The stereotypical ideal of a man usually conforms to the imagined characteristics of a superhero: conventional good looks, chiselled abs, bulging muscles and, well, bulging bulge. It’s a perfect caricature of a manly man: one who doesn’t eat quiche and never gets sick. And by the dictates of popular culture, a lot of his power is between his thighs.
Experts believe this kind of thinking can be dangerous because it instigates risky behaviours as early as boyhood.
“We go to great lengths to teach boys traditional attitudes and behaviours that can ultimately kill them,” says Dr. Will Courtenay, a psychotherapist in Oakland, Calif., and author of Dying To Be Men: Psychosocial, Environmental and Biobehavioural Directions in Promoting the Health of Men and Boys.
“By early adolescence, they’re at greater risk to be involved in a car crash or to get skin cancer. They don’t take precautions,” he says. “And it’s ingrained in them early in their lives that a large penis is indicative of being more of a man. It symbolizes virility, potency and power.”
It’s this belief in physical infallibility and focus on the sexual organ that has led to a 30-year lapse in the progression of men’s health awareness versus that of women’s health, says Dr. Dicken Ko, director of regional urology at Massachusetts General Hospital and associate professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School.
“There’s a social perception that is ingrained in many cultures that men’s health is not something to be discussed,” he says. “There’s an impenetrable demeanour that men are not affected by the same things women are affected by. That has a huge impact on why men’s health hasn’t grown on par with women’s health.”
Ko, who was one of the pioneering doctors involved in the first penis transplant in the U.S. last May, says the open discussion about erectile dysfunction isn’t helping to further the message of men’s health either, because it intrinsically links the entirety of men’s health to sex.
“The focus of men’s health is always the penis, but that’s not where the problem is; that’s a symptom of other problems that are arising in their lives,” he says. “If the penis isn’t working, it could be a result of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure or cholesterol. Every component of health contributes to dysfunction, including the health of your social network.”
Experts point to societal constructs and pop culture, in particular, as the culprits in this phenomenon.
In an article in Psychology Today, Augustin Fuentes, a professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, writes: “In many cases the phallus is represented as a symbol of power — social, political, and/or reproductive. It is not always directly connected to ‘maleness’ but as males are the ones with penises, specific social attention to it can set up or re-inforce a divergent perception of sexual and gender roles, and worth.”
Part of this is also attributed to the proliferation of pornography. A 2013 research paper out of Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland and published in the International Journal of Men’s Health draws a link between the influx of internet pornography and men’s sense of self-worth vis-à-vis their penis.
“A man’s relationship to his penis, although still firmly rooted in the personal and private, is now simultaneously exposed and under real and critically imagined surveillance,” the study states. “The penis has been denatured, deprived of its natural character through increasing surveillance and critical interrogation.”
This creates a deeper chasm between a man’s body and his mental and physical health. Courtenay says that while there haven’t been a lot of studies conducted on the effects of pornography on men, the last several decades have seen a significant shift in men’s perception of their bodies.
“In terms of body image, we see male bodies becoming increasingly big and bulky and muscular, and we’ve tracked an increase in dissatisfaction in their own bodies,” he says. “I would imagine there would be a similar effect in terms of sex and genital satisfaction.”
While Courtenay says this has resulted in an increase across the board of men seeking cosmetic surgery, it has done little to encourage men to go to a doctor to monitor their general health. According to 2013 figures from Statistics Canada, 19 per cent of males aged 12 to 64 reported not having a regular doctor, compared to 11.7 per cent of females. And considering that women in Canada statistically outlive men by roughly five years (82 to 77), it would behoove men to pay closer attention to their health.
The Canadian Men’s Health Foundation says men are 40 per cent more likely to die from cancer, 70 per cent more likely to die from heart disease and live an average of nine years in poor health. And most notably, 70 per cent of these health problems can be prevented by following a healthier lifestyle.
“More male diseases are being identified; they have a higher risk of death due to cardiovascular disease, hypertension, poor eating habits and depression,” Ko says. “It’s interesting that they don’t want to talk about it. But they should.”