About a year ago, I had my first encounter with an uncircumcised penis. I should add that there was a man attached to the penis; he was someone who I'd been out with on a couple dates, and that night was our first time. I didn't notice the difference at first -- unless you're really looking, it's difficult to discern an intact penis from a circumcised one when the penis is erect. It wasn't until the post-coital moments of relaxation and intimacy that I saw what was going on down there. Reader, I did a double take -- more out of curiosity than anything else, but I saw that he saw me staring. I was mortified. We both pretended it didn't happen.
As someone who took many -- probably too many -- Women's Studies classes in college, I'm keenly aware of society's unrealistic definition of what's sexy, especially when it comes to women's bodies. To be sexually attractive, we're told, we must be toned, taut, tanned, plucked, waxed. We're also supposed to be free of cellulite, gas, menstrual blood, vaginal odor, sweat, and a whole slew of other so-called problems an entire commercial and increasingly high-tech industry is devoted to solving. So imagine my guilt for that double take after sex, potentially making my new boyfriend as self-conscious about the part of himself he'd only just shared with me as many women are about their bodies. Maybe some people would keep that remorse to themselves, given its intimate source. Me? I wanted to talk about it.
The next time we were in bed, I tried to mention it casually. His response was to laugh. "Yeah, I'm uncircumcised," to which I replied, "I figured; I've just never seen one in real life." He looked at me sideways. "Aren't you a sex columnist?"
"I don't think I need to have done -- er, witnessed -- everything I know and write about," I said, which is true, but in the moment it felt like a feeble excuse. He let me feel uniquely ignorant for a few seconds before informing me that he was used to this line of questioning. Most women had the same reaction I did and were "polite" about it when the "inevitable question arose." Interestingly, our talk of penises led to an even more intimate discussion, in which he revealed that his mother, protective of her only son, could not stomach the idea of hurting her baby boy. I wanted to know, did he feel like circumcision would've hurt him? He said he never really thought about it.
I hadn't either. Since it's done when men are infants, long before I meet them, it had never occurred to me.
For many contemporary parents, I've since learned, circumcision is a very big deal. According to the CDC, American circumcision rates dropped to 32.5 percent in 2009 from 56 percent in 2006. Many anti-circumcision activists (also known as "Intactivists") argue that the procedure violates an individual's right to decide how to express his sexuality. The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend routine neonatal circumcision because of the potential complications, which include death. One study found that 117 boys die each year from this elective process.
So why do we still circumcise male infants at all? In some cases, of course, the choice is religious, but many of the reasons people opt to circumcise have nothing to do with faith. They do, however, have to do with women. Intact penises are the butt of jokes on shows targeting female audiences -- see Kim Zolciak glibly discuss her son's circumcision on "The Real Housewives of Atlanta" and, further back Charlotte et. al. making fun of intact men on, "Sex and the City." The message? Leave your son's penis intact if you want women to laugh at him. Then there's the myth that intact penises are dirtier than those without foreskin, and what woman wants to sleep with a guy who isn't clean? Since most men bathe regularly these days, this probably isn't true, but the stigma persists.
And many women (like the characters on the above-mentioned shows) are "grossed out" by the idea of an uncircumcised penis for aesthetic reasons. As my good friend Amelia put it (not so delicately), "Who wants to make love to a penis that has to come out of hiding? That flap of skin is weird; it freaks me out. What a penis looks like is important to any girl, and she's lying if she says otherwise."
Is it just me, or does this sound reminiscent of the hyperfocus on what is acceptable for women below the belt? This is the era of vajazzling and labiaplasty, styled landing strips and feminine sprays. Did I really want to be as critical of my lover's man parts as some people are of the way women are shaped and groomed down there?
Since that first relationship with an uncircumcised man, I've gone on to do more, er, field research, and I've anecdotally found that the intact make fabulous lovers. Here's why:
- Although it's difficult to quantify a subjective experience such as sexual pleasure, there's evidence that there are nerves in the foreskin that add to his sensitivity. As early as the 18th century, famed British anatomist John Hunter wrote about the acute sensitivity found in the foreskin. In 1991, anatomist John Taylor coined the term the "ridged band" to describe the wrinkly skin at the edge of the foreskin. Taylor's studies conclude that the ridged band is "richly innervated" and "intensely vascular." It stands to reason that as a result of this greater sensitivity, intact men are less likely to engage in the not-so-pleasant "jackhammer" style of sex -- I've found that to be the case, at least. And consider the fact that ribbed condoms essentially recreate the "ridged band," which are intended to increase "her pleasure."
- In my experience, I've found that the foreskin creates extra friction, which keeps a woman more lubricated during sex.
- The foreskin of an intact man can make it easier to perform oral sex and offer manual stimulation that comes even close to being as satisfying as when he does it himself. (For tips on how to orally pleasure an intact man, check out this Q & A.)
- If you're unfamiliar with an intact penis, being with a man who has one can make the beginning of your sexual relationship that much more exciting.
All of which is to say that I recommend trying it at least once. You literally don't know what you're missing.