To circumcise or not to circumcise: that is the question.
There is a long-running debate among public health officials and sex educators on the subject of the need for circumcision, with major studies lending evidence to both sides.
Circumcision is the surgical removal of the foreskin of the penis, usually performed on infants. Pro-circumcision advocates believe that circumcision improves public health by reducing transmission of infections. Meanwhile, those who are anti-circumcision believe that it is a form of genital mutilation whose health benefits can be easily attained through simple hygiene and safe sex practices.
But what about sexual pleasure? Does circumcision reduce sexual sensation for men?
Well, a medical study from Belgium suggests that there is a small "but significant" difference in reported sexual pleasure, favoring men with intact foreskin. Additionally, the study reports that circumcised men report more incidents of "pain and numbness" during arousal due to the presence of scar tissue.
To those of us in the sex-education field, there's not a whole lot of mystery about the relationship between circumcision and sexual pleasure.
The foreskin has thousands of nerve endings and is an important part of the male sexual system. Removal of the foreskin also leaves the head of the penis — the most sensitive part of the male genitals — constantly exposed. Constant rubbing on clothing and exposure to temperature changes reduces the sensitivity and responsiveness of the nerve endings, creating the demand for more stimulation to trigger a pleasure response.
The head of the penis is the anatomical match to the head of the clitoris. So for all the ladies reading this, imagine the very tip of your clitoris constantly exposed and rubbing against your clothes, and you can begin to imagine the desensitization that would occur over time. The clitoris is protected not only by the clitoral hood (the match to the foreskin), but also the fleshy labia. The foreskin is nature's protective sheath for the sensitive head of the penis.
The foreskin keeps the glans of the penis moist and warm. During arousal, it slowly retracts to expose the glans and acts as a fleshy sheath through which you can stimulate the penis. Many uncircumcised men love the feeling of the foreskin being moved over their erect penis, just as many women love to have their clitoris stimulated from the side, using the hood to buffer direct stimulation.
Missing from the debate about male circumcision has been the question about female pleasure. As a sex educator, I have spoken with thousands of women about their experience of intercourse with circumcised and uncircumcised men, and a clear pattern has emerged.
It seems that circumcision not only effects male pleasure, it changes how they make love.
Circumcised men tend to penetrate much more vigorously, in the jackhammer style that is so familiar from our cultural depiction of intercourse. This style of penetration comes from a desperate search for more stimulation and the need to concentrate sensations on the tip of the penis.
Uncircumcised men, on the other hand, often penetrate with more finesse, using a slower rhythm and more of an undulating motion. The intact foreskin acts as a sheath that glides over the penis with every thrust, creating more pleasure and reducing the need to thrust with as much force to create sensation.
Circumcised men and their partners need not despair. There is still more than enough erotic pleasure to be enjoyed.
Anyone can learn to experience more sexual pleasure and develop the skills to give their lover profound orgasms. As sex educators, we have focused on erotic touch techniques out of the belief that anyone can experience intense pleasure when touched with skill, yet many of us have not yet learned to use our hands (the greatest sex toy ever invented, perhaps!) with confidence and finesse.
Using a range of foreplay techniques can activate more nerve endings and slowly sensitize the penis to more subtle stimulation, opening up new kinds of pleasure for circumcised men. In addition, women who have already had orgasms through manual or oral stimulation often report that intercourse becomes much more pleasurable.
So while circumcised men may be missing up to 20,000 nerve endings, it is still possible to enjoy a fully satisfying erotic life.
Ultimately, if we take a step back from the cultural debate over circumcision and pay attention to the natural design of the male sexual system, the foreskin is clearly not an extra, disposable part.
The foreskin plays an important, functional role in male sexual pleasure. If we value sexual pleasure, if we honor the importance of both the ability to give and receive pleasure, it becomes evident that circumcision is an invasive surgery with serious consequences for both men and their future lovers. 80 percent of the world's male population is intact, while currently about 60 percent of baby boys born in the United States are routinely clipped.
In the absence of religious demand or the rare medical need for circumcision (very rarely, the foreskin is too tight and creates painful erection, in which case it may be loosened but not removed all together), there is no widespread need for male circumcision, in our opinion.
It's time we end the standardization of a medical procedure on infant boys that creates lifelong consequences in the most intimate realm of a man's life. It is time we, as a culture, celebrate the importance of sexual pleasure and respect the natural beauty and function of both the male and female sexual system.
Until then, we can all learn to experience more pleasure in our bodies, just as they are.
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