A Missouri State University professor announced last week that she would discontinue her study on penis size and self-esteem after public response to the study threatened the reliability of the research. After only a week and a half of data collection, Alicia Walker realised that the survey responses were skewed and that some of them were jokes, in part due to inaccurate media coverage of the study.
“The tipping point was going to bed after day three of the coverage – most of which was inaccurate and irresponsible – once again not being able to field all the emails I received that day despite working all day to do so,” Walker wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed. She is an assistant professor of sociology at Missouri State University-Springfield.
The study called for up to 3,600 male participants over the age of 22 to respond to a survey that asked about their size, self-image, sexual relationships and sexual habits. She also asked for photographs of them measuring their genitalia to ensure consistent measurement technique. No identifying information was collected with the surveys or photos, and according to a statement by Missouri State, all the submitted photos and surveys have already been destroyed and were never viewed. Walker had also been conducting qualitative interviews by email or phone, which will not continue.
Walker’s study was mocked in publications that claimed that she was collecting “dick pics”. The dominant media narrative was that Walker was only looking to prove that men with small penises had lower self-esteem, which affected her data pool. The data were skewed towards men of below-average size and prevented Walker from discovering if high self-esteem correlated with men who were above average.
“With the widespread misrepresentation of the study’s aims and methodology, you have to question what’s happening to your participant pool,” Walker wrote. “I’d fielded emails from men who [said that] they had purposefully responded with joke answers (for example, some reported uploading pictures of SpongeBob and other cartoon characters, their pets, etc.) in an effort to throw the study’s findings into jeopardy.”
Walker felt overwhelmed. She also received verbally abusive emails and phone messages. She said that men criticising the research were upset that she was a woman.
“The voices of upset were a small minority of the contact [that] I fielded on any given day. However, their level of upset was rather eye-opening. Every single one of them specifically mentioned that they were upset that I as a woman would dare do this study,” she wrote. “I asked why my gender made a difference, and none of them could tell me. Knowing that these folks wouldn’t have said anything had I been a male researcher was beyond frustrating.”
In general, Walker believes that research on sex-related topics can intimidate people and make them uncomfortable.
“Everyone wants to act as though they know everything they need to know about sexual behaviour, sexuality and sexual relationships. But the reality is there is still much to learn. However, there is a lot of pushback and upset about the things we find,” Walker wrote. “Some people in academia wave it off as ‘not real work’, but those of us who do this work know better. This work is extremely valuable and important. These are topics that touch all of us in one way or another.”
As soon as Walker announced that she had closed the study, she received an outpouring of emails from men who either supported the study or had planned to participate.
“I have had so many men beg me to do the study anyway. So many men have messaged to say that they have absolutely no outlet to discuss this. They cannot talk to their male friends because they will only get ridicule,” she wrote. “This study was an opportunity for them to vent and process.”
She said that she was disappointed with the way that her study was covered, particularly for the men who were planning to participate.
“The widespread misrepresentations in the media and clickbait inflammatory headlines robbed these men of their chance to talk about their experiences. And while some think that it doesn’t matter, it does,” she wrote. “One man who had finished his interview with me told me that he had not been to the doctor for a physical in close to a decade. After our interview, he went to the doctor. For him, and others like him, that’s huge. This work mattered.”
Walker will likely revisit the study with different methodology, although not any time soon.
This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.