Circumcised Men in South Florida Try to Regrow Their Foreskins
Photo by Stian Roenning
The blinds are drawn in Murphy's Miami Beach bedroom as the 33-year-old pulls a white, silicone, four-inch conical contraption from his nightstand. Called a TLC Tugger, it was designed to stretch skin gradually, as earlobes are stretched for gauges.
Except Murphy isn't stretching his earlobes. His project is much more difficult and will take years of disciplined, daily use: He wants to expand the skin in his crotch to eventually cover the entire head of his circumcised penis.
Of course, Murphy isn't his real name. The handsome, dark-haired musician fears what others will think if they learn of his foreskin project, so he's been attaching this device in secret every day for almost five years.
It takes Murphy less than a minute to clip it on as if he were pulling a balloon around a faucet to fill it with water. He then slings two rubber bands around the top of the Tugger and attaches them to a pin on the bottom.
Next, with his hair unkempt and sleep still in his eyes, he wobbles naked into the kitchen. It's 10 a.m., and he slices bananas and walnuts for a breakfast smoothie, unfazed that the gizmo is clanking against the cabinets.
"It's not painful at all," Murphy reports. "I've never put it on and been depressed. It always feels like it's making me better."
Murphy is one of thousands of men who resent being circumcised, which they liken to genital mutilation. They call themselves "restorers," and they try to stretch their skin to take the place of what was snipped away at birth.
But regenerating an inch of skin is an almost 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, because 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.
"I hate that it's taken me five years and I'm still not done," Murphy sighs. "It's one of the hardest things I've ever done."
A diagram that shows how a product similar to the TLC Tugger works.
Image courtesy of CatStretcher.com
Abraham, the biblical patriarch of both Judaism and Islam, was said to be the first man circumcised. It was a physical mark of his descendants' covenant with God. In Genesis 17, God tells Abraham that the operation is necessary, and according to the Torah, Abraham immediately circumcised himself, his 13-year-old son Ishmael, and every man in his household. From then on, Jewish newborns were circumcised when they were 8 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 God's only son.
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 had been circumcised.
Studies in the first half of the 20th Century concluded that circumcision was more hygienic and reduced the chance of catching sexually transmitted diseases. By the late 1970s, the circumcision rate had peaked at 80 percent.
In 1975, the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that circumcision was not "medically necessary," and the rate has been in decline since. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 55 percent of male newborns were circumcised in 2007. And a sometimes shrill debate has raged over the practice.
Ron Goldman, a Boston physician, founded the nonprofit Circumcision Resource Center in 1991 after he attended a bris. "It was clearly an unsettling experience, hearing the infant cry at the top of his lungs for 20 minutes," Goldman recalls. As a psychologist, he has spent the past 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 12 square inches in an adult — how could that not have an effect?" Goldman wonders.
Then, in 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that the benefits — such as preventing urinary tract infections and penile cancer — outweighed the risks. And this past December, the CDC reignited the debate when it released a report advocating circumcision. According to the CDC's "Recommendations for Providers Counseling Male Patients and Parents Regarding Elective Male Circumcision," clinical trials had found the risk of contracting HIV from a woman was halved for circumcised men. The practice was also found to lower the risk of 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," a man named 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," someone named Elli Mazeres added.
Indeed, studies have shown that a circumcised penis is slightly less sensitive than an uncircumcised penis and that the discrepancy increases with 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 Johns Hopkins University's Bulletin of the History of Medicine. During that time, foreskins were oft admired. The Israelites would insert a lead spout onto the head, then add leather cords and weights.
But experts say some features, like specific nerves and wrinkles, can never be regained.
Wayne Griffiths is considered to be the founding father of the modern restoration movement. He used stainless-steel balls of his own design to stretch his skin in the 1980s and went on to found the National Organization for Restoring Men (NORM) in 1990. It is 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 42 support groups in 24 states and seven countries outside the United States, as far away as New Zealand. In South Florida, the group held its first meeting at the University of Miami's student center in 2010. Five restorers discussed their techniques and progress. They met again two years later at Miami Dade College. That was about it.
It became clear that most men prefer to keep in touch online. Many use internet forums that grant anonymity, according to Griffiths. Small discussion groups on Yahoo! and MSN eventually led to sites such as 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 because 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 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."
Murphy wears the TLC Tugger for eight hours a day.
Photo courtesy of Ron Low/TLCTugger.com
Murphy, the now-33-year-old Miami Beach musician who's in the midst of restoring, was born at Baptist Hospital of Miami in 1982. Eight days later, he was circumcised, as his father and grandfather had been before him. He says he was in his father's arms when a mohel sliced off his foreskin in the company of relatives (some of whom had traveled from out of town) and friends from their temple. Two years later, his younger brother was circumcised too. "For my father, circumcision was a Jewish tradition and an important part of being a man," Murphy says.
As a curious kid, Murphy remembers staring at the tiny scar on his penis and wondering how he got it. His parents would explain that cutting that bit of skin kept it cleaner and him healthier. On a trip to New York at the Museum of Natural History, Murphy, then 10 years old, stopped suddenly in front of a life-size statue of a naked, uncircumcised caveman. He recalls contorting his face in disgust. "I was confused and somewhat repulsed even. It caused a lot of anguish," Murphy explains. "That's the general human reaction when you witness a bodily difference."
But Murphy didn't resent his circumcision at first. He grew up in a religious Jewish household. Friday-night Shabbos dinner was his most cherished childhood memory; his mom would light the candle, his father would fill the wineglass, and Murphy and his brother would take turns reciting the prayer. When Murphy turned 13, his family threw a lavish bar mitzvah, where everyone held hands and danced in a circle.
During movie night at college on the West Coast, Murphy was offended that a horde of fundamentalist Christians tried to convert him. But it made him contemplate his Judaism, his religious father, and how he never had a choice in choosing his religion. Then he thought about his circumcision. "I was in the mode of questioning religion and thought about Judaism and realized that circumcision is not a nice thing to do," he says.
Murphy's resentment worsened when he watched porn in his early 20s. He would cringe looking at uncircumcised men on his computer screen. "I could see quite clearly what was going on in the video and that it was pleasurable and it was something I was unable to experience," Murphy says.
He then scoured the internet and learned that a foreskin holds 20,000 nerve endings. Over the next five years, Murphy tried to focus on his career as a musician, but after practices and shows, he couldn't help himself. He kept Googling. One evening in 2010, he stumbled upon foreskin restoration.
Murphy had never thought it was possible. But on the forums, he clicked through the photos and saw the proof. "Right then and there, I knew this was something I had to do and that I was going to do it," he says. "I'm the kind of guy who wants that sensation back."
For a couple of weeks, Murphy researched the various stretching devices. He decided on the TLC Tugger after reading reviews on the forums. He bought it online for $85 and had it shipped in a nondescript box. After all, Murphy was 27 and still living with his parents in South Miami.
Foreskin restoration is a specific type of skin expansion. Dermatologists use a similar technique to regenerate skin for burn victims. Restorers say a rigorous routine is necessary for success. Most recommend that men restore every day for at least two hours. Even though it can be uncomfortable, most devices fit under pants, so most men can restore in public.
Murphy preferred to keep his new pursuit to himself. He didn't have a girlfriend at the time (and hasn't had a steady one since). It's not that he hadn't voiced his opinions on circumcision before — he had at the dinner table quite a few times — but it was always in passing, and his parents would always try to change the subject.
In February 2010, Murphy mustered the courage to write his brother, mother, and father a lengthy email detailing why circumcision is wrong. In the subject line, he wrote "Let it be," and he included a link to a website about restoring. Then he added: "Circumcision is extreme religiosity that we brand as normal. It is disfigurement through unnecessary surgery, and to me it is a horrific act," Murphy wrote. "The more I have learned, the more I am enraged that I don't have a full penis. It is keeping me up at nights. I'm not writing for an apology. It is the world you were from, unfortunate as that is. I am angry and need to let my thoughts out."
Murphy's father, the most devout Jew in the family, was the first to reply. He was diplomatic but thought that his son's frustration stemmed from something else. He argued that had Murphy's fingers been amputated, he would have learned to accept it. Murphy thought the comparison was bogus.
His mother was more receptive. Oddly, she found the sexual-pleasure argument most compelling. "If you know that the foreskin is an important, pleasurable part of sex, how can you defend this? My mom agreed with me, and my dad stayed on the fence and was mostly against [restoration]," Murphy recalls.
He discussed the issue with his younger brother and sister-in-law, who were both in their mid-20s at the time. They talked about the foreskin and its benefits over the phone. Even though they were Jewish, a few months later, the couple decided not to circumcise their first-born son. It set a precedent: He was the first male in the family who wasn't circumcised.
Murphy and his parents attended a naming ceremony — instead of a bris — for the baby. Murphy says his father never criticized the decision not to circumcise his grandson. When he held the baby for the first time, Murphy's father was smiling and proud, he says.
But a few months later, his father attended a debate about circumcision at an interfaith council. At the pulpit, his father quoted Scripture and defended the practice. Murphy wasn't surprised. "That's just how my dad is," he shrugs. "He cited the religious mandate and said that after several thousand years of tradition, no grave concern has been detected."
At home, Murphy would scurry up to his bedroom and close the door. He'd watch tutorials on how to use the stretching devices. The manufacturer of the device advised that using an elastic band tied below the knee would create tension. But in South Florida, Murphy was often in shorts, so it would be too obvious. He decided to attach the device to a safety pin clipped on the waistband of his underwear. "I never talked to a doctor about this," he says. "I could barely get it on. I think you need a certain amount of slack skin."
After a few weeks, Murphy realized it wasn't working. He then resorted to attaching the device to an elastic band strapped over his shoulder. He did that for almost a year, but the results were still meager. "I was probably doing it wrong," he admits.
Frustrated, Murphy turned to the forums. Other restorers persuaded Murphy to try medical tape. It fit more discreetly underneath his clothes, so he'd wear it for hours every day and even run errands with it on. "I'd always feel a thrill, like I was doing something risky, when I would restore in public," he says, "especially if I hadn't done it in a while."
Restorers use a coverage index to monitor the amount of skin they grow. Murphy estimates that he began at a level one because he had very little extra skin, which made using the devices especially tedious. According to anecdotal evidence on the forums, most men who wore the device as diligently and regularly as Murphy had completely restored in two years. He was far behind.
One day in 2012, Murphy nearly gave up. "One day off became two days off, and two became a week, and weeks became months," he says. "I realized later that I had quit."
But quitting any habit, especially one spurred by obsession, is never easy.
Dr. Harold Reed has performed one or two foreskin restoration surgeries annually for 15 years.
Photo by George Martinez
Sam is a prominent businessman living in Miami who declined to give his full name. As a gay man, the 45-year-old says he always preferred partners who were uncircumcised. They'd tell him about sensations he couldn't feel. Sam wanted a foreskin too. So he spent three years tugging on the skin of his penis and successfully finished restoring his foreskin this past March.
"It's been an interesting journey," he says, his voice trailing off. "It's actually bittersweet because now I know what it feels like to have a fully functioning organ. It makes me sad to think of all the guys who will never know what this feels like and will go on Viagra and Cialis instead. What I've been through was totally unnecessary."
Though three years of taping, pulling, and attaching weird devices was grueling, Sam says it was worth it. Not only does he like the way his body now looks, but sensitivity and sex have improved. The ultimate compliment came when he was lounging in a friend's hot tub. Sam said he was uncircumcised and a friend didn't believe him. So he stood up and dropped his swimsuit as proof. "No one was the wiser," Sam says with a smirk. "That was nice. It made my day."
Sam and other men who have successfully restored want people to know that it's possible. They try to motivate other men to not give up, acting like mentors and offering tips on the forums. Men who have restored understand that it demands a dramatic lifestyle change. Some liken it to a diet, explaining that it demands persistence and focus. But unlike shedding a few pounds, restoring is incredibly private and personal.
On the forums, Sam met Ted, a 58-year-old supervisor at an Oklahoma factory who also declined to give his full name. Sam says Ted motivated him, especially during a monthlong period when he abandoned restoring altogether. And now, even though Sam has finished restoring, he says the two still message frequently. He considers Ted a close friend.
In 2006, Ted started restoring his foreskin after noticing a lack of sensitivity. Five years later, Ted finished but stayed on the forums to help motivate others, like Sam. He's still on them today. He tells others how happy he is. His wife preferred the change, he says, and he has made new friends on the forums from around the world.
"I went from being as numb as a broomstick," Ted exclaims in his Midwestern twang. "The 'glans' heals like sunburn," he adds, using the medical term for the head of the penis. "The new skin is so shiny, like a newborn's. It's so shiny it looks like a mirror. Before, it was gray, calloused, and hard."
Ted's wife shouts over him into the receiver: "Sex doesn't hurt anymore! No more sandpaper!"
Ted and Sam are a few of the success stories, but according to site records from restoringforeskin.org, most men stop logging onto the site after four months. Tally, a Knoxville-based forum moderator, tries to remind men not to underestimate the psychological toll of restoring — which he says moves men to quit. "Men's egos revolve around their sex organs," Tally explains. "It's difficult unless you're bragging about it. When you restore, you acknowledge that you're flawed."
Tally launched his site after the main restoring site he frequented shut down in 2009. He understood how crucial this online support network was for everyone and that many restorers relied on it. He also found that most restorers turn to the forums rather than seeking a medical opinion.
There are a lot of reasons men stop restoring. The devices can be difficult to use, and progress is slow. It's physically uncomfortable and emotionally isolating, since most men aren't comfortable revealing their efforts to friends and family. Because it requires hours of disciplined, daily use, it can seem obsessive and border on body dysmorphia. One can imagine that Freud would have a field day.
Then there's 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; therefore, it is not covered by insurance. During the operation, skin is moved a few inches. The patient takes antitestosterone medications to halt erections for three months, until a follow-up operation completes the job.
Dr. Harold Reed, a urologist based in Bal Harbour, estimates he has performed one or two foreskin restoration surgeries annually for the past 15 years. Before he agrees to the operation, he informs 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 who walks into this office any more than a plastic surgeon can when a woman with B cups comes in asking for a D."
There are different types of devices, like the Dual Tension Restorer, available to restorers.
Photo by Chuck Torres/ForeskinRestore.com
It was a sunny August day, and a friend suggested Murphy and two others accompany him to the nude beach in Haulover Park. Murphy was tense. It was the summer of 2013, and he had quit restoring months earlier. At the time, his penis had extra skin, but not enough to look uncircumcised. He tried to come up with excuses to justify skipping out. His friends weren't buying it.
At the beach, the group — two men and two women — laid out on their towels. At first, they all kept their suits on. Murphy was squirming in his red-and-blue swimming trunks. He was nervous and couldn't remember the last time he had been naked in front of a woman.
He looked out at the waves. They calmed him. He began contemplating his insecurity and how it was a rejection of his body in its current form. Then and there, he decided to stop feeling self-conscious.
Murphy was the first one of the group to disrobe. He noticed that his friends weren't glaring at his penis, as he had feared. It was still awkward, adrenaline pulsing through him, but after a few minutes, that wore off.
Soon, one woman took off her bikini. Then, the rest removed their suits too. The four of them darted into the ocean to swim.
"It was a special day. The last time I was out naked like that, I was very small. I had this childlike freedom and terror," Murphy says. "I realized I had been in body-rejection mode and decided to start accepting it."
The few months away from restoring had been good for Murphy. His anger toward his father and his circumcision had waned. He learned to separate his circumcision from his religion. He decided to organize his thoughts, gather his research, and begin presenting it in a more coherent, logical way. Sure, he was hurt by his father's dismissive comments, but now he was trying to move on. "I realized all this anger weakened my arguments, and I learned to have more constructive comments," Murphy says.
Around this time, Murphy sent an email to the five men in the South Florida restoring email thread. He hadn't been online with any of them in more than three years, and he hadn't put on a device in almost ten months. Murphy wanted to know how everyone was doing. One man said he had finished restoring, and he urged Murphy to try again.
Murphy was moved by what he had to say. He realized restoring wasn't a form of body rejection. Whereas before he despised the way his penis looked aesthetically without a foreskin, now Murphy considered restoring a proactive routine — something he could do to make himself better. It was like going for a jog every morning. "I realized it was also a form of protest against my circumcision," he says. "It's better than just accepting this and pouting at home."
Murphy went online and purchased a $3 device that would achieve more tension.
That was almost two years ago, and he has used the device almost every day since. Putting it on is the first thing he does when he wakes up. He takes it off to perform at shows or if teaching a music lesson. He clips the device back on in the evening and removes it before going to bed. He estimates he wears the device for almost eight hours a day.
In that time, Murphy has moved up to another coverage index level — to a three of ten. Murphy thinks that any day, he'll reach a level four.
"I'm trying not to focus so much on how much skin I'm gaining," he says. "I don't have too much to show for it. It's more about putting it on every day. If I'm at home and not wearing it, I feel like I'm wasting my time."
Murphy has given up trying to convince his father and decided to stop bringing up circumcision and foreskin restoration to him. It's been almost a year. He understands that his father is a man steeped in religion dating back thousands of years. "He held his son while he was being circumcised," Murphy says of his father. "I can imagine it's something that is important to him, and he is attached to this practice in a way."
Murphy doesn't attend synagogue now, but he still considers himself Jewish — if mostly culturally. Despite his father's unrelenting views of circumcision, Murphy considers his dad to be a progressive man. He credits him with fostering a household full of debate around the dinner table and, ultimately, raising sons who question the world around them.
That teaching might have backfired on the topic of circumcision, but Murphy says he can still make his dad laugh. The two are even in the midst of planning a trip together.
To his father, restoring might be an obsessive behavior, camouflaging a more intimate psychological issue like fear of sex or rejection of Judaism. But Murphy insists it isn't. The hours he spends restoring are just part of a routine, like brushing his teeth.
Murphy argues that many men are simply in denial about the deleterious effects of circumcision. And he denies that restoring is obsessive — though he acknowledges he prefers stalls to urinals in the bathroom to stave off weird looks. And it's been almost ten years since he brought a woman home to meet his parents.
He says that he isn't lonely and that he goes on dates with plenty of women. He moved into his own apartment in Miami Beach two years ago. He claims he hasn't had sex without a condom since he began restoring and can't honestly report
"But I just keep thinking how amazing it'll be to finally have a foreskin."
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