Sitting on his couch in his midtown apartment, naked from the waist down, Carl looks like he’s performing an Indian burn on himself. With a firm grip in each palm, the 34-year-old moves his hands farther away from each other, aggressively yanking the skin on his crotch. It’s a technique similar to stretching earlobes for gauges, except Carl’s project is a lot harder.
It will take years of disciplined, daily stretching routines. Carl hopes that if he pulls on it enough, he’ll expand the skin until it eventually covers the entire head of his circumcised penis — essentially regrowing his foreskin.
Of course, Carl isn’t his real name. The dark-haired stockbroker fears what others will think if they learn of his undertaking. He’s been tugging on his shaft every day for three years in secret.
Since skin stretching can be tedious, Carl purchased a four-inch white nylon device called a dual tension restorer, DTR for short. It’s a hands-free gizmo that Carl clamps on to himself when he’s home alone.
This morning, it takes Carl less than a minute to fasten the device; the maneuver looks something like pulling a balloon around a faucet to fill it with water. He then clips on a ten-ounce weight, to intensify his session. Carl stands tall, splay-legged, with gravity dragging the skin behind the head of his penis down to earth.
“This is a good stretch,” he reports, looking down and wiggling his pelvis (and the device attached to it) slightly. “It’s not comfortable, but still kind of enjoyable.” He shrugs. “I don’t know how to explain it.”
Carl is one of thousands of men who resent being circumcised, which they liken to genital mutilation. They call themselves restorers and, to cope, endeavor to stretch their skin to take the place of what was snipped away at birth.
But regenerating an inch of skin is a superhuman feat. A foreskin can’t simply grow back like a lizard’s tail; it takes one to five years of grueling stretching and a slew of strange devices. It’s physically torturous and also isolating, since most men take on restoring without talking to loved ones or doctors. Many turn to online forums for guidance and support. And most quit before reaching their goal.
“Some people think this is a body modification,” Carl says. “But, if you think about it, it’s really a reversal of a body modification.”
Abraham, the biblical patriarch of both Judaism and Islam, was said to be the first man circumcised. It was a physical mark of his and his descendants’ covenant with God. In Genesis 17, God tells Abraham that the operation is necessary; according to the Torah, Abraham immediately circumcised himself, his thirteen-year-old son Ishmael, and every man in his household. From then on, Jewish newborns were circumcised when they were eight days old.
It isn’t as common among Christians. Whereas some believe they should circumcise to mold themselves in Jesus’ image, the apostle Paul argued that faith in Jesus was the only requirement for salvation. In fact, some early Christians who did circumcise were seen as mimicking Jews and lacking faith in Jesus.
Near-universal circumcision is a relatively modern cultural phenomenon in America. During the Victorian era, in 1877, Dr. J.H. Kellogg (one of those responsible for Corn Flakes) claimed circumcision was a remedy for childhood masturbation. By 1932, 31 percent of American men were circumcised.
Studies in the first half of the twentieth century concluded that there were medical benefits to circumcision: that it was more hygienic and reduced the chances of contracting sexually transmitted diseases. By the late 1970s, the rate of circumcision peaked at 80 percent.
In 1975, the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that circumcision was not “medically necessary.” And the rate of circumcision has been in decline since. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only 55 percent of male newborns were circumcised in 2007. A sometimes shrill debate raged over the advantages of circumcision.
Ron Goldman, a Boston physician, founded a nonprofit called the Circumcision Resource Center in 1991 after he’d attended a bris. “It was clearly an unsettling experience, hearing the infant cry at the top of his lungs for twenty minutes,” Goldman recalls. As a psychologist, he has spent the last 24 years conducting studies, writing two books on the psychological side effects of circumcision, and lecturing around the world.
“How could cutting off one-third of the erogenous tissue on the penile shaft — which is equivalent to twelve square inches in an adult — how could that not have an effect?”
Then in 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that the benefits of circumcision — such as preventing urinary tract infections and penile cancer — outweighed its risks. And this past December, the CDC reignited the debate when it released a new report advocating for the practice. According to the CDC’s “Recommendations for Providers Counseling Male Patients and Parents Regarding Elective Male Circumcision,” clinical trials had found that the risk of contracting HIV from a woman was halved among circumcised men. Circumcision was also found to lower the risk for genital herpes and the human papillomavirus.
But the CDC’s report hardly settled the debate. The Federal Register received 3,276 comments on the finding, the majority opposed to circumcision.
“The CDC report has been criticized as culturally biased for good reason. It quotes evidence that male circumcision reduces the chances of contracting AIDS,” Michael King commented. “Why have there been no further attempts to study further possible connections between female circumcision and AIDS?”
“Sounds like the CDC is in the pocket of greedy, money-hungry doctors,” added someone named Elli Mazeres.
Meanwhile, other studies have found that a circumcised penis is slightly less sensitive than an uncircumcised penis, and that the disparity widens over time. And Goldman, after interviewing thousands of men, found that the effects of circumcision include anger toward parents, shame, distress, low self-esteem, avoidance of intimacy, sexual anxieties, and depression.
“Most of the world is horrified to find out that this is done by anybody,” Goldman adds. “There is even a movement among Jews in various countries, including here and in Israel, that is raising awareness about not circumcising their sons.”
Israelites trying to assimilate in Greece around 170 B.C. were probably the first men to restore, according to the Johns Hopkins University Bulletin of the History of Medicine. During that time, foreskins were oft admired. The Israelites would affix a lead spout onto the head, then add leather cords and weights.
But experts say some features — specific nerves; wrinkles — can never be regained.
Wayne Griffiths is considered to be the founding father of the modern restoring movement. He used stainless-steel balls of his own design to stretch his skin in the 1980s and went on, in 1990, to found the National Organization for Restoring Men (NORM), a support group for those considering or in the process of restoration. The first meeting, which was advertised in the San Francisco Chronicle as “providing information and help,” drew 25 men to a small apartment. “Gay men, straight men, we were free and open and talking about penises,” recalls Griffiths, now 85 and living in Northern California.
NORM was wildly successful. The group’s website currently lists forty-two support groups in twenty-four states and seven countries outside the United States — indeed, as far away as New Zealand. The group has an outpost in New York, but restorers in the area say it has not been active in the past few years. Carl has attended only one NORM meeting.
It became clear that most men prefer to keep in touch online. Many preferred internet forums that granted anonymity, according to Griffiths. Small discussion groups on Yahoo and MSN eventually led to sites like RestoringForeskin.org and Foreskin-Restoration.net.
It’s unclear how many men have restored or are actively trying. Most prefer to remain anonymous, which makes collecting data difficult. And, since restoring is now largely done in private and without doctors, there is little in the way of medical records. But the anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of those attempting to restore is substantial and increasing.
More than 15,000 men have joined RestoringForeskin.org, one of the more popular forums, since its inception in 2009. That’s an average of 200 new users each month. Last year, Ron Low, a Chicago-based maker of devices used by restorers, mailed more than 5,000 packages of his products, nearly three-quarters to customers in the United States. Low also conducted a survey of restorers on his website that drew 950 respondents.
“We aren’t foreskin enthusiasts or sex-obsessed,” explains Low, who has himself restored. “We just want to have a normal, natural body.”
Carl was circumcised at birth like his father, who was Jewish. As a curious seven-year-old, he remembers the scar from his circumcision glaring at him from the reflection in the bathroom mirror. When he asked his mother about it, she explained that clipping off that tiny bit of extra skin from the tip of his penis would keep it cleaner and him healthier.
Except, to Carl, it wasn’t just a tiny bit of extra skin. “Even then I remember thinking that this was fucked up,” he says, now pacing the living room. “Even then I was shocked that this happened to me.”
As Carl aged, his dissatisfaction grew. Masturbation was painful, and sex was less enjoyable than he thought it should be. It took longer to reach orgasm, and putting on a condom became the equivalent of a shot of Novocain.
It was 2001 and Carl was in college in Florida. He had embarked on a pilgrimage by way of Google searches — “circumcision side effects,” “male genital mutilation,” “erectile dysfunction” — eventually arriving at foreskin restoration.
He spent the next nine years silencing the anti-circumcision sentiments plaguing his thoughts — until his sister-in-law’s pregnancy in 2010. Carl explained his stance in heated debates with family members outside the hospital room. He stressed his own resentment along with what he saw as the practice’s complications, dubious medical justification, and prolonged side effects. Tears filled his eyes. “It felt like coming out to my family,” he remembers. “They were shocked at first, especially my dad, but at least it wasn’t this huge secret anymore.”
His arguments won the day and his nephew was left “intact,” a term common in the genital-autonomy movement that Carl is also a part of. His dad passed away soon after — before, Carl believes, he completely understood his son’s impassioned stance against circumcision. Carl now speaks openly about circumcision and restoring to his immediate family. He has even worn the skin-stretching devices under his clothes in their presence. “It’s obvious once you step out of the paradigm,” he says. “I’m just glad I got to stop it in the next generation.”
It was around the time of this “first win,” as he calls it, that Carl began dabbling in foreskin restoration. He started hitting the forums here and there, and purchased some skin-stretching devices. First he’d tug on his skin using his hands for a few minutes. Then, after sanitizing the device, he’d clip it on and wear it for a few hours at home every night.
During one of his spurts of restoring enthusiasm, he thought he might have injured himself. One of his testicles seemed swollen and slightly out of place. When he went to his urologist and explained what he was doing to restore his foreskin, the doctor dismissed the notion that foreskin restoration was even possible. He assured Carl that his injury was not serious.
” ‘Son, I’d just stop with all of that,’ ” Carl recalls, mocking the doctor’s lofty tone. “It was devastating,” he adds solemnly. He was so discouraged by the episode that he stopped restoring for a time.
But quitting any habit, especially one spurred by obsession, is never easy.
Ted is one of the success stories. He works at an Oklahoma magnet factory and began restoring after noticing a complete lack of sensitivity on the head of his penis. In 2006 Ted made it his New Year’s resolution to restore his foreskin. Five years later, Ted has a fully restored foreskin, a happy wife (who preferred the change), and a new best friend he met on the forums.
“I went from being as numb as a broomstick,” Ted exclaims in his Midwestern twang. “But the glans heals like a sunburn,” he adds, using the medical term for the head of the penis. “The new skin is so shiny, like a newborn’s….Before it was gray, callused, and hard.”
“Sex does not hurt anymore,” Ted’s wife shouts over him into the receiver. “No more sandpaper!”
But even men who have restored successfully sometimes suffer from a sense of isolation, uncomfortable with the notion of celebrating their achievements with family and friends. “Mel,” a New Jersey academic, has been involved with foreskin restoration for about seventeen years. His wife knows that he has restored, and he mentioned it to his son, who was not circumcised but was still a little uneasy with all the talk about Dad’s penis-stretching. Still, Mel felt that the secret loomed over his closest relationships, and agonized up until the day he decided to “come out” on his Facebook last year.
“I kinda felt the same way as a gay man might,” Mel explains in an email. “Finally just letting go of society’s preconceived notion of right, wrong, normal, abnormal. I will just be ME! And IMO ‘abnormal’ is cutting parts off of infant boys!!”
But Mel didn’t “come out” entirely. He made his anti-circumcision beliefs known via the links he shared and the statuses he posted. But he still wasn’t comfortable telling everyone that he had also successfully restored his foreskin.
“I did mention it in, like, a vague way,” he recalls in an interview. “I said something like, ‘People who have lost legs or [undergone] a mastectomy, everyone rallies behind them when they are pursuing self-image changes. But when it comes to men regaining what they lost, men who have been altered, where’s their support to do this?’ ”
No one responded to his post.
While he is too skittish to “like” a foreskin restoration page on Facebook, Mel says he would do so if NORM launched a profile of its own, because its title is subtler. “I don’t want to hide behind being Mel anymore,” he says. “I’ll be me.”
The process is more difficult, emotionally and physically, than most restorers realize when they start out. The discipline required over many months, and the discomfort that must be endured, can make sticking with it a herculean feat.
There’s always surgical foreskin restoration, an alternative for those frustrated with the lack of results. It’s quicker than the stretching route, but costs roughly $8,000 and is considered cosmetic surgery. During the operation, the skin on the shaft is removed and lifted a few inches to cover the head, leaving a region below missing skin. The patient takes anti-testosterone medications to halt erections for three months, until a follow-up operation completes the job.
Doctor Harold Reed, a urologist based in Florida, estimates he has performed one or two foreskin restoration surgeries per year for the past fifteen years. Before he agrees to the operation, he informs his patients about the nonsurgical alternative using stretching devices. Most men, he says, find the surgery too expensive and invasive.
“My job is to keep you out of the operating room and to keep money in your pocket,” Reed says. “It’s not medically necessary, but I can’t insult any person that walks into this office any more than a plastic surgeon when a woman with B cups comes in asking for a D.”
For his part, Carl says one of the reasons he has quit so many times is that when he restores, he can’t help but be physically reminded, for hours every day, that a part of his penis was amputated without his consent. A few years ago he had a circumcision nightmare in which he was strapped down beneath the brilliant halo of an operating room. “There was nothing I could do to stop them from cutting me,” he recalls.
David Grant began restoring in 2010 but had to stop because he found it too depressing to spend hours a day focused on an inch of amputated skin. He has redirected his efforts onto the Brooklyn advocacy group he co-founded, Intaction, which aims to dissuade parents from circumcising their newborn sons.
“Even a doctor who cut a thousand kids or cut four kids, I don’t want others to feel what I’ve felt,” Grant says one rainy afternoon on the sidewalk outside Weill Cornell Medical Center on the Upper East Side, where he was protesting. (His group protests at various clinics that perform circumcisions.) “I want to reach out to them and keep this generation from going through what I’ve been through.”
Grant and Carl and others who decry the practice argue that the decrease in circumcision rates nationally in recent years is not enough. Some view circumcision as a criminal act. Anthony Losquadro, who co-founded Intaction with Grant, has even confronted the man he calls his abuser, the obstetrician who circumcised him. He found the doctor’s name on his birth certificate and called the man, who was by then 88 years old and retired.
“What was it like to tie me down and cut off a part of my body?” Losquadro remembers barking into the phone. “How did it make you feel?”
Losquadro says the retired doctor listened quietly as he protested that he had never consented to the procedure. “I wanted him to know how deeply his actions affected me and violated my rights,” Losquadro said. “If he thought what he did was a good thing, I wanted him to know he actually caused a lot of harm.”
On a brisk morning in January, just seventeen days into the new year, Carl swings open the door to his apartment and boldly declares that his New Year’s resolution is to restore his foreskin. He rang in the new year without a foreskin — but not next year, he hopes, not if he can help it.
“Twenty-fifteen is the year of the foreskin,” he chimes from the other side of the kitchen counter.
Ever since Carl made the resolution, his intensity has increased. He is on the forums multiple times a day, reading the posts of others and checking their progress. As for his own regimen, it includes ten to fifteen minutes of manual tugging and later, after he comes home from work, two to three and sometimes even four hours of wearing the stretching devices while watching The Wire. If he wears them any longer, they begin to pinch the skin uncomfortably. He admits that if he does not start restoring as soon as he comes home, it is easy for him to forget.
But so far, this year, he has been on a roll.
The restoring community has developed a coverage index, or CI, as a scale to monitor progress. Carl currently falls at a 3 out of 10 — some skin has been stretched, but not enough to begin to cover the head. He is insecure about his progress; he might, he thinks, actually still be a CI-2. But he says that after he posted pictures of himself to the forum, he was assured by other restorers that he truly is a CI-3. He took the news as a compliment, and today cracks a shy smile as he recounts it.
His real goal is a CI-10. But after three years, he has gained only a couple of wrinkles. The head of his penis remains completely exposed.
“It can be overwhelming — depressing, even — to think about it and all the work you still have to do,” he says. “I stay positive and keep trying to grow back some more foreskin.”
Carl is determined, excited to put the devices on again tomorrow. Because 2015 is his year, the Year of the Foreskin.