Is my foreskin normal? How does it work?
Heather Corinna replies:I am 16 years old: when erect only half of the tip of my penis shows. I was just wondering if this is normal? I thought that when your penis is erect that the entire tip is exposed, then when non-erect the foreskin retracts to protect the tip? Am I right or wrong? When will my full tip come out? Or do I have to pull my foreskin back during intercourse? Thanks!
The penis -- in its unaltered state with an intact foreskin -- is pretty clearly designed for sexual activity where it is inserted, and where it can move around during sexual activities without a need for any special assistance. Not only do you not have to do anything at all to your foreskin at all during any kind of intercourse, it's designed in such a way to work optimally with that activity.
While we need to be careful how we talk about genitals, sex and design, since we can't consult with the designer and so can only theorize, we can safely say that even if someone chooses not to reproduce, the penis clearly has a lot to do with reproduction, and the way it is, foreskin and all, is conducive to that purpose through vaginal intercourse without aid. Given the massive population of the planet, and knowing the majority of people with penises worldwide are not circumcised, you can rest assured the uncircumcised penis works just fine in that regard. While the practice of circumcision dates back further than recorded history, in most of the world at any period in history it has not been the norm: save for those of us of Jewish or some African heritage, many of our oldest ancestors were not circumcised and their penises did the job just fine, hands-free.
Let's cover some anatomy first so that you have the basics to work with. That should help you understand why you don't have to worry about how your foreskin is in regard to how far it sits back or with holding unto it during sex.
Some of my answer will also address circumcised penises, too. I wish I didn't have to do that, because it feels a bit unfair to you, but it's the only way I know how to give this kind of information while taking the feelings of anyone else reading into account. Conversations about penises and circumcision can be really loaded, as you probably know.
If you look around the internet, you'll find that it's tough to find information about the foreskin that isn't highly political, and based on a given stance about whether or not circumcision is an acceptable or harmful practice or not. It's understandable that people have such strong feelings about the issue, however it sure does make it tricky to find the basics of the anatomy without a heavy dose of personal opinion. The information I'm going to give here is as accurate as possible, and as without bias as I can be. I don't have a penis myself, and I'm also not a parent who has had to make decisions about circumcision. As well, I've had sexual partners with both types of penises I have enjoyed sex with, no one more than the other based solely on if they had a foreskin or not. Hopefully, all of that helps me to be as even-handed with these issues as I can. Bodily integrity and autonomy (not having people besides ourselves make permanent decisions about our bodies for us) is very important to me, but I also do my best to take cultural differences into account, and approach issues like this from the perspective that all of our bodies are okay however they are, and that withholding factual information because it might trigger feelings of insecurity or upset just isn't sound.
So, I do want to make clear that while a penis with an intact foreskin is clearly the penis as nature designed, and does have some notable differences from penises where the foreskin has been removed, that doesn't mean something is wrong with people who do NOT have foreskins or that those people can't function, sexually or otherwise. A substantial alteration is made with a circumcision, to be sure, and it changes some things, but whatever kind of penis anyone reading this has is an okay kind of penis to have. Having a foreskin or not having one does not make anyone more or less of a man; or a bad or better lover. Both of those things are a lot more complex than just what kind of penis you have, and have little to do with anyone's genitalia.
With that unpacked (as it were), let's get to those basics.
The foreskin is a doubly-layered tube, like a sock if you yank it off from the top and it folds down upon itself. It's made of mucous membrane, like we have on the vulva, and on and inside of all of our mouths or eyelids, and also of skin and it has a lot of sensory nerve endings. It's primary function, so far as we know, is to protect the penis. It also has a female equivalent, which is the clitoral hood. The foreskin is attached to the penis by the frenulum near the head of the penis, and also at the base of the penis, with no attachments in between those two points so that it can glide smoothly back and forth over the shaft of the penis during any kind of sexual activity. Pre-ejaculate and smegma -- a combination of shed skin cells, oils, and other moisture produced by the foreskin -- both help with that gliding motion and are distributed to the penis (and a partner's body during sex if no barrier is being used) through the foreskin's movement.
The foreskin serves a few different purposes. Like I mentioned, the first is protective: it protects the tissue of the head and shaft of the penis and helps keep the penis sensitive and soft as people age. It offers lubrication during masturbation or partnered sex, it can increase sexual sensitivity for both partners, and it also can help either partner in partnered sex to avoid pain during sexual intercourse. Parts of the foreskin (like the ridged band, which connects the inner and outer layers of the foreskin) are understood to be some of the most sensitive parts of the penis entire. Like the clitoris in people with vaginas (which has more sensory nerve receptors than any other part of the genitals), the foreskin has many sensory nerve receptors, and the way it moves up and down on the penis also adds extra sensation to the shaft and head of the penis and may add sensation for sexual partners, as well.
A note on the sensitivity issue for circumcised readers or those with circumcised partners: None of this is to say circumcised men don't have sensitivity of their penises or are sexually dysfunctional. Based on what men self-report, and what we know from sound studies, we know that circumcised men enjoy sex just as much as those who are uncircumcised do, even though each of those men, and/or their partners, may experience the sensations of sexual activities differently. Certain operations -- like the extra lubricating functions a foreskin provides -- are not present in men without a foreskin, however, a function like that can be remedied with the addition of a lubricant (which really is all the more important for both partners when a guy is circumcised). If we know anything at all about people, we know we are all incredibly adaptable, and that we all also learn to function with what our own normal is. So, while again, this can be a loaded subject, you've got whatever type of penis you've got, and chances are good you'll figure out how to do what feels good with it in whatever your own unique way is.
Like the vaginal canal, the foreskin is very stretchy. It's built to be pretty elastic and move freely and comfortably without external help. When you insert your penis into someone else's body (or move it with your own hands during masturbation) your foreskin will naturally push back a bit, without you doing anything special to it.
When you masturbate or have partnered sex, whether it's your hand or someone else's gripping your penis, or a mouth, rectum or vagina that it's inside, your foreskin will move on its own just fine. Again, it's meant to do so. You don't need to pull it back or hold unto it in any way, unless you find that it's more comfortable for you or feels better to do so when you guide your penis into someone else's body. To put a condom on, you will also want to move the foreskin gently back some while you roll the condom on, so that it can move comfortably inside the condom. If and when your foreskin moves inside a vagina, a mouth, a rectum, a hand -- whatever it is inside of -- that's when more of the tip of your penis will be exposed. You just may not see that happen at the time without having X-ray eyes.
What you're describing about where your foreskin retracts to on your penis is likely no problem. The foreskin is pretty long, always longer than the shaft of the penis itself when it is not erect, as well as sometimes/for some people when it's only partially erect. When a penis becomes erect, some foreskins will retract well over the head of the penis, while others may still cover some of the head of the penis, like yours does. Some won't even show the head of the penis at all. The way yours is may just be the way yours is, but also you may find this won't always be the case, especially if your penis has not yet finished growing, which it probably has not yet given your age.
At 16, you are not likely finished with puberty. How much the foreskin retracts is one part of a person with a penis's development during puberty, which may not be fully complete until you are in your 20's. Not only may your penis also still grow larger over the next few years, your level of sexual development can impact the size of your erections now, as can your life experience. In other words, due to more hormonal and growth changes, more exciting sources of sexual excitement, or both, your erections may be longer or thicker in a few years than they are now. By the time you're 20 or so, if this is still how it is, then you can be pretty sure this is the way you're built. And if that's the case, it's totally fine, and you can rest assured that other fully grown people with penises have that same variation.
Just so you know, the head of the penis itself is actually only covered by a very thin mucous membrane -- it's thinner than it looks -- that ultimately should, from a physiological point of view, be protected by the foreskin, even somewhat during sex. In other words, it should always be protected from friction or abrasion in some way, whether that's a foreskin that covers it most of the time, or by the head only being exposed during sexual activities where it's well-lubricated and in another warm, moist and soft environment. In circumcised people, because it's not covered by a foreskin, that membrane gradually thickens (in a process called keratinization) and becomes a bit tougher and less sensitive over time. That's not an illness or a health condition, just something that happens, but it really isn't how it's supposed to be, ideally. Too, if a person's foreskin isn't long enough, it can't fully retract and move quite right, which can cause a good deal of discomfort or pain, especially during sexual activity. Too long or too loose (by your own estimation, since either of those things are usually nonissues) you don't need to worry about. It's too short or too tight that can be problematic.
One thing I just want to make sure to touch base on is if you are having any pain or discomfort when you do manually move your foreskin back over the head of your penis. If you're not, it's all good.
If you are having any pain, it's a good idea to check in with your healthcare provider. Some people with pensises have a condition called phimosis, where the foreskin is too tight to move as it's supposed to. Others (or those with phimosis) may have developed some scar tissue that makes it tough for the foreskin to move as it's supposed to, and others still have have an overaccumulation of smegma or an infection of some kind causing problems with foreskin mobility. Should you have pain, you do want to get checked out to find out why so that you can be treated or find out what to do to self-treat (like gradually moving the foreskin back yourself a little bit each day). All of these issues are usually treatable, and treatable without a circumcision. If it turns out you do have any of these issues, and a doctor leaps right to the idea you need to be circumcised, see a different doctor.
Even if you don't have any pain, if what I've said here still hasn't left you feeling satisfied, or you're concerned something isn't quite right, you might be helped by having a visit with your doctor. Sometimes having a healthcare professional -- who sees so many bodies in their work, it's dizzying, so they tend to know more about the diversity of the human body than the rest of us -- take a look and talk to us can be quite a comfort if we're worried about things like this. Your general doctor can also be a great resource for you if you have other questions about your genitals or your sexual development.
Here are a couple more links that might help:
- A Foreskin Foray: Questions, Concerns, and Clarifications
- Innies & Outies: The Penis, Testes, and More
- Shown Actual Size: A Penis Shape & Size Lowdown
- Condom Use when Foreskin Won't Retract
- What is circumcision?
- Photos of foreskins (These are provided for reference use, not for sexual entertainment, however, they are actual photographs, so if you want to look at them, you'll want to bear others in mind and view them privately. But if you do click over there, you'll see a few photos that show you a foreskin and penis like yours when it comes to how far they're retracted during erection.)