We are justly outraged at female circumcision throughout the world, but how many people seriously consider male circumcision, almost universally performed in America? We think of ourselves today as sexually liberated — after all, we are a country that can openly talk of our President’s sexual liaisons, right? However, I doubt that among the identifying features of William Jefferson Clinton’s penis according to Paula Jones was the fact that he is uncircumcised. If it is, it certainly would be an identifying characteristic, because most American men are circumcised. Could it be a sign of our secret sexual repression that no one discusses the sexual mutilation of infant boys in a common procedure called male circumcision?
However, our attention is drawn to female circumcision. An estimated 70 to 90 percent of Egyptian women have had their genitals mutilated in the various practices known as female circumcision. Women in Egypt and other parts of Africa are mutilated “for cleanliness” and to control their sexuality. Mutilated girls and women live with the dire physical and psychological consequences. Bleeding, infection and even death can occur after the surgical procedures (sometimes performed on the street) in which the clitoris may be removed, or the clitoris along with the labia minora and or labia majora. Oftentimes, no anesthetic is given the female child during the procedure. The remaining skin around the vagina is often sewn up leaving only a small opening, and must be reopened in adulthood if the woman wishes to give birth. Barbaric, isn’t it?
In the United States, most baby boys are circumcised for the same frivolous reasons. According to some parents and doctors, it is “cleaner” not to have to worry about the foreskin, or a circumcised penis “is the way it’s supposed to look.” They “don’t want their boy to be different.” The father himself may say, “It was done to me, so it will be done to him.” Has anyone ever thought to ask the baby what he would like done?
One of Canada’s leading ethicists says that circumcision of baby boys is technically criminal assault and that doctors should stop circumcising babies. “It is a bodily wounding on a tiny infant that has given no consent itself, and it is not . . . medically necessary,” asserts Dr. Margaret Summerville, founding director of the McGill Center for Medicine, Ethics and Law. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatricians decided in 1971 “There are no absolute indications for routine neonatal [newborn] circumcision.” Why are these surgical procedures still done then on mostly newborn boys?
John A. Erickson has a cynical response: “When you circumcise a baby, you are cutting off a part of his penis that you can cut off only because the person you’re cutting it off of can’t protect himself because he is a baby. Infant circumcision is foreskin amputation by force. No medical organization that subscribes to the ethic of ‘Do no Harm’ [one of the principals that doctors swear by can possibly support cutting off any part of anyone by force.”
Gloria Steinem connected male and female circumcision during a 1997 forum on female genital mutilation in New York: “I would like to remind us that we all share patriarchy, which is the pillar of almost every current political system, capitalist or socialist. And it has a rock bottom requirement, the control of women’s bodies as the most basic means of reproduction. . . These patriarchal controls limit men’s sexuality, too, but to a much, much lesser degree. That’s why men are asked symbolically to submit the sexual part of themselves and their sons to patriarchal authority, which seems to be the origin of male circumcision . . . speaking for myself, I stand with many brothers in eliminating that practice, too.”
However, evidence suggests that male circumcision is not such a small thing. The natural penis is a mucous membrane, like the female clitoris. In an uncircumcised penis, the foreskin shields the sensitive glans (tip) from irritation of any kind: against fabric and diapers, or possible infection from urine and faeces. The foreskin has specialized nerve endings that enhance sexual pleasure. It also secretes a substance that keeps the glans lubricated and protects the glans from trauma and injury. Without this covering the glans penis becomes dry, calloused and desensitized from exposure and chafing. Contrary to popular belief, the uncircumcised foreskin needs no special attention or cleaning in infancy. Later in childhood, the boy child may wash the penis and foreskin with soap and water just as easily as without a foreskin.
In circumcision the foreskin (prepuce), the natural sheath of skin which covers the penis is removed in a surgical procedure often done in the hospital within 24 hours after the baby is born, or in an outpatient operation shortly after birth. A cauterizing needle used to be used to remove the foreskin, and there were cases of infant penises being accidentally burned off in this procedure (see the Dec. 11 1997 issue of Rolling Stone for a harrowing case history, “The True Story of John/Joan,” by John Colapinto.) There are a few different procedures that are used today, one done with a Gomco clamp, another done with a plastibell instrument (the boy baby wears home a plastic thing on his penis).
Although current procedures are safer than cauterization, sometimes disfigurement, injury, and, in rare cases, death may result. Even a successful circumcision may be uncomfortable or dangerous to the baby short term. The raw, open wound where the foreskin was attached to the penis is subject to infection from exposure to urine and excrement while the cut heals. Hemorrhage (excessive bleeding) and pain, ulceration, urinary retention, swelling, skin loss, and deformities of the glans and urethral opening can also result from current methods.
Oftentimes anesthesia (pain medication) is not used on the baby, and if it is there can be complications from its use. The pain of the procedure and its aftereffects even if anesthesia is used may traumatize the baby. Painful erections may be a consequence of circumcision, and sometimes skin grafts may be necessary. And the long term effects of desensitization cannot be ignored. All this for a procedure that is not even medically necessary!
Although circumcision started as a Jewish ritual, it became adapted into the mainstream population in the Victorian age in the late 19th century as a way to discourage masturbation and to curb sexual promiscuity among males. In 1900 the editor of Medical News declared: “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 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.” (see the other quotes from the history of circumcision on the side bar).
Just because past generations of American men have been mutilated, let’s not keep this unnecessary practice up. If you ARE led to perform circumcision for a religious reason, could another ritual, like a blessing, be performed instead? Are we really more enlightened than those who practice or tolerate female circumcision in allowing male circumcision for sanitary or aesthetic reasons? Men who have already been circumcised may never know what they have lost in the way of sensation of the penis. Maybe this is why the mostly male sexual enhancing drug Viagra has achieved so much popularity in the U.S. The desensitized American penis needs artifical stimulus.
Circumcised men who are curious at what they may be missing need not despair totally, however. Dr. Jim Bigelow (Ph.D.) has written The Joy of Uncircumcising. For $19.95 ($2 shipping and handling and $1.45 CA tax) you may order it from UNCIRC, P.O. Box 52138, Pacific Grove CA 93950. You can also receive information about uncircumcising at this address, or to order by phone call 408-375-4326. There are ways of stretching the remaining skin on the penis to reconstruct a foreskin, according to Dr. Bigelow.
In addition to UNCIRC, there is NOCIRC, the National Organization of Circumcision Information. Their address is P. O. Box 2512, San Anselmo CA 94979-2512 phone 415-488-9883 FAX 415-488-9660; www.nocirc.org Executive director is Marilyn Fayre Milos, R.N. Other WEB resources are listed in the box accompanying this article. You can receive a NOCIRC Resource Guide listing books, articles, pamphlets, picture sources, order information, and other organizations from NOCIRC. The book Say No to Circumcision! : 40 compelling reasons why you should respect his birthright and keep your son whole, published by Hourglass Books in 1996 by Thomas J. Ritter, MD, and George C. Denniston, MD, may be ordered from NOCIRC for $9.95 plus $3 shipping and handling, and offers a brief and cogent guide for those wishing information about the practice.
For parents who may perform a circumcision on their infant son, beware! An issue to be decided in the coming century is the extent of children’s rights. Child advocates, ethicists and lawyers agree that circumcision should be considered something that only an individual can decide for himself. In other words, one day a child may be able to sue his parents for performing a circumcision without the child’s consent. Attorneys for the Rights of the Child (ARC) is a new non-profit network of attorneys founded to address the legal issues behind genital mutilation. ARC has an office at 2961 Ashby Ave., in Berkeley, CA; phone is 510-848-4437. They seek to make provisions for male victims of botched circumcisions, especially those who were circumcised without their parents’ consent, parents whose sons were circumcised below the “standard of care,” and parents whose sons died as a result of circumcision. They wish to expand provisions already in place to prevent or punish female genital mutilation done to minor children in America to male minors. J. Steven Svoboda, Esq., founder and director, says, “The medical profession, which has perpetuated this tragic disfigurement of baby boys’ genitals, will be challenged by an organization of legal professionals whom they cannot afford to ignore.”