Fear of a Big Penis

In which I ponder a certain kind of heroine reaction to a certain kind of hero endowment.

*This is one of those adult only posts*

If there’s a sex scene in a romance novel, there’s almost most certainly a reference to the large size of the hero’s penis. Interestingly, this is true regardless of whether the sex scene itself is explicit.

Before I go any further, it might be worth asking why romance heroes are so well endowed. If some aspect of romance is sexual fantasy, it may seem obvious. But real women don’t seem to care too much about this sort of thing. Five years ago, Candy Tan of Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books hypothesized that (1) some part of it is feminine fantasy, pure and simple, (2) being big is another way the hero stands out from other men, especially past lovers the heroine may have had, and, finally, (3) large penises in romance signal the hyper-masculinity that heroes are supposed to possess. Tan’s explanation works for me.

But what about the heroine’s reaction to The Big Reveal? It’s often fear, nervousness, shock, or awe. Perhaps a lot of that reaction can be attributed to the fact that so many romance heroines are virgins. But think about it: why does it make sense that a penis — even a big one  — should be terrifying to anyone, ever? And, besides, even experienced heroines have the same reaction.

Some examples:

Too Wicked to Wed, by Cheryl Holt (2006), Historical virgin heroine:

Heroine: “I’m not sure about this.”
Hero: “You don’t need to be sure. You just need to relax.”
Heroine: “Relax! Are you mad? It’s too big; it will never fit!”

Total Surrender, by Cheryl Holt (2002). Regency virgin:

“I’m going to climb out of the bath. I certainly don’t mind if you watch, but I hardly suppose you’re prepared for the sight.”

Her eyes dropped imperceptibly, and she encountered all. Like a supplicant before a shrine, she pushed at the remaining material, baring him inch by glorious inch, until he was totally naked, and the reality was like nothing she’d imagined …

“Are all of these … these … cocks so large?”

Your Scandalous Ways, by Loretta Chase (2008). Regency courtesan:

She heard the rustle of clothing, as he bared himself. He pressed against her and she gasped. He was big and hot and she had an instant of panic — absurd panic, as though she were still a girl.

A Touch of Sin, by Susan Johnson (1999). Historical, nonvirgin heroine:

He seemed larger, more intimidating; she’d forgotten how big he was. He was terrifyingly aroused. And she wondered if reason had disappeared from her consciousness that she was willing to have that threatening penis inside of her.

Mackenzie’s Mountain, by Linda Howard (1989). Contemporary western with virgin heroine:

She couldn’t look away from his hard manhood. She was going to take him inside her, and accept his heavy weight as they joined in the act of mating, and she was a little frightened.

He saw it in her eyes as he eased down beside her. “Don’t be afraid,” he whispered…

A Perfect Scandal, by Tina Gabrielle (2010). Historical, featuring a virgin heroine with quick recovery time:

Her eyes widened as his cock jutted from a nest of dark hair. He looked alarmingly large, but with an inherent knowledge as old as Eve, she knew that she was woman enough for him.

Slave to Love, by Nikita Black (2007). Contemp erotic romance with sexually experienced heroine:

‘These pants don’t work for me’, he ground out.
Her gaze wavered, flickered down in sudden awareness to the blatant arousal in serious danger of breaching the low-slung leather waist. Shock rounded those fellatrice lips into an ‘O’ of surprise and she jerked her hands from his groin.
‘Yes, I see what you mean,’ she said, clearing her throat. He could see her struggle to appear undaunted.

Passion, by Lisa Valdez (2006). Historical. Virginal awe, sans fear:

His jaw clenched, and his hands fell away from her. ‘Look at it.’ His words were a demand, but his tone was a plea.
Passion lowered her gaze. Her eyes widened, and she stared hungrily. Protruding from his pants like some giant pagan phallus, his penis jutted massive and heavy in her hand. Threaded with cordlike veins, she watched, entranced…

Beyond Daring, Kathleen O’Reilly. Harlequin Contemporary. Freud could not have said it better than this heroine:

She stroked the velvety steel, feeling it pulse with each touch. All that power in her hands.

Sometimes, it’s the heroes who are afraid for the heroines. Dain, in Loretta Chase’s historical Lord of Scoundrels (1995) is one example (sorry but I could not find the exact page). And here’s Rhage in J.R Ward’s paranormal, Lover Revealed (2008):

Keeping his back to her, he stood up and stripped. With some finessing, he managed to get himself under the covers without flashing her a glimpse of what the front of him was up to. That monstrous arousal was nothing she needed to know about.

I do love reading romance, but whenever I read scenes of shock and awe over the penis, I find myself wondering if there’s a secret Freudian psychotherapy indoctrination room at the annual RWA meeting.

Freud’s take on women was that a crucial event in a girl’s development — something that sets her on the trajectory of femininity, with all of the narcissism, weakness of will, and passivity that implies for Freud — was her first sighting of a penis. Some relevant passages from New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1933) — much of which is here:

…The castration complex of girls is also started by the sight of the genitals of the other sex. They at once notice the difference and, it must be admitted, its significance, too. They feel seriously wronged, often declare that they want to “have something like it too,” and fall a victim to “envy for the penis,” which will leave ineradicable traces on their development and the formation of their character and which will not be surmounted in even the most favorable cases without a severe expenditure of psychical energy.

…One cannot very well doubt the importance of envy for the penis. You may take it as an instance of male injustice if I assert that envy and jealousy play an even greater part in the mental life of women than of men.

…The discovery that she is castrated is a turning-point in a girl’s growth.

…Her self-love is mortified by the comparison with the boy’s far superior equipment and in consequence she renounced her masturbatory satisfaction from her clitoris, repudiates her love for her mother and at the same time not infrequently represses a good part of her sexual trends in general.

You don’t have to be any kind of Freudian to think it may be because the penis symbolizes male power that it seems “natural” to view it in terms of fear and awe, instead of odd looking dangly bits. Hero penises rarely dangle, actually, because flaccidity is pretty much banned from romance novels. Penises are usually characterized by the exact terms used to describe masculinity: powerful, hard, demanding, commanding, etc.

Readers approach books from their own unique perspectives and backgrounds. It so happens that my background is saturated with feminist theory, and while I think I have come a long way understanding various aspects of the romance genre, the terrifying or awe-inspiring penis still stops me dead in my reading tracks. When I find a passage like that, I think something like, “For Pete’s sake! Could this genre buy into phallocentrism in any more obvious way?” How about a little decentralizing of the phallus as the locus of power, or at least as the locus of sex?

It’s more difficult to get past that initial reaction because of my background. It’s easier to read a sex scene in which, upon seeing the hero’s endowment, the heroine smiles and thinks, “YES!!” (Even then … I wonder, given the fact that, at least when they are answering surveys, most women don’t seem to care much about size, “Whose fantasy is this?’.)

But … there must be some other reading of penis fear, right? Got any ideas?

40 responses

  1. Weirdly, I was a tween reading about big penises in romance novels before I saw one, which was flaccid. I was left singularly unimpressed, much less this:

    far superior equipment

    Um. Right.

    Let’s just say the statue of David confused the hell out of me.


  2. @Moriah Jovan: Actually, watching underwear ads last night (on the TV!) I mused to my husband that underwear models all seem to be proportioned the same – smallish weenie when flaccid, big balls. (Husband would be disqualified.) So people who made underwear commercials are obviously under the impression that David is the ideal, and that women will faint if they see too obvious a sausage shape under the Lycra. (Or perhaps that their husbands will rise up in protest at being forced to, er, measure up.)

    I like big dicks to look at when flaccid. Erect, they’re all much the same.


  3. This post has made me think long and hard (no pun intended *g*) about my reaction to these big penis scenes. I don’t know authorial intentions, but I would guess that these virginal heroines mimic the author’s first sexual experience. I can say that looking at photos of a penis or reading a description is definitely different than seeing a penis up close, but I think the fear/anxiety stems from just plain not knowing what to expect–both seeing a real penis for the first time and knowing that something that doesn’t belong to you or isn’t in your control is going to be put inside of your body. You’ve said yes to sex for the first time (you are in control), but then this…thing, lol, sort of takes control. But now I wonder what the actual sex scene means in relation to the penis fear? Or even the after sex scene. Is this a way of women taking control of penises when she makes the hero lose control and focus on her pleasure?


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  5. What survey was this that the women didn’t care about size? LOL.

    Seriously, never really gave it much thought and I’ve been a romance reader for over 15+ years. I do confess that as a reader, a well endowed hero is just sounds more masculine. No surprise there.


  6. I love all these passages and I read EACH ONE! LOL. I was waiting for that Valdez, and you did not disappoint. This is an awesome post. Awesome as a gigantic penis. LOL.

    Maybe the scary big penis drama is a microcosm of the storyline itself. In many romances, the hero is unruly in some way, and then his interaction with the heroine brings him into line a bit (major generalization) but then the penis is the last holdout of the unruly hero – it didn’t get the memo! It’s still unruly. Wild, an untamed stallion in the pants. Ne-e-e-eigh!

    And the heroine has then to tame IT. And, it does not always listen to reason. Unlike the hero who, as we know, listens to reason a good 30% of the time. Also, the penis it isn’t typically scary twice.

    I don’t feel envy for a penis. I do like Freud, tho.

    a secret Freudian psychotherapy indoctrination room at the annual RWA meeting.

    We will go in there together, Jessica. Like Thelma and Louise! Wheeeee!


  7. While it’s true to say that (to paraphrase the immortal words of Eric Clapton) it’s in the way that he uses it, size does matter. I don’t think any girl wishes for a guy with a small penis – average or better is fine (although I’d imagine a very large penis would be somewhat intimidating – reminds me of that Sex and the City episode where even Samantha is daunted and gives up).

    It just doesn’t sound heroic for the hero to have a little weener. Can you imagine? What if the hero in Passion wasn’t well endowed? Would the excerpt be something like this instead?

    “His jaw clenched, and his hands fell away from her. ‘Look at it.’ His words were a demand, but his tone was a plea. Passion lowered her gaze. Her eyes widened, and she stared embarrassedly. Tucked away in his pants was an erect but disappointingly small and needle-thin phallus…

    BWAHAHA :)


  8. My favorite pet-peeve penis moments in romances are when the Hero and Heroine have already done the deed, but she didn’t see his penis (maybe it was dark, who knows?), and it’s the next time they get naked when she sees his massive size for the first time and then she expresses fear and/or doubt. These incidents either make me laugh or groan, depending on the book.

    Maybe penis fear has to do with these heroines proving that they are good girls? That by expressing fear of the penis they prove their innocence, and therefore worthiness? I’m not sure this holds up with all the examples, but it might work in the virgin scenarios.


  9. I do love reading romance, but whenever I read scenes of shock and awe over the penis, I find myself wondering if there’s a secret Freudian psychotherapy indoctrination room at the annual RWA meeting.

    If there is, I haven’t heard about it, although they probably wouldn’t let me in… I’d be the one tweeting all the details.

    I dunno… I guess it’s just part of the fantasy. Trying to think if I focus much on the size before the act… now during, maybe, but when you get going, well… yeah. But nature kind plays into that–blood rushes down, certain body reactions happen-basically DURING the act, everything feels enhanced.



  10. I get really tired of the huge peen in romance. It makes me think of Lake Woebegone — Romancelandia, where all the men are above average. I get it as a short-cut for REALLY inexperienced virgin heroines (the “oh my, will that fit?” syndrome), but I think that’s become a cliché that just bugs me.


  11. Just came across a prime example: “The fluttering of his shirt also revealed the very heavy bulge of his manhood between his legs. Katherine sucked in her breath, praying he was one of those fops who still wore a codpiece. If not, he would kill her when he raped her.” The Game by Brenda Joyce

    Praying for a Codpiece is my next album title.


  12. Dain, in Loretta Chase’s historical Lord of Scoundrels (1995) is one example (sorry but I could not find the exact page).

    He’s one of the examples Kyra and I included in our discussion of Mighty Wangs etc:

    it is not uncommon for the hero’s penis to be, if not quite “Two Feet Long, Hard As Steel, And Can Go All Night,” as described in the title of Zilbergeld’s chapter on “The Fantasy Model of Sex,” at least unusually large, hard, and possessed of immense stamina. Although Zilbergeld was writing in 1978, his comment that “Much of the explicitness of recent […] fiction serves only to give more detailed presentations of the same old myths” (53) continues to ring true in relation to the romance genre. The size of Ranulf’s penis, for example, is implied when, prior to his second sexual encounter with Reina he partially reassures her by reminding her that “you have withstood my size once without dying” (Lindsey 177) and Dain fears that his immense organ will damage his virgin wife: “His lust-swollen rod strained furiously against his trousers, a great, monstrous invader that would tear her to pieces” (Chase 223).


  13. I’m trying to remember the name of a category romance with heroine noted hero’s penis “big and long as his famous baseball bat”. Hero rarely had sexual relationships because of his big peen. He said his previous girlfriends experienced discomfort during intercourse, which put him off relationships let alone have fun with groupies. I don’t remember how it was resolved, but they had their HEA.

    I think it was a Harlequin Blaze? I know the hero was a baseball player. Not sure about the heroine. Owner of a PR company? I can’t remember, to be honest. Actually, I think she was a sex expert? He hired her to teach him how to provide pleasure.

    But yes, a big penis is practically a requirement for Hero in the Romance genre. Virility, man! I have no idea why it’s so popular, though. Might be because it’d make the Magical Sperm more plausible? Big gun -> Strong bullet that could knock up any woman, even the infertile ones. /sarcasm

    IMO, heroines’ reactions and fears are more about their virtue than the penis itself. I think this is what some authors and readers want from heroines.

    (Sorry about repeated edits. My English is crap today.)


  14. @Maili: “Might be because it’d make the Magical Sperm more plausible?”

    Ironic, since I’ve read (can’t find any supporting links though) that men with extra long dongs actually have difficulty keeping an erection.

    Women do equate penis size with virility, though I suspect we don’t expect or demand anything beyond the norm of 7-8 inches erect. Men are much more obsessed with the length, thickness and veining – but men, by and large (heh) dont read or write romances (not even gay ones).

    As I said to Jessica on Twitter earlier, I think it’s all to do with the kink. Just as a BDSM book will emphasise the ‘fear’ and the ‘agony’ of the sub to ramp up anticipation of something actually much desired, the ‘fear’ of the uberpeen is really just to increase the reader’s enjoyment of the description of the girthy meat.


  15. @Ann Somerville:

    but men, by and large (heh) dont read or write romances (not even gay ones).

    That’s a rather sweeping generalisation, don’t you think? If it isn’t, how do you explain a huge number of male prisoners’ fan letters to romance authors? How about male library patrons who habitually claimed they were getting those books for their wives or mothers? :D


  16. @Maili: I wasn’t aware it was remotely contentious to state that romance is largely written and consumed by women.

    I didn’t say exclusively. In any event, I highly doubt the big dick fetish is aimed at male prisoner readers!


  17. @Ann Somerville: I know I’m the lone ranger here, but I still think it’s fifty-fifty. I may be biased by knowing that it’s roughly fifty-fifty where romantic comedy, tearjerker and “chick lit” films are concerned. It makes sense that this applies to romantic fiction.

    P.S. I now have the ‘I Have a Big Dick Fetish!’ song playing in my head. Thanks, Ann.


  18. Ha! I had a friend who grew up on a horse ranch and used to say that when she saw her first man she was very disappointed. I also had a friend who talked about an old boyfriend, said the first time he was uncovered that she pointed and laughed and asked where he thought he was going to put that “thing.” Apparently he wasn’t phased in the least. But it was girth not length.

    @Ann: I thought average penis length was supposed to be closer to 6 inches. (at least according to Dr. Oz)

    @ Kaetrin: I was thinking of the same Sex and the City scene.

    @Laura I never understood why a man (like Dain) would think it wouldn’t fit. I realize it’s supposed to be that this female is different but really a “man slut” who’s been sleeping with women since he was essentially a child. I can buy a lot of reactions but not that one. Of course, that’s about the time I started to have my disconnect with the story because I so missed the characters I was originally introduced to. To me this felt like a plot manipulation for the sake of genre expectations.

    In general:

    I often wondered if the big penis thing wasn’t commentary on feeling more overwhelmed and possessed. Of losing oneself completely to the moment because of those feelings. And sometimes I wonder whether or not some phrases aren’t repeated by “newer” authors because they are trying to recreate the feelings they experienced while reading a favorite read and that they don’t understand how those feelings were created during their reading experience so they unconsciously or consciously reuse certain phrases to try to recapture a moment from that original reading experience. EDITED TO ADD: A tacit romance shorthand.

    Kind of like the location of a romance heroine’s hymen. It ain’t where quite a few romance authors put it.


  19. I laughed the first time I read a scene in which a woman, not a virgin, said to the hero, “but…but…you’re so big, I…I… don’t think I can take it.” Buwahahaha! Seriously, I couldn’t stop laughing.

    I think it’s dumb and don’t get why it’s a constant in romance novels. But then again, heroes are larger than life in most respects. Very tall, well built, Herculean, so they do need a large peenie to go with it. I don’t know many men like that anyway even if you discount just a large penis.

    One guy I was with for years had a huge penis and he was short and thin and looked like Woody Allen. You’d never expect he was packing that kind of love weapon. LOLOL

    Yeah, on feeling, a bigger schlong feels a bit better, I won’t deny it. But it’s not something I think about all the time or would diss a guy with a smaller one for. We women don’t get to see the goods first and then go, “Oh, I’ll take you” to the one with the big one.

    On the other hand, I’ve had a few friends who’ve told me that they couldn’t stand sex with their partner because they were too big and sex was very painful. So it’s not true that every vagina can accommodate a large penis.


    @Ann: I thought average penis length was supposed to be closer to 6 inches. (at least according to Dr. Oz)

    Yes, this is true. I’ve always heard and read on many sites that 6 inches is the average. 7-8 inches is getting into larger territory.

    @ Moriah Jovan

    Don’t laugh, but it wasn’t until I was married that I found out there are “growers” and there are “danglers”. That was when I realized that flaccid appearances are way deceiving.


    Yes… very true. There have been one or two men when I first saw them flaccid I was like, where is that thing? But after an erection… whoa! And I’ve known a man or two who were hung very well, but didn’t grow that much bigger with an erection. There are all kinds. :-)


  20. I hope you had as much fun compiling those quotations as I had reading them!

    The fear of the giant penis is over-determined, wouldn’t you say? There are a lot of plausible and overlapping explanations in your post and the comments: symbolic of male power; symbolic of fear of sex; convention/short-hand of genre. Although we readers are not Regency virgins, we still live in a culture where women get a lot of messages about how sex is physically and emotionally dangerous to us, a road to disease, pregnancy, and/or heartbreak (if not hell). In that sense this trope could be seen as both conservatively reinforcing that message and overturning it by turning fear to pleasure (a duality I think is typical of romance). Even for the experienced heroine/reader, sex with a new partner can be scary, because we make ourselves vulnerable (maybe I’ve just been married too long, but the thought of exposing my post-childbirth middle-aged body and heart to anyone but the father of said children is pretty scary to me, not that I’m planning on it).

    Re. whether this meshes with real women’s fantasies: well, we all know there are things we fantasize about that we don’t want/care about in reality. Also, though I hate to compare romance to porn, I think when you produce fantasies for a mass market, there’s a certain standardization of fantasy we see in both cases (in many products, though not all)–I don’t want to say writers are aiming for the lowest common denominator, but for the great average middle-ground of reader fantasies, perhaps. What goes on in our heads is probably much weirder and more individual than what’s on the page. I’m thinking of how outliers of fantasy in romance (e.g. Elizabeth Amber’s Lords of Satyr with their extra snake-like organs) tend to get MUCH more varied responses from readers than more “standard” romance fare. (I don’t mean that as a criticism.)


  21. @Maili:

    You’re not the lone ranger… ;)

    I know I’ve got a fairly decent male reader base. I wouldn’t say it’s 50/50, but I do know I’ve got quite a quite a few male readers-they tend to go for the paranormal stuff more than anything else. I meet them at my signings quite often.


  22. Great points, Liz.

    “What goes on in our heads is probably much weirder and more individual than what’s on the page. ”

    How true it is… ;-)


  23. Oh it’s more of the same from me: it’s cliche, it’s shorthand, it’s part of the genre architecture. Blah blah.

    Like you, I’m eye-rolling when it happens. But I don’t really mind it. There’s a lot of fetishising of the male form (and female too actually) in romance and I’m all for it. I like books in which ‘delight in the other’ is a big component. But really, I’d prefer delight – real-world delight – to shock and awe of the mighty weapon. But that’s really just part of my bigger desire for character-honesty and authenticity.


  24. This makes me think of The Jean M. Auel books where Jondalar is just too big to go “all the way” in with all the numerous stone-aged ladies he’s “pleasured” and is utterly thrilled that Ayla is big enough to take all of him. I found that funny, because, just like there’s an over-emphasis on the giant man-tool, there is equal importance given to a woman’s vagina being teensy-eensy. Maybe that was a bold feminist statement on Auel’s part, making Ayla’s naughty bits big? It’s interesting to read the Karma Sutra where they talk about how everyone has a size-match out there and it’s best for like to find like. Of course Eastern culture recognizes the logic of that whereas we in Western culture are set up to thrill to just the opposite! Ah, well!


  25. I don’t mind this cliche at all, and I can understand the virginal heroine reaction to some extent. Extent! Every innocent word sounds like a penis joke right now. Anyway, I prefer not to be told exactly how big the hero is. Too much is too much. If I saw Mark from Passion’s 10-inch member, I’d be legitimately scared. Oh no! My womb. Also, authors tend to describe the thickness, which I also like, but when they say the heroine’s fingers can’t close around it I picture a soda can. Again, ouch.

    I guess I consider it a female gaze thing, more about what women want (in a fantasy sequence) than reinforcing male power.


  26. Wait, is this quote from Passion accurate?

    Threaded with cordlike veins, she watched, entranced…

    Holy dangling modifier, Batman! I’d be afraid of a woman “threaded with cordlike veins” (unless she’s a virginal Regency bodybuilder, I guess, and even then . . . ). Ah, modification errors, how I love thee.


  27. Could be that a big penis is a marker for high testosterone level, and therefore for all those ruthless, assertive, dangerous bad boy qualities so essential to romances. After millions of years I think the female half must recognise this by now. Evolution.


  28. After millions of years I think the female half must recognise this by now.

    Yet strangely other indicators of high testosterone levels – body hair, baldness, aggression – aren’t much favoured by romance readers. Could it be that our love of the big one is [gasp] to do with our own pleasure, rather than pseudoscientific evolutionary biology databollocks?


  29. I always say if a baby can come out, most anything can go in. And I believe there are websites on the internet that prove this to be true.


  30. I stumbled upon this blog whilst searching for something else. (No, really.) What engaging and entertaining reading it made. The personal insights then offered by all your followers were also terrific. As the kind of chap who is, let us say, unlikely to ever be cast in the role of the ‘Hero’ in one of those romance novels, I felt I had wandered into the girls’ locker room and heard a conversation I would not otherwise have been privy to. Taking my leave, I mop my brow with some quiet reassurance. Thanks to all, for a wonderful read.


  31. @Brandon

    The reason you you are unlikely to be cast as a hero in a romance does not have as much to do with your penis as it does with your syncophantic dialogue.


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