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.


Mark said...

The cost to the boy is "surely small, in the long run"!?! He's just had the most sensitive and pleasurable parts of his penis cut off. That little bit of skin makes a big difference.

Tora said...

There is no medical reason to circumcise a newborn. If he wants to be cut when he can decide, that should be left to him. It is not cleaner nor more hygienic, in fact a baby boy is easier to clean than a baby girl, no folds. Just clean the outside, never try to move the foreskin away from the head of the penis. In a newborn, it is attached like your fingernail to your finger. The only person who should ever touch his foreskin to move it is the boy himself. When he is old enough and retractable, a quick rinse in the shower is all he needs. Since the foreskin has 20,000 nerves, removing it changes his sex life forever. If you want your son to have his best life, and that includes his sexual life, do not circumcise him. ~ An RN and Mother of an intact daughter and son

Deepak Shetty said...

 To my mind, people circumcise for the same sort of reason they clip the tails off of some breeds of dogs
so you really aren't going to mention the most common reason people circumcise their kids?

Mark said...

"so you really aren't going to mention the most common reason people circumcise their kids?"

It's not clear what do you think that is.
Look like dad?
Be like other kids?
Supposed medical benefits?
Religious reasons? (although it's only in the USA and the Philippines that Christians circumcise)



A wash cloth before and after sex or a clean mouth are equally effective and leave the pleasure zones intact! Or castration! That would eliminate any kind of danger from that source!







Making it a taboo to compare male with female sexual mutilation is the biggest scandal of the controversy. In both instances the most sensitive and most erogenous zone of the human body is amputated and severely damaged. In both instances, what counts primarily is the cutting of human sexuality. The imposition of control by the patriarchy. A good look at a book on embryology will show the development of the nerves and tissue and how they are the same.

What is lacking in all the talk about circumcision is discussion of its archeological dimension - that it is the left over of human sacrifice. What kind of god is it that demands that of an infant? If the Bris constitutes the identity of the male, what about the identity of a Jewish girl? Or is this an entirely homosexual ceremony?



Also, unfortunately it is / has been circumcision that has MADE for no end of anti-semitic sentiments. Freud found that it was the chief reason for unconscious anti-Semitism. And the myths surrounding it are at the core of the “blood libel.” Thus, it's time to eliminate the Brit Milah because if that is the chief reason for being anti-Semitic or anti-Abrahamic [Islam too practices the rite] then why hang on to this left-over of human sacrifice? that traumatizes the child, cutting off 5,000 nerves, that is the equivalent of female circumcision in the sense that it eliminates everything but the clitoris,and only serves the Ultra Orthodox to maintain their power? After all, reform Judaism sought to eliminate the rite in the 19th century, and Jewish identity depends on being born by a Jewish mother, or converting. Here a link to an archive of the entire German and then some debate, note especially Michael Wolffsohn's two pieces . Circumcision has been controversial also within Jewry forever.


Jean Kazez said...

Deepak, In the US, religion is definitely not the main reason parents circumcise. The number of Jews and Muslims is comparatively tiny, but most parents (especially white parents) circumcise newborn boys.

The religious issues are separate. I did deal with Jewish reasons to circumcise here--


Jean Kazez said...

Summa, Some of those links and comments are useful. Thank you!

Hugh7 said...

The reasons people give for infant male genital cutting and the actual reasons may not be the same. You would think that parents would be grateful to learn that they did not need to cut part of their child's genitals off, but in many forums on Facebook, mothers ignore all the rebutals to the weak health claims, and fall back on "My child, my choice" in a way that suggests that they cut their child as an expression of their power and control over him.

I have collected some 530 ostensible reasons for circumcising - far too many! - at http://www.circumstitions.com/Stitions&refs.html
I consider underlying motivations and the cultural pressures at http://www.circumstitions.com/meme.html

Anonymous said...

"reducing the vividness of colors by well who knows 1 percent" unfortunately for circumcised man your guess is way off. here is a practical example everyone can experience for themselves. lightely run 1 finger around the back of 1 of your hands noticed the sensation. Know turn your hand over and lightly run the same finger with the same pressure around the palm of your hand. wwhat's the difference? I would guess about 60 percent more pleasure.

James Loewen said...

If cutting off part of a child's penis is a "small thing" why do it?

If cutting off part of a child's penis is a "small thing" why not allow that individual the right to his own body, let him decide if he wants this "small thing" done to him?

The foreskin is no more a "small thing" than the eyelid is a "small thing."

Since this blog is destined to be included in a book on parenthood I hope the author won't mind if I "circumcise" every copy I see of the misinformation she spews about genital cutting. It would just be a "small thing" to carefully excise pages that have this misinformation.

Anonymous said...

I have a Jack Russell, they are simply the smartest and most affectionate dogs I know. Two of my other dogs have been rescued from townships. One had his tail docked as a puppy right at the base of his spine. He is unable to pee standing and has to prop himself against a wall. He is also unable to communicate joy like the other dogs. He lifts his front paw and stretches it out to greet me instead. He is also more temperamental than the others and has trust issues. So I doubt docking his tail was harmless or only had a small impact on his behaviour. Sure he is happy, but it does not change the fact that his body and self image was altered for no good reason. He is a great dog but it does not mean the emotional and physical harm is therefore more acceptable. He was able to adapt but it in no way implies we should tolerate unnecessary procedures. He is my friend and I care for every aspect of his life and happiness.

All animals have foreskins, male and female. How many dogs, cats and horses ever have any problems with their foreskin? Yet it can happen. However, we don't circumcise animals to prevent any possible future issues. And we don't have different standards of care or laws for male and female dogs that do have any problems. Conservative treatments work for both genders. Yet we apply different principles for human male and female versions of the foreskin. Very strange!

Men are able to keep themselves clean and healthy, prevent disease and treat issues in exactly the same way women do. Circumcision is only recommended in cases where all other conservative treatment options have failed repeatedly. Just like women, men can also choose how they want their bodies to look
(to themselves and others) and feel, based on their own personal preferences and experiences.

My foreskin is just as valuable as any other part and I don't really need any science or research to validate or justify normal parts of my body. It is able to detect temperature, pressure, touch, movement and textures etc just as well as my lips or fingertips. I am able to orgasm from the direct stimulation of my foreskin, not even touching the rest of my body or penis. It adds completely different types of sensations during sex, not more of the same type. It is also much easier to keep clean, healthy and protect against issues than many other parts of my body.

Personally, I have never met a circumcised man capable of pre-ejaculatory orgasms or able to have multiple orgasms with ejaculation in one session. Intact guys can easily do both in my experience. Circumcised guys seem to think of sex as a transaction involving a lot of thrusting and friction with ejaculation as the ultimate reward. On the other hand intact guys seem to have orgasms that leave them with a massive afterglow and heightened sensations all over their bodies that can last for several hours. These have been my personal experiences and does not claim to represent the experiences of all others, as there may also be many confounding variables.

My husband was circumcised at birth. He is a happy, kind, caring, affectionate and generous person. But the scar tissue from his circumcision often tears and bleeds making it painful and uncomfortable for him to be intimate. Is this fair to him? Does it make sense that his infant body was not protected against "docking" just because society is still bickering about if and how much harm it causes humans depending on their gender?

Deepak Shetty said...

It's not clear what do you think that is
Religious reasons. Note that some people do recognize that giving a religious reason gets them into trouble and use other excuses so stated reasons do not necessarily match intent.

(although it's only in the USA and the Philippines that Christians circumcise)
I assumed that the context is USA since Islam is not mentioned and a few Christians in India do circumcise even though the social pressure to circumcise is low (and reversed in the other direction)