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The Styrofoam Vagina

Andrew Gross

Published May 15, 2018

Updated July 2, 2021

How a bizarre study exposes the intellectual laziness of circumcision scholars

“You have to know how to read a scientific paper—and actually bother to do it.” [1]

In 2002 Donald R Taves, a psychiatrist at the University of Washington, conducted an experiment to measure the effect of foreskin on the force necessary for vaginal penetration. He reported his experiment in a medical journal. [2] The study provides a shocking view into the state of scholarship and confirmation bias among academics, particularly those with an anti-circumcision agenda.

Taves cut a quarter-size hole in the bottom of a Styrofoam cup to simulate a vaginal opening. He mounted the cup on a diet scale to measure the force needed for a man to enter his partner's vagina. [3] The 76 year-old Taves penetrated the hole with his erect penis - six times with his glans exposed, and six more times with his foreskin covering the glans. [4]

Taves described penetration with his foreskin covering the glans as "comfortable", while penetration with his foreskin pulled back and his glans exposed was "uncomfortable". He concluded that circumcised men use ten times greater force to enter a female partner than their uncircumcised peers.

Study Weaknesses

The experiment consisted of the researcher having sex with a Styrofoam cup. The problems with this study (this author uses that term loosely) are so numerous and apparent, it’s difficult to know where to begin.

  • Vaginas come in different sizes. So do penises. The researcher measured force based on only one penile girth and only one size opening.

  • Several factors can affect the force necessary for penetration: body angles, the mood of the male, the mood of the female, their levels of sexual arousal, their ages, and the point in the woman’s menstrual cycle. None of these aspects was measured. In fact the researcher never considered any factor other than his own foreskin.

  • Putting an exposed glans through the rough edges of a Styrofoam hole may be uncomfortable, even painful. A vaginal opening, by contrast, is smooth, somewhat flexible, and naturally designed for comfortable penetration.

  • The subject’s penis rubbed against the side of the cup as it entered and withdrew. But a vaginal canal is significantly longer than the 1/4-inch edge of a cup. The vagina puts pressure on most of the penis as it penetrates and withdraws, providing pleasurable sensations leading to orgasm.

  • A sexually aroused woman secretes vaginal fluid that aids intercourse. But a Styrofoam cup provides no such lubrication, and the researcher didn’t indicate whether he used artificial lubrication.

  • The assumption seems to be that less force and friction during penetration are preferable. But friction between the male and female genitals – the contact of the penis with the vaginal canal – is what causes stimulative pleasure. Many women have reported that the most important physical factor in a partner’s genitals is his girth.

"The British research … confirmed that women do indeed prefer a thick penis. The reason: ‘The greatest number of nerve endings are in the lowest part of the vagina,’ Nicole says. ‘So when a thick penis pushes against the labia and lower vaginal walls, it provides intense, pleasurable sensation.’” [5]

  • The male researcher had total control over penetration. But a number of sexual positions allow the female to control the depth, angle, and pace of penetration. [6]

  • While a thinner penis would provide less friction entering the vagina, a thicker penis that rubs against the vaginal wall might provide greater pleasure for both male and female partners. A lack of friction would cause the least amount of force. But such a sexual experience may be considered unsatisfying.

These flaws don’t begin to cover the problems associated with Taves using himself as the sole subject. Without a baseline measurement, the results can’t be compared. The researcher might have inadvertantly altered the amount of force he used during successive insertions. And with only a single participant, the results are not applicable to the general population. [7]

There is no legitimate comparison between the experiment and human sexual intercourse. A middle school student who submitted this experiment for a school project would receive a failing grade. One is left speechless at the realization that this study is given any consideration.

Confirmation bias

And yet, astonishingly, the study has been given serious respect in the scientific community. The results have been cited in more than 30 scholarly papers, articles, books, and anti-circumcision websites. Academics with advanced degrees have cited the study to prove that “circumcision has been shown to increase the difficulty of penetration” and that foreskin plays an "important" or even an "essential" role "in the dynamics of sexual intercourse". At least five papers claim that the study proves that foreskin decreases the force necessary for vaginal penetration by ninety percent.

Some writers cited the study as evidence for the negative effects of circumcision on masturbation, male sexual pleasure, and “vaginal trauma” - subjects that Taves did not explore. German, Italian, and Australian citations demonstrate that the study has been accepted internationally. In most cases this was the only study cited in support of the assertion that the foreskin facilitates ease of intromission for vaginal intercourse. An appendix at the end of this post documents papers and other sources that cite the study to "prove" that circumcision makes vaginal penetration more difficult.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out and embrace information that supports one’s view while ignoring or dismissing information that casts doubt on one’s perspective. “Deliberate use of confirmation bias is held in low esteem by scientists, and allowing confirmation bias to get the better of your results is regarded as a particularly sad form of incompetence.” [8] Scholarly acceptance of this study is one of many examples of researchers with a clear anti-circumcision agenda showing little or no skepticism for studies that support their views. One wonders how many researchers don’t even bother to read a study, but just blindly report the descriptions they read from earlier papers.

Based on the demonstrated confirmation bias and lack of skepticism on the part of both pro-circumcision and anti-circumcision researchers, any study related to this topic shouldn’t be accepted at face value. Each paper should be analyzed with a degree of skepticism. Having reviewed several studies related to circumcision, this author has discovered to his amazement that studies are cited primarily based on whether the results support a scholar’s agenda, and not based on whether the scholar has affirmed that a study is scientifically valid and relevant.

Any partisan who cites the Taves study should answer whether he reviewed the study. If the answer is yes, he must explain why he considers an experiment that consists of sex with a Styrofoam cup would provide any information about the effect of circumcision on vaginal intercourse. If the answer is no, he must explain why others should give credence to the work of a researcher who doesn’t bother to research. We must call to account those scholars who are too lazy to do even a basic review of supportive evidence.

Conclusion

This article wasn’t written in order to ridicule Donald Taves. The effect of the foreskin on the force used during vaginal penetration can be an appropriate topic for a researcher to explore. In principle Taves or a colleague should be able to test his hypothesis more rigorously. An adult toy such as an artifical vagina might effectively simulate the proper resistance during penetration. If several circumcised men and uncircumcised men can be recruited to participate, perhaps an experiment could be devised to measure intromission force.

This author’s contempt is reserved for the scholars who blindly cited the study. One wonders how many of them bothered to read a description of the experiment. They may have assumed that the study is valid based on previous citations or its publication in a science journal. They may have assumed that it’s valid because the results support their agenda. One would expect that academics know intuitively that a hole cut out of a Styrofoam cup is no substitute for a real woman. Alas, one learns with chagrin that society sometimes places too much faith in the wisdom and diligence of the academic science community.

NOTES

[1] John Bohannon, “I Fooled Millions Into Thinking Chocolate Helps Weight Loss”; io9; May 27, 2015

[2] Donald R Taves; “The intromission function of the foreskin”; Medical Hypotheses, pp 180-182; August 2002

[3] A photo caption: Devise for measuring penile force during intromission. (Diet scales, Hanson Scale Co….) Lower left: an artificial introitus was made by cutting a quarter size piece out of the bottom of the an [sic] 8 1/3 ounce foam beverage cup (Western Family Space Saver insulated FOAM CUPS…) and making 8 equidistant cuts from the margin to the thickened rim of the cup. The length and number of cuts determined the stiffness and expansibility of the ‘introutus’ and hence the ease of intromission.

[4] In a December 5, 2016 email to this author, Taves confirmed that he was the only subject.

[5] Brittany Risher and Justin Park; “How big is yours?”; Men’s Health; January 29, 2010

[6] Anna Borges; “7 Sex Moves That Put YOU in Control”; Women’s Health; November 5, 2014

[7] Mark Sisson; “The Pitfalls and Limitations of Self-Experimentation”; Mark’s Daily Apple; 2015

[8] Chris Lee, “Confirmation bias in science: how to avoid it”; Ars technica; July 13, 2010

APPENDIX:

Studies, articles, and websites that cite “The intromission function of the foreskin”

1. The intromission function of the foreskin; Circumcision Reference Library (published the entire paper)

2. Hill, George; “Can Anyone Authorize the Nontherapeutic Permanent Alteration of a Child's Body?”; American Journal of Bioethics; 2003 "The foreskin plays an essential role in the dynamics of sexual intercourse, enabling nontraumatic intromission (Taves 2002)”

3. Fox, Mary; “A covenant with the status quo? Male circumcision and the new BMA guidance to doctors; 2005”; Journal of Medical Ethics; 2005 “The prepuce is a complex structure that has a range of significant sexological functions playing ‘an important role in the mechanical functioning of the penis during sexual acts, such as penetrative intercourse and masturbation.’” [citing Taves from other sources]

4. Dalton, JD; “Male circumcision - see the harm to get a balanced picture”; Journal of Men's Health and Gender. 2007 “Male circumcision permanently removes normal, functional, specialised tissue. It removes … the normal gliding function that facilitates intromission.” [citing Taves]

5. Dalton, John D; “Effect of circumcision on intromission and sexual satisfaction”; BMJ; 2007 “The intromission function of the foreskin has been documented by Taves.”

6. Hill, George; “The Case Against Circumcision”; Journal of Men’s Health & Gender; 2007 “The force required to penetrate increases 10-fold when the foreskin is absent.” [citing Taves]

7. Wilson, Christopher G; "Male genital mutilation: an adaptation to sexual conflict"; Evolution and Human Behavior; May 2008 "Miscellaneous findings can be used to suggest potential mechanisms by which circumcision may impact competition for fertilizations. These include increased effort required to overcome friction during intromission (Taves, 2002)”

8. "Genital Integrity Policy Statement"; Doctors Opposing Circumcision; June 2008. "In adult life, the gliding action facilitates introitus."

(NOTE: The authors assigned footnote #4 to this statement. However footnote #4 refers to an article that does not mention introitus or intromission. Footnote #17 refers to Taves. The statement assigned to footnote #16 precedes this statement, and the statement assigned to footnote #18 follows shortly thereafter. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that the authors assigned the wrong footnote to the quoted statement.

9. Schreiber, M; Juristische Aspekte der rituellen Zirkumzision; Klinische Pädiatrie; 2009 “In einem Experiment wurde gezeigt, dass eine fehlende Vorhaut beim Einf ü hren des erigierten Penis die Reibekr ä fte um den Faktor 10 steigern kann.” [citing Taves] TRANSLATION: “In an experiment it was shown that the lack of foreskin when introducing the erect penis can increase the force of friction by a factor of 10.”

10. Gillian E. Langley; "Framing the foreskin: A content analysis of circumcision information handouts for expectant parents", p 82; University of Colorado Denver; 2009. "The evidence on the sexual functionality of the foreskin comes not only from anatomical and touch-testing studies such as those discussed above, but also from ... studies of effects on lubrication and intromission..." [citing Taves along with three studies that were based on inferior methodology - O'Hara & O'Hara (1999), Bensley & Boyle (2001), Bensley & Boyle (2003).]


11. Warwick Marshall; "Circumcision in Autralia: Reforming the Law", pp 30-31; University of Tasmania; April 2011. "An unaltered foreskin has some accepted, and several disputed, beneficial functions affected by circumcision: ... it may help facilitate and reduce trauma to the vagina during intromission..." [citing Taves along with several studies by longtime anti-circumcision activists O'Hara, Denniston, Milos, Taylor, Boyle, and others]

12. Bunker, C.B.; “The Genital, Perianal and Umbilical Regions”; Andrologia; 2010 Song, B; “Possible function of the frenulum of prepuce in penile erection”; Andrologia; November 29, 2011. "The frenulum of prepuce is the ruffle of the foreskin, while little is known about its function." (citing Taves)

13. Hegazy, Abdelmonem Awad; “Male circumcision: review and authors perspective”; theHealth; March 2012 “Moreover, the foreskin that is retracted over the body of the glans during coitus facilitating the intromission.” [citing Taves]