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Sex and Circumcision Research

What's Wrong with Research on Circumcision and Sexuality?

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Research on circumcision and sexuality is needed to get a better understanding of what impact circumcision has on human sexuality. Unfortunately, the current body of research suffers from many problems which can make it confusing to navigate, and at times difficult to trust. If you're trying to make your way through the murky waters of sex and circumcision research, consider some of these common research pitfalls.

Researcher Bias
Many (but not all) researchers who study circumcision come from a position of either being pro-circumcision or anti-circumcision. In peer-reviewed journals they are required to state these biases. But it's hard not to notice that in every case, the results of the study confirms the authors’ belief. It should be noted that most of these authors don’t consider being for or against circumcision to be a bias, they simply consider it the only position a scientist should take. Being a member of one group or another shouldn't disqualify you from participating, but as laypeople it’s important for us to know where our information is coming from. And researchers who hide behind a veil of objectivity need to be challenged.

Problems with Participant Selection
Studies claim to be representative but you need to read them carefully. For example, one study published in a peer-reviewed journal recruited all their participants by using a newsletter of an anti-circumcision organization. How could this not skew the results toward negative outcomes? Another study compared adults before and after circumcision to consider the impact of circumcision on sexual functioning. But the participants had a physical complaint which led to them being circumcised. If the circumcision resolved the complaint it's likely that they would be reporting more positive effects of circumcision. There is no 'perfect' group to study, but what is disconcerting is the extent to which researchers play down these problems when they result in outcomes that they like.

Conflicting Definitions
Researchers use terms like "sexual sensitivity" and "sexual pleasure" interchangeably, and don’t always offer working definitions for these terms. From one study to the next, these terms are used and not defined, making it difficult to piece studies together. For example, sensitivity might mean:

  • the number of nerve endings in a penis
  • how the penis responds to being pinched or poked with a needle
  • how much the man says he feels during sex
Similarly not all circumcisions are the same. Different methods change the anatomy of the penis differently. Some methods remove all of the foreskin, other do not. Researchers rarely know, and so almost never specify, which leaves us unable to know if we are ever comparing apples to apples (so to speak).

Confusing Relationships with Causality
Most of this research is correlational and isn’t able to imply causality. Researchers may find that circumcised men experience sexuality differently than uncircumcised men, but they have no way of knowing whether circumcision is the cause of this difference. Sometimes the correlational approach can reach absurd heights as in one study which linked circumcision to everything from reduced sexual satisfaction to increased violent feelings towards women to addiction and low self-esteem.

The Bottom Line:
What stands out most after reviewing dozens of studies is how different the results can be from one study to the next. With such conflicting results one has to wonder about how careful these researchers are being in both their data collection and analysis, or if they are even measuring what they think they’re measuring. It also raises the possibility that no meaningful generalizations can be made about the impact of circumcision on sexuality.

This all may be just another way of saying that there's isn't an objective right and wrong answer to the question of whether boys should be circumcised. In the absence of that answer, parents are left to do what they mus do so often, make the best, most informed, decision they can, and then do the best whatever the result.

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