Last week I wrote a Facebook post in which I asked people to share with me their opinions on circumcision. Many, many people replied, for which I am very grateful, as I am always so honored when you share your deep and personal beliefs with me. I walk away from these posts feeling inspired and touched, as the stories you share always manage to reveal hidden and powerful truths.
Since a few of you inquired after my opinion on circumcision, I wanted to weigh in myself.
First, as a Jewish woman, I want to acknowledge that there is a cultural legacy behind circumcision which informs many people in my community and their decision to circumcise. While I appreciate and love my Jewish heritage, I realize this is not enough of a reason to perform surgery on an infant without medical cause.
The pediatric community is still largely in favor of circumcision, as they say that the benefits of circumcision outweigh the risks. What are these benefits?
• Reduced UTIS. “The health benefits of male circumcision include a drop in the risk of urinary tract infection in the first year of life by up to 90 percent,” Susan Blank tells NPR. Blank led the 14-member task force that formulated the new policy being published in the journal Pediatrics in which The American Academy of Pediatrics comes out in favor of circumcision.
• Reduced STIs. Blank also says that males are far less likely to get infected with a long list of sexually transmitted diseases. “It drops the risk of heterosexual HIV acquisition by about 60 percent. It drops the risk of human papillomavirus [HPV], herpes virus and other infectious genital ulcers,” she says. This also means that the risk of penile cancer is reduced.
• Reduced risk to female sexual partners. “[Circumcision] also reduces the chances that men will spread HPV to their wives and girlfriends, protecting them from getting cervical cancer.”
• Easier to clean. For little boys who hate to bathe, keeping a uncircumscribed penis clean is a bit more work. And when left uncleaned, major problems involving infection and pain can arise.
So, those are the pros. But what are the cons?
• Meatitis. This is the most common complication following circumcision, and it occurs when the urethral opening is inflamed as a result of not being protected by the foreskin.
• Botched surgery. As with any surgery, there is a risk that things won’t go smoothly in the operating room. This could mean that your son
could end up with an incomplete circumcision that could even require penile plastic surgery in the future.
• Loss of nerve endings. Removing the foreskin also removes thousands of nerve openings that make sex more pleasurable.
• Pain, trauma, and feelings of violation. Babies can and do feel pain, and it’s possible that your little one could be in pain as a result of this surgery. Along with physical pain, many men later report that they feel they feel violated as their circumcision was done without their consent.
There are many other pros and cons when it comes to the circumcision argument which I don’t have room to address here, however, I urge you to speak with your pediatrician at length before making this choice for your own child.
However, as a sex therapist, I will say that if you do feel traumatized by your circumcision, you are not alone. There is a group called Intact America which is working to end routine circumcision, and you can go to their web site to find resources and like-minded support from other men (and women) who are against circumcision.
Last, before I end, I want to address the issue of consent around circumcision. One man on my Facebook post compared circumcision to rape, and while I appreciate his right to anger about his circumcision, we must be very, very careful when we use the word ‘rape’ to describe anything other than rape. Words matter. They are powerful. They shape our beliefs and they inform the way we live in this world. So when we use the word ‘rape’ to talk about a medical procedure performed in good faith, this does a grave injustice to rape victims who have been abused, traumatized, penetrated and dehumanized by a sexual predator(s).
Nor do I think it is appropriate to take over a conversation about female genital mutilation by bringing up male circumcision in the Western World. There is a giant difference between FGM which occurs across the globe in places like Africa, Indonesia, and more. There are currently 200 million women living today in 30 countries who have been victimized by female genital mutilation in which these young girls near puberty are held down while some or all of their external genitalia are cut off with a sharp blade or piece of glass or similar cutting instrument.
Unlike male circumcision, there are absolutely no benefits to FGM, and unlike circumcision, it is not performed to protect male sexual health but in order to erase female sexual pleasure and to lay ownership to a woman’s genitals. It causes unimaginable pain and trauma and very often heals incorrectly, if it heals at all (as it is not performed in a hospital like nearly all Western circumcisions by a trained medical team). Not only is it dangerous in the short-term when the girl is healing from the horrific procedure, but it will also lead to other major health concern for the rest of her life, including severe bleeding, cysts, infections, infertility as well as complications in childbirth increased risk of newborn deaths. (Not to mention, of course, it will likely forever rob her of sexual enjoyment, which thankfully, is not the case for men who were circumcised as babies).
FGM is a violation of the human rights of girls and women. There are many who feel that male circumcision is a violation of the human rights of baby boys, and for these people, deciding to keep their baby intact is the correct choice. Thankfully, it is a choice that we do have here in America, unlike the millions of young girls across the globe who must endure genital mutilation with no option to decline.
Why am I making this distinction between FGM and circumcision? Because, again, I think it does a disservice to woman who can feel no sexual pleasure, women who endure a lifetime of pain and loss, and young girls who are held down and tortured because their bodies are viewed as dirty and sinful to a medical practice which is performed safely, hygienically and with a baby’s health in mind.
This doesn’t mean that circumcision is the right choice for you and your family. And, the rates of circumcision are declining in this country. This means that in the future, we will have more data to study and to help future parents make the right choice. For right now, the findings are mixed. That leaves us with one solid guide: Our instinct. We all have an inner guide inside of us that cuts through the fear, the hate, and the judgement.
If we can connect to that inner light, then at least we will know that our choices are truly our own and truly coming from a place of love.
That doesn’t mean our choices are always going to be right.
In fact, one woman on my Facebook post shared that her adult son came to her recently and confessed that he is angry and upset that he was circumcised. He made the choice as a father not to circumcise his 2 sons, and he found himself hurt that his parents had made a different decision when he was an infant.
While nothing can ever undo that man’s circumcision, I think it says a lot about his relationship with his parents that he could come to them openly and share how he felt. He was able to express himself in an honest, vulnerable way. And he also took that pain and he made a different choice for his own two sons. That’s incredible, isn’t it? Isn’t it amazing how pain can lead us to light, and how our suffering can embolden us to make different choices when it comes to our own children?
But it can only happen when we own it. And it can only happen when we have relationships in which we are allowed to be flawed. To be vulnerable. To be angry. To be hurt. Here’s to creating those types of bonds with our children, whether or not we decide to circumcise, vaccinate, cosleep, breastfeed, you name it.