In the Atlantic this week, Shawnee Barton wrote a detailed account of how she and her husband arrived at a decision about whether to circumcise her newborn son. Barton and her spouse pored over studies tracking penile cancer and urinary tract infection rates in cut and uncut men. They surveyed friends about their experiences putting their kids’ genitals under the knife. And, of course, they carefully weighed their son’s chances of receiving oral sex as an adult. One friend lobbied for the Barton family to lop off the boy’s foreskin because “it’s hard enough for a guy to get blowjobs as it is.” A friend-of-the-family OB-GYN concurred: “Don’t you want him to get blow jobs some day?”
And here I thought teens and young adults were handing out blow jobs like candy. Apparently, some parents remain concerned that their son’s penis won’t be granted any mouth access unless they start planning for their future sex lives at birth. But is it really that hard for an uncircumcised man to receive oral sex?
It’s implied that Barton’s friend who spoke to the difficulties of getting oral while uncut was not speaking from experience. So when I reached the BJ section, I conducted a highly unscientific poll of uncircumcised friends, asking if they’d ever registered any sexual stigma stemming from their intact foreskin. “It isn’t a problem,” one guy told me. “They’ve all thought it was fun and interesting.” Another friend said he’d heard some negative comments over the years, but none of them came from his actual sex partners. “That’s the funny thing,” he said. “I’ve heard women talk about how gross it is, how they would never sleep with an uncircumcised guy.” But in bed? “I’ve never had one even really notice.”
Clearly, some uncircumcised boys will grow up to receive blow jobs. Of course, they don’t know how much head they’d be getting had their parents primed the pump. Predictably, scientists have not studied this issue exhaustively, but a couple of dated studies do speak to an oral gap. One 1988 U.S. study of new mothers found that most women who had sexual experience with both kinds of penises preferred the circumcised version, saying that it “stays cleaner,” “looks sexier,” and somehow “seems more natural” than the alternative. That preference for circumcised penises was particularly strong in the context of fellatio. (While some women expressed no penile preferences in bed, the researchers twisted the knife by reporting that “no one in the entire study thought that an uncircumcised penis looked sexier.”) Another 1997 study found that uncircumcised men in the United States do engage in heterosexual oral sex less frequently than their circumcised peers. However, the strongest sexual distinction uncovered by the study was that uncut men don’t masturbate as frequently as cut men do. Circumcise your boy to help him get a blow job, and you may end up setting him up on a date with his own hand.
It’s not clear why the uncircumcised men in that study were less likely to play with both themselves and others—sexual stigma, physical differences, or some nonforeskin-related social factor could be to blame. But at least some uncircumcised men aren’t receiving oral sex because they just don’t want to. Hugo Schwyzer, who elected to get circumcised at age 37—“I wanted to feel as if I was starting over sexually,” he bizarrely told New York magazine in 2009—says that he chose not to engage in oral sex as an uncut man because the activity caused “too much sensation.” Friends of the Barton family talk about blow jobs like they’re an unqualified good—the more, the merrier—but that, too, is a social calculation.
The Barton family eventually made its circumcision decision based on medical realities, not sexual optics. Their baby boy was born with some medical problems, and they opted to spare him another unnecessary procedure and keep him uncut. By the time baby Barton is all grown up, the old rules for oral may not apply. The studies establishing sexual biases against uncircumcised men are decades old, and there’s some evidence that foreskin stigma is fading in the United States. Circumcision rates have dropped precipitously in recent years. And the 1997 study found that the oral sex gap is considerably narrower among Hispanic and black men, who are more likely to remain uncircumcised than American whites are. In fact, uncircumcised Hispanic men are more likely to engage in oral sex than their circumcised peers. As the American population diversifies, so, too, may the American blow job.