Before I got pregnant, my position on circumcision was neutral. Like many, I accepted it as a normal custom in our culture. I knew that boys in my family had been routinely circumcised as infants. My mom told the story about the distressing experience of listening to my infant brother’s agonizing screams while she waited outside the room during the procedure, but she didn’t express it in a way that implied it shouldn’t have happened or that it was the wrong thing to do. My first sexual relationship was with an uncircumcised guy, and it wasn’t a detail that bothered me in the least. Friends of mine had expressed that they preferred a circumcised penis for aesthetic reasons. That about covered my understanding of it.
When we learned I was pregnant with a boy, I knew we had to make a decision one way or the other. If anything, I was leaning towards getting him circumcised at first, just for the sake of uniformity. My circumcised male partner’s opinion carried a lot of weight with me. He was mostly impartial, but leaning slightly to the yes side. Friends of ours treated it as a default and told me it was “just a flap of skin” – dismissing the abundance of nerve endings, lubrication and other functions of the foreskin. Family members were adamant that our son needed to be circumcised, citing stories of boys they knew that ended up being circumcised for medical reasons in toddlerhood – as though putting a baby through certain pain now is better than the possibility of pain later. Some people still believe that babies don’t experience pain from circumcision, or that cutting the most sensitive part of a male child’s genitals is okay because they won’t remember it later on. I am not one of those people. Sir Paul McCartney said that if slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian. I think if routine infant circumcision procedures were more visible, they wouldn’t be so routine anymore, either.
I continued to seek information, watch documentaries and listen to personal testimonials. The interesting thing about this topic is that the medical recommendations changed decades ago. My mom kept hospital pamphlets from 30 years ago and the evidence presented then indicated no medical need for circumcision, that it did not prevent STDs, as once believed, as well as the many serious risks and possible side effects. The practice persisted in the mainstream, which demonstrates how strongly cultural norms can influence behaviour, and how much time can lapse before attitudes and practices reflect updated scientific consensus. Believe me when I say I understand how people can view it as minor and inconsequential, because that’s the place I started from; that’s what we were raised to think. Believe me, too, that coming from an informed place now, I can only view circumcision as unnecessary male genital cutting. It is a painful experience. It is a sexually traumatic experience. It is a violation of body autonomy and a betrayal of trust. It is similar to female genital mutilation. The foreskin plays an integral role, including male sexual pleasure and function. It is protective for the delicate skin underneath. Intact is the natural form of male genitalia – not a defect.
The idea that an intact penis is less clean than a circumcised penis is not entirely untrue. While it is true that an intact penis requires proper cleaning technique to avoid infection, there is an important misconception about cleaning a child’s uncircumcised penis. It is necessary to clean underneath the foreskin, however, the foreskin on an infant’s penis does not yet retract. In fact, it can take years for that to happen, sometimes until puberty. Parents, physicians and all caregivers entrusted with diaper changing and bathing duties should not ever forcibly retract the foreskin before it does so naturally. Forcing the foreskin back prematurely can cause damage to the area, which could lead to injury, infection or medically necessary circumcision later in life. An older male child needs to bathe regularly and learn how to properly clean their body as they grow and change, just as we all do.
I believe the driving force behind the resistance to the intact movement is our disinclination to shame the men in our lives who have been circumcised and the parents who made that decision on their behalf. We are doing our sons a great disservice by withholding information on the subject under the guise of respect for the circumcised. It may be upsetting for some to learn more about the downsides of circumcision post factum, but the truth exists whether we are sheltered from it or not. The parents who regret making the choice for their infants need not feel shame, as they were operating with poor or limited knowledge that was largely tied to cultural and religious norms. The final decision belongs to the parents, but circumcision should not be the default. Ideally, it is reasonable and responsible for parents to allow their children to make decisions about any personal body modifications when they are old enough to do so, because it is something that cannot be easily undone. All circumcised men should be informed, however, that there are methods for foreskin restoration, should they so choose.