by Daniel Efran
Well, I figure if my girlfriend and my parents are discussing my penis on the Internet, I’d better chime in!
The subject, specifically, is routine circumcision of infants–whether it should be routine, whether it should have been done to our son (which it wasn’t), and whether it should have been done to me (which it was). Becca’s article and my parents’ reply reflect many of my opinions so eloquently that I have little to add, but I’d like to go on record with my opinion about circumcision.
I’m against it.
Of course, I understood that when my parents agreed to circumcision, they did what was considered “normal” at the time, for plausible and unchallenged reasons.
For that matter, I didn’t really “wake up” about circumcision myself until pretty recently, as ‘Becca said in her post–it always had seemed more or less normal to me, too; I had no particular complaints; I hadn’t heard about some of the possible complications; and of course I knew how common it was in my generation and beyond.
Freud’s concept of “castration anxiety” had always sounded like one of his more outlandish ideas. I thought, “Why would I ever be afraid someone would cut off my penis?” It sounded absurd to me… until, when researching circumcision, I came across the idea of the foreskin as a distinct erogenous zone, with about as much skin and as many nerves as the rest of the penis–or more. At that moment I realized that the question isn’t stated right, in my case, without a few more words inserted.
“Why would I ever be afraid someone would cut off the rest of my penis?”
Put that way, the question is no longer farfetched. Now it’s serious and rather chilling. Also, now it’s a public policy question: “Why was this done to me and so many boys in 1971, and are those reasons still good ones?”
To make a long story short, no, I don’t think the reasons are good ones. I really, really don’t feel like doing the research again to find relevant links for you, but ‘Becca has done some of that in her first post on the subject.
Instead, I’ll just give you seven sound bites to chew on.
Seven Reasons Not to Circumcise Your Son
1. “First, do no harm.” (I thought this was an actual quote from the Hippocratic Oath, and apparently it isn’t, but it certainly should be a guiding principle for doctors.) Don’t slice off healthy body parts until you’re sure it’s in the patient’s best interests. Is the foreskin really vestigial, optional, unimportant? That seems unlikely, given that it’s part of the penis. It’s clearly not essential to survival, but anecdotal evidence (and common sense) suggest that it has some value. It’s certainly not “just skin” any more than your eyelids are. (That’s a good analogy: eyelids, too, are delicate, sensitive, specialized, protective, skin-like organs. Awkward to wash under, but mostly self-cleaning. You probably could live without them, if they’d been removed when you were a baby. If most boys had no eyelids, it would look “normal”. Sort of.)
2. “Do I get to keep the rest of it?” Years from now your son will learn that his parents pruned his privates without permission. You’re hoping he’ll agree that you made a wise choice, accept it calmly, and remain calm and accepting about it forever. Think now about how you’ll explain what you did and why. Especially if there are complications and his penis turns out lopsided or lumpy or painful or missing.
3. “Side effects may include death.” It’s very rare, but babies do die of complications from circumcision. (Jewish law allows parents who have had three sons die from circumcision to leave the fourth son intact.) Imagine telling your family that you just killed your new baby with elective surgery because you didn’t want him to “look different from daddy”. Very rare worst cases aren’t too useful for decision making, but there are plenty of more common, less serious possible complications to fill out the “cons” side here, in my opinion. If you can stomach it, do a web search for “circumcision complications”. (Warning: It won’t be work-safe, nor lunch-safe.)
4. “Don’t borrow trouble.” Circumcision causes pain and stress that interferes with mother-child interactions. Newborn infants have enough to worry about, like having just been born! They’re engaged in a complicated adaptive process. So are parents. Why inflict a wound in the “diaper zone” at this critical stage in life? Why risk infection, if not accidental mutilation?
5. “Litany of excuses.” There do seem to be some possible medical benefits to circumcision, but not huge ones. (For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics no longer recommends routine neonatal circumcision. Proper hygiene and safe sex practices convey many of the same benefits.) And the reasons circumcision originally became commonplace in America are even less convincing. Let’s face it, this practice was spread, over centuries and millenia, by memes like these seven:
“God demands it!”
“Cures masturbation, even better than corn flakes!”
“Makes trench warfare more comfortable!”
“Increases sensitivity!” (I imagine eyelid removal would do that, too, depending on your definition of “sensitivity”.)
“Babies don’t feel pain!”
“He’ll be upset if he doesn’t look like his father!” (who’s also twice his height, bearded, and presumably better hung)
“He’ll be teased if he doesn’t look like his friends!” (If your friends told you to cut off your penis, would you do it?)
I don’t know about you, but after hearing that litany of excuses, my “quackery” alarm is quacking pretty loudly. A large, proven medical benefit might still convince me it’s worthwhile to cut pieces off of babies, but lukewarm ones won’t. The current health claims are worth learning about, to make a careful decision. But to me, they’re not enough to shore up that shaky historical foundation.
6. “Question authority.” When 9 out of 10 boys your age had a body part cut off, and if you ask why you hear that it’s for your own good, you didn’t need it, you’re better off without it, your daddy had his cut off and you don’t hear him complaining, you wouldn’t want to be different would you…
…that’s the time to say “Whoa!” and give serious consideration to doing the opposite. (Like, say, maybe not lopping off parts of your babies.) A cultural trend can be very widespread and seem very “normal” and yet be misguided and worth rebelling against. (Read “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson.)
7. “You wouldn’t do it to your daughter.” Seriously, now. We in the Western world think female genital mutilation is primitive and cruel. Breast cancer is far more common than penile cancer, yet we don’t amputate baby girls’ nipples to prevent future problems. So why do we blithely accept the amputation, from a majority of baby boys, of an entire erogenous zone?
There are medical conditions for which circumcision is the appropriate treatment, but they’re rare. The surgery can be done later if it’s really needed, and a man who wants it done for cosmetic reasons can make that decision himself as an adult. Most babies are born healthy and intact–why not leave them that way?