There is no real debate about infant circumcision. It’s just wrong.
by Lillian Dell’Aquila Cannon
Today I saw a request on a Facebook page: “I am looking for an unbiased scientific site with arguments against circumcision.”
I suppose the request was made in order to convince a friend who thinks that all sites against circumcision are biased. I don’t blame that person or his unknown interlocutor. Experience in politics and matters of taste has taught us that there are always two sides to any debate. In addition, the human psychological tendency to side with the underdog and the desire to have free choice or just be contrary lead many people to mistrust or dismiss any strong argument. The thing is, though, that there isn’t really any debate about infant circumcision. It’s just wrong no matter how you look at it.
No medical association in the world recommends circumcision. None. Here is what they have to say about it:
The British Medical Association says:
“[P]arental preference alone is not sufficient justification for performing a surgical procedure on a child.” (BMA 2006)
The Royal Australasian College of Physicians says:
“After reviewing the currently available evidence, the RACP believes that the frequency of diseases modifiable by circumcision, the level of protection offered by circumcision and the complication rates of circumcision do not warrant routine infant circumcision in Australia and New Zealand.” (RACP 2010)
The Canadian Paediatric Society says:
“Circumcision of newborns should not be routinely performed.” (CPS 1996)
The Royal Dutch Medical Association (KNMG – Netherlands) policy statement is wonderfully clear:
“There is no convincing evidence that circumcision is useful or necessary in terms of prevention or hygiene… circumcision entails the risk of medical and psychological complications… Non-therapeutic circumcision of male minors conflicts with the child’s right to autonomy and physical integrity.” (KNMG 2010)
The American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement on Circumcision says:
“Existing scientific evidence demonstrates potential medical benefits of newborn male circumcision; however, these data are not sufficient to recommend routine neonatal circumcision.” (AAP 1999)
Why is the U.S. position slightly different? Simple: those usual human motivators of money, ego and self-deceptive rationalization. Here’s a joke for you:
What’s more important: sex or rationalization?
Rationalization, because you don’t need to have sex every day.
In the circumcision “debate,” on the Pro-Circumcision side, we have the following groups of people:
Doctors who make money from it.
Doctors who think it is wrong but don’t want to offend their colleagues who make money from it, or risk being ostracized from the guild.
People who are themselves circumcised and have a strong psychological incentive to believe that the parts of their genitals that were taken from them were unimportant.
People who circumcised their children and have a strong psychological incentive to believe that cutting their children’s genitals was important and beneficial, whether that be physically, morally, sexually, or religiously.
Religious people who are afraid their religious practice will be banned. (See the irony: they don’t want their religious practice curtailed, but they see no need to preserve their children’s religious freedom.)
Perverts who get off by discussing genital cutting.
On the Anti-Circumcision side, we have these people:
Parents who circumcised one or more children and came to regret it.
People who have investigated the claims of benefit and found them lacking and/or achievable without cutting an infant’s genitals.
I think this is why the pro-circumcision camp thinks intactivists are mean: the pro-circumcision claims are so easily dismissed, and so patently stupid or immoral and based on ignorance, that it is nearly impossible to “debate” them or discuss the topic without quickly refuting every statement they make. This is too much for the average person, who takes the anti-circumcision facts as a personal attack, and they often need to blame the intactivist in order to rationalize some way to not feel bad. Such conversations often go like this:
Pro: I circumcised my children because it’s cleaner.
Anti: Actually, the foreskin requires no special cleaning and you cannot even retract the skin anyway. Just wipe it off like a finger.
Pro: Well, you have less chance of getting a disease.
Anti: They won’t match either way, because daddy’s penis is larger and surrounded by hair. Intact sons of circumcised fathers never want to be circumcised to match daddy. It’s actually daddy who needs the baby to be circumcised to match him.
Pro: My husband insisted we circumcise our son.
Anti: Your husband cannot be rational about it because he is himself circumcised. It is your job as mom to protect the baby.
Anti: The rate in the U.S. is now about 50/50 or even lower, 32%, depending on which data you see, so half of boys will not be mocked, and anyway, what other cosmetic surgeries will you perform on your child to avoid him being teased?
Pro: Foreskins are so gross that he’ll never get a date/blowjob/etc.
Pro: Well, I’ve never heard of any man who was angry he was circumcised!
Anti: Actually, there are a lot of them. You can hear their stories here, here, here and here. Also, men aren’t going to run around telling their acquaintances, “I have a hard time reaching orgasm because my penis goes numb during sex. Oh, and how ’bout those Mets?”
Pro: Why do you care so much about my son’s penis?
Anti: I care about your son’s rights to his whole body. Why do you care so much to cut your son’s penis?
Pro: My son is perfectly healthy and happy! He’s fine!
Anti: Most of the negative results of circumcision are not apparent until middle or late adulthood when the inherent desensitization of circumcision causes sex problems that many people erroneously blame on normal aging, female frigidity, etc. You don’t know how it will turn out for your son.
Pro: It’s my choice! It’s a free country!
Anti: You do not own his body or his penis or his sexuality. You have no authority to mutilate him.
That’s it. That’s why you rarely see a “balanced” site about circumcision – there is no balanced view of it. People are for circumcision because they have unquestioningly accepted cultural myths, or are making money from circumcision, or don’t want to disturb their colleagues’ making money from it, or are perverts who fetishize circumcision. Other people are against circumcision because they are fully informed on the ethical, moral, physical, psychological and sexual reasons why infant circumcision is wrong. See which group you fit in, and then check your motives. If your reasons fit into the Pro-Circumcision group, face reality with honesty and maturity. Are you rationalizing and defending a decision you made in ignorance so that you don’t have to feel bad about yourself, your spouse, or what you did to your child? Then it’s not that circumcision is good – it’s that you don’t want to feel bad. Those who are against circumcision are not trying to offend or hurt your feelings, but the facts don’t lie. There is no reason good enough to cut off part of an infant’s healthy penis.
Until the late 1800s, circumcision was only practiced by Jews and Muslims and was abhorred by westerners. Men knew that their foreskins were the best part of their penises. Read what two medical textbooks from the 1700s had to say about the foreskin:
“The glans cover’d with its prepuce, which is at one of its extremities, has such tender and sensible [sensitive] flesh, that nature hath there established the throne of sensitivity and pleasure in women’s embraces.” [Venette, The mysteries of conjugal love reveal'd, 1712.]
“The glans, which is at the end of the penis, [is] covered with a very thin membrane, by reason of which it is of a most exquisite feeling. It is covered with a preputium or foreskin, which in some covers the top of the yard [slang for penis] quite close, in others not so, and by its moving up and down in the act of copulation brings pleasure to both the man and woman.” [Aristotle's complete masterpiece, in three parts, 1749.]
In the 1800s, Christian moralists and doctors began to promote the idea that ejaculation weakened men and that masturbation caused all sorts of diseases and health problems. They did not understand most of human physiology and they thought that humans had a limited amount of “vital nerve force” and that if you spent it on masturbation, you would become weak. They tried to stop boys from masturbating by writing moralizing pamphlets, but this had limited success as masturbation is a normal and healthy activity very common in adolescence.
To understand why they targeted the foreskin to curb masturbation, you need to learn how the intact penis functions in sex and masturbation. Intact men can masturbate without lubrication by moving their foreskins up and down over the glans (head of the penis.) This gives immense pleasure in several ways:
The nerves and muscles of the ridged band at the end of the foreskin stretch and relax as they pass over the head of the penis. This stretching is very pleasurable in much the same way as it feels good for a woman to have her vagina stretched by a penis or fingers.
The foreskin alternately covers and uncovers the coronal ridge (the edge of the “mushroom cap” head of the penis. This controls how close the man is to orgasm as it switches up the sensation and gives the nerves time to rest in between sensation.
The frenulum (the “string” that attaches the foreskin to the underside of the penis) stretches and then “snaps back” as the foreskin moves up and down.
The fine-touch nerves in the inner foreskin give a fine type of sensation that you can feel in the palms, fingertips and lips.
The reason why the foreskin had to go was because the foreskin was the best part of the penis that provided most of the pleasure.
Don’t believe me? Hear the doctors in their own words (taken from the site Circumcision Quotes):
“I refer to masturbation as one of the effects of a long prepuce; not that this vice is entirely absent in those who have undergone circumcision, though I never saw an instance in a Jewish child of very tender years, except as the result of association with children whose covered glans have naturally impelled them to the habit.” [M. J. Moses, The Value of Circumcision as a Hygienic and Theraputic Measure, NY Medical Journal, vol.14 (1871): pp.368-374.]
“A remedy for masturbation which is almost always successful in small boys is circumcision. The operation should be performed without administering anesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutory effect upon the mind, especially, if it is connected with the idea of punishment, as it may well be in some cases.” [John Harvey Kellog, creator of the Corn Flake, Treatment for Self-Abuse and Its Effects, Plain Facts for Old and Young, Burlington, Iowa: P. Segner & Co. 1888, p. 295.]
“Measures more radical than circumcision would, if public opinion permitted their adoption, be a true kindness to patients of both sexes.” [Jonathan Hutchinson, On Circumcision as Preventative of Masturbation, Archives of Surgery, vol. 2 (1891): pp. 267-268.] Note that he is actually suggesting that castration would be good!
“Clarence B. was addicted to the secret vise practiced among boys. I performed an orificial operation, consisting of circumcision… He needed the rightful punishment of cutting pains after his illicit pleasures.” [N. Bergman, Report of a Few Cases of Circumcision, Journal of Orificial Surgery, vol. 7 (1898): pp.249-251.]
“Finally, circumcision probably tends to increase the power of sexual control. The only physiological advantage which the prepuce can be supposed to confer is that of maintaining the penis in a condition susceptible to more acute sensation than would otherwise exist. It [the foreskin] may increase the pleasure of intercourse and the impulse to it: but these are advantages which in the present state of society can well be spared. If in their loss increase in sexual control should result, one should be thankful.” [Editor, Medical News. Our London Letter. Medical World,(1900).vol.77:pp.707-8] (Note that by “sexual control,” he means having less sex, not control by the man of his sexual response during sex.)
“It has been urged as an argument against the universal adoption of circumcision that the removal of the protective covering of the glans tends to dull the sensitivity of that exquisitely sensitive structure and thereby diminishes sexual appetite and the pleasurable effects of coitus. Granted that this be true, my answer is that, whatever may have been the case in days gone by, sensuality in our time needs neither whip nor spur, but would be all the better for a little more judicious use of curb and bearing-rein.” [E. Harding Freeland, Circumcision as a Preventative of Syphilis and Other Disorders, The Lancet, vol. 2 (29 Dec. 1900): pp.1869-1871.]
“Another advantage of circumcision… is the lessened liability to masturbation. A long foreskin is irritating per se, as it necessitates more manipulation of the parts in bathing… This leads the child to handle the parts, and as a rule, pleasurable sensations are elicited from the extreamly sensitive mucous membrane, with resultant manipulation and masturbation. The exposure of the glans penis following circumcision … lessens the sensitiveness of the organ… It therefore lies with the physician, the family adviser in affairs of hygiene and medical, to urge its acceptance.” [Ernest G. Mark, Circumcision, American Practitioner and News, vol. 31 (1901): p. 231.]
“Circumcision not only reduces the irritability of the child’s penis, but also the so-called passion of which so many married men are so extreamly proud, to the detriment of their wives and their married life. Many youthful rapes could be prevented, many separations, and divorces also, and many an unhappy marriage improved if this unnatural passion was cut down by a timely circumcision.” [L.W. Wuesthoff, MD. Benefits of Circumcision. Medical World, (1915) Vol.33. p.434.]
“I suggest that all male children should be circumcised. This is “against nature”, but that is exactly the reason why it should be done. Nature intends that the adolescent male shall copulate as often and as promiscuously as possible, and to that end covers the sensitive glans so that it shall be ever ready to receive stimuli. Civilization, on the contrary, requires chastity, and the glans of the circumcised rapidly assumes a leathery texture less sensitive than skin. Thus the adolescent has his attention drawn to his penis much less often. I am convinced that masturbation is much less common in the circumcised. With these considerations in view it does not seem apt to argue that ‘God knows best how to make little boys.’” [R.W. Cockshut. Circumcision. British Medical Journal, Vol.2 (1935): p.764.]
The purpose of circumcision was to destroy the man’s sexual pleasure. So why, 150 years later, do so many people think that circumcision does not change a man’s sexuality at all? Circumcision became a “tradition” separate from the anti-masturbation motivation, one passed down from father to son in a sort of sad and ignorant repetition compulsion. This was from a confluence of psychological and cultural factors which I have explained in greater detail in this post. Then, in the 1960s, the sexual revolution happened and sex stopped being a bad thing. It was no longer taboo to discuss sex, and sexual enjoyment became a legitimate goal. No one thought anymore that masturbation and ejaculation weakened a man’s vital essence, so that motive was forgotten. Around the same time, Masters and Johnson published their landmark 1966 book Human Sexual Response in which they claimed that there was no difference in sensitivity between circumcised and intact penises. This claim was very influential but was completely wrong, as explained here. In a 2007 study, scientists tested circumcised and intact penises at several points all over the penis and 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 [ridged band, removed in all circumcisions] 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.“ [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17378847]
The foreskin contains a type of nerves called Meissner’s corpuscles that give the same type of fine-touch sensation which is found only in the foreskin, lips and fingertips and palms. They are not in the head of the penis, and they provide all of the “flavor and color” of sex for the man. Sure, most circumcised men can still orgasm, but they are missing all of the pleasurable buildup that as a woman, you take for granted. Some men, however, are unable to orgasm at all because they have so few nerves left. Here are some quotes from men whose sexuality was destroyed or lessened by circumcision:
“i had an average (tight if anything) circumcision. i feel like most other guys who are circumcised have no problems having sex. i have a long term relationship with my girlfriend and even though we have sex without condoms (birth control pills) i still cant have consistent successful sex with her. i get inside her and im thrusting and it gets to the point where im basically feeling nothing. my circumcision is seriously limiting my sex life and putting a disconnect in our relationship. it takes an unusually large amount of effort to orgasm when she is giving me blowjobs/handjobs. circumcision gets me depressed every day.” [http://www.reddit.com/r/Intactivists/comments/rz19l/so_who_else_has_had_their_sex_life_ruined_by/]
“My circumcision is a very bad example, too much skin taken away resulting in erections that can sometimes be uncomfortable, scrotum skin almost half way up my shaft, very bad scarring, skin bridges, some lumpiness and the most uneven cut I’ve ever seen. WHY? did this have to be me. It’s pretty hard being at university with a botched circumcision in a society that doesn’t cut. Also I had some sex the other day and ohh… what do you know I cant feel shit.” [http://foreskin-restoration.net/forum/showthread.php?t=9739]
“Whenever I was fortunate enough to get a blow job, my penis would go limp after about a minute. I never felt enough stimulation to stay hard, let alone to orgasm or even ejaculate. I never understood the fascination with blow jobs. I attributed all the blow jobs in porn to acting and being just another facet of erotic fantasy.” [http://www.restoringtally.com/blog/2011/05/what-big-deal-about-oral-sex]
“I remember in my twenties when I ejaculated I could not bear to have my glans touched because it was hypersensitive at that time. As I reached my late thirties and early forties, I noticed that my glans did not have the hypersensitivity after ejaculation. As my forties flew by I noticed it became more and more difficult to ejaculate during sex. My glans was turning dry and leathery. I had much less sensitivity in my glans and penis. There was only one small spot on my corona where there was any sensitivity. The rest of my glans was less sensitive than a finger. During sex I would pump and pump and, finally, I would ejaculate. Sex took a long time. My wife confessed that I took too long during sex. That did not help at all. I had no trouble masturbating because I could easily stimulate myself with my hand. But, when I was inside my wife, there just was not enough stimulation. Sex became a lot less pleasurable than it was 20 years earlier, even 10 years earlier. As I approached my 50s, I started having trouble keeping an erection during sex.” [http://www.restoringtally.com/blog/2010/01/i-am-circumcised-man-hates-his-circumcision]
“By age 43 I had lost all glans sensitivity. It became difficult, at times even when I was alone, to reach orgasm and ejaculation. This is the big secret here. But of course most cut men don’t even know why they have difficulty with, or lose interest in, intercourse or masturbation with age. Due to the awful damage to my penis, there is just no more physical sensory input to achieve or produce much or any pleasure, and the neurological triggers that lead to orgasm and ejaculation are severely damaged or not even present.” [http://www.drmomma.org/2009/12/circumcision-secret.html]
The vast majority of Americans are ignorant of the purpose of circumcision, and when confronted with it for the first time, often feel angry. That is understandable, but the only rational thing to do is to realize that you should be angry at the doctors for not telling you or your husband’s parents the truth. You can even be angry at fate for being born in the one time and place that circumcision was popular for non-religious reasons. The one thing you cannot do is to get angry at the bearer of the facts, because whether or not you like it, whether or not you blame me or whoever told you the truth about circumcision, the fact remains that the purpose of circumcision has always been to curb male sexuality, and it has been enormously successful. Do not circumcise your sons – give them the gift of complete and normal sexuality.
If you or your partner is circumcised and this makes you very sad, what can you do? You can restore your foreskin. You do this by yourself by slowly stretching the remaining inner foreskin until it can cover the head of your penis. There are several devices you can buy and use in privacy to stretch the skin. It is completely safe and no one has to know but you. Once your restored skin can cover your glans when flaccid, the inner skin will get softer, thinner and smoother, which will provide more sensation, and you will have restored the gliding action that provides so much pleasure to both partners during sex. You will never get back the ridged band at the tip or the frenulum, but men who have restored say that it is completely worth it, and that they could not have imagined ahead of time the increase in pleasure a restored foreskin provides. For more information, see these sites:
The question I pose to all intactivists is this: Do you want to be righteously angry, or do you want to save babies?
When I first started learning about choosing to keep my son intact nine years ago, intactivism was not very strong or well-formed, and there was much more actual online debate of circumcision. It was common for there to be one intactivist against a sea of pro-circumcision debaters. Now, the situation seems to have reversed: I often see one pro-circumcision parent being attacked by a sea of intactivists. Though it may seem like progress for us and it may feel nice to be part of a group instead of being alone, we need to reign this in if we want to actually end circumcision.
It may sound heretical, but I can assure you that parents who had their sons circumcised are not actually bad people. We live in a culture where circumcision was normalized for nearly 80 years, and the intact penis was vilified as dirty, disgusting, unappealing to women, and associated with the lower class. Though we know these are all untrue, the many people in the U.S. still believe these myths. There is plenty of (mis)information to support them in this belief, and it is quite possible that an expectant parent could go the entire pregnancy and never hear anyone advocate for keeping their baby intact. Even if they do hear any intactivist arguments, they are likely to see the decision as a matter of taste, and thus will decide based on their perception of their child “fitting in” to some desirable group, whether that be his father’s family, or social group, or (God forbid) country club. You see, parents want to do what’s best for their child, and a lot of them think that circumcision is what’s best. To them, it’s a slam dunk: they believe that circumcised penises are cleaner, prettier and normal. They have never heard of a man being unhappy to be circumcised, or of a baby dying from it. Why would they NOT circumcise their child?
Parenting is terrifying, and we are often making it up as we go along. On top of that, we have our entire society scrutinizing mothers for evidence to pronounce them “good” or “bad” depending on the decisions they have made and their child’s behavior, even if much of the outcome is due to dumb luck. This is a tremendous amount of pressure to put on a new parent, given that she is hormonally-challenged, perhaps sleep-deprived, and pretty lost and confused. Some of these mothers even worried about the circumcision causing their babies pain, and felt terrible about it, though they also felt that it was necessary. Because of our cultural idea that men should be strong and not complain about pain, circumcision neatly fits into this cultural mold as the first in a string or painful experiences a man will have and during which is expected to remain “tough.”
We intactivists have our own difficult emotional journey. Once you know all the facts about circumcision, it is easy to become very angry. New intactivists often wonder how can people willfully and unnecessarily hurt their babies, damage their sexual response, and risk their lives for a pack of myths? If they chose to keep their child intact, they are often mocked and challenged by their friends and family. This makes new intactivists feel very alone, as though they are living in a crazy society, and they think that everyone is against them. If the intactivist is a circumcised man who has just learned about all he has lost, his anger is especially intense, and rightly so. The most sensitive part of his penis was torn from him when he was one day old, and he cannot get it back, and on top of that, he feels that no one cares. He cannot share his grief, because our culture promotes the idea that to do so would be unmanly, whiny and ridiculous. His isolation and grief is so intense that it can consume him for a long time.
What happens, then, when a parent who chose circumcision meets an angry intactivist? Often, nothing good. I have seen some horribly cruel online attacks on circumcising parents, and this disgusts me. For the parents who chose circumcision, the new information, if true, means that they inadvertently hurt their children. This is a very tough pill to swallow. They were trying to do the right thing, they likely worried about it, and now they are told that they did the wrong thing. These factors all combine to give the parent a very strong incentive to deny the harm of circumcision and continue to assert that circumcision is not harmful. This is because it causes cognitive dissonance in their brains, and the human mind always works to resolve cognitive dissonance. It works like this:
I would never hurt my child.
But they are saying that circumcision did hurt my child.
I cannot be a person who would hurt my child.
Therefore, circumcision did not hurt my child.
There is another alternative to resolve the dissonance, and that is to say, “I did not know that circumcision was bad, and had I know that, I would not have chosen it, but I did what I thought was right then, and I regret that, and I would not do that again.” However, this is a very emotionally and spiritually sophisticated piece of reasoning, and it is the rare circumcising parent who quickly resolves her cognitive dissonance in this honest and difficult way. We are all human beings, doing our best to cope with life, and we should have empathy for each other in our struggles.
If the intactivist carrying the message doesn’t just give facts about circumcision, but also calls the parent closed-minded or stupid, or calls circumcision child abuse, mutilation or torture, though these words may technically be true, he only makes the circumcising parent’s emotional process harder, and decreases the chances of changing his or her mind. Lading circumcision with such strong emotional judgments only increases the psychological pressure to resolve the cognitive dissonance in favor of circumcision not being wrong. Think of it: this parent is now being pressured to admit, “I am a child abusing, close-minded idiot who mutilated and tortured my child.” How likely do you think it will be for her to accept this? If it is the father who is himself circumcised, do you think he wants to say, “I am mutilated and sexually deficient and I cannot change it and I did it to my son?” Absolutely not.
The same process is at work when intactivists angrily confront doctors and religious leaders who perform circumcisions. Attacking them as serial mutilators who profit from deception and sex crimes only lets them marginalize intactivism as a crazy fringe element. On top of that, if we expect them to swallow such a statement, they fear being subject to potential lawsuits and ostracism by their colleagues who continue to perform circumcisions. After all, they have made money from circumcision, but not because they are evil liars. They, too, are part of our culture, and they think they are helping the children, or at least not harming them terribly. Doctors are socialized in their training to cut off their empathy for patients lest they become paralyzed and unable to function in emotionally-charged cases. Their medical training makes them this way – they are not naturally cold and uncaring people.
It is normal to go through a stage of furious anger in one’s journey through intactivism. I have yet to meet an intactivist who has not. I had to take a year-long break from intactivism because whenever I tried to advocate for babies’ human rights, I became so angry and bitter that I turned people off. Bill Moyer, creator of the Movement Action Plan for changing society, says that activists have to continually work on their personal growth in order to be effective in their advocacy. I have certainly found this to be true, and all the most effective intactivists I know have moved through their anger to a place of loving care for everyone, circumcising parents included. People will hear our tone before they hear our message, and if our tone is angry, they will ignore the message.
Intactivists, our view is not yet the mainstream view, and if we expect society to adopt our viewpoint, we cannot continually set roadblocks to this process. Rather, we should do everything we can to make it easy for the mainstream to accept our view. Expecting them to go instantly and easily from seeing circumcision as positive and normal to seeing it as sexual abuse and mutilation is foolish and naive. Some of you may have clearly and quickly seen circumcision for what it is, but you are in the minority. Many of the most dedicated among us took years to see circumcision as fundamentally wrong, and we need to allow others the same time to make this difficult journey.
The most effective intactivism meets people where they are, and if their child and spouse are circumcised, where they are is believing circumcision to be normal and beneficial. Educate them calmly and with facts. Teach them that circumcision is not painless, is not cleaner, does not prevent disease, and does not make sex better. Teach them about the babies and men who were harmed by circumcision. Teach them that most of the rest of the world rejects circumcision. Show them real people who reject circumcision. Expect them to get angry with you and even to attack you personally, but realize that they are not actually angry at you. Though their struggle is all internal, you can either aid or hinder it with your attitude. If you attack them, they will likely shut down, and you will have created a fervent pro-circumcision parent. If you support them in their confusion and impending grief, they are more likely to come around. Let them see how choosing intact is becoming normal, and forgive them for circumcising their children. No mother sets out to harm her child, and when she learns about circumcision, she will punish herself enough. Adding to it via shame and ridicule will only keep intactivism on the fringe.
A few weeks ago, I had the great pleasure to meet many of my heroes in intactivism, among them James Loewen. James has a YouTube channel called Bonobo3D where he interviews real people in intactivism, and this is his interview of me.
In this video, I discuss how my husband and I decided not to circumcise our first child. It was not a pretty process. I confronted my husband head-on, announcing that we would not do it. As you can imagine, a fight ensued. He claimed that our baby needed to be circumcised to fit in with his family. I countered that I had never seen my husband and his brothers sit around naked, comparing penises. In fact, my husband had never even seen his father’s penis. He said that the baby was his, too, and I couldn’t make all the choices. I said that my son’s body was not a bargaining chip. It was tense, and we screamed and fought. After a while, I read The Vulnerability of Men, about the psychology of why men fight so hard to circumcise their sons, and it gave me enough perspective to be quiet and leave my husband alone. As Mr. Bach says, “Men who have been circumcised have an extremely difficult dilemma. For them to acknowledge that the practice is unnecessary and harmful means that they must acknowledge a painful personal reality.”
I stopped trying to convince my husband. I realized that his anger was not mine and it was not directed at me and I didn’t have to do anything to fix it. I felt terrible for him, but I respected him as an adult and the man I loved to let him have his space to work out his feelings in his own way. I put a few articles in the bathroom for him to read at his leisure, and eventually he did come back and say that we would not circumcise our son. It took him three years and two sons for him to stop thinking that their penises looked weird, but now he is intactivist, too.
When parents disagree on circumcision, often the wife gets panicked to change her husband’s mind. For some, it’s not enough that the baby not be circumcised; they need their husbands to be thrilled about it. This is not realistic for many men, though. The truth about circumcision is a bitter pill to swallow. Not circumcising their sons means that a man has to face that he is missing part of his penis for no good reason. That’s a horrible thought, and it is natural that a man would not want to face that.
Nevertheless, sparing your husband emotional pain is not a valid reason to inflict physical pain and damage on your child. Your husband has no right over his son’s body. He had a right to his own body all those years ago, and that right was denied, but that does not mean he now has the right to hide his pain by having his son circumcised. As mothers, we need to stand firm, because in this situation, we are the only ones who can stand for the baby’s rights. If we are trying to keep our husbands swaddled in denial, who will defend our sons? Our husbands are adult men and they have the ability and the responsibility to face and deal with their own emotions. This is their process, and we can be supportive, but we cannot rush or force it. We may have to weather our husband’s misdirected anger while the painful emotions are being worked out in him, but we are strong, and we can do that. The alternative is to allow our sons to be circumcised, knowing all the while that it is wrong. If you think this is a viable alternative, read these stories of women who regret allowing their sons to be circumcised.
It is fundamentally unjust for a man to privilege his own denial and raw emotions over his son’s inherent right to bodily autonomy, but they cannot see this yet. As wives of circumcised men, we have a narrow line to walk: we need to defend our sons because they cannot defend themselves, but we also need to treat our husbands with respect and kindness. We cannot talk them out of their pain and we cannot force them to think what we want them to think. This is their journey, and it is not an easy one, but we need to trust our husbands, and be patient, and love them.
If you think that female circumcision is horrible and wrong, but male circumcision is no big deal, you are wrong. This video shows some circumcised females discussing how their female circumcisions were positive.
Why do I post this? To show that our culture influences our mind more than most people realize. Would you, as a woman, be happy without your clitoris? I would not, yet these women are, and they think that if they had clitorises, they would be gross and sexually unappealing, and that their sexual response does not suffer. This is exactly the same thing that circumcised men say here in America – and they are just as obviously wrong to intact men who know what it feels like to have a foreskin.
“The uncircumcised clitoris and penis are considered homologous aesthetically and hygienically: Just as the male foreskin covers the head of the penis, the female foreskin covers the clitoral glans. Both, they argue, lead to build-up of smegma and bacteria in the layers of skin between the hood and glans. This accumulation is thought of as odorous, susceptible to infection and a nuisance to keep clean on a daily basis. Further, circumcised women point to the risks of painful clitoral adhesions that occur in girls and women who do not cleanse properly, and to the requirement of excision as a treatment for these extreme cases. Supporters of female circumcision also point to the risk of clitoral hypertrophy or an enlarged clitoris that resembles a small penis.
For these reasons many circumcised women view the decision to circumcise their daughters as something as obvious as the decision to circumcise sons: why, one woman asked, would any reasonable mother want to burden her daughter with excess clitoral and labial tissue that is unhygienic, unsightly and interferes with sexual penetration, especially if the same mother would choose circumcision to ensure healthy and aesthetically appealing genitalia for her son?“
Are you convinced yet? If you are a woman, do you want to get circumcised now so you don’t get smegma or adhesions? As a woman, I have never had to clean carefully under my clitoral hood to prevent adhesions or smegma, and frankly, the idea sounds terribly painful and makes me cringe. Do you realize that if you just changed the gender of the nouns, this statement is exactly what you would hear from an American defender of male circumcision? You can no more clean under an infant’s foreskin than you could clean under an infant’s clitoral hood.
So why do circumcised men and women defend their circumcisions? A complex of psychological factors, but mostly denial. Denial is a psychological defense. It protects a person from a painful realization that he or she is not ready or capable of integrating without damage to the psyche. Many circumcised men and women deny that they are missing out on anything because to admit it would be painful, and it would require abandoning a lifetime of cultural indoctrination and identity formation, and most people cannot do that so quickly or easily. Circumcision is as integral to female identity in some parts of Africa as male circumcision is to male identity here in America.
Throughout this piece, I have avoided referring to circumcised men and women as victims, because many of them do not see themselves as victims, as the video attests. In talking to circumcised men, I have realized that many bristle at the idea that they are victims or that there is anything wrong with their penises. They will argue to the death that removing all the foreskin’s special erogenous tissue does not change sexual response or function in any way, even thought that is prima facie illogical. You cannot remove the most sensitive nerves without a loss in sensation. You cannot change form without changing function. They often claim to have normal ejaculation, not imagining that all the buildup and the orgasm itself offers more finer and varied sensations for the intact man.
Their psychological attitude hinges upon the fact that circumcision was forced upon these people as infants or children when they had no choice. They are coping with the effects of this as best they can, and if that means that they need to see themselves as whole and fine, that is their right. There is a metaphor for denial that is especially apt (and ironic) here: Denial is a warm blanket that protects a person from the cold and harsh winds of reality. If you try to rip it away from him, he will only claw all the tighter to hold onto it. Only he knows when he is warm enough to try to let it go and face reality naked.
This, however, does not mean that he or she has the right to force circumcision on his or her own children in order to preserve his or her denial. Though an American man may be fine with being circumcised, despite not knowing how being intact would feel, that does not give him the moral right to circumcise his child to complete his bubble of denial. A person who grows up with his or her genitals intact nearly always values them and would never choose to be circumcised. The fact that a circumcised person has adapted psychologically to his cultural mandate is a testimony to the plasticity of the human mind, but it does not justify handicapping future generations in the same way.
Men, if you are fine with your circumcision, then good for you. But if you were really fine with it, you wouldn’t need to force it onto your sons.
This week we have another wonderful “new” reason to circumcise making the rounds in the American media: they say it prevents prostate cancer! But does it really? Let’s think about it. Is amputation of a newborn’s body parts a viable way to reduce cancer rates?
First, let’s look at breast cancer. All women have a 1 in 8 chance of getting breast cancer in their lifetimes. About 1/5 of these women will die from breast cancer. My mother had breast cancer and survived. Her mother died from ovarian cancer. The history of hormonally-linked cancers in my family increases my chances of getting breast cancer. I should have had my daughter’s breast buds removed at birth. Then she would have 0% chance of dying of breast cancer. She doesn’t really need them. They don’t do much sexually, and babies are just fine with formula. Do you think this is a good idea? If not, why not?
Now let’s talk about that prostate cancer article. They claimed that circumcision before the first time having sex is linked to a 15% decrease of prostate cancer. The claim is, if 100 men would have got prostate cancer, circumcision would have prevented 15 of those cases. But would it have prevented 15 deaths? No, because only 9% of men with prostate cancer die of it. 9% of 15 men is only one man. If this study is correct, we would circumcise 100 babies for one life to be saved. Do you think this is a good idea? Maybe if you don’t understand the functions of the foreskin.
But wait… the article said that it had to do with infection, linking foreskin to STD to inflammation to prostate cancer. This is a long string of causality, none of which has been proven. Correlation does not equal causation. Even if it did, we’re back to that old chestnut: even if the foreskin made one more vulnerable to STDs, could the same benefit be had just by wearing a condom, which men should be doing anyway? Despite what the pro-circumcision people would have you believe, the foreskin does not increase STD rates. If you compare STD rates in the U.S. and western Europe, they are just about the same, despite the U.S. having mostly circumcised adult men, and circumcision being rare in Europe.
So is there actually a link between circumcision and prostate cancer? According to the World Health Organization, prostate cancer rates are highest in developed countries. Dr. Momma has a lovely graphic showing prostate cancer rates on a map of the world. Looking at that map, you might think that prostate cancer is actually linked to being circumcised, not being intact!
So what exactly is going on here? Why was this article trumpeted all over the U.S. media? This article is actually a compliment to intactivists everywhere. We’re making such a difference that the pro-circumcision people are scared. They are paying attention and they know they have to work hard to try to stop the drop of circumcision rates in the U.S. This article is the same old stuff they always put out, but they already tried this one way back in the 1940s. To sum up: foreskins are dirty, diseased and will kill you. This one ups the ante by saying you have to have it done before you have sex, thus sidestepping the ethical argument that the adult man can decide the risks and benefits himself. But if you read between the lines, it is one correlative study showing no causal link. There was no experiment here – they likely just used a simple survey:
-Are you circumcised? [But 30% of men don't know their own circumcision status, so unless they dropped their pants for the researchers, this is a major flaw.]
-When were you circumcised? [Same problem as above.]
-Do you have prostate cancer?
That was likely the whole study. These are ridiculously easy to do, but they always have to end with “further study is needed” in order to see if there is a causal link. Can you see that study happening? “We’re going to circumcise some babies at birth, some right after their first time having sex, we’ll follow their every sexual encounter to see if they used condoms and what diseases their partners had, oh, and we’ll track their diet to control for other inflammatory conditions and factors, and then wait 70 years to see what happens?” Well, in 70 years, prostate cancer will likely be a thing of the past, as bad as getting a cold. Why deprive a man of his whole penis to possibly prevent a disease that he may never get or may be no big deal in 70 years?
That brings it back to the central social-psychological-sexual-cultural problem: in our culture, we do not value the foreskin. Because many people have not experienced it sexually and only know rumors like “It’s gross” and “It’s dirty,” articles like this seem exciting. What that shows is how much progress intactivism is making. They are scared enough that they are trying everything they can to make a case for it. Note that you ONLY see articles like this in the U.S. – in Europe where nearly everyone is intact, the idea that you would circumcise your baby to prevent a cancer of old age is ridiculous.
The reason why articles like this are somewhat successful here in the U.S. is two-fold. First, we have a large population of circumcised men who feel under attack by intactivism. They grew up thinking that being circumcised was good both sexually and health-wise, but now they see all these people saying that it is neither. This is a terrible thought – that they are missing the most fun part of the penis for no good reason – so anything that allows them to think that their circumcision actually was beneficial is very attractive. It’s just simple confirmation bias. Second, it is extremely hard for the average person to understand that science and medicine are not culture-free absolute universals, but intimately tied up in culture. The general ignorance of anthropology is part of the greater problem of scientific illiteracy. Most people see science as existing in a bias- and culture-free realm in which all study results are more “truthy” than anything than any other source of information. Even most college-educated people do not understand the limits of science as an epistemology, and some go so far as to only value science, discounting philosophy, history and all other humanities. They fail to see whose interests articles like these serve, and bristle at the idea that science and medicine could ever be subject to the human failings of wishful thinking, deception and dishonesty. If that is what you think, it is time to wake up: science and medicine are just as vulnerable to bias and outright lying as any other discipline.
“Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers in the preceding generation … Learn from science that you must doubt the experts. As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”
“Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”
55% of circumcising doctors do not use anesthesia during circumcisions, and often the only “anesthesia” a newborn gets during circumcision is a pacifier dipped in sugar-water. What does this say about our culture and ourselves?
In a study of doctors who perform neonatal circumcisions, only 45% of them used any anesthesia or analgesia. Pediatricians, family practice physicians and OBs all perform circumcisions, but OBs were the least likely to use any pain relief (only 25% used anything.) This is especially sad in my area of the country, where OBs are the main circumcisers, despite male genitals NOT being their specialty. Even sadder: “Of physicians surveyed, 44% do not use anesthesia because they feel the procedure does not warrant its use.” What other amputative surgery does not require anesthesia? What body part would you consent to have removed without anesthesia?
A common type of anesthesia is a sugar-water solution called Sweet-Ease. A pacifier is dipped into it and given to the baby. Based on studies that showed that babies cried less and their facial expressions appeared less painful with the sugar water, they thought that this was an effective type of anesthesia. To the uninitiated, sugar water is intuitively NOT effective – would you consent to be cut with only a lollipop for anesthesia? I certainly would not, but amazingly, parents convince themselves that it worked. This recent study from The Lancet showed via brain scan that they felt just as much pain – the only difference was that they didn’t make the same facial expressions. To the observer, the baby appeared to feel less pain, but the baby felt just as much pain as those without a pacifier. Sugar-water pacifiers are only for the adults’ comfort and self-deception – they don’t do anything for the baby.
One of the other interesting findings of the paper was that “physicians in the western states were significantly more likely to use anesthesia than were other physicians from the rest of the United States.” The western states also have the lowest circumcision rates (see this lovely map.) These two facts are connected. When circumcision ceases to be normal, it can be seen as what it is: painful and unnecessary. The study also showed that pediatricians were the most likely to use anesthesia. This is likely due to two factors: they are taught about this more in their residency, and all their patients are children, thus they are more likely to see children as people.
There is a long history of doctors objectifying their patients, seeing them as problems and puzzles, but not as people. For example, up until the mid-20th century, doctors performed open-heart surgery on babies with no anesthesia, just a paralytic agent. That meant that the babies were awake and felt everything – they just couldn’t move. The low usage of anesthesia in routine infant circumcision is a remnant of this attitude. Medical students learn to keep a certain emotional remove from their patients in order to function effectively, but this cannot include ignoring patients’ pain. Babies cannot speak or resist (much), but that does not make them less human. In our culture, however, many people have the idea that babies and children are less human, and that adults have rights over them. This is a moral mistake – the fact that adults have greater agency and power over children does not mean that children are less human or have fewer rights. Might does not make right. The truth is, because of their special needs and asymmetry of the power relationship between adults and children, adults have a duty to act in the child’s best interest. True, babies and children are not as powerful as adults, but only an immoral person would take advantage of this fact to perform painful and unnecessary surgery.
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/2011/08/intact-or-circumcised-significant.html It’s not just a flap on the end, like some sort of skin tag. One of the things the foreskin does is allow the penis to move inside its own skin, so that those special awesome nerves are touching each other over and over, even if the man is going it solo. You know the American meme of boys needing lotion to masturbate? Well, if they had a foreskin, they wouldn’t need it. That jerky motion that a circumcised man has to make to masturbate was exactly what those sex-negative Victorian doctors wanted. Contrast that with an intact man, who can make smooth, gliding motions over the length of his penis and the head without the need for any lube, and with absolutely no chafing.
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/The_Fox_and_the_Grapes As the Roman version says. “People who speak disparagingly of things that they cannot attain would do well to apply this story to themselves.” It illustrates the psychological principle of cognitive dissonance: It is uncomfortable to hold two conflicting ideas in the mind, and people are driven to reduce this dissonance by changing what they believe. This is what is going on in the fox’s mind:
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.
In the U.S. media, we have been seeing a lot of reports of how circumcision is being used to prevent the spread of HIV in Africa. These articles are used by circumcision supporters as reasons to encourage routine infant circumcision, but do their claims hold up?
In this excellent blog post, David Gissel Quist analyzes the results, methodology and ethics of those studies and finds they come up short. Some of the many flaws of these studies include:
Not collecting data and/or not reporting on whether the men acquired HIV through non-sexual exposure. They just ASSUMED that the men who got HIV got it through sex.
Not tracing and/or not reporting the sexual partners of the study participants.
In addition, there were huge ethical lapses in these studies. In the U.S., studies about HIV require that the subjects be told of their HIV status, and that their spouses also be told of their partners’ infection. This only makes sense – it is wrong to knowingly send HIV-positive people out to infect their spouses and others without warning them of the danger they face. This would not have passed an IRB in the U.S., so they went to Africa where they could get away with it. On top of all that, there is evidence that shows that male circumcision INCREASES a woman’s risk of contracting HIV, but of course, this is not being reported in the U.S. [Wawer M, Kigozi G, Serwadda D, et al. Trial of male circumcision in HIV+ men, Rakai, Uganda: effects in HIV+ men and in women partners. 15th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections. 3-6 February 2008. Boston. Abstract 33LB.]
We have run the circumcision/HIV experiment in the U.S. for 30 years – during the peak of the HIV epidemic, 85% of men in the U.S. were circumcised, and yet it didn’t stop the spread of HIV here. In Europe the circumcision rates are very low, yet they do not have higher HIV rates. Why do we not see the purported “protective effect of circumcision”outside of those three Africa studies? Maybe because it doesn’t exist.
Beyond all the scientific errors and faulty assumptions, there is the overarching issue of personal autonomy and decision-making. An adult man is the only one who deserves to make the choice to be circumcised to provide a theoretical protection against acquiring HIV. As Georgeanne Chapin said, addressing a typical composite male interlocutor, “You’re circumcised, right? Well, would you have unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman, figuring that you’re protected from getting HIV?” Isn’t that the question? Would any parent send his child out into the world with this sage bit of advice: “You’re circumcised, so don’t worry about condoms – you’ll never get HIV?” Of course not. That would be ridiculous and dangerous, yet that is exactly what is happening in Africa. The men there already think that being circumcised is their invisible condom, and thus condom usage rates are falling. [Westercamp, W., et al., Male Circumcision in the General Population of Kisumu, Kenya: Beliefs about Protection, Risk Behaviors, HIV, and STIs, PLoS ONE 5(12): e15552. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0015552] This is called a “moral hazard,” and yet the study designers aren’t even addressing it.
Then there’s the issue of colonialism – the white man goes to Africa, announces that circumcision will prevent African men from getting HIV, never telling them of all the caveats and unknowns, not treating them or their partners with the minimal level of human respect or ethical practices that would be accorded American study participants, while at the same time, telling them that their female circumcision practices are disgusting and must be stopped. No wonder the U.S. is so reviled abroad – we apparently don’t even consider Africans to be human and thus deserving of a minimal level of scientific integrity. Could they allow a human being to go out and infect his wife without warning him or her?
Imagine you’re a man who made it to adulthood with your penis intact. A scientist comes to you and says, “If you got circumcised, you might have a slightly lower chance of acquiring HIV, but you’d still have to wear condoms, it would increase the chance of giving HIV to your sexual partners, and it would dull your sexual sensation permanently.” Would you take that offer? Most informed men would not. In Africa, where HIV is a serious problem, circumcision is being touted as a silver bullet against HIV. Aid workers are so desperate to control the spread of HIV that they grasp at anything that might help, and these unethical scientists have preyed on their fears to promote circumcision as a cure. Africans are not being fully informed of the risks, nor are they being treated ethically.
The African circumcision and HIV studies are dangerous, immoral and futile, and only make sense if you see them in their historical context: yet another in a long string of diseases that circumcision was supposed to prevent. We laugh when people joke that masturbation causes blindness, but 150 years ago, doctors really did think that was true, and so promoted circumcision as a way to prevent masturbation which would lead to blindness, epilepsy, and so on. Today’s focus on HIV is no different, except that now, circumcising parents and circumcised men are latching onto the HIV argument to justify their increasingly attacked stances. Most parents who choose circumcision for their children do it for social reasons – they think that it is important to match Daddy or some future locker room companions – but these social reasons are crumbling under the dropping circumcision rates. Now they can latch onto HIV as an ex post facto justification, thinking that it will go without challenge, but it doesn’t. A few adult men might choose to be circumcised because they think it will lower their chances of acquiring HIV, but many more men would not take that bargain. If a man might say no to circumcision, then you have no right to force it onto him as an infant when he cannot refuse.
Every human being has the right to bodily autonomy and self-determination. These rights do not come from the government; they are natural. This right is so basic that we often aren’t even aware of it, but think for a minute: does anyone have the right to permanently alter your body without your permission? Could a stranger force you to get a tattoo? If someone did drug you and tattoo you, they would have committed a crime against you. Recently a parent was arrested for allowing her 10 year old son to get a tattoo of his choice, and yet she likely legally forced the permanent body modification that is routine infant circumcision on him at birth. It is illegal to cut an infant girl’s genitals and has been since 1997. Every year, though, 1 million baby boys are circumcised in America. Their rights have been violated, and no one cares, and no law protects them. Routine infant circumcision is a human rights violation.
“The autonomy of persons to make decisions, while taking responsibility for those decisions and respecting the autonomy of others, is to be respected. For persons who are not capable of exercising autonomy, special measures are to be taken to protect their rights and interests.”
“Any preventive, diagnostic and therapeutic medical intervention is only to be carried out with the prior, free and informed consent of the person concerned, based on adequate information. The consent should, where appropriate, be express and may be withdrawn by the person concerned at any time and for any reason without disadvantage or prejudice.”
“In applying and advancing scientific knowledge, medical practice and associated technologies, human vulnerability should be taken into account. Individuals and groups of special vulnerability should be protected and the personal integrity of such individuals respected.”
“The fundamental equality of all human beings in dignity and rights is to be respected so that they are treated justly and equitably.”
Routine infant circumcision violates all these principles. The patient cannot consent to the treatment, and no one is representing his rights in the decision to circumcise. It is commonly assumed that the parents’ wishes are congruent with the child’s wishes, but since the child cannot speak for himself, we have no way of knowing if this is true. Saying that “He’ll be happy with the decision when he’s an adult” is NOT prior consent.
Babies most definitely qualify as specially vulnerable – they can neither speak nor act. Their inherent powerlessness makes them the most vulnerable members of society, which we recognize in every other aspect except for routine infant circumcision, and protect with child abuse laws.
And that brings me to the last point: are babies human beings, or not? Does their age make them have less rights? Is it just to abrogate their rights simply because they cannot speak nor act? Do males have fewer rights? Is it equitable to deny male babies the right to bodily integrity which females have enjoyed in this country since 1997? It is absolutely not. Commonly held perceptions of the comparative degree of harm of female and male circumcision are irrelevant: the only issue is basic rights and consent. Female circumcision is seen as beneficial in the cultures that practice it, yet is illegal under all conceptualizations of human rights law and U.S. law.
Could a parent take his adult child to the doctor, tie him to a table, and have him circumcised? Of course not. The very idea is abhorrent because we understand that the man himself is the owner of his body. What if the child was 14? Would that be okay? How about 6? This is the age that circumcisions are commonly performed in Turkey. They have a big party and take lots of photos full of the anguished faces of the young boys. Take a moment to follow that link. Does it disgust you? Would you do that to your school-age son? If not, why not? Is it because he is aware of what is happening? Is it because he will remember? Does a lack of awareness or memory make an assault okay? Of course not. Rape is punished even when the attacker drugs his victim.
At what age does it become okay to tie down a baby and cut off part of his genitals? How many or few years or days old does a person have to be to not have the most basic human right? Apparently in the U.S., the commonly accepted answer is infancy, in its original meaning of “not talking.” Not being able to talk means (usually) not having conscious memory, and that is why we circumcise babies. We know it is terrible – even the most pro-circumcision parents know that their son is going to suffer – but somehow, we pretend that causing them pain and violating their most basic right is okay when they are very young and most vulnerable, perhaps because this is the only time where we could get away with it.
Babies are human beings, and all human beings have the same rights. Age and sex do not determine one’s rights, and parental ignorance, delusions or wishes do not abrogate those rights. Routine infant circumcision violates the rights of men and should be illegal based on all human rights law. Many other developed countries like Sweden and Holland understand this and are moving to make all circumcision illegal. We in the U.S. like to think that we’re the guardians of human rights, yet we cannot keep our own house in order.
Note: A common argument against my position is that “parents make decisions for their children all the time.” The two examples usually given are haircuts and vaccinations. I dismiss the haircut argument out of hand because hair grows back. The vaccination argument appears at first blush to be more persuasive, but falls apart under scrutiny. Most vaccinations given during infancy are to protect the child from diseases that are only dangerous during infancy. If you don’t vaccinate your child against these childhood diseases during infancy, many of the vaccines won’t be required or given in childhood or adulthood. The few vaccines that are given during infancy for diseases that don’t occur until adulthood are very controversial; these include Hepatitis B (transmitted through blood and sex) and HPV (transmitted through sex and hotly debated now.) Circumcision is not time-sensitive – you don’t have to do it in infancy or not at all. All of the purported “benefits” of circumcision either:
Are spurious, like the idea that a circumcised penis is easier to keep clean. The infant foreskin should not be retracted for cleaning and is much easier to care for than a circumcised penis.
Would redound to the patient in adulthood and thus could be delayed until the adult can make the decision for himself, such as the claim for lowered STIs.
Or could be achieved through much more conservative and less invasive measures, such as the claim of lowered UTI rates, which is based on one contested study and could be treated more conservatively with antibiotics; or achieved by simply wearing condoms, which men should do anyway in non-monogamous encounters.