Circumcision and the foreskin

If you have grown up with a circumcised penis, you may think the battle between the pro and anti campaigners is completely over the top. What, you may think, does it matter if someone has been circumcised or not?

The first point is that in most cases circumcision is done because it is traditional, not because it is a medical requirement. The argument that circumcision prevents penile cancer has long since been disproved - and penile cancer is so rare anyway that this argument never had much substance. So is circumcision justifiable on the grounds of tradition?

I guess that depends entirely on whether or not you can go beyond the unquestioning acceptance of tradition as a good or necessary thing and act in a more enlightened and thoughtful way. I find it truly appalling that religious superstition dictates what we do to our babies in the twenty first century. It's typical of the mentality of most humans that they think it's acceptable to circumcise a baby (without any aesthetic) just because its a sign of their status as a privileged group in "God's eyes".

Make no mistake, circumcision is mutilation. It's not justifiable on health grounds, it's indefensible on religious grounds, and it's an act of barbaric cruelty on a baby whose body is being changed irrevocably without his permission.

Furthermore, in the West, in the USA in particular, circumcision was actually introduced as a means of discouraging masturbation. Naturally enough, when the medical profession got their hands on the practice, it became institutionalized. But when you consider how circumcision is normally performed you soon see what a bizarre thing it is.

First of all, the traditional approach has not been to use any anesthetic. How can that be? The defense, as I understand it, is that a baby's awareness of pain is incomplete. Not very likely, as any mother will tell you. The reactions of the baby reveal the trauma that the operation cause.

Secondly, the baby boy's foreskin is not designed to separate from the glans until he is several years old. Tearing it off, as happens in post-natal circumcision, leaves scars on the delicate surface of the glans which can produce severe discomfort later in life. (The boy's foreskin is attached to his glans by a membrane called the synechia.) The glans becomes dry and  keratinized, and is both over-sensitive to cold and the friction of underwear, and under-sensitive during sexual intercourse. The glans is a delicate mucus membrane, not ordinary skin. It was not designed to be left exposed to the atmosphere - it was designed to be covered by a protective foreskin. Talk about a double whammy! The loss of the foreskin and the loss of a normal glans.

Then there is the issue of botched circumcisions. In my opinion these accidents, by no means rare, have occurred with sufficient frequency to justify a ban on the procedure unless it is absolutely medically necessary - which in fact it never is.

Thirdly, those women who say that they prefer the appearance of a circumcised penis are both naive - in that they are trying to appropriate the penis as though they had some proprietorial ownership of it - and ignorant - in that such fashions as what seems most attractive on the body  are only the result of culturally determined phenomena like circumcision in the first place.

Men who have been circumcised at birth talk of feeling mutilated. And so they have been - without their consent, and often by permission of the people who were supposed to be looking after the baby's best interests - its own parents. Elective circumcision of a baby boy at the behest of its parents is no more or less than a criminal and barbaric act.

What effect does circumcision have on ejaculation?

I have heard from many women and men that circumcision massively affects a man's ejaculatory capacity. For men with premature ejaculation, it may make things worse to start with, since the stimulation during intercourse is so much more intense; later there is a period when the keratinisation of the glans causes the man to ejaculate more slowly. However, I would never recommend that a man be circumcised just for this reason. The same applies to delayed ejaculation - although some men I know in my sex therapy practice have elected for circumcision in the hope it would cure delayed ejaculation.

How many men are circumcised?

In 1997, 76% of men in the USA were circumcised. The percentage is falling as more and more doctors and parents realize the errors of their ways and leave the exquisitely designed penis - a perfect organ for sexual pleasure of both the boy and his future sexual partners - in the state that nature intended.

In the UK, only a small minority of boys are routinely circumcised at birth (probably around 1%). The same is true in Australia and most other enlightened Western countries. Most circumcisions are performed because an ignorant health care practitioner has misdiagnosed phimosis. Note: a ballooning foreskin when a baby urinates does not indicate phimosis - it is normal!

The British Medical Association says that doctors can conscientiously object to performing non-therapeutic circumcision on moral, ethical and legal grounds. They actually state that circumcision is and invasive and radical procedure, and conservative treatments have to be tried before circumcision, otherwise it is unethical.

Circumcision has almost died out among the white population of the UK, and presumably only Muslims and Jews practice it with any regularity. This accounts for the drop in the prevalence of circumcision in the population as a whole. In the generation born between 1956 and 1960, as many as 20 percent of men had a circumcision. Nowadays, as we have seen, it is probably about 1%. Sikhs, Hindus, and Buddhists circumcise about one baby in ten (but why?). Jews circumcise almost all baby boys (98.7%), presumably excluding only those babies who have hypospadias, where the foreskin may be incomplete and needed for repair of the penile abnormality. Unfortunately the incidence of hypospadias is as high as 3% in most populations.

The functions of the foreskin

The foreskin does several things, and it does them all well.

It is full of touch receptors which are necessary for full sexual pleasure.

It protects the sensitive glans penis.

It moves smoothly during sexual intercourse or masturbation and there is evidence that it provides both partners with more sexual pleasure than the would otherwise experience. (This comes from a study of women who had had sexual partners with and without foreskins. There was a preference among these sexually experienced women for sexual partners whose penis was natural. The reason seems to be that a circumcised penis acts to remove natural vaginal lubrication, whereas the movement of the foreskin in the vagina keeps sex lubricated and therefore more satisfying for both partners.)

This is an intact or uncircumcised penis

This is the structure of the foreskin

 Copyright Intactivism. Used by permission.

So what's the problem with circumcision?

Well, we have no right to take away the sexual pleasure of babies, as happens with routine post-natal circumcision. If you have been circumcised and you're saying, "But I get plenty of sexual pleasure!" the rather obvious answer is - do you have any idea how it would feel to be uncircumcised? Try this post circumcision sensitivity test.

As far as the question of vaginal lubrication, to which we referred above, is concerned, consider the following research findings by two scientists.

Among 138 sexually experienced women 86% said they preferred a non-circumcised sexual partner.

These women said that circumcised men were more likely to experience premature ejaculation and less likely to make them come during intercourse through vaginal thrusting. These are major differences, and if they really represent the pleasure and success of sex for women, then circumcised men and their partners are at a serious disadvantage.

The women also claimed that their vaginal secretions dissipated more quickly during sex with the circumcised men and that they found intercourse less pleasurable, with more friction.

Although you might say that the addition of lube would solve this problem, that's not quite the point. The point is that men who are circumcised have a number of problems in making intercourse pleasurable for their partners.

Another major difference reported by these women was the style of thrusting employed by circumcised and uncircumcised men. Over three quarters of the women said that circumcised men used longer, harder and faster thrusts, while men with a complete penis used more gentle strokes, thrust more shallowly, and were in contact with the clitoris and pubic mound more.

The implication here is that the removal of the touch sensors in the foreskin of the circumcised men left them unable to gauge the depth and power of their thrusts, or that they needed to engage in more vigorous intercourse to achieve the same level of pleasure, and perhaps also that they lacked feedback on when they were approaching orgasm - thereby meaning they came sooner, and experienced more premature ejaculation.

The authors concluded that the near universal preference for uncircumcised men as sexual partners was because the mechanism of movement of the complete penis is very different to the way the uncircumcised penis moves in the vagina.

In an intact penis, the corpus cavernosa and corpus spongiosum slide within the penile skin, while the skin next to the vaginal wall moves very little. This means the penis is thrusting within its own sheath of skin, with very little friction and very little loss of vaginal lube.

Taking this further, when the penis is withdrawn slightly from the vagina, the foreskin bunches up behind the coronal ridge, so that the tip of the foreskin (with its high density of sensitive nerve endings) is in contact with the coronal ridge of the glans (which also has a high density of nerve endings).

This produces high levels of nerve activity, so much so that the man stops his outward stroke, and therefore his thrusting style is shorter and more sensitive than that of the circumcised man.

When there is no moveable sheath of skin, as in the circumcised penis, there is friction of skin against skin in the vagina, with abrasion and even the need for artificial lube. The coronal ridge of the penis does exactly what it is supposed not to do - it acts as a one-way valve, expelling the woman's natural lubrication as the man thrusts.

As the circumcised man withdraws his penis form his partner's vagina, he does not have the neural feedback from the missing nerve receptors of his foreskin. He also lacks an ejaculatory trigger, since these nerve cells are part of the mechanism of ejaculation.

To reach orgasm, the man who has a circumcised penis must add extra stimulation to his glans and the internal structures of his penis by thrusting harder. He has both less control and reaches orgasm quicker than the uncircumcised men. In doing so he removes a lot of the natural lube from his partner's vagina.

The women also observed that uncircumcised men appeared to enjoy intercourse more than circumcised men, so that the men whose penis had been mutilated sought more oral sex than the uncircumcised men.

The overall conclusion was that sex with a man whose penis is still intact is a better experience for both the man and the woman. Obviously, this needs to form part of the thought process parents go through when they give so-called "informed consent" the the mutilation of their baby boy's genitals.

References and further reading

Some medical-type pictures of normal penises. The source of the information above. Sex with an uncut penis 

Statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (who say "Don't circumcise baby boys"!) No small piece of skin

A website describing the normal development of the foreskin or prepuce from birth through to age 18 CIRP

Foreskin restoration National organization of restoring men

Historical context of circumcision and the biology, mechanism and medical and social aspects of it today Circumstitions

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