Foreskin’s function (and the fucked-up connection between circumcision and cornflakes)
Like many other Americans, I grew up with the vague notion that foreskin was something that some people removed, but didn’t know much beyond that. I didn’t know that most of the world doesn’t circumcise.
Moreover, I didn’t know what purpose foreskin served, or the fucked-up history of why Americans started removing it, or what circumcision had to do with cornflakes, masturbation, and yogurt enemas (seriously).
In this post:
- What is foreskin?
- Practical functions
- Sexual functions
- Dr. John Harvey Kellogg
- Circumcision as a preventive measure
What is foreskin?
Foreskin is a stretchy, double-layered fold of tissue that covers the tip of the penis. I say “tissue” and not “skin” because it’s not just skin! It has a rich supply of blood vessels throughout, flowing to a high concentration of specialized nerve endings and a ring of smooth muscle at the end.
Foreskin is functional
This ring maintains the foreskin’s snug fit around the penis, helping it serve its protective function. In adults, this means protecting the glans from dryness and everyday underwear chafing.
In infants, foreskin keeps literal shit from diapers out; nasty stuff doesn’t get under a small child’s foreskin because it’s fused to the glans, kind of like a fingernail to its nail bed. The foreskin naturally detaches little by little1 and generally doesn’t fully retract until after age 5.2
Natural lubrication isn’t just for vaginas! Penises naturally have their own mechanism for reducing friction. Foreskin’s coverage locks in moisture and pre-cum. Even if there isn’t much pre-cum, the inside of the foreskin is moist and rhythmically stretches and glides over the glans.
In a vagina or anus, it’s like the foreskin stays relatively stationary while the glans slides in and out of it; the foreskin is retracted during the in stroke and pulled over the glans during the out stroke.
Foreskin is fun
What makes the foreskin so special is the unique concentration of different nerve ending types. Remember that ring of muscle I mentioned earlier? It’s packed with nerve endings, including stretch receptors that sense the foreskin’s movement as it stretches over the glans and relaxes when pulled back up.
There are also stretch receptors in the frenulum, the little bridge of tissue that connects the foreskin to the mucous membrane of the glans. Stroking the penis rhythmically pulls on this bridge, providing yet another form of stretch stimulation.
Think about how fingertips can feel tiny textures with enough precision that people use them to read Braille. This is possible thanks to Meissner’s corpuscles, the type of nerve endings that specialize in fine touch. You can also find a rich concentration of Meissner’s corpuscles the lips, the bottom surfaces of feet, the anus, and, you guessed it: the foreskin!
It’s not that the glans of the penis isn’t sensitive. It is, but it has a different concentration of nerve endings and therefore a different kind of sensitivity:
- mostly free nerve endings, which are simple and unspecialized. They mostly sense pain and temperature.
- some Pacinian corpuscles, which specialize in vibration and pressure changes
- some Ruffinian corpuscles, which specialize in stretching and sustained pressure
Foreskin has all of these nerve ending types and more, but the most notable difference is that foreskin can feel textures like the ridges in a vagina more precisely. Pussy feels really awesome, and an uncut dick can feel every dimension of this awesomeness.
Circumcision and corn flakes: Dr. John Harvey Kellogg
If foreskin is so awesome, then why did circumcision take off in the U.S.? Because the creator of Kellogg’s corn flakes wanted children to stop masturbating. That’s not a joke, even if I am taking it out of context.
The Clean Living Movement
During the late 1800s, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg believed in and perpetuated pretty much every myth you could think about masturbation: that it causes acne, erectile dysfunction, blindness, epilepsy, insanity, and so much more. He and his contemporary, Sylvester Graham, promoted the idea that a bland grain-based diet would curb sexual appetite, hence Kellogg’s corn flakes and Graham crackers.
Kellogg so strongly believed that masturbation was the worst self-abuse one could commit, that he advocated genital mutilation to prevent it: circumcision for boys, and applying pure carbolic acid/phenol to the clitoris for girls. The soreness would interrupt the routine and the trauma would link masturbation to punishment, he reasoned.
I know some of you are groaning, “Please. Circumcision isn’t comparable to female genital mutilation,” but no matter how you dice it, Kellogg was a huge part of why both practices gained popularity in the U.S.
While the circumcision rate in other English-speaking countries declined, Americans comparatively clung to the tradition. Perhaps the most common rationale was cosmetic: “My son’s dick should look like mine.” However, the cultural aesthetic preference fed into biases and misconceptions against foreskin.
Circumcision as a preventive measure is like using a sledgehammer on a thumb tack
This sums up my reactions pretty much any time someone says, “but there are benefits to circumcision”:
- People should be washing their dicks regardless.
- People should be using condoms regardless. It would be bullshit to think, “Well, I’m circumcised, so I don’t need to use a condom,” or “If we circumcise men in high-risk countries, we don’t have to address the lack of condom accessibility.”
- Penile cancer is a rare disease that’s mostly limited to elderly men. Yes, even in a country where circumcision is relatively uncommon.
- In the off chance of issues, there are usually options more cost-effective and less invasive.
- Let him decide how whether it looks good when he’s old enough to have sexual partners. Most people in the US can’t even tell the visual difference when retracted.
The apparent benefits are just so slight in the grand scheme that, to me, preemptive surgery seems like a major overreaction. Foreskin is hardly the most relevant factor. Not when most Europeans with penises are intact and are not only fine, but are less affected by HIV/AIDS than Americans with penises.
I’m more pro-foreskin than I am anti-circumcision
Ultimately, I have no intention of getting into an in-depth argument about circumcision.3 I think if Americans understood foreskin more, they would stop vilifying it and start questioning the assumption that circumcision is the default.
Contrary to what I grew up believing, foreskin isn’t just extra: it’s functional tissue. Foreskin is not just normal, but it’s also fun and erotic in its own right.
- In case you were wondering how to wash it when it’s partially detached: you basically just retract whatever you can without forcing and you wash under the skin.
- The age varies from person to person. Some can’t fully retract even in their teens and, as long as it’s not causing problems, it’s totally okay.
- And I’ll just delete comments inciting arguments.