To become a male baby, a fertilized egg needs a Y chromosome. This Y chromosome means the embryo will develop into a male fetus under the guiding influence of testosterone, the male sex hormone.
Unfortunately, in some cases the body’s tissues have an insensitivity to testosterone in which case problems during development may occur.
A baby boy is born with a set of male genitals, a penis and testicles, which are neatly packed into the scrotum, but with few other visible differences from a baby girl. Unseen, though, there are also differences in the “wiring” of the brain between sexes.
There are few changes in physical sexual development during childhood. Most changes start to occur in the early teen years with the onset of puberty, which tends to be roughly a year later than in girls.
Boys start their genital development between the ages of 11 and 12, with an adolescent growth spurt occurring at around the age of 14 years.
First, the testicles, the organs we generally know as a man’s “balls”, start to grow larger and produce an increased amount of the hormone testosterone, which then induces the other changes in the body.
During this time boys grow taller, build up muscles, and their shoulders widen. Hair starts to grow in their pubic region, under their arms, on their chests, face, legs and arms.
A boy’s voice deepens as his testosterone causes his voice box, or larynx, to grow. This change in voice now occurs at an average age of thirteen and a half years, whereas in the year 1750 the change happened at an average age of eighteen years.
Not only does a boy’s body grow during this time, but so do his genitals. His penis, prostate and seminal vesicles grow in size as his testosterone levels rise.
Sperm production will have started in the testicles during childhood and becomes fully developed during puberty. Once a boy’s level of testosterone is high enough ejaculation becomes possible: on average this milestone is reached around the age of twelve and a half.
Erections become normal throughout the night and in the early morning during REM sleep (this so-called Rapid Eye Movement sleep, occupying the phases between deep sleep, is when we dream). An average 13 year old boy will have 4 erections per night, which he will not normally be aware of.
However, sometimes a “nocturnal emission” may occur, a spontaneous ejaculation during the night-time, usually accompanied by sexual dreams or thoughts. About 80% of men experience them at some point in their lives, however, they don’t occur much beyond the age of thirty.
Activity in the testicles stays the same for practically all of a man’s life, with only a slight impairment in later years. However, there is a big debate going on about whether men experience an equivalent to women’s menopause, a kind of male “andropause“.
During this phase in their middle years some men may experience a loss of sex drive and energy due to a potential fall in testosterone levels.
Compared to women, men’s bodies are – on average – taller and more muscular. Their bodies distribute fat differently, with the preferred storage place being their bellies. Men tend to be stronger than women, but do not necessarily have more stamina.
What it’s like to live in one
Anna has written of how it feels to be in a woman’s body, so here’s my take on how it feels to be in a man’s body.
But where to start? Well, how about the thing that seems to occupy most men’s thoughts for much of the time? Yes, I mean sex.
It’s probably hard for a woman to understand how strong men’s sex drive is for so much of the time. There’s no direct way of comparing our experience of sexual desire, of course, but what we do know is that on average men think about sex more than women, they masturbate more, they want sex more often, and they have more partners.
They also probably spend more time, money and effort in trying to get sex, and they certainly spend a lot more on paid-for sex or porn with which they can discharge their sexual desires.
The problem, if it is indeed a problem, is that most men’s sexual urges don’t stay discharged for long after an orgasm and ejaculation.
Likely as not, next day the urges are back again, just as strong – and so it goes on, day after day, from about thirteen or fourteen years of age to fifty or so, after which many men find their sexual needs finally become less urgent.
Ah, but men could control themselves if they wanted to, I hear many readers cry. The simple fact is that there’s a sexual imperative in men which I believe has no exact match in women.
It’s an earthy, powerful force which seems to be separate from the desire to have an emotionally close sexual relationship with a partner: to put it bluntly, it’s the urge to fuck, and it’s more-or-less an ever-present one.
Of course this can be expressed within a relationship, just as a woman’s sexual urgency often is, but I see it as something separate from the wish to “make love” to a partner, or find a partner to enjoy sex with.
Like it or not, most men are highly sexual beings, and their strong and persistent sex drive can be a real challenge – especially for those who do not have a regular sexual partner, or for those whose sexual partner is less highly sexed than they are. In such cases it can seem like rather more than an itch to scratch: it can be a compelling and intense need.
So it’s no wonder that masturbation is so common, even among men who are in a relationship. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that all men masturbate, even when they’re in a fulfilling sexual relationship – they just may not admit it.
Ideally, of course, such pleasure would be shared with one’s partner, but there’s something about the uncomplicated pleasure of masturbation which can be very satisfying – a man can be purely concerned with his own satisfaction and need not think about anyone else’s pleasure.
In some surveys, the highest frequency of masturbation was reported as being among young boys, who apparently masturbate on average eleven times a week. (Academic data on jacking off can be found here.) Maybe this widespread tendency to masturbate from early on in life gives men such a fixation on their penises!
Essentially, the penis becomes a symbol of masculinity and sexual power for many men.
And even if a man’s penis isn’t linked so overtly his sense of sexual power, it’s still a powerful symbol of his potency and masculinity. For many men, waking up with an erection every morning is a reassuring indicator of potency.
And nothing is more destructive to a man’s self-confidence and self-esteem than not being able to “get it up” at will, or losing his morning erections as he gets older.
The problem of course is that the penis isn’t a completely reliable machine: imagine having your self-esteem tied to a complicated and delicate mechanism that may let you down when you most want it to work – for example, when you are in a sexual situation with a woman who wants to make love.
There’s a lot of discussion about penis size, of course, and you might think men believe “the bigger, the better”.
And yes, they probably do, but to my way of thinking this isn’t just about a belief that a bigger penis is better for a woman during sex; it’s actually also about the fact that men are very competitive.
As Anna has observed, women do seem to have a tendency to talk things through: men have a tendency to act, and often they act in a way that is competitive.
In a fast food restaurant the other day I heard two mothers with some small boys asking, “Why do they have to be so competitive?”
When I looked over to see what was happening, the boys – aged between eight and eleven, I’d say – were trying to establish who had the most French fries in his portion.
Frustrating though this may have been to their mothers, who couldn’t understand why the boys couldn’t just get on with the job of eating their food, the fact is that this is what boys and men do – they compete all the time; mostly, I think, to establish a hierarchy in which they know their positions.
Now, you might argue about whether this is good for the male psyche, or even for society at large, and you might disagree with my proposition that such competition is an inevitable part of being male, but leave that aside for a moment and think about what it means for some of the individuals who happen to inhabit a male body.
In the world of sport, whether that’s practiced at a professional level or at school, there’s a vast cultural pressure to be fitter, bigger, healthier, stronger, and more successful.
If you happen to be a male who inhabits a less-muscular body, you are probably going to end up with a sense of being a second-class male, of not matching up to the ideal standards that will get you health, wealth and happiness.
And sure, this is a social pressure, an illusion, if you will, but there is another much more genuine bodily pressure on men: each of us carries the knowledge that we will most likely die earlier than our female partner (the average age of male death in the UK in 2003 was 73.2 years; for females it was 79.4 years. This male/female divide exists worldwide, and in some countries it’s a lot more marked. In Russia, for example, life expectancy is 66.4 years for women, but a depressing 56 for men.)
No-one quite knows why men die younger than women, but it’s most likely related to the effects of testosterone on the male body. It’s probably true that this knowledge doesn’t really sink into the male psyche until rather later in life when it becomes unhappily clear that it’s not possible to keep up with the young males all around.
For many men the years beyond fifty herald declining health and a loss of potency, which as I mentioned above is incredibly important to the male psyche.
It seems ironic that as women move into a phase of their lives where they are free of the pressure of menstruation and fertility, men are moving into a phase of life where they are often more limited by ill-health and limited opportunities – not to mention the realization that so many things they may have wanted to do or achieve are not now going to be possible.
Coronary heart disease is the single biggest killer of men, affecting one in four males but only one in six women. And there is also new evidence to suggest that men’s immune systems may actually be inherently less efficient than women’s.
But many of the differences in death rates are lifestyle-related – men die much younger in Russia, for example, because they drink so much – and the same is true of many western countries where obesity and alcohol related illness rates are different in the two sexes.
One likely reason these health issues seem much worse for men is that they don’t take care of their bodies in the way women do: we know men are much more reluctant to visit their family doctor, for example.
And while it’s true that some of this difference could be accounted for by the fact that boys are often brought up to be self-reliant and not to show vulnerability, some experts have suggested that because men don’t get pregnant or have periods they aren’t perhaps as in touch with their bodies as women and so they don’t have the routine contact with health services that women have.
Stress also has a part to play in men’s shorter lifespan.
Working long hours for long periods kills people before their time: yet many men think they have no alternative when pressurized by unethical employers to work overtime – not to mention their desire to be seen as competent and effective in a workplace which fosters competition.
The effects of stress would certainly be reduced if men were more able to open up and show their emotions and vulnerability, but doing so does not come easily.
There’s too much pressure on men to be seen as strong and competent, yet it’s a step that men need to take to protect their health: even so, it’s hard to see it happening any time soon.
The lack of attention given to men’s health as a specific issue may also contribute to the gender gap. Prostate cancer is a case in point. It’s one of the major killers of men, affecting around 21,000 British men per year and killing 10,000.
That compares to the 13,000 women killed by breast cancer, yet prostate cancer remains relatively low profile. This is undoubtedly because women have fought to get breast cancer into the public eye, while men remain silent, unwilling to discuss their heath issues.
Living in a male body can be a wonderful thing: and when it’s a fit body, the sheer pleasure of male strength and energy is a very uplifting sensation, whether that’s expressed in chopping logs, building things, enjoying the surge of masculine energy that comes during lovemaking, or whatever.
It seems to me that one of the most important characteristics of a mature man is knowing how to use his strength wisely: men in the UK weigh, on average, 182 pounds (82 kg) while women weigh on average 154 pounds (70 kg). This difference should not be a source of threat to women, though sadly it seems it often is.
The unhappy thing is that this power and muscularity is often just as much a threat between men as it is between men and women: men have a responsibility to express their power wisely and appropriately, and not to use it, for example, as a vehicle for their anger.
Lastly, I want to return to the issue of sex. Anna has observed how a woman may feel betrayed by her body when she menstruates, regardless of whether she wants that to happen or not. This reminds me of the distress many young men express about their wet dreams and spontaneous erections.
And, I suppose, on reflection, looking at this page some years after it was written, that might also be true of older men who continue to have issues with lack of ejaculatory control and their ability to control ejaculation.
In some cases, the inability to stop premature ejaculation has profound effects on a man’s sexual confidence – indeed, the effects of premature ejaculation on sexual performance should not be underestimated in men of any age.
As for young men, while at some level they enjoy the sensations of their erections, they are often horribly embarrassed by them, especially in mixed sex situations like school classrooms. The problem is that spontaneous erections spring up all the time in young men (and some not so young men!) even when they aren’t thinking about sex, at least not consciously.
And many young men are extremely distressed that they get an erection while kissing or dancing with their girlfriends, even though there may be no expectation of sex (though of course later in life these same men may want their girlfriends to know they are aroused, and their girlfriends may be pleased that they are!)
All in all, while this aspect of male sexuality clearly isn’t as much of a problem as menstruation can be, there’s still that slight sense of discomfort about not being in control of one’s body.