SALON Daily Clicks: Newsreal

It makes no health difference whether you're cut or not, but you'll get around more if you are.

Published April 3, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

it used to be that the only difference between a circumcised and an uncircumcised penis was religious affiliation and a little extra foreskin. But a study released Wednesday by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that circumcised men seem to be more sexually adventurous than their uncut brethren. But, as an increasing number of doctors have surmised, it doesn't make them any healthier.

The study, conducted by University of Chicago researchers, focused on data provided by 1,400 American men, aged 18-59, who were part of a survey called Sex in America, released last year.

Salon talked with the study's chief author, Edward Laumann, chairman of the sociology department at the University of Chicago, and asked him why going under the knife at a very early age can make for a more varied sex life later on.

According to your study, circumcised men seem to be more interested in oral and anal sex.

Yes. We certainly weren't expecting that to be the case. The data found that more sexual practices were appealing to circumcised white men.

Why do you suppose that is?

There is the possibility that circumcised penises are less sensitive because of the cutting at the head. So these men develop different ways of arousal and foreplay and also don't come as quickly; they are less likely to prematurely ejaculate. In the course of developing their sexual conduct people find these activities more appealing and pleasurable.

But your study suggests they also go in for oral sex more. Don't uncircumcised men enjoy oral sex?

They might be more likely to be self-conscious about it because their partner might associate an uncircumcised penis with bad hygiene -- or that it's a smelly penis. For that reason, uncircumcised men may learn not to ask for oral sex because they have decided subjectively that they don't really want it. That again has nothing to do with sensitivity but more to do with the social situation of how the penis is perceived by the partners.

This is not going to go down very well with the uncircumcised among us.

This is a very controversial debate. A Masters and Johnson study in the '60s reported that there were no differences between circumcised and uncircumcised penises. But that study was not done on a large population, so it has been questioned. More recent studies suggest that there are differences. It's hard to quantify because practically everyone who is circumcised does it at birth, so there is no way to compare before and after.

You said that circumcised white men were more prone to sexual variety. Could you elaborate?

Elevation of sexual interest among circumcised white men is a definite pattern, but this is not the case among Hispanics and blacks. One argument is that most white men -- 80 percent -- are circumcised, whereas in the black population those numbers are 60 percent and in the Hispanic community it is closer to half.

You also found that circumcised white men enjoy masturbation more.

There is a racial connection to masturbation. Blacks and Hispanics are less likely to masturbate. My hypothesis on this is that they come from conservative religious backgrounds. They have been taught when they are young that masturbation is wrong, and that attitude lasts. You are expected to have vaginal intercourse -- that is considered natural and appropriate, whereas masturbation is not. More white men come from less traditional religious views and which are less suppressive of masturbation. We're talking about general tendencies here -- certainly there are conservative white men who are uncomfortable with masturbation, but they are a less significant proportion of the population.

What makes this even messier is that masturbation is very strongly tied to education levels. People with graduate degrees are the most likely to masturbate.

Why is circumcision much more common among American men than anywhere else in the world?

In 1870 circumcision was introduced as a secular thing. At that time researchers found that Jews had much lower rates of STDs (sexually-transmitted diseases) than gentiles. Researchers jumped to the conclusion that this had to do with circumcision. But really the low incidence of STDs in Jews had to do with the fact that they had little access to other groups.

After World War II, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that blacks and uncircumcised whites had a higher incidence of STDs. Again, this information was poorly gathered and tracked -- hygiene and education weren't factored in. So circumcision became part of the medical lore. Then everybody started being born in hospitals where it was easier to get circumcised. By 1965, 85 percent of white men were circumcised.

More recently, there has been a medical backlash against circumcision -- and your report says that it has no health benefits. What changed?

In 1971 the American Pediatrics Association concluded there were no medical benefits to circumcisions as long as the penis is kept clean. There is also the anti-circumcision crowd -- mostly in California -- who attack the whole process. They are usually lay people who are convinced that they lost penile sensitivity, that it is a painful procedure that hurts the baby.

So why do people continue to get circumcisions?

Mostly for cosmetic reasons. Parents say, "I want him to look like his dad and I don't want him to feel embarrassed in the locker room." The whole issue is a social issue, not a health or medical issue. People take tidbits of information and run with it. It's also a moneymaker. It costs about $250-$300 to perform a circumcision; and kids who have it have to stay in the hospital a little longer, which costs more.

If circumcised men have more fun, should uncircumcised men consider having the procedure to enhance their sex lives?

No (laughs). We might not have ever had circumcision if it weren't for religious reasons. One of the most interesting things we found in the survey was that 45 percent of the men, circumcised and uncircumcised, reported having a sexual dysfunction -- premature ejaculation, trouble having an erection, pain during sex, loss of interest in sex -- in the last month.

By Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

MORE FROM Lori Leibovich

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