Circumcision in America: The First Cut Is the Deepest

Photo of Circumstraint board used for performing circumcision

“What is done to children, they will do to society.”  —Karl Meninger

By Cat Saunders

I grew up in the United States with a circumcised brother and circumcised friends. All my lovers were circumcised, and I didn’t even see an intact penis until 1975, when I was 21. During the 1950-60s when I was a child, the rate of circumcision in America was much higher than it is today. In those days, it was extremely uncommon for a boy not to be circumcised.

Looking back to that first glimpse of a whole penis, I’m not even sure I realized what I was looking at. I remember being very intrigued. However, that particular penis belonged to a friend instead of a lover. So I never had the opportunity to satisfy my curiosity beyond a polite visual survey when we exchanged massages or took a hot tub together. Since then, I’ve had other uncircumcised male friends, but never an intact lover. As a result, my explorations were always limited to conversations and visual contact.

Basically, I grew up with the prevailing belief (now debunked) that male circumcision was necessary for “hygiene” reasons. The American Medical Association has long since denounced that belief. It now correctly states that there is no medical reason to routinely circumcise infant males.

The Truth About Hygiene

You can learn more about the Victorian roots of circumcision “hygiene” arguments and how they contributed to an upsurge of circumcision in America. In particular, use the search engine on NOHARMM‘s website to find articles about Dr. John Kellogg. Yes, he’s the same Kellogg of cereal fame and the subject of a movie called “The Road to Wellville.”

Kellogg was a hygiene fanatic. He was also one of this country’s biggest proponents of infant male circumcision as a means to discourage masturbation. He also advocated pouring carbolic acid on the clitorises of little girls to discourage masturbation. This obsessed doctor and a few of his contemporaries were largely responsible for the rise of male circumcision in the U.S. in the early 1900s.

As far as I’m concerned, the hygiene argument can be easily discredited by thinking about animals. If circumcision was necessary to prevent infection in penises, animals would be in big trouble. After all, if intact penises were more vulnerable to infection, there would be a lot of animals running around with infected genitals!

The truth is, the foreskin protects the head of the penis, including protecting it from infection. This is one of the foreskin’s primary immunological functions. It makes sense. Something as evolutionarily precious as a penis deserves to be protected, don’t you think?

Babies Feel Pain!

When I was growing up, many conventional Western doctors didn’t even believe that babies feel pain. No wonder they could advise parents to allow surgery without anesthesia on their infants’ genitals! I remember hearing on the news as recently as the late 1990s that doctors were conducting experiments to prove that babies feel pain. Are you kidding me? This still has to be proven?

With this kind of denial—and with a culture that rewards stoicism—it’s no wonder that many circumcised men think they’re “fine.” And it’s no wonder that circumcised men believe their circumcisions were “no big deal.” Because of this socialization and the prevailing macho mentality, it takes real courage for men to decry this bodily assault. Such men run the risk of being labeled wimps, instead of being seen as the human rights champions they are.

In my early thirties, when I finally started thinking about circumcision, I realized something important. Just because a man survived circumcision and has no conscious memory of it doesn’t mean that he—or his circumcision—is fine. After all, many women in developing countries who have been circumcised and socialized to accept it as normal also think they’re fine. But I don’t buy it in their case, either.

In Praise of the Fully Functional Penis

I chose monogamy with my longtime partner, who is circumcised, without ever having experienced sex with an intact man. I’ve been happily spoiled by my wonderful partner and other circumcised lovers before him. However, I do sometimes wonder what I missed by never having an intact lover. I especially wonder about this because I now know about the sexual benefits of a “fully functional” penis.

Having had only circumcised lovers is probably like growing up with a black-and-white TV and then finding out there’s color. If all you’ve ever known is black-and-white television, that’s pretty wonderful in itself. But if you had a choice, wouldn’t you rather have the full spectrum?

Considering what I’ve said here about fully functional penises, perhaps I’ve insulted or even enraged some circumcised men. Perhaps I’ve even insulted or enraged some of their lovers by saying a circumcised penis is not fully functional. But how could it be fully functional, when an important part of it is missing?

When a circumcision is performed, what would become 15 square inches (when erect) of sensitive penile tissue is cut off and discarded. Lost along with these 15 square inches of foreskin are 24-40,000 nerve endings. In addition, many important protective, immunological, and sexual functions are lost.

Did you know, for example, that the penile skin system of an intact man has 33%-50% more tissue than a circumcised penis? And did you know that this highly erogenous tissue enhances sexual pleasure for men as well as their partners?

There are significant sexual consequences of circumcision at the purely physiological level. Frankly, I believe there are also psychological, social, spiritual, and even cultural consequences. Of course, the full extent of these consequences might be difficult to prove in scientifically measurable ways. However, no matter what anyone thinks about circumcision’s far-reaching consequences, it all comes down to the issue of basic human rights.

The Question of Genital Mutilation

Americans recoil in horror at reports of female circumcision, whether it occurs in developing countries or here in the United States. With female circumcision, no one seems to object when it is called what it is: genital mutilation. Yet here in America, where most baby boys are still subjected to circumcision, many people still object to calling it mutilation.

Since most male circumcisions are not as profoundly debilitating as female circumcisions, many Americans still deny that male circumcision is brutal at all. Yet routine infant male circumcision forcefully removes the foreskin of the penis. This does seem to fit the definition of mutilate, which means “to cut off or permanently destroy an essential part.”

Do you think I’m exaggerating when I call involuntary male circumcision genital mutilation? If so, I beg you to reconsider. For one thing, some infant male circumcisions are so badly botched that they require penile amputation. Did you know about this risk? Although it’s statistically rare, would you want it to be your son who lost his penis to a botched circumcision?

Even during so-called “routine” circumcisions, here’s what happens thousands of times each day in American hospitals. A newborn baby boy is strapped down to a board (such as a Circumstraint, pictured above).  Next, a clamp is applied to pull back and crush his foreskin. Then, while he screams and struggles in vain to escape—or passes out from shock—his foreskin is sliced from his tiny penis without anesthesia, and, obviously, without his permission.

Can you imagine an adult male allowing this to be done to his genitals? As one of my regretfully circumcised friends says, “If those little babies were as big as the doctors who cut on them, there would be a lot of beat-up doctors in this country.”

To any circumcised man who says involuntary circumcision is no big deal, I say denial runs deep. However, I bet this denial would end immediately if I suggested that he let a man 20 times his weight forcefully strap him to a board and cut off a slice of his penis without anesthesia. Would he still say this is not genital mutilation?

Babies of Both Sexes Deserve Protection

Involuntary infant circumcision occurs for one reason alone: because babies are helpless to defend themselves. If the victims of circumcision cannot defend themselves, and if the government offers no legal protection, who will defend these babies?

Those of us who can see what’s happening must defend the rights of helpless infants. Hopefully, those who can see will grow in number until everyone is included. At that point, all circumcision, both male and female, will become a thing of the past. We humans have left many brutal rituals behind. Involuntary infant circumcision should be one of them.

For now, there are many committed individuals and organizations spearheading the cause. If you know it’s time to stop involuntary circumcision for both sexes, then perhaps you, too, can help. You can start at the grassroots level by talking with your own family and friends.

If you talk with people about circumcision, be prepared to encounter apathy, indignation, or outright denial. This is par for the course when prevailing beliefs are questioned. If you need support to know what to say, and/or if you want reliable resources, see the end of this article for links.

In working to ban circumcision, some people come from a place of intellect, realizing that circumcision is medically unnecessary. Others come from a place of heart, knowing that circumcision is brutal and cruel. Still others reject circumcision for political, spiritual, or moral reasons, because circumcision violates basic human rights.

No matter where you’re coming from, your voice counts, because one voice might save another baby. It is possible to stop circumcision, and stop it we will. Together.


This article was originally published by The New Times in October 2001 and updated in June 2017.

For additional information about circumcision, please visit the website for Genital Autonomy America (formerly NOCIRC, the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers). 

Another excellent resource is the National Organization to Halt the Abuse and Routine Mutilation of Males (NOHARMM) at www.noharmm.org.



Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).