Essay/Fertility, Pregnancy and Childbirth

The first cut

Most American boys are circumcised as a matter of course. Now, many of them feel violated. Should the practice be banned?

Rhys Southan

Foreskin Man to the rescue. Image courtesy Matthew Hess
is a freelance writer and former vegan. He has written for The New Inquiry, The New York Times and his own blog, Let Them Eat Meat, and is working on a book about the ethics of eating meat.

3,900 words

Edited by Ed Lake

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My first encounter with an ‘intactivist’ was in my freshman speech class. Our assignment was to sway our classmates on a contentious issue, and she opened her speech by asking if any man in the class still had his foreskin. I raised my hand. This being late 1990s America, only one other student joined me. ‘You’re lucky!’ she said, before launching into a polemic on the many advantages of the male prepuce and the barbarism of infant circumcision.

I can’t remember all her specific arguments, but I know they roughly matched the intactivist or anti-circumcision talking points that I explored in depth later on. The foreskin has sensitive nerve endings; it provides gliding and natural lubrication that is useful for unprotected sex and masturbation (its main failing, as far as influential 19th-century Americans were concerned) and it acts as a protective layer, shielding the glans from harsh friction that can dull sexual sensation over time. In the opposing corner was circumcision, which destroys all of that for no good reason. More ideologically, by making this irreversible change before the child can consent, circumcision infringes on the autonomy of the individual in a way that can’t be justified in a culture that claims to care about bodily integrity and freedom of choice.

This all sounded fantastic to me. I sat back in class, revelling in my uncompromised state.

About a year later, for some reason, this wonderfully reassuring speech sprang to mind, and I found myself wondering what a circumcised penis looked like. I went to one of my school’s computer labs and glanced over my shoulder before searching Yahoo! for ‘circumcised penis’. As I clicked through the images of seemingly normal and natural penises, I felt like I was staring at a ‘spot the difference’ puzzle in which the same picture had been printed twice by mistake. It was impossible to say what made these penises circumcised. They all looked just like mine.

Then I had a troubling thought and did a search for ‘uncircumcised penis’. I was 19 years old when I realised I was circumcised.

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In German-occupied Europe during the Second World War, Nazis would sometimes confirm the Jewishness of men by having them pull down their pants. They couldn’t have done that in the US, especially not now. When I was born in 1979, the number of newborn boys circumcised during their birth hospitalisation was 64.5 per cent (by 2010, this had fallen a bit to a reported 58.3 per cent). The broader category of affected infants would have been higher because of religious circumcisions outside of hospitals, and even because of circumcisions such as my own, which was postponed to a return visit because of a staph infection. Given that Jews make up only about 2 per cent of the US population, evidently cutting is no longer a distinctively Jewish practice. So, if not for religious reasons, why do we do it?

At the most prosaic level, there are the medical arguments. It is said that uncut boys and men sometimes develop problems that they might have avoided if someone had removed their foreskins in infancy. This is correct. Phimosis, a tightness of the foreskin, is possible only if you have a foreskin in the first place. Furthermore, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that circumcision is somewhat protective against male urinary tract infections (UTIs), the human papilloma virus (HPV), heterosexually transmitted HIV in Africa, penile cancer, and genital herpes.

If you are a fan of the foreskin, or consider elective genital surgery on infants a no-no, the alleged medical benefits probably won’t convince you

But, say opponents, so what? Several of these related conditions are rare, no matter what your genitals look like. Safe sex prevents sexually transmitted infections (STIs) better than circumcision ever could. Is it worth the 111 infant circumcisions that the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood in 2005 found it would take to prevent a single UTI, when UTIs are easily treated with antibiotics? Should we do the 909 infant circumcisions that the US National Cancer Institute says it would take to prevent one case of penile cancer, when an HPV vaccine is a more effective preventative, and when we don’t remove the breast buds of girls to reduce their risk of breast cancer? Intactivists observe that infant circumcision isn’t a zero-risk endeavour, either: the American Urological Association estimates the risk of complications at 3 per cent.

One thing is clear. Whether you find the health case for circumcision impressive or not probably hinges on where the burden of proof falls for you. If you start off thinking that foreskins are a useless, smelly bother, any possible advantage of taking them off will be fantastically persuasive. If, on the other hand, you are a fan of the foreskin, or consider elective genital surgery on infants a no-no, the alleged medical benefits probably won’t convince you. Medical reasons take us only so far. To see circumcision for what it is, we need to look at the other things mixed up in it, and find the deep questions of principle that are hidden in a swirl of accusations of anti-Semitism, misogyny and misandry.

‘At the time my son was born, I would have described myself as a totally secular atheist,’ explained Richard Shweder, a cultural anthropologist and professor of comparative human development at the University of Chicago. ‘And I had to face up to the question: am I going to circumcise my son?’

Shweder has a Jewish heritage and a professional interest in competing moral systems. He considers himself a cultural pluralist, which means that he gives the benefit of the doubt to cultures that seem to find significance and value in their practices, even when those practices don’t sit well with Western ideas. For example, he has some eyebrow-raising views on female genital mutilation (more on those below). Even so, his motivations here aren’t totally unlike the ones that persuaded my own, thoroughly gentile, mom and dad.

‘My wife had no hesitation,’ Shweder said. ‘From her point of view, that’s just what you do, that’s what looked normal to her, that’s what Jews do. From my point of view, the autonomy issues were on my mind. You know, it’s his body, how can I do this to him? All those questions were there. And then the other voice was, how can I not do this to him? The weight of thousands of years of tradition was on me. It felt too big and significant to set to the side. The ancestors had a vote.’

If your priority is to have your naked boy fit in with other naked boys, removing his foreskin is still a decent way of accomplishing that

My parents might not have had thousands of years of tradition on them, but there was still social pressure. Where I grew up in suburban Texas, sex education was so embattled that my high-school health teacher referred to condoms as ‘the c word’. It’s easy to say that my parents should have broached the issue of circumcision with me, but part of the reason they did it in the first place was precisely so that I could be a genital conformist in the US – in a sense, so it wouldn’t have to be discussed. Circumcision was too common and meaningless a procedure to warrant mention.

When you think about it, the social conformity case for circumcision in the US is pretty airtight. If your priority is to have your naked boy fit in with other naked boys, removing his foreskin is still a decent way of accomplishing that. But at the same time, that’s no guarantee that he won’t find himself facing some difficult questions.

You can try to fit in with the largest number of people, or you can try to make your ideas fit together. We live in a society that says, in effect: your body, your rules. If you buy into that liberal philosophical framework, it’s hard to make circumcision fit. And that’s when it starts to seem like a violation: not only of an important norm, but of the body itself.

That’s certainly how it seems to Matthew Hess, one of the most controversial personalities in the contemporary intactivist movement. In 2011, he won a good deal of publicity by submitting a ballot measure to ban circumcision in San Francisco (in fact, Hess has been submitting the bill to various authorities every year since 2004). A judge struck down the proposed ban as a violation of California law before it could go up for vote – but she couldn’t strike down Foreskin Man, the eponymous hero of Hess’s self-published comic, who flies around the world intervening when innocent boys are about to lose their foreskins.

Like me, Hess didn’t realise he was circumcised until college. During a hazing or initiation ritual in which everyone got naked, he was disturbed when only one of the men was called out for being an uncut rebel – and it wasn’t him. Hess tried to put the incident out of his mind. Later, though, he noticed a loss in sexual sensitivity, which he attributed to the lack of a protective foreskin. That’s when he started to think of himself as a victim. ‘I guess everyone loses their innocence eventually,’ he told me. ‘But that’s a very traumatic way to lose it. To know that it’s okay to mutilate another person, and look the other way, and not care about that person’s feelings about what happened to them. That makes a person feel so incredibly vulnerable that it really can affect their entire life.’

‘One of the great harms of circumcision,’ the Oxford philosopher Brian D Earp remarked to me, ‘is that some people feel violated. So this has a very serious effect on their sexuality because every time they look at their penis, they feel incomplete. Why do they feel incomplete? Because they were raised in a society that told them they had dominion about their body and then that choice was taken away.’

the blond-haired, blue-eyed prepuce-defending Foreskin Man is pitted against Monster Mohel, a thin, shadowy Jew with glowing eyes and sharpened fingernails

That idea of bodily dominion is at the heart of the Foreskin Man comic (2010-). The hero’s mission is to promote physical pleasure and personal freedom. His friends are rich, buff men and thin, busty women who have clearly had some work done. Though these characters might have felt social pressure to conform to popular beauty standards, no one forced them to spend hours at the gym or get breast implants. They are what they choose to be. They are free.

Things get murkier when we look at Foreskin Man’s enemies. They tend not to be half-hearted, ‘why not?’ cutters such as my parents. Naturally, given his polemical purposes, Hess goes after the most visible champions of circumcision. And so Foreskin Man’s notorious issue No 2 pits the blond-haired, blue-eyed prepuce-defending Foreskin Man against Monster Mohel, a thin, shadowy Jew with glowing eyes and sharpened fingernails, a type who would look at home in a Nazi propaganda poster.

Hess told me that he sees circumcision as an institutional problem rather than a problem of willful cruelty. That systemic critique doesn’t quite come across in his comics, which present circumcisers as devious villains who relish harming young boys in order to perpetuate backwards superstitions. This might be why much of the intactivist movement has distanced itself from him. But a question remains: isn’t the very desire to end cutting basically anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim? Wouldn’t an end to circumcision be an assault on religious freedom?

Francelle Wax first started thinking about circumcision during a trip to the UK when she was 19. In conversation with some British guys at a pub, it emerged that she was Jewish, and the Brits teased her that she would have been circumcised if she had been a boy. She thought this was a strange association to make with Judaism since she was also an American, and would have been circumcised as a boy whether she was Jewish or not. They were shocked to hear this. Wax was shocked at their shock. This got her thinking about circumcision. She came to see it as a test case for our thinking about practices that seem acceptable simply because we’re used to them. Today, she is making a documentary about intactivism, and she firmly rejects the idea that the movement is anti-Semitic. There are other Jewish intactivists, represented by groups like Beyond the Bris. ‘Are we all self-hating Jews?’ she asks. ‘That would be a hell of a claim to make, since many of us are practicing.’

Some moderates in the intactivist camp believe that any proposed ban should allow a religious exemption to avoid posing a threat to communities who find circumcision meaningful. Wax concedes that point on tactical grounds but not moral ones. She objects to the idea that children from gentile families are worth protecting and children from Jewish or Muslim families are not. American states don’t let Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and snake handlers treat children however they like, she says, so why should infant genital cutting get a religious pass?

Wax was, of course, referring specifically to male genital cutting. Almost no one in the US is looking to give female genital cutting any kind of pass. It is controversial to equate male and female genital cutting, which doesn’t stop some intactivists from doing it, with the unfortunate effect of bolstering the movement’s reputation as a frontline for men’s rights activists. But could there be merit to comparisons, if not strict equivalencies?

why is a country that circumcises boys all the time virulently opposed to the slightest harm befalling female genitalia?

Wax says that removing the clitoral hood would be anatomically analogous to removing the male prepuce, since both encase the sensitive glans tissues, preventing them from coarsening and drying out, but she points out that removing the foreskin likely entails a greater loss of sensual pleasure. The foreskin contains most of the penis’s fine touch nerve receptors, which offer a different quality and degree of sensation than the glans itself. In addition, it adds an extra gliding action and brings its own lubrication to the party, which can be nice for sexual partners too. In any case, it seems like there’s a plausible comparison to be made somewhere along these lines.

So why is a country that circumcises boys all the time virulently opposed to the slightest harm befalling female genitalia? Men’s rights activists might point the finger at widespread misandry, but Wax thinks the blame falls squarely on the self-perpetuating and overwhelming prevalence of male circumcision, which makes it all but unquestionably accepted in the US. If genital cutting is one of the worst things that can happen to a woman, how could it relate to something so routine in a Western democracy that most men don’t even think to question it?

We’re in uncomfortable territory here. Accepting that there are parallels between male and female genital surgeries might turn more people against male circumcision. Or it might have the opposite effect: we might relax our opposition to milder forms of female genital cutting. That seems to be the view of Fuambai Sia Ahmadu, an anthropologist who was born in Sierra Leone and raised in the US before she returned to Africa to complete a coming-of-age ritual that included genital cutting. For her, the tradition symbolises female empowerment, not oppression, and she calls it sexist hypocrisy when Americans are fine with male cutting but not female cutting.

That’s not far from being the cultural anthropologist Richard Shweder’s view. In 1972 he taught for a year at the University of Nairobi, which helped to familiarise him with the genital cutting practices there, and with colonial efforts to prohibit female but not male circumcision. He was startled in the early 1980s when feminists started talking about female cutting in African countries as one of the world’s great atrocities to be eradicated. Wasn’t this a return to ‘dark continent’ thinking?

Shweder sees intactivists as liberal imperialists: that is, people who view personal autonomy as the preeminent value. ‘In the ethics of autonomy,’ he told me, ‘the self is thought of as a preference structure.’ But there are other ways to think of the self, and Shweder doesn’t believe we can so easily dismiss alternative value systems, ones that put more emphasis on loyalty and sacrifice and the duties and obligations of social status, or on our connection with transcendental or so-called divine forces. Such systems find value in marks of membership and do not recoil at traditional collective imperatives such as infant circumcision.

This might seem like a confounding point of view. It’s true that no matter what any adults think of circumcision, babies are unanimously against it: for them, it’s just inexplicable pain. And it’s true that when parents and communities hold a circumcision ceremony with the infant as the unwitting star, they’re using babies as a way of spreading a particular culture and pleasing dead ancestors. Then again, isn’t this what having kids is all about? Few people have children because they want to care for random free agents who don’t share any of their values. Children are beautiful, perfect, cherished little bundles of meaning. That role is usually compatible with their wellbeing, but sometimes it isn’t. This leads to conflicts of interest. It would be fascinating to try to resolve them all in the child’s favour. But until we do, it seems odd to try to ban circumcision because it fails to meet an impossible standard of parental selflessness.

Besides, we have been assuming that the emotional dangers of cutting all go one way. What about the boys and men with circumcision envy? Anyone convinced that intact foreskins are the missing puzzle piece to bodily utopia might find it eye-opening to read forum posts by men preparing for adult circumcisions: men who wish they had been circumcised as infants and plan to have their hypothetical sons circumcised to spare them the nuisance that foreskins proved to be for their fathers. Unless we dismiss all these foreskin-renouncers as irrelevant, we can’t honestly claim that avoiding infant circumcision is the guaranteed best choice for everyone.

Until far more Jews and Muslims step forward to protest their own circumcisions, to me it looks more hurtful to ban religious circumcision than to leave it alone

In a way, the question comes down to a weighing of risks and harms: not only medical ones, but psychological and spiritual risks, too. The philosopher Brian D Earp opposes circumcision, not simply because it violates the rules of liberal autonomy, but because enough people in the West accept those rules for the violations to be disturbing. And so he insists on the right of those such as Matthew Hess to their own anguish. ‘A lot of people will be very dismissive of these sorts of feelings,’ Earp told me. ‘They’ll say, “Oh well, they just need to get their head checked out. It’s not about their penis, it’s about their head.” And I think to myself, if somebody had any other part of their body missing and felt psychologically violated about it, even if technically they didn’t need that part of their body, we’d sort of understand that feeling of loss.’

I agree with Earp and Hess that this is honest and significant pain, not a laughable quirk to be mocked into hiding – and this is why I can’t fully side with the intactivists. If harm is in large part subjective – and to credibly amplify the voices of a tiny minority who regret circumcision, intactivists need to admit it is – cutting is bad only for the people who find it so. It’s dishonest to claim that the joy the Jewish practice of brit milah brings its practitioners counts for nothing when most people who are circumcised for religious reasons do not grow up to think of themselves as abused. The organisation Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe (FREE), based in New York, says that it has circumcised more than 13,000 Jewish adults who were prohibited from infant circumcision in the Soviet Union. Many of them no doubt felt harmed by not having been circumcised in their infancy. Until far more Jews and Muslims step forward to protest their own circumcisions, to me it looks more hurtful to ban religious circumcision than to leave it alone.

On the other hand, what FREE proves is that adult circumcision still counts in Judaism. That’s something to consider too! In fact, FREE’s website says: ‘Our ancestor Abraham was circumcised at age 99. In part, this teaches us that no Jew should be left out of this mitzvah, regardless of age. Each Jew that takes advantage of FREE’s circumcision program forms another link in a 4,000 year-old chain of commitment to Judaism’s higher calling.’

Shweder told me that he thinks it’s worth thinking about a possible cultural shift that would delay Jewish circumcision to around the time of the bar mitzvah. ‘Perhaps there was a translation problem with Genesis 17 and, when Abraham received the command given by the God of the Jews, it really stated 13 years, not eight days,’ Shweder said mischievously. ‘After all, Ismael, who was Abraham’s only son at the time, was 13 years old when he was circumcised.’

Speaking personally, I would be happy to see circumcision as a habitual, pointless, barely discussed lopping-off of a body part end today. But the symbolism of circumcision isn’t universally negative, and attempts to ban it are unfairly dismissive of the symbolic value that many find in it. If we should refrain from telling people what their psychic wounds are allowed to be, we should be just as cautious about telling them what cultural traditions they are allowed to find meaningful. Circumcision hurts some people, but we can’t pretend that it doesn’t bring joy to others.

For those of us who are circumcised and wish we weren’t, we can try to keep it in perspective. When I first heard the intactivist argument, I didn’t realise I was circumcised. My foreskin confusion was a Trojan horse that had allowed anti-circumcision ideas to march into my mind completely unopposed. I never made it one of my major political issues, but when I thought about it – which I often did – I felt powerless, diminished, ‘incomplete’.

Then, at some point around my mid-twenties, I decided to stop caring so much about it.

Everyone has regrets about their upbringing; it’s just not possible for parents to make every choice align with their child’s future preferences. All the same, to future parents of boys, I would say this: take the decision of circumcision seriously. And if you do decide to remove your baby’s foreskin, just try to be sure that you replace it with something better.

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