Discover more from Aporia
Does Africa need larger condoms?
Only 3.8% of African women use condoms and only 30% use contraceptives at all. The region’s high fertility rate means that more Sub-Saharans live in poverty today than in 1990.
Written by George Francis.
Africa has a condom problem. Only 3.8% of African women use condoms and only 30% use contraceptives at all. Which may explain the extraordinary rates of STIs in some African countries. 18% of adults in Botswana and South Africa have HIV. The region’s high fertility rate means that more Sub-Saharans live in poverty today than in 1990 – despite falling poverty rates. 40% of people earn less than $1.90 a day. Yet the population is expected to hit 3.5 billion in 2100.
In 2013, Bill Gates ran a competition to design the “next generation” of condoms. Eleven winners were awarded $100,000 to kickstart the implementation of new designs. If condoms were more pleasurable, perhaps more Africans would use them?
The proposals of the awardees were interesting, to say the least. One suggestion was a condom made of cow tendons to create a more realistic, fleshy feel. Another winning condom had handles for ergonomic fitting. There was a heat conducting, graphene condom to ensure the user could keep his cool during the act of passion. A design known as “Daddy’s little helper” would use a “nanoparticle” coating for lubrication.
The winning ideas represented that blue sky thinking adored by foundations, TED talk speakers and those business/self-help books sold in airports. Unsurprisingly, ten years later all of the condoms have failed to hit the market.
I may be somewhat late to the competition, but Mr. Gates, I have a simpler suggestion. What if condoms are the wrong size? What if Africans need larger ones?
We’ve all heard the rumour. Black men are well endowed. “Once you go Black, you never go back.” We even have a slang word for this stereotype, “mandingo”, a black man with a large penis. The name is derived from the eponymous 1957 book about a forbidden fornication between a White woman and an African slave.
Despite the stereotype, Sub-Saharan Africa imports 90% of its condoms, and these appear to be sold in European sizes. Expat friends tell me the condoms they get there are the same as the ones that they get back home. Although I have tried contacting condom manufacturers to find the size of condoms in different countries, I’ve had no luck in getting answers. Either larger African condoms are a tightly guarded secret, which has somehow evaded the investigation of journalists, or more likely, they really are sold at the same size.
Anecdotes about the size of the Black penis can be found in anonymous online forums, but also in the work of many scientists and anthropologists who lived in a more honest age.
Oxford biologist John Baker (1900-1984) wrote that the Nilotic people, who range from South Sudan to Tanzania, have penises that are “very long and rather thick”. The French scientist Paul Topinard (1830-1911) observed during his dissections that Black men had larger penises. In Untrodden Fields in Anthropology (1896), a book reissued by the American Anthropological Society, the anonymous ‘French Army Surgeon’ told stories from his 30 years of work as a doctor in the French colonial empire. He claimed that “in no branch of the human race are the male organs more developed than in the African Negro.”
In addition to these scientists, we can ask the real experts – sex workers – for their opinion. A colleague and I surveyed over a hundred sex workers on their experiences with White and Black men. 60% of the women stated that Black men have penises which were “larger than average”, but only 12% said the same for Whites. Practical experience only seems to affirm received opinion.
The mere existence of this stereotype is no proof of its veracity. But we might wonder how this rumour came about if there was no merit in the claim. Psychologists have confirmed the accuracy of so many stereotypes that a chapter in the Handbook of Prejudice, Stereotyping, and Discrimination is titled the ‘Unbearable Accuracy of Stereotypes’. The only stereotype that scientists have shown to be false is that blondes are dumb, and even then we only know it is false in the case of natural blondes.
We might expect that stereotype to have arisen from petty jealousies. And indeed, an alternative explanation for the stereotype of the Black penis is that it was concocted by racists. The proto-critical race theorist Frantz Fanon put forward such an explanation. In his autoethnography Black Skin White Masks (1952), he states:
Still on the genital level, when a white man hates black men, is he not yielding to a feeling of impotence or of sexual inferiority? Since his ideal is an infinite virility, is there not a phenomenon of diminution in relation to the Negro, who is viewed as a penis symbol? Is the lynching of the Negro not a sexual revenge? We know how much of sexuality there is in all cruelties, tortures, beatings. One has only to reread a few pages of the Marquis de Sade to be easily convinced of the fact. Is the Negro’s superiority real? Everyone knows that it is not. But that is not what matters. The prelogical thought of the phobic has decided that such is the case.
Although the text is characteristically unclear, Fanon seems to suggest that belief in the size of the male penis is a myth perpetuated by envious, racist White men. A quick peruse through Google Scholar indicates that some Critical Theorists still believe Fanon’s claim. In Textual Practice, a journal for ‘radical literary studies’, one article describes the issue as the “paranoic primal fantasy of the huge black penis.”
Would it not be more logical for racists to claim that Blacks have small genitalia? Regardless, only science (rather than speculation) will get us closer to the truth. Where is the hard evidence?
Unfortunately, if you look for systematic data on the topic, it’s difficult to find anything reliable. In June, media outlets such as the Daily Mail, the New York Post and Men’s Health publicised a ranking of penis size by country. The news stories even include beautiful maps demonstrating which country has the largest genitalia.
So some scientists really have measured racial differences in penis size? Not so fast. The newspapers give their source as the website World Data, who in turn give their source as the website www.penissize.org. That wonderfully named site does not give any sources for their data! But in case you’re interested, it does have some curious advertisements for penis enlargement…
Such hoaxes are common. The Daily Mail has fallen for the same scam at least three times before, sometimes with exactly the same fake data. A different national penis size hoax even fooled academics into publishing papers with it.
Is there any hard data we can rely on? Hundreds of papers have been published measuring penis size. So surely we can just take all the measures of Black penises and average them? Unfortunately, there's no standardised approach to measurement. Do you measure the flaccid length or the erect length? Do you make an ‘intracavernous injection’ to administer a vasodilator, ensuring all the erections are of similar quality? Do you call for volunteers to be measured, or medical patients who may not even be fully functioning down there?
A meta-analysis of 55,000 penises tried to combine these methods. The authors did find erect penis size tends to be larger in Africa. But because the methods and samples were so varied, the confidence interval for the African penis was enormous (12.50–17.26 cm). As such, the largest meta-analysis does not tell us much at all.
Some scientists are so naive as to actually ask men to take measurements themselves. When this approach is used, black men do seem to report having a larger penis. This could mean they are in fact bigger, or that they’re just more cocksure.
A meta-analysis from 2015 used a stringent set of exclusion criteria to attain a more precise measurement of the penis. The authors looked only at studies where measurements were taken by healthcare professionals, where the penis was measured from the root to tip, where there was a reasonable sample size, and where none of the data were from men with medical problems associated with their penis. They could only find one relevant study of the Black penis, from medical students in Nigeria in 1986. With a length of 8.16cm and circumference of 8.83cm, the result was not particularly large. But one study is far from definitive, nor obviously comparable to measurements taken in different environments (with better nutrition, say).
Since the 2015 meta-analysis, there has been one study that measured Blacks and Whites in the same environment with the same method. A 2017 paper in the International Journal of Impotence Research, reports measurements from 167 Blacks and 283 Whites, after a routine medical appointment at a Brazilian Urologic clinic. The doctors found that Blacks had a fully stretched flaccid length of 16.5cm compared to 15.8cm in Whites, a significant difference with a p-value less than 0.001. This corresponds to an average penis size of about six inches. Although such estimates may look suspicious, the authors’ technique tends to produce a sizable length for all races – by measuring from the “pubo-penile junction, depressing the pubic fat until the pubis bone, to the tip of the glans.”
In other words, the best estimate of the Black-White difference in penis size really do show Blacks to be better endowed. With the exception of the mediocre results of Nigerian medical students from 1986, the evidence supports the stereotype.
But should we even take the stereotype seriously? Why, indeed, should the penis differ morphologically between the races? Would humans separated by tens of thousands of years evolve, by selection or the dumb luck of genetic drift, to have different genitalia? Well, we already have well-documented evidence for other racial differences in genitalia and sexual morphology.
While we cannot be certain that Blacks have larger penises than Whites, it is known that Asians have smaller penises. In 2018, after Zimbabwe bought Chinese condoms, their health minister complained that the product was too small for his countrymen. And according to the Shanghai Daily, expats frequently complain to local manufacturers that the condoms are too small. The newspaper further said that insiders at companies like Durex had confirmed that they sell a product with a smaller length and girth in China, compared to what they sell in the West.
The earliest source I can find for this discovery comes from two doctors working at the Manchester Royal Infirmary in 1992. After finding men of certain races reported problems with the size of condoms, the doctors wrote to the British Standards Institution to inquire into the range of dimensions available. The regulatory body responded stating there were two sizes available at the time, a standard model and a smaller one intended for “Far Eastern Consumers.”
As the Manchester doctors discovered, differences in penis size have real consequences. In one study of British men, it was found that 13% of White men find condoms are too tight, compared to 33% of Black men. Of those who reported condoms being too tight, 68% reported splitting, as compared to only 52% among those who did not find them too tight.
Africa’s condom problem is unlikely to be entirely explained by size. Nevertheless, the small condoms from Europe are likely to cause discomfort, disuse and breakage in Africans. This in turn is likely to increase fertility and the prevalence of STIs. Mr Gates, if you are reading this, instead of funding fantastical designs made of graphene or cow tendons, you should make a larger condom. To begin this project we need to start with the basics – getting the measurements right.
Consider supporting Aporia with a $6.99 monthly subscription and following us on Twitter.