How do doctors feel about touching patients’ penises?

  • Statutory warning: pictures suggestive of penises follow. And a picture of a cadaver mid-dissection too. (Relax, there’s no gore or pus here. If you’ve seen Hostel 2 you’ve seen far worse.)


    I’m male and I plot to the far left on the X-axis of the sexuality spectrum; that is to say I’m fully heterosexual. So the first time I touched a patient’s penis was also the first time I touched another living man’s penis.

    It wasn’t the first time I saw another man’s penis, mind you, on account of me having a friend in medical school who had an interesting tendency of cornering his male colleagues in private and dropping his pants to ask if we thought his penis was big enough.

    It also wasn’t the first time I touched another man’s penis. The first penis I ever touched that wasn’t mine was a dead man’s penis; and he had been dead for some months at that time. Relax. It was the cadaver assigned to my table at dissection hall in Anatomy class.

    This (below) was our Anatomy dissection hall. See those blue tarpaulins on those tables? Cadavers.

    We were introduced to our cadavers on the first day of medical school. We crowded around our respective tarpaulins (twenty to one tarpaulin) and on cue, pulled them off, and ta-da: naked dead man, penis and all.

    Now I should mention that 70% of my batch are girls, er, now women, um, females (!). So what was my first glimpse of a dead man’s penis was for them their first glimpse of a man’s penis, period.

    Note that on-screen penises (Michael Fassbender, it’s always Michael Fassbender) don’t count for them. Also note that off-screen penises of tiny boys such as their little cousins and nephews and baby brothers don’t count for them either.

    So Magneto’s bar magnet and babies’ willies aside, this was their first up-close experience with a fully-grown man’s penis. And they all treated it like it was a lunatic cavorting in his PJs in a mall. (Just a metaphor. The penis wasn’t cavorting, or in PJs, or both. No. It just lay there like a slug.) No one fainted, no one looked away, no one stared at it, but everyone pointedly looked anywhere but at it.

    Then our teacher walked past us and snapped (in our general direction) to cover the poor fellow’s thing with some cotton wool. I looked around and saw that the guy closest to the penis-in-the-room also happened to be holding a small bale of cotton wool.

    “Cover it up,” I told him.

    “You do it,” he shot back.

    “You got the cotton, man. And you’re right next to it.”

    “You got gloves on.”

    Couldn’t argue.

    And so the first penis I ever touched was the penis of an old man who’d been dead 4 months, on my first day of medical school, before I turned twenty, with twenty people I’d just met breathing down my neck while they looked away.

    It looked sort of like this (below).

    Everything’s really downhill from there on, you know. Penis-wise.

    Sure, we do touch living people’s penises as part of the clinical examination in our surgical rotations from the second year on. But we do little more than briefly touch them. Most of our clinical tests are focused on the scrotal sac (the balls) not the penis. I never asked my female colleagues what it felt like, but I’ve seen some of my more attractive female colleagues get flustered when their physical proximity, combined with the cool air of the examination room, causes an erection in a male patient. The only reason I never bothered to alleviate their visible discomfort was that I always had to alleviate our patient’s visible and audible discomfort at his body’s involuntary physical response. (Yes, yes, I understand, yes, of course, its just the AC. Yes, she’s fine. Look, she’s smiling. Yes, I understand you are married. Yes, she understands you are married. It’s okay. This happens all the time.)

    But the first time nearly any medical student really handles a patient’s penis is later in internship, when we catheterize them. Catheterization is the process of inserting a tube up a patient’s urinary orifice so it directly drains urine straight from the bladder into an external bag.

    We usually do this as part of prepping the patient for surgery. The process requires us to actually handle the penis. We roll the prepuce (the fold of skin covering the head of the penis) back so we have a clear of the urethra and liberally squirt some anesthetic gel into it. Then we gently guide the catheter (a narrow flexible hollow plastic tube) into it.

    Once we’d gotten the required length in, we’d inflate the balloon at the far end (the balloon makes sure the tube stays in the bladder) and tentatively tug at the catheter to see if it stays in place.

    This task is relatively easy with practice, but the first few times, you’re concentrating on getting it right, and there’s always a nurse assisting, who’s definitely catheterized more patients than you have. So between the patient tensing and gripping his bedspread or clenching his fists, the nurse subtly timing and evaluating you, the catheter flexing at the entrance of the urethra, and the resistance of the patient’s urinary tract rising and falling as you coax the catheter centimeter by centimeter in, you never have the time to, as you phrase it in your question, “feel” anything about touching your patient’s penis.

    So in short: we feel nothing. I personally took mental notes the first time, though. I observed the patient’s face (as I witnessed a resident catheterize one of our patients). I was curious if it hurt. Doctors have penises too, you know.

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