Making your strongest case against circumcision may actually be counter-productive.
by Lillian Dell’Aquila Cannon
Arguing against routine infant circumcision was the context in which I first learned of cognitive dissonance. It was in the infancy of my intactivism when I first noticed that the logical medical and sexual arguments against circumcision often did nothing to persuade people to not do it to their own children. It was a mystery to me why perfectly intelligent, rational-seeming people would defend cutting off healthy tissue from an unconsenting child even when they had learned the facts about circumcision, and could no longer rely on the justification of the myths surrounding it. Being more of a thinker than a feeler myself, I naively thought that when I told people that circumcision violated a child’s right to his whole body, they would easily change their minds, because this was what worked for me. Unfortunately, I was wrong.
On the contrary, what I discovered was that there seemed to be two groups of people in my “audience” – those without any children, and those with a circumcised son (or sons.) People without children and who were not pregnant yet were more often willing to listen to the arguments against circumcision, but those who already had circumcised children, or who were pregnant with boys and who already planned to circumcise were much harder to convince. This intuitively seems like it can be reasonably explained as just defensiveness, but the vehemence of their reactions to my efforts to convince them surprised me. Often it would get to them mocking non-circumcised children as “smelly” or “dirty,” or claiming that “no woman would ever want them,” despite me not provoking them with such loaded language.
In my own journey learning about circumcision, though I began by seeing the circumcision decision as a series of logical risk/benefit decisions about hygiene, disease, sex and family conformity, I eventually came to see it as a simple issue of human rights: every person, no matter their age, has the right to not have a healthy part of his or her body cut off, no matter the proposed justifications, unless he or she consents (and babies and children are incapable of consent.) To me, this was an unbeatable argument; Q.E.D. Again, I was surprised by the vehemence of the responses that this advocacy tactic elicited. It turned out that people were very unhappy to be told that they had violated their child’s human rights. Even though they could not refute any of my arguments, if they already had a circumcised child, they still would not change their minds.
I will admit that in the privacy of my own head, I questioned their intelligence and their moral capacity: surely anyone who would know the arguments against circumcision and who went through with it anyway was stupid. I became very interested in Kohlberg’s moral development stages, congratulating myself on my superior moral development compared to those who circumcised their children. As you might expect, though, this did nothing for my state of mind. Seeing those who circumcised their children as other, less than, and bad was tempting and pleasant for awhile, but then my own brother-in-law chose to circumcise his son despite his mother, his brother and me begging him not to do it. I was very angry for awhile; so angry that it ate away at my own emotional well-being for months. After a lot of intrapersonal work, eventually my anger wore off, and I learned to see my brother- and sister-in-law as just people, very nice people, who love their son… and just have a blind spot.
So what is that blind spot? I believe the circumcision blind spot is perpetuated by the act of circumcision and originates with circumcised men. Though the majority of circumcised men were circumcised as infants and thus had no choice in the matter, as adults, they believe their circumcisions cannot be changed. (Of course, they can restore their foreskins themselves, but most people don’t know about this.) Thus, they are faced with some painful cognitive dissonance – they are missing part of their penises, and if that foreskin would have indeed been “fun,” then they will feel sad that they cannot have that fun. On top of that, their parents whom they love and respect chose circumcision for them, and the idea that their parents would do something that would harm is also a terrible, cognitive dissonance-producing thought. The easiest way out of the cognitive dissonance created by these thoughts is to discount the foreskin by claiming it’s not so great, that their sexual experience is just fine, that they were not harmed, and that if they had any more sexual sensation it would be a problem, and this is exactly what I have heard hundreds of times from circumcised men.
When these men have sons, many of them will reflexively choose circumcision for their sons without any thought or research. Those who are presented with anti-circumcision information and encouraged to leave their sons intact are then put into more cognitive dissonance – if they allow their sons to remain intact and those children grow up happy to be intact, this would threaten their fathers’ dissonance-reducing belief that being circumcised is better. Thus, their sons must be circumcised, and they choose to believe that their sons will be better off circumcised, too.
When parents with circumcised children are faced with anti-circumcision information, they are in danger of some really painful cognitive dissonance. Of course everyone wants to be a good parent. What kind of a parent would ruin his or her son’s sex life, or cause him pain, or risk his life, or violate his human rights? No one wants to think of him- or herself as a bad parent, so the easiest way to reduce the painful cognitive dissonance and see oneself as a good parent is to believe that circumcision is no big deal, and in fact, is beneficial. The magnitude of the pain that parents feel at failing their children is so much greater than most other pain that this is the reason why parents with circumcised children are the hardest to convince that routine infant circumcision is wrong.
After many years of experience in intactivism, I have come to understand that coming at parents with my biggest and best arguments is often counter-productive. Any argument that I give that makes circumcision seem very, very bad, even if logically and factually unassailable, actually works against my cause. Using loaded terms like “mutilation” or “child abuse” (as some intactivists do) induces such reactivity and defensiveness that it shuts down any chance I have of changing minds. Even though to my mind the reasons not to circumcise are very clear, if I deploy them all at once, I often end up “losing.” That is why this blog, I have several articles directly addressing these parents and men, agreeing with them that they and their sons will probably be fine, but that there are still good reasons not to do it, and these are some of the most read and shared articles on the site.
I hope that my readers and fellow intactivists will understand my position on this – I am not advocating giving people a pass on circumcision, nor am I saying we should not try to convince people not to do it. What I am saying, though, is that we can often do our best work by being kind, and calm, and remembering that the people to whom you are talking are human beings, struggling to get through life as we all are. Some people will get defensive no matter what you say, but you don’t have to increase their defensiveness by making your anti-circumcision arguments back them into the corner of “bad parent.”
You may be fine, your son may be fine, but it is morally wrong to circumcise your son just because you want to.
By Lillian Dell’Aquila Cannon
[I have spent the past ten years thinking, reading, talking and writing about circumcision. When I began, I thought circumcision was normal and beneficial, but as I learned more about it, I became confused as to whether it was a good idea to circumcise infants, and then sure it was a terrible thing and angry at those who promoted it or chose to circumcise, despite being given information. I suffered through some painful personal experiences because of my intactivism, and I may have even lost out on a job and grad school because of my "peculiar" interest (when you Google my name, it is penises all the way down.) Though I now can talk about circumcision without instantly becoming furious, I still believe the routine infant circumcision of babies to be a terrible thing, and that is why I keep this blog up. Over the past two years, I have written about many aspects of routine infant circumcision, including debunking the myths that lead people to circumcise, the hidden cultural and psychosocial history behind it, and the anthropology of circumcision, but many of these arguments require deep exploration of complicated scientific and sociocultural issues. Now I would like to tell you why circumcision is morally wrong in plain and simple language.]
1. Even though many circumcised men are just fine, some are not, and since you cannot know that your son will be one of the ones who is just fine, you should not risk it.
It is true that most of the men you know are likely fine, and have fine sex lives, and are fine being circumcised. However, some circumcised men are not fine. Babies can and do die because they were circumcised. It’s not common, but it happens. Some children require repeated surgeries because of complications of their circumcisions. Some men have sexual problems because of their circumcisions. The thing is, the people with circumcision problems aren’t sharing their problems over Facebook or the water cooler, so you think it doesn’t happen, but it does. The odds are, your son will be fine if he is circumcised, but there is a real chance he won’t be fine, so you shouldn’t take the risk.
2. The foreskin has a purpose, but you don’t have to hate your own (or your partner’s) penis to accept that circumcision is wrong.
The foreskin protects against infection, but it also plays an important role in sex. The nerves in the foreskin and frenulum are the most sensitive on the penis, but in an entirely different way than the head of the penis. Circumcised men cannot imagine this feeling, and so quickly discount it as unimportant for sex, but men who are not circumcised see those sensations as the most important part of their sexual feelings. If you have been circumcised since birth, you simply do not know what you are missing, and so you are not in a position to judge that another person would be fine without those sensations. However, this does not mean that you have to feel bad about your penis. There are many sexually satisfied circumcised men out there, including my husband. The way my husband and I see it, we love his penis, but we also see that there could have been more had his parents not circumcised him. We chose not to circumcise our sons, and yet this decision has not diminished his sexual self-image.
3. Circumcision might reduce the risk of some problems, but you could prevent those problems without cutting off part of the penis, and only the person attached to the penis is in a position to judge whether or not it is worth it.
People who say that circumcision is good often say that it will reduce the risk of various infections, including minor ones like UTIs and yeast, and major ones, like various STDs, or that it makes cleaning the penis easier. The evidence for these arguments is not entirely clear, and the debate over it can get very confusing. This one area tripped me up for a long time when I was learning about circumcision, and I understand that parents only want to protect their children, but if you stop to think about it logically, circumcision doesn’t make sense. Cleaning an uncircumcised (intact) penis is super-easy: you just wipe it off. You never have to clean under a baby’s foreskin because the skin cannot pull back, and older children and men who can pull back their foreskins only need a quick swish in the shower or bath to get clean. All of the minor problems like bladder or yeast infections can be easily cured with basic antibiotics and creams, and girls get them more anyway. Why do surgery for something that hasn’t happened yet and could be cured with a simple prescription?
As for STDs, even if circumcision reduced the risk (which it likely doesn’t, seeing as the other Western countries that don’t circumcise have lower STD rates than the circumcising U.S.), you would still have to wear a condom or practice monogamy or abstinence to be sure to not get an STD. If you’re going to have a wear a condom anyway, why get circumcised? Would you tell your son, “Hey, you don’t have to wear a condom because you’re circumcised?” Of course not. Only the person attached to the penis is in a position to judge whether the minor benefits of circumcision are worth the risks and sexual changes, because he is the one who is going to have to live with the consequences. The decision is his alone. Sometimes parents say, “Well, you have to do it as an infant, because no one would choose to do it in adulthood.” Isn’t that actually an argument against circumcision? If a man wouldn’t choose to do it, then why should you force it on him?
4. The original motive for routine circumcision was anti-sexual, but we know now that sexual desire is normal and healthy.
Most parents who choose circumcision for their sons do so because they are circumcised, and their relatives are circumcised, and they think it is normal and traditional and healthy, but routine circumcision actually started as a way to prevent boys from masturbating. It’s weird, but true. In the 1800s, people thought that too much sexual feeling and excitement would hurt you, and so they circumcised boys (and girls, though this never was as popular) to get their minds off sex. This became a fad that spread down through society, and after a while, the original motives were forgotten, but we can read the words of the doctors from the 1800s to know the truth. In the 21st century, we see sex quite differently. We want to have good sex lives and we spend a lot of time and money to make ours even better. Whether you believe that sexuality is a gift from God to bind spouses together and produce children, or a product of evolution to make sure that the species continues, you know that sexual feelings and desire have an important purpose. It is wrong to continue this practice whose original purpose was to reduce sexuality.
5. Though they mean well, people who promote circumcision have their own biases.
It is true that some doctors recommend circumcision. In other modern countries beside the U.S., though, circumcision is very rare, and most doctors do not recommend it. Bodies and penises are the same the world over, so why do doctors disagree? Because doctors are human, and we all have our own biases. A circumcised doctor is also a man who loves sex and his own penis, and who doesn’t want to think that he is missing out on something. That is why he can look at all the same evidence as a European doctor and come to the opposite conclusion. Sure, those European doctors might also be biased against circumcision because they are not circumcised, but they still have the opportunity to change their minds and get circumcised if they feel the weight of the evidence has shifted. The circumcised doctors are more likely to hold onto their opinions even if the evidence changes, because they cannot go back in time and be un-circumcised, nor can they undo the circumcisions they performed on babies. This alone makes them more likely to be biased, though it does not make them bad people, nor does my caution mean that I am anti-doctor. They are very smart and very hard-working, but they are also human beings whose advice is not entirely disinterested. The ancient fable of the fox without a tail shows this quite nicely:
It happened that a Fox caught its tail in a trap, and in struggling to release himself lost all of it but the stump. At first he was ashamed to show himself among his fellow foxes. But at last he determined to put a bolder face upon his misfortune, and summoned all the foxes to a general meeting to consider a proposal which he had to place before them. When they had assembled together the Fox proposed that they should all do away with their tails. He pointed out how inconvenient a tail was when they were pursued by their enemies, the dogs; how much it was in the way when they desired to sit down and hold a friendly conversation with one another. He failed to see any advantage in carrying about such a useless encumbrance. “That is all very well,” said one of the older foxes; “but I do not think you would have recommended us to dispense with our chief ornament if you had not happened to lose it yourself.”
Distrust interested advice.
6. It doesn’t matter if your son’s penis looks like yours or anyone else’s.
People get hung up on this idea of penises “matching.” They say that the son’s penis should look like the father’s, or like the other children’s. But why? Little children who see their father’s penis mainly notice the size and hair. Only older children will notice the lack of foreskin, and even then, all you have to say is, “When Daddy was born, they thought it was a good idea to cut off the foreskin, but now we know that it is not.” That’s it, and it is the truth. Even the “locker room” argument fails now, as only half of babies born in the U.S. today are circumcised. People are aware of the controversy surrounding circumcision, and by the time these babies are in a locker room, it will be impossible to ignorantly mock the half that are not circumcised. Your child will not want to cut off part of his penis and will not suffer.
7. Circumcision is wrong because it is unjust.
Parents want to do right by their children, and it can seem like circumcision is the right decision: the son will “match” the father, he will be protected from infection, he will be part of a family tradition, his penis will look like what you are used to seeing. These reasons are powerfully attractive, and the motives are good, but all of them are incorrect. Unfortunately, it can be hard to change your mind about circumcision. Your spouse or family may object, or you may have already had one son circumcised, or you might just think that uncircumcised penises look weird. Overcoming these obstacles can seem difficult or impossible, but many other parents have faced them and succeeded. It is possible to leave your son intact, stay married, keep relationships with your family and friends, and get over how your son’s penis looks to you.
Though it may seem tempting and easy to ignore this new information on circumcision and say, “He’ll be fine,” and have your son circumcised, it is morally wrong to do so. The goal of parenting is not that your child be “fine.” Many things turn out “fine” that would have been better avoided. You are your son’s parent, but you do not own him. Parents and children have duties to each other, but one of them is not that the child serve to provoke only positive feelings in the parent. In fact, becoming a parent is the beginning of a long series of decisions in which you have the responsibility to do your best by your child, even when it is not easy or comfortable. It is wrong to have your son circumcised in order to avoid being uncomfortable or pretend that you do not know what you now know. If you choose to circumcise your son, that decision cannot be undone, and your son may not be happy about it, and he may suffer problems. Putting your emotional discomfort above his right to his whole body and health is wrong.
The decision whether to circumcise one’s son is often a very contentious decision, especially on the internet. Circumcision advocates and critics argue in online debates and family and friends share their opinions in real life, leaving expectant parents confused and feeling like they need to “take a side.” Sometimes what seems like the right and obvious decision before the baby is born becomes a regret later, but it’s never too late to change your mind.
[In my early years of intactivism, I frequented parenting boards to convince people to not circumcise their sons. In late 2008, I posted a thread on Diaperswappers.com in which I briefly laid out the best arguments against circumcision and refuted the most common myths about the foreskin. I'm proud to say that this post is still being discussed today.
A few days ago, I received an emotional private message on Diaperswappers.com from our guest author, Tessa. Four years ago, she was adamantly pro-circumcision, yet now she is an intactivist. In the message, she apologized for being rude so long ago on DiaperSwappers (though I truly don't remember that), and confessed her guilt and sorrow over her son's circumcision. I am so grateful that she so bravely agreed to share her story here, because I believe it is helpful for everyone embroiled in the circumcision debate to see each other as people, not enemies. ~Lilli]
Guest Post by Tessa Tewksbury
I fell pregnant with my first child in late 2008. I was 19 years old. My mother was not shy or private on the matter of circumcision growing up. I often heard her use crude terms about intact penises and other derogatory descriptions we are used to hearing in our society: “turtle neck,” “pencil dick,” “gross,” “dirty,” “ugly,” and “smelly.” I was told that surely any boy who was intact was doomed to a lifetime of humiliation and embarrassment, as well as infections that would eventually lead to circumcision. I was led to believe it was “cruel” to leave a child intact. She also described to me how my grandfather “had to be” circumcised at an old age. I was told I had to circumcise my baby if it was a boy, to spare him from going through the pain as an adult, when he would remember it. I lived in an area with a high prevalence of circumcision, more than 80%. Text books in school all depicted circumcised penises. I knew literally nothing about the intact penis or the foreskin, and wrongfully believed that it was just a little bit of skin that was snipped off the tip.
Sometime in the middle of my pregnancy I was exposed to anti-circumcision information on the internet. The brainwashing I had received all growing up, the normalization of the circumcised penis, and my already having planned to circumcise my unborn child if it was a boy instantly left me feeling defensive and appalled at what I was reading. I defended circumcision angrily, felt attacked, and left the thread refusing to read any information. Back then, I’d say I was being treated rudely. Now, when I can look back at that actual conversation four years later, with a great more amount of perspective, humility, and knowledge surrounding the intactivist movement, I realize that I was angry at what I was reading, not at how I was being treated. I was given accurate information and was only met with angry tones when I lashed out first. I shamelessly mocked concerns over the pain the baby would feel as a newborn undergoing circumcision, using the common phrase “he won’t remember it,” as if not remembering it meant it did not happen or that the baby did not experience excruciating pain with no way to cognitively understand what was being done to it, or if it would even survive the attack. I didn’t want my baby to have to be circumcised at an old age like my grandfather, but refused to recognize that the chance he would actually need to be circumcised as an adult was minimal and that by doing it to him as an infant, I took it from a minimal chance that he might experience the pain of circumcision, to a sure thing.
The truth is, come time my oldest son was due, everything in my body was screaming at me not to do it. I didn’t want my son to have to be in pain. As hard as I tried to justify the procedure, as much as I ignored the arguments, it was eating away at me. My husband, like many circumcised men in the U.S., wanted it done for no real reason probably other than just that he didn’t want to admit he was missing anything or that it was done to him unnecessarily. He brought up concerns with cleanliness, and we considered the myth that being intact would make an intact son more likely to have a UTI. We were having a stressful time in our relationship and I sincerely thought that if I made waves, it could rock or end our relationship. My mother told me I had to and if insurance didn’t cover it, she’d pay for it. Everyone I talked to in real life told me I HAD to do it and mocked me for second-guessing it. Recently, my sister told me she would have supported me in leaving my son intact and didn’t think I should do it at the time, but she never spoke up.
Time ran out. My baby was born in September of 2009 by cesarean. I hardly left my bed and my husband changed his diapers. I literally never once saw my son’s natural penis. Come that awful day, I asked a nurse if it would hurt him. I desperately wanted just ONE person outside of the internet to tell me it didn’t need to be done. She lied to me and told me it would not hurt him and it was cleaner. He would sleep through it and they used anesthesia, she told me. I had not done enough research to know anything about the actual procedure or that she was lying about the anesthesia and pain he would feel. So I let them take him, even though every muscle in my body was telling me to run after her and take my son back. After a long labor in which I already felt like I had my rights stripped from me and told my concerns did not matter, I honestly did not feel like I had the power to say no, so I let her take him. That was the last time I saw my whole son.
After his circumcision, we couldn’t wake him to eat for hours upon hours. It rocked our breastfeeding relationship and we were warned if he didn’t start nursing, we’d have to supplement with formula. When I brought him home and changed his diaper for the first time, I was horrified. My son was screaming: he was in pain. My husband looked worried and said he never screamed like that before his circumcision. He was bloody and raw, and we had to use Vaseline to keep it from sticking to his diaper, though sometimes it still happened, and he’d scream bloody murder as we peeled his sore and painful glans away from the diaper. I think we both knew then what a mistake we had made, but we never discussed it. At the time I do not think either of us was willing or ready to accept that we had made the wrong decision, at least not to own that mistake out loud.
Weeks later after my son had already healed, someone in my online due date club had their son circumcised and he almost bled to death. Then… finally.. way too late to spare my oldest son… I was open to researching. Truth be told, I still wasn’t entirely open minded about it. I still tried to defend my choice, and it was months of reading before my irrational, myth-driven opinions gave way to facts and evidence. The truth was indisputable, and I finally acknowledged that I had made a very big mistake.
Since then, I’ve gained a wealth of information. I learned that the “anesthesia” that was used on my son was likely a dorsal penile nerve block, though the name is misleading, and it hardly blocked the pain. I also learned that his circumcision took far too little time for the lidocaine injection to have had actually had any real pain-relieving effect, because during circumcision, they hardly ever wait the needed 15-30minutes for the anesthesia to take effect before they start cutting. This was probably the fact that horrified me the most. My baby experienced excruciating pain, and I was still questioning, was it really necessary? The answer was no. I learned that the reasons I once supported circumcision and chose it for my son were hardly medically justifiable. I thought it’d protect my son from UTIs to learn that only 1% of boys in the first place get urinary tract infections, that there is only a slight increase of risk to intact boys, and those studies are questionable at best. I also finally had a “coming to light” moment when I realized, why in the world would a UTI warrant such an extremely invasive preventive measure, when I personally have had three UTIs in my lifetime that were all easily treated with oral antibiotics? I learned that we circumcise to prevent just 1% increased risk of developing a UTI, but that 9-11% of circumcised boys will go on to develop meatal stenosis, which can require a second surgery to correct the iatrogenic condition. Circumcision causes more problems than it prevents. The statistics were simply just NOT making sense. Although I do live in an area with still a very high circumcision rate, I learned more mothers are leaving boys intact, and only 32% of baby boys as reported in 2009 were circumcised. Circumcision is no longer the “norm” or the majority, and the “locker room” argument is no longer valid. I was literally protecting my son from nothing by circumcising him, but instead exposing him to unnecessary pain, harm, complications and infection.
In 2011 we learned we were expecting our second child. The topic of circumcision weighed heavily on my mind. I knew I would never circumcise again, but had a way to go in convincing my husband to be completely on board. He seemed reluctant to do any research of his own, and sometimes even seemed angry at the things I was saying, especially if it was concerning the negative effects circumcision has on sex. One day, I finally became frustrated, looked him straight in the eye and said “I will protect my baby from whoever I need to, a doctor, or even you.” A bold approach, but one that finally let him know just how serious I was. Once I stopped being wishy-washy and he understood how strongly I felt, his response was “Okay, we don’t need to do it.” I think in some sense, he was relieved as well, remembering the pain our oldest endured in the healing process. There began HIS journey into intactivism. He finally started to do some reading on his own. By the time I was 30 weeks along and touring our hospital, he actually stopped a couple who stated they were pregnant with a boy to tell them all about the harms of circumcision.
I also frequently discussed circumcision with my mother, who still was very much in favor of it. I partly resented her for pressuring me into circumcising my oldest and fervently wanted her to understand why she was wrong. She tried to argue that the boys both should match their father and that my youngest would feel different. I asked her how often she sat around as a teenager comparing her genitalia with her mother’s. I pointed out how my breast size did not match hers, and that I had never seen her vagina to know if mine “matched” hers either. I certainly never remember my brothers comparing their penis with our father. Friends and others had remarks to say about how my son would be dirty, but quickly dropped the subject. My sister was hugely supportive and actually vocal about that support this time around, and I had even made some new friendships with other mothers that felt similarly and had chosen to leave their sons intact as well.
The biggest concern with them not matching was not that my youngest may feel “different” but that one day I would have to broach the talk with my oldest, confess to him about the mistake we made and the truth about circumcision, and ask for forgiveness. Still, if my youngest noticed, I just knew that I’d always be honest in an age appropriate way. Once I knew the truth surrounding circumcision, repeating the mistake was simply not an option, not even to spare my oldest from realizing he lost an important, functional part of his penis. Even if we had not been exposed to the information that led us to leave our second son intact, circumcision rates are at an all time low of 32% in the U.S. He would certainly be exposed to intact males, whether it was his brother or a friend. In addition, there is a wealth of easily accessible information about circumcision on the internet that our son would most certainly see some day. Choosing to circumcise a second son to be “fair” to our first child was just not rational, and certainly not fair, or moral, with the knowledge we now possessed. We made that mistake, we cannot change that, but we can choose not to repeat it. While certainly my oldest will have his own emotional struggles with our not protecting him the way we did his little brother, I hope in time he is able to understand and come to respect the courage it takes to say “I’m wrong.”
Our second baby was born in April of 2012. We brought our WHOLE, PERFECT baby home. He was so easy to clean and care for. My sister pointed out he did not scream bloody murder during his diaper changes like my oldest had. I could not imagine ever wanting to change anything about his body. When he was born, I said he was perfect, and I meant it! He didn’t need cosmetic surgery, and being left intact did not cloud any family member’s love for him. It quickly became a non-issue. They didn’t love my second son any different, and especially anyone that had no responsibility in diaper changes, sometimes even forget that my second son is intact!
Leaving my second son intact was actually quite healing. I felt such tremendous guilt from not sparing my oldest from the incredible pain he felt during his circumcision. I wish I could pretend I was never a proponent of circumcision and that I never forced my son to endure such torture, and worse, that I was presented with information that tried to persuade me it was all unnecessary, but quite simply refused to consider that what I had been taught to believe was wrong. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to come around to the truth. Not only did I make the wrong choice, but it was also a choice that was excruciatingly painful, one that I can never take back, and one that will effect him for the rest of his life. That is a devastating reality as a mother. No mother wants to hurt their child, and the realization that they did, is a hard pill to swallow. After not feeling like I had the power to say “No” in the hospital with my first, it was entirely empowering to take back that control and protect my second son. I was asked three times while in the hospital if we wanted him circumcised, and I proudly said “No!” every time. It still never changes what happened to my first, and I will always hold some amount of guilt, but I’m also learning to forgive myself. I made a mistake, but I was also courageous enough to say “I was wrong” and do better in the future. If nothing else, that is a powerful lesson my children can learn from when they are old enough and the circumcision talk can be broached on a more serious level.
In addition to leaving my second son intact, I feel morally obligated to spread awareness. I am incredibly grateful to intactivists that helped me to gain access to information that ultimately made me change my mind, and it is a way to pay it forward. I talk to expectant parents, I card, I educate. I try to help as many baby boys as I can to spare them from what I did not spare my oldest from, and try to help spare other mothers from the guilt I experienced upon accepting the truth too late. I feel terrible that in advocating for the genital integrity of baby boys, I might stir up feelings of guilt and pain in parents over a decision that they may have made with the information they had at the time. Mistakes do not define us, but we do have a choice to repeat them, or to learn from them. I don’t try to make people feel bad about the decisions that they made in the past. I am focused on helping people make better decisions in the future.
[Thank you so much to Tessa for sharing her story. I am always looking for more Real Stories about circumcision, so please contact me if you would like to share yours. ~Lilli]
Brian Earp is a research assistant in the philosophy department at the University of Oxford, and he will shortly be publishing this excellent essay. I encourage you to read and share it, as he makes excellent and irrefutable points. I pulled some selected quotes below, and there are also excellent comments on the original site.
Earp, B. D. (forthcoming, pre-publication draft). Assessing a religious practice from secular-ethical grounds: Competing metaphysics in the circumcision debate, and a note about discursive respect. To appear in G. C. Denniston, F. M. Hodges, & M. F. Milos (Eds.), Proceedings of the 12th Annual International Symposium on Law, Genital Autonomy, and Children’s Rights, published by Springer.* Note, this is not the finished version of this document, and changes may be made before final publication.
“I’ve noticed that there is sometimes a very serious reluctance to address the issue of religious motivation directly… Because religious convictions are a deep, and certainly emotionally-charged, aspect of the lives of so many, attempts to question a religiously-motivated practice—especially by one who is not religious, or differently religious—can lead to outcomes that are very far from productive.”
“Many practices that are now seen as very clearly unethical had been going on for an extremely long time before anyone had the idea to question them. Examples include slavery, footbinding, the cutting of female genitals, and beating disobedient children with sticks. Usually these practices persisted without much alarm for one of two reasons. Either the moral standards that they would eventually be seen as violating had not yet had been developed, or those standards did exist for other cases but just weren’t commonly seen as applying to the practice itself until enough people sat down and made the connection. I think what’s happening right now with circumcision is not so much the first of these, but more the second. In other words, the relevant ethical principles—about bodily integrity, consent, protecting the vulnerable in society, and so on—have been available to us for quite some time now. It’s just that we’re so used to circumcision as a cultural habit, that many people fail to see how blatantly inconsistent this practice is with the rest of their own moral landscape.”
“And so, I think before we can get anywhere in this discussion, we are going to have to just acknowledge that that is a different metaphysic. I think we have to acknowledge that certain religious commitments are based on a meta-ethical view of the universe that is in direct conflict with Western ideas about individuals, human rights adhering to those individuals as individuals, and the notion that children and infants, above all, need special protection because they can’t defend those rights on their own.”
“And it allows us to say that these things are wrong not just arbitrarily, or because God says so, or because we just feel like doing it that way, but because we have reason to say so. They are wrong because individuals have rights. They are wrong because those rights include things like bodily integrity, and they are wrong because the infringement of that integrity requires consent. So the idea I want to leave you with is this. If we think that there is any chance that we should give up these basic concepts—so that we can defer to a worldview that says that things like community identity are more important than individual identity and bodily integrity—then we’ll have to pay the price of that choice and face it honestly. And that means that the very same people who are asking for the religious freedom to perform circumcisions in a secular society, would have to be prepared to give up their own right to complain if someone wanted to cut off a part of their body, or interfere with their genitals, or that of their daughters or sisters or wives. That is, as I say, a logically possible universe. But it isn’t one that I would want to live in, and I don’t think you can have it both ways.”
I have had the pleasure of having my comments on two other blogs deleted, not because of questionable content, but because the authors had no answers for me. Both times, it was because I pointed out that science cannot exist outside of our culture and psychology. What are people so afraid of?
In February, Kirstin, the author of the blog SquintMom, posted two articles on circumcision. According to her site, she provides “resources for evidence-based parenting.” I didn’t see the post back then, but I did recently get a hit to my site from her blog, so I followed the URL. I couldn’t find anywhere on the page where my blog was linked, but I did read the whole article and the comments. As I read, I became more and more angry. In her series about circumcision, she examined the studies on circumcision and concluded that there is no compelling scientific evidence either for circumcision or against it. As you might imagine, she got a lot of dissent from intactivists, much of it well-reasoned. Any time a commenter brought up other studies, or questioned her inclusion or exclusion of any study, she dismissed his or her arguments, at one point going so far as to say “[M]y scientific background provides me with the ability to tease out the fact from the ideology,” as though only she was qualified to assess the evidence, not her interlocutors. As Hugh Young pointed out, appeal to authority does not win an argument. Later, she had to come on to tell the commenters that she actually thinks that circumcision is ethically wrong, but that science does not support that position.
By this point, I was unable to resist and began leaving some pointed comments, questioning her authority and asking for her IQ. At first, she did respond to me on the blog, asking why I wanted to know her IQ, and telling me it was 184. I replied in the comments, but you cannot read my reply on her site because she deleted it. Luckily, I was smart enough to save it in my Gmail, and so can reproduce it here. I wrote:
[I asked for your IQ] to point out that appeal to authority is not a valid argument. Your statement of “I am a scientist so I can understand this” just begged to be taken to the ridiculous end. Maybe I’ll go out and get an IQ test and then whoever wins gets to be right? Or would you agree that that would be a stupid way to decide it?
I would argue that being so involved in science, making your living off of interpreting studies, would make you less objective because you have chosen to focus on science as a way of knowing, which normalizes and privileges that epistemology over all else. My major disagreement is that you seem to be treating the whole topic of routine infant circumcision as an intellectual exercise, which is immoral, because we are talking about real people who are being harmed. I know that the point of your blog is that you think there are objective scientific judgments to be made on parenting hot topics, but that, in itself, is a choice to judge science as a better arbiter of parenting practices than emotions or ethics. You laid out all the science you liked, claimed the other studies were useless, drew a conclusion, then claimed that your conclusion on your chosen science was more valid because you have more authority on the topic. Logical flaws abounded and I could not resist pointing them out.
Science is not a valid way to answer the question of whether babies should be circumcised for non-therapeutic reasons. Apparently you also think it is not ethical, but this only came out after you got attacked for awhile in the comments, and then you wondered why so many people were so angry. As a scientist, you should be aware of all of the times science failed us, and how science cannot exist without ethics, nor can it ever be severed from its cultural underlay.
For example, in the Korean study of circumcised adults, what you need to understand is that in South Korea, men remain intact until their mid-20s or when they are ready to be married. This cultural practice surely informs their subjective evaluation of how circumcision impacted their sexuality, and we cannot ignore the fact that circumcision is a ritual marking the entrance to adulthood and thus has strong emotional and social meanings.
Another commenter pointed out that men who were circumcised for health problems also probably simply felt better because of the cessation of the health problems. This is no small confounding factor, nor is it in American studies showing men who were circumcised as adults felt relief. Men who are adults today grew up ignorant of the foreskin in an anti-foreskin culture – no wonder they felt better when they could relieve themselves of that shameful and embarrassing foreskin. Babies born today are growing up in an evenly split culture that is not ignorant of the foreskin; they will not be ashamed and will value their foreskins.
You also ignore all of the case reports and self-reports of men whose penises were so damaged by circumcision that they cannot function normally, and of the babies who died or lost their glandes or whole penises, because you said the risk is low (as currently reported.) However, there are several cultural and ethical rebuttals to this statement:
-Death and sexual disability from circumcision are not shared socially because parents do not want to share the reason for their baby’s death, likely because it touches on a hidden and unspoken psycho-sexual-cultural practice.
-Deaths from circumcision are usually reported as death from exsanguination or sepsis and thus are hidden from a simple count of death records. It would take a careful epidemiological survey and study of hospital records of all dead male infants to find this, and this would cost money. Who do you think wants to pay for this? Surely not the same industry that earns $500 million a year from circumcision and who has recently made its appeal for continued Medicaid and insurance funding from circumcision.
-Adult men who were damaged by their circumcision also don’t go around trumpeting it because of the shame. You can find them, though, more and more because of intactivism, and you can see some of their pictures and videos on the Global Survey of Circumcision Harm. Perhaps this will produce enough numbers and impressive enough p values for you to take it seriously.
-Finally, and most importantly, it is unethical to perform circumcisions on infants when there is a chance of death and disability (no matter how small) because the proposed benefits of the circumcision can be had without the surgery. It is immoral to risk a baby’s life and sexual functioning to give him benefits that he could have without amputative surgery, while pretending that one’s cultural and religious biases don’t exist. But this is what you get when you do science in a vacuum, and this is why your whole post so incensed me. Science is useful and can answer a lot of questions with great precision and accuracy, but it is not the only epistemology available to us, and not the best, either. It always must be accompanied by ethical concern and a holistic understanding of the phenomenology of the issue being studied. In your haste to squish a very difficult issue into a scientific framework, you have callously disregarded the fact that we are talking about actual human beings who will be affected by the conclusions you or the AAP draws from its chosen science. If, as you say, you see circumcision as ethically wrong, then you have a duty to also say that the science does not answer the question, not because the scientific evidence is equivocal, but because science cannot answer an ethical question like this.
You must also adopt a stance of humility – if there’s one thing that history teaches us, it is that science is always advancing, and what was obvious and true and safe will often become obviously stupid and wrong and unsafe once we know more. You seem extremely intelligent, and I applaud your education and attempts to educate people on the misuse of science, but it would do you credit to say that you don’t know for sure. In the case of routine infant circumcision, we do not know for sure how it will affect any given man, so we do not have the right to impose that decision on him when he cannot resist. This echoes the principle of medical conservatism, which also goes to show how biased many doctors are – if this were any other body part, they wouldn’t say there were benefits in amputating it, but even those intelligent doctors and scientists with IQs of 180+ can be blinded by their own cultural, psychological, and sexual biases.
First, let me point out that I have never deleted any comments on my blog but two: one was a pervert who wrote some really gross stuff (and I have a strong stomach), and one was my sister, who is mentally ill and was trying to upset me. I have let critical comments go through for two reasons: I believe in what I say here, and I am open to changing my mind and considering new opinions. I find it rather pathetic when bloggers delete critical comments – if they wanted their opinions to never be challenged, then perhaps they ought not to have a blog devoted to sharing them. I do not appeal to authority, either. You do not have to listen to me because I have a Ph.D., because I do not, nor because I am a mother of four, because every child and parent is different, nor because my IQ is 184, because I don’t know what it is and am suspicious of IQ tests anyway. My position is always a philosophical position: simply by being in this world we have duties to it and the other living creatures in it. I am not religious, but I know that I have to always try my best to do right by other people, regardless if it makes me uncomfortable. I go out and inadvertently offend people in my family and online about circumcision because I know it is more important to speak for the powerless than it is for me to feel comfortable. I have found that those who defend routine infant circumcision are always defending their own feelings or biases – they are themselves circumcised and don’t want to think about what they are missing, or they have circumcised children and don’t want to think that they might have harmed their children, or they are religious and so will not question the dictates of their religion. I stand by my position on circumcision: it is not the parents’ right to choose to amputate healthy tissue from their child, no matter how pure their motivations. It is fundamentally unjust.
Anyway, back to SquintMom.
I stand by what I wrote on her blog and am reproducing it here because I believe that even though I believe, as does SquintMom, that it is important that science not be misunderstood, I believe it is more important that it not be misapplied beyond its scope. Yes, many people do not have the education to understand even the most rudimentary statistics or science, and this ignorance is bad for public discourse on issues like circumcision. I do think it is valid to try to educate people, but perhaps it would be helpful in this education to include examples of the deliberate misuse of science and math, such as in the case of the African HIV studies that are being used to promote circumcision. David Gisselquist has written extensively on HIV in Africa and the many problems with the three trials used to promote circumcision, and I encourage you to read his analysis. On a more basic level, the authors of that study unethically reported the rate of HIV acquisition between circumcised and intact men as a relative risk, not absolute risk. What do I mean by this? In the 12 months of the study, 1.6% of the circumcised men contracted HIV, while 3.4% of the intact men did. This is the absolute risk (and please note, other African studies saw no difference, or an increase in HIV rates among the circumcised.) The studies’ authors, however, reported it as relative risk: “53% less likely.” They did this because the absolute numbers make circumcision seem pointless to reduce the spread of HIV, and they banked upon the mathematical ignorance (innumeracy?) of the American public to be seriously impressed by the relative rate. This is unethical, and it is a misuse of science which should interest SquintMom.
More important, though, is that the premise of the SquintMom blog is flawed. It is inappropriate and unethical to exclude everything that cannot be assigned a number and lump it all together as “ideology.” Science exists to serve human beings, not some Platonic ideal of a study that has 100% validity that could never exist in the real world. Human beings do studies, and we are inseparable from our cultures and emotions. Pro-circumcision types often claim, as SquintMom did, that there are not studies that prove that circumcised men have less satisfactory sexual experiences. I disagree, as we have the excellent Sorrells study that concluded “The glans of the circumcised penis is less sensitive to fine touch than the glans of the uncircumcised penis. The transitional region from the external to the internal prepuce is the most sensitive region of the uncircumcised penis and more sensitive than the most sensitive region of the circumcised penis. Circumcision ablates the most sensitive parts of the penis.” Even so, how exactly would one prove with science that circumcised men and intact men feel the same level of pleasure? Could we record their sexual experiences like in the movie “Strange Days” and then somehow rate who had the most pleasure? Of course not – the experience of pleasure is subjective, and since we have men who are happy being circumcised and men who are unhappy being circumcised, we have no right to impose circumcision on them as it might result in unhappiness.
And that’s the problem with trying to scientifically prove a case for or against circumcision. I do believe that we can and should use science to illuminate the issue, but it cannot be the only way we look at it. Even if routine infant circumcision had huge benefits that could not be had in any other way (which test it currently fails), it still would remove healthy tissue from an unconsenting patient for future benefits in a non-emergent situation, and thus fails even the most basic of medical ethics: beneficence, non-maleficence, justice, autonomy, and proportionality. The biases, emotions, and cultural backgrounds of the human beings doing the science will always be there and can never be severed from the conclusions, though many would like to pretend so.
This problem is not limited to circumcision. As many personality psychologists have pointed out, America has a distinctly positivist, rational bent of thought, valuing science above such “softer, squishier” epistemologies like ethics or emotions. Whether this is because of the effects of detached parenting practices, as my colleague Dr. Darcia Narvaez suggests, or of the culture, or a combination of both, we have seen a lot of it recently, especially in the AAP’s recent statement on circumcision that ignored the ethical questions fundamental to routine infant circumcision, or Pediatrics‘ endorsement of crying it out as a valid nighttime parenting technique. For both of these statements, they chose to privilege scientific studies without addressing the ethics of the questions. I have addressed the ethics of routine infant circumcision repeatedly, but the same argument can be made against leaving a baby to cry it out as a nighttime parenting method: it obviously causes the baby distress (as evidenced by the crying) and is, as we used to say in law school, neither necessary nor sufficient to achieve its goal of sleeping through the night. It is not necessary because babies can learn to sleep longer without being left to cry (our four children all sleep fine without ever crying it out), and it is not sufficient because crying it out doesn’t work once and for all and has to be employed repeatedly as the baby passes through developmental stages (and can eventually get out of bed on his or her own to protest being left alone to cry.) More fundamentally, they didn’t even question the goal of having a baby sleep through the night, which is an American ideal that is not universally shared. Dr. James McKenna of Notre Dame has studied infant sleep and concluded that breastfeeding infants who sleep with their mothers enjoy many benefits. In Japan, children sleep with their parents well into their childhood. The Japanese are unlikely to produce studies that endorse leaving an infant to cry in a room as a valid parenting method because it would never occur to them to have that goal, nor that method to achieve it. Why? The Japanese see children as needing to be integrated into a collectivist society and co-sleep toward that end. Americans see children as needing to be separated from dependents into individuals in an individualistic society, and place them in cribs and try to teach them to “self-soothe.” You see, science is inseparable from culture, and to pretend that there are objective answers to subjective decisions is unethical and cowardly. Routine infant circumcision is a messy issue that evokes strong emotions on both sides, and it should – caring for our babies is of utmost importance. Dismissing that reality as not scientifically verifiable is both a stupid tautology and immoral.
[Postscript: I failed to save the comment I wrote on the other blog that deleted me. This was a valuable lesson to always save my work! I may try to recreate it here for my next post, though.]
In the wake of the AAP task force technical report on circumcision seeming to endorse infant circumcision as a valid parental choice, many intactivists have despaired of ever ending circumcision, but all is not lost. This is actually a sign that we are winning.
Mohandas Gandhi was an Indian man who led the struggle for self-rule when India was a British colony. He is famous for employing non-violent civil disobedience to change his society and became known as Mahatma, which means “Great Soul” in Sanskrit. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. adopted some of his ideas to change American society during the civil rights struggle. Of course, both of them were assassinated for their revolutionary philosophies of using non-violence and moral force to end injustice.
“First they ignore you…”
Many young intactivists do not remember when our cause was ignored. In the mid-20th century, circumcision was often automatically performed without asking the parents. They didn’t even see it as a choice, assuming everyone would want to have their children circumcised. Even as recently as nine years ago when I started, circumcision was not a topic of widespread debate like it is today. There were debates in online fora, but many people were unaware that there was an issue. Certainly I was when I became pregnant with my first child (who was luckily spared due to a debate board on BabyCenter.)
“…then they laugh at you…”
Right now circumcision is all over the media, and many of the articles covering the topic have a similar attitude. They portray circumcision as the normal thing to do, and then mention “so-called intactivists” using quotation marks to de-legitimize us and make us seem silly. Some people defending circumcision may ask, “Why do you care so much about penises?” in an attempt to mock and shame you. Of course, they’re the ones who care so much about penises that they have to mutilate them. Don’t fall for this line. They think they can laugh the issue away, but it doesn’t work, because we keep talking about it, and our numbers are growing.
“…then they fight you…”
Oh, and how they are fighting us today! The whole AAP task force technical statement is an attempt to turn the tide back to circumcision. Rather than be threatened, we should take this as a sign of how much progress we have made. The whole report aims to keep circumcision as a legitimate parental choice, but more importantly, to make sure that insurance keeps paying for it. 18 states’ Medicaid programs have stopped paying for circumcision, and when Medicaid won’t pay for a procedure, private insurances often won’t either. When circumcision is automatically paid for, it can remain out of the parents’ consciousness, allowing it to continue. Many parents will not spend several hundred dollars for circumcision, or at least will stop to question why it is not covered before they have it done. When told it is considered a cosmetic procedure and not medically necessary, their eyes are opened. Some of the more astute pro-circumcision people may have looked to the history of circumcision in Britain and become afraid. When the National Health Service stopped paying for circumcision in 1950, the circumcision rate plummeted. They fear a similar crash here, especially since circumcision rates in the U.S. have already fallen from a high of 85% in the mid-20th century to 55% now. On top of that Medicare and Medicaid have been in the spotlight during this election cycle thanks to the Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s proposed budget. The writing is on the wall – whoever wins the election, whatever happens, the government will not be able to afford to spend as much on health care, and many formerly covered procedures will be on the chopping block, especially those that are cosmetic and medically unnecessary. When read in this light, the whole technical statement is clearly an attempt to portray circumcision as medically beneficial and worthy of insurance coverage. After all, circumcision is a cash cow for those who perform it – several hundred dollars for a few minutes’ work.
If the pro-circumcision forces felt comfortable, they would not have needed to put out such a biased and methodologically unsound statement. Pediatrics has already published several letters criticizing the statement (and here, and here.) The statement did not consider the ethical issues of amputating healthy and functional tissue from an unconsenting minor, nor did it address the functions of the foreskin. Nor could the statement have considered the issues, because the only way you can portray circumcision as beneficial is if you totally ignore the ethical problems with circumcision and if you pretend the foreskin is like a skin tag with no purpose. They will not debate us on the ethical or functional issues because they know they cannot win. Note also that the task force never disclosed its own conflicts of interest, despite the fact that several of the members are Jewish and thus have been raised in a religion that considers circumcision to be necessary and commanded by God. The total ethical failure of this statement was nicely documented by British ethicist Brian Earp, who called for its immediate retraction.
“…then you win.”
The U.S. is one of the last remaining countries to have a relatively high circumcision rate. The current rate of newborn circumcision has hovered in the mid-50%s for several years, but the amount of attention given to circumcision continues to grow. When I started arguing against circumcision nine years ago, intactivists were in the minority, and pro-circumcision people cited many proposed medical benefits, plus they had the benefit of the seeming normality of circumcision as thoughtless tradition on their side. Now intactivists’ well-reasoned and ethically sound arguments dominate any online discussion, leaving only those who circumcised without thinking to make petulant arguments like “Uncircumcised penises are gross,” which are quickly and easily shot down. They literally have no defense other than an angry barrage of discredited urban legends mixed with lame attempts to define amputative surgery as a valid parental choice.
From a demographic and cultural perspective, we have already won. 85% of the generation of U.S. men who are today’s fathers are circumcised, and yet only 55% of their sons are circumcised. In some areas of the country like the west coast, only 30% of young adult men are circumcised. Though middle-aged adults may have never seen or known anyone with a foreskin, the young adults today are not so ignorant. When they begin reproducing, they won’t have a history of cultural ignorance to push them into circumcision. They know from experience that having a foreskin is not a bad thing. Time is on our side.
Furthermore, choosing to circumcise has entered the realm of politically, morally and culturally incorrect, and once this happens, it is very hard to change. I see this all the time in online discussions of circumcision: intactivists make the ethical case against circumcision which is irrefutable, and so parents who chose to circumcise are left with lame defenses like, “It was my choice! Who are you to judge me!” The key word there is “judge.” They know they are being judged, and no one wants to be the last person to do a wrong thing.
Take heart, intactivists. The AAP has done nothing but make themselves look stupid and give a bit of comfort to those who would defend a dying and unethical practice for their own emotional or pecuniary motives. Gandhi also said, “Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth.” Truth and justice are on our side, and we have already won. Not only is our struggle non-violent, we are asking for the violence against baby boys to end. Now we need to just keep talking about it and, in time, we will look back and see this year as a watershed in turning the tide against circumcision.
Please hop on over to Barrels of Oranges and read this great guest post by life-intact. He describes growing up in the U.S. with a foreskin, demolishing all the old chestnuts like “He’ll get an infection,” “He’ll have to be circumcised later,” “He’ll wish he had been circumcised at birth,” “A foreskin doesn’t matter for sex,” and “He’ll be mocked in the locker room.” Here’s some selected quotes:
On being teased in the locker room
“[T]he guy who is now my best friend once said to me in a cajoling manner, “Elephants belong in the circus” in regards to my foreskin and penis resembling an elephant trunk. I simply looked down at my own penis, as if in wonder, and replied with “Wow, thanks! I didn’t think it was that big,” in a feigned, misunderstood reference to penis size.”
Contentment with being circumcised is only possible through ignorance of the foreskin
“At first they teased me about it (lightheartedly) as was par for the course up until this point. After a while, one of them said that he was kind of jealous that I had foreskin, and that he wished his parents wouldn’t have had him cut at birth. At this point, the focus was on my foreskin and things I could do with it. I gave them all a demo of how it works and how fantastically simple it is to take care of (retract, rinse, replace in the shower, taking 5 seconds, pull back to pee, etc.). They all ended up saying at the end of this that they wished they had their foreskins back.“
On the sensations of orgasm
“When pressed for details, my [circumcised] friends described ejaculation as something that felt good for the penis, and pleasure that lasted for about 5 seconds after a while masturbating with lotion.
For me, this experience was (and still is) vastly different. My friends described the sensations of orgasm as something limited to the penis. For me, orgasm was something that not only felt good for my penis, but also felt good for my entire body. Orgasm for me is not some sudden surprise coming, either, but rather something I can feel coming on from the very moment I begin masturbating (or these days, making love). And even when the moment comes, orgasm for me is peak to a gradual and fulfilling crescendo of sexual pleasure, where it reaches an apex after I ride waves of pleasure up and down, and slowly wind down enjoy the aftermath of that feeling.
It is like all of the pleasure that comes from my penis when I ejaculate being multiplied by a factor of 5, and having this intense pleasure everywhere in my entire body at once for about a whole minute, leaving me writhing, and convulsing in ecstasy as I climax. It feels like my entire body is tingling—from my toes, up and down my spine, all over my back, chest, abs, and groin, and all the way to the top of my scalp, leaving my body gently convulsing (sometimes shaking) in pulsing ecstasy. (During this time, I also happen to ejaculate.) And afterward, when my penis begins to become flaccid, even the slightest touch on my penis feels really good, and takes my breath away in a really good way.
This was vastly different from what my friends described, which to me sounded like about 10 minutes of work for 5 seconds of sudden pleasure, followed by boredly staring down at the penis, quickly taking the hands away, and waiting for it to go down (because touching the glans right afterward hurts them for some reason).”
Having a foreskin does not ruin a man’s life
On the contrary, despite his parents’ continued obsession with having him circumcised, and being one of only a few intact boys in his school, this man has never wanted to be circumcised and thoroughly enjoys having a foreskin. The idea that not circumcising one’s son will doom him to a miserable life is ridiculous and exists only to salve the ego of the circumcised father and feelings of the acquiescent mother.
“There are issues offered by proponents of ritual child circumcision that deserve to be taken seriously. Asking people to let go of something they intensely value is asking them to bear costs, even if it should be clear that avoiding objective harm to the child must be stressed more.”
So, let’s take the religious circumcision arguments seriously. There are only two arguments to be made: it is required by my religion, and/or it is important that my child fit in with his coreligionists. Do these hold up to scrutiny?
“Is it required by my religion?”
Parents who circumcise for religious reasons often claim that circumcision is required in their religion. In the case of the German court ruling, the two religions at issue in the population of Germany are Judaism and Islam. Very briefly: Judaism has male circumcision in its holy book, the Torah, though there are those who argue that it was not in the oldest version of the text, called the book of J. For more discussion of this, see here. Islam does not require circumcision in the Quran; instead, it is in the Hadith, the collected sayings attributed to the Prophet. However, there are many versions of the Hadith, some of which do not mention circumcision at all. Jewish circumcision has a prescribed ritual performed by a Mohel (ritual circumciser). Islam has no prescribed ritual and instead circumcision is performed according to the cultural traditions of the community.
Now, this is where discussing religious motivation becomes tricky. If you are a believer, which version of the Torah do you believe? Which version of the Hadith do you believe? Not to get too far into religious scholarship, but the decision to circumcise hinges on what one chooses to believe about one’s religion.
Was Abraham real? He is the putative father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but we cannot prove that he existed or what he did. If a Jew believes he was real, and believes the later versions of the Torah, then he believes he must have his son circumcised.
Then there is the problem of how the circumcision is done. If a Jew believes the version of the Torah that requires circumcision, then there is a prescribed ritual manner of circumcision: the Brit Milah. Despite this, many Jewish children are circumcised in a hospital by doctors, not on the eighth day, and not by a mohel. These are not ritual circumcisions. Such parents often do not follow other of the religious rules like keeping kosher, ritual bathing, etc., but insist that their sons must be circumcised in order to be Jewish.
From an anthropological and historical perspective, circumcision appears to be a pre-existing ritual practiced by ancient Egyptians that spread throughout the neighboring areas of the middle east. It became incorporated into some of the Abrahamic religions in the same way that Christianity consciously adopted many pre-existing pagan rituals like the Easter celebration. Of course, to suggest to the devout that their religion did not spring in its eternal form from the mind of god, but rather was the natural product of its time and place like everything else about human culture would be heresy.
All religious arguments for circumcision are an appeal to authority, except the authority appealed to is not universal. The nature of religion is that it is obviously correct to its adherents, and obviously wrong to those who do not believe. In modern times, the concepts of tolerance and multiculturalism have made us afraid to criticize anything about religion, and thus religious circumcision goes largely unassailed from outside the religion. How can we talk about it when believers see any question of it as an affront and an attack? Professing a religion is a choice – one which many who are born into religious families cannot see, just as they cannot see the culture they swim in – a choice about which imaginary ideas, rules, and myths to believe, and which to reject as untrue. It cannot be proven, and it does not rest on shared moral understandings, which make it totally unsuitable as the basis for law, but most importantly, religious circumcision of minors does not cohere with the legal principles of self-determination, bodily autonomy, and freedom from harm which do form the basis of Western legal systems.
“Does my child need to be circumcised in order to fit in with his coreligionists?”
Well, will there be a penis check? What will happen if a child is found to not be circumcised? Will others know that the child is not circumcised? Will he be denied anything which denial would be more harmful than the objective harm of the circumcision? Who is qualified to make such a decision? Proponents of religious circumcision often resort to threatening that an uncircumcised child or man would not be able to participate in religious rituals, would not be able to find a marriage partner, would be ostracized, etc. Are these threats real? I assert that the purported disadvantages are by no means certain: community acceptance and religious practice varies across time and space. What is unthinkable now may be unimportant 20 years from now; what is taboo in New York may be fine in San Francisco. In addition, these same objections are made by non-religious proponents of circumcision: “He’ll never get a girlfriend,” “He’ll be made fun of in the locker room,” etc. Only the devout would assert that imagined religious exclusion would be worse than general social exclusion, and yet no one can put forward an argument that the uneducated prejudice of the ignorant is more important than the universal personal right over one’s own body. If an adult’s life has been made so miserable by his foreskin, he can choose to be circumcised. Funny, but there are not a lot of takers. Why then force it on the child?
Some assert that the parents will bear the costs of not circumcising. According to this reasoning, the parents are the ones who are required to have the sons circumcised in order to fulfill their religious duty. Well, that may be their belief, but does the law allow one citizen to harm another because of religious motivations? The Quran says to kill the infidel. The Old Testament says to kill disobedient children, gays and adulterers. Will this hold up as a defense in a murder trial?
There are many Jews who never attend synagogue, do not keep kosher, and who didn’t even have a bris – they had the normal hospital circumcision – but who insist that the circumcision is integral to their Jewish identity. How can this be so, if the circumcision is performed the same on Jewish and non-Jewish babies? Or are they asserting that how they view the circumcision is what gives it the importance? If so, can we not then say that how the circumcision patient sees his circumcision is more important than how his parents see it? Then we must still outlaw circumcision of minors.
A larger problem for the religious is that the children they circumcise may not choose to follow the religion into which they were born. To suggest so is terrifying to the devout, and so they brush aside this objection. Perhaps one of the reasons why the religious are so tense about laws against circumcision of minors is that they know that a substantial portion of adult men would not choose to be circumcised, and another overlapping portion will not choose to remain in the religion. These are seen as existential threats to the religion, and thus the devout believe they must fight them.
Proponents of religions circumcision cannot expect to have their arguments taken seriously until and unless they become willing to critically examine the history of circumcision in their and other religions. They cannot expect the rule of law to be subordinate to their beliefs, no matter how dear those beliefs are to them. Religions are unprovable, and to more and more people, unimportant. The percentage of atheists continues to grow, and the historical antecedents of religious circumcision are so obviously un-godly as to be un-ignorable. Religious law as a basis for civil law remains largely confined to Muslim countries which also circumscribe women’s rights, stone rape victims to death, etc., yet even so, Germany is pledging to allow religious exception to anti-circumcision law in order to appease its Jewish and Muslim constituency. This is a mistake. Because of their growing unassimilated Muslim populations, European countries are being besieged by demands for tolerance of Muslim practices which are antithetical to Western law and cultural practice: for women to cover their faces even on government IDs, for minor girls to be married against their will, for plural marriage, etc. Religious leaders, emboldened by the misapplication of cultural open-mindedness, claim special dispensation to practice their rituals in defiance of national law, and cowed German legislators agree to their demands in order to preserve their country’s “image.” Though allowing religious male circumcision may not bother many Americans, inured as they are to male circumcision, what will we say when African immigrants demand the right to circumcise their daughters? Oh, that’s right: we made that illegal in 1997, and won’t even draw a drop of blood from a girl’s clitoris to satisfy her parents.
Were there a religious exception to laws against circumcision, then we would have to allow them to circumcise their daughters. This is why the law is supposed to be agnostic to religion: when you allow exceptions to the law based on religious claim, you are privileging one religion over another, which is exactly what our country was founded against. What does the United States of America stand for? Freedom. The rule of law. Equality. We are blessed to be founded on the rational and fundamentally fair principles of the Enlightenment, and the right to self-determination and freedom from harm are intrinsic and universal. As your parents taught you, doing what is right is more important than what others think of you. Germany never learned this lesson, apparently, but in America, are we afraid to stand for our principles? Preserving children’s rights to their own bodies is not attacking religion – it is standing up for our foundational principles. You can practice whatever religion you want, but you cannot force that religion onto others, not even your children. The unproven and unexamined beliefs that constitute the currently popular religions are not more important than each man and woman’s rights. That is what our country was founded upon, and that is where we must remain.
Many of the negative effects of circumcision are sexual, but these problems are not often recognized as being due to circumcision and are often blamed on the female partner. Foreskin restoration can repair a lot of this damage (though it will not have all the same structures as the original foreskin.) Read how circumcision affected this family.
I have been with my husband, Jeff Sanger for 16 years. We met when we were young; we were freshmen in college. I remember our first date like it was yesterday. I called my best friend and told her that while I was never the girl that had my wedding planned out from a young age, that I had met the man that I would marry. And we were married. We bought a house and decided to have children. I remember my first pregnancy so clearly. With your first pregnancy you have all this time to reflect and daydream and imagine what life will be like with a baby. (With the second and third pregnancies I barely had time to pee.) Our first child was a wonderful baby girl but I remember having the circumcision conversation with Jeff before we knew her sex. A friend of mine had sent me her birth plan so that I could use it as a model to write my own. On her birth plan it said: We do not want our son circumcised; he will be circumcised at the pediatrician’s office. I then asked my husband, “What if we have a son, how do you feel about circumcision?” I remember my husband’s reaction so clearly because it was somewhat visceral. He said, “I could never do that to anyone, let alone my own son.” I just agreed and didn’t think about it too much after that.
Then came the birth of our second child, a beautiful, perfect little boy, Sullivan. I never knew that having a son would be such a healing experience for my husband. Prior to his birth we didn’t talk very often about circumcision but after he came into this world intact it stirred a lot of emotions in Jeff. I remember the time so clearly and when I look back at pictures I can feel the sadness; it was sad only because my husband’s healing journey had just begun. He went through a lot of depression and he felt so disconnected at times that it broke my heart. He’s had a beard since I can remember and sometimes it gets a little long when we’re busy but eventually he has me trim it. His beard grew so long during this time and once I asked him if I could trim it back for him and he made some kind of comment about not wanting anyone to go near him with razors or scissors. I respected his need for space and time to think but it was hard for me, especially with a new baby who needed so much and our daughter who was a toddler.
Jeff, like most babies in the U.S., was circumcised shortly after he was born, in 1977. We later learned that his type of circumcision is what doctors refer to as a “tight circumcision.” He was left with literally no foreskin. During his months of depression I gently brought up the idea of restoring his foreskin. He was open to the idea. I think he knew he needed to start the healing process and move forward. I ordered him a Tugger from TLC Tugger and when we got it in the mail he completely lost it. It was a bad night and he completely broke down. He didn’t want to put it on and he was having a hard time figuring out how. I tried to help him but he didn’t want me to touch him. I realized more than ever in that moment what an effect circumcision had on him.
Jeff has been restoring now for almost five years. He has come a long way and I am proud of the man that he is. He talks to everyone about circumcision, even pregnant women on the bus. One of the reasons we are both so passionate about this is because of how it affected our sex life. Sex is supposed to be one of the most powerful ways we express ourselves and that was taken from Jeff when he was circumcised. It was taken without his consent and it created a lot of damage, damage that has been repaired over time, but he will never experience sex the way nature intended.
I can remember crying after sex many times and for many years. We literally could not have sex without oral sex first or without using lubrication. Sometimes I would lay in bed with an ice pack between my legs. It never occurred to me that this was from his circumcision; I thought it was my problem. I thought it was a bad combination of a large penis and a smaller vagina. I thought maybe I was too sensitive. Once he started restoring, even after just a couple weeks sex was 1,000 times better. He no longer had to thrust so hard to get feeling. Now after he’s been restoring for almost five years sex is amazing. Jeff wears his Tugger all day at work and even the skin on his glans has changed, it’s more supple and it’s softer just from it being covered all day every day. He now has a lot of pre-cum, something he never had before. That natural lubrication means we no longer need any artificial lubrication. I haven’t had a lot of sexual partners but I have a sneaking suspicion that we are not the only couple to go through this, given the sheer number of lubricants on the market. Not only did sex get better because the feeling is more intense for him, but because we have gone on this healing journey together we can talk about anything. Communication is stronger, we are stronger as a couple and, ummm… well, can I say again that the sex is amazing!