Last August, I launched an unscientific research project about circumcision. Wondering whether circumcision deprives men of the "capacity for optimal pleasure," as cultural anthropologist Leonard Glick claims in his book Marked in Your Flesh, I asked to hear from men who'd undergone the procedure as adults and experienced sex both ways. Women and men with secondhand comparative knowledge were also invited to weigh in. Soon there were hundreds of e-mails in my in-box, a surprising majority of them earnest and frank.
The volume and intimacy of the responses, I confess, overwhelmed me. I loutishly hid from my in-box for months, to the exasperation of some of my male co-workers. But with the help of superintern Sonia Smith, I've now read and categorized all the responses. And I've come to this reassuring conclusion: Sex isn't better, per se, one way or the other. The benefits and drawbacks of either state are between a man and his penis.
First, the numbers. Of the 79 men who'd experienced sex snipped and unsnipped, 43 said sex improved (55 percent) after their circumcisions, 23 said it went downhill (29 percent), and 13 said there was no change or a mix of pros and cons (16 percent). Click here to read women and gay men compare sex with snipped and unsnipped partners.
My numbers don't differ much from the latest research: Based on a sample of 84 men who'd been circumcised as adults for medical reasons, a 2005 article in Urologia Internationalis found a 61 percent satisfaction rate, with 38 percent saying that penile sensation improved after the procedure, 18 percent saying it got worse, and the rest reporting no change. "No consensus exists regarding the role of the foreskin in sexual performance and satisfaction," the article's urologist authors wrote.
Nor, I think, is a consensus likely to emerge. A couple of readers wrote in to argue that my survey and others like it inevitably tilt positive, because anyone snipped as an adult would want to think the ordeal had a purpose. Maybe so. On the other hand, as Australian doctor and circumcision researcher Robin Willcourt pointed out to me, men who decide they've suffered a loss may be all the more vocal.
I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions about bias. My own sense is that as much as nerve endings, friction, or any other physical factor, what matters for feelings about sex are the reasons a man decides to undergo circumcision, his attitude toward his penis before the procedure, and the reaction of his partners afterward. I'm not sure how much light data can shed on this personal realm.
Men tended to enthuse about their post-snip sex lives if they didn't like the aesthetics of their uncircumcised penises or had past sexual problems. Evan (I've used first names when given permission to do so) said that he started having sex using a condom over his foreskin and "felt very little." When he left condoms behind, he found sex painful. Three weeks after being circumcised, he had sex again. "It was like a revelation," he wrote. Similarly, Neville called his elective snip at 40 "the best thing that ever happened to me." He'd fulfilled a lifetime wish: "I always wanted to be circumcised and envied many of my friends at birth." Another man gave himself a circumcision for his 52nd birthday. "Even though I had a fairly normal foreskin, it was just a nuisance," he wrote. "With a circumcised penis I get more feeling/sensation." Daniel got snipped as a college sophomore to combat recurrent genital warts and premature ejaculation. "You can imagine my relief when I found that sex could last much longer," he wrote.
In the disappointed camp are men who parted with their dearly remembered foreskins at the urging of doctors. Stewart, now 40, was circumcised after a rugby accident at 19. The snip was botched, the skin on his penis hardened, and "less sensation in sex resulted," he said. "I really, really wish I hadn't consented to the procedure." Many men were circumcised because of phimosis, a condition in which the foreskin becomes tight and doesn't fully retract. While some found relief, others were dismayed when they later learned they could have tried another, less invasive treatment. One man remembered discovering masturbation accidentally as a child thanks to his "extremely sensitive" foreskin. A doctor convinced him to get circumcised in his 30s after treatment of a minor skin problem left his foreskin relatively inelastic. "I was afraid I'd miss that feeling," he wrote. He did. Charlie blamed his high-school sex-ed teacher for "making me feel even more of an outsider" by saying that uncircumcised penises were less clean and failing to address how uncircumcised men should put on a condom. Of his circumcision at age 20, he said, "The loss of sensitivity is my biggest loss to date." It doesn't help that when women he is dating learn he was snipped electively as an adult, "every single one of them sighs."
Only four men who wrote in said they got circumcised for religious reasons. Two were pleased with the results, and two were ambivalent. One of them, Eric, said that when he lost his inner foreskin, he lost some sensation. (According to the article in Urologia, "many studies have shown the presence of thousands of erogenous nerve endings on the inner layer of the foreskin.") The upside was that sex lasted longer. "Sex became less exciting but more satisfying," he wrote. Other men reported a similar trade-off. ("Is it better to have a glass of excellent wine, or a bottle of very good wine?" mused one.)
It's worth noting that the Urologia study found no evidence that circumcision prolongs sex or prevents premature ejaculation. But the trade-off theory had some articulate propontents. Boris moved to the United States as a child and "soon discovered that I looked different from almost every other boy." As he grew up, he became more comfortable and started teasing his circumcised friends about their relative lack of sensitivity. Then at 27, he developed phimosis and decided to get circumcised at a doctor's recommendation. Eight months later, he wrote:
If you were to visualize sex as arousal plotted against time, the simplest kind of x/y graph, you would expect to see a line that is rising towards orgasm, where it drops off. I think an accurate way to picture that rise is as a series of spikes—particular moments that are punctuated with especially pleasurable sensation, taking you higher and higher, until the ultimate spike that brings you over the top. The best way I can describe sex without a foreskin is that the very tips of these spikes are shaved off, but the line steadily progresses upwards nonetheless, with the orgasm completely unaffected. Maybe this sounds substantial but somehow it isn't. … Sex is about so much more than raw sensation from one little strip of skin, no matter how sensitive, that pleasure doesn't feel diminished. Who you're with, their excitement, your chemistry together, the sensation of your entire body against another—there are so many things that play into the equation. The marketing slogan would be something like "Hey, it's sex. It still feels really, really good."
There's no way I can top that. Thanks to all of you wrote to me in the spirit of unscientific but sincere inquiry. And to all penises, everywhere, Happy Valentine's Day.