In January 2005, at the age of thirty-seven, I was circumcised. I’ll get to the reasons why later in this post, but I figured I’d start by getting your attention.
Below this post, a men’s rights advocate (MRA) calling himself "ballgame" (!), offers a long comment that concludes with a reference to male circumcision as Male Genital Mutilation (MGM, a play on the term Female Genital Mutilation, which refers to a genuinely dreadful practice performed primarily in North Africa.)
One particular strand of the men’s rights movement that I find especially distasteful is the group that insists that the removal of the foreskin of the penis is equivalent to the removal of the clitoris. The best known anti-circumcision lobbying group is NOCIRC. The explicit equivalency between male circumcision and female genital mutilation is made by the folks at (get ready) the International Coalition for Genital Integrity.
No one denies that there are "botched" male circumcisions. But the NOCIRC and ICGI folks, and their men’s rights advocate supporters, fail to recognize that male circumcision is performed for radically different reasons than is female genital mutilation. While the latter operation is designed to safeguard women’s purity (and make pleasure nearly impossible), circumcision is done for a variety of reasons, including increasingly legitimate health ones.
Though it is problematic to quote President Clinton in regards to this part of the male anatomy, the Guardian reported in August that
Bill Clinton called for the world to prepare to tackle the cultural taboos surrounding circumcision yesterday if, as many expect, trials show that it protects men and the women they sleep with from Aids.
Though a fuller study will not report until next year, a preliminary South African study released in 2005 made the compelling claim that male circumcision is a vital weapon in the fight against HIV. Francois Venter, the head of the Southern African HIV Clinicians Society, described male circumcision as "what may be our most important HIV-prevention strategy ever."
No such medical benefits to the infinitely more barbaric practice of female genital mutilation have ever been reported.
Though the findings remain controversial, many doctors do believe that circumcision also reduces the risk of cervical cancer in women. Warning: if you google about for information on this topic, you’ll note that non-medical anti-circumcision groups have had remarkable success in getting their results to the top of the queue of answers. Much more will be known when we get the results of the first truly large scale study on circumcision and health from Africa next year.
My brother and I were not circumcised. I was born in 1967, my brother in 1970; we were born in the United States at a time when virtually every baby boy was circumcised. My parents had to be quite emphatic with the physicians at Cottage Hospital, Santa Barbara, to prevent what was a routine operation from being performed. For my late father, the reason to avoid circumcision was linked to religion, ethnicity, and the Holocaust. My father’s father was raised Jewish, but married my Catholic grandmother and converted. When my father was born in Vienna in 1935, he was the first male Schwyzer in the family line not to have the foreskin removed. My grandfather saw not being circumcised as a sign of assimilation, something he wanted very much for his family. In Austria in the 1930s, only Jews were circumcised. With the gathering clouds of anti-Semitism already clearly on the horizon, it was thought best that my father "not look Jewish" down there.
My father was of course no anti-Semite. But like many Europeans, he retained the association between Judaism and circumcision. He didn’t understand the post-war American custom of circumcising all boys routinely, regardless of their faith. And quite understandably, he wanted his sons to look like him "down there." Many fathers, I am sure, feel the same way.
It wasn’t easy being the only uncircumcised boy growing up. Junior high locker rooms (where we had open, communal showers) were brutal. I was teased relentlessly. One memorable comment that has stuck with me since about 1979: "It looks like a pistol, instead of an apple like it’s supposed to." My mother explained why I wasn’t circumcised with a simple "Your father is European, and it’s not done over there." That explanation was all I got until I was in college, and it did little to ease the sense of being different.
In my sexual life, I found that some women were fascinated with the foreskin, others repulsed by it, others absolutely didn’t care. But I did find — and here I’m walking dangerously close to what is known as TMI — that my foreskin did not always retract as easily as I would like for intercourse. I had one very memorable, very painful visit to an emergency room when I was in college. I’ve had stitches in my knees, on my scalp, on my arms — but stitching up a little tear "down there" was no picnic. As I grew more experienced, I learned little tricks to make sure that I never had a foreskin tearing incident again, but it certainly made me worry for years and years afterwards.
The first person to recommend circumcision to me was the doctor at Cowell Hospital (in Berkeley) who took care of my "sex-related injury." He said that it would make sex much easier, but I was emphatically not interested. I didn’t consider circumcision again until just a few years ago. There were many reasons for my choosing circumcision in my late thirties. Some of those reasons are too private to get into in a public blog. One reason, of course, was indeed to make intercourse more comfortable. But there was another, profoundly personal reason as well that I will share (with my wife’s permission.)
I’ve alluded many times to a past of promiscuity. While I am not ashamed of who I was or of what I did, when I met the woman who is now my wife and fell in love with her, I began to wish that I could offer her something radically new about me. And it occurred to me one day that getting circumcised would be something tangible I could do to provide an outer manifestation of my sexual rebirth. My wife would thus be the only woman with whom I had made love with that particular penis, as it were. It was not her idea, it was entirely mine. And that desire to create something wonderfully new, combined with the desire to avoid future trips to the ER, led me to call a urologist in early 2005.
The procedure was done outpatient. It lasted just over an hour. The application of the anesthetic stung a bit, but the actual circumcision (done by laser) was absolutely painless. Dissolving sutures were applied, and I was on my way home. I was running within two days, and my wife and I were intimate again within four weeks. There was no loss of sensation or any other complication as a result of this minor, safe, medical procedure. The physical benefits I had sought were exactly as I hoped, and the spiritual benefits were tremendous as well. Every time I’m naked, my very flesh reminds me that I am not the man I once was. I rejoice in that, and haven’t regretted my decision for a single second.
So that’s my story. Hostile comments about that aspect of this post will be deleted, though you are free to take issue with my other contentions about circumcision. I write as a man who has intimate experience with the "before" and the "after", and whose "after" is physically and spiritually better than his "before." I write as a pro-feminist angered by the "victim consciousness" of anti-circumcision advocates, who equate a quick, safe, beneficial procedure that rarely produces lasting trauma to an operation performed on girls that produces lasting pain and robs them of the opportunity for sexual delight. To suggest that male circumcision is equivalent to Female Genital Mutilation is like comparing the pain of a vaccinating needle to that of being stabbed by a knife. It’s deeply offensive and indefensible to do so.