Circumcision and phimosis stories: 'I'm scared of my own penis'

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Alex Hardy in CanadaImage source, Lesley Roberts
Image caption,
A story about Alex Hardy's suicide prompted readers to get in touch with their own experiences of circumcision and phimosis

Despite male circumcision being relatively common, it's not something people usually talk openly about. But when a grieving mother explained how her son killed himself after being circumcised, it prompted many men to share their own experiences.

"I read your story this morning and have been crying for hours."

"The same thing happened to me... I don't know why I'm writing this. I'm sorry."

"The article made me feel a bizarre mix of sadness, frustration and relief."

"Finally I can start to make some sense out of my own experience."

These were among the responses to a story about the death of 23-year-old Alex Hardy, who was circumcised after secretly suffering from a tight foreskin - a condition known as phimosis - for many years. He felt the circumcision left him in a lot of pain, both physically and mentally, and killed himself two years later.

Some readers who got in touch said they had never spoken about their problems before - even to their partners.

Here are some of their experiences. Some names have been changed.

'I've never been able to have sex'

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Even washing his penis used to make Curtis sick (stock image)

Curtis, 21, from Worcestershire, developed post-traumatic stress disorder due to the severe pain he experienced when the wound from his partial circumcision became infected.

He can't have sex or masturbate manually as he is, in his own words, "scared of my own dick".

"When I had the operation I got an infection, so instead of taking a week to heal, mine took about six weeks," said Curtis, who was seven and a half years old when he had the operation.

"Because of the infection I got it had to be sterilised, so I had to be put in salt baths in my house which was absolute agony, because you are putting a wound in salt.

"I couldn't sleep properly, I couldn't walk, because every time it touched either leg the pain was so bad I would just stop walking. So I had to be carried a lot of the time to and from rooms."

Sleeping was a problem because Curtis's T-shirt kept getting stuck to the wound.

"Every morning I would have to tear that T-shirt off, which was obviously very painful as well," he said.

Curtis has been having sex therapy for two years and hopes to be able to have sex one day.

"I did have a girlfriend at one point, and when it started to go towards that sort of thing my heart rate would pick up and I would start to sweat and I just couldn't cope," he said.

"So as far as I'm concerned, if I can barely go near it, how on earth can I expect somebody else to do it?"

He has already made progress and is a lot more comfortable when he touches his penis to wash it.

"For several years every time I washed it I would just be sick, because I just couldn't cope with it," he said.

"That doesn't happen now. It's small steps and small victories but they are victories I wasn't having before. So I can see it getting better."

'Circumcision gave me unwanted erections'

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John was confused and disturbed by frequent erections he started having after being circumcised as a boy (stock image)

John, who is now in his early 50s, was circumcised as a child and started getting unwanted erections soon after.

He said he could "relate immediately" when he read about how Alex found the touch of underwear overly stimulating.

"The extreme sensitivity articulated clearly the problems I faced but without understanding why," he said.

"I thought it was normal to be that sensitive."

John was circumcised when he was between six and eight years old, but he does not know why.

"I wasn't really consulted," he said.

"To me it was something the doctor and my mum agreed had to happen. I vaguely remember having difficulty passing water at the time."

He remembers experiencing pain after surgery and being more sensitive than before.

"I had erections straight after surgery," he said

"I don't know how normal it is for under 10 year olds to get erections but mine became frequent.

"I ejaculated whilst still in junior school and was scared because I didn't know what it was.

"There was no internet and no-one to ask. I didn't know what masturbating was but that's what I was doing. It was the only way to find some relief."

John believes the trauma of circumcision was an influencing factor when he later had a nervous breakdown.

"I think there are many aspects that people never consider, especially the mental side," he said.

"To be honest, I've never even talked to my wife about it.

"The psychological effect of permanent and over-stimulation of the penis over a long period of time is never discussed."

'I feel quite happy having phimosis'

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Pete only realised his penis was different when a partner told him (stock image)

Another reader, Pete, is not able to retract his foreskin but he doesn't see this as a problem requiring medical treatment.

"I'm gay and it's something that I only found out about through the sexual partners I've had over the last couple of years," said Pete, who is 25 and lives in Ealing.

"I only found out about phimosis even existing after a conversation with a partner, who said I was supposed to be able to expose my glans [head of the penis],"

"A little bit of googling and I realised the whole thing has a name and that people advise you get treated for it."

Pete was initially "very anxious" when he found out he might have phimosis.

"I read about how doctors try to encourage things to rectify it but, like with Alex, I think they would simply take a mild or fairly benign thing and make it a million times worse," he said.

Some of Pete's sexual partners have been "curious about why I'm not like most other guys".

"I don't feel like it's gotten in the way of things as much as it might for some," he said.

"It only gets in the way if a guy is very judgmental, and thinks I ought to be more like them."

Pete says it "feels a bit awkward to be made to feel slightly wrong somehow".

"I think the attitude people have about it is the bigger problem," he said.

"I feel quite happy as I am.

"I genuinely feel like circumcision is completely unnecessary in my case, and it would make things painful and I'd instantly regret it."

'Steroid cream quickly sorted my phimosis'

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Marvin thinks boys and men should try using steroid cream if they have phimosis (stock image)

Marvin was successfully treated for phimosis as a child using steroid cream, and he is concerned some consultants might be advising circumcision unnecessarily.

This is because his own son was advised to have a circumcision, rather than use steroid cream.

"I had phimosis as a kid and nearing my teenage years I visited the local doctor, who then prescribed some steroid cream that quickly sorted the problem," said Marvin.

His son's foreskin did not retract as he got older, so Marvin took him to a doctor when he was 11. He was then referred to a consultant at a children's hospital.

"At the appointment with the consultant the options were effectively either leave alone to see if it sorts itself or surgery," he said.

"Two surgery options were given: either circumcision or making a cut in the skin to see if that then heals and provides the necessary stretching."

Marvin then mentioned his own experience using steroid cream.

"The consultant said this has almost no chance of working but was prepared to prescribe a steroid and give it a go. About eight weeks later, the problem was resolved.

"The outcome might have been very different if I had not had the same issue as a kid."

'Frenuloplasty cured my phimosis'

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Barry said his foreskin used to be so tight it hurt to retract it during an erection (stock image)

Barry Betts, 42, had phimosis like Alex but was treated with less invasive surgery, known as frenuloplasty. He said it was "a huge success" for him and wanted to make other men with phimosis aware of it.

"With me it was essentially a case of sex being painful as my foreskin was so tight that it hurt to retract it during an erection, which is what happens with penetrative sex; as you enter it forces your foreskin to retract," said Barry, who lives on the Wirral.

He was referred to an NHS urologist who told him the options were "nothing, stretching, circumcision or frenuloplasty".

"He advised the frenuloplasty due to how tight mine was and I agreed," said Barry, who was in his late 20s at the time.

The procedure involves surgically lengthening the frenulum, which is the band of tissue where the foreskin attaches to the under surface of the penis.

Barry dropped a stitch after his operation which led to some "scary bleeding" but this stopped on its own.

"Once I got past the initial nerves of - how can I put this delicately? - testing out the outcome, I discovered that everything was fine and working better than before, just as the urologist said it would.

"I haven't had any problems whatsoever in over a decade since it was done."

'Sex feels better after circumcision'

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Image caption,
Robert said sex feels better now the head of his penis is exposed (stock image)

Robert Dawson, 51, from Nottingham, was circumcised as an adult after seeking medical help when his penis bled during sex. He initially regretted it, but says sex is now more enjoyable than before.

"It was excruciatingly painful," he said of the surgery.

"It took about 30 minutes. My girlfriend remained outside throughout this but heard my screams."

When Robert was younger he used to be able to pull his foreskin back, but as he got older it became tighter and he could no longer pull it back.

It bled during sex in 2017, so he went to see a urologist who advised him to get circumcised.

The urologist did not suggest any alternative treatments, but Robert did some research online and decided to go ahead with the circumcision.

He had the operation in Vietnam in June 2018, as that was where he was working at the time. Unlike Alex, his frenulum was left intact.

"I was so happy with the feeling I had during sex," he said.

"Now the glans [head of the penis] was exposed it was a beautiful, lovely feeling again that I had experienced in my teens and 20s."

Some of his skin has fused slightly higher than it should have done, so he is due to have further surgery in Nottingham to fix this.

"I so wish that I could have talked to the guy in your article before, during and after his procedure," said Robert.

"He should have come to England to get an opinion from an NHS urologist. They may have been able to fix his problem, but again, like me, he found a world not willing to talk about this."

Getting help

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People with psychological problems can seek help from a therapist (stock image)

Psychotherapist Nick Turner, who specialises in relationships and sex therapy, is currently treating two young men who were traumatised by being circumcised as children.

"I've come across loads of grownups who've had circumcisions and not had a problem, but it's the fact that these two boys both experienced post-operative discomfort, bleeding, pain and infection," he said.

"We are talking about six-year-old boys here. What would a six-year-old boy know about how to deal with a situation where they are in intense pain following a surgery?

Claire Allen, a counsellor at sexual violence charity Savana, believes male circumcision is comparable with less severe forms of female genital mutilation.

"If we are removing the foreskin of the penis, the equivalent in a woman could be removing the prepuce or the hood that covers the clitoris," said Miss Allen.

"My personal opinion is that it doesn't matter how much flesh is removed, you are still going through that process, you are still experiencing the pain. It's hard to know what damage it can have on people's brains but there are lots of things that can come from the effects of trauma."

Mr Turner advised going to the College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists, or finding a sex therapist through Relate, the BACP or the UKCP.

The UK charity 15 Square, which tries to help men affected by circumcision, is also hoping to start support meetings.

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