Foreskin or against it?

"you need a flesh-cap," I snickered, "because winters are frightfully cold in Helsinki."

My Finnish friend Paavo and I tease each other incessantly about cultural differences. A primary source of amusement is our differing penises: I am circumcised, while he carries a foreskin.

Chuckling softly, he mused: "You're absolutely not jealous?"

I replied, "No! Why should I be?"

Paavo shook his head. "If I was not whole, I would be angry extremely."

His sympathy annoyed me. The assumption that his penis was perfect, but mine was damaged, incomplete ...

Circumcision is a hotly debated issue in my social circle, due to the expected babies of several friends. My wife, Carol, is adamantly opposed to "cutting" -- sometimes she even waxes nostalgic about the benefits of a former lover's foreskin. "I never had a yeast infection with him. No abrasion."

For a long time, I regarded the debate as much ado about nothing: To pack a foreskin or not, does it really make a difference? Last week, though, I decided to educate myself. I went to the library and read magazine extracts from medical journals. The vast majority of the 109 studies documented foreskin risks: higher rates of urinary tract infection, penile cancer, gonorrhea and HIV/AIDS. Whew! I exulted. I'm glad I'm clean! Who needs that slimy, wrinkled hood?

Jogging that afternoon with my wife, I relayed my new knowledge.

"Don't believe those studies," she grunted. "They're biased. Doctors in America enjoy circumcision."

"You're wrong!" I sputtered. "Why don't you admit it?"

"Get modern," Carol replied. "Surf the Web. You need to scam some fresh data."

The next morning I typed "circumcision" into Yahoo! Twenty-three site matches appeared. Many were the same affirmative reports I'd already examined, but there was also a promising list of anti-circ groups.

I dialed a phone number. Tim Hammond, Director of NOHARMM (National Organization to Halt the Abuse and Routine Mutilation of Males) answered.

"Gosh!" I blurted. "I'd like some of your educational material."

"We have a video," he offered, "'Whose Body? Whose Rights?' We aired it on PBS."


We talked for an hour about circumcision and his battle against it. "I consider myself a child's rights advocate," he stressed. "I want boys to have a choice." This sounded reasonable, but he spoke with a crusader's urgency -- people with an actual purpose in life make me suspicious.

"Every 26 seconds a helpless infant gets circumcised in the United States. Female circumcision has been outlawed, but little boys lose an important part of their body."

"Female circumcision? You mean clitoridectomies?"

"Yes. It's all genital mutilation. We believe in maintaining the integrity of a child's organ. When they reach the age of consent ..."

"But Tim," I cut in, "I read numerous medical reports listing diseases you can get with a foreskin."

He snorted. "In the Victorian era circumcision was promoted to 'cure' masturbation. Physicians said having a foreskin led to blindness, cancer and epilepsy. Idiotic, but they didn't give up. American doctors still insist that circumcision cures something. They're desperate -- it's a solution in search of a problem."

"Tim! Hey! I'm supposed to believe you, not the doctors?"

"Did you read the new study?" He crowed with self-confidence. "In JAMA? By Dr. Laumann, the University of Chicago sociologist?"

"JAMA?" I mumbled. "Doesn't sound familiar."

"Read it!" He ordered. "I'll mail you the video, with some pamphlets."

JAMA turned out to be the acronym for the very respectable "Journal of the American Medical Association." The article Tim guided me to, "Circumcision in the United States," appeared in the April 2, 1997, issue. When I read it, I started to sweat. I had to stop every 10 minutes and drink some water. I paced around, agitated, alarmed by the statistics. Unlike the pro-circumcision reports, which were distant and smug, this one clanged with truths I recognized from my own genital experience.

I've suffered through two urinary tract infections and one inflamed prostate. Would my urology be even sicker if I had a prepuce? No, claims Dr. Laumann. His investigation discovered that "circumcised men were slightly more likely to have both a bacterial and a viral STD in their lifetime." The greatest disparity involved chlamydia: He found 26 cases in circumcised men, but zero in those left intact! Grrr! I snarled. I had chlamydia! What a mess -- I passed it on to a very mad girlfriend! Chlamydia ... damn! Can I blame it on the geeks who stole my shield?

The study also exposed the stupidity of the original Victorian impulse: Circumcised men, it reported, actually masturbate 1.4 times more frequently than intact males.

Two days later, my wife and I watched the video. Carol bravely stared straight at the "live circumcision" footage while I peered through my quivering fingers. The infant, spread-eagled in a restrainer, shuddered when the Gomco clamp bit into his penis. He shrieked with terror and pain during the amputation. Blood gushed in his crotch. Afterwards, he was catatonic, detached.

When it ended, Carol stood up and bellowed, "We've got to save Rebecca's unborn child!"

Puzzled, I asked her, "Rebecca's getting an abortion? Why? She's eight months pregnant!"

"No!" my wife raved, "it's a boy! Rebecca's going to circumcise him!"

"Oh dear," I whined. "What can we do?"

"Talk to her!" My wife pleaded. "You've got a penis; she'll listen to you!"

"OK, OK, OK," I stuttered. "I'll ... study. I'll learn everything."

I memorized all the data in the pamphlets; I carefully made notes from the video. I discovered that:

I realized that the only way to stop Rebecca was to shock her with the grossest statistics. I called Tim again, demanding the worst. "Talk to Marilyn Milos," he urged. "She knows everything; she's the director of NOCIRC" (National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers).

Milos, a nurse at Marin General Hospital until she was fired for informing parents about the risks of circumcision, turned out to be exactly the bloody fountain of knowledge I needed. "Nobody knows how many babies are killed," she claimed, "because doctors often report that they died of blood dyscrasia, hemophilia, meningitis, sepsis and other diseases."

That said, she launched into four horrible stories that were apparently made public knowledge. In Miami, an infant bled to death. In Los Angeles, another perished from gangrene. In Alaska, a child was turned into a blind spastic quadriplegic by a circumcision-induced staph infection that damaged his brain. Last but not least, "John-Joan" had his entire penis burned off by a malfunctioning electrical circumcision device -- to remedy the accident, surgeons removed his scrotum, to turn him into a girl.

"Good grief, Marilyn," I mumbled, "that's enough."

Her voice rose with passion: "Genital mutilation isn't a medical issue, it's a human rights issue. Parents don't have the right to remove healthy tissue! The child has a right to his own body! It's his foreskin!"

"OK, OK, OK ... thanks!"

I telephoned my mother right after that, to pester her. "Mom! I'm interviewing people about circumcision."

"Oh dear, oh yes, oh no."

"Why, Mom, why? It hurt!"

"Don't be silly. Are you one of those nuts now?"

"Ouch, Mom! Ouch! I still feel it!"

"Stop. Everybody was circumcised. Did you know that your grandfather was circumcised when he was 45?"


"He was born in France, where they don't do the operation. When he got here he wanted to feel like a normal American."

"Why didn't he do something productive, like study the Bill of Rights? Circumcision would be illegal if we paid attention to the Fifth and 14th amendments. Not to mention Article V of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights: "NO ONE SHALL BE SUBJECTED TO TORTURE!"

"Oh, no. Hank, are you eating enough?"

"I love you, Mom! Bye!"

I felt like I was on a roll, so I called Rebecca next.

"Don't do it," I begged her. "Don't chop his little weenie."

"Foreskins are ugly," she replied. "Circumcised pricks are much cuter."

"Thanks, I'm flattered," I whispered, sincerely appreciative.

"Did Carol put you up to this?" she asked. "You're not doing well."

"OK, what about this?" I argued. "Female Circumcision was outlawed in 1995 by the Female Genital Mutilation Act. Why is male circumcision still legal? It's not fair; it's gender bias!"

Rebecca sighed. "Male rage, Hank? This isn't pretty."

"Listen, please!" I read her the NOHARMM chart that compares male and female circumcision: "Both were adopted to suppress or control sexuality ... both use hygiene, medicine, religion and tradition to justify it ... both force it upon the child without his/her consent ... in both cases the victims learn to accept it as 'normal' and defend the practice."

"Stop," groaned Rebecca. "I have to circumcise my son. It's the covenant."

"Covenant?" I repeated.

"Yes. We're going to have a bris. The Jewish ceremony."

"Oh no ... Yikes! Rebecca, I'll call you back."

I hung up the phone and shouted, "Carol! She's Jewish! I forgot! What do we do now?"

Hands on her hips, my wife scolded me. "Of course she's Jewish. She's always been Jewish."

"What can I do?"

"Look in your pamphlets! There's got to be a way!"

Diving once again into my notes, I discovered numerous facts and names that could assist in my new dilemma. I telephoned Miriam Pollack, author of "Circumcision: A Jewish Feminist Perspective."

Carefully choosing her words, Miriam stated, "Circumcision does not make a man Jewish. It's the heart and mind we should be after, not the penis."

"Yeah, but my friend says it's a sacred ceremony, a covenant with God."

"We are talking," Miriam continued, her voice edgy with anger, "about taking a knife to a baby's genitals and calling it 'sacred.' It's not sacred; it's violence taken as the norm. Mothers who permit this are totally disempowered in their deepest maternal instinct: to protect their child."

"Thanks, Miriam. Really. Thanks a lot."

Calling Rebecca back, I repeated what Miriam said. I also filled her in on the Jewish anti-circumcision community: Norm Cohen in Detroit, who created a booklet offering alternative bris ceremonies. Helen Bryce in Santa Cruz, Calif., who also provides packages for non-cutting rituals. Orthodox Moshe Rothenburg of New York, who refused to have his son cut, proclaiming, "We must not do anything hurtful to another human being, including and especially our children." Leland Traiman of Berkeley, Calif., who runs a sperm bank that is available only to parents who agree to leave their sons intact. Lastly, I told her about an organization in Israel that seeks to ban the ritual it describes as "a primitive and barbaric act."

Rebecca was quiet when I finished the list. Finally she said, "OK, I have to go now." She hung up.

I sat there, worrying about my glans. Numbness was definitely setting in. If I had a protective foreskin, like Paavo, it wouldn't be exposed, chaffing incessantly against my clothes -- my once-delicate squamous epithelial cells wouldn't be "cornified." Sometimes you learn things you'd rather not know.

In 100 years, I mused, will circumcision exist only in books that chronicle gruesome medical foibles? Will it be found in the chapter right after leeches?
Aug. 20, 1997

Hank Hyena is a San Francisco performance artist. Back to How Do Men Feel?