The Collateral Damage of Circumcision
by Juan Andres Alzate
Every discussion of circumcision brings hurt feelings. Parents, especially mothers, who defend their decision to circumcise their children. Men who are just fine and wouldn’t want to have an “anteater flapping around” or a “dirty elephant trunk”. Women who find the “uncircumcised” penis to be “gross“. And of course intactivists get also angry, because they have looked into circumcision deeper and found it to be a gross violation of human rights.
Even before looking at any evidence, it makes sense intuitively that cutting part of the sexual organs would have a detrimental effect to sexuality. So how is it that in our Western society, circumcision of males gets a free pass, while everybody and their grandmother will tell you that female circumcision (or FGM) ruins female sexuality for life?
In fact, most people who defend circumcision today, ignore that in the 1st century, Philo of Alexandria referred to it as the “excision of the superfluous pleasure“, and in the XII century Moses Maimonides declared that “Circumcision simply counteracts excessive lust; for there is no doubt that circumcision weakens the power of sexual excitement, and sometimes lessens the natural enjoyment“. Both philosophers in fact supported circumcision, but they were aware that circumcision had sexual effects.
In the XIX century, physicians attributed a myriad of diseases to the vice of masturbation, and “found” that Jews were “immune to masturbation” (M.J. Moses, 1871), thus starting the practice of circumcision in English speaking countries, which, at least for the next 90 years would be known that circumcision reduced sexual pleasure – but this was seen as a positive effect.
It is enlightening to read this paragraph: “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.
As things would have it, the 60s brought a sexual revolution, and a new paradigm was necessary if the practice of circumcision was to be maintained. It was then that Masters and Johnson, based on very improperly documented data, declared that there was no difference in sensitivity between the circumcised and uncircumcised penis.
How is it that this fact that had been known for 19 centuries, was suddenly forgotten and erased in 1966?
Of course by 1966 the prevalence of circumcision in the United States had grown (while the rates in England had already dropped since 1949), and those doctors were likely to have been circumcised at birth themselves, thus having no experience of intact sexuality.
Let’s make no mistakes. Parents always want to do the best for their children. But that doesn’t mean that good intentions will prevent all mistakes. Cultural values change, but parents often decide based on cultural values; so, the mother who circumcises her daughter in Africa to make her more likely to get married; the mother who irons her daughter’s breasts to make her less likely to be raped; the Chinese parents that bound their daughters’ feet; the parents who circumcise their male babies to prevent those nasty infections and make their penis easier to clean; all of them had their children’s best interest in mind, but they were also responding to cultural values.
Only when you look from outside their cultures, you can see how those practices may be detrimental.
Some of these practices have been challenged. Some are no longer practiced. Genital cutting of minors (GC or GM, to join FGM and MGM) continues to be practiced.
So when we discuss circumcision, we always ran into parents who suddenly find themselves on the spotlight by their decision to circumcise; and they become very aggressive very quickly: “don’t you dare to tell me that I mutilated my son!” Who would like to hear this? They will tell you that their son “did not cry“.
In the past it was simple. Parents handed their baby to the nurse, who took the baby to the closed room where the procedure would take place. The baby was returned half to one hour later. He looked tired, sleepy. The nurses reinforced the mom that their baby didn’t cry. The baby would be fuzzy for a few days, it was understandable. And then as the circumcision healed, this problem was taken care of and could be forgotten, the hurt organ conveniently covered by diapers, underwear, and ultimately pants.
Finally, every person wants to think that his or her genitals are the prettiest and best that there is, that sex as they know it is as good as it gets. So much of our confidence relies on this belief.
In words of the era: “That Jews and those who have undergone circumcision enjoy as much pleasure in the copulative act as the uncircumcised admits of no decisive proof; but I am assured by those well able to speak upon the subject, that the former do not complain“. William Acton, The functions and disorders of the reproductive organs in youth, in adult age and in advanced life. Considered in their physiological, social and psychological relations. London 1858.
Yet circumcision is not free from complications. Some complications are common: skin tags, skin bridges, hair in the shaft due to too much skin removed, and painful erections. But those complications are hardly ever mentioned. After all, most men would never see other penises close enough to compare and realize the differences, and even if they noticed something they would be too embarrassed to speak about it openly.
I can tell you that I have skin tags on my penis, fruit of my circumcision. I hate how they look! I never knew what they were until I started studying the subject, and even after learning it, I’ve never brought it to my parents’ attention. What good would it make anymore? But different from other men in other times, I speak of it now in hope that other people will learn from it.
Most men learn that their circumcision was beneficial in making the hygiene of their penis easier and preventing nasty infections. In doing this, the foreskin becomes demonized, a “bacteria trap” (in the words of Barbara Kay) and circumcision becomes a necessity. If it’s not done now, it will have to be done later, goes the rationale, and nobody wants to remember the procedure.
Thus, men often avoid thinking about this.
As Tim Hammond described it: “Miller also analyzed male circumcision , suggesting that the circumcised man is bound to ‘avenge himself’ unless his subsequent life allows “old wounds to heal in love,” which is seldom the case, adding “children who were once injured will later injure their own children, maintaining that their behavior does no harm because their own loving parents did the same.””
“Denial that circumcision damages the body or sexuality may cause some circumcised individuals to react sceptically toward others who report their own harm from circumcision. Many avoid any discussion of circumcision; others can discuss it only humorously. Some trivialize it, while others become angry when circumcision is challenged. To protect themselves from feelings of inferiority, many regard circumcision as“something done for them, not to them” .
Circumcised fathers, when requesting their sons be circumcised for family/social conformity, may be projecting their own anxieties about feeling inferior to an intact son .” T. Hammond, A Preliminary Poll of Men Circumcised in Infancy or Childhood, BJU International (83, Suppl. 1), p. 85-92, January, 1999 (British Journal of Urology)
The practice of circumcision has been maintained through a veil of taboo and secrecy. Nobody talks about it, nobody thinks about it, everybody does it. When any new mother is expecting, the overwhelming message is “you have to do it – he will thank you”.
But these kinds of systems fail when communication is open and the wound is exposed.
1967 saw the publication of “In the name of humanity: speaking out against circumcision” by Joseph Lewis. In 1970, Van and Benjamin Lewis, brothers, were arrested after protesting against circumcision in front of the hospital in Tallahasse, Florida, carrying the now famous sign: “Sex criminals for hire – Inquire within”. Shortly afterwards, a nursing student, Marilyn Milos, mother of circumcised children, witnessed (and assisted) her first circumcision – and in tears after the suffering of the baby, Marilyn was shocked by the words of the doctor: “and there is no medical reason to do this”, her life changed forever, dedicating herself to educating on genital integrity through NOCIRC, the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers.
In 1977 Rosemary Romberg started researching circumcision with the purpose of writing a neutral book on the topic (after having her 3 first boys circumcised). What she learned in the process changed her stance to firmly oppose circumcision, as is told in her book “Circumcision, The Painful Dilemma“. Not very different is the story of Edward Wallerstein, Jew, who in 1980 published “Circumcision: An American Health Fallacy”
The 1980s would see the apparition of CARV – Citizens Against Ritual Violence, protesting with the sign “Circumcision is a psychopathic mutilation”. CARV was founded by a man we know now as Brother K, after he legally changed his name to uncircumcise himself by erasing the mark of a hateful, angry god. Tim Hammond and Wayne Griffiths founded NORM – the National Organization of Restoring Men- in 1989, to spread awareness of the methods for foreskin restoration.
The internet has greatly helped, as information is available a few clicks away. Many men who found themselves unable to talk about their feelings, suddenly found other men who felt the same way. Information about foreskin restoration was shared on message boards. Groups started multiplying.
In discussing circumcision, many people are surprised that others oppose circumcision. Anne Rice recently referred to us as “a number of people who apparently protest male circumcision“. But the protests have been going on for a while, it’s only that they keep gaining more momentum and becoming louder.
As Tim Hammond wrote: “Why are men now protesting against circumcision? The magnitude of the practice in the USA renders American men the largest population of circumcised males at any one time and place in history. These men matured at a time of increased public understanding of foreskin function and greater questioning of circumcision. Uncircumcision methods are in widespread use, allowing more circumcised men an ‘ersatz’ intact experience of the intact penis. Among current men in developed nations, there is greater personal introspection, many having been influenced by feminist and human rights movements asserting personal choice and body ownership. Physicians and religious/tribal leaders are under closer public scrutiny and there is increased skepticism that these groups always know ‘what’s best’ for the individual.”
But our debates have the unfortunate effect of hurting people’s egos:
- The circumcised man who learns that circumcision robbed him from sexual experiences, and suddenly feels a sense of loss.
- The parents who circumcised their children and do not want to hear any suggestion that they mutilated them. (Rosemary Romberg tells that her father never acknowledged her book).
- The man whose confidence is threatened and feels that he is being put down by a bunch of uncircumcised men. In reality many intactivists are circumcised men themselves.
- The mother who suddenly realizes that circumcising her children was not necessary – or even worse, that she received advice that hurt her son (like being told that she needed to retract her son’s foreskin – which resulted in a circumcision. I saw such mother write “I feel so violated“).
In fact, I just told someone today that “That’s the cognitive issue I have as a cut man. I long for intactness, I know that being intact is better -and I know that part of educating is proving why being cut is harmful, but no matter what I will never be intact. So I have no idea, this is the one issue where my brain ends up shutting every now and then.”
And yet we face very personal and harsh attacks by those who are so embedded in their culture that they can’t see how circumcision is harmful and unnecessary.
Some justify circumcision as a sense of belonging to a community, such as the Jewish or the Muslim community. Or the American society. Yet, forcing circumcision upon an infant for social purposes treats the infant as property of a society. In fact, Anne Rice asked (regarding female genital mutilation) “Are women people? Or are they merely the property of their communities?“. Well, much to her grief, these two sentences would perfectly apply to male circumcision. Are males people? Or are they merely the property of their communities?
Sometimes we need to accept that something that has been tolerated and practiced for a long time, is indeed harmful. It takes humility to challenge our beliefs, to accept that perhaps we were wrong. That perhaps we hurt those that we love, that we need their forgiveness, and that we need to forgive ourselves for what we did.
I don’t hold any harsh feelings towards my parents, I know they did what they thought was necessary when the doctor said I had phimosis – a diagnosis that doesn’t make sense at the early age of 5 or 6 years, as I was. Yet I will never forgive the doctor that cut me in spite of my feeble attempts at running away from him.
We need to accept as a society that what we did wrong, and many people will have to deal with feelings of guilt, shame, inadequacy. Yet this is the only way to change our culture. As Herman Hesse wrote: “The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world.”
Our fight against circumcision sometimes feels very lonely. Sometimes we don’t find the support of those we love.
“Not only do they offer no empathy for our feelings, but they offer no empathy for our feelings about our own circumcisions, circumcisions in general, nor do they offer any support in opposing its practices. The obvious bodily scars that we carry around with us have no place in their world view. The topic is simply ignored, repressed, forbidden, banned from the table, excised off, amputated and thrown in the dumpster. Despite what they say, they do not really want to acknowledge our sensitivity or capacity for feeling, except when they approve of it and it serves their goals. After all, as long as the world keeps us unaware of our full capacity for feeling, as long as we can be kept unconscious of the fact that a portion of our capacity for feeling was permanently taken from us by circumcision, then we will be more likely to remain safe feminist-supporting males who never go off seeking our own rights, questioning our own roles, staging our own rebellions, getting in touch with our own feelings.We are tired of seeing parents misled by doctors. We men are tired of being lied to and ignored by doctors on this issue. As men who were circumcised as infants and who live with the long-term physical and psychological consequences of a surgery we did not choose, we have a right and a responsibility to speak up about a practice we know has harmed us and continues to harm others.“MEN WILL NO LONGER BE SILENT~ Tim Hammond, Founder of NOHARMM National Organization to Halt the Abuse and Routine Mutilation of Males.
Once you see the reality of genital cutting, it becomes hard to ignore its abusive nature. Once you see it you cannot unsee it. Once you become aware of the scar on your penis, you cannot become unaware anymore. Knowledge hurts, it burns, but I will take knowledge every day over willful ignorance.
The other day I was talking with two other bloggers, two good friends, and we all agreed: there is no way to not think about this matter anymore.
I pray for all that were hurt by forced genital cutting: not only the victims, but their parents, the doctors, the advocates, all the ones who were deceived, who believed the hype, that they can see the truth, that they can find upon themselves to be the change, to leave those harmful ways behind, to put down the scalpel, to shed our hurt skin and our scars, to free our minds from this pain.
You may be circumcised, but circumcision is not you. Your cut does not own you. Be the phoenix, raise over your own ashes, grow out of your scars, it’s the only way.
Circumciser, put down your scalpel.
Parent, put down your defenses.
Man, put down your beliefs.
Woman, put down your prejudices.
This is not about males vs. females. Genital integrity, it is a right. Genital mutilation is an ugly truth, one that we didn’t sign for. We need to stop perpetuating it. We need to find the otherness, the compassion. Let’s stop putting each other down. Let’s walk together, not as a nation, not as a race, or a culture, or a religion, or a gender. Let’s walk together as humanity, all in one and one in all. Let’s walk and build a new culture, where each little child has the right to his or her whole body, to grow unharmed, and to be the best that he or she can be.
Juan Andres Alzate