A Foreskin Foray: Questions, Concerns & Clarifications

All bodies are different: this is not likely breaking news to you. Some people have short, coarse hair; some have long, flowing locks. Some people are small and slight; some are tall and muscular. Some people have more or less body fat  or muscle than others, or more or less in different places. Some people have brown eyes; some blue. The ways in which human bodies vary are endless. Genitals are no exception to this rule. The idea many people have that there even are just two kinds that each look nearly identical is pretty off: even one "kind" of genitals can look incredibly different from one person to another. Our genitalia are almost as unique as our fingerprints.

The foreskin is one way in which genitals vary. At birth, those born with a penis are also born with a foreskin, a tube of skin that covers and protects the shaft and the glans (the head) of the penis. Worldwide, most people with a penis -- around 70% -- also have a foreskin. However, some people have the foreskin removed as infants via circumcision. Some are circumcised by choice later in life.

In a few parts of the world, more folks may be familiar with circumcised penises rather than uncircumcised ones. Circumcised penises are also what we may see most predominately in pornography, and even in medical drawings in health classes. So, despite foreskins being just as common as penises, some people barely know what the foreskin is, and if they do, often have some misconceptions about it.

Whether you have a foreskin or you're intimate with someone who does, you' should have your facts straight by the end of this article.

What is the foreskin? What does it do, and how does it work?

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Again, the foreskin is a tube of skin that covers and protects the shaft and the glans of the penis, much like the clitoral hood of the vulva covers and protects the clitoral glans. A little Y-shaped piece of tissue called the frenulum connects the foreskin under the head of the penis. The foreskin and the frenulum contain sensory nerve endings that can provide extra stimulation during sexual activities. The foreskin also provides additional lubrication from extra oils it produces. Usually, for an uncircumcised person, the foreskin accounts for about one-third to one-half of their total penile tissue. Sometimes, the foreskin covers the entire head of the penis; other times, a foreskin is hardly noticeable. Sometimes, the foreskin will entirely retract beneath the head during puberty, and you can't even tell that a foreskin is there.

When flaccid, an uncircumcised penis might look like it's covered in a sleeve of skin with a little bit of extra flesh at the top, or like the penis is inside a little sleeping bag. (Aw. Sleep tight, penis.) When erect, the foreskin will usually retract beneath the head of the penis to some degree. When this happens, an uncircumcised penis often doesn't look much different than a circumcised one.

Now that we're clear on what it is, let's tackle some common questions.

Is the foreskin a big deal when it comes to sex? Will my partners freak out? Does it make sex any different?

Sometimes, people make a bigger fuss about foreskins than makes any kind of sense. In a few Western countries, circumcision is generally considered the norm; since this is the case, people from those areas aren't always accustomed to seeing foreskins. A person's lack of familiarity with the foreskin might make them skeptical if they don't have the facts. And, like with anything else, especially when it has to do with sex, when something is new to someone, they may just feel intimidated and clueless.

When it comes to any type of intercourse, it makes little difference whether the foreskin is present or not. There might be some difference in that people with foreskins tend to find they are more sensitive, so may not enjoy more aggressive or rough-and-tumble genital sex as some of their circumcised peers might, and being properly lubricated may be more essential for comfort. Some people, or their partners, feel having a foreskin makes sex more pleasurable for them, since the foreskin 1) contains lots of nerve endings, 2) protects the head, keeps it moist, and therefore maintains its sensitivity, and 3) lends itself to fluid, gliding motion during intercourse.

Really, though, like anything that can make sexual activity different from one person or partner to another, people's experiences are pretty diverse.

What should I do if I feel insecure about my foreskin?

Insecurity about different body parts is often part and parcel of being the owner of a body, any kind of body at all, with any kind of parts. I wish this wasn't the case but, unfortunately, it is for most of us. Especially during puberty and adolescence, so many things about our bodies are changing mighty fast, and may look different than we expected. It's common to be freaked out by these changes and to worry about if we're normal.

Rest assured, though, that having a foreskin is totally normal. It came with your penis, after all. (And while it's less common internationally, as many as 1/3rd of people with penises have been circumcised, so it's also common not to have one.)

Some headlines in popular publications may declare that uncircumcised penises could be "dangerous." This is largely due to scientifically inaccurate, outdated information about increased infection risks that allegedly accompany foreskins. Most of that information is just that: inaccurate and outdated. Truly, with an uncircumcised penis, you only have to be as diligent about personal hygiene and safer sex as anyone else. That little extra bit of tissue just doesn't make any considerable difference when it comes to safer sex practices. Try not to let sensationalized information about the alleged risks get to you too much. You and your foreskin are just fine.

That's all well and good, but what do I do if a partner does freak out about my foreskin?

When we have sex with people whose genitalia differ from ours, we may feel intimidated by all the differences. Foreskins, for some, add to the confusion; we may feel incompetent, or like we don't know what to do with this certain body part.

If your partner expresses distress, uneasiness, or confusion about your foreskin, first know that you haven't done anything wrong. Your body is perfectly wonderful, and your partner's issues with or opinions about it are their issues to work through, and they're mostly about them. They might not be super-familiar with foreskins, but that doesn't mean your foreskin is abnormal or somehow bad.

You can reassure your partner that they don't need to be overly concerned about your foreskin, and also remind them that either of you may feel intimidated by the other's body or their parts while you're getting close to each other. You just both need to remember to own that and be sure to be sensitive to each other when it comes to how you talk about those feelings. This could also be a nice segue for you to address what feels best for you when it comes to different types of sexual activity. Ideally, this will all alleviate your partner's concerns. If it doesn't, this partner might need to work through their confusion on their own for a while. (You could even direct them to this article if you felt like it.)

I've heard I'm more likely to contract and transmit STIs, including HIV, if I still have my foreskin. Is that true?

Probably not. Studies claiming that uncircumcised people are more likely to contract STIs/HIV have been pretty flawed. A set of three studies, done in South Africa in 2006, claimed that being circumcised made a person with a penis much less likely to transmit or contract HIV/AIDS. Here's the thing, though; they stopped the study before they even collected all their results, and several studies since then have proven their theory totally wrong. Those initial studies got so much press, however, that circumcised people began believing they didn't need to use condoms. This, of course, led to the continued transmission of HIV/AIDS. Here's some food for thought -- 85% of people with penises in the USA were circumcised during the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the '80s and '90s, but HIV still spread quickly and widely. Being that this is the case, it doesn't really make much sense to say that HIV/AIDS can be prevented through circumcision.

Lots and lots of factors go into the transmission and contraction of STIs, including HIV/AIDS. It's an oversimplification of the issue to claim that the foreskin has anything significant to do with it. (If you'd like more in-depth information on why the "circumcision solution" is not an effective means of controlling the spread of HIV/AIDS, you can check out this study published in the Journal of Public Health in Africa.)

Essentially, condoms and other safer sex barriers (or abstinence, if that's your thing) are the only practices that can effectively protect you and your partners from sexually transmitted infections and diseases, not a lack of a foreskin.

I can't retract my foreskin. Is this a problem?

It depends on how we're defining "problem." When a baby is first born, the foreskin is attached to the head of the penis. Over time, the attachments will wear away gradually (much like the hymen/vaginal corona of the vulva does, just far more quickly), allowing for the foreskin to comfortably retract beneath the head of the penis.

The amount of time this process takes varies from person to person. For 90% of people with penises, the foreskin mostly loosens and becomes moveable around age two, but this process can take five or more years for others. Sometimes, the foreskin doesn't retract completely until even later, though.

Most people, on average, are able to fully retract their foreskins by age ten, but it's also not unheard of for that process to last all the way through adolescence. The inner foreskin will remain attached to the glans in some places for a while. These attachments, called adhesions, shouldn't be broken with any kind of force; they'll break down on their own over time. Essentially, it's important to remember that -- while some variations might be much more common than others -- this process is different for everyone. The amount of time it takes varies from person to person, and it's certainly never overnight.

Additionally, it's important to note that some people's foreskins are just really tighter in general; they might not retract below the head of the penis at all even once the person reaches adulthood. Medically speaking, having a very tight foreskin is known as phimosis, and it's usually caused either by late maturation or by repeated infections and/or scarring of the foreskin (it can also occur as a result of a circumcision). This is not necessarily always a problem: some people with phimosis do just fine without any medical intervention. Some people might experience some discomfort at times, and for others, it may be very painful.

So, if it feels like a problem for you, by all means, check in with a healthcare provider so you can discuss their suggestions and your options.

In very severe instances of phimosis, a doctor may recommend elective circumcision as an adult. In the majority of cases, however, circumcision is considered to be an outdated and unscientific treatment for phimosis. Far less invasive medical treatments will likely do the trick if you decide you'd like to loosen your foreskin.

To help the foreskin loosen and soften to become easily retractable, your healthcare provider may recommend a steroid cream combined with mild and gentle stretching of the foreskin. For safety's sake, we don't advise web tutorials to try to stretch your own foreskin. If you'd like to loosen your foreskin, it's best to do so under the guidance of a healthcare provider.

It's very important not to force your foreskin to retract -- you can damage delicate penile tissue. This may lead to pain, bleeding, scarring, and infections, which can cause health problems. If your foreskin doesn't completely retract and you're concerned about it, don't force it. See a healthcare provider. They'll likely have the answers you need, and they'll be able to figure out a course of action that's safe and sound.

How do you care for a foreskin? How do you keep a penis clean when you have a foreskin?

You can gently pull back the foreskin -- again, no forcing! -- and rinse however much of the head is exposed with water, only using a very gentle, diluted, vegetable-based soap as needed, which it often won't be. (For penises and vulvas alike, washing with warm water alone usually is all that's needed.) In a word, you mostly keep a penis with a foreskin clean the same way you keep a penis without one clean, by gently cleaning it when you clean the rest of you.

A sticky substance called smegma does often build up some on the head of the penis beneath the foreskin, as it also can within the vulva. Smegma is just the combination of dead skin cells and bodily secretions like sweat and seminal fluids. It's harmless, but like other body fluids, it doesn't necessarily smell like a bouquet of roses. Of course, that's totally okay -- we're all human, and all of our bodies have specific smells. But in order to prevent infection, discomfort, or inflammation (or to get rid of a smell that's more funky than you like to be) it's a good idea to carefully pull back and the foreskin and rinse off the smegma with warm water and gentle, unscented soap. If you just slide a finger along the top of the retracted foreskin while you do this, it's usually easy to just wipe and rinse smegma off.

My new partner has a foreskin, and none of my previous partners did. Is there anything I should do differently when it comes to sex with them?

Just like you need to when it comes to any kind of preferences or specifics with sex, you'll need to ask your partner that.

All of our bodies are different, as are all of our preferences; the only way to familiarize ourselves with our partners bodies is to ask questions and experiment. A foreskin is far from the deciding factor regarding what gives a person the most pleasure, but like any body part, a partner can probably tell you things they like and don't. They can fill you in on what they already know does and doesn't feel good for them. If you feel at all uneasy about talking to your partner about sex, check out our handy-dandy guide right here.

You might worry about physically injuring your partner. After all, the foreskin does have a lot of nerve endings and the frenulum does look awfully delicate; you may fret about accidentally chafing or pulling on something wrong. As long as you and your partner are both sufficiently lubricated, accidental chafing shouldn't be an issue. Also, it's important not to pull down too hard on the foreskin; if you accidentally do, it's not the end of the world, but it might be a bit momentarily painful for your partner. For the most part, though, you should be able to tell how far the foreskin is naturally inclined to retract. If you don't pull too hard or too far, it should be okay.

If you are at all unsure, just ask your partner -- they will be able to answer your questions about the specifics of their body. If things feel good to them, they're probably just fine.

Is putting a condom on an uncircumcised penis different from putting a condom on a circumcised one? If so, how?

It's slightly different. As always, the penis should be fully erect before you attempt to put on a condom. The key difference is that you and your partner should make sure the foreskin is beneath the head of the penis as you roll the condom on. Roll the condom down halfway, then release the foreskin before rolling it the rest of the way down. As long as the condom is on securely and it feels comfortable, you're good to go.

Additionally, some types of condoms may work better for people with uncircumcised penises than others. Some types of condoms are made specifically with circumcised penises in mind and, as such, might not be so great for a person with a foreskin.

A list of good condoms for uncircumcised penises can be found here. For more specific information about condom use and safer sex, check out our comprehensive article on barriers here.

Again, the foreskin is a body part, just like any other. How big a deal it is or isn't to a person with one, or anyone else, varies, but all by itself, it's no bigger or smaller a deal -- nor any less normal or unwieldly -- than labia, nipples, elbows or toes.

Sometimes, people might hype up its significance -- much like people do about, say, hymens or penises or breasts -- and that hype might make us feel insecure or unsure of what to do with our own foreskin or our partner's. And just like with those and any other part of our body -- or someone else's -- we may feel uncertain about or uncomfortable with, some facts, paired with some patience, acceptance and time usually will do the trick.

Illustrations copyright 2015, Isabella Rotman/Scarleteen.  All Rights Reserved.

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