If a man is circumcised, he faces an increased risk of experiencing delayed orgasm, and his female partner has an increased risk of not feeling sexually fulfilled.
This is the clear-cut conclusion of a new Danish research article, which has received international attention.
Some 5,000 sexually active men and women were surveyed about their experiences and possible problems with their sex lives. With a specific focus on circumcised men and their women, the results are startling.
“Circumcised men are three times as likely to experience a frequent inability to reach an orgasm,” says one of the researchers, Associate Professor Morten Frisch from Danish research enterprise SSI.
This is one of only a few studies of the sexual consequences of male circumcision, and in one area in particular it is groundbreaking:
“Previous studies into male circumcision have looked at the effects it has on the men. But scientists have never really studied the effects this has on the women's sex lives,” says Frisch.
“It appears that women with circumcised men are twice as likely to be sexually frustrated. They experience a three-fold risk of frequent difficulties in achieving orgasm, and an eight-fold risk of feeling pain during intercourse – also known as dyspareunia.”
There appears to be a very simple reason why circumcised men and their partners are having problems with their sex lives.
The circumcised man develops a thin layer of hard skin on his penis head, which decreases the sensitivity. This means that in order to reach an orgasm, he needs to work harder at it, and that can lead to a painful experience for the woman.
“We conducted a survey, but the data does not explain why these problems occur. There are, however, some good suggestions in the scientific literature,” he explains.
When the penis enters the vagina, the foreskin is pulled back. And on its way out again, the foreskin goes back to cover the penis head. This way the foreskin stimulates both the man and the woman.
The gliding in-and-out movement of the foreskin, combined with the in-and-out movement inside the vagina, constitutes what is known as ‘the gliding movement’.
“When a circumcised man moves in and out of a woman without 'the gliding movement' caused by the foreskin, it can have a painful effect on the woman's mucous membrane. This could explain the pain and the tendency towards dryness that some women with circumcised men experience.”
A vast majority of the circumcised men in the study were circumcised based on a doctor's estimate.
In the U.S. some 50 percent of all boys are circumcised.
Circumcision is – or rather has been – common in many English-speaking countries. This is due to a trend from the Victorian age where doctors recommended that boys should be circumcised as this would make it more difficult to masturbate.
At the time, masturbation was thought to lead to a long list of problems, including mental illness and typhus.
“Only five percent of all Danish men are circumcised, yet we have statistically valid evidence that male circumcision can be associated with sexual problems.
The study did not involve many religiously circumcised men – Jews and Muslims, for example. But even with these factors taken into account, the data pointed in the same direction. The statistical analyses also took a long list of additional relevant factors into account, including:
“We adjusted for all these factors in an attempt to ensure that circumcision is the actual cause, and that the link isn’t attributable to other factors.”
Frisch mentions an example of how things get muddled up if researchers do not adjust for possible sources of error when they work with statistics:
“If, for instance, you look at people who drink lots of beer, you'll see that they face an increased risk of developing lung cancer, compared to those who don't drink much,” he says. “But it's not the drinking itself that causes the lung cancer. There just happens to be a correlation between drinking and smoking, and it is actually the smoking that causes the lung cancer.”
These kinds of error sources were taken into account, and the bottom-line results were clear:
“We’re seeing a consistent picture. Even though most circumcised men – and their women – do not have problems with their sex lives, there is a significantly larger group of circumcised men and their female partners who experience frequent problems in achieving orgasm, compared to couples where the man is not circumcised.”
Narrowed foreskin is popularly known as ‘Spanish Collar’ and scientifically as ‘phimosis’.
For half a century, large surveys have shown that problems with phimosis sort themselves out in childhood for up to 99% of boys. Nevertheless, this condition is still being used as a major argument for routine circumcision in many countries.
In addition, there are significantly more women with circumcised men, who experience vaginal pains during intercourse or feel that their sexual needs are not met.
Frisch hopes this new study will be replicated by researchers in other countries and cultures.
“That way we can ascertain whether this phenomenon applies to Danes only or whether it extends into other cultures too,” he says. “All in all, I have a humble approach to our findings, so I would also like to see whether other Danish studies would reach the same conclusions.”
According to Frisch, the study has received a great deal of international attention. For example, he has been contacted by politicians in California, who are very pleased with the results of the study because they want to ban circumcision in their federal state.
Others are less excited, saying the research is controversial.
“This is a highly sensitive issue, and some people oppose the publication of this kind of research. Some people have actually tried to stop the publication of our article,” he explains.
Certain groups and individuals are lobbying in favour circumcising all men, explains Frisch. Not necessarily out of religious concern, but because they believe that circumcision has a health-promotional effect. In Africa, for instance, there are indications that circumcision could reduce the risk of HIV infection.