SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE, Sunday, July 15, 2007.


Uncovering the truth about women's pleasure

Edward Guthmann, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, July 15, 2007

In "The Book of the Penis," a frisky almanac of all things phallic, author Maggie Paley dedicates a brief section to circumcision, foreskins and the effects they have on female sexual pleasure. "Foreskins don't matter that much to most women," Paley concluded. "When it comes to penises, women can get used to almost anything."

Paley probably understated the case. Women really do care, if you bother to ask, but in most cases their experience is limited to circumcised men. Especially if they're American and older than 25.

Starting in the postwar years and peaking in the 1960s, circumcision was de rigueur for American male infants. Ninety percent of new parents opted to alter the penis, believing it was the hygienic choice. By 2003, because of changing attitudes and a large influx of Asian and Latin American immigrants who traditionally do not circumcise, that number dropped to 55.9 percent.

I wrote about the shift in a June 21 Chronicle article, "Circumcision losing favor with U.S. parents," and the e-mail response was huge. Men bemoaned their parents' choice. Women advocated for foreskin restoration. Doctors and parents disputed the urologist quoted, who denied that circumcision is "brutal."

People are vociferous on the foreskin question, none more than Kristen O'Hara, the author of "Sex as Nature Intended It" (2002), in which she claims women are more likely to enjoy intercourse if their male partner is uncircumcised.

"On the natural penis," O'Hara writes on her Web site,, "the soft, flexible foreskin cushions the coronal-ridge hook (of the penis head, or glans) and prevents it from scraping the vaginal walls, giving only pleasure, not soreness. ... The loose, pliable foreskin bunches up on the outward stroke to create a seal that holds fluids in. Lubrication stays inside the vagina."

For years, O'Hara says, she suffered pain and discomfort during sex with her husband. She wondered if the problem was hers. The problem, she finally concluded, wasn't her own dysfunction -- what psychologists used to call "frigidity" -- but "the abnormal structure of the circumcised penis."

Like 85 to 90 percent of American men born in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, O'Hara's husband, Jeffrey, was circumcised at birth. Twenty-one years ago, he went through a foreskin restoration process and ever since, O'Hara said in an e-mail from her home in Massachusetts, "sex became a beautiful thing again and was no longer painful. That's when I realized that millions of women are having abnormal sex because of circumcision, and millions of women fake orgasm because of it."

For her book, O'Hara surveyed 139 women, drawn through classified ads in various publications. By a margin of 9 to 1, she says, they preferred the natural penis over his maligned, circumcised cousin. When the man is cut, O'Hara found, women are "almost five times less likely to achieve vaginal orgasm."

With her Web site, O'Hara keeps her campaign alive. Photographs of "cut" and "uncut" penises are liberally used, along with testimony from the women surveyed, such as: "I went with one circumcised guy who was into long sessions. After a while, I'd start to feel as if he were sandpapering me down there."

O'Hara says she never consulted physicians or sex therapists in researching her book. "Sexuality has been, and continues to be, a relatively taboo topic, and the research money is just not out there. So there were no so-called experts to refer to. But I think the information at the Web site makes sound logical sense and is at the cutting edge of this controversial topic."

Susie Bright, editor of the annual Best American Erotica series, has spent the past 20 years studying, writing about and lecturing on sex. If anyone's a sex expert, Bright is. And she thinks O'Hara is full of hooey.

"Some people make a cause out of their sexual preferences, and find an eager audience," Bright said by e-mail from her home in Santa Cruz. "You can buy books about how black men supposedly have larger or more 'magic' penises than white men, too. The myths are apparently catnip to many."

In 1988, South African filmmaker Jo Menell ("Mandela") was living in the Bay Area when he made "Dick," a short documentary about women's thoughts about penises. "The thing I remember most clearly," Menell said by e-mail from South Africa, "is the women I listened to saying that circumcised men were better lovers because they lasted longer. Whether circumcised [penises] hurt -- I don't recall any women making that point."

Paley is also dubious. "I've never heard this, ever," she said by phone from New York when I mentioned O'Hara's claim that uncircumcised penises are more pleasurable to women.

When Paley was researching "The Book of the Penis," she says, the cut-vs.-uncut debate "didn't come up all that much. There was a young woman who only liked men with big penises and also liked them to be uncut because she felt a big penis was manly and so was an uncut penis. It was unfettered, it was free, it hadn't been tamed by the forces of civilization."

Of the circumcised penis, O'Hara writes, "the head flares out from the shaft like the hook on a harpoon. This hook is overly firm and constantly exposed, and on every outward stroke it scrapes vaginal walls, causing irritation, redness, discomfort."

Bright, who also hosts a weekly talk show, "In Bed With Susie Bright," says the cut-vs.-uncut question really clouds the issue of female sexual fulfillment. "The big thing that's missing from this discussion," she says, "is women's (clitorises). That's how most women get off."

As for O'Hara's "harpoon" statement, she says, "It's not 'true,' it's not scientific. Men's (penis) heads are not harpoon hooks, circumcised or not."

Bright says she has no problem with people declaring their sexual preferences "from the rooftops," but "to make it into a biology lesson or draw these conclusions that circumcised penises are unsafe and hurtful, is completely unsupported. Why can't people just love their fetishes for what they are?"

In the gay world, lots of men fetishize uncircumcised penises, in the same way that "size queens" exalt large penises. Foreskin Quarterly is a magazine devoted to the appreciation of uncut men, and in online gay sex postings the person seeking contact usually states his penis size and cut-or-uncut status.

But according to Bright, women generally don't fixate on genitalia as much as men. Carol Leigh, a sex historian and prostitute who calls herself Scarlot Harlot, is an exception. Raised in Long Island by Jewish parents, she says she's always adored uncircumcised penises because "they're exotic. It's extremely sexy to a nice Jewish girl from the suburbs."

When Paley was researching her book and asked about fellatio, she says, most women said they preferred circumcised. Foreskinned men "are harder to go down on," one said, "because they have folds. And you don't know what you're going to find there."

A New York yoga instructor, who chose not to give her name, agrees: "I can't help but feel that smegma (or other fluids) get trapped inside and they are not appealing to me." On a purely esthetic scale, she adds, "I much prefer the look of a circumcised penis. I can't help but think that the uncut looks serpentine -- and I'm afraid of snakes."

A mother of two teenage children thinks the uncircumcised phallus looks like "an anteater." Kathy Brew, a New York filmmaker who was one of the interviewers on Menell's movie "Dick," said a number of the women she spoke to described it as "an elephant's trunk."

Anteater. Serpent. Elephant's trunk.

Can Mr. Johnson get some respect?

"Circumcised is my preference," says Brew. "Maybe it's just convention. Maybe familiarity." Indeed, circumcision was so widely practiced in the United States until the 1980s that most women over 25 have little or no experience with uncut men. I spoke with one woman, 56, who slept with 110 men in the footloose 1970s -- she kept a record -- and swears only one of her lovers was uncircumcised.

If the reverse were true, and uncut men were the vast majority, wouldn't women feel more squeamish about knobs than they do about hoods?

Maybe not. "Most women, unfortunately, do not pay a lot of attention to a man's penis," Bright says. "They've been brought up not to look or dwell on a part of the body, or to sexualize one's genitals. If more women took an interest in their sexual self-interest, we'd see more of this conversation among women."

E-mail Edward Guthmann at .

(File created 15 July 2007)