It’s not unusual to see demonstrations when walking around Washington D.C., where I live. So when I recently saw a huddled group of people holding up signs, I figured they were your typical political protestors taking to the streets to make a statement. Imagine my surprise as I approached and realized they were anti-circumcision advocates outfitted with huge posters splattered with red paint to mimic blood, some of the men even wearing white clothes stained red at crotch-level. (Did I mention I was with my boyfriend’s parents at the time?) These people were adamantly against circumcision, and they wanted the world to know.
Circumcision involves surgically cutting off some or all of the foreskin, or the shroud that covers the head of the penis, S. Adam Ramin, M.D., urologic surgeon and medical director of Urology Cancer Specialists in Los Angeles, tells SELF. “When that piece of skin is removed, then the head of the penis is exposed to the outside environment. Traditionally, some cultures believe in removing that skin and some don’t,” he explains. Some parents also choose to circumcise their baby boys for aesthetic purposes, and although the procedure usually takes place when someone’s an infant, adult men sometimes get circumcisions for various reasons.
No matter your opinion on whether circumcision is right, one thing is clear: From popular memes to an eyeroll-worthy joke in the Bad Moms trailer—one character advises another to “run out of the room screaming” if she encounters an uncut penis because “it’s like finding a gun in the street”—misconceptions about uncircumcised penises abound. Here, five things all women should know about uncircumcised penises.
1. Uncircumcised penises are normal and actually very common.
Since babies are born with their foreskins intact, they’re actually the biological default. But the procedure has gotten pretty popular, depending on where you are. “I would say more of my patients are circumcised, but it’s around 60/40,” Jamin Brahmbhatt, M.D., a urologist at Orlando Health, tells SELF, explaining that Jewish and Muslim people are more likely to circumcise their children than those of other religions. The practice is also more common in the U.S. than in Europe, for example.
2. They aren’t inherently dirtier than circumcised ones.
That all depends on the dude. “As long as good hygiene practices are followed, this shouldn’t be a problem,” says Ramin. Brahmbhatt agrees. “To have proper hygiene, a man has to pull the skin back and clean everything out. When he doesn’t, he can get smegma, which is basically dead skin cells and oils that come together and form this white chalky substance.” Yes, even doctors say “smegma.”
But if an uncircumcised dude cares about being clean in general, he’ll include that cleansing as part of his routine. “Most men know how to maintain a good level of cleanliness, just like you know to apply deodorant and wash your hair. It becomes a natural thing,” says Brahmbhatt.
3. You’re not way more likely to get an STI from someone with an uncircumcised penis than someone with a cut one.
This is a little complicated, but the overall message is that you don’t have to avoid un-cut penises like the literal plague. It’s true that the foreskin creates exactly the kind of wet, warm area bacteria and viruses adore, says Ramin. For that reason, the CDC says, “in female partners, [circumcision] reduces the risk of cervical cancer, genital ulceration, bacterial vaginosis, trichomoniasis, and HPV.” It has no effect on transmission of HIV to sexual partners. If someone practices good hygiene and you’re down with safe sex, you don’t have much to worry about, says Brahmbhatt.
4. You don’t have to treat uncircumcised penises differently when you’re fooling around.
Uncircumcised penises are not terrifying sexual mysteries—at least, not any more than circumcised ones are. Uncut or not, a penis is an easy-to-please thing, not a fleshy Rubix cube. “When it comes to getting the job done, uncircumcised and circumcised penises work in the same way,” says Brahmbhatt. That said, there is an interesting debate around whether uncircumcised or circumcised penises happen to be more sensitive. “The thought process here is that when the foreskin is still on the head of penis, there’s more sensitivity because the foreskin slides back and forth more easily over the head during sexual activity, which is stimulating to the penis,” says Ramin. There’s also the theory that since the head of the penis isn’t always exposed to the outside world the way it is with circumcised ones, it hasn’t built up the same level of hardiness.
But science is split. One small 2015 study published in The Journal of Urology found no difference in sensitivity between the two, and a 2013 systematic review in The Journal of Sex Medicine backs that up, claiming that “medical male circumcision has no adverse effect on sexual function, sensitivity, sexual sensation, or satisfaction.” On the other hand, a large 2013 study in BJU International said their research “confirms the importance of the foreskin for penile sensitivity, overall sexual satisfaction, and penile functioning.” Basically, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
The major difference as far as you’re concerned is that uncircumcised penises basically come prepared with their ownlubrication. Between the extra skin and some natural moisture between the foreskin and head of the penis, everything slides around more easily, Brahmbhatt explains. (This means you won’t go through lube as quickly for things like handjobs, #budgetingwin).
If you’re putting a condom onto someone with an uncircumcised penis, you may also need to make a slight tweak, Jessica O’Reilly, Ph.D., Astroglide’s resident sex and relationship expert, tells SELF. “Many people with uncircumcised penises like to gently pull back on the foreskin before putting on a condom, but you should check with your partner and follow their lead,” she explains.
There may even be some bonus feel-good action for you. “Because the skin retracts back, it creates a kind of ridge around the penis that may cause increased sensitivity for women,” says Brahmbhatt. It’s like the natural version of a condoms ribbed for “her pleasure,” he explains. But, he points out, if you’re using condoms for safe sex, you likely wouldn’t be able to tell either way.
5. Some guys are so insecure about their foreskin that they’ll get circumcised as adults, which is no small decision.
Medically, sometimes adult circumcision is necessary because of recurrent infections of scarring that makes it hard for the foreskin to retract, says Ramin. But when that’s not necessary, a partner’s fear of the “unknown” may be at the root of the request. “I do tend to see patients who come in to get circumcisions because their girlfriends want them to even when they have no medical indication for the procedure,” says Brahmbatt. A guy might also ask about the surgery on his own because he feels self-conscious about having his foreskin.
“I tell patients, ‘You’re going to be miserable and hate me for a few weeks, but once it all heals up, you should be fine,’” says Brahmbhatt. Circumcision surgery is an outpatient procedure that takes around 30 minutes, but the healing can take four to six weeks. “It makes active erections a little painful because the stitches are stretching, and patients can’t have sex for a couple weeks, so it’s mentally painful as well,” Brahmbhatt explains. Plus, there’s the potential for bruising, bleeding, and infection. Finally, simply getting the hang of having different equipment can take some time. “I tell [patients] it can take up to a year to get used to having a circumcised penis,” says Brahmbhatt.