Me and my penis: 100 men reveal all

From the sex addict to the vicar, men open up about their manhood

Every one of Laura Dodsworths penises is unique: introvert and extrovert, straight and bendy, wobblers and bobblers, growers and showers. There are contented penises that have led full lives, and disappointed penises that have let down their owners or been let down by their owners.

In Dodsworths new book Manhood, every penis tells a story. There is the trans man who invested in the biggest and best; the underpowered poet hung up on his for years, until he decided to celebrate it with The Big Small Penis Party; the man who as a teenager thought he had genital warts and considered killing himself, until he found out they were normal spots; the business leader whose small penis taught him humility; the sex addict whose wife tried to cut it off; and the vicar who enjoyed his first threesome while training for the priesthood.

This is not Dodsworths first foray into body parts. In 2014s Bare Reality, also previewed in Guardian Weekend, the photographer interviewed women about their relationship with their breasts. That was delicate, Dodsworth says, but not as delicate as this. Breasts have been commodified and aestheticised, so were used to seeing them in everyday life; the same cannot be said of penises, which remain largely unseen and very much taboo.

Dodsworths earlier project was personal. Like many of us, she says, she is uneasy with her own body. You see lots of pictures of breasts everywhere and you cant help feeling you dont measure up. When she talked to women, she discovered many of them could tell their life story through them. And she has had a similar experience with Manhood. I had this sense that men were in a man box as much as Id been in a woman box, and I wanted to get to know them better and hear their stories. One word for penis is manhood, so it seemed a perfect starting point to talk about being a man.

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Photograph: Laura Dodsworth

Dodsworth has now photographed 100 men. In each photo, you see penis and testicles, belly, hands and thighs. The humanity lies in the relationship between these body parts. A few of the men look like self-satisfied alphas (we have to guess: we cant see their faces), but most appear vulnerable in one way or the other, whether its their pose or the way they hold their hands.

Does Dodsworth remember her subjects by their penis or by their face? Face, she says instantly. The photographs took only about 10 seconds, then I spent 30 to 60 minutes interviewing them. Once somebody has bared their body, they are much more likely to bare their soul. You get a much better interview after the picture. Dodsworth knew a few of the men, who are aged between 20 and 92, but most were strangers, found largely by word of mouth. A few she had to actively search for: the vicar, former cancer patients, a man with a micro-penis.

Did the project make her think differently about men? Yes, there was a feeling of falling in love with men. It was really lovely. A couple of months before she started Manhood, Dodsworth split up with her husband, the father of her two sons. So there was something interesting about going through the process of separation and divorce from somebody Id been with for 20 years, then meeting 100 men and stepping into this very intimate conversation with them all.

What surprised her most? A lot more men feel a sense of shame or anxiety about their size, or an aspect of their performance, than I would have thought. What really moved me is how much that shame and inadequacy had bled into different parts of their life. She says many were teased as children about their penis and never recovered from it.

Not all felt inadequate, of course: she talks about how much she loved the man who compared his penis to a badly behaved uncle at a wedding, and the man who described his as a barometer of my health and wants to put sex back on its pedestal.

Dodsworth was amazed by how many found themselves talking about their fathers, in particular absent fathers, bad fathers, aggressive fathers. Often, their fathers penis was the first they had seen when they were young, and they found it intimidating.

Was she surprised by the variety? Oh yeah, definitely. Obviously theres a huge range. Its going to be so reassuring for a lot of men, particularly young men. And it wasnt just size and shape. Lots of men manscape, or completely erase their pubic hair, now. I had no idea that happens.

For Dodsworth, Manhood has not been an aesthetic revelation: some penises are nice to look at, some less so. But having seen the number of men who struggle with their manhood, literally and metaphorically, she has become a champion of the penis. It is so often subject to ridicule. Its like baseline standard male banter. Half the people in the world have got penises. Its unfair to be cruel about them.

Interview by Simon Hattenstone

Its intoxicating to have people give you sexual attention: 46-year-old

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Photograph: Laura Dodsworth

Im intrigued about this opportunity to talk about my relationship to I dont want to say penis and I dont really like saying cock Rufus, yeah Rufus. My penis, Rufus, is kind of a barometer of my health, my happiness and my fitness.

The only time Ive ever worried is when I went through a period a couple of years ago where Rufus wasnt rising and it was a sign of another health condition. If it wasnt for that, I would probably never have realised I had high blood pressure or that stress can have a negative effect on your desire to have sex.

Ive got quite an active mind, and Im often juggling deadlines, work, writing and different projects, and the only time my mind is completely silent is during sex. A partner once said, What do you think about when we have sex? and I said, What do you mean, what do I think about? Im just like Im here with you. Youre naked, were making love and what else is there? Then I thought, Oh, you fantasise about other things? Other people? Really? For me, sex is almost about vacancy. Its a moment of complete embodiment, of being totally calm in the world.

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Photograph: Laura Dodsworth

When youre a young black man, you experience inordinate attention and focus on you as a sexual being, especially in the club sphere. Men are men, and we like an easy time; were insecure, we dont want to be rejected. And its intoxicating to have people give you attention in a very sexual way. This is not really about me, this is about a persona of black men, you know: penis size, greater sexuality, up for it. Its a thrill ride, and Ive participated in it, but with a degree of self-loathing afterwards, because I think, Ive just been someones Mandingo fantasy. I grew up in a working-class environment and would sometimes go to black clubs and be approached by white women who said, I dont date white men, I just date black men. The side of me that is postgraduate-educated, goes, Woah! Why? A mans a man. Whats that about? This is a fetish that makes no sense.

Women and men both enjoy sex, are curious about sex, and boast about sex in different ways; but men are more afraid and less understanding of its emotional nature. If we acknowledged that sex isnt just about gratification, there is a broader communication. I think wed be more respectful. Sex needs to be put back on its pedestal.

I couldnt get an erection now: 92-year-old

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Photograph: Laura Dodsworth

I lost my virginity to the wife of my grammar school teacher. He was sent to France as a spy and resistance fighter. They made an arrangement that while he was away, if they were sexually interested in someone else, they could have a relationship. I was 18 and went to stay with her when I had my leave. I knew them both and was fond of them. I was in a single bedroom. In the morning, the door opens and in comes this woman, in her robe. She took it off and kneeled beside the bed. And there was this 18-year-old naive boy. It was an act of kindness. I immediately fell in love with her, of course. It was incredible.

On the other hand, I was in the army. After my schoolteachers wife, my next time with a woman was with a prostitute in a Naples brothel. I stayed all night. Thats unusual in brothels. When I woke up and looked at her, I thought she was lovely.

I no longer have an attitude towards masculinity. Im affected by dementia now. It affects the way you think as well as your memory. Until 87, I had normal feelings about sex and attraction, but these completely disappeared with my dementia. If I look at a pornographic image, I have no sexual feeling. I couldnt get an erection now. I occasionally masturbated until a few years ago, but its disappeared completely.

I have been married twice and had a number of affairs that mattered to me a great deal. Life has changed for women and men during my lifetime; there is a more liberal partnership. I would claim I am a male feminist. Whats the word that covers all the different problems? There are other forms of oppression, like class oppression. Thats it, I remember: Im an intersectional feminist. I believe very much in that.

Quitting porn and masturbation was like a reset: 20-year-old

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Photograph: Laura Dodsworth

Ive quit porn. Actually, I quit masturbation entirely for a long time. I used to have issues ejaculating with my ex. Ejaculating became associated with my hand and watching porn. I had issues with being on top, too. I think thats because, when watching porn, Id lie still, whereas when having sex I actually have to be up and mobile.

My new girlfriend did some research on it. The feeling of the hand is nothing like actual sex or another person what happens to a lot of people is they grip too tightly when masturbating (called the death grip), and they get used to it, and then sex doesnt feel tight enough. My girlfriend and I are having sex perfectly fine now. Well, were getting there.

We met doing parkour, and we were friends for a while. A few years ago, she wrote up a sex contract as part of an art project, but she never got the chance to use it. One night she asked if I wanted to sign her sex contract with her. I said no at first. Then I mulled it over and thought, Whats the worst that could happen? I messaged her to ask if I could change my mind. Then she sent over the contract. It was called Three Mergers: you have sex three times, and then decide where you want to go from there. You can sign another contract, or you can just leave it. So you sign the contract and then you do the deed.

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Photograph: Laura Dodsworth

When we got to the bedroom I told her I had issues with staying hard. I didnt want to say beforehand. I wasnt undressed at that point and its never too late to say no. She said it was fine and wed work through it.

Porn is an addiction, in the end. In the same way that gambling isnt a physical addiction, its not actually in your blood, but it gets into your mind. I used to use porn every day. Quitting was like a reset. After several weeks, I could orgasm during sex again. It had to be quite rough, fast sex to start with, but at that point I could. And then it kind of slowed down and got really good. I would like to be able to orgasm from more gentle sex.

A lot of older men who started watching porn later in life dont have many issues because theyve been with women; they know what sex is like. The problem is when people start young, on their phone: if you get brought up with things, they stick with you.

Id look at other guys in the showers and feel ashamed: 58-year-old

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Photograph: Laura Dodsworth

Ive spent my life feeling my penis is too small. For as long as I can remember, Ive felt shame about it. I believe how I feel about my penis shaped my life, particularly up to my mid-20s. Im doing this interview and photograph to help other men.

My teenage years were difficult: Id look at other guys in the showers and feel ashamed and less than. I worried about it being too small to function. I went to an all-male school and then an all-male college. I didnt have sex until I was 21. I wanted to before that, but every time I got close, I went, Ah, shes going to discover my penis is so small. When I finally had sex, it was with someone I felt very close to and trusted, and I was relaxed about it.

At times Ive gone to public toilets and been too tense to pee. That still happens sometimes. If youre lined up with lots of people, you worry people are checking you out.

If Id had a larger penis, I think I would have moved in the world of men with more confidence. You see men stroll through the showers and gym, all confident and Look at me, and Im in the corner with a towel. Im successful in my life, so I dont think a small penis has held me back. Im a business leader, I perform on stage. It is more of an inner wound, and has served me by giving me humility.

I looked at penile enlargement in magazines and thought it was a waste of time. I knew that the journey for me was accepting how my body is. Size has never been a factor with partners. In fact, its been the other way round. A couple of partners have said they like my size, because it doesnt hurt. Close female friends have told me large penises have been intimidating or painful.

I made my closest friends at college, but much about the environment was horrendous. The attitudes to women were terrible: they were seen as sexual objects to be preyed on. There was a regular night of absolute debauchery, with everyone getting drunk, hardcore pornography, and throwing things out of windows. One time people grabbed me and ripped off my clothes, and I was super-worried theyd rip off my pants and start laughing at me, but they didnt. I think they must have sensed my terror and stopped. That fear was with me all the time.

One of the first things I did after the operation was masturbate: 36-year-old

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Photograph: Laura Dodsworth

Ive had testicular cancer twice first when I was 22. I was lying in bed, masturbating, as you do, when I felt a lump on my left testicle, the size of a pea. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone. I ignored it for nine months until it was the size of two fingers put together. I bit the bullet and told my mum. It turned out it was cancer, but it was in the early stages. In the end I had three weeks of radiotherapy as well as having the testicle removed.

I felt lonely afterwards. I knew I wasnt on my own, but this was before Facebook. One of the first things I did after the operation was get a porn magazine out and masturbate. I had to make sure it worked. One testicle is fine; it doesnt affect the ability to have sex.

I met my fiancee four years later. We tried for kids, but it didnt happen. I had a sperm test: the swimmers were doing their thing, but there were hardly any of them. Id frozen sperm before the radiotherapy, just in case. My mum talked me into it. She said, I wont be deprived of being a grandmother just because youre embarrassed. Besides, you do it every night anyway. So my fiancee and I had IVF and we had twins.

After the kids were born, I found myself feeling really tired and low. I had trouble concentrating. I wasnt as up for sex as I should have been. One day, I felt like killing myself. I got very scared. I remembered hearing about another testicular cancer survivor who had felt the same and it had been due to hormones. The doctors tried to fob me off, saying it was in my head. Eventually, an endocrinologist put me on HRT. It was a synthetic gel I rubbed on my arms which worked straight away, and I felt normal again. I had to shower the gel off before bed, otherwise it could rub on to my fiancee and turn her into a bearded lady.

A few months later, in the shower, I found another lump. I thought, Shit, here we go again. The GP tried to tell me it was a cyst, but I asked for an ultrasound. I could see the shadowy lump on the scan. I asked if it was cancer and the radiographer said he couldnt say. I said, Come on, theres just the two of us in the room. Is it cancer? Yes. I knew what was coming, and there was better support than 14 years before. I knew I would survive it. For the first time in my life, I felt confident, like, This is me.

My mum died of skin cancer two years ago. It was treated, but it came back in a big way, in her bones, liver, kidneys, you name it and eventually the brain. I hated myself for surviving. I took an overdose and got referred to a shrink.

You can see survival as a curse or a blessing. I now see it as a blessing. Its changed my outlook on life. Id always been self-conscious before cancer. I wore glasses, I didnt have much success with girls, I felt useless. Now I live in the moment.

Ive found photographs of my penis on Tumblr: 33-year-old

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Photograph: Laura Dodsworth

I have a big penis and that gives me quite a few advantages if I choose to take them. I have mixed feelings about it, because I fundamentally disagree with the idea that a large penis is better than a small one. On a personal level, its quite easy to use that attribute as a bit of a screen. If I get naked, I tend to get quite a lot of admiration, and its been easy to hide any insecurity. But I have to try not to use my body as a shield.

Ive had self-image and self-confidence issues from childhood. Ive worked on it and come a hell of a long way; but part of that journey was to realise that in the past Ive hidden my personality, which Im not sure people will like, behind a body Im pretty confident they will. Ive chosen scenarios in which I would meet someone through Grindr, and wed get naked straight away, rather than going for a coffee.

Gay men tend to be a lot freer about nudity. Theres less stigma about a guy asking a guy for naked pictures than a guy asking a woman. Typically, I will send photographs. I dont see it as an issue.

There are unsaid rules in mens toilets: you choose the urinal farthest from another man and you stand next to another man only if there are no other urinals available. You look dead ahead, you dont look left or right. The unsaid rule of the changing room is that you change as quickly as possible, you face the locker, you dont linger. Speaking to many of my heterosexual friends, that means theyve seen only a handful of penises in the flesh, and they dont always know whats normal or not.

Ive seen my pictures being used by other people [on their dating profile] twice. I had their accounts closed. Theyd taken photographs from my profile, basically pretending to be me. Ive had instances of finding photographs of my penis uploaded on to Tumblr, too. I made the mistake when I was quite a few years younger of sending a picture that had my penis and my face in it. It was a foolish thing to do, because that is out on the internet somewhere. I can Google it and find it in public places. Now I only ever send the two separately.

Although my erection isnt brilliant, it is longlasting: 48-year-old

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Photograph: Laura Dodsworth

I was born with spina bifida. Luckily for me, the damage is very low down, so I can have an erection. One of the effects of my disability is my incontinence. Since I was a child, Ive had something attached to my penis most of the time. I have visible scarring down the side of my penis from one of the continence devices I had as a child. Also, because of medical tests, I am exposed a lot. My penis is public property.

The reduced sensitivity means my erections arent that reliable. It takes a little bit more effort, and physical contact has to be more robust. But although my erection isnt brilliant, it is long-lasting; bizarrely, it will last after ejaculation.

Sexuality is more complex when you are disabled. You have all the normal problems, like different levels of desire, but then there are other complications, like I might urinate when I ejaculate. The medication Im on can affect my libido. My stress levels can be high.

I have to empty my bladder just before sex. And afterwards I have to think, are we going to do anything else? Or are we finished, in which case the continence device has to go back on. I get a months supply of devices at a time from the chemist. So, if I need to use extra ones because of sexual activity, I have to make one last for longer the next week. Its awkward getting only a months supply, but sexuality is seen as very tertiary.

For better or worse, I went to a boarding school for disabled kids. That was an environment with virtually no privacy, because we shared bedrooms and bathrooms. Other lads needed a lot more physical assistance, so there were a lot of staff around, too. I got used to seeing everyone else and being seen.

We were normal teenagers with raging hormones, but malfunctioning bodies. Half of us had stuff attached to our genitalia. It made a quick fumble quite tricky. My early sexual experiences were coloured by the nonstandard nature of it. There was a lot more same-sex experimentation. Im not ashamed of that, but some people deny it ever happened.

Because of the spina bifida, I cant feel my feet very well. I trod on a nail and got a bone infection, which was unpleasant. The antibiotics didnt work. They thought I would end up losing the foot, so I had an elective amputation.

I get stared at far less in a wheelchair, and I find that really interesting. I think I look less threatening without a limp. People never used to make eye contact before; now they smile at me. Whether I am seen as more attractive or they are making an effort to cheer me up, I dont know. I was never asked out when walking, but I have been several times in a wheelchair.

I thought I might as well get a decent-sized penis: 47-year-old

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Photograph: Laura Dodsworth

I was born in a female body, but never felt I was a girl, from at least the age of three. When I reached puberty, it started to dawn on me that I was different. I didnt feel comfortable in this body.

Sexuality felt massive, loaded with shame, because at my all-girls school, if you were a lesbian, thats it, youd be bullied. The problem was, I didnt think I was a lesbian, anyway. I was attracted to women, but I felt like a guy.

I changed my gender when I was 26. I was treated as male in public by the time I was 28. I noticed changes, certainly in the business world. When I was female and in the company of men, I was treated as less than, inferior, stereotyped. As soon as I was perceived as being male, men would assume that I was the one in charge. Always. Im a small guy in height, so I was surprised to feel that power, and actually didnt know what to do with it.

When I started taking hormones, I felt a complete mix of fear and excitement. My periods stopped, which was an utter relief. Id always had problems with my periods, anyway, because I have Crohns disease. Then I started getting facial hair, which was wonderful.