Circumcision and the UTI Link

Ever since I first became sexually active, I’ve been cursed with chronic urinary tract infections. A day or two after having sex, I’d feel it coming on–first just a vague sense of weakness and exhaustion, then pain when I went to the bathroom, which quickly intensified until it felt like peeing knives. I would end up locked in the bathroom for 8 hours at a stretch, exhausted but unable to sleep, crying in pain each time I passed a little urine. It was like a punishment each time I had sex.

I tried everything I could think of to keep it from happening–I drank gallons of cranberry juice, went to the bathroom immediately after sex, washed before and after, took vitamin C, changed to a different type of the Pill, stopped using spermicide, and cut sugar and alcohol out of my diet to avoid irritating the bladder. Nothing helped. I went to five specialists, each of whom simply gave me a knee-jerk prescription for antibiotics and told me to take them after sex. When I followed their advice, I came down with less frequent but more resistant infections, including one that I couldn’t kick for two months. After a while, I was so terrified of getting a UTI that I was afraid to have sex at all. When I thought about living the rest of my life without sex, about the strain it would put on my marriage, and about what could be so horribly wrong with me that I got infections from normal sex, I cried for hours on end. I felt unnatural and damaged.

It didn’t occur to me that maybe I wasn’t the one who was damaged. I believe I probably have greater susceptibility to UTIs than most women, perhaps due to some aspect of my personal body chemistry. But what I didn’t realize was that in all my experiences with different sex partners, and all my efforts to avoid infection, the one variable that stayed the same was that I kept having sex with men who were circumcised. Men who were, in other words, missing an important part of their sexual anatomy. The foreskin, that would have eased the entry of the penis, made sex more gentle and comfortable for both of us, reduced chafing, generated natural lubrication, and protected the head of the penis so it would be soft and moist, was entirely gone. No matter how gentle they tried to be, sex with circumcised men was rougher than it should have been. It opened up tiny tears in my tissues that allowed bacteria to get in. Without the protection of a foreskin, an exposed penis can’t stay as clean. “Bad” bacteria collects on the skin surface no matter how often it is washed, and the motion of intercourse inevitably introduced these bacteria into tears in my skin. (In fact, I now realize frequent washing with soap was probably contributing to my problem by washing away protective, healthy bacteria from the skin that could have functioned as the first line of immune defense.)

The understanding of what natural sex was meant to be, and how different my own experiences had been from that, dawned on me gradually over the course of a relationship with a man who was in the process of restoring his foreskin. When we first started being intimate together, all the old UTI fears swept over me, and I went through two days of dread and anxiety and paranoia after each time we had sex, just waiting for the familiar symptoms to show up. They never did. We had sex nearly every night for a month, far more often than I’d ever dared before, and I didn’t get a single UTI. The months went by and it never happened. Gradually I relaxed and accepted that it wasn’t going to happen, that I was going to be OK.

Sex with him wasn’t the same as it might have been with an intact man, but it was the closest thing possible to a truly natural sexual experience. It was smoother, more gliding, and more pleasurable than sex with my other boyfriends had been. I felt a heightened variety of sensations–almost like hearing a whole range of melody, instead of just two alternating notes, high-low high-low. His penis was soft and moist, so I did not feel chafed or raw the following day, as I had with other men.

However much I enjoyed our experiences, however, it was clear that he experienced very little sensation from sex, so little that he never had an orgasm. Our time together was dominated by a deep shared sadness that intercourse brought him so little feeling. Restoration helps some men recover a lot of feeling; for others, it helps less. It can never bring back the full potential to give and receive pleasure that was destroyed by circumcision.

I am relieved that I found a reason for my problem and was able to resolve a lot of the pain and frustration I felt about it. I have learned other things that I believe help to reduce the risk of UTIs, such as taking Acidophilus tablets daily to keep “good” bacteria levels high (these are available at health food stores), taking cranberry tablets daily (cheaper and more concentrated than juice), drinking enough water after sex to ensure that I go to the bathroom several times over the next few hours, and not washing my genitals with soap (rinsing instead with water).

But while I can now cope with a problem that once felt like it was ruining my life, I also feel a lot of sadness when I realize the damage that was done to the men I loved damage that has been done to nearly all the adult men in America. Who knows how much pain circumcision has caused for these men and their partners? Who knows how many women like me are out there, suffering silently or blaming themselves for their “unnatural” vulnerability to infections? Who knows how many of the infants subjected to circumcision today by well-meaning parents might grow up to be like my lover, for whom sex was a sad and lonely experience instead of the shared joy it should have been? I continue to mourn the pain that circumcision perpetuates for men and women alike.