Spam e-mail plays on men's little worries
For many American office workers, the day begins with deleting spam. These days, a lot of electronic junk mail hits below the belt by seeking to profit from many men's deepest fear - that their penises are too small.
From the vague "Expand your horizons" to the blunt "Want to increase your penis size?," the hard sell of penis-enlargement products plays on men's insecurity, experts say.
Virtually anyone with an e-mail address is bombarded daily with messages touting penis pills, herbal supplements and the latest rage, penis patches, all with the same inflated promise that they will enlarge a man's sexual organ.
Herbal supplements marketed as "penis pills", which contain ingredients ranging from soy protein and damiana leaf to ginkgo biloba and ginseng root, and dermal applications like the "penis patch", claim to be capable of lengthening men's penises by up to 4 inches (10 cm) in as many months.
But no peer-reviewed studies comparing men who used the products to a placebo group have ever been conducted. Since the products have disclaimers stating they are not intended to treat medical problems, they fall outside the US regulatory process. The Federal Trade Commission says there is no evidence the products have any effect.
Psychiatrists say the marketers sending out such messages are hoping to take advantage of a primal obsession.
"The penis is a primary symbol of male sexuality and dominance," said Dr Frank Muscarella, a clinical and evolutionary psychiatrist at Barry University in Miami Shores, Florida.
Muscarella, co-author of "Psychological Perspectives on Human Sexuality", said the size of a man's penis "is indicative of masculinity, prowess and dominance".
"On a psychological level, men buy into that. And even if they don't, advertising does," he added, citing a recent truck billboard that showed a sexy cowboy crouching with a pick-up between his legs.
Muscarella said men tend to focus on the more "concrete" aspects of sexual attributes like shape, form and size. He likened it to the male attraction to, and often obsession with, women's breasts.
An obsession with penis size is not a uniquely American phenomenon, said Virginia Sadock, a psychiatrist at New York University Medical Centre.
"This is not limited to the United States by any means," Sadock said, noting that in Japan there is a condition known as "koro" in which a man suffers from delusions that his penis is actually shrinking back into his stomach.
And Muscarella said that the French are known for trading rumours about men with small penises, often accompanied by jokes and derision.
At the heart of the problem, Sadock said, is that since men don't see many penises other than their own, they have little basis for comparison.
Big is king
Participants complain about a gay community in which men brag about being bigger than they are and a country where big is king. Like at other support groups, most in this group are grateful just to be in a room together with people trying to confront the same problem.
A slim man with reddish hair told a recent meeting that he is made to feel he doesn't measure up. "In our community the idea of what's average (size) is very distorted," he said.
Purveyors of the products insist they have received more than 90 million orders but are notoriously hard to track down or even identify, and typically they refuse to speak to reporters when found.
According to Wired magazine, some 6,000 people ordered pills from Goringly.biz through the Amazing Internet Products Web site over a four-week period, spending on average US$100 each for two bottles. Wired traced the ownership of AIP to a 19-year-old New Hampshire chess whiz, Braden Bournival, who shied away from a reporter for the magazine who approached him at a chess tournament last summer.
Relief from the barrage of spam may yet be in sight however after Congress passed a law aimed at sharply restricting unsolicited e-mail ads.