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The foreskin renaissance movement

ForeskinCircumcision has been on the wane for years, but a growing community of men are out to reverse the snip decision their parents made years ago. Laura Novak meets the foreskin restoration movement.

13 February 2011

Tally has been tugging on his penis for two years. His hand movements are methodical and prescribed. He forms the OK symbol with the index fingers and thumbs on both hands and pulls down on the shaft, stretching it between his spreading hands.

After five minutes of tugging, Tally does what any man in a public restroom does: tucks in his shirt, steps out of the stall, washes his hands, and returns to the desk. Tally has what he’s after: his foreskin is slacker. He’s happier because of that. And his co-workers are none the wiser.

Tally is short for Tallywacker, a British nickname for penis. It is also the nom de Internet of a 55-year-old, heterosexual, happily married attorney in Tennessee who is at the vanguard of the foreskin restoration movement. With evangelical zest, he shares his story, and a sequential series of photographs of his penis, to thousands of private members and hundreds of daily visitors to his websites, RestoringForeskin.org and RestoringTally.com.

“Foreskin restoration has changed my life, like I never imagined was possible,” he says. “At 55, I’m enjoying sex like I’m in my 20s. Having my foreskin has made me feel more confident and comfortable in my skin and body.”

Circumcision has been practiced for millennia, across continents and cultures. Anthropologists disagree about its origins; some think it goes back 15,000 years to a single culture, some think it originated independently at different times, in different places, for different reasons. We know that Australian aborigines, Native Americans, and ancient Egyptians practiced it, dating back at least 6,000 years.

Over time, circumcision took on religious significance in Judaism, Islam, and even Christianity. Jews consider it a commandment from God; Muslims believe it to be one of five acts that “befit the natural state of man.”

And then there is the Holy Foreskin (or prepuce) of Jesus, cut off in a cave on his eighth day of life, and supposedly handed down through the centuries by popes, kings, and even Charlemagne himself. It was thought to have magical properties—and if the accounts are to be believed it would have had to, given that during the Middle Ages, there were as many as 18 Holy Prepuces scattered across Europe.

By the mid-19th century, circumcision was medicalized. It was proposed as treatment for a range of conditions, from the mutually counterintuitive—priapism and impotence, paralysis and epilepsy—to some that are still cited today: prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and foreskin-related problems like phimosis and balanitis.

By the turn of the 20th century, it was widely advocated by doctors, including John Harvey Kellogg, who prescribed circumcision (along with, it should be noted, Corn Flakes) to prevent masturbation.

In the 1930s, by some accounts, the neonatal circumcision rate was around 32 percent. That figure rose over the ensuing decades, peaking in the ’70s, when 80 to 90 percent of American boys were circumcised as infants.

Tally came to foreskin restoration through the back door. Two years ago, while researching surgery he was about to have for bacterial prostatitis, he stumbled on an abundance of anecdotal information online from men in their 40s and 50s who had lost penile sensitivity or the ability to ejaculate. Tally recognized himself in their stories and confided in the urologist who would perform the prostate surgery.

“I talked to him about the trouble to get erections and taking me longer to complete having sex. And of course his response was he gave me a free sample of Viagra. Viagra helps the erection problem. You’ll stand at attention. But it doesn’t make the sex act pleasurable,” Tally says. “Sex wasn’t fun anymore. There were times when she’d say, ‘Aren’t you done yet?’”

But Tally says while most men think that diminished penile sensitivity is just a normal part of aging, he also found an abundance of narratives by men who restored their foreskins and reported that those problems went away. The idea that Tally’s circumcision might have harmed his penis began to firm up.

The effects of circumcision on penile sensitivity is the subject of debate, but NORM, the National Organization for Restoring Men in San Francisco, reports that more than 20,000 nerve endings are amputated through circumcision.

For a little over two decades, NORM has been Penis Central for “intactivists,” circumcision opponents and men wishing to restore their foreskin.

NORM co-founder R. Wayne Griffiths, 77, whose outreach efforts have spawned two dozen groups in seven countries across five continents, says he has provided information to at least 10,000 men—and there is no letup in sight.

Griffiths was among those who revived interest in foreskin restoration in the U.S., but uncircumcision is hardly a new phenomenon. The first historical references appear in the Old Testament (I Maccabees 1: 14–15): “Whereupon they built a place of exercise at Jerusalem according to the customs of the heathen. And made themselves uncircumcised, and forsook the holy covenant, and joined themselves to the heathen, and were sold to do mischief.”

To avoid persecution during the reign of Antiochus (175–163 B.C.), circumcised Jews stretched their remaining foreskins with a specially designed weight, the Pondus Judaeus. A Roman medical text written during the reign of Tiberius (A.D. 14–37), De Medicina, contains the first-known reference to surgical restoration. And although few written accounts exist, surgical foreskin restoration, understandably, made a comeback among European Jews during the 1930s and ’40s.

The latest restoration revival isn’t limited to American enthusiasts. “I recently got emails from men in Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Baltic countries, and Russia,” Griffiths says. “I’m always amazed at where these men come from, whether it’s Kokomo, Indiana, the Philippines, Japan, or China. It keeps happening.”

And the number one reason why? Better sex. “Men have lost tens of thousands of nerve endings that have been amputated,” he says. “No one has feelings anymore.”

That argument is lost on Dr. Joel Piser. He has been a urologist in private practice in Berkeley, California, for 24 years. And for the past 20 years, he has been a mohel, circumcising newborns as part of the Jewish ritual Berit Milah.

Piser says he hasn’t seen a surgical foreskin restoration in Berkeley in 23 years. And while he’s seen a few men who have manually restored, he says, medically speaking, the gain is, as the saying goes, all in the big head.

“The few I’ve seen, it covers part of the glans. It could pass for an uncircumcised penis. Do I think they’re gaining anything other than cosmetic? No, I do not. I don’t see how it’s anatomically possible to rejuvenate nerves by just stretching the penile shaft skin over the glans. That’s not physiologically plausible. If the nerves in the penile skin could be rejuvenated by stretching, we’d be transplanting foreskin into spinal cords,” Dr. Piser says.

Tally maintains that there’s newfound magic in his johnson—no matter what science says.

“The difference I feel is not about the number of nerve endings I have. It is about stimulating what I have in a different way. The gliding action rolls the inner foreskin over the corona, both of which are highly innervated normally. The sensation from the gliding action is very pleasurable and new to me.”

Circumcision is a lucrative industry, earning the medical community hundreds of millions of dollars annually for the 1.3 million circs done each year. But an equally ambitious, if not as lucrative, industry has sprouted up for men willing to stretch their foreskin. Manual tugging can involve tape, extension devices such as cones, weights, elastics, and just palm-to-penis pull action.

Tally tried two different devices but didn’t have enough foreskin to work with. “In order to wear the device you have to have enough slack skin for it to fit. I had a very tight circ so I had very little slack skin.” So he began manual tugging and made excellent progress. The routine conveniently coincided with frequent bathroom visits following his prostate surgery.

“I’ve noticed major differences in masturbation within about four months. Increase in sensitivity around the six- to eight-month mark just in general and in sex. At about the one-year point, I hit a milestone, full flaccid coverage,” Tally says. “I had enough of a restored foreskin so when I’m hanging natural, I am covered. If someone saw me now, they’d say I wasn’t circumcised.”

That’s music to the ears of the roughly 2,800 active participants at RestoringForeskin.org. Tally spends two hours a day moderating comments and answering questions online.

And who, exactly, is asking? Tally says the demographics are divided evenly between gay and straight, under 30 and over 40. One member is in his 80s, but it’s the younger set, Tally reports, that’s particularly interested in foreskin restoration.

“They’re brought up on the Internet, learning, ‘Hey, they cut off part of my sex organ and I want it back.’” That, in a sentence, has become the clarion call of the foreskin restoration movement: you’re missing out—it’s so much better au naturel.

At least that’s the message Matt got at the tender age of 15 when he stumbled on information online about FR.

“I had never heard of it,” Matt said. “I didn’t have much self-esteem in the first place, but it scared me—it said if you are circumcised, when you have sex with a woman she won’t feel pleasure, only pain. I didn’t want my wife not to be happy with me sexually when I eventually got married. So I found ways to grow it back.”

Matt, a 26-year-old New Yorker active in the online FR community, asked that his real name not be used. His attempts to restore his foreskin lasted 11 frustrating years before he opted to be re-circumcised.

“The devices didn’t work well or they would hurt too much so I had to take them off,” Matt said. “I never liked the way it looked. The grown-back version is always so much thicker and not very natural-looking—like a swollen version of a foreskin.”

The smell of smegma (the cheese-like secretion found under an unwashed foreskin), the feel of his new, loose skin—just about everything about his lengthening foreskin—turned Matt off of the process. But at the same time—adding to his confusion—he found just as many men online citing better sex as a result of adult circumcision.

Matt eventually went to a urologist, who re-circumcised him almost a year ago. But he was disappointed, he says, that the doctor “didn’t take more off”—so in July he had the procedure done again, by a different urologist, 11 years after he first began growing it back.

This is precisely the type of story that makes some medical professionals roll their eyes in frustration or disgust. While most restoring websites focus on facts, just as many traffic in personal anecdotes and hysterical grievances.

For Matt, the worst thing about his restoration adventure was the influence the people on the Internet had on him. When he told the story of his two re-circumcisions online, others in the community accused him of lying. “They said how evil circumcision is. Some said they hated their parents because they let it be done to them,” he says, emphasizing that restorers are often swept up in the rhetoric. “One guy said he wanted to pee on his doctor’s grave.”

“Circumcision inflames a lot of people because they need a focus,” says Dr. Piser. “I want them to look at things objectively and try to eliminate the emotional component, which is hard to do when it comes to the phallus.”

In the medical community, there is mild debate about circumcision’s benefits.

It is virtually impossible to get penile cancer when circumcised. It is similarly rare to see balanitis (inflammation of any residual foreskin) and it eliminates the possibility of phimosis, a condition in which the foreskin cannot retract from the glans. Snipped newborns are 10 times less likely to get a urinary tract infection.

To be fair, these conditions are rare in uncircumcised men as well. And for over a decade, neither the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) nor the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have advocated routine neonatal circumcision.

And there’s evidence that the anti-circ groundswell is having an effect. In August, the CDC confirmed that between 2006 and 2009, the U.S. infant circumcision rate declined from about 50 to 33 percent—its lowest rate since the 1930s.

While the AAP and the CDC aren’t taking sides, the World Health Organization (WHO) considers circumcision part of a comprehensive HIV prevention program. They cite compelling evidence that it reduces the risk of HIV transmission in heterosexual sex by up to 60 percent.

Research released just last week indicates that circumcision also helps reduce the spread of human papillomavirus (HPV), which can lead to cervical cancer in women (HPV is the most prevalent sexually transmitted disease in the U.S.).

Both the CDC and the AAP are reevaluating their positions on circumcision in light of new data. Results from the AAP’s circumcision task force are likely to be released this year.

Not surprisingly, the new findings haven’t silenced critics of the procedure—among them, mothers, Jews, doctors, and the restoring community. For intactivists, the rhetoric has shifted from a risk-benefit analysis to an anti-mutilation, human-rights argument.

“It’s quite the task to change your body—to accept that you had a procedure done that harms you.”

Randy Tymkin was only 32 when he realized that the sensitivity in his penis was going away, “quicker than I could have hoped for.” This was 15 years ago, when the Internet wasn’t the fount of FR information it is today. Still, the idea that he could restore some sensitivity intrigued him.

Living in Winnepeg, Manitoba, meant Randy went to tanning salons during the long winter. He suspected the UV rays were one reason he felt desensitized. Wearing jock straps and jeans without underwear were also culprits. “I thought of how rough our hands can be when we masturbate,” he says. “Running callous skin up and down on the naked glans. So I started thinking about this.”

Randy’s thinking turned into tinkering. He got out a sewing machine and created a little silk hood that fit over the tip of his penis, acting as a foreskin substitute. He trademarked it the ManHood, and found that wearing his creation increased the sensitivity in his penis—so much, he says, “I could not not wear it.”

Randy, who works as a juvenile jail guard, began advertising his product in two magazines. Within days, his mailbox was stuffed with 27 orders. Today, he fills up to four orders a day and has sold upward of 20,000 ManHoods without further advertising.

Encouraged by the renewed sensitivity he’d acquired, Randy used tape and weights to stretch about three-fourths of an inch of skin over a period of a few months, but he gave up: “If you have plans for sex, going swimming, or playing sports, you can’t because the device is cumbersome.”

Randy settled for wearing his own silk creation, filling orders, and answering emails from men who are circumcised as well as those who are restoring. But his interest in, or perhaps outrage at, routine infant circumcision, has not abated.

“I wish I hadn’t been circumcised. I don’t blame anybody except doctors. I wouldn’t trust their answers. I don’t think they’re educated.” he says. “When I was circumcised, everyone was. The guy in the shower who wasn’t would be rare. We looked at him like he was different. And he should have looked at us like we were different because we were the ones who changed.”

If the San Diego–based advocacy group MGMbill.org has its way, locker rooms of the future will be a very different place. The group, founded in 2003, is dedicated to preventing the circumcision of newborns. (MGM is the acronym for male genital mutilation.)

Last week, the group’s regional directors contacted some 2800 legislators in search of a sponsor for its bill, which would extend the 1996 prohibition on female genital cutting to males. The bill would make it illegal—punishable by up to 14 years in prison—for anyone to circumcise or assist in the removal of male genitalia (except when deemed medically necessary for the health of a child) of anyone under 18 years old.

It’s a bill Dr. Piser calls “nonsense.”

“Even if you’re against circumcision,” he says, “why would you make it so that someone else couldn’t do it if they wanted?”

Intactivists, who prefer the term “male genital mutilation,” believe the removal of the foreskin is a straightforward human rights issue: we don’t allow parents to choose neglect or abuse, and thus we shouldn’t allow parents to choose circumcision.

But the comparison of male to female circumcision isn’t so straightforward. Female genital mutilation involves the total removal of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons.

The twain may never meet on the medical benefits or religious significance of male circumcision, or on the physiological truth to the joys of foreskin restoration. But it’s the leap to equate male circumcision with female genital mutilation that irks Hugo Schwyzer.

“I have no qualms about foreskin restoration. But let’s not equate circumcision with a man being robbed of his essence. And I don’t want him elevating what was a fundamentally minor surgical procedure to the status of mutilation. I find that offensive as a feminist in particular. And as man who’s been on both sides of it, I find it ridiculous.”

Mr. Schwyzer is no stranger to the heated debate around infant male circumcision and its correlation—or not—to female genital mutilation. Four years ago, Schwyzer, a writer and college professor living in Los Angeles, wrote a magazine article about the circumcision he had as an adult. He was, in his own words, “hammered by the anti-circumcision” people who perpetuated “the false equivalence between male circumcision and female genital mutilation.”

“All of that leads me to be very clear that there is no comparison. It’s used as a serious argument. It cheapens and diminishes the discussion about circumcision. And invalidates what are some reasons we should rethink infant circumcision.”

Schwyzer, now 43, is married and the father of a daughter, 2. His decision to undergo a circumcision when he was 37 was fueled by a hard-earned combination of medical and psychological imperatives. Schwyzer was an alcohol, drug, and sex addict who managed to earn a Ph.D. while burning through three marriages.

“I was very much your classic addict, so my penis went a lot of places,” he says. Those “places” inflicted a series of sex-related injuries that involved repeated tearing of the frenulum, the triangle of skin where the foreskin attaches to the underside of the penis. Life in the fast lane over 18 years took its toll on Schwyzer, who calls himself “a walking cliché.” He ended up in a hospital emergency room on death’s door.

Schwyzer underwent circumcision just before he married his current wife. “I did it for two reasons: to deal with frenular tearing and scarring, and to symbolize this commitment to enduring monogamy.”

“And not only is the pain gone, but the pleasure has not been reduced. The pleasure is as strong as it ever was.”

He further explains: “The penis I had had, uncircumcised, had been with a lot of people. With the circumcised penis, I would only be sexual with my wife. It wasn’t born-again virginity. It was a way of saying, ‘Look, I am different.’”

The majority of public reaction to Schwyzer’s story was intertwined with the growing narrative that circumcision is abuse by another name.

“If a guy wants to do foreskin restoration, knock yourself out,” Schwyzer says. “But for the men who feel they lost something—the foreskin wasn’t all that. I had great experiences with it. Foreskin can be integrated into sex play. There’s no question there are nerve endings there,” Schwyzer continued. “But I’ve met men who were circumcised as infants who have an amazingly deep sense they were robbed of something. Dude, get over yourself!”

Schwyzer concedes that opponents of circumcision have valid concerns when they argue that it’s painful, unethical, and full of possible post-procedure complications from scarring, ulceration, and hemorrhage.

“But this idea that circumcision was this horrific violation comparable to sex abuse, and that you were deprived of something extraordinarily valuable? Having had a lot of sex both ways, I can say no. I find it ridiculous.”

“Let’s step back and take a deep breath,” Dr. Piser says. “This is a valid, valuable medical procedure. Whether you want to do it to help protect your child from urinary tract infections, penile cancer, and HIV transmission, or whether you want to do it electively as an adult. That’s personal. But there is a huge psychological component to all of this.”

And that’s one thing all sides of the argument can probably agree on: that for a little piece of skin, whether retracted or restored, the foreskin carries a lot of emotional baggage for a growing number of men.

But who is to question whether restoration, and its sequelae of an allegedly super-improved sex life, is all in the big head rather than the little? After all, pleasure—as Shakespeare might have said of his willy—is in the prepuce of the restorer.

“Emotionally, I am different from restoring,” Tally says. “I’m freed up to experience life. I don’t have the vocabulary. I have no explanation for it. It’s just something I’ve observed.”

Laura Novak is a former television news journalist who has written extensively for The New York Times on health, business, and the arts. She hopes to publish her first novel, Finding Clarity, and she is at work on a mystery series. You can find her on Scribd and find her on Twitter.

This article first appeared on the Good Men Project and is republished here with permission.

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