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Dear Sexpert,

Recently, a lot of my friends have been talking about which is better, a circumcised or uncircumcised penis. I want this settled. What are the real differences and do they matter?

-Uncut and Unclear

Dear Uncut,

Let’s clear up what may be unclear: The difference between a circumcised penis and an uncircumcised penis is that an uncircumcised penis still has its foreskin, while a circumcised penis has had its foreskin, a flap of skin surrounding the tip of the penis, surgically removed. Other than that, any differences are very minor and do not affect sexual functioning.

All babies born with penises are born with a foreskin. A circumcision is a procedure performed by a doctor or a religious official in which the foreskin is removed from the penis. While the surgical procedure of removing the foreskin is usually performed on infants, there are some adults who choose to undergo this operation for religious, cosmetic or medical reasons. The circumcised penis is more common in the United States, but in some other countries, uncircumcised penises are the norm.

Neither the circumcised penis nor the uncircumcised penis is “better” than the other. Either way, the penis functions the same when erect, the difference being that the circumcised penis has the tip of the penis, or the glans, permanently exposed while the glans of the uncircumcised penis is only uncovered when the penis is erect. Circumcised or uncircumcised, the sexual pleasure of the owner or the partner is not affected. That being said, for some uncircumcised penises, the foreskin may have to be pulled back to put on an external condom.

Additionally, when the penis not erect, the foreskin may have to be pulled back while urinating. Pulling the foreskin back is definitely recommended when washing an uncircumcised penis because of the possible presence of smegma, the natural lubricant which allows the foreskin to move. If too much smegma builds up, it could prevent the foreskin from moving up and down the glans and cause a distinctive odor. However, it is also important to remember to rinse away all soap from underneath the foreskin and dry the area well, because any soap or water left over could cause irritation.

There is some evidence that circumcision slightly lowers risk of some sexually transmitted infections. Because the glans of the uncircumcised penis spends most of its time being covered by the foreskin, it has slightly thinner skin than the skin of a circumcised glans. This could cause some heightened sensitivity to abrasions, which leads to a higher risk of sexually transmitted infections being able to enter the body.

Additionally, viruses, such as HPV (linked to cervical and penile cancer) and HIV, are transferred by contact of mucous membranes with infected sexual fluids. Removing the foreskin decreases the chance of transmission by shrinking the surface area of mucosal skin. That said, behavioral factors, like wearing a condom and getting tested for STIs before having sex, are more effective at reducing risk of STIs than circumcision.

If you’d like to further discuss circumcised and uncircumcised penises with a clinician, you can always schedule an appointment with Sexual Health and Wellness at University Health Services.

-The Sexpert

Information included in this article can be found at plannedparenthood.org or goaskalice.columbia.edu

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