The Case Against Circumcision

I’d like to talk about a slightly unusual topic today.  The subject is circumcision, and I’d like to explain why it’s an unnecessary procedure that ought not be performed on healthy little boys.

Circumcision has been fairly commonplace in this country in the last century.  Many people, even medical professionals, believed it was necessary and desirable to remove what they deemed to be a vestigial flap of skin covering the penis: the foreskin.  It has since been reevaluated, and more and more people have begun to realize that circumcision is not really necessary at all and need not be performed on a routine basis.

There are a few primary arguments for circumcision.  They are largely inaccurate, culturally-biased, or hyperbolic.  Allow me to explain:

Claim: The foreskin serves no function in modern life.
These folks argue that the foreskin was there to protect the penis back in the days before people wore clothing.  While this may, indeed, be part of the foreskin’s function, there is evidence to suggest that the foreskin participates actively in sexual intercourse.  Studies suggest that the foreskin’s “gliding mechanism” is “Nature’s intended mechanism of intercourse.”1 It is believed that the gliding of the foreskin can contribute to sexual pleasure:

Although still pleasurable for the man, intercourse without the participation of the prepuce lacks the gliding mechanism. The only source of stimulation is the glans rubbing against the wall of the vagina. The sensations from the specialized receptors of the frenar band, frenulum and inner foreskin layer are missing.2 

It is also possible that sex with a circumcised penis can lead to more vaginal abrasion, i.e., discomfort and pain for the woman.  On the contrary, intact penises offer benefits in this area.  “Since more of the loose skin of the penis remains inside the vagina, the woman’s natural lubrication is not drawn out to evaporate to a great extent, which makes sex easier without using artificial lubricants.”3 In fact, there are those who believe that the intact foreskin can actually prolong and control a man’s sexual gratification:

The foreskin contains sensory receptors called Meissner corpuscles. We believe that these nerves, similar to nerve endings in the fingertips, are there to provide pleasure, as well as fine sensory perception. This seems to help a man to enjoy sex longer without ejaculating prematurely, because he can more easily tell when he is approaching the threshold of orgasm.4 

Claim: Intact penises are too troublesome to keep clean, especially for little boys. This one is simply ridiculous.  The area under the foreskin is no harder to keep clean than any other opening or crevasse on your body.  Arguably, girls’ sexual organs are much harder to keep clean!  (I’m not suggesting this is the case, or trying to make any statements about women’s parts being somehow unclean.  I’m just trying to point out the illogical nature of this claim.  I’m sure all you ladies are fresh and clean in your private areas.)

This claim about hygiene is based largely on two points.  The first is the smegma-factor.  Smegma is the natural oily, waxy lubricant formed between the foreskin and the glans.  However, as this passage explains, smegma isn’t nearly the concern that uninitiated folks believe it to be:

Rarely does [smegma] exist in the uncircumcised child whose foreskin has not been forcibly retracted; the substance we are warned to carefully wash away is rarely produced during childhood. During puberty, these natural secretions tend to increase, providing a natural lubricant between the foreskin and glans for protection and to permit the foreskin to slide easily over the glans as nature intended for this age. By mid-teenage, the foreskin is retractable and hygiene is a simple matter. Any accumulation of these natural lubricating substances can easily be cleansed during the boy’s shower or bath.5 

Cutting off the foreskin to get rid of smegma is like cutting off your nose to get rid of boogers.  (Feel free to use that line at parties; it’s a real ice breaker.)

The second factor contributing to the “cleanliness” myth is purely cultural, and frankly, is a bit ethnocentric.  For quite some time, Americans have associated intact penises with so-called “third world” and other pre-industrial cultures.  For this reason, people have come to associate the foreskin with poor hygiene.  It’s a stupid claim, and it’s offensive.

Claim: Circumcision is necessary to prevent a host of medical problems. This one actually has a foundation in fact, though it’s been exaggerated quite a bit.  It has been touted that circumcision can reduce the risk of urinary tract infections, penile cancer, cervical cancer (in partners), and sexually transmitted diseases.

UTIs are actually  very uncommon in male infants — around 1% incidence.  Furthermore, the primary cause of UTIs in male infants is abnormalities of the urinary tract, which is also uncommon.6

Penile cancer is extremely rare.  It occurs mostly in older men, and very few doctors will recommend infant circumcision purely as a preventative measure against penile cancer late in life.

The theories about increased risk of cervical cancer and STDs have been disproved.7, 8

What’s really astounding about the claims of circumcision being a desirable preventative measure is that it ignores statistical figures completely.  The ailments circumcision is intended to prevent are exceedingly rare, yet the procedure is deemed necessary for all male infants.  However, the same folks who argue for these “benefits” also tend to dismiss the real dangers involved in performing unnecessary surgery on an infant because they believe them to be statistically insignificant!

Having looked at some of the arguments for circumcision, let’s understand some arguments against it.

First and foremost, circumcision is painful and frightening for a child.  The infant is strapped into an immobilizing device called a circumstraint which binds the arms and legs of the infant.  It has been noted that simply strapping a child down in this manner can be extremely distressing to a days-old infant — even without performing surgery.  Once strapped in, the surgery begins — in some cases without anesthetic.  (Some people have believed that infants do not experience pain in the same way that adults do.  However, some studies suggest that they actually experience pain more intensely than adults do.)

If you really need any further convincing that this is something that is stressful and painful for a child, I suggest you take a look at some of these disturbing photos and videos.  I’ll warn you now, they are not for the queasy.  Try watching those
videos and tell me that you think circumcision is a good idea.

Second, as illustrated above, the procedure isn’t medically necessary.  It’s primarily a cultural/religious phenomenon.  Now, I won’t try to talk you out of practicing your religion, but I’ll simply point out that, over the years, many awful things have been done in the name of religion.

The available data indicate that times may be changing.  People are starting to realize the error of their ways and circumcisions are no longer universally viewed as a necessary procedure.  Circumcisions rates are declining nationwide, with only 55.9% of males in the US being circumcised in 2003.9 This number went down every year since 2000, and is sharply down from roughly 85% in 1965.10 Nationwide, it is estimated that about 44% of all boys in 2003 were intact, with regions like the west coast boasting over 68% intact!11

One final bit of information that I find interesting: One of the major reasons for the rise of circumcision in America is because it was viewed as a different sort of preventative measure — to prevent masturbation or “self-abuse.”

Masturbation was thought to be the cause of a number of diseases. The procedure of routine circumcision became commonplace between 1870 and 1920, and it consequently spread to all the English-speaking countries (England, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). None of these countries now circumcise the majority of their male children, a distinction reserved today for the United States (in the UK, in fact, nonreligious circumcision has virtually ceased). Yet, there are still those who promote this social surgery, long after the masturbation hysteria of the past century has subsided.

[…]

In America, foreskins were not rare at the time circumcision was introduced into widespread practice. Paradoxically, then, the understanding of the intact male organ at that time was somewhat greater than it is today. (In particular, it never would have been possible to promote circumcision on the basis that it was “necessary for hygienic reasons”— this came later, when doctors themselves were mostly circumcised men.)

Further, in proposing circumcision as a preventative against self-abuse, physicians of the day understood very well that male masturbation involves stimulation of the foreskin. However they were incorrect in assuming that, by reducing the pleasure, masturbation itself could be reduced or eliminated.12

I hope this information has been helpful, especially to those who are planning to become parents soon.  I’d encourage you to read more about these topics at the sites provided in the references area below.

A Note to Parents of Circumcised Boys: If you’re reading this and you are the parent of a circumcised boy, chances are you’re feeling somewhat uncomfortable.  Please understand that I am not trying to chastise you in any way.  What’s done is done.  Chances are that you never even considered not circumcising; it’s simply the norm to have it done.  This post is intended to inform parents who will be faced with this decision — especially if they don’t realize there’s a decision to make.  I didn’t write this to point fingers, lash out, criticize, or offend.  I apologize if I’ve come across as doing any of these things.

References

Just about all of the information in this post is pulled from the Circumcision Information and Resource Pages at http://www.cirp.org.  They have a wealth of information and links to further reading on the subject.

1. Anatomy of the Penis, Mechanics of Intercourse, http://www.cirp.org/pages/anat/

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Care of the Intact Penis, by James E. Peron, Ed. D., http://www.cirp.org/pages/parents/peron1/

6. Cultural Bias and the Urinary Tract Infection (UTI) Circumcision Controversy, by Martin S. Altschul, http://www.cirp.org/library/disease/UTI/altschul/

7. Cancer of the Cervix in Reference to Circumcision and Marital History, by Elizabeth Stern, M.D., and Peter M. Neely, Ph.D., http://www.cirp.org/library/disease/cancer/stern1/

8. Circumcision in the United States: Prevalence, Prophylactic Effects, and Sexual Practice, by Edward O. Laumann, PhD; Christopher M. Masi, MD; Ezra W. Zuckerman, MA, http://www.cirp.org/news/1997.04.01_AMA/

9. United States Circumcision Incidence, http://www.cirp.org/library/statistics/USA/

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. What were the original motivations behind routine infant circumcision in the West?, http://www.cirp.org/pages/whycirc.html

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