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© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

Put down the knife! Now back away, slowly…

The leaves are falling, temperatures are falling…and foreskins, apparently, are falling as well.

Circumcision is in the air! I received two emails recently asking for my thoughts on the procedure, both from fathers who are making the decision soon for a newborn son. Then yesterday I came across a very thoughtful post about it on the Domestic Father blog. He says most of what I would say, but I’ll go on the record here as well.

We had our son circumcised, and I wish we hadn’t. The question just snuck up on me in the form of a nurse and a clipboard when I was exhausted. “Most people do,” she said. Baaaaaa, I replied.

It was originally a religious ceremony, a (quite strange, if you think about it) symbol of faithfulness to God. But interestingly, circumcision was not common outside of Jewish and Muslim practice until the 1890s, when a few religious enthusiasts, including the strange character JH Kellogg, recommended it as a cure for “masturbatory insanity.” Kellogg spent much of his professional effort combating the sexual impulse and helping others to do the same, claiming a plague of masturbation-related deaths in which “a victim literally dies by his own hand” and offering circumcision as a vital defense. “Neither the plague, nor war, nor small-pox, nor similar diseases, have produced results so disastrous to humanity as this pernicious habit,” warned a Dr. Alan Clarke (referring to masturbation, not circumcision).

Given these jeremiads by well-titled professionals, the attitudes of American parents in the 1890s turned overnight from horror at the barbarity of this “un-Christian” practice to immediate conviction that it would save their boys from short and insane lives. It was even reverse-engineered as a symbol of Christian fidelity and membership in the church.

(Isn’t it a relief that we’ve left this kind of mass gullibility so very far behind?)

The supposed health benefits and other red herrings were created after the fact, in the early 20th century, to undergird sexual repression with a firm foundation of pseudoscience.
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Anyone interested in the non-pseudo variety might look to the Council on Scientific Affairs, the American Medical Association, and dozens of similar organizations around the world who have issued statements calling the practice of circumcision “not recommended” because of associated risks. Others, including the British Medical Association, have articulated a slight possibility of slight benefits. Even so, The U.S. is the only remaining developed country in which the practice is still somewhat common — though many American HMOs no longer cover it.

The practice almost completely ended in the UK with the publication of a 1949 paper noting that 16-19 infant deaths per year were attributable to complications from the procedure.

One of my correspondents told me that “all the doctors we talk to say that it doesn’t matter one way or the other.” This seems to answer the question. No invasive medical procedure should be undertaken that does not have demonstrable benefits.

Add to that the strong possibility that sexual sensitivity is diminished, and I’d advise against it. It’s a form of genital mutilation, after all — just a more familiar one.

There’s also no rush. The boy can choose to go under the knife at 18 if he wishes. Considering just how likely that is should give any parent serious pause before greenlighting a pointless ritual relic when he’s an infant.

Circumcision Information and Resource Pages (CIRP), UK

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This was written on Friday, 12. September 2008 at 08:39 and was filed under belief and believers, Parenting, Science, sex. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. I am in the same boat as you. We had both our sons circumsized and now regret that, however, what’s done is done and there is nothing we can do about it now so I don’t fret over it too much. Thank you for providing this info so that others can make more informed choices.

    Comment: jcornelius – 12. September 2008 @ 9:24 am

  2. I’d just like to say as a (British) man, and a father to three boys, that I completely agree with you. Besides, there are worse things to be afflicted with than masturbatory insanity.

    Comment: sphagnum – 12. September 2008 @ 9:24 am

  3. After I found out the sex of our child-to-be, my wife and I visited the Jewish side of my family. (My extended family is half-Jewish, half-Christian; my wife’s family is all Christian. My father was an atheist, but wanted us to learn about our Jewish heritage.) We indicated that we would not be raising our son in any religion, although we would educate him about Judaism, in the same vein as my father did. One aunt and uncle immediately followed this up with, “But you are going to have him circumcised, right?” They were shocked when we said no. I have always found it interesting that they glommed onto that particular aspect of being Jewish.

    We came to our decision after a lot of reading and research, although my main reason remains that last one you articulate–why do something irrevocable if it’s unlikely he’d seek it out as an adult. As a lesbian- (and atheist-) headed household, I feel like we had more room to make this decision since we could throw out what seems to be the most common reason for circumcision I have found: so that he’ll look like his father.

    Comment: mouse – 12. September 2008 @ 9:34 am

  4. so that he’ll look like his father.

    *spurts coffee over laptop*

    I’d never heard that one! And this will be noticed when — at the ballpark urinals?

    Comment: Dale – 12. September 2008 @ 9:37 am

  5. In case you were wondering, we canceled the appointment. In addition to yours, Dale, I got quite a few other responses all basically saying the same thing. They had links to similar articles and even some videos. (Try watching the procedure first! I dare you to do it after that)

    -Ryan (aka correspondent #1)

    Comment: Ryan – 12. September 2008 @ 10:19 am

  6. I guess the issue is happening to see Dad at home. And that might lead to questions, you know?

    I always considered it one of the flimsiest reasons, but I saw it in every online discussion and in a few articles I read on the topic.

    Our OB asked us matter-of-factly if we’d thought about the issue a couple weeks before I was due. When we said definitely not, she responded, “Good, one less thing for me to do.” But I suspect that she was more relieved than that.

    I had to spend my two days in the hospital listening to the other woman in the room plan the bris for her twin boys.

    Comment: mouse – 12. September 2008 @ 10:32 am

  7. [...] of fact: circumcision only became popular in Christendom in the 1890s as a cure for masturbation which was thought to cause insanity and death and because the penis was thought to be germ-ridden. [...]

    Pingback: Green Oasis » Death By His Own Hand – 12. September 2008 @ 11:31 am

  8. In case you were wondering, we canceled the appointment.

    I was wondering! Glad to hear it.

    Comment: Dale – 12. September 2008 @ 11:43 am

  9. Just let me say….

    OUCH!

    OOCH!

    We’ve got #3 (SURPRISE!!!) coming in late March and if its a boy there is no way I’m having ANYTHING cut off him.

    OK, maybe if he has a tail, but perhaps that might be a decision best left to him when he grows to adulthood.

    Horns? Definitely coming off….

    Comment: blotzphoto – 12. September 2008 @ 12:37 pm

  10. Hey, congrats, blotz! Save the horns, though. (Say, are you coming to the seminar Saturday in Cincinnati? Boy is that fun to say.)

    Comment: Dale – 12. September 2008 @ 12:48 pm

  11. After hearing all the “pro” arguments, only the hygiene/disease one seemed to have any merit…but the “con” argument was better:

    “Wash, don’t amputate.”

    Comment: cognitive dissident – 12. September 2008 @ 1:17 pm

  12. I cannot see the sense in opening a fresh wound on an infant.
    Would taking off the small segment of his little finger be a better option, should we be seeking something “ritual”?

    Comment: leslie – 12. September 2008 @ 5:44 pm

  13. That would only be a better option if you want everyone to think the baby is Yakuza…

    Comment: cognitive dissident – 12. September 2008 @ 6:43 pm

  14. “No invasive medical procedure should be undertaken that does not have demonstrable benefits.”

    Exactamundo. The default setting should always be NOT to perform surgery on one’s child. Medical need, then medical treatment, THEN surgical removal of body parts.

    As a child and young adult, I accepted circumcision without question. I assumed it was necessary or of course it wouldn’t be done, right? Fortunately for my children, prior to my first pregnancy, I had the opportunity to witness a baby being prepared for his circumcision when I was working in a newborn nursery. I did not witness the procedure but even his preparation (strapped down to a restraint board, naked, wailing) seemed like cold and barbaric treatment of any person, especially a day-old infant. It got the wheels turning – well, that and the fact that I had noticed some anti-circumcision sentiment on a message board. I called my mom (who is a medical professional) and asked, why is it necessary? It seems so cruel! Her answer? “It’s not medically necessary and I wish we hadn’t had your brothers circumcised.” My husband, who is a physician, seconded her opinion and expressed his relief that I wanted to leave our children’s genitalia alone. He scoffed at the “looking like daddy” rationale. Ridiculous.

    We now have three sons who have retained everything they arrived with. :) It was surprising how quickly an intact penis became normal to me (I had never seen a foreskin before my first son was born). I can’t imagine opting for circumcision after learning the protective functions of the foreskin.

    With regards to the disease risk issues in the literature – it generally does not make sense to amputate healthy tissue, regardless of what *might* happen to that tissue in the future. It should also be noted that medical research continues to discover new things, including clarifying the functions of the Langerhans cells in the foreskin – at one point it was thought that these cells increased the risk of contracting HIV because they were seen to be attracting the virions, and then later it was discovered that this attraction actually serves a protective function.

    Oh, and my parents have apologized to my brothers. One has a son and did not circumcise him. The second will have a son soon and plans to leave him intact. Not sure of the third brother’s stance but I know my sister plans to be a non-circumciser as well. I’m proud that our generation in my family has questioned and stopped perpetuating this practice.

    Comment: spark – 12. September 2008 @ 7:21 pm

  15. Sorry for the book I just wrote, Dale!

    Another comment – if a boy does notice a difference between himself and his father, the father can be honest and tell his son what circumcision is, why his parents thought it was necessary, what we know now, and why it was not done to the boy.

    Comment: spark – 12. September 2008 @ 7:23 pm

  16. Wow, Cognitive Dissident,
    I thought I was making that up out of whole cloth!
    Seems the bizarre nature of my sarcastic suggestion had already been realized. ow! ow! ow!
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yakuza
    I learned something, but I am not sure I am glad to have done so… :)

    Comment: leslie – 12. September 2008 @ 7:28 pm

  17. Dale, this was an excellent post. I couldn’t agree with you more. I am glad to see so many people making rational comments about how unnecessary circumcision is and I hope that blogs like this will inform and reach many people; to the point were circumcision isn’t even something that is considered. So congratulations to all of those (Ryan, Mouse, and others) who have seen through the cultural dogma and left their sons as they were born.

    Comment: Joe – 12. September 2008 @ 8:29 pm

  18. Thanks Joe. I invite everyone to check out the site Joe came in from, Male Circumcision and HIV.

    Comment: Dale – 12. September 2008 @ 8:40 pm

  19. Thanks Dale, those interested should check out the site and leave a comment or two if you are so inclined. :) We are trying to bring a more reasonable perspective to circumcision and HIV; specifically, that it’s being oversold and is just another in a long chain of excuses with little rational justification.

    Comment: Joe – 12. September 2008 @ 9:13 pm

  20. Let me bottom-line it for you.

    Foreskin feels REALLY good. HIS body, HIS decision.

    Comment: TLCTugger – 12. September 2008 @ 9:22 pm

  21. I must admit that this was a difficult decision for me when we had Jack. In the end, my wife, as the doctor of the household, made the strongest case against the procedure, so Jack is uncircumcised. The whole “won’t look like his dad” thing entered my mind, but I was concerned more with, “won’t look like his peers”, which I was afraid could cause some serious ridicule once gym class/sports team showering began. I am much less concerned now, especially since I am convinced that we did the right thing medically, but also because it seems that Jack will likely not be the only one.

    Comment: Jim Lemire – 13. September 2008 @ 11:50 pm

  22. Interesting article, and interesting comments. I too, had my son circumcised, and while I was an atheist at the time, I couldn’t imagine NOT having in done in a country/society in which most men are. For me, it was simply a matter of conformity. HOWEVER, I did NOT know that this could be done at any other point in his life; I was under the impression it HAD to be done at birth! This was interesting to learn.

    Additionally, I also gotta imagine it’s more difficult for an uncircumcised male to convince his girlfriend to give him a blowjob. I mean, it’s tough enough as it is…

    Comment: BrianE – 15. September 2008 @ 10:10 am

  23. First time leaving a comment. Love your books, and now your blog, thank you for the wonderful reading. I too did not have my boys circumcised, they are now 11 and 9. I felt like the nurses were trying to guilt me into it, but I stood my ground. You should watch Penn and Teller’s “Bullshit” episode of circumcision. After seeing it, my husband who was circumcised felt almost cheated. You’ll have to see it to see the specifics. But there is an old guy on their that drops his drawers and shows how to tape a weight on the end to create a uh, new turtle neck sweater if you will : )
    Here is a link to the youtube page with series, there are 3 videos.
    http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=penn+and+teller+circumcision&search_type=&aq=0&oq=penn+and+teller+circu

    And to BrianE, when erect, their isn’t a whole lot of skin to pull back, looks just like a circumcised penis.

    Comment: denver atheist – 17. September 2008 @ 7:38 pm

  24. my wife is pregnant with #2 (#1 was a girl) and we decided long ago that we would not circumcise if any of our children were boys. It just seems so cruel and irrational in this day and age. I could perhaps accept the hygiene excuse a hundred years ago when bathing or showering were infrequent at best, but these days, it’s far easier to be clean.

    Comment: antimattr – 20. September 2008 @ 4:53 pm

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