Does Circumcision Reduce Men’s Sexual Sensitivity?

The best evidence shows that circumcision doesn't impair men’s sexual function.

Posted Oct 02, 2015

Circumcision is erotically controversial. Opponents argue that the foreskin—the flap of skin covering the head of the penis that is removed during the procedure—is rich in touch-sensitive nerves, and that circumcision reduces the penis’ sexual sensitivity, impairing sexual function and satisfaction. Proponents counter that circumcision does not compromise men’s sexual function or pleasure, and offers substantial medical benefits.

Recently, researchers in Australia and at the University of Washington reviewed studies of circumcision’s sexual impact and concluded that it neither decreases penile sensitivity nor impairs men’s sexual function or satisfaction.

The Two Best Studies

The researchers scoured the world medical/sexuality literature and found 36 methodologically good-to-rigorous studies examining the impact of circumcision on men’s sexuality. The two best reports met the gold standard of research, placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trials, both in southern Africa, where circumcision has become an extremely cost-effective approach to controlling AIDS.

• Researchers in Kenya surveyed the sexual function, pleasure, and satisfaction of 2,784 uncircumcised sexually active adult men. Then they circumcised 1,391 of them, and re-surveyed the entire group every six months for two years. In every survey, the two groups showed no statistically significant differences in sexual function, pleasure, or satisfaction. 

The researchers also asked the circumcised men additional questions focusing on any differences they noticed before and after the procedure. At the two-year mark, 99.9 percent of the men said they felt “satisfied with their circumcisions,” and far from decreasing penile sensitivity, 72 percent said their sensitivity had increased.  In addition, 78 percent said circumcision made it easier to don condoms.

• Researchers in Uganda conducted a similar trial involving 4,456 uncircumcised adult men, 2,210 of whom got circumcised.  Before-and-after surveys showed no differences in sexual desire, erection issues, or other measures of sexual function, pleasure, and satisfaction. Two years after the procedure, 99.9 percent of the uncircumcised men said they felt “satisfied or very satisfied” with their sex lives, while among those who’d been circumcised, the figure was a statistically equivalent 98.4 percent.

The other 34 studies showed similar results. In several, compared with men with intact foreskins, those who’d been circumcised often said their penises felt more erotically sensitive. In addition, circumcision had no effect on rates of premature ejaculation or erection or ejaculation difficulties. The researchers concluded: “Male circumcision has no adverse effects on sexual function, sensation, sensitivity, satisfaction, or pleasure, especially when performed during infancy.”

These studies were conducted as part of the global effort against AIDS. Participants felt motivated to reduce their AIDS risk. Still, it’s not easy to persuade adult men to bid farewell to such a personal part of the body. It’s quite likely that the researchers reassured them that the surgery would not affect their sexuality, setting up an expectation that could have biased the study results. But these studies involved a total of 7,240 men—which, by research standards is a very large number. If circumcision noticeably impaired the men’s sexual sensitivity, with such a large sample, statistically that should have turned up. But it didn’t.

Opponents Misunderstand the Body and Lovemaking

Circumcision opponents are adamant that the procedure must compromise men’s sexuality. How could it NOT? The foreskin is rich in touch-sensitive nerves. Remove the foreskin and you rob men of nerves that provide sexual pleasure.

This argument is mistaken on two counts:

• The body is redundant. We can get along fine on less than half of one kidney but we have two. One lung suffices, but we have two. Evolution has equipped us with more capacity than we actually need. Evidently, this is also true of the penis.

Consider how it feels to pet a cat with five fingers. You feel the soft luxuriousness of the fur. You feel the cat purr. Now imagine that you lose one finger. After you’re all healed, you pet the cat with four fingers. You have 20 percent fewer touch-sensitive nerves in that hand, but does petting feel any different? The same goes for penile sensitivity. Men don’t need foreskins to enjoy ecstatic lovemaking.

• Good sex is a whole-body experience. Some men believe that sex happens only in the penis and only during intercourse. If that were true, circumcision might well impair sensitivity.

But sexologists agree that the best lovemaking emerges from leisurely, playful, whole-body massage that includes the genitals but is not fixated on them. The penis is certainly important to men’s sexual pleasure, but so is every other skin surface from the scalp to the soles of the feet.

The foreskin represents only a small part of the penis and only a tiny fraction of men’s total, erotically excitable skin surface. Imagine a large cake covered with icing. Does the cake taste any different if someone’s finger scoops off a bit of icing? Circumcision opponents over-emphasize the importance of the penis in lovemaking—and of the foreskin. 

Medical Benefits

Circumcision has many well-documented medical benefits. In men, it reduces risk of many sexual transmitted infections, notably HIV. It also reduces risk of cancer of the penis. It eliminates balanitis (inflammation of the glans) and phimosis (painfully tight foreskin that doesn’t retract during erection). In addition, female lovers of circumcised men have lower rates of cervical cancer, herpes, trichomonas, chlamydida, bacterial vaginosis, and human papillomavirus infection (HPV, genial warts).

The reason circumcision prevents so many ills is that bacteria and viruses collect beneath the foreskin. Retracting it and washing the area thoroughly when bathing largely eliminates these pathogens. Unfortunately, many men with intact foreskins don’t wash sufficiently, hence the association between non-circumcision and so many health problems.

By the Way…

Worldwide, an estimated one-third of the men are circumcised. Judaism and Islam require it, so in Israel and across the Muslim world the practice is virtually universal. Circumcision is also popular in the U.S. and Asia, but less so in Europe, Latin America, and non-Muslim Africa.

Circumcision’s medical benefits have prompted some religious Jews and Muslims to claim that their ancient faiths were medically prescient and required circumcision to protect adherents’ health. But authorities in both religions insist that the practice has always been an act of religious faith, and that its medical benefits, while welcome, are coincidental.

References

Kigozi, G. et al. “The Effect of Male Circumcision on Sexual Satisfaction and Function: Results from a Randomized Trial of Male Circumcision for Human Immunodeficiency Virus Prevention in Rakai, Uganda,” BJU [formerly British Journal of Urology] (2008) 101:65.

Krieger, J.N. et al. “Adult Male Circumcision: Effects on Sexual Function and Satisfaction in Kisumuy, Kenya,” Journal of Sexual Medicine (2008) 5:2610.

Morris, B.J. et al. “Does Male Circumcision Affect Sexual Function, Sensitivity, or Satisfaction? A Systematic Review,” Journal of Sexual Medicine (2013) 10:2644.