcomes, attitudes concerning sex education, and population health.
In their JSSR study, Perry and Whitehead included multiple state-level controls including gender, political ideology, age, education, percent married or Black. (This was in part to ensure what they were seeing wasn’t a result of some other factor, for example, a habit of white men in general.) Their mathematical models showed that evangelical adherence rate was the leading predictor of searches within a state for “penis pump” and the second leading predictor of searches for “penis enlargement” and “ ExtenZe,” a natural supplement that claims to enhance male sexual performance.
They additionally found a higher percentage of a state that is African American or politically conservative is associated with male enhancement searches. Contrary to some claims by detractors when the study published that they’d done it as some sort of anti-religion slam piece, Perry and Whitehead made clear these correlations could point to similar cultural messages about masculinity and physical prowess within other groups, although evangelicalism and conservative political leanings track closely.
Perry and Whitehead acknowledge that cultural mindsets bleed into a broader community, and their data does not definitively show it’s the evangelical men themselves making the searches. It is possible that in states with high numbers of evangelicals it’s women in their communities, who have absorbed phallocentric attitudes, making the searches. Maybe it’s a pervasive cultural influence in which evangelical promotion of unattainable, phallocentric masculinity makes the neighbors wonder if they measure up.
Other work indicates that shame and self-doubt likely do live within evangelical men themselves. In another study published in Socius, Whitehead and Perry found that despite survey data showing evangelicalism, in general, does not correlate with watching pornography, they found that evangelicals who live in conservative states do watch pornography more frequently than evangelicals in more liberal states or nonevangelicals. Perry notes that 70% of evangelical men — way more than any other religious group — say they hide their porn, “suggesting that they’re very much embarrassed by it.”
In a recent piece for Slate about the Atlanta shooter’s claims of “sex addiction,” Kelsy Burke, a sociology professor at the University of Nebraska, details how a Christian industry with hundreds of products and resources has evolved to help Christians overcome reputed sex and pornography addictions. This industry is embedded within a “larger effort led by religious conservatives to criminalize pornography and crackdown on sex work.” While the Atlanta shootings are clearly more complex than faith and self-identified sex addiction — there are namely, important racial elements — since those deadly killings, activists in this corner argue that if men aren’t given help to avoid these temptations, they may act as the shooter did. This links hypersexuality to violence and aggression, and as Burke points out there’s a lack of reputable evidence to support that linkage. It is rhetoric that creates an air of inevitable horror; if men aren’t taught to absolve themselves of this moral flaw, the result could be volatile.
Shame is also gendered in evangelism. In the duality of purity culture, women are responsible for covering themselves lest they tempt men into lustful thought or deed, and men are led to believe they consume pornography or have sex outside marriage or think about sex because they are unable to contain their sexual urges. In this worldview, if women entice a man or behave sexually outside of marriage, “it’s a double shame,” says Perry, “because not only are you violating God’s plan for sexuality, but you’re also sinning like a man, exercising sexual agency.”
Men who don’t live up to the Big Man narratives have one sort of shame. But within evangelicalism so-called sex addiction or pornography addiction plays both sides. It’s sin that can be an indicator that a man possesses a dose of requisite masculine virility.
There’s a degree to which going before a group of other evangelical men and admitting struggling with lust is validating, “because you struggle with a man’s sin. It proves you are red-blooded,” says Perry. So to some extent claiming sex or porn addiction means “you’re some kind of sex beast with these out-of-control, strong, manly urges.” Yet it leaves a person feeling dirty, Perry continues. At once, it’s because of one’s (God-given) manhood those urges exist as they do; but not keeping them under control is a violation of one’s core Christian belief. There’s a tension between living out the idealized aggressive masculinity (coded sexually) and at the same time controlling oneself, a different kind of physical mastery and strength.
Although evangelicals who attend church regularly consume less pornography than average Americans, they feel guiltier about doing so. Drawing from the Public Discourse and Ethics Survey, Perry points out the 42.9% of born-again Christian men who say they have never watched pornography alone but nevertheless also say they are addicted to it.
Due to the way sexual sin is elevated above other ideas of sin within evangelicalism — what Perry calls “sexual exceptionalism” — many evangelical men evaluate how they are doing spiritually based upon whether they’ve looked at porn or masturbated recently. This, Perry thinks, is where the shame and hiding come in, “a self-definition of a real Christian as somebody who has conquered and perfected, is in control of their sexual urges. If you’re not doing that, then you really have failed.”
I asked Perry about this strange badland in the Venn overlap between evangelical messages concerning masculinity. There’s the pressure to be a big, strong, virile man, which leads to greater online searches for penis enhancement. But there’s also a pall of lusty powerlessness cast upon men; watching porn, or even just seeing a woman in a tank top could send him into fits of sinful thought. How could a system that assumes headship and authority based upon gender cast men as so easily made morally weak?
Perry points to the language used in Christian sex recovery communities where people describe themselves as “powerless to their addictions,” common language for addiction and recovery groups. The admission of helplessness is often described as “wrestling with my flesh” or “struggling with my flesh.” It’s still linguistically about a masculine sort of fight, but the language underscores powerlessness, loss of control. As if one’s own agency has already been lost.
As Perry and Burke wrote in Religious News Service, the growth of sex and porn addiction rhetoric among evangelicals leaves white, cisgender, Christian men in a position to “admit to being ‘powerless’ over their pornography addiction without actually losing their positions of power.” Shame, in this context, is multiform. Behind it is an impulse to claim power.
It’s a matter how long the menace of that shame turns inward. While sexuality is not a harbinger of violence, shame can be. When men feel “masculine discrepancy stress,” they are more likely to compensate in ways that extend beyond attempts at phallic self-improvement, Perry and Whitehead warn. They are more likely to lash out psychologically, physically, and sexually.