Bad Science: Circumcision Doesn’t Reduce Sensitivity?

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Male infant circumcision continues to be a hot topic here in the United States, with people on one side of the divide arguing that we shouldn’t perform unnecessary surgical procedures on infants who cannot consent for purely cultural reasons, and the other side trying desperately to come up with reasons why we should.

A new study seems to support the latter group, as outlets like the New York Times declare that “a controlled experiment has found no evidence for the belief” that circumcision reduces sensitivity in the penis.

I’d like to note that if that were true, it would still not be a reason to cut a baby’s genitals. If a study found that slapping a baby in the face doesn’t make them uglier, that’s not an all-clear to start slapping babies in the face. Unless that baby is a real asshole, at which point….no, just kidding. Never slap a baby!

But the infuriating thing is that it’s not even true. The New York Times article is referring to a recent study of only 62 men, who were about half circumcised and half intact. I mean, the group was half and half, not each man. Already, you know that’s not enough people to offer any conclusive result about anything. The researchers themselves admit in the paper that they need at least twice that number to get a statistically significant result. And yet they soldiered on.

They tested penis sensitivity in the men in several places, including on the foreskin of the intact men. “But wait,” you probably are asking, “how can they compare the sensitivity of the foreskin when half the men didn’t have a foreskin?” Exactly! By definition, if there was any sensitivity measured on the foreskin, those men experienced more sensitivity than the men without a foreskin. And there was sensitivity measured in the foreskin, and the foreskin was found to be the most sensitive area on the penis. That’s even going by the outside of the foreskin, where the researchers measured, and not on the reportedly much more sensitive inside.

So to conclude, this research found that being circumcised maybe doesn’t make the rest of your penis less sensitive, though they can’t say for sure because they didn’t use enough subjects to actually get a significant result. But circumcision does maybe get rid of the most sensitive part of your penis, and I only say “maybe” because again, they didn’t have enough subjects to reach significance. But that result does line up with pretty much every other objective study done on the penis. It also lines up with extensive research I’ve conducted on my own, but until I get around to publishing it you’ll have to take my word for it. And the word of pretty much every dude with a foreskin.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. As a male with a foreskin I can confirm that the head of the penis with foreskin retracted is highly sensitive! To pain, heat, abrasion, dryness, air, looking at it wrong, imagining it constantly unprotected by a foreskin… The aformentioned protective hood however seems to be impervious to all of the above, no matter the stress tests concluded it only seems to provide pleasure! I am well aware my test group size is grossly insignificant from a scientific standpoint, but from the vast number of trials, all providing identical results, I am confident my findings indicate sufficient qualitative data to submit them to peer review. I will get back with the meta-analysis as soon as I can confirm this with my research partner.
    (Great article, don’t chop off kids’ bits people.)

  2. I can’t believe there aren’t 600 comments already (see Amanda Marcotte’s version of Godwin’s Law, when it comes to circumcision comments). But I wanted to point out two small logical lapses in the usually impeccable logic of Ms. Watson:

    1) Had the power values of the study been adequate, the sample size sufficient on both alpha error and beta error, even minimum effect error and validity error, to quell statistical doubt, and the results had been “circumcised penises allow men to enjoy sex more fully”, what would then have been the point of half the article. Sewing hobbit feet onto our infants so that they can walk down rocky driveways and climb on barnacled rocks with less pain might allow them to do just that, but it sidesteps the issue of consent, and surgical interference by cultures whose members have houses near the beach. The statistical validity of the studies, and even if sex is JUST PLAIN MORE AWESOME with no foreskin, strike me as red herrings.

    2) Cultural prejudices being what they are, and very possibly having spent more time in communities with a statistically greater-than-average percentage of Tribeswomen, your final point is silly. From my extensive research among Tail End Of Baby Boom and Gen X women in Boston and NYC and Washington and Chicago, the percentage of those who say eeeewwwwww to the turtleneck compared to the Roman centurion isn’t even close, particularly when it comes to oral sex. So it’s extremely possible that, all sensitivity aside, cut men get more head than uncut, among women over 40, in the American northeast. See? You just shouldn’t go there.

    3) And I add this just as a lagniappe: I bet most teenage or young adult boys over the course of their first few sexual experiences would prefer to be LESS sensitive, so that they don’t come after 20 seconds and six strokes. Sensitivity is not an end in and of itself.

    So, basically, I agree with your (and the ever-growing) sentiment that circumcision should be reconsidered to the point of banning, but your premises are licensed, like a good Irish pub.

    1. I lasted more than 20 seconds my first time. Jesus. (And yes, I know, Jesus, if he existed, was circumcised.)

      In my own culture (Lakota), obviously, circumcision isn’t done, and in fact, during an inipi (sweat lodge), the glans should traditionally be hidden.

      But I’m a millennial, and my generation’s mostly skeptical, dare I say, *puts sunglasses on* circumspect about it.


  3. The desperate, post-hoc rationalizations for circumcision are among the strongest arguments for banning it entirely.

    A procedure based on god’s demand of Abraham, or John Harvey Kellog’s crusade against masturbation, has no justification on the base of those claims. Arguing that its an adequate substitute for hygiene, or will ‘prevent cancer’ in the amputated parts, or whatever lunacy they’ll come up with next would NEVER be accepted if this were some new procedure. The excuses to continue are just that.

    Marilyn Milos founded NoCIRC (unfortunately too late for her own sons) when her nursing job forced her to witness the procedure. In her administrative position, she was supposed to get parental consent for routine circumcision. She was fired when the percentage dropped to zero…she had shown parents a video of a ‘normal’ circumcision and not one parent would consent when they had seen THAT.

  4. As someone who was circumcised as an adult, it perpetually bemuses me when I see these claims regarding there being no sensitivity loss – of course there’s less sensitivity, what could you possibly expect would be the result of surgically cutting off sensitive tissue?

    What’s left is still sensitive, but you’re not comparing the same thing anymore.

  5. Pros or Cons (fake, pseudo or rationalized, or opinionated) aside,

    Only our randomly psychotic “human culture” could possibly rationalize taking a sharp blade to any baby to cut, gouge or slice any part of it in the name of aesthetics or “improvement”.

    (ofcourse: important medical life saving procedures get an exception)

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