The Unkindest Cut

My daughter, who is six, has an eye infection. Unlike other eye infections she’s had, this one is under her upper eye-lid. The doctor prescribed a course of antibiotics for her and she’ll be grand in a few days. It never occurred to me to ask to have her eye-lid sliced off. That would be beyond barbaric, and totally unnecessary, right?

Yet, millions of parents throughout the world choose to have an equally barbaric and unnecessary procedure performed on their children – circumcision.  Specifically, male infant circumcision – a procedure that removes a piece of skin, one of whose functions is to protect the organ beneath it. In much the same way as an eye-lid protects and lubricates the organ beneath it.

For some reason, while many people are appalled by the notion of female genital mutilation, its male counterpart raises not nearly as many eyebrows. Circumcision is routinely carried out on millions of little boys worldwide and it truly is the unkindest cut. Unkind not just because it is medically unnecessary in the vast majority of cases, but also because it ‘removes one-third to one-half of the skin on the penile shaft,’  according to Ronald Goldman, Ph.D., executive director of the Circumcision Resource Center in Boston and author of Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma. ‘The average circumcision cuts off what would grow into about 12 square inches of sexually sensitive skin.’ According to Canadian pathologist John Taylor, M.B., the foreskin is one of the key erogenous zones of the male body. Its 240 feet of nerves and 1,000 nerve endings are similar to those on the fingers and lips.

Douglas MacArthur, a 55-year-old  who was circumcised as an adult has this to say about his pre- and post- circumcision sexual experiences: ‘Sex before circumcision was like driving a luxury car with automatic transmission,’ he explains. ‘I used to just glide along. Sex now is like driving a tiny, powerless compact with a manual transmission. It takes a lot of work to get anywhere. My penis has lost 90 percent of its sensitivity.’

Some people use religion – whether it’s Judaism or Islam – as an argument for circumcision. That argument makes my head spin. Mutilating the genitals of a baby or young boy on religious grounds would be funny if it weren’t so sad. If we take that argument apart, what it says is ‘I believe in God. I believe in God as a supreme being who never makes a mistake. Yet I believe that I know better than God how a male human body should be constructed.’ Wow. That’s some powerful arrogance.

As it happens, neither Judaism nor Islam prescribes circumcision. If you don’t believe me, you can see for yourself here and here. Circumcision is not even mentioned in the Qura’an and both religions expressly forbid disfiguring the body. Can anyone honestly say that mutilating a penis is not disfiguring it?

No medical argument for routine circumcision is valid, either. There have been plenty of them, mind you, and all of them equally bizarre; from the notion that circumcising black men would prevent them raping white women to the belief that it cures all manner of ailments from epilepsy to mental illness. In the 1940s, circumcision of males was recommended to eliminate sensitivity of the penis and prevent boys and men from masturbating!

Some doctors have had the balls – if you’ll pardon the dreadful pun that I should have been able to resist – to recant their early espousal of circumcision. Most notably, Dr Benjamin Spock now holds the position that ‘My own preference, if I had the good fortune to have another son, would be to leave his little penis alone.’

I’m not saying that circumcision is never medically necessary; congenital phimosis – a condition where the foreskin cannot be fully retracted from the head of the penis – is not always treatable by measures other than circumcision. It’s a rare occurrence though, and to remove a foreskin prophalactically is akin to removing the breast buds of a newborn girl in order to prevent her from getting breast cancer.

Some advocates of MGM say that babies don’t feel pain and that they don’t remember the procedure, in order to justify the fact that day old babies are subjected to this brutal abuse which is usually performed without anaesthetic (a graphic account of what exactly happens to these baby boys can be found here). Those babies are  screaming in agony – making an absolute mockery of Hippocrates’s  primum non nocere (first do no harm). And I find it an insult to my intelligence to suggest that such a traumatic experience does not imprint itself on the brain of a young baby. Think, for a moment, how awful it must be to have your first sexual experience such a sadistic one.

So, who benefits from routine male genital mutilation? Not the boys and men it’s done to, that’s for sure. Not their sexual partners, either. At the risk of sounding cynical, only those who are paid to carry out the procedure benefit. Oh! And the manufacturers of lubricants, gels and ointments that there would be no need for if penises were left intact.

Contrary to what circumcised men will try to tell you – their penises are not more sensitive than their uncut brothers’; in fact, it’s the exact opposite. A penis without the protection of a foreskin needs to toughen up, which results in diminished sensitivity. At the risk of imparting too much information, I can tell you that men who are circumcised tend to use their penises as pestles (because they need to pound more in order to orgasm). Also, as far as foreplay is concerned, there’s a huge amount more you can do with a complete penis. A huge amount.

My basic point is this: I believe – passionately – in genital integrity. That is the principle that all human beings—whether male, female or intersexed—have a right to the genitalia they were born with.  If an adult decides they would like to chop off a perfectly functioning and important part of their anatomy and they can find a doctor to oblige – then fair play to them. But it is not fair to do the same to a defenceless baby.

(Thanks to  @janetravers, @Chadwickauthor and @Danoosha for our conversation on Twitter this morning which prompted this post)