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 ’50s and ’60s when I was a child, the rate of circumcision in America was much higher than it is today, and 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 whenever we exchanged massages or took a hot tub together. Since then, I’ve had other uncircumcised male friends, but never an intact lover, so my explorations were always limited to conversations and visual contact.

Like most of my contemporaries, I grew up under the influence of the prevailing belief (now debunked) that male circumcision was necessary for “hygiene” reasons. The American Medical Association has long since denounced that thinking and now correctly states that there is no medical reason to routinely circumcise infant males.

The Truth About Hygiene

If you want to read about the Victorian roots of circumcision “hygiene” arguments and how they contributed to an upsurge of circumcision in the United States, please see the end of this article for information about NOHARMM’s Web site. If you go there, you can use their search engine to find articles about Dr. John Kellogg — the same Kellogg of cereal fame and the subject of a movie called The Road to Wellville.

Kellogg was a hygiene fanatic and one of this country’s biggest advocates of infant male circumcision as a means to discourage masturbation. He also advocated pouring carbolic acid on the clitorises of little girls in order to discourage masturbation. To a large extent, Americans can thank this obsessed doctor (along with a few of his contemporaries) for the turn-of-the century rise of male circumcision in the United States.

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, wouldn’t they? 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, 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. Imagine that!

With doctors like this, and with a culture that rewards males for stoicism, it’s also no wonder that many circumcised adult males think they’re “fine” and that their circumcisions were “no big deal.” Because of this socialization and the prevailing macho mentality, it takes real courage for men to speak out against this assault on male bodies. Such men run the risk of being labeled wimps, instead of being seen as the human rights champions that they are.

In my early thirties, when I finally started thinking about circumcision, I realized that just because a man survived his circumcision and has no conscious memory of it, this doesn’t mean he — or the fact of his circumcision — is fine. After all, many women in Third World 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 the love of my life, who is circumcised, without ever having experienced lovemaking with an uncircumcised man. I confess that 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, particularly since I now know about the benefits of a “fully functional” penis that still has its foreskin.

Having had only circumcised lovers is 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?

Having said what I said about intact men having fully functional penises, I’m guessing that I’ve insulted or even enraged a lot of circumcised men — and perhaps even some of their lovers — by inferring that a circumcised penis is not fully functional. But how could it be, when an extremely important part of it is missing?

Consider this: When a circumcision is performed, what would become 15 square inches (when erect) of sensitive penile tissue is cut off and thrown away. Lost along with these 15 square inches of foreskin are 24-40,000 nerve endings as well as important protective, immunological, and sexual functions.

Did you know, for example, that the penile skin system of an intact man has 33%-50% more tissue than a circumcised penis, and that this highly erogenous tissue enhances sexual pleasure for a man and his partner in ways that a circumcised penis cannot?

Aside from the sexual consequences of circumcision at the purely physiological level, I personally believe that there are psychological, social, spiritual, and even cultural consequences to this assault on the sex organs of baby boys. Of course, I realize that the full extent of these consequences might be difficult to prove in scientifically measurable ways. However, no matter what you or I or 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 Third World countries or in isolated instances 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 the majority of baby boys (57%) are still subjected to involuntary circumcision at birth, most people still object to calling male circumcision what it is: genital mutilation.

In addition, since most (though not all) 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, and this does seem to fit the definition of mutilate, which is “to cut off or permanently destroy an essential part.”

Do you think I’m exaggerating when I call involuntary male circumcision genital mutilation, just because it’s not usually as bad as female circumcision? Then 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 at the beginning of this article).  Next, a clamp is applied to pull back and crush his foreskin, and then, while he screams and struggles in vain to escape—or passes out from shock—that piece of sensitive penile tissue I mentioned above 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 (since most circumcised men can’t remember it), I say denial runs deep. However, I bet this denial would end immediately if I suggested to such a man that a team of Sumo wrestlers (to analogize the size difference between infants and medical personnel) will now overpower him, 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 and one reason alone: because the babies are helpless to defend themselves. But if the victims of circumcision cannot defend themselves, and if the government offers no legal protection, then who will defend them?

I believe that 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, like so many other barbaric human rituals.

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, not just females, then perhaps you, too, can help. You can start at the grassroots level by talking with your own family and friends.

If you do 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, or if you simply want to point friends and family in the direction of reliable resources, there are many highly respected organizations ready to help (see end of article).

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 October 2016.

    For additional information about circumcision, please visit the Web site for the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers (NOCIRC) at www.nocirc.org. Cat would like to thank NOCIRC’s founder and director, Marilyn Milos, R.N., for her ongoing support and her expert help with the research for this article.

   For more information about circumcision, including the site-specific search engine mentioned in this article, please visit the Web site for the National Organization to Halt the Abuse and Routine Mutilation of Males (NOHARMM) at www.noharmm.org.

    NOHARMM has included Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook in its website’s online bookstore in honor of Cat Saunders’ writing against circumcision on page 113 of her book. If you order Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook via NOHARMM’s website (above), their anti-circumcision efforts will receive a small contribution to the cause. Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook is available through Amazon.com.



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).