Schlong Song

Circumcision: Health-conscious procedure or unnecessary sexual amputation?

A father-to-be recently sent me a letter asking for advice: He and his wife are expecting a baby boy and debating whether to have him circumcised. He wrote, "I'm uncircumcised and I kind of want him to 'match' me in the plumbing department, just to avoid any psychological problems with proper sexual identification, but my greatest fear is that he might be missing out sexually as a result of the procedure. Also, I kind of felt this should be his choice to make, since it's his body." He became conflicted, though, when he read a report on new research in Africa that shows circumcision reduces the risk of HIV infection. "Our son is going to be getting comprehensive sex ed as he grows up, but condoms do sometimes break and this added level of protection certainly wouldn't be a bad thing. But if he goes under the knife, will he be 'missing' anything sexually?"

While the cultural contexts surrounding the practice are different, male circumcision is the equivalent of female circumcision (removal of the clitoral hood that protects the clit's glans). As a society, we vehemently oppose when this is done to women and see it as a way of mutilating their bodies, controlling their sexuality, and limiting their sexual pleasure. Why, then, don't we view male circumcision the same way?

The procedure is not just the "little snip," it's often referred to as—there's nothing minor about cutting away the fold of skin that surrounds and protects the head of the penis. The practice began in English-speaking countries in the mid-1800s as a way to prevent masturbation, which was believed to cause many diseases. By the 1900s, infant circumcision had become widespread thanks to the shift in control over the birthing process from female midwives to male obstetricians; the rise of medical experts, who began recommending it; and the increase of advertising aimed at convincing people they were dirty in order to sell hygiene products. Today, about 60 percent of men in this country are circumcised.

Last week, I browsed the parenting section of Borders and found dozens of books that cover every aspect of child rearing, from the moment of conception through each trimester to the birthing process, infancy, and beyond. Yet of everything a new parent needs to consider circumcision is notably absent or glossed over in a few sentences that basically say talk to your doctor. But rarely—if ever—does a doctor ask a parent, "Do you want to lessen your son's penile sensitivity and erotic enjoyment?" And when the majority of doctors (and fathers) in a country are circumcised, they are invested in perpetuating the practice. Interestingly, one study found that parents who have the opportunity to discuss the procedure decide against it.

Pro-circumcision literature focuses on hygiene and disease transmission as the primary reasons to circumcise. Proponents argue that the foreskin of an intact penis traps bacteria, making it harder to clean and more likely to cause infections. One pamphlet from the Gilgal Society in England claims that circumcision significantly decreases the risk of contracting urinary-tract infections in infancy, as well as prostate cancer, penile cancer, some STDs, and HIV through vaginal intercourse with an infected woman. In addition, those in favor of circumcision emphasize that a boy with an intact penis may feel alienated from his circumcised father and be ridiculed by his peers for being different.

Eighty percent of the world's men have intact penises, and no medical association recommends infant circumcision. Anti-circumcision advocates believe that the procedure is risky, unnecessary, and equivalent to genital amputation, since it removes a vital part of the penis. They contend that by removing the foreskin, you take away the part of the penis with the most nerve endings, which serves to lubricate and protect the glans and enhance sexual sensitivity. As a result, the unprotected head of the circumcised penis becomes thick, leathery, and desensitized. In his book Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma, Ronald Goldman, Ph.D., asserts that the practice is physically and emotionally traumatic for any infant, and he attempts to link it to a variety of future problems, including abnormalities in neurological development, low self-esteem, anger-management problems, rape, violence, intimacy issues, and sexual anxiety and dysfunction.

Complicating matters for parents are the recent findings of two separate studies conducted by the National Institutes of Health in Africa, which found that uncircumcised men in the study were becoming infected with HIV at twice the rate of circumcised men. The theory is that the delicate inside fold of the foreskin contains a particular kind of white blood cell vulnerable to the virus; furthermore, uncircumcised men are more likely to have another STD that can lead to open sores on the penis, giving the HIV virus direct access to the bloodstream. Notably, both studies were halted before they could be completed, which some researchers argue has skewed the results.

Using these results to inform the decision to circumcise an American child does not take into account the significant differences that exist between the two countries with respect to AIDS. Uncircumcised penises are not the only element driving the high infection rates in Africa. Poor genital hygiene, lack of safer-sex education, little knowledge about or access to condoms, nonmonogamous sexual practices, and cultural practices like dry sex and wife inheritance all contribute to the AIDS pandemic, which is why mass circumcision alone will not solve the problem. Furthermore, circumcision as a prophylactic measure does not translate in the United States, where the rates and methods of transmission are much different. In fact, according to NOCIRC—the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers (nocirc.org)—the U.S. has the highest rate of infant circumcision and the highest rate of HIV/AIDS among industrialized nations. After reading Goldman's exhaustive, passionate book and seeing graphic diagrams and photos of circumcision, I am convinced that if people were well-informed about the foreskin's important functions and actually witnessed a circumcision, they would never subject anyone to it.

 
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