foreskin or against it?

Is circumcision the unkindest cut of all?

Published August 20, 1997 12:03PM (EDT)

"you need a flesh-cap," I snickered, "because winters are
frightfully cold in Helsinki."

My Finnish friend Paavo and I tease each other incessantly about
cultural differences. A primary source of amusement is our differing
penises: I am circumcised, while he carries a foreskin.

Chuckling softly, he mused: "You're absolutely not jealous?"

I replied, "No! Why should I be?"

Paavo shook his head. "If I was not whole, I would be angry extremely."

His sympathy annoyed me. The assumption that his penis was perfect, but
mine was damaged, incomplete ...

Circumcision is a hotly debated issue in my social circle, due to
the expected babies of several friends. My wife, Carol, is adamantly opposed
to "cutting" -- sometimes she even waxes nostalgic about the benefits of a
former lover's foreskin. "I never had a yeast infection
with him. No abrasion."

For a long time, I regarded the debate as much ado about nothing: To
pack a foreskin or not, does it really make a difference? Last week, though,
I decided to educate myself. I went to the library and read magazine
extracts from medical journals. The vast majority of the 109 studies
documented foreskin risks: higher rates of urinary tract infection, penile
cancer, gonorrhea and HIV/AIDS. Whew! I exulted. I'm glad I'm clean! Who
needs that slimy, wrinkled hood?

Jogging that afternoon with my wife, I relayed my new knowledge.

"Don't believe those studies," she grunted. "They're biased. Doctors
in America enjoy circumcision."

"You're wrong!" I sputtered. "Why don't you admit it?"

"Get modern," Carol replied. "Surf the Web. You need to scam some
fresh data."

The next morning I typed "circumcision" into Yahoo! Twenty-three
site matches appeared. Many were the same affirmative reports I'd already
examined, but there was also a promising list of anti-circ groups.

I dialed a phone number. Tim Hammond, Director of NOHARMM (National
Organization to Halt the Abuse and Routine Mutilation of Males) answered.

"Gosh!" I blurted. "I'd like some of your educational material."

"We have a video," he offered, "'Whose Body? Whose Rights?' We aired
it on PBS."


We talked for an hour about circumcision and his battle against it. "I
consider myself a child's rights advocate," he stressed. "I want boys to
have a choice." This sounded reasonable, but he spoke with a crusader's
urgency -- people with an actual purpose in life make me suspicious.

"Every 26 seconds a helpless infant gets circumcised in the
United States. Female circumcision has been outlawed, but little boys lose
an important part of their body."

"Female circumcision? You mean clitoridectomies?"

"Yes. It's all genital mutilation. We believe in maintaining the
integrity of a child's organ. When they reach the age of consent ..."

"But Tim," I cut in, "I read numerous medical reports listing diseases
you can get with a foreskin."

He snorted. "In the Victorian era circumcision was promoted to 'cure'
masturbation. Physicians said having a foreskin led to blindness, cancer
and epilepsy. Idiotic, but they didn't give up. American doctors still
insist that circumcision cures something. They're desperate -- it's a
solution in search of a problem."

"Tim! Hey! I'm supposed to believe you, not the doctors?"

"Did you read the new study?" He crowed with self-confidence. "In
JAMA? By Dr. Laumann, the University of Chicago sociologist?"

"JAMA?" I mumbled. "Doesn't sound familiar."

"Read it!" He ordered. "I'll mail you the video, with some pamphlets."

JAMA turned out to be the acronym for the very respectable "Journal of the American Medical Association." The article Tim guided me to,
"Circumcision in the United States," appeared in the April 2, 1997, issue.
When I read it, I started to sweat. I had to stop every 10 minutes and
drink some water. I paced around, agitated, alarmed by the statistics.
Unlike the pro-circumcision reports, which were distant and smug, this one
clanged with truths I recognized from my own genital experience.

I've suffered through two urinary tract infections and one inflamed
prostate. Would my urology be even sicker if I had a prepuce? No, claims
Dr. Laumann. His investigation discovered that "circumcised men were
slightly more likely to have both a bacterial and a viral STD in their
lifetime." The greatest disparity involved chlamydia: He found 26
cases in circumcised men, but zero in those left intact! Grrr! I snarled.
I had chlamydia! What a mess -- I passed it on to a very mad girlfriend!
Chlamydia ... damn! Can I blame it on the geeks who stole my shield?

The study also exposed the stupidity of the original Victorian impulse:
Circumcised men, it reported, actually masturbate 1.4 times more frequently
than intact males.

Two days later, my wife and I watched the video. Carol bravely stared
straight at the "live circumcision" footage while I peered through my
quivering fingers. The infant, spread-eagled in a restrainer, shuddered when
the Gomco clamp bit into his penis. He shrieked with terror and pain during
the amputation. Blood gushed in his crotch. Afterwards, he was catatonic,

When it ended, Carol stood up and bellowed, "We've got to save
Rebecca's unborn child!"

Puzzled, I asked her, "Rebecca's getting an abortion? Why? She's eight
months pregnant!"

"No!" my wife raved, "it's a boy! Rebecca's going to circumcise him!"

"Oh dear," I whined. "What can we do?"

"Talk to her!" My wife pleaded. "You've got a penis; she'll listen to

"OK, OK, OK," I stuttered. "I'll ... study. I'll learn

I memorized all the data in the pamphlets; I carefully made notes from
the video. I discovered that:

  • Ninety percent of U.S. boys used to undergo circumcision, but this figure has recently been snipped down to 60 percent.

  • The United States is the only nation that severs the foreskin for medical (rather than religious) reasons.

  • Dr. Dean Edell and Dr. Benjamin Spock oppose the procedure.

  • Foreskin anatomy isn't studied in medical school, but doctors learn to
    slash it off anyway.

  • The foreskin has 1,000 nerve endings -- 36 percent of the organ's pleasure reception.

I realized that the only way to stop Rebecca was
to shock her with the grossest statistics. I called Tim again, demanding the
worst. "Talk to Marilyn Milos," he urged. "She knows everything; she's the
director of NOCIRC" (National Organization of Circumcision Information
Resource Centers).

Milos, a nurse at Marin General Hospital until she was fired for
informing parents about the risks of circumcision, turned out to be exactly
the bloody fountain of knowledge I needed. "Nobody knows how many babies are
killed," she claimed, "because doctors often report that they died of blood
dyscrasia, hemophilia, meningitis, sepsis and other diseases."

That said, she launched into four horrible stories that were apparently
made public knowledge. In Miami, an infant bled to death. In Los Angeles,
another perished from gangrene. In Alaska, a child was turned into a blind
spastic quadriplegic by a circumcision-induced staph infection that damaged
his brain. Last but not least, "John-Joan" had his entire penis burned off
by a malfunctioning electrical circumcision device -- to remedy the accident,
surgeons removed his scrotum, to turn him into a girl.

"Good grief, Marilyn," I mumbled, "that's enough."

Her voice rose with passion: "Genital mutilation isn't a medical issue,
it's a human rights issue. Parents don't have the right to remove healthy
tissue! The child has a right to his own body! It's his foreskin!"

"OK, OK, OK ... thanks!"

I telephoned my mother right after that, to pester her. "Mom! I'm
interviewing people about circumcision."

"Oh dear, oh yes, oh no."

"Why, Mom, why? It hurt!"

"Don't be silly. Are you one of those nuts now?"

"Ouch, Mom! Ouch! I still feel it!"

"Stop. Everybody was circumcised. Did you know that your grandfather
was circumcised when he was 45?"


"He was born in France, where they don't do the operation. When he got
here he wanted to feel like a normal American."

"Why didn't he do something productive, like study the Bill of Rights?
Circumcision would be illegal if we paid attention to the Fifth and 14th
amendments. Not to mention Article V of the United Nations Declaration of

"Oh, no. Hank, are you eating enough?"

"I love you, Mom! Bye!"

I felt like I was on a roll, so I called Rebecca next.

"Don't do it," I begged her. "Don't chop his little weenie."

"Foreskins are ugly," she replied. "Circumcised pricks are much cuter."

"Thanks, I'm flattered," I whispered, sincerely appreciative.

"Did Carol put you up to this?" she asked. "You're not doing well."

"OK, what about this?" I argued. "Female Circumcision was outlawed in
1995 by the Female Genital Mutilation Act. Why is male circumcision still
legal? It's not fair; it's gender bias!"

Rebecca sighed. "Male rage, Hank? This isn't pretty."

"Listen, please!" I read her the NOHARMM chart that compares male and
female circumcision: "Both were adopted to suppress or control sexuality ...
both use hygiene, medicine, religion and tradition to justify it ... both
force it upon the child without his/her consent ... in both cases the victims learn to accept it as 'normal' and defend the practice."

"Stop," groaned Rebecca. "I have to circumcise my son. It's the

"Covenant?" I repeated.

"Yes. We're going to have a bris. The Jewish ceremony."

"Oh no ... Yikes! Rebecca, I'll call you back."

I hung up the phone and shouted, "Carol! She's Jewish! I forgot! What
do we do now?"

Hands on her hips, my wife scolded me. "Of course she's Jewish. She's
always been Jewish."

"What can I do?"

"Look in your pamphlets! There's got to be a way!"

Diving once again into my notes, I discovered numerous facts and names
that could assist in my new dilemma. I telephoned Miriam Pollack, author of
"Circumcision: A Jewish Feminist Perspective."

Carefully choosing her words, Miriam stated, "Circumcision does not make
a man Jewish. It's the heart and mind we should be after, not the penis."

"Yeah, but my friend says it's a sacred ceremony, a covenant with God."

"We are talking," Miriam continued, her voice edgy with anger, "about
taking a knife to a baby's genitals and calling it 'sacred.' It's not
sacred; it's violence taken as the norm. Mothers who permit this are
totally disempowered in their deepest maternal instinct: to protect their

"Thanks, Miriam. Really. Thanks a lot."

Calling Rebecca back, I repeated what Miriam said. I also filled her in
on the Jewish anti-circumcision community: Norm Cohen in Detroit, who created
a booklet offering alternative bris ceremonies. Helen Bryce in Santa Cruz,
Calif., who also provides packages for non-cutting rituals. Orthodox
Moshe Rothenburg of New York, who refused to have his son cut, proclaiming,
"We must not do anything hurtful to another human being, including and
especially our children." Leland Traiman of Berkeley, Calif., who runs a sperm bank
that is available only to parents who agree to leave their sons intact.
Lastly, I told her about an organization in Israel that seeks to ban the
ritual it describes as "a primitive and barbaric act."

Rebecca was quiet when I finished the list. Finally she said, "OK, I
have to go now." She hung up.

I sat there, worrying about my glans. Numbness was definitely setting
in. If I had a protective foreskin, like Paavo, it wouldn't be exposed,
chaffing incessantly against my clothes -- my once-delicate squamous
epithelial cells wouldn't be "cornified." Sometimes you learn things you'd
rather not know.

In 100 years, I mused, will circumcision exist only in books
that chronicle gruesome medical foibles? Will it be found in the chapter
right after leeches?

By Hank Hyena

Hank Hyena is a former columnist for SF Gate, and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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