Gimme Some Skin - foreskin restoration article
Gimme Some Skin
Why a growing number of circumcised men are submitting to foreskin-stretching devices—and even surgery—to reverse the unkindest cut of all.
-By Elisa Ludwig
-Photographs by Dan Forbes
Jonathan started seriously thinking about his foreskin—or, to be more precise, its absence—the night he and his wife, Linda, went to a live sex talk show in downtown Los Angeles. Jonathan and Linda (their names have been changed) were seated in front, a few feet away from the sexologist host, Dr. Susan Block, and her naked guests. One guy, a porn star who was well-endowed and uncut, drew Jonathan’s attention—and his wife’s. “Her eyes were just glued to that cock,” he says. “She’d never seen or touched an intact penis. She was fascinated by the foreskin.”
Three years earlier, when Linda was pregnant with their son, Jonathan had weighed the pros and cons of circumcision. Through research he discovered the advantages of leaving the foreskin intact (it contains thousands of nerve endings that, according to some experts, make sex much more pleasurable) and the risks of removing it (bleeding, scarring, and—very rarely—death). He and Linda decided against circumcising their newborn. But when the child was born with hypospadias—a malformed urethra and foreskin—their doctor recommended circumcision. The couple agreed, though Jonathan was disappointed.
Like most American men of his generation, Jonathan, 40, was circumcised at birth. In the United States, the practice became widespread between the World Wars. Doctors claimed it was hygienic and prevented everything from epilepsy to cancer to excessive masturbation, assertions that have since been discredited. (Current proponents of circumcision point to studies linking it to decreased risk of HIV infection, a matter of major debate.) After peaking in popularity in the sixties, circumcision has been in a slow decline: In the eighties, some 60 percent of male newborns in America underwent the procedure; that number had dropped to 56 percent by 2006. Today the United States is the only Western country besides Australia and Israel (of course) in which a majority of male citizens are circumcised.
Jonathan had never had any problems in the bedroom, but the more he learned about circumcision, the more he believed that regaining a foreskin would take his sex life to new heights. That, plus the fascination and excitement he saw in his wife’s eyes that night, made him wonder whether there was a change he could make, for both their sakes.
As a fitness trainer and former professional boxer, Jonathan understood that with patience and hard work the body can be transformed. So he went online and purchased a device called the TLC Tugger. Jonathan is now eight months into a two-to-four-year foreskin-stretching process using the device. He wears it around the clock—except when making love with his wife or going through airport security. He attaches it by placing one cone, which has a metal loop on the end, over the head of his penis; rolling his excess shaft skin over the cone; securing a second cone, with an opening at the top, snugly over that skin; attaching an elastic band to the loop; and finally strapping the band around his knee. The contraption, which pulls gently and steadily downward, has lengthened Jonathan’s new “foreskin” so that it now extends halfway over the head of his penis. Millimeter by millimeter, he’s re-creating what he was given at birth—and what was taken from him. He already feels like a new man. “I always thought my penis was totally sensitive and fine,” he says. “It’s one of those things—you can’t know it until you know it. And I didn’t know what I was missing.”
Jonathan is one of a growing number of men who are out to reverse that first and unkindest cut of all. They gather in groups like the National Organization of Restoring Men (NORM), which has seen its membership rise steadily. The Circumcision and Information Resource Pages estimates that tens of thousands of men are restoring or have already restored their foreskins. Some want to regain sensitivity and create a more pleasurable experience for their partners and themselves. Others do it for the sake of appearance—to get the virile, heavy-hooded look they see in European or gay porn—or simply to share a bond with their uncut sons. Still others see it as a way to fight back against what they believe is a violation of human rights.
The foreskin-restoration movement is a subset of the intactivist movement, the community of doctors, parents, and embittered men who believe that circumcision is not only unnecessary but harmful—a ritual akin to the female-genital mutilation practiced by some African cultures. Intactivists lobby against the routine circumcision of boys at birth and, though they generally claim to respect Jews who honor the traditional bris, they rail against our propensity for snipping, blaming it on everything from misguided tradition to a regressive, Victorian-era fear of male sexuality to a multimillion-dollar industry that uses foreskins in cosmetics and medical research (they’re a leading source of stem cells).
When a penis is circumcised, the glans, originally covered by the mucous membrane of the foreskin, is left exposed, causing the skin to toughen and desensitize over time. The restoration process re-covers the glans with skin—not foreskin, exactly, but an approximation of it—encouraging the hardened skin to peel away and leaving the glans moister and, according to advocates of the procedure, more sensitive. There are two primary restoration methods: DIY devices for tissue expansion, like Jonathan’s, which can take several years, and surgical reconstruction. In the latter, a surgeon cuts the skin on the shaft of the penis and stretches it over the head; the denuded shaft is then pinned down and tucked into slits cut in the scrotal skin, which in time fuses back over the shaft. “It looks like a toad in a blanket,” says Dr. Robert Stubbs, a Toronto-based plastic surgeon who has performed several reconstructions. A month or so after the initial surgery, the patient returns to have the penis detached from the scrotum.
Very few doctors in North America advertise surgical reconstruction. “The demand is very small. For as many anti-circ individuals as there are, not that many will go for surgery,” says Dr. Harold Reed, of the Reed Center for Genital Surgery, outside Miami. “The operation is a type of cosmetic surgery, as I see it, where someone wants some adornment, like putting jewelry on the penis.”
But the surgery is also uncommon because it’s flawed. Even when successful it leaves the shaft with a darker and hairy patch, covered as it is in scrotal skin. And failed operations can cause scarring, infection, a retracted foreskin, and even the loss of all penile function.
Those facts didn’t dissuade Ben (his name has been changed), an electrician from Lynchburg, Virginia, from going under Reed’s knife five years ago, at the age of 38. Ben had wanted to restore his foreskin ever since he was a teenager, when he became aware that his penis had not always been circumcised. Angry and disillusioned, he eagerly plunked down $7,600 to get his foreskin back. “It is impossible to re-create what was destroyed, but I’m happy with the surgery,” he says.
Given the dangers of surgical restoration and the intactivists’ philosophical aversion to the knife, it’s no wonder the majority of restorers opt for nonsurgical methods. The online market is awash in devices like the TLC Tugger, the PUD (Penile Uncircumcising Device), and the CAT II Q Stretcher. Never mind that they sound like things Ron Popeil might hawk on TV—their users swear by them.
Michael (not his real name), a 42-year-old CPA in Southern California, enthusiastically wears the Dual Tension Restorer under his suits. The white nylon plunger with two grippers simultaneously holds the head of his penis and pulls the excess skin outward—and no one at his white-shoe firm is the wiser. “I have wide pants I can hide it underneath,” he says, “and I can go to the bathroom to re-situate.” He doesn’t find it painful but admits that he has on occasion overtugged.
Other restorers jury-rig their own devices. Richard Baker, a 28-year-old network analyst who lives in surburban Dallas, is using a sanded-down PVC pipe with medical tape, S hooks, and elastic waistbands from boxer shorts. He expects to finish restoring in about two years. “I’ll feel complete,” Richard says. “I won’t be ashamed of my body.”
Richard shares his progress online, posting photos on a website called restoreforeskin.org, which, along with sites like foreskin-restoration.net, serves as a “What to Expect When You’re Stretching” guide. Forum posts on the sites reveal a range of motivations for restorers—the first locker-room exposure to other guys’ junk, foreskin envy among gay lovers, chafing during athletic activity, a desire to have a phallus that looks like one’s father’s (or one’s son’s). But the overwhelming reason these men want to restore their foreskins is better sex. The restorer community sees the foreskin as the vehicle for whole-body orgasms and erotic rediscovery—or as the remedy for problems such as premature ejaculation and the inability to climax.
The latter reason appealed to Tom (not his real name), a 43-year-old IT consultant from the Midwest. “I could never orgasm from oral sex,” he says, “and intercourse took a very long time and was often uncomfortable for my partner. Clearly something was wrong.”
A year ago a doctor put Tom on an erectile-dysfunction drug. Since then he’s experimented with a few devices, partially restoring his foreskin, and he says he no longer needs the pills—arousal and orgasm are not a problem. Although he’s currently single, Tom likes to think his restoration is a gift for his future wife. “Even though I’m not sure who she is yet,” he says, “I’m doing it for her.”
Many restorers are egged on by their partners. “When you’re married, it has to be a joint decision,” says Michael, whose European wife was accustomed to sex with uncut men. Michael was the first in his immediate family to be circumcised and, while at a Swiss boarding school, began to feel his circumcised penis looked meager, but his wife helped seal the deal. “She said, ‘I like your penis, but it’s not as comfortable as an uncut penis.’”
Jonathan has found that restoring his foreskin has paid off by giving him and his wife a more fulfilling sex life. Intercourse is now smoother, less “roughshod,” he says. “Anal sex is different too. My wife was never into that—but we tried it again out of curiosity. The gliding made it completely tolerable, and she actually enjoyed it.” And it’s given him more intense orgasms, he says. “Masturbation is better—even hand jobs are better.”
Regardless, the medical community is dubious. Many doctors think restorers are tilting at phallic windmills, dreaming of an impossible sexual ideal or compensating for a sense of inadequacy. From a purely scientific point of view, they may be right. “There’s no convincing evidence that having a foreskin increases sensation,” says Dr. Ira Sharlip, a professor of urology and a spokesperson for the American Urological Society. “There are an equal number if not more papers that show sensation and sexual satisfaction are better after circumcision. It’s a little bit of skin and it raises so many passions, but, you know, it isn’t worth the effort of worrying about it.”
But norm members and their cohorts contend that the “little bit of skin” is fundamental to their identity and sexuality, and that it was taken without their consent. That loss, for some, has had deep repercussions. Ben asked his parents to pay for his foreskin-restoration surgery as a means of righting their past wrong. They refused—and he no longer speaks to them. In 2000, a 21-year-old Suffolk County, New York, man sued his mother’s obstetrician and hospital for having him circumcised in 1981 (the case was settled out of court).
Most restorers, though, are looking for reparations of a physical nature. Jonathan hopes to complete restoration in another 16 months, and he plans to stay active in the restorer community to raise awareness. “It’s the idea that most of us are walking around with a desensitized, seriously handicapped penis,” he says. “Restoration’s not like getting a boob job—you’re trying to restore something to the way it’s supposed to be.”