When you have a son in America, one should consider the question: To snip or not to snip? Because while the rest of the Western world may be largely post-circumcision, in the U.S. it’s still more common to be circumcised than not. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, circumcisions are conducted on nearly 70 percent of newborn boys in the U.S., while other Western countries have rates less than 20 percent, reports the Washington Post.
So what’s going on, and how did we get here? And maybe more importantly, how do you know whether — to use the PornHub search terminology — you should be cut or uncut?
Glad you asked.
Circumcisions: An Origin Story
Whether you call it circumcision or bodily mutilation (more on that later), the snipping of foreskin is a practice that’s been around much longer than the bible. According to Circumcision Information and Resource Pages (CIRP), it originated in eastern Africa and began as a way to lessen the pleasure involved with sex. “One theory postulates that circumcision began as a way of ‘purifying’ individuals and society by reducing sexuality and sexual pleasure,” reports CIRP. “Human sexuality was seen as dirty or impure in some societies; hence cutting off the pleasure-producing parts was the obvious way to ‘purify’ someone.”
Furthermore, according to CIRP, although Jewish people are perhaps the most well-known adopters of the circumcision, it wasn’t until after Moses’ death that Joshua (who then led the Israelites) reinstituted circumcisions. “It is interesting to note that after the Israelites were circumcised, they immediately became soldiers in Joshua’s army for the conquest of Palestine,” reports CIRP.
What Are We Talking About When We Talk About Foreskin, Anyway?
Nowadays, it’s well-known that the foreskin — also described as a prepuce — is made up of erogenous tissue. “In particular, an area called the ‘ridged band,’ the wrinkly skin at the end of the foreskin, is loaded with nerve endings that are stimulated by motion during intercourse or masturbation,” writes Roger Collier in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
According to Foregen, a nonprofit organization dedicated to researching methods of regenerative therapy for circumcised men, the foreskin isn’t vestigial, likening a penis without a foreskin to an eye without a eyelid. “It is an integral, functioning, important component of a man’s penis,” they claim. Amongst other things, the foreskin provides protection, lubrication and increased sexual sensitivity, reports Foregen.
The Re-Emergence of the Circumcision in Western Culture
The above information raises the question, if the foreskin isn’t “extra,” then why are we chopping it off? Certainly, many cultures were very much against the idea, with the Ancient Greeks and Romans in particular placing high value on the prepuce, even going so far as to outlaw circumcisions entirely.
The practice of cutting off a man’s foreskin re-emerged in Victorian England, as a way to prevent masturbation in boys. “Some Victorian doctors went beyond the masturbation argument — claiming that circumcision prevented or cured conditions ranging from syphilis to epilepsy to mental retardation,” reports Circumcisiondebate.org. Indeed, Adam Zeldis, a member of the anti-circumcision “Intactivist” movement, claims that circumcisions were a cure in search of a disease.
In the U.S., the practice of circumcisions became normalized after World War II. “Soldiers were encouraged to have circumcisions in the belief it would cut down on rates of venereal disease and other infections, particularly among soldiers serving in North Africa, where the troops endured brutal heat, sand storms and poor sanitary conditions,” reports Parenting.com.
Robert Darby, a historian writing for historyofcircumcision.net, says that along with the influence from the military, it was the obstetricians and gynecologists of the day who were responsible for proliferating universal circumcisions. “It may seem strange that the most important advocates of routine male circumcision within the medical profession were experts in women’s health, who knew little and cared less about male anatomy, but from the 1930s onwards it was the obstetricians and gynecologists who most vigorously touted the advantages of the procedure and performed most of the operations,” writes Darby.
The Reasons for Getting Cut
It depends on who you ask, but according to myriad studies and scientific journals, neonatal circumcisions have been shown to protect against urinary tract infections. “The only matter of debate in this area is the magnitude of the circumcision protective effect. Depending on which author one reads, it could range from a 10-fold decreased risk to 3.7,” Anne-Marie Houle, a pediatric urologist, writes in the Canadian Urological Association Journal.
Another benefit, according to the World Health Organization, suggests that male circumcisions reduces the risk of HIV infection in men by 60 percent. “Three randomized controlled trials have shown that male circumcision provided by well-trained health professionals in properly equipped settings is safe,” cites the WHO. “WHO/UNAIDS recommendations emphasize that male circumcision should be considered an efficacious intervention for HIV prevention in countries and regions with heterosexual epidemics, high HIV and low male circumcision prevalence.” That could be why, in 2009, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave a $50 million grant to the Male Circumcision Partnership to provide circumcisions to 650,000 men in Swaziland and Zambia.
Other benefits include lowering the risk of STDs and even protecting against penile cancer. “The most important risk factor for penile cancer is phimosis [an inability to retract the foreskin], which explains the fact that neonatal circumcision is more protective against penile cancer compared to circumcision performed at older ages,” writes Ozgu Aydogdu, a urology expert in Turkey.
The Reasons Against Getting Cut
Perhaps the most popular reason cited for not getting your infant child circumcised is the fact that it’s not your decision to make in the first place. “It’s his body,” reports Doctorsopposingcircumcisions.org. “Only he should have the right to alter it, and only when he’s old enough to have his own informed opinion.”
Another important reason not to have your infant son circumcised is because foreskin, as mentioned above, is made up of really sensitive tissue that increases sexual pleasure. This means circumcision could well be the number one thing getting in the way of your sexual nirvana (“I’ll never feel the way sex was intended to feel,” Zeldis tells me). That is unless, you opt to either regrow your foreskin — like 82-year-old Wayne Griffiths, also known as the father of foreskin restoration — by hanging weights from your glans. (If you’re looking to do less heavy lifting, you can always try wearing an underwear that acts like foreskin.)
Zeldis also believes that you shouldn’t trust the majority of statistics suggesting circumcisions prevent STDs. “Two or three studies from Johns Hopkins suggest that circumcisions can decrease the passing of HIV from female to male by 60 percent,” he says. “This isn’t the case in the U.S.” He points to a 2007 Reuters report stating that, while circumcisions may reduce a man’s risk of infection by up to 60 percent if he’s an African, the same could not be said for American men of color.
According to said report, black and Latino men who were circumcised were just as likely to be infected with HIV as those who were not (the reason for this wasn’t clear). “We also found no protective benefit for a subset of black MSM (men who have sex with men) who also had recent sex with female partners,” Greg Millett, of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters in a briefing, as reported by Reuters.
Zeldis warns that suggesting circumcisions can help prevent contracting the AIDS virus might encourage people to disregard condoms, falsely believing themselves to be already safe.
The People Who Want You to Know That Circumcisions is a Fancy Word for Genital Mutilation
As mentioned earlier, Zeldis is an outspoken supporter of the group most responsible for the decline in circumcisions in the U.S. — the Intactivists. “I view it as a human-rights issue,” Zeldis tells me. “Cutting healthy functional tissue off of healthy human beings is mutilation.”
“We want to change the way America thinks about circumcisions,” says Georganne Chapin, the head of Intact America, a group founded by Marilyn Milos, a nurse who witnessed a circumcision in the 1970s and was, according to Chapin, horrified by what she saw. “In the 1950s, parents weren’t even asked, the infant boy would just be taken from the mother, who was too drugged up to realize what was going on,” Chapin tells me.
Currently, circumcisions are still the most common pediatric surgery in America. “1.2 million boys have their foreskin ripped off by their doctor in the first few days of their life,” says Chapin. The reason circumcisions remain so popular in the U.S., Chapin claims, is because the procedure — which costs anywhere from $800 to $3,000 — is still covered under Medicaid by 30 states. “The rates in states that don’t cover circumcisions — like California, Oregon, Washington and Nevada — are a fraction of those that do,” says Chapin. In 2013, the CDC released a report stating that circumcision rates in the Western states — where they’re less likely to be covered by Medicaid — have dropped by over 20 percent.
Zeldis adds that circumcisions in America are still routine largely because of the subtle psychological aspect of the parental decision. “In order for a dad to not have any interest in wanting to have his son cut, he has to think about the issue and acknowledge that something is wrong with his own penis,” says Zeldis. “Which isn’t easy to do.”
The Adult Men Who Have to Get Snipped
Of course, not all those who are circumcised are, as Chapin puts it, “unable to decide on their own.” Jamin Brahmbhatt, a board-certified urologist (and snipper of adult foreskin) tells me that he’s performed hundreds of circumcisions on adult men with excess foreskin that they can longer retract back. “It’s a bread-and-butter procedure, that takes about 30 minutes,” he tells me. “For some patients, specifically ones who are diabetic, it’s medically necessary for hygiene, or for them to urinate without difficulty, or for them to get adequate erections.” According to New York Urology Specialists, men with diabetes are more likely to develop phimosis (which is caused by balanitis and balanoposthitis, aka inflammation and infection of foreskin).
The recovery time for adults who undergo the procedure can be anywhere from one week to one month, says Brahmbhatt. “In some cases, the younger a patient is, the more often they’re able to get spontaneous erections, which can make it more difficult for the area to heal,” he adds. But while this sounds like it should be an incredibly unpleasant experience for men and boys alike, it’s — supposedly — not so bad: A 2013 study concluded that the pain is “mild to moderate.” “Severe pain is rare and mostly related to complications. Younger patients generally have more discomfort,” wrote the study’s authors, presumably referring to the same unplanned boner problems as Brahmbhatt.
The Foreskin Preference Debate
Beyond your own desire to have, or not have, a foreskin, there’s also the matter of what other people find sexually appealing. “On PornHub, ‘uncut’ is searched twice as often as ‘circumcised’ [by straight people],” says Chris Jackson, PornHub’s communications director. He also tells me that for gay male PornHub users, searches for “uncut” videos are eight times higher than “circumcised.”
All in all, it looks like the hoodie is back.