For a woman looking for a sensitive man, an uncircumcised partner has one advantage: his penis will probably be more responsive because of the foreskin that covers its tip. Called a prepuce, the foreskin is removed in some males during circumcision. Over time, however, the circumcised penis loses some sensitivity as it rubs unprotected against a man's underwear all day. Does that bode badly for the love lives of men who were stripped of their foreskin?
Not so fast ... The question of whether circumcision is beneficial or bad news for a man's sex life — and his health — is still fodder for debate.
Circumcision — A Question of Culture
The Bible says "And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you" (Genesis 17:11). In the Jewish culture, as well as the Muslim one, boy babies are circumcised as a religious rite. Today, however, some 85 percent of males — regardless of religious orientation — are circumcised in the United States, according to a new edition of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask, by David Reuben, M.D. (New York: HarperCollins, c1999). In Europe, by contrast, only about 10 percent of male babies have their foreskin removed.
The five- to 10-minute surgery is usually performed within the first weeks after birth. It's common to have several days of discomfort after circumcision. But complications, such as bleeding and infection, are rare, with the risk increasing after the age of two months and remaining higher in older boys and men, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.
Possible origins of the practice, according to sociologists and anthropologists, include hygiene, ethnic belonging, attractiveness to the opposite sex and/or increase in sexual pleasure. Some of these reasons are still cited today — 3,000 years after this most widely practiced of surgeries was first described in the Bible.
Circumcision — Good News and Bad While the American Academy of Pediatrics doesn't consider circumcision to be medically necessary, there are some medical reasons for performing one. Those include preventing recurring infections of the head of the penis, avoiding obstruction of urine flow that can result when the prepuce's opening narrows, and preventing a tight prepuce from retracting over the glans. Also, circumcision may reduce the incidence of penile cancer (a very rare condition).
Even barring these considerations, infections, including urinary tract infections in infants, are less common in a circumcised penis. That's because a circumcised penis is easier to keep clean. (By pulling back the uncircumcised foreskin and cleaning carefully, a man can reduce the formation of smegma, a cottage cheese-like substance that can lead to a foul odor and infection).
Circumcision or Not? Benefits and After Affects
Finally, circumcision might have a small protective effect against AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), "some research suggests that circumcised men may be at a reduced risk for developing syphilis and HIV infections." Some scientists blame any increased risk in uncircumcised penises on increased mucosal cells that can allow infection to enter more easily. What's more, microorganisms can flourish in a warm, moist area under the foreskin.
Circumcision aside, the AAP policy states that behavioral factors continue to be far more important in determining a person's risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases that circumcision status.
The bottom line: A man should continue to wear a condom and practice monogamy to keep STDs at bay.
Don't Look Back
There's no quickie answer to whether reduced sensitivity meaningfully affects a circumcised man's sex life. "Whether there's a significant difference is somewhat in the eye of the beholder," says sex researcher and educator Herb Samuels, Ph.D., who doesn't believe that diminished pleasure should be a determining factor in the circumcision decision.
To circumcised men who are concerned they're missing out, Ruth Westheimer, Ph.D., popularly known as "Dr. Ruth," says, "I tell them that, as long as they are having orgasms, this is not something that they should be worrying about."
With the pros and cons of making the cut still under debate, religion, culture and personal preferences might reign as the biggest considerations in whether to part with the penis's foreskin. If his parents picked circumcision and a man wants his foreskin back, forget about it, though plastic surgery can construct something similar. Before going under the knife, however, a man should know this: American women's preference, according to surveys described in Reuben's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, is a circumcised penis, which the women say is cleaner, sexier and nicer to handle.
When a woman's clitoris, hood and labia are removed, the operation is called female circumcision. But the practice is better known as "female genital mutilation," because it eliminates a woman's ability to enjoy sexual sensations.
There are no health reasons for the surgery, most commonly performed in some African, Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian countries, and in fact it is often performed in unsanitary conditions, which can increase the chance of serious health problems.