Unfortunately, when it comes to penises, the dominant cultural narrative is that bigger is better. While that's certainly not true, that doesn't stop men from internalizing that idea. And a quick search through Reddit or YouTube will show what some men are doing in response to this pressure: a potentially dangerous practice known as "jelqing."
Jelqing is a penis enlargement technique that involves squeezing and stretching the penis in a manner similar to masturbation. According to Jelqwiki (yes, that's a thing), there are two popular techniques. The first one involves making an "O" with your thumb and index finger and using it to stretch the shaft. The second is called the "pincher," and it involves placing your thumb on the bottom of the shaft while the index finger goes on top and moving the fingers in a pinching motion.
"Essentially what these men are doing is a stretching and tugging exercise to basically put on some length, and they claim some girth as well," says Seth D. Cohen, MD/MPH, a urologist and Director of Male and Female Sexual Dysfunction at NYU Langone Medical Center. Dr. Cohen says that he first heard of jelqing three or four years ago, and he mostly sees it among young men. This specific phenomenon seems to be an internet-era trend, though some claim that these techniques have ancient roots in the Middle East.
Does jelqing even work?
While it might sound awfully similar to masturbation, the thinking behind jelqing has nothing to do with pleasure — it's about attempting to increase penis size by stretching the skin through upward motion techniques, so there's no goal of orgasm. In fact, many men on message boards and Reddit describe militaristic jelqing regimens with specific instructions ("Do not jelq erect or even close to it") that sound like hard work ("20 minutes every other day"). There are even months-long programs that come with a suggested vitamin regimen (which is certainly not doctor-approved).
Some men online claim to see results from jelqing, while others claim it's utter bullshit. Dr. Cohen is skeptical, though he says that there have been no clinical trials to suggest that it is or isn't effective. "I would never tell a patient 'yes' or 'no,'" Dr. Cohen says. "All I would tell them is you’re more likely to do harm than achieve any benefits of 'stretching' your penis."
Is it dangerous?
According to Dr. Cohen, yes. If you're constantly tugging at your junk, he explains, you're going to harm the nerves, veins, and arteries in the penis, which can lead to decreased sensation and — ironically — erectile dysfunction. (Many men on the aforementioned forums report this, too.)
You're going to harm the nerves, veins, and arteries in the penis, which can lead to decreased sensation and — ironically — erectile dysfunction.
To get a sense of how that happens, it's important to understand how erections work. Penises have an artery on both the right and left sides called the cavernosal arteries. When a person with a healthy penis is aroused, those arteries dilate to maximize blood flow into the penis while compressing the veins on the outside, Dr. Cohen says. This creates a state of blood flow into the penis while preventing the blood from leaking out of the penis — a.k.a. a boner. Additionally, penises have nerves that run along the top side, and those nerve fibers are responsible for all the lovely sensations that come from sexual pleasure.
Dr. Cohen says he's recently seen two male patients in their early 20s who went through a jelqing program. "Both men developed some severe erectile problems," he says. "You can sever or traumatize the arteries and/or veins so that they no longer are compliant and no longer hold blood in the penis." (And remember: That ability to hold blood is what makes boners possible.) Not to mention, he says you can also damage the nerve fibers on the top of the penis, the ones that allow for pleasure during sex. Ouch.
What should people with penises do if they want to jelq?
Despite the fact that this practice is dangerous, it also brings to light an unfortunate truth about the harmful messages that men receive about their bodies, as well as their virility. Dr. Cohen says that men jelq because they feel insecure about the size of their penises and want to increase the length to feel better about themselves.
In an ideal world, we'd eradicate the stigma around penis size, as well as the false assumption that those with larger penises make for better sexual partners. Studies suggest that there's no actual sexual benefit from having a larger penis (for the giver or the receiver) — the only thing that a larger penis changes is that it boosts the confidence of those with penises. Not to mention, while certainly some (mean) partners have mocked someone for the size of their penis, research suggests that a lot of bullying regarding penis size comes from other men.
Clearly, this body image issue has a lot to do with harmful stereotypes and toxic masculinity, rather than actual inadequacies. If you're feeling insecure about the size of your penis or your sexual performance, Dr. Cohen recommends that you see a sex therapist or urologist. It could just be a matter of talking through insecurities, or finding the right positions and strategies to make sex as enjoyable as possible for both you and your partner.
"We're trained to do this in a FDA-approved effective manner, not to increase the length of a man’s penis, but if he’s having problems with curvature or erectile dysfunction, these things are quite treatable," Dr. Cohen says.
And perhaps most importantly, make sure to date partners who love, accept, and are attracted to you for who you are. No matter what your penis size or shape, there's absolutely nothing "wrong" with you — and no Reddit board or YouTube video should tell you otherwise.