Thanks to my hippie parents, I was never circumcised, even though I grew up in the Midwest, where circumcision is the de facto norm. Because it was slightly unusual where I lived, my sexual partners often asked me what it was like to be uncut. The answer, of course, is that I've never known it any other way. I couldn't possibly compare my uncut dick with the all-American clean-cut penis, because I've never had one. My dick is my dick is my dick—it's always been uncut, and it always will be.
Since the procedure is typically performed in infancy, there's really no before/after to consider. I'll never know how it feels to both have foreskin and lack it, but some more do. Though the vast majority of the uncut want to stay that way, there's no reason they can't elect to modify their penises as adults—and those men are the only ones who know how being circumcised—compared with being uncircumcised—actually feels.
There are three reasons a man gets circumcised after infancy: for cosmetic reasons, for medical reasons, or as part of a religious rite of passage. A Los Angeles–based urologist I spoke with, who performs between 50 and 75 adult circumcisions a year, also said the procedure is occasionally performed for cultural reasons. In particular, Filipinos sometimes opt to have their children circumcised at eight or ten, citing tradition, but it is quite rare.
Adult circumcision is especially common for Jews who grew up in Soviet Russia, where the procedure was forbidden. That was the case for Leo, who was cut when he was 13.
He learned that to have a bar mitzvah he had to, in his words, "Get the skin cut off my dick."
Leo emigrated when he was four. After a Jewish assistance organization helped him and his family settle in the US, Leo began attending Sunday school and his family embraced the opportunity to practice their religion.
"When I was eleven or twelve, my parents sat me down," he told me. "I hadn't heard of circumcision—we didn't have the internet or anything. I hadn't seen a lot of dicks. Frankly, I wasn't getting a lot of boners, and I didn't start masturbating until 14."
"They asked, 'Do you want a bar mitzvah?'" He did, but in order to do so he had to, in his words, "Get the skin cut off my dick." His parents told him if he did, they would give up pork in a show of solidarity.
"I met with a doctor," Leo told me. "He told me they were going to put me under. 'You'll have stitches, you'll feel weird, and then it will go away in a week.'" Leo then had the procedure done. "I can't remember a boner before then, so I don't remember it hurting. The stitches looked scary. The scar never went away. Pretty soon after that I discovered masturbation." All told, it was a pretty normal affair.
Masturbation was more fun with a foreskin, as it acts as built-in lube, but I find sex is better circumcised as the glans gets stimulated more.
He did say right after the circumcision was complete—while he was still unconscious from anesthesia—his parents, his sister, and a rabbi did a celebratory dance around him, something he only found out about after the fact. But otherwise, it was a pretty standard medical procedure. And he said he didn't regret having it done, that he felt it helped him be "the kind of Jew he wanted to be."
After it was done and his penis healed, Leo had his bar mitvzah. He never discussed the circumcision with anyone. He said felt a certain amount of shame being circumcised late in life—a feeling he attributed that to being a "shy and private person"—but said talking about it made him feel better. Although he remembered the process vividly, he didn't have perspective on how a foreskin affects one's sex life.
Others certainly do. After a drunken sexual experience, 20-year-old Ryan tore his foreskin and a doctor recommended he get circumcised. When I spoke to him, he was still healing from the procedure, which he had undergone just four weeks prior. He described the experience of being circumcised as painful but manageable, and while he had yet to have sex while cut yet, so far he liked it "way more then before."
The worst was getting an accidental boner a few days after the surgery, which strained his stitches. But after that, he described the pain as being akin to getting a sunburn. As he neared being fully recovered, he said he was just excited to get to use his gear again, and was looking forward to using his new penis.
"When it healed, it had scars all around it. We called it Frankenpecker."
Medical-related circumcision isn't always a matter of fixing a sexual escapade gone wrong. Take 29-year-old Tom, a Californian who was circumcised at 27 after years of dealing with phimosis, a condition where the foreskin cannot be fully retracted from the head of the penis. It can make even having an erection quite painful. The condition worsened in his mid 20s, to the point where his frenulum would regularly tear during sex and masturbation. After trying stretching and steroid cream, he decided he'd had enough of the pain and went to drop the $1,500 and get cut.
Unlike Leo, Tom had experienced sex and masturbation both cut and whole. He described it like this:
"Although the level of sensitivity was higher before, I feel like it comes from more places now. Pleasure is just as good, maybe even better because I don't have issues of soreness in the frenulum like I did before. Masturbation was more fun with a foreskin, as it acts as built-in lube, but I find sex is better circumcised as the glans gets stimulated more. I sometimes use lube now when masturbating, which I never really did before, but it's not a must."
Of course, since he'd regularly associated sex with pain, a frenulum-tearing free sexual experience was obviously preferable.
Not all circumcisions go so smoothly. While foreskins can be (sort of) "restored" with stretching weights, circumcision is not 100 percent reversible. And some men who get cut regret it deeply.
Allan, a 37-year-old from Nova Scotia, was circumcised at 19. He had experienced slight discomfort during sex on account of an overly-tight frenulum. His partner at the time, who was circumcised, advised he get cut. It did not go well.
"They had to cut it with a scalpel and stitch it up. And it was horrible, those big old-fashioned stitches all around. It was painful, and it was awkward," he told me. "After I first got it done, I wasn't interested at all in getting a boner. When I did— ouch. I popped a stitch. I got an infection. It was all a nightmare. When it healed, it had scars all around it. We called it Frankenpecker."
Allan also claims that his penile sensitivity has decreased significantly since being circumcised. "It's night and day," he said. "The head used to be the most pleasurable part. There was natural lubrication. It was fun. Afterwards, I had to relearn how to work my bird. Everything was up in the air. It was like learning to walk again."
Allan said he regrets having it done, and would have rather just dealt with the pain. He looked into foreskin restoration using weights, "but it looked like a lot of effort and the results seemed to be mixed."
The urologist I spoke with was even less kind concerning the restoration industry. "It's voodoo," he said. "They're stretching their skin, but their foreskin is not going to come back. By and large those people [who are trying to restore their foreskin] are fighting much larger demons."
Allan's case is certainly not the norm. The urologist I spoke with said complications arising from circumcision are exceedingly rare. He also mentioned getting circumcised as an adult is a much more complex procedure than it is for infants—"30 to 45 minutes versus 30 to 45 seconds." While he has performed elective cosmetic circumcisions, he says he advises patients against them. "I always ask them 'Why?' If you've done fine with it to this point, just let it be."
Circumcision is, to put it mildly, a divisive issue. After all, it's a permanent body modification usually performed on a thing that can't really consent to the procedure. This point of contention is cited most often by vocal anti-circumcision activists a.k.a. "intactivists," who argue that infants can't consent to being cut.
Anti-circumcision folks tend to take a hard line. Intact America, a prominent intactivist organization, refers to circumcision on their website as "painful, risky, unethical surgery that deprives over a million boys each year of healthy functional tissue." The MGM Bill, introduced to Congress in January 2014 by intactivists, called itself "A Bill to End Male Genital Mutilation in the US." (Anti-circumcision folks' feelings on the issue are strong enough that the urologist I talked to—who is pro–infant circumcision—asked to remain anonymous.)
Circumcision also has its staunch defenders. The practice is a revered cultural rite of passage in many societies; in Judaism, the practice dates back thousands of years. Modern health officials have also made a case for widespread circumcision from a public safety standpoint. While the CDC stopped short of recommending default circumcision, the organization noted in December 2014 that circumcision drastically lowered a man's risk of contracting STDs via heterosexual sex: HPV by 30 percent, genital herpes by 30 to 35 percent, and HIV by 50 to 60 percent.
It's a messy debate, to be sure. And it's pretty split: In 2007, circumcision rates in the scissor-happy US fell to its lowest number in decades, at just 55 percent of boys. Then again, the American Pediatrics Association came out in 2012 in support of the practice, saying there are "benefits" to infant circumcision. Although they still advised that when it comes to lopping off foreskins, the final say "should be up to the parents."
Leo and Ryan and Tom and Allan are all cognizant of life before and after circumcision. Their experiences differ. But what unites them is what unites every man who's circumcised: There's no going back.
"If there were a way to go back to how it was before," Allan told me, "hell yeah, I'd do it."
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