Circumcision

Our son is four-and-a-half years old and has his entire foreskin intact.  We have never regretted for a moment our decision not to have him circumcised.

I always was a bit skeptical of the idea of surgically removing healthy tissue from newborns.  My father explained that the foreskin can’t become infected or cancerous if it isn’t there…but we don’t take out babies’ appendixes to prevent them from getting appendicitis later, even though appendicitis is much more common than penile cancer.

In my twenties, I did a little reading on circumcision and learned that it removes far more than I’d realized: That two-tone coloration that is noticeable on many penises shows the line between the skin that’s supposed to be exposed and the skin that was covered by foreskin. I also learned that the foreskin is not just useless extra skin but has several important functions in health and sexuality. I also learned that circumcision can go terribly wrong, resulting in permanent mutilation or death or various complications. Certainly it didn’t seem like something to do just for cosmetic reasons.

My partner, Daniel, agreed. He said he didn’t miss what he’d never (in his memory) had, and he was happy the way he is, but circumcision didn’t seem worth the risk to any future son of ours.

What about tradition, culture, and religion?  Well, we aren’t Jewish, so although we have a family history of religious circumcision, we were no more inclined to cut up our son for the sake of tradition than we are to eat no ham for the sake of tradition–and there are even Jews against circumcision.  I’m a Christian, and I learned that there are many strong, biblically-based arguments that Christians don’t need to circumcise and that it conflicts with many Christian values.  We weren’t worried about our kid being the funny-looking one in the locker room once we learned that (unlike in our generation) almost half of boys born in the United States these days are kept intact.

I thought it was settled that if we ever had a son we wouldn’t circumcise him.  When we were ready to have a baby and reading more about various aspects of parenthood, we kept running across information about circumcision–for example, it interferes with baby’s ability to breastfeed–and the issue seemed even more settled.

However, several months before our baby was born, Daniel decided to do some more research.  He kind of felt like there must have been a good reason it had been done to him, and he wanted to be really sure it wasn’t necessary.  What he learned sent him into a tailspin of rage and horror.  He now feels that he was mutilated without his consent simply because of tradition and ignorance.  He was very, very upset for several weeks.  He wouldn’t speak to his parents because he feared he would yell at them.  He understood that they were Jewish and that circumcision was very much routine in 1970s America and it actually would be remarkable if they’d questioned it, but still . . .

I tried to be sympathetic, but I didn’t really relate, having never learned anything like that about my own body.  I just kept saying, “Okay, we won’t circumcise our baby.  I love you the way you are.  Please calm down.”  The reality of the situation finally got through to me the night Daniel asked me:

“Have you ever slept with a normal man?”

Suddenly I felt like I was staring out of The Matrix. Every penis in my experience had been surgically altered. I had played with a double-digit number of men, but I had never touched a normal human penis the way God made it. In fact, I’d seen a few penises whose unusual features–which I’d put down to individual variation–I suddenly realized were scars. One former boyfriend felt pain with every erection because his skin was too tight; why hadn’t I realized that was because he’d had too much cut off? Every man I’d loved was a victim of a very personal assault perpetrated against him when he was a defenseless little baby.

I still haven’t gotten over that. It’s so weird and horrifying.

Well, anyway, our baby turned out to be a boy. If we’d had any remaining doubt about leaving him intact, I think it would have been erased when we first changed his diaper and Daniel (after his jaw dropped) said, “That’s really small! People think it’s safe to take a knife to that?!”  [Note to our son’s peers: It is much bigger now!]  Nicholas needed special treatment for jaundice, which involved his being separated from us for a while and getting a lot of extra jabbing, which was very traumatic for him, so we were glad he didn’t have a surgery to recover from as well.

Many Americans believe that circumcision is necessary for hygiene.  In fact, when you change the diaper of an intact baby boy, all you have to do is wipe him off–no special cleaning, and you don’t push back the foreskin.  Compare that to the complexity of caring for a circumcised boy, who has an open wound soaking in excrement. As an intact boy gets older, he’ll need to wash under the foreskin, but that’s no big deal.  I mean, I have layers of genital skin, and they’re not difficult to wash!  It’s obvious from American pop culture that there are women who don’t keep themselves clean, but for some reason we all understand that that is a problem of personal hygiene, and nobody ever suggests that we should amputate the labia of all girls at birth so they won’t smell fishy or get yeast infections!

When he was about eight months old, Nicholas had a severe diaper rash that happened to be worst on the tip of his foreskin.  The doctor pointed out that if he did not have that skin, the damage would have been on his glans, would have been much more painful, and could have caused permanent scarring or sealed off his urethra so that he’d need emergency surgery.  (A circumcised boy we know had to have that surgery.)  As it was, he healed just fine.  He’s never had any other genital troubles.

How do we deal with having a boy whose penis doesn’t look like his father’s? A lot of people seem to think this is a really important issue!  It makes me wonder how much time in their families is spent comparing genitals. . . .  It just hasn’t been much of an issue because, of course, an adult penis looks a lot different from a little boy’s penis anyway!! Sometime after learning the word, Nicholas pointed out that Daddy also has a penis, but he had no further comment.  It’s only in the past month that he asked why they’re different, and that was because he’d noticed that some of the other boys at school have “a round thing on their penis” (the coronal ridge, which on an intact boy is covered by the foreskin) and he wondered when he would get one–having observed Daddy, he figured this was a developmental step.  I explained that he does have the “round thing” and the actual difference is that those boys had some of their skin cut off.  His eyes widened.  I told him that some boys had an operation as babies, but he did not; people used to believe this operation made boys healthier, but when Daddy and I read about it before Nicholas was born we learned that it isn’t necessary, so we didn’t get it done.  Nicholas was completely satisfied with this explanation.  It wasn’t a conversation I’d planned to have in a public restroom, but I was grateful for his preschool’s rule that private parts are “something we only talk about in the bathroom,” which prevented him from bringing up the topic in, say, the grocery store or a crowded elevator!

Comments are closed on this article because I do not want to host debates.  E-mail becca[at]earthlingshandbook[dot]org if you want to discuss it with me.

FOLLOW-UP:
Daniel’s parents wrote a response explaining why they had him circumcised.
Then Daniel wrote his own article on this subject.

Later, this article helped to save baby Jonathan from surgery and save his family $437.

Read more debunking of circumcision myths, including, “It’s safer and less painful for an infant than later in life,” and, “It’s not as drastic as female genital mutilation.”

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About 'Becca
author of The Earthling's Handbook, about the environment, parenting, cooking, and more!

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