Circumcision is a hot topic these days, thanks in part to the San Francisco ballot proposal to ban the procedure for males under 18. If the measure passes this November, circumcision would be prohibited among males under the age of 18, regardless of religious affiliation. The practice would become a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 or up to one year in jail.
Nine years ago, Nicole had a healthy baby boy, and for months preceding his birth, discussed with her husband whether they would circumcise him or not. David wanted him to be cut, and she was uncertain, though most of the newbie parents in their birthing class were clear on their choice. Despite numbers that show the popularity of this procedure was on the decline, they were the only couple considering keeping their baby boy’s parts neatly packed in his ready-made turtleneck.
Recalling those times, she says she felt a bit like a freak show discussing the medical ambiguity with parents who just wanted to get on with the breathing lessons. After all, learning to pant was more exciting that how to clean smegma from an itty-bitty weenie.
No Hard Truths
Statistics involving the genitals, or in this case, the removal of part of the male member, are hardly cut and dry, subject to data massaging by ardent supporters and detractors. Those in favor point to the health benefits, the international studies that show a reduction in HIV transmission, the reduced risks of infection in men and their sex partners, the aesthetic and cleanliness of a glans sans prepuce. They reference the Centers for Disease Control, the American Pediatrics Association and other organizations to validate medical necessity, though the recommendations are deliberately non-binding, or point to long-standing religious traditions centered on the practice.
Those opposed highlight the barbarianism of an unnecessary procedure rooted in archaic belief systems, convinced that circumcised males are wounded, whether they know it or not, in a place far deeper than the penis. Numerous groups offer support services for those who attribute unhealed psychosis on their missing foreskin, or in more extreme cases, want to regenerate what was removed without their permission. “Intactivists” make the struggle for genital integrity, outraged by what they classify as involuntary genital modification.
Many medical professionals take a somewhat neutral stance. Despite moderate medical advantages, the risks such as an injured member are low, but can be significant (especially if you are the owner of a botched snip). Yes, there are decreased rates of HIV transmission, penile cancer, and cervical cancer in women whose partners are foreskin-less, and yes, a man’s sexual sensations may be permanently altered (not necessarily diminished) or his function permanently impaired. You can find hard, um, facts and impassioned opinions for either side of the prick divide.
When push came to shove, Nicole and David’s son left the hospital intact. They reviewed the science, spoke with their pediatrician and family, and decided that the medical benefits were worth going with convention; however, they weren’t bound religiously to the practice. No one pressured them, though a few suggested that junior might suffer a mild shock when he discovered that his baby boy bits looked nothing like the hairier crotch of a grown man.
It’s almost a boring ending, except, it isn’t. Call it pomp and circumcision, if you will, because four years later, Nicole found herself wresting with the decision again, this time as a divorced single mother on track to becoming a Jew-by-choice.
Religious Rites and Rights
Globally speaking, more Muslims are circumcised than Jews, as part of their religion. However, it’s the Jewish brit milah that most think about when it comes to ritual snipping. Usually under the care of a trained rabbi known as a moyel, Jewish baby boys are circumcised, as they have been for millennia, on their eighth day of life (when vitamin K, a clotting agent, is at highest levels post birth).
Cultural anthropologists have proposed that the procedure predates the Jewish religion, at least among the Abrahamic faiths. There’s evidence that Egyptian mummies were clipped. This makes sense given the medical complications such as infection or discomfort from foreskin that adheres to the shaft, unpleasant consequences related to living in hot and dry regions where bathing opportunities are limited. Because circumcision seems to have developed independently across many regions, no one knows for sure how or why it started.
None of this was top of mind when Nicole learned that as part of her conversion, her son would have to undergo the procedure.
A Nip and a Tuck
Once again and for months, she discussed the ramifications, and even considered backing out of her religious choice. She reviewed the updated APA recommendations and sought advice. Because the boy’s father had always wanted his child circumcised, he didn’t oppose it on moral or religious grounds. “Our biggest concern was that our son might suffer extended pain or psychological distress post-surgery,” she said.
Still, she was undecided until she met the surgeon, a man who spent more years practicing pediatric urology than Nicole had been born. Dr. Kaplan’s credentials were impeccable, his reputation beyond reproach, and by the time they spoke he had performed over “10,000 circumcisions” in his career.
None of that mattered. What assuaged her worries somewhat was that he was a co-author of the APA guidelines for male circumcision and knew more about what wasn’t included in official documents. It was his calm demeanor and compassion and stories of the thousands of boys who were okay that ultimately changed her mind. Babies born with malformed penises; boys who for cultural reasons were nipped as adolescents; or, as in her case, for a private religious matters; he’d seen them all in forty years of service.
Post-operatively, her son recovered quite well. “He only needed pain pills for one day, and for a few months asked to take cooler baths than normal.” Five years later, he’s happy, well adjusted, reports no pain or discomfort with his body, just as the doctor predicted. As for permanent trauma, she reports that once he asked about why he had the surgery, and then his response was a casual, “cool.” Furthermore, she’s met several other parents of boys who were circumcised later in life, all without incident.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
Nicole and her son’s story are one anecdote among many, in this case with a happy ending. She understands that other males haven’t been so lucky, and struggle with the aftermath of trauma. That is why she believes that the ambiguity ought to make us realize that circumcision will not conform to any one universal assumption.
What surprised us both is that not all boys are routinely circumcised as infants – in many cases, they are teens or young adults. For example, some cultures wait until a male reaches puberty or shortly before marriage. The rite can signify entry into adulthood, fertility, and acceptance to a wider community or a covenant with the creator.
The practice is as old as civilization and far more than an irredeemable medical procedure. It is a cultural norm in specific parts of the world including the US, Middle East, and parts of Asia and Africa; a long-standing ritual in tribal communities that signifies a number of events depending on a male’s place of birth, personal and religious identity; a private decision between families, parents and medical professionals; and often a medical necessity for a myriad of reasons.
There’s a lot of hype about the cut, and a lot of well meaning concern. Ultimately, however, circumcising a male is a complicated decision that won’t get easier by legislation that ignores the historical precedence for humanities oldest known sex surgery.