When Adam Zeldis was 16, Howard Stern changed his mind about his penis forever. On his show, Stern was talking about how circumcision changes sexual sensations for men, and Zeldis’s curiosity was piqued. He had been circumcised as a baby, and he hadn’t ever thought about whether it had reduced sexual sensation for him before. In fact, up to that point, he had no idea that there were even men who weren’t circumcised.
So Zeldis decided to do some research. And when he learnt what a circumcision procedure actually entailed – the surgical removal of the foreskin of the tip of the penis – he was outraged.
“I felt a loss for a sex life that I could never have,” Zeldis told Men’s Health. “Basically, if you’re circumcised you can never experience sex the way nature intended it.”
Today, Zeldis is a senior strategy advisor for Intact America, an activist organisation designed to educate people against circumcision, which it views as a medically unnecessary and cruel practice. Intact America isn’t the only organisation that harbours this view: In fact, there is an entire movement – “Intactivism” – devoted to propagating the idea that male circumcision is a cruel and barbaric practice.
But what are the cold, hard facts about circumcision? Are there actually health benefits, or is it a cruel, outdated practice that permanently reduces male sexual sensation? We asked doctors and sexuality experts to weigh in.
Does circumcision have health benefits?
For decades, circumcision has been something of a given in the United States. It was considered a standard procedure for baby boys, regardless of their cultural or religious background, with doctors citing its health and hygiene benefits. For this reason, approximately 75% of men in the United States are circumcised, according to the World Health Organization.
The potential health benefits aside, “parents who choose circumcision often do so based on religious beliefs, common myths about hygiene, or cultural or social reasons, such as the wish to have their child resemble his father,” says sex therapist Kimberly Jackson, LCSW.
Doctors also believed circumcision cut down on the risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and urinary tract infections (UTIs), which, if left untreated, can lead to kidney infections.
“The cited health benefits included [a decreased risk of] STIs, especially HIV and HPV; penile cancer; paraphimosis (when foreskin gets trapped behind the glans, which can cut off blood supply to the tip of the penis) and balanitis, or infection of the glans,” says sexual health counsellor Aleece Fosnight, MSPAS, PA-C, CSC, CSE.
Are the benefits of circumcision legit?
To a degree, the consensus in the medical community is still that circumcision does slightly reduce the risks of certain UTIs and STIs. In 2012, the American Academy of Paediatrics issued a statement saying that notwithstanding the potential rare complications of circumcision, including bleeding, infection and (shudder) penile necrosis, “the health benefits of newborn male circumcision outweigh the risks”.
But over the years, emerging research has thrown some of the stated benefits of circumcision into question. For instance, while some studies of African men indicated that circumcision could reduce the risk of HIV transmission by as much as 60%, “the research design was inherently flawed – [they] only examined the health behaviours of heterosexual men, and the results cannot be generalised across cultures,” says Jackson.
That’s why more and more parents are choosing to forego the procedure. Circumcision is on something of a decline, with the number of newborns who are circumcised dropping from 84% in the 1960s to about 77% in 2010. Some doctors are also refusing to perform the procedure.
“I have not performed a circumcision since 1994,” says Dr Steven Dorfman, a paediatrician at Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco. “It is a cruel, unnecessary and… substandard practice which belongs in the history books, not in the hospital or the clinic.”
As to the question of whether circumcision is more hygienic than being uncut, it is true that guys who are uncut do have to contend with smegma, an odourless (and harmless) cheese-like substance underneath the foreskin. But washing underneath the foreskin daily and rinsing the head of the penis can easily remedy that issue.
Does being circumcised reduce sexual sensation?
For many guys, this is the million-dollar question: Does circumcision reduce penile sensitivity?
Some health experts claim that circumcision can reduce sexual sensation, as the procedure removes thousands of nerve endings in the penis. In fact, a 2007 study found that the glans of the uncircumcised penis was more sensitive to light touch than the glans of a circumcised penis.
“It is also thought that the extra skin adds more friction and stimulation to the clitoris during penetration (both get extra pleasure!), and causes increased sensation to the glans as well,” says Fosnight.
That said, “studies show that there is no significant change in sensation in adult men who undergo circumcision,” says Dr Alex Shteynshlyuger, director of urology at New York Urology Specialists. A 2016 study confirmed this, finding that men who were circumcised experienced the same level of sexual pleasure as men who were not.
Do people prefer uncircumcised penises?
Although the research on the health and sexual benefits of circumcision is mixed, some parents still would prefer to circumcise their kids for aesthetic reasons – i.e., because they don’t want their sons to feel weird next to the other kids in the locker room. And some guys still do think that their sexual partners prefer circumcised penises to uncircumcised ones.
But when it comes down to it, that’s probably not the case. While there are few surveys indicating what people’s preferences are, a lot of people really don’t care if their sexual partners are circumcised or not – especially as more and more parents choose not to circumcise their kids.
“I don’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter to me. Plus, I’m not everyone’s idea of ‘perfect’ down there, either,” says Maria*, 38. Karina*, 26, agrees: “I don’t care one way or the other so long as it’s clean and disease-free. Cut, uncut, whatever, it’s the guy that matters. Not how his penis looks.”