The Fantastic Foreskin
"I'm wearing it right now," John Long says. "But I didn't wear it most of the day yesterday."
The 27-year-old bookstore employee is talking about the device attached to his circumcised penis, beneath his clothes. Picture a miniature silicone lampshade with a handle on the wide end. It's cupping the head of his johnson, and the skin of the shaft is pulled forward over it. An elastic band runs from the handle to a knee brace, applying constant tension to the skin on the penis, stretching it forward, coaxing it to grow.
The device can pinch or get bunched up at times, but overall, it's an effective vehicle for Long's mission, which is to create a faux-foreskin out of existing shaft skin. The device is called the TLC Tugger, and Long bought it online from its inventor, an engineer in suburban Chicago. The Tugger's motto is: Improving the world, one penis at a time.
Long's wife, Melissa, discovered the site after the subject of circumcision came up on an online parenting forum. When one guy introduced himself by saying he was restoring his foreskin, Melissa was intrigued. She did some research on her own, finding that there were many different contraptions out there. The TLC Tugger Web site jumped out at her for one simple reason: It features an instructional video, with the inventor stuffing his junk into the lamp shades. (Melissa's initial reaction describes it best: "I cannot believe this guy is putting this thing on his thing.")
But what started out as an amusement for the couple soon turned serious. They felt their eyes opening to the allegations on the anti-circumcision Web sites: Decreased sensitivity among cut men; "mutilation" in general; sexual partners of uncircumcised men raving about the superiority of "intact" guys.
"I got kind of pissed off," John says. "The more I learned, the more angry I got."
His anger is shared by quite a few. Since there is virtually no effective procedure to surgically restore foreskin (see "The Fantastic Foreskin: Under the Knife"), Long and others have had to find alternatives which ultimately don't restore foreskin at all, but give some "restorers" the feeling they are making themselves whole.
Since the dawn of the modern restoring movement in the early '80s, thousands of men have attached what look like Inquisition-era torture devices to their privates in order to reclaim what they feel was butchered at birth. Progress is slow and the equipment is embarrassingly cumbersome, but proponents say it is worth it.
The anti-circ community got the sad news February 13: Clifford Spooner, a pioneer in the restoration movement, died of cancer in Washington state. According to the obit on the International Coalition for Genital Integrity's Web site, Spooner cofounded Brothers United for Future Foreskin (BUFF) in 1982.
Spooner's disdain for circumcision sparked when his mother had him circumcised at age ten, according to the obit which does not state the reason for the delayed procedure.
Spooner would grow up to advocate, along with his compatriots at BUFF, a restoration method whereby the skin of the shaft is stretched over the head and taped in place. (In cases where the tape wouldn't stick, BUFF suggested, you could "paint the skin with tincture of benzoin, which is also known as friar's balsam").
Ten years later, BUFF was eclipsed by the San Francisco-based National Organization for the Restoration of Men and other anti-circ sites, perhaps due in part to BUFF's debunking the importance of penile hygiene: "Contrary to the old wives' tale, it is not necessary to wash the penis every day."
But the term "foreskin restoration" is misleading, since all these men are doing is stretching existing shaft skin.
A quick aside for Foreskin 101 (in a nutshell): The foreskin is an elastic sheath consisting of an outer layer of "regular" skin and an inner layer of mucous membrane, like the underside of the eyelid. The foreskin keeps the glans covered and lubricated, and retracts when the penis is erect. "Intactivists" believe the foreskin is rich in nerve endings that are severed upon circumcision. The debate over the merits of circumcision doesn't exist only among the general public many doctors are divided on the subject, battling each other with studies that take opposing views on circumcision's protection against HIV, cancer, urinary tract infections and other problems.
In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement on circumcision that was also adopted by the American Medical Association: "Existing scientific evidence demonstrates potential medical benefits of newborn male circumcision; however, these data are not sufficient to recommend routine neonatal circumcision. In circumstances in which there are potential benefits and risks, yet the procedure is not essential to the child's current well-being, parents should determine what is in the best interest of the child." (Because of doctors' general lack of interest in foreskin restoration, there do not appear to be any studies on the efficacy of restored foreskin warding off disease).
Today, restoring men have opportunities for support that Spooner and the old guard probably couldn't imagine forums such as www.foreskin-restoration.net, where guys can debate the efficacy of different products, ask tough questions ("Does anyone have experience tugging while going through airport security?") and post pictures of their progress. Most restorers measure progress via the coverage index ("CI"), a standard whereby cut men can measure the amount of any existing foreskin they may have at the beginning of the restoration process and the amount of the foreskin during and after the process. Determining one's CI number requires one to spend a considerable amount of time studying photographs of flaccid and erect penises. In fact, any serious restorer not only examines dick-shots as if they were painted on the Sistine Chapel, he discusses every nanometer of his knob in incredible detail. Nothing is out of bounds. It's a place where one man can tell another man, "Looking at my circumcision scar when erect, you can see that there is almost twice as much skin on the bottom as the top" and nothing bad happens.
This open-mindedness comes in handy for those looking to build, rather than buy, restoration devices. More than a few restorers appear to be natural MacGyvers, to wit: "Currently, I'm using a one-inch-diameter pipe coupling with all [of] the inside covered with aquarium sealantÉ"
Obviously, if someone's going to slather a pipe in aquarium sealant and tie it to his penis, he should have a good reason. And most of the restoring men contacted for this story say they have one of the best reasons of all: They believe they were mutilated for a myth, denied full sexual pleasure, and completely violated.
For some, it's a late awakening. Guerin Woodgate Jr., 29, says he never thought much about his circumcision until he stumbled upon some anti-circ Web sites about ten years ago.
"As soon as I started reading the information, I suddenly felt like I was missing something that was important to me," he says, "and immediately felt compelled to start finding a way to get it back."
Woodgate, an IT consultant, says he sought advice from urologists, who brushed him aside, so he dived into nonsurgical restoration methods. The first technique he tried was a relatively common one among novice restorers, partly because it involves ordinary materials: one empty film canister (35-mm), batteries (size C, in Woodgate's case), a suspender-type strap, tape and a binder clip.
Woodgate cut out the bottom of the film canister, making a tube, and punched a hole in one side, so he could have one hook end of the binder clip sticking out. He then inserted the head of his penis into the canister, rolled the skin from his shaft over the tube, taped it in place, and attached a strap weighted with two batteries (taped together) to the binder clip.
Sure, it may sound like fun, but Woodgate soon ran into problems.
"Actually, inserting your penis is quite difficult inside of a film canister," he says. "You look at a film canister and you think, 'that's pretty big around.' And you don't realize, actually, the natural diameter of a penis and how large in diameter it really is until, even flaccid, you try to insert your penis inside this thing. Rolling the skin over was very difficult, especially because of the lack of skin that I had."
Next up was the PUD (Penile Uncircumcising Device) Tugger, sold by a company called American Bodycrafters and advertised as "the most sophisticated foreskin restoration product to date." The PUD is essentially a stainless-steel cylinder worn over the glans, with shaft skin taped around it. Like the canister method, the PUD includes a hook to hold additional weights. Another benefit, according to one PUD sales site: "All of our products come with a urinary passage so removal during urination is not necessary." (For those who want to lengthen the penis while restoring the foreskin, American Bodycrafters sells something called the VacuTrac, which looks like it violates the Geneva Convention.)
But, also like the canister method, the PUD didn't work for Woodgate. He says it was effective, but awkward.
"By the time you put this thing on it's 16 ounces and you start to walk around, it moves around in your pants leg," he says, "and people think, 'Man, that man has a long penis'...And that's not really my deal. I'm not trying to advertise this."
After flushing an estimated $1,000 down the drain, Woodgate ultimately decided he liked the simplest method of all: a two-inch strip of medical-grade tape. All he does is pull his shaft skin forward and tape it in place. While it's certainly a lot less cumbersome than tubes and batteries, the tape method also takes a lot longer to yield significant results. Woodgate believes he'll have to wear tape for 20 years before he reaches his ideal CI number. But the simple act helps instill something he believes his circumcision stripped him of control over his own body.
"I [felt] like something was taken away...I actually had a sense of anger," he says. "And it wasn't anger towards anyone, it was just, I was angry about the situation, that there was absolutely nothing I could do. I couldn't reverse it." He adds later: "I can control so much in my life, and that was one thing I could not control, I could not change."
Like other restorers, Woodgate says that keeping the glans covered a function of natural foreskin has made it more sensitive. Here's something he suggests circumcised guys do: "If you go into the bathroom, take your pants down and take a good look at your penis. If you've been circumcised and you're 20 years or older, the head of your penis...will appear to be somewhat dry and calcified. And the older that you get, the more calcified...the head of your penis is, rubbing inside of your briefs or boxers. And so what happens is, the skin's own mechanism is to naturally harden the skin...."
But now that his glans is covered most of the time, "It's like the difference between touching the hands of a baby and touching the hands of a 30-year-old man."
And while taping your penis every day might seem like a chore, Woodgate says it's just like any other part of a person's normal routine.
"You don't even think about it you brush your teeth, you comb your hair," he says, "Well, I cut a two-inch long piece of tape and put it on my penis and go. And it takes me all of ten seconds."
Woodgate says his boyfriend, who is circumcised, has been supportive of the restoration. It may have taken him a little time to get used to it, Woodgate says, but the couple is now at the point where Woodgate's boyfriend pre-cuts pieces of tape Woodgate can carry in his shaving kit when he travels.
While Woodgate says he's committed to using tape for the next 20 years, he wishes he could find a doctor willing to investigate the possibilities of true foreskin restorations. He'd like organ donation to include foreskin, for skin grafts that could do a whole lot more than tape or batteries.
He's going to be waiting a while.
The study of foreskin sensitivity has not been a priority among most physicians.
Because conventional American medical wisdom has historically decided circumcision reduced the chance of infection and was more hygienic overall, whether foreskin made sex more pleasurable just did not seem important.
But some physicians are convinced of the foreskin's extreme sensitivity none more so than the members of the Seattle-based Doctors Opposing Circumcision. This advocacy group claimed a victory when its members coauthored a recent study that concluded big surprise here that uncircumcised men have more sensitive penises.
Published in the April 2007 issue of the British Journal of Urology, the study measured the sensitivity of 159 cut and uncut men with "Semmes-Weinstein monofilament touch-test sensory evaluators," which is a fancy way of saying the doctors tickled the dudes' junk with fishing line. (Under the journal's "conflict of interest" section, it reads "none declared." This is followed by the fact that the study was funded by the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers, which seems fine, as long as no one looks at the group's acronym.)
The doctors claimed to have mapped the "fine-touch pressure thresholds" of cut and uncut penises after controlling for things like type of underwear worn and education level, of course. In all, 19 pressure points were identified, and these were the portions removed or otherwise affected by circumcision.
Besides a critique of the study in the June 2007 issue of the BJU, the study seems to have been largely ignored. It appears that doctors just aren't that interested in foreskin. Most of the physicians interviewed for this story well, at least the ones who returned phone calls thought the idea of foreskin restoration was, A: stupid; B: delusional; C: both of the above.
Houston plastic surgeon Berkeley Powell, past president of the Texas Society of Plastic Surgeons, said with a bit of a chuckle, "I'm sitting here just kind of amazed. I didn't know this was going on. But I read your paper this is what I read it for, to stay abreast of current events."
Powell reiterated the fact that restorers weren't actually restoring anything, but added: "More power to 'em for trying."
Michael Coburn, chief of urology at Ben Taub and a professor at Baylor, was surprised to hear about nonsurgical restoration: "Why are these people wanting to do that?"
As far as uncircumcised men having greater sensitivity, Coburn says, "There's not really any medical evidence to support that."
Still, many restoring men claim that the process has enhanced sex for both themselves and their partners. This concept was even the thesis for a book written by the wife of a restoring man, Sex as Nature Intended It. Author Kristen O'Hara cites a survey she conducted claiming that women prefer uncut men nine to one. O'Hara's Web site for the book includes testimonies from herself and other (unidentified) women who liken sex with a circumcised man to being pounded with a jackhammer, while uncut men are more gentle and responsive. As supporting evidence, she includes alleged testimony from a woman who writes that her first sexual experience involved a guy lying down beside her at a beach, spontaneously masturbating and then raping her. Her next sexual experience, a year later, was a pleasant romp with an uncircumcised man who did not rape her. Case closed.
Melissa Long swears that sex is better now that her husband is restoring. Previously, she says, sex had always been painful.
"It was almost like a relief to me to know that there wasn't something wrong with me," she says, later adding, "He's more sensitive, so he doesn't have to, like, thrust as hard there doesn't have to be as much friction for him to get the sensation, so it's gentler." In an e-mail, she likened the before-and-after experiences to "going from watching TV on an old black-and-white set to a digital Technicolor plasma screen with surround sound."
Enhanced sex has been especially rewarding to Keith Akers, who started restoring about five years ago.
"I credit the restoration with the fact that I now have a 17-month-old son who, by the way, was not circumcised," says the 47-year-old Atascocita man.
Akers started restoring with the help of an O-ring and now uses the TLC Tugger, with great results. The proof is in the penis: Akers says he's gone from less than 1 on the CI scale to a 3.5. His goal is to have "full coverage" when he's erect.
While the promise of better sex was his primary motivation to restore, Akers mentions an added benefit.
"Part of it was to make myself different from what my dad is," he says, adding later, "It was something that I did for myself because I have no relationship with my dad to speak of at all...at the time that all of this started, I...finally came to grip with some things and I got some treatment for some chronic depression and with the family issues...this was another thing that kind of helped me feel better about myself and to kind of set a little distance between me and the way I viewed some of the problems."
He also understands what brings others to the restoring community: "A lot of the guys on these Web sites, they really feel violated, that something was torn away from them. I don't feel that as strongly...as they do about it, but I can see their point. And I can agree with them."
Ron Low remembers the moment he decided to restore the way someone might remember a wedding anniversary.
About ten years ago, Low (sounds like "cow") noticed his libido was flat-lining. Sex just wasn't what it used to be.
"For me, intimacy just wasn't getting any better. It was getting worse. And at the same time, it was getting better for my wife. You know, here we are approaching 40, and I felt like...'I can't believe nature is so cruel that intimacy would just get worse and worse and this is all I have to look forward to.'"
He found some information about restoring online, and then came that magic moment: "It was April 1, 2001, at about nine o'clock in the evening," he says, speaking on the phone from the Chicago suburb of Northbrook. He and his wife "were sitting in front of the TV set and I said, 'Hon, I've got to tell you about something. I'm going to start applying tape to my penis every day because I want to stretch my skin and make a new foreskin grow.' And she said, 'Well, that's crazy. That's ridiculous.' And I had to look her straight in the eye and tell her I was deadly serious. 'It's not crazy, and I'm going to need your support, dear.'" And she's been supportive ever since.
Low started with the film canister method, but used his training as an engineer to design a new device what turned out to be the TLC Tugger. He says he secretly tested it on himself, not wanting to announce his invention until he knew it worked. Even his mother, who lives next door, did not know her son was walking around constantly stretching the skin of his penis.
"For a long time she would see me wearing shorts and notice a knee brace on one leg, which was there to conceal the tugging straps, and she would express concern about my poor knee," he says. "I usually just said I strained it."
But after 21 months' tugging time, his libido rejuvenated, he offered his device on eBay. There was immediate interest, but he hadn't actually made any more because he wasn't sure if anyone would actually want to buy any.
He started making the molds for the Tugger's two cones in the family kitchen, but, with the greater demand, he now has a "dedicated lab oven" in his basement, with the capability of making about 12 Tuggers a day.
Low moderates an online Tugger user group, which he launched last fall and which now has 1,000 members. He says he ships the product all around the world. (Per his Web site, he offers "free shipping to Israel, Muslim states and third-world nations where ritual mutilation of children occurs.")
He looks forward to the day when the Tugger and other restoration devices are sold at the local drugstore. Until then, he's just one dude making dick-cones in his basement. The device hasn't made him rich, but none of the people selling restoring devices online appear to be in it for the money. They appear to be genuinely interested in helping other guys feel at peace with their penises.
Guys like John Long, who admits that, since his second child a son was born seven months ago, he's been too busy to wear the Tugger consistently.
"People going to get into it...you need to be committed to it: It can be a long haul," he says. He's happy with the results he's seen so far, but a little bitter that he has to go through the process in the first place.
His wife describes it best in an e-mail: "When our son was born in December, we left him intact. For the first few months, during diaper changes, my husband would look at our little boy and shake his head, saying 'Lucky little bastard.' But we know that by the time our son is old enough to know the difference, his dad will look like him, too!"
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.