Circumcision and Sexuality
The presence or absence of the foreskin constitutes a dramatic difference in the appearance and nature of the male genital organ. Therefore, circumcision must have some, if not considerable, effect on human sexuality. How does the foreskin or lack of it affect the subjective sexual experience of the male? How does his “style” of penis affect his body image? Does it make a difference for his female partner? Does circumcision contribute to homosexuality? Does the pain inflicted upon the infant’s penis have any long – lasting effect upon his attitudes about sex?
In its primitive origins, some peoples believed that circumcision was a necessary prerequisite for sexual life, that it increased fertility, and that it enhanced sexuality. Other peoples considered circumcision to be a “civilizing” influence which was deliberately intended to decrease sexual sensation.
The people of the New Hebrides had the following myth about the origins of circumcision:
“…A man went into the jungle with his sister. She climbed a breadfruit tree to cut down the ripe fruit with a bamboo. When she had finished she threw down the bamboo which accidentally cut the man’s foreskin. After the man recovered, he had intercourse with a woman, who found it so good that she told another woman; soon this man was in great demand, to the fury of the other men; but their women sneer at them and say they need to be like that one. So they pay him to tell the secret. He tells, and they have in such wise cut their children ever after.” 1
(It is not clear how the cut supposedly made intercourse better, nor whether his foreskin was cut off or merely cut.)
In contrast, the ancient scholar, Philo Judaeus of Alexandria:
“…regards circumcision as a symbol of the excision of pleasures which bewitch the mind, and the legislators thought good to dock the organ to signify not only the excision of excessive pleasures, but ‘that a man should know himself and banish from the soul the grievous malady of conceit.” 2
Similarly, in the 13th century Rabbi Moses Maimonides wrote:
“As regards circumcision, I think that one of its objects is to limit sexual intercourse, and to weaken the organ of generation as far as possible, and thus cause man to be moderate. Some people believe that circumcision is to remove a defect in man’s formation, but every one can easily reply: How can products of nature be deficient so as to require external completion, especially as the use of the foreskin to that organ is evident. This commandment has not been enjoyed as a complement to a deficient physical creation, but as a means for perfecting man’s moral shortcomings. The bodily injury caused to that organ is exactly that which is desired; it does not interrupt any vital function, nor does it destroy the power of generation. Circumcision simply counteracts excessive lust; for there is no doubt that circumcision weakens the power of sexual excitement, and sometimes lessens the natural enjoyment; the organ necessarily becomes weak when it loses blood and is deprived of its covering from the beginning. Our Sages (Beresh. Rabba, c. 80) say distinctly: It is hard for a woman, with whom an uncircumcised had sexual intercourse, to separate from him. This is, as I believe, the best reason for the commandment concerning.” 3
It is questionable that anything as subjective and individual as sexual sensation can be measured or analyzed. However, Masters and Johnson attempted a study of this:
“Thirty five uncircumcised males were matched at random with circumcised study subjects of similar ages. Routine neurologic testing for exteroceptive and light tactile discrimination were conducted on the ventral and dorsal surfaces of the penile body, with particular attention directed toward the glans. No clinically significant difference could be established between the circumcised and uncircumcised glans during these examinations.” 4
Many others refute Masters’ and Johnson’s findings, however, claiming that much sensitivity is lost when the glans is deprived of its protective covering.
Among Dr. Foley’s findings:
“During a boy’s growth, the foreskin protects the sensitive glans. Normally the surface of the glans is composed of a smooth, glistening membrane only a few cells in thickness. The surface cells are alive, and naked nerve-endings are distributed among these cells. After circumcision when the glans is exposed to soiled diapers and rough clothing, this membrane becomes 10 times thicker, and the free nerve-endings disappear. The surface becomes covered with an adherent layer of dead cells, rough, dry, and insensitive.” 5
According to Dr. Morgan:
“The subcutaneous tissue of the glans is provided with special sensory receptors that are concerned with appreciating pleasurable sensations occurring during coitus. They are stimulated normally only when the glans is exposed. In the circumcised subject, these receptors are constantly stimulated and lose their sensitivity.” 6
Also the foreskin itself is an erogenous zone, of which the circumcised male is deprived. In a technical article on the subject, Dr. Winkelmann writes:
“The specific type of erogenous zone is found in the mucocutaneous regions of the body. Such specific sites of acute sensation in the body are the genital regions, including the prepuce, penis, clitoris, and external genitalia of the female, and the perianal skin, lip, nipple and conjunctiva. It is the special anatomy of these regions that requires the use of the term ‘specific’ when one speaks of erotic sensations originating in the skin. This anatomy favors acute perception.” 7
Personal experiences of men who underwent circumcision during adulthood and were able to compare their “before and after” sexual sensations, are quite revealing:
“For thirty years, my penis was as it came, uncircumcised. After thirty years in the natural state I allowed myself to be persuaded by a physician to have the foreskin removed – not because of any problems at the time, but because, in the physician’s view, there might be problems in the future. That was five years ago and I am sorry I had it done from my standpoint and from what my female sex partners have told me.
“For myself, the sensitivity in the glans has been reduced by at least 50 percent. There it is unprotected, constantly rubbing against the fabric of whatever I am wearing. In a sense, it has become calloused. Intercourse is now (as we used to say about the older, heavier condoms) like washing your hands with your gloves on. Masturbation for me has lost many of the dimensions it once had. With the foreskin over the glans I could masturbate to orgasm at a leisurely pace, or I could pull back the foreskin and, using the natural lubricant which had seeped out, speed up the process. It was also handy to be able to catch the come in the foreskin.
“The same was true regarding manual manipulation of my penis by my female partners. Now they can’t do as much. The options in fellatio are also sharply reduced. I seem to have a relatively unresponsive stick where I once had a sexual organ.” 8
In contrast to this, a doctor who underwent circumcision during adulthood reported improved sexual satisfaction:
“The overpowering erotic sensation has been dulled, and with it some of the immediate pleasurable sensation. Initial excitement has decreased…. Friction and therefore sensation are diminished, and this in turn is a retarding factor in ejaculation…. The factor of penis sensation has been greatly altered by circumcision. If one’s objective is an intense, overpowering sensation on intromission and rapid ejaculation, circumcision is undesirable. But if one is willing to sacrifice some sharp sensation for a more prolonged experience, for enjoyment of more foreplay, and for a situation where each thrust of the penis is not likely to result in that fluid termination of the act, circumcision is a great help. It amazes me how ‘tough’ my penis has become and how light pressure stimulation does not bring intercourse to the plateau phase.” 9
Apparently this man had difficulty with premature ejaculation, which was helped by circumcision. The dramatic contrast between these two experiences reinforces the case for individual choice which infants and children are not afforded if circumcised.
A woman writes of a ruined relationship resulting from her boyfriend’s circumcision at her insistence:
“I became obsessed with the idea that my boyfriend should be circumcised. We were very happy together, had much in common, and, best of all, we were very compatible in bed. But I refused to get married until he was circumcised-and he gave in.
“That little operation completely destroyed our life together. Before he had fabulous staying power, but after the operation he would have an orgasm in five minutes and leave me high and dry.
“To make things worse, sex became very painful for me. Twice I had to see a doctor due to minor infections from the chafing. Our beautiful sexual togetherness became a laborious nightmare of staying creams, lubricants, and frustrations.
“He says he will never forgive me, and we no longer speak to each other. I am now dating a French boy with a lovely long foreskin, and my sex life is back to normal, but I cannot forget what a stupid mistake I made that altered the life of a lovely person. Should I give birth to a son after I’m married, believe me he will stay natural.” 10
Much speculation and debate has centered over whether the intact or the circumcised male has better “staying power” or fewer problems with premature ejaculation. The two totally opposite experiences previously cited, suggest that the ability to last during intercourse is a highly individual matter based primarily on psychological factors rather than the presence or absence of the foreskin.
Still another aspect of the foreskin’s function relates to facilitating insertion with resultant greater ease in sexual penetration. According to Morgan:
“During the act of coitus, the uncircumcised phallus penetrates smoothly and without friction, the prepuce gradually retracting as the organ advances. In contrast, when the circumcised organ is introduced during coitus, friction develops between the glans and the vaginal mucosa. Penetration by the circumcised man has been compared to thrusting the foot into a sock held open at the top while on the other hand, penetration by his intact counterpart has been likened to slipping the foot into a sock that has been previously rolled up.” 6
“With the loss of the foreskin the male loses a natural gliding mechanism helpful with the sex act. With a foreskin it’s possible for the erectile body of the shaft to move back and forth within the loose outer skin…. The lubrication by the mucous membrane of an uncircumcised penis is extremely helpful in coitus, especially for men who have sex with older women, who may experience a dryness of the vagina in later years. With the foreskin covering all or part of the glans, a man can insert his penis and move the erect shaft against the outer skin without irritating the dry vagina.” 11
In the ‘previous chapter considerable discussion was given to the anti-masturbation hysteria of the late
1800s, with circumcision being one of the many “cures” or “preventatives” for this “malady.” Today most people agree that masturbation is harmless. Virtually all males, and probably most females, do masturbate, at least occasionally. Some proclaim the practice as beneficial – a harmless avenue for sexual release for people too young for marriage or responsible relationships, or for people who must be separated from their mates. Probably most couples practice mutual masturbation as part of sexual foreplay or as an occasional alternative to intercourse. Even those who disapprove of masturbation must realize that circumcised males certainly do masturbate. The operation is not justified as a deterrent. However, with the lack of a foreskin, much technique is lost. The circumcised individual obviously has less skin with which to perform the act and therefore he is not afforded many subtleties and variations.
The foreskin or lack of it can have an effect on the individual’s body image. In our society, since the circumcised penis has been the norm, most circumcised males do not question their lack of foreskin. Sometimes the intact individual feels like an “oddity.” On the other hand, many intact males have been proud of their “individuality,” feeling a sense of “completeness” that other males lack. Some circumcised males feel a sense of deprivation and incompleteness over their missing foreskins. In other countries where circumcision is not practiced, the intact male would simply feel normal, and the circumcised male would feel pronouncedly at a loss, similar to a person who is missing a finger. How the individual feels about his intact or circumcised penis will affect his body image, which will in turn affect his sexual performance. However, for someone who is dissatisfied and prefers a change, the foreskin can be easily cut off but cannot truly be replaced.
If it is any reassurance to the male who feels inadequate over his “style” of penis, most American women are abysmally ignorant about this matter. Most are familiar only with the circumcised penis and have no awareness that it should be any different. However, with the growing trend for parents to leave their sons intact, perhaps our daughters will have more awareness. Sometimes women from foreign countries express dissatisfaction over American men’s lack of foreskins.
A Swedish woman writes:
“I have been in the United States nearly five years, since leaving my native Sweden. When I first started dating here, I was surprised, confused, shocked, and disappointed because almost all of the men here are circumcised. I have always regarded circumcision as barbaric and ugly. There are many American ways I still do not understand. Perhaps I am still experiencing culture shock, but a whole penis can’t be that bad, can it?” 12
Among women who are aware of the difference or have experienced sex with both intact and circumcised males, some have different preferences, at least over its appearance. According to Comfort in The Joy of Sex:
“Some find the circumcised glans ‘neater’… while others love the sense of discovery which goes with retraction. If you are uncircumcised and if she prefers the other, retract it — if vice versa, you’ve had it.” 13
In a recent article in the NOCIRC Annual Report, Jeannine Parvati Baker has shared the following:
“I have had both intact and circumcised lovers and find the intact to embody the difference between a symphony and monotone. However, when one is in love with a circumcised man, that monotone can be like a Tibetan bell – holding all the sounds of the universe in a single tone.” 14
A mature and loving relationship should transcend superficial, physical attributes. Which type of penis the man has is definitely secondary to such things as gentleness, caring, kindness, and a sense of humor. However, if a man is intact, it is highly doubtful that circumcision will improve his sexual experience, for in most cases the opposite has proven true. And most importantly, if parents allow their son to grow up with his penis intact, it appears he will have some advantages sexually by having a complete organ.
The Question of Homosexuality
Does the presence or absence of the foreskin have any influence upon the individual’s eventual hetero- or homosexual orientation?
Authorities cannot agree on the many purported causes of male homosexuality. Theories include the absence of a father figure during childhood (or an unsatisfactory father-son relationship), a domineering mother, genetic predisposition, “mis-incarnation” – a female spirit imprisoned in a male body, and developmental arrest. Is homosexuality a “disease”, “a symptom of a sick society” – or is it a potentially beneficial variation of the sex drive which enables individuals to concentrate productivity in ways that do not include having and raising children? While no answer will satisfy everyone, there has been a marked trend among psychologists in recent years to regard homosexuality simply as a matter of preference — no big deal” as long as the individual accepts it as an innate part of his being.
I have been told that most homosexual males (in the U.S.) have been circumcised and prefer circumcised males. Their literature depicts almost exclusively circumcised penises, although they have ample access to foreign material with intact males.
Dr. Foley commented on a study of admissions to a large Naval hospital: “Of all admissions, 32% had been circumcised. Of all admissions of ‘overt homosexuality,’ 100 % had been circumcised.” 5
One writer, responding to a newsletter’s article about circumcision, informs us:
“As a connoisseur of penises — I’m gay — I prefer the nice round head of a circumcised penis. So do almost all of my friends.” 15
Male homosexuality does exist in Europe and in other parts of the world where circumcision is not practiced. Therefore the lack of foreskin could not be a sole factor. The question is raised as to why the homosexual male would prefer the circumcised penis. And if the absence of foreskin contributes to male homosexuality, why is this so?
Dr. Alfred Kinsey intended to investigate the relationship between circumcision and homosexuality before his death. It is hoped that in the future someone will do an objective study about this.
It has been noted that there are some men who are otherwise heterosexual — perhaps they are married and have children, perhaps they have never had an overt homosexual encounter — but who have been circumcised and have an unusual interest in other men’s foreskins. Possibly “foreskin envy” — these strong feelings of missing something — is the basis of some men’s homosexuality, and certainly in many more cases, the homosexual aspect of bisexuality. Some pose the theory that the original trauma of circumcision, and the resultant resentment over the lack of foreskin brings about a castration anxiety.
Patricia Nicholas, a primal therapist, writes:
“One patient, a homosexual, had a circumcision primal after which it became evident to him why he had been unable to have sexual relations with a woman. Each time he had tried to enter a woman he had experienced excruciating pain-the same pain he experienced when he relived the operation. Obviously this is not to say that circumcision invariably leads to homosexuality but merely that the experience on its own, or compounded with earlier or later trauma, can contribute to neurosis.” 16
We are now learning that the newborn is a sensitive, aware human being. Certainly pain inflicted upon his penis during the first days of his life must have some impact upon his ultimate sexuality. There is evidence that the newborn infant experiences a certain degree of sexual arousal:
“The more obvious forms of sexuality also begin very early. Dr. Rene A. Spitz, of the University of Colorado School of Medicine, who is a pioneer in the detailed study of the behavior of infants, has noted the signs of sexual arousal in newborn babies during the REM (rapid eye movement) stages of sleep. Dr. Charles Sarnoff, child psychiatrist and author of Latency, a recent book on childhood sexuality, visited hospital delivery rooms and observed what just-borns do with their hands. In the first few minutes of life, he noted, a child’s hands move at random, now touching the covers, now touching different parts of the body. Within a half hour the first bit of sex learning takes place. The infants discover which parts of the body are most pleasant to touch. Some babies return again and again to the mouth, others to the ear, and many others return to the genitals.” 17
In the light of this — what is the ultimate effect if the baby’s first sensations in his penis are not pleasure but instead extreme pain?
1. Bettelheim, Bruno “Symbolic Wounds” Reader in Comparative Religion (2nd Ed.) Lessa, William A. & Vogt, Evon Z., editors Harper & Row, New York, 2nd Ed., c. 1965, p. 235-236.
2. James, Theodore “Philo on Circumcision-History of Medicine” S.A. Medical Journal, Vol. 50, No 36, August 21, 1976, p. 1409-1412.
3. Maimonides, Moses Guide for the Perplexed Dover Publications, Inc., New York, c. 1956, p. 378.
4. Masters, William H., M.D. & Johnson, Virginia E. Human Sexual Response J. & A. Churchill Ltd., London, c. 1966, p. 189-191.
5. Foley, John M., M.D. “The Unkindest Cut of All” Fact Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 4, July-Aug. 1966, p. 3-9.
6. Morgan, William Keith, M.D. “Penile Plunder” The Medical Journal of Australia, Vol. 1, May 27, 1967, p. 1102.
7. Winkelmann, R.K., M.D. “The Erogenous Zones; Their Nerve Supply and its Significance” Proceedings of the Staff Meetings of The Mayo Clinic Vol. 34, No. 2, Rochester, Minn., Wed., Jan. 21, 1959, p. 39.
8. Anonymous “The Unkindest Cut of All” Playgirl, July 1979, p. 108, 111.
9. Valentine, Robert J., M.D. “Adult Circumcision: A Personal Report” Medical Aspects of Human Sexuality, January 1974, p. 33.
10. La Roc, Carolyn “Circumcision Not for Everyone” Playgirl, Vol. 11, No. 9, February 1975.
11. Conaway, Tim “The First Rip-Off -Report on Circumcision” Hustler Magazine, May 1979, p. 94-95.
12. “Playgirl Answers” Playgirl, March 1974.
13. Comfort, Alex, M.B., Ph.D. The Joy of Sex Simon & Schuster, c. 1972, p. 65.
14. Baker, Jeannine Parvati excerpt from NOCIRC Annual Report, Spring 2000, p. 4.
15. Ryan, B. (letter to ed.) Moneysworth, March 29, 1976.
16. Nicholas, Patricia “The Lasting Impact” from The Home Birth Book by Ward, Charlotte & Fred Inscape Corp., Washington, D.C., c. 1976, p. 82-83.
17. Safran, Claire “How Children Feel About Their Bodies” Redbook, June 1979, p. 140.
*I firmly believe that the emotional/spiritual connections in a romantic relationship vastly outweigh the importance of any physical characteristic. (I admit, however, that had I ever had a sexual relationship with an intact man, I would undoubtedly have some different insights on the matter. I am now a middle-aged woman, married to a circumcised man, and despite having been young during the 60’s, still embrace relatively conventional values, so did not include that in my “research!”)
During my years of activism I have received countless phone calls from all over the world. On two separate occasions I have had lengthy conversations from men who were intact, had always given the matter little concern, and had married women who had experienced sexual relationships with many other men. In both cases their wives had selected them as husbands because of their intact foreskins. In each case the woman had discovered, out of her personal experiences and comparisons, that her intact partner gave her greater sexual satisfaction. In one of these instances, the woman was the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi!