by Lillian Dell’Aquila Cannon
Virtually all mammals have foreskins. They have been around for about 65 million years. The fact that the foreskin has stuck around for so long shows that it is not just some extra skin, and it is not harmful to the man. Genitals are vital to the continuation to the species, and any part of the genitals that is ubiquitous in an entire class of animals has to have an important purpose. Conversely, any part of the genitals that was prone to disease would quickly be selected against as it would prevent reproduction. In primates, the point of sex is for the male to get in and ejaculate quickly, and so apes have special fine-touch nerves in the head of their penises that make them ejaculate quickly. About 7 million years ago, when humans started to evolve away from other primates, the penis and foreskin in humans evolved, too: the penis got bigger and the foreskin got more sensitive as the glans got less sensitive. This allowed the sex act to last longer than what was necessary for reproduction: sex became important in its own right, a way to bond socially and create families.
About 4,000 years ago, some Egyptian priests got the idea to circumcise themselves to mark themselves as special and different. A common human urge is to fit in and to emulate the leaders of the pack. For this reason, fads of the upper class are usually adopted by the middle and lower classes in an aspirational manner. In Egypt, circumcision spread to the upper class and some of the middle class, and was picked up by the Jews during their time in Egypt, who continued it as a religious requirement that replaced human sacrifice.
Jews and Muslims were main groups to practice circumcision for the next 1400-2000 years, but only the Jews have it in their holy book (and it wasn’t even in the oldest text) – it is not in the Koran at all. Because of a brief fad among the first Christians to be circumcised like Jesus (who was Jewish), the apostles in New Testament had to specifically say that being circumcised was not necessary to be Christian. Being circumcised was a religious sacrifice, and was never thought to make one’s penis better. Maimonides, a famous rabbi who lived in the 14th century, said that the point of circumcision was to weaken the penis and make sex less fun for men and their wives, so that people would keep their minds on heaven. They weren’t doing it because it looked better. In fact, they placed such religious significance on it that there is actual Jewish law that if a couple’s first three sons bled to death from circumcision (likely because they were hemophiliacs), they didn’t have to circumcise the fourth. Only three babies had to die.
Fast forward to the late 1800s: as you may have heard, in Victorian times, people were a bit obsessed with sex, in a negative way. They thought sex was so bad that they even covered piano legs with frilly fabric, because to leave them exposed would cause men to have immodest and prurient thoughts. They also thought that masturbation caused blindness, insanity, and epilepsy, among other diseases. Dr. Kellogg, whose brother invented Corn Flakes, had a great idea: “A remedy for masturbation which is almost always successful in small boys is circumcision… The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering anaesthetic, as the pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment.”
That’s right: the point was to circumcise a young boy while he was awake and feeling everything, right in the middle of his prime masturbation years, so that he would forever associate touching his penis with pain. They also circumcised girls, and this continued until 1976. Because Dr. Kellogg and virtually all men alive then had foreskins, they knew that the foreskin was the best part. Remember that the foreskin has the most of the best type of nerve. It also is 15 square inches of skin that is part of the penis’s sheath. If you’ve never seen one in real life, look here: http://www.drmomma.org/2011/
In the early 20th century, only rich people could afford to pay a doctor to cut off part of their penis (just like today, only rich people can pay for high colonics, or Botox, or vaginoplasty, or whatever other pseudo-medical procedure is in vogue.) Rich people do it + sex is bad = hurry up and get your baby circumcised so he won’t be sinful or low-class! For these reasons, by the late 1930s, circumcision was really taking off in America. It had a brief fad in England, Canada and Australia, but it never caught on in other countries, probably because they missed the big “sex is bad” craze.
By the 40s and 50s, because so many men were circumcised and because the fad had spread down from the upper class, to not be circumcised became a marker for being poor and uneducated. As you may have heard, in the post-war period, the American middle class became obsessed with fitting in, being normal, being a man, etc. We had 60 years of being told that having a foreskin prevented blindness, epilepsy, and plain old sin. We had a generation of men who were circumcised themselves. Conformity pressure + sex negativity = cultural obsession with circumcision. During the peak of the fad, nearly all babies were automatically circumcised without their parents being asked. Some doctors even circumcised babies as soon as they emerged from the womb.
Circumcision peaked in the 1980s as the men born in the 50s and 60s had their own children, whom they naturally wanted circumcised since clearly it was so necessary. Over the last 25 years, the circumcision rate has been dropping. As sex negativity faded away in our culture, and people began to have more contact with non-circumcising cultures, more and more people began to see the arbitrary nature of circumcision and decide against it for their own sons. In 2009, only 32% of babies born in the US were circumcised.
At this point, it’s important to talk about anthropology and psychology. Culture is transmitted from person to person, and very few people ever question their culture. Because we are always immersed in it, we see it as inevitable, natural and right. It is not unless we have the opportunity to visit or live in another culture where we see that people do things very differently, that we can begin to understand that our own culture is actually kind of arbitrary and often due to historical accident, rather than natural or inevitable. Circumcision in the United States is just one of those arbitrary mistakes. Not all “western” or “modern” cultures decided that sex and especially masturbation were bad, and that we had to remove the foreskin to curb it. The French never had this fad, the Russians didn’t, the Chinese didn’t, the Argentinians didn’t, etc. It was not inevitable in all cultures, but it did happen in our culture, probably because sex negativity found fertile ground in our Puritan roots. The thing about sexual rituals is that they have tremendous psychological and cultural power because of the very fact that they have to do with sex, which always retains its primacy in the human psyche. Because of the pleasure they provide and the biological drive to reproduce, people generally have a powerful attachment to their genitals, and so these rituals root deep in the cultural mind.
The psychology of the circumcision fad is sad and not often discussed, but can pretty easily be explained by the fable of the fox and the sour grapes. In this fable, a fox sees some grapes on a vine. He wants them very badly, but no matter what he does, he cannot reach them. He then irrationally decides that they must be sour anyways. You can read more here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
I want those grapes.
I can’t get them.
It feels bad to want something I can’t have.
I don’t like feeling bad.
I’ll convince myself that it wasn’t that great anyway so I don’t feel bad about not having it.
Sadly, this is exactly what is going on deep in the minds of many circumcised men when they are forced to think about circumcision. Their whole lives, they have been told by other circumcised men, and believed, that the foreskin is bad, unnecessary, diseased, just a flap of skin, only what yucky people have. Circumcised men cannot ever know what a foreskin would really feel like or be like. (Yes, men can restore their foreskins themselves, but although it is apparently pretty darned awesome, it is not quite the same as the real foreskin.) So let’s really lay it bare:
I love my penis because it feels good.
Some men have even more parts to their penises.
I don’t have that part.
I can never know what that part is like.
That sucks and makes me feel bad because anything to do with my penis is awesome.
I hate feeling bad about my penis.
I’m just going to decide that that part isn’t really that good so I can stop feeling bad.
Now, I get why this form of psychological resolution of cognitive dissonance is so tempting. Who would want to be in such pain? The thing is, it doesn’t stop just there. When circumcised men have sons of their own, they tend to want to circumcise them. If they are aware of circumcision at all, they have subconsciously convinced themselves that having less penis is, in fact, better, despite the logical truth they’ve worked hard to bury along with their pain. It can be intolerably painful for a circumcised man to have a son and not circumcise him. What if as his son grows, he has no problems with his foreskin? What if, as an adult, his son values his foreskin, and would never choose to have it cut off? Wouldn’t that be living proof, in his face every day, that being circumcised actually wasn’t so great? The wounded part of the man’s psyche that he has tried to bury sees this new cognitive dissonance coming down the line, and he does whatever he can to avert it: he insists that his own son be circumcised.
Often the mother is the only parent to challenge circumcision. This is easier for her, as she doesn’t have to contend with the pain of having had her own body be altered without her consent, as her husband does. The way this usually happens is that the mother starts to learn about circumcision, and she tells her husband that she doesn’t want to do it to their child, and the father gets very angry, and they fight about it. The man feels threatened that his wife thinks that his penis is less than awesome. The woman does not want to hurt her child. Often the “mama bear” instinct takes over and the woman doesn’t allow it to happen, correctly sensing that her husband’s insistence on circumcision comes from a place of irrationality and pain. Some women, though, give into their husbands, prioritizing their spouse’s avoidance of emotional pain over their child’s experience of physical pain. What they don’t see, however, is that by going along with their husband’s irrationality, they are actually condemning their son to suffer the same psychic wounds. They are also causing themselves cognitive dissonance:
I know circumcision is wrong.
I have to protect my baby.
My husband wants to do it.
I love my husband and don’t want him to be mad at me or think that I don’t like his penis.
I’m going to let him circumcise my baby to avoid this fight.
I’m going to convince myself that circumcision is actually good.
In the case of the woman who had a first son circumcised out of ignorance, when she is confronted with new information about circumcision, she is also faced with the painful emotions of the circumcised man:
I love my baby.
I allowed him to be circumcised because I thought it was good.
But what if it’s not good? Then I hurt my baby.
I would never hurt my baby.
It must actually be good.
Again, I can see why this form of emotional and intellectual self-deception is so tempting: it avoids some very real pain. But if it allows a mother to continue to circumcise future sons to avoid dealing with her own emotional pain, it is not okay. Who would rationally prioritize their own emotional comfort over their child’s physical well-being? Someone who is in a lot of pain, and too afraid to deal with it the mature way, but she or he doesn’t have to do this. My mother-in-law had five boys, all circumcised. When she learned about circumcision 30 years later, she grieved for what she had done out of ignorance, and admitted to her sons that if she had known, she would not have had them circumcised. It was just a sad mistake born out of ignorance, and one she would not make again. She was incredibly brave to admit this, and it was painful for her, but as any psychologist will tell you, pain only passes when you allow yourself to feel it.
So what’s the only ethical and honest way out of all this cognitive dissonance? Realize and admit that:
You (or your husband) was circumcised without any thought because your dad was circumcised because everyone else was circumcised because 140 years ago, some perverted doctors wanted to stop boys from masturbating.
That’s all. That’s it. There’s no other reason for circumcision. All of the fighting you see today online about UTIs or STDs are after-the-fact justifications for circumcision concocted by men who desperately need to think that what was done to them without their consent was beneficial and important. Remember that 100 years ago, circumcision prevented epilepsy and blindness. 60 years ago it prevented you from being teased. 30 years ago it prevented UTIs. Today, in only three countries in Africa, it is claimed that it prevents HIV. Never mind that in the rest of the world and for the rest of human history, it did none of these things. The only adult men lining up to be circumcised are some Africans who are being convinced that if they get circumcised, they won’t get AIDS and they won’t have to wear a condom, either. These are the same men who think that you can cure yourself of AIDS by raping a virgin.
Realize and admit that:
The 80% of the world’s men who have foreskins almost never choose to have them cut off and consider them to be the best part of the penis. You don’t have this part of your penis. And that sucks. And it was for no good reason.
Rather than cut off your own son’s foreskin to make yourself feel better, just own up to it, mourn the loss, and do better by your own child. Restore your own foreskin if you’re interested. It’s a long haul, but the men who have done it (and their wives) are really happy about it.
Routine infant circumcision is a 90 year aberration in the 150,000 years that Homo sapiens has existed on this planet. It’s a remnant of times when people thought it was okay to beat your wife and children, that babies couldn’t feel pain and so could be operated on without any anesthesia, and that it was bad to enjoy your sexuality. We’ve discarded all these other ideas, and now we’re discarding circumcision, too. It’s going to stop with the generation being born now – only 32% of babies born in 2009 in the USA were circumcised. Boys born today who keep their foreskins are not going to be made fun of, because they’re in the majority, and because people now are more informed. In fact, the social stigma has reversed: the less-educated parents are the ones who circumcise their children now. The genie’s out of the bottle – too many people know the truth to ever go back to the idea that being circumcised is better. Your son is going to love his foreskin as soon as he finds it (trust me – I have three intact boys!) He’s not going to be made fun of, and he won’t be sad because his penis doesn’t match yours. Actually, he’s going to be sad for you because you’re missing his favorite part. It really sucks. Now man up and do what’s right.