In some ways it seems obvious that being circumcised would have an impact on your sex life. At least to the extent that your penis is a part of your sex life (which isn't always the obvious point you might think it is). But being reminded that 'we're all different' is unsatisfying to many. Parents trying to make the decision about circumcision as well as grown men who are unhappy with the decision they didn't get to make, often want to know more about precisely how being circumcised might change our sexual behavior.
Keep in mind that even if you have chalked up a night of sex, or a whole relationship, to one bad decision, things are usually more complicated that that. The kind of sex we have, to say nothing of how much we enjoy it, is a result of multiple factors - physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological. So it's a simplification to say that being circumcised means that you'll have X or Y kind of sex life.
Of course, social scientists are never ones to shy away from oversimplifications, and there has been some research that has tried to address this question.
The first large study used data from the 1992 National Health and Social Life Survey (NHSLS), and did note differences in sexual behaviors reported by circumcised and uncircumcised men. Specifically they found that,
- circumcised men engaged more frequently in oral sex and anal sex than uncircumcised men,
- 47% of circumcised men engaged in masturbation at least once a month, but only 34% of uncircumcised men reported engaging in masturbation at least once a month.
The differences were not observed across all men who had been circumcised (both ethnicity and race seemed to have an impact) leading the researchers to propose that the difference was not about having a physically different kind of penis, but instead was psychological.
Writing about these findings, anti-circumcision advocates have suggested that circumcised men have reduced sensation and therefore require more intense stimulation (which drives them to oral and anal sex apparently).
A small study of Turkish men tried to break the question down further by asking men who were circumcised about sexual function and satisfaction and also about the age they were circumcised. They divided the men into three groups, those circumcised between 0 - 2 years of age, those between 3-5 years of age, and those between 6-12. They found overall that sexual function (as they defined it) was not significantly different from uncircumcised men, and in general when you were circumcised didn't matter. But when they looked at specific parts of sexual function, including premature ejaculation, avoidance of sex, and sexual communication, they did find relationships between age of circumcision and current level of satisfaction. However that relationship wasn't simple. Some complaints were more common among those circumcised at a younger age, while others were more common among men circumcised when they were older.
A more recent study, using data from a Danish national health survey, looked at both men and women's reporting of sexual function and compared it to the circumcision status of the man. This study found no differences between circumcised and uncircumcised men (or their partners) when it came to sexual activity and who important sex was to the person. But they report that circumcised men and their partners were more likely to report difficulty with orgasm, and partners were more likely to report feeling as if their sexual needs were not being met. Even though the overall number of participants in this study was large (over 5000) in Denmark on about 5% of men are circumcised and as such the comparison group included only 125 circumcised men and only 83 women whose partners were circumcised.
The Bottom Line:
A circumcised penis does move and function differently than an uncircumcised one. The foreskin provides not only a protective sheath, but also an extra layer of skin during penetration that changes the way friction is felt. Some men who are circumcised may find that the skin on the penis is very tight when they have a full erection, and this could be painful.
This is one of the reasons many men (and their partners) like using a lubricant to increase the slipperiness and decrease some of the raw friction. Of course, other people enjoy intense friction, and wouldn't be as happy if they had the more protected experience of penetration with a foreskin.
In the end, your choice of sexual behaviors and your experience of sexual pleasure are more limited by your imagination than by whether you are circumcised or not. It's true that some partners express a preference for circumcised or uncircumcised men, but it's equally true that the penis is but one of many things that can give and experience sexual pleasure. And there simply is no one optimal penis for ever person or every occasion.
Check out the sexuality forum for a discussion of circumcision preferences and sex.
Aydur, E. Gungor, S., Ceyhan, S.T., et. al. "Effects of Childhood Circumcision Age on Adult Male Sexual Functions" International Journal of Impotence Research Vol. 19 (2997): 424-431.
Frisch, M., Lindholm, M., & Gronbaek, M. "Male Circumcision and Sexual Function in Men and Women: A Survey-based, Cross-sectional Study in Denmark" International Journal of Epidemiology Vol. 40 (2011): 1367-1381.
Laumann, E.O., Masi, C.M., and Zuckerman, E.W. "Circumcision in the United States: Prevalence, Prophylactic Effects, and Sexual Practice" Journal of the American Medical Association Volume 277. Issue 13 (1997): 1052-1057.
Williamson, M.L. and Williamson, P.S &"Women's Preference for Penile Circumcision in Sexual Partners." Journal of Sex Education and Therapy Volume 14. Issue 2 (1988): 8-12.