Circumcision and Penile Sensitivity
- “10,000, 20,000, 70,000 nerve endings”: a myth that keeps on growing
- The “15 square inches” myth
- Gliding Along
- The so-called “lost list”
- 16 functions – 16 speculations
“10,000, 20,000, 70,000 nerve endings”: a myth that keeps on growing
By Stephen Moreton PhD
Anyone who follows intactivist propaganda will soon come across statements like:
“There are between 10,000 and 20,000 nerve endings compacted on to the human foreskin”.
Various numbers are bandied around –10,000 and 20,000 being the usual ones. They get combined – “10,000 to 20,000” – or used in isolation. They may refer to nerve endings generally, or to fine-touch nerve endings, or erotogenic nerve endings, even “erotogenic fine-touch nerve endings”, in various permutations. Intactivists, it seems, cannot even agree on the basic fallacies of their faith. Disturbingly, even people who fancy themselves as “skeptics” fall for it. The above quote is from “The Science of Circumcision”, an error-riddled YouTube video by U.K. skeptic Myles Power.
Like so much of what intactivists claim, this canard is all over the Internet but completely absent from the medical scientific literature, as a quick Google and PubMed search will show, respectively. When a “scientific” sounding assertion is not founded on scientific research published in scientific literature, but instead dwells on the Internet where it is endlessly repeated without supporting evidence, alarm bells should ring.
Internet myths can be tricky to track down to source, but this intrepid debunker has done it. There are actually two sources, one for 10,000, another for 20,000, although they often get conflated. I will deal with the lesser number first. 10,000 nerve endings, specifically fine-touch ones (called Meissner’s corpuscles), was a “guesstimate” by retired New Zealand pathologist, Prof. Ken McGrath, at an intactivist conference held around 1998. This was in response to a query at the conference, and was an extrapolation based on the numbers of such nerve endings in finger tips.
Initially, Prof. McGrath thought he had erred on the low side, as indicated in an email dated 13 January 2008 that was circulated on “INTACT-L”, an intactivist mailing list, in which a “Shelton” of NOCIRC-SA copied Prof. McGrath’s highly speculative calculations:
“Subject: RE: [NOCIRC-NORM LIST] Re: Media query – NOCIRC-SA response
I am taking the liberty of copying the content of a reply by Ken from NZ who elaborates on nerve endings, which makes interesting reading:
“On 15/10/2007, at 2:51 AM, Laura MacDonald wrote:
I’d like to get a consensus on what is the most up-to-date verifiable figure on the nerve endings in the foreskin…
We’ve had some debate about the 20,000 figure in NORM-UK and I note a figure of up to double this has been quoted by some intactivists, but the figure of just 1,000 has also been used in the recent past.
Dear Laura and Colleagues,
I had better put my hand up to confess as the source of the original figure of 10,000 (it has inflated somewhat since). Some years ago I was asked at one of the symposia what I thought the figure was and came up with a ‘back of the envelope’ calculation based upon some observations I had recently done on the finger tip. When looking at transverse sections of an index finger, I noted that a Meissner corpuscle existed between each sweat duct, therefore, between each pore on the skin. Furthermore, they were arrayed along the rete ridges which are repeated in the ridges seen in a fingerprint together with the pores. So one can look at a fingerprint, see the pore circles on the ridges and know that a corpuscle exists between each one. There are about 3 pores/mm or 30/cm which, given the spacing of the ridges is about the same as the pores, means there are about 900-1000/sq.cm. This figure I then took for my quick & dirty calculation in orders of magnitude (being unable to be more precise) and said to my listeners that there had to be more than 10,000 and less than 100,000 Meissner corpuscles in each foreskin. On recalculating the density in the fingertip as above to reach 1000/ sq.cm, I am pleased to see that it is very close to the figure of 1500/sq.cm. you quote.
When we start talking about ‘nerve endings’ we enter difficult territory. What do we mean? Are we talking about fine touch receptors (the epicritical modality) or total receptors?
Let us start by eliminating free nerve endings (FNEs) which moderate pain and extremes of temperature (the protopathic modality) because they are evenly distributed without difference across all skin and number between 10–100 per axon over a field of about 1 sq.cm. (BTW: they are the predominant receptor in the glans hence its mainly protopathic sensory expression). Vater-Pacinian and Ruffini receptors modulate stretch and pressure and are few in number in the dermis/ lamina propria; we can put them aside as well. Merkel cells are thought to moderate fine touch and exist in the basal layer of the epithelium, but as they, too, are small in number and have a largely unknown activity, we can leave them out as well. Which leaves us with the Meissner receptors which are the main players in the fine touch business.
What do we make of the quoted figure of 2500/sq.cm. general receptors which I take to be the total? Adding up the other figures given leaves us with a total of 2400/sq.cm., so I can only think they have left out the FNEs. The other figure you quote is for average skin at 1300/sq.in which is 200/sq.cm. and this is a long way from the finger tip, but may be correct for the foot and other less sensitive skin.
Now to the foreskin. I will take an average size at 3 inches long (from coronal ridge overlay externally to sulcus junction internally) by 4 inches in circumference, or more simply a rectangle of 3 x 4 in.
This equals 12 sq.in = 77 sq.cm. Considering Meissner receptors only, if we accept that the outer half skin is slightly enhanced average skin at 250/sq.cm, the numbers will be 250 x 38.5 = 9625; the other half inner skin is at least as sensitive as the fingertip, so taking that as a minimum at 1500/sq.cm, the numbers will be 1500 x 38.5 = 57,750. Our pseudo-precise total is therefore 67,375. In round figures then, we may argue that the foreskin has at least 70,000 Meissner corpuscles, but on reconsidering how much more sensitive some areas of the foreskin are in comparison with fingertips (see Sorrels et al 2007), I think this figure is an under-estimate and may be closer to the 100,000 upper limit I originally specified than I was then prepared to accept.
My fingertips are about 4 sq.cm. and would have about 6000 Meissner corpuscles using the quoted figure.
With respect to the clitoris: we know that the epicritical endings are mostly found in the glans in contrast to males and similar to chimpanzees (Cold & McGrath, 1999). It is a very small organ, certainly not larger than a fingertip, but the quoted figure of 8000 nerve endings is not inconceivable. We can, however, firmly dispute the claim that it has more nerve endings than the penis! They are thought to be more dense.
The exact nature and distribution of nerve endings in the foreskin has not been investigated since Bazett et al made some secondary counts in the 1920s, and they made a number of assumptions with mistaken identities of type. So we have no real facts to go on, this and the axon mapping of the prepuce and glans being largely unknown.
Until someone repeats the excellent type of study that Halata & Munger did on the glans in 1986, we can only make estimates based upon observational and physiological (University of Washington in the1980s) studies.
I hope this cast a little more light on the dilemma with the hope that my maths is not awry.
Note that the 20,000 number is also called into question here, and one of the persons copied is “Marilyn”, presumably Marilyn Milos, founder of NOCIRC. So, as early as 2008, the message being circulated amongst intactivists was that the number 20,000 was suspect, and 10,000 was wrong, although at this stage they thought the numbers were too low. To clarify I emailed Prof. McGrath himself in 2013. He kindly replied (5 July) and this time had apparently changed his mind and considered that the 10,000 estimate was an order of magnitude too high, and seemed rather exasperated that it was still circulating:
“As to your question: guilty as charged!
No one since about 1923 has published a count of neural receptors in the human penis. At a conference (1998 in Oxford I think) a group asked me to make an estimate of the number of nerve endings in the prepuce. I did a quick back-of-the-envelope guesstimate based on a fingertip and arrived at an orders of magnitude figure of >1000<10000. Like the claimed proportion of men protected from HIV by circumcision, this figure quickly inflated, first to >10,000 and then to >20,000; neither of these is anywhere near the truth, because they are an order of magnitude too high.
In spite of writing it all down last year for a major discussion list, this problem keeps resurfacing. And I have revisited the calculation to put it into a book that a co-author and I have nearly finished. A fortnight ago, a colleague of Wayne and Marilyn asked me to restate the argument to provide rebuttal of the 20,000 figure. So I intend to bring the two slightly different approaches I have used together in response. It would be a pleasure to include you in the distribution of that message.”
Confusingly, here he says his original estimate was “>1000<10000” which is ten times lower than in his 2008 email. But he then states that it inflated to >10,000 so, presumably, he did intend the lower values. I was not included in any subsequent discussions on this topic and, not being privy to whatever the professor wrote for in-house discussions, or an unnamed, unpublished book, cannot say what led him to change his mind. But, to his credit, he did.
The problems are rather obvious. His original calculation based on fingertips makes reference to the distribution of nerve endings in relation to the ridges of fingerprints. This is clearly inappropriate for foreskins (foreskin prints?) And since his 2008 email a study was published which actually measured the density of Meissner’s corpuscles in eight different regions, including fingertips and foreskins, and found that fingertips have the highest concentration, and the foreskin the lowest (Bhat et al., 2008). So, again, it is inappropriate to extrapolate from one to the other. McGrath also uses a large estimate for foreskin size (see below). There have been several studies from China (in Chinese, but summarised by Cox et al., 2015) showing that not all men have Meissner’s corpuscles in their foreskins, and for those that do, they mostly disappear by middle age. Furthermore, since Meissner’s corpuscles are not responsible for erogenous sensation the intactivists’ fascination with them is misplaced.
Having disposed of 10,000, we can turn now to 20,000. Unlike 10,000, this one has a printed source, though not a credible scientific one. It originated in an article that is still influential amongst intactivists to this day, by the late osteopath Paul Fleiss, published in “Mothering: the magazine of natural family living” (Fleiss, 1997). This is a popular, but emphatically not scientific, magazine with a history of promoting fringe and pseudoscientific views, such as anti-vaccination ideas, and HIV/AIDS denialism. Indeed Fleiss himself was an HIV/AIDS denier, and paediatrician to the infamous denier the late Christine Maggiore whose young daughter Eliza died of an AIDS-related illness after Fleiss failed to have the girl tested for HIV, an omission that led to him losing a malpractice suit and being ordered to undergo retraining. For more on this intactivist, quack, and felon, see London (2014).
In his article Fleiss asserts, “circumcision robs a male of … more than 20,000 nerve endings” and cites as his source an obscure paper (Bazett et al., 1932). Problem is Bazett et al. do not say there are 20,000 nerve endings in the foreskin. In fact the number 20,000 does not appear at all anywhere in their paper, so Fleiss has misrepresented Bazett et al. or, to be blunt, he lied (but then he was, after all, a convicted tax fraudster).
To arrive at 20,000 from Bazett et al., Fleiss had to engage in a combination of misrepresentation, and exaggeration. Bazett et al. took a single square centimetre from a single foreskin and endeavoured to count all nerve endings of all types in that one square centimetre. They counted 212, of which only two were the fine-touch receptors that intactivists harp on about, and none were genital corpuscles, the ones that most texts attribute erogenous sensation to.
So they had a sample size of 1, and there was no comparison with any other area of skin to provide a control. Thus we have no idea how representative it is, either between individuals, or across the rest of the body. They do not state where on the foreskin it came from, which matters as nerve ending density may vary from one part of the foreskin to another (there are more nerve endings towards the tip, the so-called “ridged band”, for example). And they do not state the age of the donor, which matters as nerve ending density may change with age. Furthermore, to arrive at 20,000 one has to multiply by 94.3. But 94.3 square centimetres is a huge foreskin, even if the areas of both inner and outer surfaces are added together. In fact it is right up near the top end of the measured range: 7 to 99.8 cm2, the average being about 38.5 cm2 (Kigozi et al., 2009), and this is for both surfaces combined (as confirmed in a personal communication with Dr Kigozi).
None of this mattered for the purposes of Bazett et al.’s study, but Fleiss’ figure of 20,000 is nonsense, being based on a sample size of 1, a bunch of uncertainties, and then inflated to suit his agenda. And, if the original donor was an infant, the number could be wrong by an order of magnitude!
In due course both these numbers got on to the Internet, went viral, and began doing what Internet memes do, and evolved, creating the hybrids and variants that circulate today. They were joined in 2009 by a newcomer …. 70,000 nerve endings! This one can be traced to an Internet article (not in the scientific literature, of course!) by NOCIRC, but which has since disappeared, making it impossible to determine by what process of speculation and exaggeration this meme was arrived at, although 70,000 is mentioned in Prof. McGrath’s email of 2008. Given its dubious origin, and the baseless nature of its smaller forebears, it can be confidently dismissed as just more intactivist garbage.
Not content with 70,000, an intactivist inflated the number to “millions of extra nerve endings” in an article full of the usual Internet myths, speculations and bogus claims (Tasca, 2012). How big can this number get?
As a postscript, no less of a figure than intactivism’s grand matriarch Marilyn Milos has peddled this myth. In one of her submissions to the CDC, when it engaged in a public consultation on circumcision, she asserted that the foreskin, “Contains 20,000-70,000 specialized, erogenous nerves” (Milos, 2015). Referring back to Prof. McGrath’s email of 2007, we see a “Marilyn” copied in there, and mentioned again in the 2013 one. If this is the same Marilyn then one wonders why, knowing that such numbers are dubious, if not downright bogus, she decided to cite them regardless. But then, that’s intactivists for you!
Bazett, H.C., McGlone, B., Williams, R.D., Lufkin, H.M. (1932) Depth, distribution and probable identification in the prepuce of sensory end-organs concerned in sensations of temperature and touch; thermometric conductivity. Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry, 27(3), 489-517.
Bhat, G.M., Bhat, M.A., Kour, K., Shah, B.A. (2008) Density and structural variations of Meissner’s corpuscle at different sites in human glabrous skin. J. Anat. Soc. India, 57(1), 30-3.
Cox, G., Krieger, J.N., Morris, B.J. (2015) Histological correlates of penile sexual sensation: does circumcision make a difference? Sexual Medicine, 3(2), 76-85.
Fleiss, P.M. (1997) The case against circumcision. Mothering, Winter, 36-45.
Kigozi, G., Wawer, M., Ssettuba, A., Kagaayi, J., Nalugoda, F., Watya, S., Mangen, F.W., Kiwanuka, N., Bacon, M.C., Lutalo, T., Serwadda, D., Gray, R.H. (2009) Foreskin surface area and HIV acquisition in Rakai, Uganda (size matters). AIDS, 23(16), 2209-13.
London, W.M. (2014) Medical renegade Paul M. Fleiss dead at 80. Online: http://www.skepticink.com/health/2014/08/12/medical-renegade-paul-m-fleiss-m-d-dead-80/
Milos, M. (2015) Submission to the CDC. Available on-line: http://cdc.intactivist.net/?page=24&limit=100#comment-2323
Tasca, E. (2012) Snip the snip. Free Inquiry, 32(2), 53-6. (See letters in the subsequent issue for rebuttals).
The “15 square inches” myth
By Stephen Moreton PhD
The following quote is from http://www.circumstitions.com/completeman/ the website of New Zealand intactivist, and retired broadcaster, Hugh Young.
“The average adult foreskin consists of 1½ inches of outer skin, 1½ inches of inner mucosal lining — totaling a length of 3 inches — and is 5 inches in circumference when erect. This amounts to a surface area of 15 square inches, or a surface area equivalent to that of a 3″ by 5″ inch index card!”
And, like so much of the content of his site, it is nonsense. But he is not alone in peddling this myth, it is everywhere in intactivist materials. It is even the name of an intactivist website: www.15square.org.uk
As Google and PubMed searches will show, whilst it permeates the internet, it is absent from the scientific literature. As with the “20,000 nerves” myth it is just another intactivist invention. And one that is easy to refute by reading the published research on the topic of foreskin surface area. This will not take long as there are only two papers that measured foreskin surface area.
Werker et al. (1998) took foreskins from 8 cadavers (age of subjects not stated), folded them out and measured the combined inner and outer surface area. They ranged from 18.1 to 67.5 square centimetres (2.8 to 10.5 square inches), average 46.7 cm2 (7.2 square inches).
Kigozi et al. (2009) had a much larger sample size: 965 Ugandan men aged 15 to 49 who volunteered to be circumcised as part of the African anti-HIV program. Although not expressly stated in the study, the surface area they measured was for the folded out foreskin (i.e. inner and outer surface combined), as was confirmed in an email reply to me from the lead author (Dr Kigozi).
The variation in size observed by Dr Kigozi’s team was startling. Measured foreskin surface areas ranged from a mere 7 cm2 (1.1 square inches) to a whopping 99.8 cm2 (15.5 square inches). This is a full order of magnitude. The average was around 38.5 cm2 (6.0 square inches). A few youngsters may account for the smallest foreskins, but the averages across age groups were not much different (35.0 cm2 or 5.4 inch2 for 15–24 year olds; 38.5 cm2 for 25–29 year olds; 38.4 cm2 for 30–49 year olds). A precise breakdown of foreskin size distribution is not given, but 25 % of men had foreskins > 45.6 cm2 (7.1 inch2), 26.1 % < 26.3 cm2 (4.1 inch2), and the remainder in between. The average for the top 25 % of men was 57.6 cm2 (8.9 inch2). Still far short of 15 so, even in these presumably well hung gentlemen, the giant with a 15.5 square inch foreskin is far ahead of the rest. Table 1 in the study tells us that in this top 25 %, a quarter in turn had foreskins > 61.8 cm2 (9.6 inch2), so 60 men could top 9.6 inch2 out of 965, i.e. 6.2 %. In short, out of nearly a thousand men, probably only a handful, maybe even just one or two, could boast a monster prepuce of 15 square inches (96.8 cm2). Since 15 square inches is the figure used by intactivists, for years they have been taking the most extreme value and pretending it is typical.
Related to this exaggerated claim is the assertion that circumcision removes:
“roughly 50% (and sometimes more) of the mobile skin system of the penis.”
As before, a quick Google and PubMed search, respectively, shows that this is just another of those internet myths absent from the scientific literature. When it does appear in print, it is in intactivist polemics, not credible, peer-reviewed science journals. One also wonders how such a number can possibly be arrived at, given the tremendous variation in foreskin size (just discussed), not to mention the more modest variations in penis size and proportions, and whether it refers to the flaccid or erect state. Besides, as many a circumcised teenage boy will know, there typically remains ample mobility in the shaft skin for all the fun he could want. It is just another of those random numbers that intactivists pull out of thin air and pass off as fact.
Finally, two further observations can be made on the Kigozi study. Firstly, the key finding was that men with larger foreskins were more vulnerable to HIV infection from heterosexual intercourse. So having a big foreskin is not necessarily a good thing. And secondly, as remarked above, foreskins are extremely variable. Much more so than the variation in, say, penis size (about 97 % of men muster 9 to 17 cm erect (Veale et al. 2015)). This is not consistent with the prepuce being an important structure. As Darwin (1859) noted:
“An organ, when rendered useless, may well be variable, for its variations cannot be checked by natural selection.”
Darwin, C. (1859) On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. John Murray, London. See chapter 13.
Kigozi, G., Maria Wawer, M., Ssettuba, A., Kagaayi, J., Nalugoda, F., Watya, S., Mangen, F.W., Kiwanuka, N., Bacon, M.C., Lutalo, T., Serwadda, D., Ronald H. Gray, R.H. (2009) Foreskin surface area and HIV acquisition in Rakai, Uganda (size matters). AIDS, 23(16), 2209-13.
Veale, D., Miles, S., Bramley, S., Muir, G., Hodsoll, J. (2015) Am I normal? A systematic review and construction of nomograms for flaccid and erect penis length and circumference in up to 15,521 men. BJU Int., 115(6), 978-86.
Werker, P.M.N., Terng, A.S.C., Kon, M. (1998) The prepuce free flap: dissection feasibility study and clinical application of a super-thin new flap. Plast Reconstr Surg., 102(4):1075-82.
By Stephen Moreton, PhD
One of the most popular of the myths intactivists peddle is that the glans of the circumcised penis becomes keratinized (thickened, hardened, or cornified) over time. This, in turn, is supposed to lead to a loss of sensation, according to the intactivist narrative. A quick internet search will show that this myth is everywhere, sometimes accompanied by cherry-picked, and possibly Photoshopped, pictures of a shiny non-circumcised glans juxtaposed against a dried out wrinkly circumcised one. In fact the myth predates the Internet, even turning up in textbooks, but without any scientific evidence to support it.
The glans of the non-circumcised member is certainly moist, and that of the circumcised one dry, but dry is not the same as keratinized. All external skin is dry (at least when not washing, swimming, etc.) but this is a separate thing from keratinization, which refers to the build-up of layers of dead skin cells, composed of a protein called keratin. This process, also called cornification, results in the skin having a tough protective outer layer.
The idea spread by intactivists is that years of exposure, and rubbing against underwear, results in a thickening of this keratinized, or cornified, layer on the glans, and consequently a loss of sensation in this important part of the penis. An analogy may be the toughening of the skin on the hands of manual workers.
So what is the evidence? In short there isn’t any … only mere anecdotes. One cannot tell how keratinized skin is just by looking, a point made by Dinh & Hope (2010) in relation to the inner versus the outer foreskin. Appearance is misleading, and further confused by the moist vs. dry contrast.
The only way to tell to what extent skin is keratinized is to take actual samples of the skin, section them, stain them for keratin, and measure them down a microscope. And, to date (November 2016), only one study has attempted something like this. Using cadavers Szabo & Short (2000) took skin samples from the glans of 7 circumcised, and 6 non-circumcised men, examined them for keratin, and found no difference.
Frustratingly, they give no further details, such as details of the methodology used, or the actual measurements obtained, but this remains the only attempt to actually compare the two, and they found no difference.
In their study of the glans, Halata & Munger (1986) observed that the rete ridges (downward protrusions of the epithelium) were fewer and shorter in non-circumcised males, but give no actual measurements. They reported no differences in the intervening epithelium. Their sample size was even smaller: 3 circumcised (ages 14, 15 & 69), and 4 not circumcised (ages 22 to 33). With such a small sample size, and the possibility of confounding (rete ridges change with age) it is not possible to draw firm conclusions about the effect of circumcision on glans skin from that study.
So the only scientific data we have, although based on small sample sizes, points away from the keratinization claim. The late pathologist John Taylor, an opponent of circumcision, clearly had doubts about keratinization, describing it as, “Probably not to any significant extent” (http://research.cirp.org/faq1.html).
Given that it would be relatively straightforward to lay this common claim to rest once and for all, by simply measuring a reasonable number of samples and publishing the results, it is surprising that this has not been done. But, until it is, the claim is not based on solid evidence, what scant evidence there is suggests it does not occur, and it is high time intactivists stopped making this claim.
Dinh, M.H. & Hope, T.J. (2010) Keratinization of the adult male foreskin and implications for male circumcision, reply. AIDS, 24, 1381-2.
Halata, Z. & Munger, B.L. (1986) The neuroanatomical basis for the protopathic sensibility of the human glans penis. Brain Research, 371, 205-30.
By Stephen Moreton PhD
According to intactivists:
“The foreskin is the only moving part of the penis. During any sexual activity, the foreskin and glans work in unison; their mutual interaction creates a complete sexual response. In heterosexual intercourse, the non-abrasive gliding of the penis in and out of itself within the vagina facilitates smooth and pleasurable intercourse for both partners. Without this gliding action, the corona of the circumcised penis can function as a one-way valve, dragging vaginal lubricants out into the drying air and making artificial lubricants essential for non-painful intercourse.” (Source: http://www.noharmm.org/advantage.htm).
A central tenet of the intactivist mythology of the foreskin is the doctrine of the gliding action. Some even go so far as to call it a “function”, but this is confusing function with property. Extravagant claims are made about the wonders of foreskins that glide back and forth during intercourse. Marvels attributed to this include ease of penetration, stimulation of nerves, enhancing pleasure for both participants, and even a means of preventing vaginal lubricant being drawn out. So what are the facts?
As many a non-circumcised teenage boy will know, except in cases of phimosis (tight foreskin), the foreskin does indeed glide up and down, allowing mobility of the shaft skin, and allowing the glans to be bared or covered in turn. This is not in dispute. But is it as important as claimed?
As is usual for intactivists’ claims, this one is rich in speculation, but lacking in evidence. And when it comes to specific claims about ease of penetration or enhancing pleasure, for every study the intactivists cite in support there is another they don’t, and which finds no difference. The best studies (two randomized controlled trials, a recent large UK survey, a meta-analysis and two large reviews) consistently show no difference in sexual function or satisfaction between circumcised and non-circumcised males (Kigozi et al., 2008; Krieger et al., 2008; Homfray et al. 2015; Tian et al. 2013; Morris & Krieger 2013; Shabanzadeh, et al., 2016). And these include things like pain on intercourse (related to lubrication and penetration), and pleasure or satisfaction. In one of these (Krieger et al. 2008) men reported that sex was actually better after circumcision. One small study of 19 women noted some reduction in vaginal lubrication, but it evidently did not matter as there was no overall adverse effect (Cortes-Gonzalez, et al., 2008). But a much larger study (of 455 women) found overwhelmingly either no difference, or an improvement following their partner’s circumcision (Kigozi, et al., 2009). This last did not specifically address gliding or lubrication, but the benefits reported included ease of insertion, and less pain, which should be associated with these. So we can be confident that gliding does not matter, even though research on gliding itself is non-existent.
As ever the “evidence” offered by intactivists is often anecdotal. Someone might say gliding feels good, or helps them copulate. This fits the intactivist narrative, so “it must be true”. But such accounts can be matched by ones saying the opposite. Here is one from a lady who found that gliding was anything but good for her and her partner:
“My b/f is “uncut”; his foreskin fully covers his penis when flaccid and mostly covers it when erect. He is a very energetic sex partner and is a decent size, at least average if not more. My problem is this: when we are having intercourse, much of the “in and out” consists of the “gliding” I’ve read about – his foreskin slides up and down over his penis, which feels like a very thick condom to me, blocking much of the sensation. There’s no friction against my vagina so my pleasure is greatly diminished. I am plenty wet enough and he is not that sensitive, so it’s good for him to feel his uncovered penis inside me (so those two lines of thought regarding how great “gliding” is are inapplicable to us). We have been together long enough that we do not use condoms, so that is not a solution. I’m hoping to find a way to retract his foreskin down against the bottom half of his penis (towards his body) so that it stays put and does not keep sliding up to cover most of the top half during intercourse.
It’s very frustrating because other than this, our physical relationship is wonderful. I just miss so much of the physical sensation due to his foreskin gliding rather than feeling the friction of his penis inside me.”
It is not even known how many men actually experience gliding during coitus. Some men do report their foreskins gliding back and forth during sex, but others have short foreskins that retract and end up as a wrinkle behind the glans upon erection. There their foreskin remains, doing little until proceedings have completed, whereupon it returns to its original forward position in the flaccid state. Those men are not experiencing gliding. Do they complain? We don’t even know how many men fall into each camp, or lie somewhere in the middle.
As for those whose foreskins do glide back and forth through intercourse, if so then they are, in effect, having sex with their foreskins, rather than the vagina, as in the account above. Where is the research indicating what they think of it? How many enjoy it? How many don’t? What do their partners think of it? Would the greater stimulation experienced by a bare glans compensate for the absence of gliding in a circumcised male? What would a condom do to it?
Until these basic questions are answered, the supposed wonders of gliding should be treated as nothing more than baseless speculation. Given that the glans is the most erogenous part of the penis (Cox et al., 2015), and gliding enables it to be bared for intercourse, it seems likely that the real reason for gliding is simply a means of getting the foreskin out of the way in preparation for action, and returning it afterwards when done.
Cortés-González, J.R., Arratia-Maqueo, J.A., Gómez-Guerra, L.S. (2008) [Does circumcision have an effect on female’s perception of sexual satisfaction?] Rev. Invest. Clin., 60(3), 227-30. (In Spanish).
Cox, G., Krieger, J.N., Morris, B.J. (2015) Histological correlates of penile sexual sensation: does circumcision make a difference? Sex. Med., 3(2), 76-85.
Homfray, V., Tanton, C., Mitchell, K.R., Miller, R.F., Field, N., Macdowall, W., Wellings, K., Sonnenberg, P., Johnson, A.M., Mercer, C.H. (2015) Examining the association between male circumcision and sexual function: evidence from a British probability survey, AIDS, 29(11), 1411-6.
Kigozi, G., Watya, S., Polis, C.B., Buwembo, D., Kiggundu, V., Wawer, M.J., Serwadda, D., Nalugoda, F., Kiwanuka, N., Bacon, M.C., Ssempijja, V., Makumbi, F., Gray, R.H. (2008) The effect of male circumcision on sexual satisfaction and function, results from a randomized trial of male circumcision for human immunodeficiency virus prevention, Rakai, Uganda. BJU Int., 101, 65-70.
Kigozi, G., Lukabwe, I., Kagaayi, J., Wawer, M.J., Nantume, B., Kigozi, G., Nalugoda, F., Kiwanuka, N., Wabwire-Mangen, F., Serwadda, D., Ridzon, R., Buwembo, D., Nabukenya, D., Watya, S., Lutalo, T., Nkale, J., Gray, R.H. (2009) Sexual satisfaction of women partners of circumcised men in a randomized controlled trial of male circumcision in Rakai, Uganda. BJU Int., 104, 1698-1701.
Krieger, J.N., Mehta, S.D., Bailey, R.C., Agot, K., Ndinya-Achola, J.O., Parker, C., Moses, S. (2008) Adult male circumcision: effects on sexual function and sexual satisfaction in Kisumu, Kenya. J. Sex. Med., 5(11), 2610-22.
Morris, B.J. & Krieger, J.N. (2013) Does male circumcision affect sexual function, sensitivity, or satisfaction?—A systematic review, J. Sex. Med., 10(11), 2644-57.
Shabanzadeh, D.M., Düring, S., Frimodt-Møller, C. (2016) Male circumcision does not result in inferior perceived male sexual function – a systematic review. Danish Medical Journal, 63(7), 1-9.
Tian, Y., Liu, W., Wang, J-L., Wazir, R., Yue, X, Wang, K-J. (2013) Effects of circumcision on male sexual functions: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Asian J Andrology, 15, 662-6.
The so-called “Lost list”
For years intactivists have bandied around a list of “functions” and marvels supposedly lost to circumcision. We could debunk it ourselves but, happily, have been beaten to it by a U.K. based skeptic Jake Waskett. For years Jake was a thorn in the side of intactivists, politely and eloquently exposing their pseudoscience and make-believe. Tired of the abuse this attracted, and time it consumed, he retired from the debate in 2012. But his blog, although now inactive, lives on. However, as there is a risk it may one day disappear we have copied here his excellent debunking of the “Lost list”. Familiar lies about nerve endings and foreskin size are swiftly dispatched, along with other speculations passed off as fact, and misrepresentations of the scientific literature. We have inserted a few of our own editorial comments in bold. The original intactivists’ text is in red, Jake’s comments in italics. For the original, see here: http://circumcisionnews.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/so-called-lost-list.html.
The so-called “lost list” by Jake Waskett, posted on his blog on Tuesday 12 July 2011
Although less prominent these days, I still find that people occasionally cite the “lost list”, seemingly unaware of its inaccuracies. For those unfamiliar with it, this is a list of structures or functions supposedly lost through circumcision. A number of different versions can be found on the Internet, but they’re very similar. The text below is taken from NORM-UK (Now calling themselves “15square”: https://www.15square.org.uk/losses-from-circumcision/. My comments are in italics.
The Foreskin which comprises up to 50% (sometimes more) of the mobile skin system of the penis. If unfolded and spread out flat the average adult foreskin would measure about 15 square inches (the size of a 3×5 inch index card).
This is a gross exaggeration. First, one study has actually measured the surface area of the adult foreskin; it found an average surface area of 36.8 square centimetres (that’s 5.7 square inches). (I previously stated that this was the only study. I was mistaken. A second study, with a small sample size, does exist. It reported an average surface area of 46.7 square centimetres, or 7.2 square inches.) Second, as I recently showed in my critique of Barefoot Intactivist’s propaganda, it is reasonable to estimate that the foreskin constitutes 14% of the penile skin system. Using the surface area figure from Werker et al., that’s 18% — still less than half of the extraordinary 50% figure.
See here for our detailed debunking of intactivists’ claims about foreskin size.
This highly specialized tissue normally covers the glans and protects it from abrasion, drying, callusing (also called keratinization), and contaminants of all kinds. The effect of glans keratinisation has never been studied.
This sentence is dubious in many ways. The most obvious is the statement that the foreskin protects the glans from keratinisation — the only study in the literature to have examined keratinisation by circumcision status found no differences between the level of keratinisation of the circumcised and uncircumcised glans. Less obvious, but still troubling, is the implication that the circumcised glans is susceptible to abrasion or “contaminants”. No evidence is cited in support.
See here for our detailed debunking of intactivists’ claims about keratinisation.
[1. M. M. Lander, “The Human Prepuce,” in G. C. Denniston and M. F. Milos, eds., Sexual Mutilations: A Human Tragedy (New York: Plenum Press, 1997), 79-81. 2. M. Davenport, “Problems with the Penis and Prepuce: Natural History of the Foreskin,” British Medical Journal 312 (1996): 299-301.]
Note that only two sources are cited. One (Davenport) is peer-reviewed but does not support any of the claims attributed to it. The other (Lander) is a non-peer-reviewed paper presented at an anti-circumcision conference, which doesn’t inspire confidence.
The Frenar Ridged Band, the primary erogenous zone of the male body.
When I see a claim like this, I immediately wonder: who established this, and what was the study methodology? The cited source (Taylor, see below) established nothing of the sort. While a small number of studies have investigated sensitivity to non-sexual stimulus, only one study, to my knowledge, has investigated the relative degree of sexual pleasure produced by various parts of the anatomy. That study (which was unfortunately limited by the small number of uncircumcised men) found that the foreskin actually produces the least sexual pleasure of any part of the penis.
Loss of this delicate belt of densely innervated, sexually responsive tissue reduces the fullness and intensity of sexual response.
[Taylor, J. R. et al., “The Prepuce: Specialized Mucosa of the Penis and Its Loss to Circumcision,” British Journal of Urology 77 (1996): 291-295.]
Note that the cited source says nothing of the sort! Its authors merely “postulate” that the “ridged band” is sensory tissue. They don’t attempt to prove it, nor do they evaluate the effects of its removal on the “fullness and intensity” of sexual response.
The Foreskin’s ‘Gliding Action’ – the hallmark mechanical feature of the normal natural, intact penis. This non-abrasive gliding of the penis in and out of itself within the vagina facilitates smooth, comfortable, pleasurable intercourse for both partners. Without this gliding action, the corona of the circumcised penis can function as a oneway valve, scraping vaginal lubricants out into the drying air and making artificial lubricants essential for pleasurable intercourse.
[P. M. Fleiss, MD, MPH, “The Case Against Circumcision,” Mothering: The Magazine of Natural Family Living (Winter 1997): 36-45.]
Note that the only source cited for this claim is an opinion piece published in a magazine. It’s an interesting hypothesis, but little or no credible evidence supports it.
See here for our detailed debunking of intactivists’ claims about gliding.
Nerve Endings transmit Sensations to the Brain – Fewer Nerve Endings means Fewer Sensations
This simplistic model is faulty because the presence of nerve endings do not create sensations by themselves. Likely as not, your genitals are not buzzing with sensations as you read this, because they’re not being stimulated. This means that the method and degree of stimulation is as important as the number of nerve endings. Put simply, a smaller number of nerve endings can produce just as much stimulation as a larger number, if stimulated more effectively. And this is effectively what circumcision achieves, by exposing the glans (especially the sensitive corona) to direct stimulation during intercourse, sensation is increased, compensating for the loss of sensation from the foreskin itself.
Circumcision removes the most important sensory component of the foreskin – thousands of coiled fine-touch receptors called Meissner’s corpuscles.
Most important? Who established this, and what was the study methodology?
Also lost are branches of the dorsal nerve, and between 10,000 and 20,000 specialized erotogenic nerve endings of several types.
What is the source for this number? Neither of the two cited sources support it. In fact, having researched this in some depth, I feel quite confident in stating that no study has ever counted the number of nerve endings in the foreskin.
See here for our detailed debunking of the 10,000 and 20,000 nerves myths.
Together these detect subtle changes in motion and temperature, as well as fine gradations in texture.
[1. R. K. Winkelmann, “The Erogenous Zones: Their Nerve Supply and Its Significance,” Proceedings of the Staff Meetings of the Mayo Clinic 34 (1959): 39-47. 2. R. K. Winkelmann, “The Cutaneous Innervation of Human Newborn Prepuce,” Journal of Investigative Dermatology 26 (1956): 53-67.]
Again, the sources fail to support the claims attributed to them.
The Frenulum: The highly erogenous V-shaped web-like tethering structure on the underside of the glans; frequently amputated along with the foreskin, or severed, either of which destroys its function and potential for pleasure.
[1. Cold, C, Taylor, J, “The Prepuce,” BJU International 83, Suppl. 1, (1999): 34-44. 2. Kaplan, G.W., “Complications of Circumcision,” Urologic Clinics of North America 10, 1983.]
Neither of the cited sources actually supports these claims. This isn’t terribly surprising because a) the frenulum’s potential for pleasure is speculative, and b) the function of the frenulum, such as it is, is to hold the foreskin in place over the glans. Without a foreskin, then, it has no function.
Muscle Sheath: Circumcision removes approximately half of the temperature-sensitive smooth muscle sheath which lies between the outer layer of skin and the corpus cavernosa. This is called the dartos fascia.
[Netter, F.H., “Atlas of Human Anatomy,” Second Edition (Novartis, 1997): Plates 234, 329, 338, 354, 355.]
“Approximately half” is of course an exaggeration, but it is true that the foreskin does contain this layer.
The Immunological Defense System of the soft mucosa. This produces both plasma cells that secrete immunoglobulin antibodies and antibacterial and antiviral proteins such as the pathogen-killing enzyme lysozyme.
[1. A. Ahmed and A. W. Jones, “Apocrine Cystadenoma: A Report of Two Cases Occurring on the Prepuce,” British Journal of Dermatology 81 (1969): 899-901. 2. P. J. Flower et al., “An Immunopathologic Study of the Bovine Prepuce,” Veterinary Pathology 20 (1983):189-202.]
The cited sources utterly fail to support these claims. The second is not even a study of the human prepuce, but rather that of the cow! While the foreskin doubtless contains the immunological functions of any skin, no special mechanisms are known.
Lymphatic Vessels: the loss of which reduces the lymph flow within that part of the body’s immune system.
[Netter, F.H., “Atlas of Human Anatomy,” Second Edition (Novartis, 1997): plate 379.]
This is really scraping the bottom of the barrel, but yes, removing skin does remove the lymph vessels within it.
Oestrogen Receptors The presence of estrogen receptors within the foreskin has only recently been discovered. Their purpose is not yet understood and needs further study.
[R. Hausmann et al., “The Forensic Value of the Immunohistochemical Detection of Oestrogen Receptors in Vaginal Epithelium,” International Journal of Legal Medicine 109 (1996): 10-30.]
If confirmed, for that matter.
The Body is Well Designed – Altering it Surgically can only Disrupt it’s Natural Function
This is more a statement of faith than a serious claim, but we can transform it into a scientifically testable hypothesis: surgical alteration of the body cannot produce positive effects. It seems almost trivial to show that it is false.
The Apocrine Glands [sweat glands] of the inner foreskin, which produce pheremones -nature’s powerful, silent, invisible behavioural signals to potential sexual partners. The effect of their absence on human sexuality has never been studied.
[A. Ahmed and A. W. Jones, “Apocrine Cystadenoma: A Report of Two Cases Occurring on the Prepuce,” British Journal of Dermatology 81 (1969): 899-901.]
A serious problem with this claim is that apocrine glands are absent in the inner foreskin. Amusingly, one of the sources cited above (Taylor et al) says this: “the mucosal surface of the prepuce is completely free of lanugo hair follicles, sweat and sebaceous glands”. Similarly, Parkash et al report: “Multiple small pieces were taken from the inner lining of the circumcised prepuce […] A special search was made for glandular tissue. No such tissue was found in the material”.
Sebaceous Glands which lubricate and moisturise the foreskin and glans, normally a protected and internal organ-like the tongue or vagina. Not all men have sebaceous glands on their inner foreskin.
[A. B. Hyman and M. H. Brownstein, “Tyson’s Glands: Ectopic Sebaceous Glands and Papillomatosis Penis,” Archives of Dermatology 99 (1969): 31-37.]
In fact, according to the studies cited above, no men have sebaceous glands on their inner foreskin.
Langerhans Cells Specialised epithelial Langerhans cells, a first line component of the body’s immune system in a whole penis.
[G. N. Weiss et al., “The Distribution and Density of Langerhans Cells in the Human Prepuce: Site of a Diminished Immune Response?” Israel Journal of Medical Sciences 29 (1993): 42-43.]
The cited source actually states the opposite: that the foreskin is deficient in Langerhans cells.
Colouration: The natural coloration of the glans and inner foreskin (usually hidden and only visible to others when sexually aroused) is considerably more intense than the permanently exposed and keratinized coloration of a circumcised penis. The socio-biological function of this visual stimulus has never been studied.
Ignoring the keratinisation error, this seems to be rather desperate. The appearance of the penis is changed, so this is a loss?
Some of the penis length and circumference because its double-layered wrapping of loose and usually overhanging foreskin is now missing, making the circumcised penis truncated and thinner than it would have been if left intact. An Australian survey in 1995 showed circumcised men to have erect penises an average of 8mm shorter than intact men.
[1. R. D. Talarico and J. E. Jasaitis, “Concealed Penis: A Complication of Neonatal Circumcision,” Journal of Urology 110 (1973): 732-733. 2. Richters J, Gerofi J, Donovan B. Why do condoms break or slip off in use? An exploratory study. Int J STD AIDS. 1995; 6(1):11-8. ]
It should be noted that this Australian study is in fact the only study to report such a difference.
The circumcised men in the 1995 study were also older than the non-circumcised ones. This could be the reason their erections were slightly smaller or weaker (Rivin et al., 2016, Critical evaluation of Adler’s challenge to the CDC’s circumcision recommendations. Int. J. Children’s Rights, 24, 265-303. See p. 275).
Blood Vessels: Several feet of blood vessels, including the frenular artery and branches of the dorsal artery are removed in circumcision. This loss of the rich vascularity interrupts normal flow to the shaft and glans of the penis, damaging the the natural function of the penis and altering its development.
[1. H. C. Bazett et al., “Depth, Distribution and Probable Identification in the Prepuce of Sensory End-Organs Concerned in Sensations of Temperature and Touch; Thermometric Conductivity,” Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry 27 (1932): 489-517.� 2. Netter, F.H., “Atlas of Human Anatomy,” Second Edition (Novartis, 1997): plates 238, 239.]
It is quite likely that several feet are lost, as the human body has an extraordinary number of blood vessels (a typical estimate is that the adult human body contains 100,000 miles of blood vessels). The claimed consequences, however, are unsupported by the references cited.
Dorsal Nerves: The terminal branch of the pudendal nerve connects to the skin of the penis, the prepuce, the corpora cavernosa, and the glans. Destruction of these nerves is a rare but devastating complication of circumcision. If cut during circumcision, the top two-thirds of the penis will be almost completely without sensation.
[1. Agur, A.M.R. ed., “Grant’s Atlas of Anatomy,” Ninth Edition (Williams and Wilkins, 1991): 188-190. 2. Netter, F.H., “Atlas of Human Anatomy,” Second Edition (Novartis, 1997): plate 380, 387.]
One wonders why such extremely rare, albeit possible complications are included, then. To pad out the list, perhaps?
Complications: Every year boys lose their entire penises from circumcision accidents and infection. They are then “sexually reassigned” by castration and “transgender surgery” and expected to live their lives as “females”.
[1. J. P. Gearhart and J. A. Rock, “Total Ablation of the Penis after Circumcision with Electrocautery: A Method of Management and Long-Term Follow up,” Journal of Urology 142 (1989):799-801. 2. M. Diamond and H. K. Sigmundson, “Sex Reassignment at Birth: Long-Term Review and Clinical Implications,” Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 151 (1997): 298-304.]
It may be an exaggeration to claim that this happens “every year”, but cases have been reported, unfortunately.
Death: Every year many boys lose their lives from the complications of circumcision, a fact the billion-dollar-a-year circumcision industry in the U.S. routinely obscures and ignores.
[1. G. W. Kaplan, “Complications of Circumcision,” Urologic Clinics of North America 10 (1983): 543-549. 2. R. S. Thompson, “Routine Circumcision in the Newborn: An Opposing View,” Journal of Family Practice 31 (1990): 189-196.]
Again, death does occur, albeit rarely. However, it would be foolish to consider such deaths in isolation. They should be weighed against deaths attributable to lack of circumcision. That is, if a million boys are circumcised, does this result in more or fewer deaths than if those boys are not circumcised. The evidence indicates that lives are saved.
Emotional Bonding: Circumcision performed during infancy disrupts the bonding process between child and mother. There are indications that the innate sense of trust in intimate human contact is inhibited or lost.
Who established this, and what was the study methodology?
This has already been investigated in relation to breastfeeding. Circumcision makes no difference: Fergusson et al. (2008) Neonatal circumcision: Effects on breastfeeding and outcomes associated with breastfeeding. J. Paediatrics & Child Health, 44(1-2), 44-9. Mondzelewski et al. (2016) Timing of circumcision and breastfeeding initiation among newborn boys. Hospital Paediatrics, 6(11), 653-8.
It can also have significant adverse effects on neurological development. Additionally, an infant’s self-confidence and hardiness is diminished by forcing the newborn victim into a defensive psychological state of “learned helplessness” or “acquired passivity” to cope with the excruciating pain which he can neither fight nor flee.
Who established this, and what was the study methodology? How on Earth would one be able to prove such a thing? It looks suspiciously like an unfalsifiable statement: a product of pseudoscience, not science.
This has been claimed in connection with autism, and soundly rejected by the scientific community. We hope to write a dedicated rebuttal on this topic in due course.
The trauma of this early pain lowers a circumcised boy’s pain threshold below that of intact boys and girls.
[1. R. Goldman, Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma (Boston: Vanguard Publications, 1997), 139-175. 2. A. Taddio et al., “Effect of Neonatal Circumcision on Pain Responses during Vaccination in Boys,” Lancet 345 (1995): 291-292.]
Neurological Sexual Communication: Although never studied scientifically, contemporary evidence suggests that a penis without its foreskin lacks the capacity for the subtle neurological “cross-communication” that occurs only during contact between mucous membranes and which contributes to the experience of sexual pleasure.
What utter nonsense! How on earth would non-scientific evidence suggest such a thing? This appears to be nothing more than a wild theory, dishonestly presented as something suggested by evidence.
Amputating an infant boy’s multi-functional foreskin is a “low-grade neurological castration” [Immerman], which diminishes the intensity of the entire sexual experience for both the circumcised male and his partner.
So prove it. Should be trivial. Except, of course, that scientific studies of satisfaction, etc., don’t support this claim.
A popular intactivist meme is that the foreskin has 16 functions. A list usually follows of these purported “functions”, but they range from insignificant to rampant speculation to exercises in barrel-scraping. Now we could debunk each in turn but, happily, have been beaten to it by the folks at Circumcision Choice. So, go to their Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/CircumcisionChoice/?fref=ts click on “Posts” (left hand side), and use the search bar (right hand side) to search for “ForeskinFunction” (no space). Enjoy.
While we are on this theme, just to be fair to intactivists, we have identified a 17th function of the foreskin they ought to include on their list. Here it is: