Bioethics Blogs

Circumcision and Sexual Function: Bad Science Reporting Misleads Parents

by Brian D. Earp / (@briandavidearp)


Another day, another round of uncritical media coverage of an empirical study about circumcision and sexual function. That’s including from the New York Times, whose Nicholas Bakalar has more or less recycled the content of a university press release without incorporating any skeptical analysis from other scientists. That’s par for the course for Bakalar.[1]

The new study is by Jennifer Bossio and her colleagues from Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada: it looked at penile sensitivity at various locations on the penis, comparing a sample of men who had been circumcised when they were infants (meaning they had their foreskins surgically removed), with a sample of men who remained genitally intact (meaning they kept their foreskins into adulthood).[2]

What did the researchers discover? According to a typical headline from the past few days:

Circumcision does not reduce penis sensitivity.”

But that’s not what the study showed. Before we get into the details of the science, and looking just at this claim from the “headline” conclusion, it might be helpful to review some basic anatomy.

Genital Anatomy 101

Lesson #1. The foreskin is part of the penis. It is made up of sensitive tissue (more on this below); so if you remove it, the penis loses sensitivity by definition. Specifically, it loses all of the sensitivity experienced in the foreskin itself, along with all subjective sensations that are unique to having a foreskin.

Chief among these sensations is the feeling of rolling the foreskin back and forth over the head of the penis—the “glans”—during sex, foreplay, or masturbation (see this NSFW video to get the idea): that specific feeling does not exist without a foreskin.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.