isabel aurichio

It Cut Both Ways

Hey Callie, I’m here to talk to you about my penis.”

Out of context, this message sounds like the usual dick-centric message a woman might receive—it’s like a sales pitch, a virtual version of a solicitor at my door. Or maybe it’s a cringingly straightforward version of the classic “what r u doing 2nite” text. But thankfully, this time, no one was trying to sell me on their penis.

This message actually originated from a conversation with a female friend of mine. We’d been discussing penis appearance and circumcision when we realized that we knew very, very little about it. How common was it? Were there any proven benefits? Where does all the foreskin go? What even is a penis? In search of answers, I reached out to the Facebook community to ask for penis anecdotes and opinions surrounding circumcision. The post was basically an inverted version of that Jonah Hill scene in “Accepted” where he’s yelling “Ask me about my weiner!” I was yelling into the cybervoid for people to let me ask them about their weiners. As it turns out, people really want to talk about dicks because, believe it or not, no one ever actually asks.


Maybe you’re rolling your eyes at the suggestion that penises should be talked about more. We do seem to talk about them all the time, whether it’s a joke, a comment about the size of the president’s peen or some other masculinity-threatening insult. But the truth is, the United States has a penis problem—or rather, a penis discourse problem.

Most of us think about the penis a whole lot, whether it’s because we want dick or because we have a dick. But we don’t really think about the foreskin. That is, until we we have children ourselves. “Congratulations on your new baby! Now do you want to cut off its dick skin or not?”

There is a war being waged over the foreskin—the war on circumcision, as some see it. Circumcision has been an unquestioned norm in the United States for a long time. Only in the past couple decades have people started resisting the practice. Anti-circ and pro-circ folks are, shall we say, going head-to-head over circumcision: its benefits, frequency, ethicality and so on. People have a lot of cock-eyed opinions, and the debate is surprisingly complex. Thinking about circumcision as a decision of whether to snip is just the tip ... of the iceberg.


Whose opposed to circumcision deem it an act of violence. Circumcision of infants, they argue, is nonconsensual and cruel, as many infants are not given an anaesthetic for the operation. The leading group against circumcision, Intact America, considers circumcision akin to female genital mutilation. Groups like Intact America, which describe themselves in their mission statement as “passionate, professional, principled, and uncompromising,” hold the opinion that circumcision is an unnecessary and invasive surgery. They go as far as to support an all-out ban on circumcision. 

Reading Intact America’s website, I realized I didn’t actually know exactly what happens during a circumcision. In order to fully understand, I spent an hour watching different instructional videos on how to circumcise both adult and infantile penises. My personal favorite circumcision video was the one featuring “Blue Danube” by Richard Strauss. (Every good circumcision is accompanied by a full orchestra.) 

Now that I’m basically an expert, I can clear up some medical and anatomical confusion. A circumcision happens like this: first, you cut open the foreskin on the upper side of the penis with scissors, then slit the underside, peel it like a banana, and cut it off. Often, metal instruments are used to hold the foreskin open in order to ease the cutting process. The procedure sounds incredibly painful, though I can’t imagine a surgery that would sound pleasant when described in graphic detail. 

The World Health Organization estimates that about 30 percent of the world’s penis-owning population is circumcised. Most of this population is comprised of Muslim penis owners living in Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East—circumcision, or khitan in Arabic, is mentioned in the hadith and the sunnah. Circumcision is also mandated by most Jewish communities, a tradition which stems from a passage in Genesis 17. God tells Abraham, “This is My covenant, which ye shall keep, between Me and you and thy seed after thee: every male among you shall be circumcised.” God then goes on to explain that if Abraham doesn’t keep his people circumcised, their souls will be compromised and cut off from God. From what I gathered, this is where religiously-motivated circumcision began. But, in the New Testament, Paul basically argues that because Jesus was circumcised, no one else has to be. Jesus’ foreskin died for our sins, so circumcision fell out of Christian tradition.

In other predominately Christian countries, like France and England, non-religious circumcision will soon have disappeared. But circumcision rates in the United States are still high (around 80 percent of men aged 14 to 59 are circumcised) despite the fact that the majority of the United States is Christian. So how did we come to live in a foreskin-less nation?

There’s no one clear answer. It seems, however, that if God wasn’t the one telling you to circumcise your child, it was your box of cornflakes. Cereal namesake John Harvey Kellogg popularized the belief that circumcision was an effective method of stopping masturbation and keeping a person clean and chaste. That anti-masturbation, pro-hygiene argument became especially popular after the First World War, when the military was forced to discharge more than ten thousand men due to STDs. The proposed solution? Circumcision. 

Starting in the Second World War, soldiers were required to be circumcised before being deployed (this is all, of course, based on very little scientific evidence suggesting it would help prevent STDs). This meant a lot of grown-ass men were circumcised (without anesthetic) and were told that it was for their health. So later on, when given the decision to circumcise their own children, many couples decided it was better to do it early, when the memory wouldn’t be so painful (medical opinion at the time held that babies didn’t feel pain). During the postwar baby boom when hospital-births were the new standard, circumcision became the doctor-recommended option for parents. A slew of medical reports by Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose book “Baby and Child Care” remains one of the best-selling books of all time, claimed that circumcision was cleaner and safer for the child. (Spock, as it happens, rescinded these statements near the end of his life.) By the 1960s, nearly 90 percent of babies were circumcised. Couples in the 1960s saw their friends throwing their children off the proverbial dick-snipping bridge, and they decided to follow suit.

By the ‘60s, the argument for circumcision seemed to be that circumcision was cleaner, safer, and prettier than the alternative. The hygiene argument for circumcision has never really made sense to me. I understand it’s another part of your body you have to clean, but to recommend cutting it off so you don’t have to clean it? That’s kind of like saying you should cut off your hands since, if you don’t have hands, you don’t need to wash them after you go to the bathroom. 

The arguments of safety and STD transmission are contentious ones; look it up and you’ll find a hundred studies that say circumcision prevents STDs and another hundred that say it doesn’t. Neither argument has been proven. And the argument that circumcision makes penises more attractive is just a positive feedback loop of negative thought to justify a popular practice against its challengers. Apparently, if all scientific justification for something fails, the public resorts to “it just looks better that way.”


The online discussion about circumcision makes the isssue seem very black and white, so I wanted to know if people actually think about their penises the way the internet makes it seem they do. It was awesome to see the number of people willing to talk to me openly about their penises. People I hadn’t spoken to in years reached out—from old camp counselors to boys from my middle school. My friends from Colorado College messaged me; even my uncle sent me his opinions. I actually got catfished by a pretend med school student using a picture of Chelsea soccer player Eden Hazard to slide me fake medical advice about circumcision, which was cool in an inconvenient way. 

Most of the responses came from circumcised people, which is unsurprising given the high rate of circumcision in the United States. All of the responses I got were from penis-owning people who identified as men. In general, most were pretty nonchalant about circumcision—definitely not as heated as those vocal on the internet.

 Some of them hadn’t thought about it at all before, while others had several paragraphs of thoughts on the matter. Their opinions on the debate ended up boiling down to a few main contentions also made by circumcision scholars: religion, consent, cleanliness, pleasure, and appearance. (I granted all interviewees anonymity in the interest of getting frank, honest answers. Completely randomly generated names are used in lieu of given names.)

The question of consent and circumcision is at the heart of the debate. A lot of the responses I received were from Jewish men who had no issue with their parents making the decision to circumcise them. On the other hand, non-Jewish Richard (uncircumcised), found it an “imposition of religion.” He said it was a “consent violation if the person is too young to make an informed decision for themselves … and frankly abusive.” One of the few women who reached out for an interview said it was “pretty barbaric … it should be a choice that a penis owner makes when they’re old enough to do so, rather than a choice that’s made for them when they’re babies.” 

But others argued that as kids we had to do a whole bunch of shit we didn’t want to anyway. One guy called the consent argument “complete bullshit. I didn’t consent to if I could or could not go to preschool, eat veggies, grow up in USA, etc. The list is endless.” He reasoned that “it’s not like children can consent to orthodontic surgery (which is often cosmetic).” Those making the violation-of-consent argument were typically uncircumcised people, while circumcised folk tended to have a more relaxed attitude about it. Both sides make good points: I didn’t consent to my parents giving me horrible haircuts as a child, true, but my hair grew out, whereas growing foreskin back is much harder. But also, if a parent is following what their religion has dictated for years, what’s common with other new parents, or what they’re told is best for their child, then I’m not quite sure it’s abusive, either. Additionally, banning circumcision (like Intact America suggests) means preventing Jewish and Muslim practices and could lead to amateur circumcisions performed out of adherence to religion, which carry serious medical risks.

Pleasure is the one thing I found circumcised guys get bummed out about, as there are a good deal of rumors that having that ultrasensitive foreskin makes for better sex. The public seems to have  accepted this as fact, although there isn’t much actual scientific evidence because sexual pleasure is hard to quantify. As circumcised Paul put it, “I want a penis that is as sensitive as can be, because … sex is nice.” A lot of guys I talked to who had been circumcised for non-religious reasons found it pretty illogical—they said they definitely wouldn’t have been circumcised if they had been given the choice.

On the other hand, there’s the cleanliness argument. One girl I interviewed felt better knowing that guys she was hooking up with were circumcised because she found it cleaner. Several fraternity brothers made it clear to me that they thought uncircumcised penises were gross, but quickly backtracked to make it clear that they had never thought about any penises, ever. The cleanliness argument has spurred some pretty demoralizing conceptions of uncircumcised penises as “gross” or “dirty.” A friend of mine told me she had considered uncircumcised penises ugly and dirty before she saw one and realized they were just regular old penises with more skin. That experience wasn’t unique to her, either. Colorado College junior Richard II told me a story about his friend whose girlfriend wouldn’t go down on him specifically because he was uncircumcised, and several guys I attempted to interview for this article actually told me they thought uncircumcised penises were “disgusting.” It turns out that a lot of people get squeamish about the uncircumcised penis. 

There’s a lot of danger in the “ew” argument. Penises have become a sort of bodily indicator of power in addition to sexuality. Maybe the rhetoric surrounding penises is negative because they’re sometimes associated with male domination and toxic masculinity. With the recent increase in body positivity surrounding vaginas and their beauty, I’ve found that no one really ever calls penises beautiful or strong or anything like that. And I’m not hopping on some men’s rights bullshit train, but I do wonder how penis owners feel about having the general narrative remain, “All penises are gross, and some are even grosser, and there’s nothing we can do about it.” 

 I tried asking people I interviewed about penile body positivity. Some, like John and Peter, felt that this lack of conversation about the penis and the body was detrimental. According to uncircumcised John, the inclusion of penises in discussions of body positivity could “delegitimize the stigma and shame of differently shaped and sized penises” and “get men talking about their feelings around their bodies in general.” This body talk is important, too, because almost every guy I interviewed pointed out how they almost never see other people’s dicks. Most guys noted that they only see other penises in porn, and that, as a result, porn is what shaped their idea of how the “correct” penis looks and acts. On the other hand, Richard II pointed out that because of the penis’ association with sexuality and male power, any body positivity movement around the penis would end up feeling like a movement for male power.


We see how body shaming and lack of representation of bodies affects people all the time, but we seem to ignore the penis in a very counterintuitive way. We don’t talk about penis appearance because we don’t think that cisgender men belong to a faction of people that needs more attention or support. But this leads to internalized insecurities that can very quickly turn into aggression. If someone is ashamed of their penis, they might associate sex with embarrassment, and a supposed indicator of “power” might come to indicate their inadequacy. It’s easy to see, then, how guys can end up combating feelings of powerlessness with violence. The circumcision debate thus only exacerbates this issue—an incredibly vulnerable part of someone’s body is considered unattractive because of circumstances (and circumcisions) completely outside of their control.

Aggressively masculinizing the penis through our rhetoric has implications other than cis male shame, though. It further ostracizes trans women and perpetuates the dangerous idea that trans women are still male. We paint the penis as this solely sexual, male body part and it seems as if the only place we’re talking about the penis outside of sexuality is in the circumcision of infants, where it suddenly seems like the penis belongs to the argument and not the owner. The only arena where the penis is desexualized is one where it’s denigrated. To me, we seem to be focusing on the penis in all the wrong ways, and our rhetoric is creating a culture that kills people. Toxic masculinity thrives in a phallocentric society. Insulting the penis in any way (even by proxy, as in rejection of sexual advancement) becomes a dangerous action for all women but especially for trans women, whose penises are used as proof of their “fake” womanhood. This myth of the penis as inherently and aggressively male contributes to the transphobia of men who have killed at least six trans women in 2018 as of February 23, 2018 in the United States alone. 

So where do we go from here? One possible solution would be to start viewing and thinking of penises in a non-sexual way. Our country is weird as hell about nudity no matter how you cut it, but penises are often shut out of the whole “nudity isn’t inherently sexual” narrative. Of course, there are reasons for this—say, indecent exposure, which is something that crosses the line over body positivity into harassment. Though we maybe shouldn’t advocate for a universal “free the penis” movement, we should definitely rethink the strange place we’ve put the penis in our thoughts about the body.


In terms of being pro- or anti-circumcision, I am very much on the dick fence, but that’s not what matters. What matters is that when we take as rigid a stance on the circumcision debate as people tend to, we shame one kind of penis or another. Calling uncircumcised penises dirty and unsafe isn’t exactly uplifting, and calling circumcised penises mutilated (as groups like Intact America do) doesn’t do wonders for self-esteem either. Surely, there’s a way to have this discussion that doesn’t denigrate all penises and perpetuate a culture of body shame around a vulnerable body part. 

Peter seemed to nail this topic on the head (the metaphorical one, not the penis one, because ouch): “Masculinity standards are not talked about enough. Penises are a large part of being masculine and being comfortable in your own skin. Guys grow up watching porn and there are discrepancies of expectation and reality. I think that being able to love what you have, and understanding that what you see in the fiction world of porn can create a feeling of inadequacy. I think that this feeling leads to anger that targets women and other guys. So creating a culture of penis positivity is important.” 

We are so obsessed with the penis as an emblem of male sexuality that we don’t even know where would we be if we could break down these notions about the penis. The entire conversation just clearly indicates how strangely our culture thinks about bodies and sex and how they relate. It’s completely nonsensical to think the uncircumcised penis looks weird. If we think that, it’s because we were taught to. 

So, America, I think it’s time to quit dicking around about the dick. 

Come as You Are


I am in seventh grade. My new LG Touch lights up with a message from my latest crush, Brendan Supple. We are playing the “question game,” which is basically preteen sexting. It’s intense in that “haha, and then what” kind of way.

do u masterbate? Brendan texts me. He’s the pinnacle of eloquence. 

no haha :) I type back in a panic.

I’m not one to lie, but at twelve I’m wracked with guilt over masturbation. It would be at least four years before I realized that other girls masturbate, too. But by twelve, it was already common knowledge that boys masturbated. A lot. 

We talk about guys masturbating all the time. There are so many nicknames for the act of cisgender men masturbating that basically anything you say could be a euphemism for a dude jacking off. The equation for creating an alternative saying for “masturbate” is verb-ing the noun: Beating the meat. Tugging the slug. Pulling the rope. 

Some of them sound incredibly violent and not at all like something I would want to do to my hypothetical penis: bleeding the weed? Flogging the egg man? (I sincerely hope no one has ever, ever, said this in reference to masturbation.) The thing is, there are hundreds of generally accepted ways to say you’re going to flog your egg man. Fixation on cis-male sexual pleasure has been a constant in the human sexual landscape for the past, oh, forever. I flounder to find a good way to refer to masturbating if you have a vagina, other than saying “masturbate.” (I have yet to find a single person who can say “flick the bean” without cringing or laughing.) This lack of colloquialisms for female masturbation is about more than a lack of creativity. It’s indicative of the disparity in attention to male and female pleasure. 

Curiously enough, a fix of sorts did come about, but only when doctors started diagnosing women with “hysteria” when their husbands couldn’t make them come. The “percussor,” more popularly known as the vibrator, bearer of multiple orgasms, was initially invented to aid doctors in administering “pelvic massages” to their patients in order to calm hysteria and cure “frigid woman syndrome,” (also known as, “you-can’t-come-and-it’s-you-fault syndrome”). That’s right, making your girl come was a duty delegated to medical professionals in the late nineteenth century. Percussors disappeared off of the popular market somewhere around the 1920s, returning to the black hole of female sexuality. (Freud literally called female sexuality the “dark continent” of psychology. But let’s be honest, Freud couldn’t make a girl come.) 

But if doctors aren’t making people come any more, then who is? Because, according to over thirty studies regarding the female orgasm, women aren’t coming during sex. Dame Products CEO Alexandra Fine explains that women are four times more likely than men to refer to heterosexual intercourse as “not pleasurable at all.” This phenomenon is referred to as the “pleasure gap” in sex. In one survey of individuals ages 18-65, 62 percent of women reported regularly orgasming from sex, compared to 85 percent of men. 

Studies aside, this is something I witness and experience all the time. The whole idea of “faking it” is preposterous when you actually think about it: women are more concerned with men’s egos than their actual sexual pleasure. When I asked a female CC student why she faked orgasms, her response was that she “got bored and wanted it to be over.” She told me, “‘Jackhammering’ only feels good for one person.” If your sexual style is compared to a power tool, it’s a safe bet that you’re not making anyone come. 

Another female student noted, “Everyone acts as if the path to pleasure is the same for men and women, when it’s drastically different.” Why are women so reluctant to instruct men how to make them come? Why are men so offended by women not coming when it’s pretty unequivocally their fault? Even as I ask myself these questions, I know the answer: Throughout our entire lives, women are taught to protect fragile masculinity at all costs. Because if we don’t, the price we pay could literally be deadly. How many stories have I read in the past month about women being beaten to death or stabbed or shot for rejecting a man’s advances? I recall the high school-era drama surrounding “blue balls,” a phenomenon experienced and whined about by men, often used to coerce women into sexual acts they weren’t comfortable with. 

I was curious as to what cisgender men had to say about the pleasure gap. Were they aware of it? Did they give a shit? Naturally, I decided to ask the men I’ve had sex with. The interviews were a lot like the sex I’ve had—nothing extraordinary, but they got the job done. 

One man I interviewed fumbled uncomfortably when I asked him if he thought he made girls come, saying, “I don’t know, I have no idea. I feel like, honestly, maybe? I mean, people make different movements and noises and whatnot? And afterwards I’m not gonna like, I mean I don’t…ask.” I watched the realization settle into his face. He continued, “maybe that’s really… rude of me?” This Don John Doe wasn’t aware of the pleasure gap but was able to guess at it quickly, comparing it to the “wage gap, in that men orgasm way more often than women do.” What frustrated me about talking to these guys is that even if they were aware, or they acknowledged their own problems, they just didn’t seem to care that much. It’s almost as if making someone with a vagina orgasm has become an exceptional accomplishment—those who can do it are special and rare, and those who can’t are just fine, too. So the burden of both people’s orgasms falls on the femme. 

How, then, do we reclaim pleasure in sex? Some sex shop curators, such as former dominatrix Amy Boyajian of Wild Flower, a sex shop in New York, are working to reform the discourse around sex. Most importantly, Boyajian is trying to change the popular view of sex toys. Re-enter the great “percussor” of the 19th century! Boyajian wants to resist the idea of “sex toys and the stores that [sell] them…as lurid and sinister places that only creepy men in trench coats [visit].” 

She says that with the rise of feminist sex stores, which base their ideology around education and pleasure, the market of the sex store shopper expanded to include women and gay people. She’s now working to include trans and nonbinary people as well. Wild Flower’s products are not categorized not by gender, like many sex toys are, but by the body parts to which the sex toy applies—vaginas, penises, butts (oh my!), as well as categories for BDSM and nipple play. The store, along with her popular Instagram page, @wildflowersex, features numerous educational articles and videos with titles like “Oral Tips With A Giant Vulva” (if you want to know what an enormous paper mache vulva looks like, then this one is right up your alley!) and “What’s The Deal With Cock Rings?” There’s an entire page dedicated to the varying purposes of crystal dildos and yoni eggs (dumbbells for your vagina). 

Boyajian’s unthreatening mannerisms and no-nonsense approach to sex education puts her miles away from mainstream sex education in this country, which is more reproductive education than anything else. We’re taught more about fallopian tubes than about consent. I knew the function of the vas deferens before I knew the word “orgasm.” How is anyone supposed to figure out what they like if they learn about pleasure through the lens of salacity or obscenity? Pleasure is not obscene—it’s essential.

When I asked Boyajian what she thought about the pleasure gap and why it exists, she brought up the important effect that societal norms have on sex and sex toys today: “Sex toys are seen as competition to partners in the bedroom, when they are simply aids to women who find it hard to orgasm via penetrative sex. Any woman who talks about sexuality is deemed a slut. Sexual wellness is bigger than penetrative sex, like period sex and vaginal health, but these are too ‘icky’ to be part of the mainstream narrative.” 

There are dangerous ramifications of the common notion that some aspects of sex are icky while others are acceptable. More movies are rated NC-17 for cunnilingus scenes than for scenes with graphic portrayals of sexual assault. Sexual violence is deemed safer for audiences than seeing a vagina being pleasured. No wonder my best friend in high school confided to me that she had never been eaten out “because vaginas are so gross and I don’t want to anyone to see that.” Clearly, there’s something horrifically wrong with the narrative surrounding pleasure. It’s a sobering reality, but not an immutable one.

If we’re going to talk about women’s pleasure during sex, then women’s comfort also has to be discussed. If your male partner can’t say the word “tampon” without lowering his voice or giggling—if your period is denigrated as something “gross” or “unspeakable”—then what the hell is that dude doing near your vagina anyway? Sexual pleasure comes with feeling comfortable that your body, no matter what it looks like or how it functions, is not wrong. Amy’s advice for anyone struggling to feel comfortable in their sexuality is to, “Create an ongoing romance with yourself, explore your body, and get to know what feels good via masturbation. Treat yourself to a vibrator. Make your pleasure a priority…Explore your fantasies and do it a way that is non-judgmental. Be gentle and kind to yourself.” 

I swear to God, I’m going to get “Be gentle and kind to yourself” tattooed on my ass as a reminder because I think it’s the single greatest piece of advice I’ve ever received. But it’s also important to be gentle and kind to others. Whether you’re having Sting-esque tantric sex for hours with your fiancée or a Craiglist-organized orgy, the golden rule still applies. Every Sunday I hear (okay, overhear) a story about a sexual encounter. The story is always centered around the fact that it happened, not about whether it was enjoyed. We talk about sex as if pleasure were inherently part of the act, which only serves to push the pleasure gap under the rug. And as I’ve encountered countless times, femmes often recount their sexual exploits with a level of bashfulness that just isn’t present in male discussion. One of these days I’m going to stand on a table in the dining hall and just scream, “It is okay to come!” 

Discovering what pleases you isn’t exactly a linear journey. What’s often forgotten in conversations about pleasure is that pleasure is different for everyone. Don’t let shame or discomfort dictate your sex life, and don’t feel pressured to feel good all the time. It’s okay not to know what you like, and it’s also okay to take your time to figure it out. The most important thing is to feel comfortable, whether that’s figuring out sex for yourself (or with yourself) or initiating a potentially uncomfortable conversation with your partner. Set your vibrator on high (or low, or whatever setting you damn well please) and get to it. Don’t settle for anything less than shaky legs, flushed cheeks, and arched backs. Men? It’s a clit, not the Strait of Magellan. I’ve always hated that romantic aphorism about having to “love yourself before anyone else can love you,” but I’ve realized it has a granule of truth.

In a recent sexual encounter, my partner asked me if I had come. Resisting the familiar urge to lie, I told him I hadn’t. In the anxious theatre that is my mind, I imagined the various ways this guy would be angry at me, ranked by levels of violence. I remembered fights with my high school boyfriend, who told me that I should see a doctor if I couldn’t come because he had done everything that he could. I remembered the first time I had sex in college, lying in my bed like shit, maybe that really is all there is. I remembered my first multiple orgasm experience and how elated I was that I wasn’t broken in some deep down, physical way. I nervously awaited his angry answer.

Grabbing the soft pouch of my tummy, he told me, “Damn, I’m sorry. I’ll do better next time.”

And with those gentle and kind words, we went to sleep and I waited for that promised “next time” to come.