One of the topics in my book on parenthood (well, manuscript, so far) is circumcision--should we or shouldn't we? To my mind, people circumcise for the same sort of reason they clip the tails off of some breeds of dogs. Says a Jack Russell breeder: "Every Jack Russell Terrier must have its tail docked and dew claws removed at an early age. Three to five days of age seems to be the best time-frame depending on size and vigor of the pups." A docked tail is an aesthetic norm associated with that breed. Likewise (I submit!), foreskin-docking became part of the aesthetic norm for the male human. How that came about is a long story, involving many different factors, but no matter: by the middle of the 20th century a boy with a foreskin was like a Jack Russell with a tail. You had to circumcise as quickly as possible to make the boy look like boys are supposed to look.
Over time, this started to seem pretty weird to people. The aesthetic norm didn't change, but they started to think it was cruel to treat baby boys this way. So people wanted to supplement the aesthetic norm with defenses of circumcision that point to benefits to the child. We thus get social defenses: circumcision will make a boy feel more comfortable in a society where most boys are circumcised. More recently, there's the rationale that circumcision reduces the risk of HIV-AIDS in certain populations (very unlike our own). So--we are to believe that circumcision is actually good for the child, like later vaccinations are good for the child.
The problem with the analogy with vaccination is that vaccinations take nothing away from a child, but circumcision does. It takes away the foreskin, which is densely packed with nerve endings (and plays other sexual roles as well). This loss is discounted by defenders of circumcision, because there aren't scientific studies proving that circumcised men are worse off than uncircumcised men. But the Jack Russell analogy gives us something to think about in that regard.
Dogs have tails--so I have read--because tails improve balance and allow a dog to communicate his or her emotions to other dogs or humans. With that in mind, it stands to reason that a dog loses a little bit of well-being as a result of tail-docking. Surely nobody would become skeptical of that just because no study has corroborated it. No study has corroborated it, and probably none could corroborate it, because the difference is too subtle and there are too many confounding variables. People who want to dock dog tails are surely fooling themselves if say "no study has shown any cost to dogs." Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence (at least in this case).
I submit we can know without a corroborating study that foreskin removal very probably does slightly reduce male well-being. "Less nerve endings, less sensation." It just makes sense! Removing a baby's foreskin to slightly lower the risk of later disease is like giving a baby burning eye-drops to slightly lower the risk of later glaucoma, at the cost of permanently reducing the vividness of colors by -- who knows? -- 1%. Or giving the baby a painful tongue injection that slightly lowers the risk of tongue cancer, at the cost of reducing taste vividness by some small amount. I can't imagine parents accepting those trade-offs.
So why do parents accept the circumcision trade-off? Jack Russells. Aesthetic norms. That sort of thing, I think, plus a great worry parents have about boys fitting in. After all, Jack Russells don't care if they look like Jack Russells, but boys do want to look like normal boys. I wonder, though, whether parents are overly anxious about that. Parents have a lot of worries about boys conforming or not conforming--possibly to the detriment of boys and the adult men they turn into.
Bottom line: I'm against both docking tails and docking foreskins, but it's a curious issue. All wrongs are not, of course, equal. Some are big, some are small, and these strike me as small wrongs. It's curious when we are adamantly opposed to a small wrong. It forces you to wonder where the depth of opposition comes from. In the case of circumcision I think it's fairly clear. We are super-protective toward newborn infants. It's an affront to that protectiveness to imagine a helpless baby boy being strapped down and "docked"--making him just a tad less perfect than he was to begin with, but more consistent with social norms. The affront is one thing, but the cost to the boy (surely small, in the long run) is another. I know some very happy docked Jack Russell terriers.