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).

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Contributor Craig Malisow covers crooks, quacks, animal abusers, elected officials, and other assorted people for the Houston Press.
Contact: Craig Malisow