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If we are ever to have real peace, we must begin with the children.


Circumcision Revisited
Riled Readers and a Feisty Cat

By Cat Saunders

    This article was prompted by numerous calls, letters, and e-mails following The New Times' October 2001 publication of "Circumcision in America: The First Cut Is the Deepest." Most responses were positive. However, there were also voices of confusion and self-admitted ignorance, along with indignation, disgust, and denial.

    From this array of comments, I selected five common objections — I call them myths — that I've heard repeatedly since 1988, when I first started writing publicly against circumcision.

    My responses to these myths are intended to complement "Circumcision in America," which included facts about the debunked hygiene argument, the American Medical Association's anti-circumcision position, male and female circumcision comparisons, infant pain perception, the foreskin and male sexual function, the question of genital mutilation, and issues related to circumcision and human rights.

Myth: "That little hangy fleshy thing is gross!"

    This one came from a dear woman friend who, like me, was socialized to accept "naked" (circumcised) penises as normal. Fortunately, when I suggested that she could change her prejudice with conscious effort, she agreed that it was the result of social conditioning.

    Although social conditioning can be overcome, this doesn't mean that she — or anyone — should stop liking circumcised men. I'm merely suggesting that those of us who were conditioned in this way can consciously expand our repertoire to include the enjoyment of intact male genitalia.

    As a counselor, I've helped hundreds of people learn to soften harsh judgments against themselves and others, no matter how these judgments originated. Believe it or not, it's even possible to like what once repelled you. This kind of personal work seems particularly worthwhile in a world that desperately needs more respect for the human body.

Myth: "It's just a little snip, so what's the big deal?"

    If one picture is worth a thousand words, then a video must be worth a million. If you think involuntary circumcision is okay, but you've never actually witnessed a baby being circumcised, I encourage you to watch Dr. Dean Edell's 20-minute educational video, which includes a few brief segments of a live "routine" circumcision.

    When you watch these segments, please be sure to listen to the baby as he undergoes the surgery, so you can get a true sense of his feeling-level experience. Dr. Edell's video is available for free through NOCIRC.org's website by clicking here.

    If you can sit through the surgical segments of that video with your eyes and ears open, and still believe afterward that circumcision is "just a little snip" and "no big deal," then your eyes and ears may have been open, but I doubt that your heart was.

    If this happens for you, and you'd like to do something about it, a qualified professional may be able to help you connect with your compassion. Generally speaking, only those who are unable or unwilling to feel their own pain can witness the infliction of pain on others without experiencing the desire to somehow alleviate the pain and do what they can to prevent it from happening to others.

    On the flip side, if you view the circumcision video, think it's fine, and don't want to do anything about your lack of empathy, then I hope you're never in a position of power in relation to an infant — or anyone else.

    If you think it's okay to pin down a helpless baby in four-point restraints so his foreskin can be crushed, sliced open, and amputated, there's no telling what lesser injustices you might commit — however obliviously — against those who are younger, smaller, weaker, poorer, or otherwise less powerful than you.

Myth: "Foreskins are irrelevant to good sex."

    One anonymous e-mailer wrote: "I wish for any woman that when she is making love with her man that they both are truly present in the moment with each other ... and that the love/connection and emotion transcends them ... and then, square inches of a penis become irrelevant."

    In a sense, he's right that true lovemaking is not about square inches — of foreskin or anything else. In fact, true lovemaking requires no sexual contact at all! But let's be clear: circumcised sex is not the way nature intended sex to be.

    If this upsets you, please don't waste time trying to "kill the messenger" (whether it's me or someone else), and please don't dig yourself deeper into denial. Instead, I encourage you to go ahead and be upset!

    It's healthy to be upset when you find out that you've been brainwashed, that no one ever told you how sex is supposed to be, and worst of all, that you cannot change what happened to you or someone you love. I know it's difficult, but if you can courageously face the full consequences of circumcision, then you can grieve the past and help to heal the denial that allows this inhumane practice to continue.

    What follows is a medically accurate description of the effects of circumcision on male sexual function and heterosexual intercourse. The words are those of my longtime colleague and friend, Marilyn Milos, R.N., founder of NOCIRC (see end of article for references):

    The foreskin of an intact penis has a ridged band just inside and encircling its opening. This ridged band contains Meissner's corpuscles, which are like nerve receptors in the fingertips.

    During sexual stimulation of the penis, the foreskin's exquisitely sensitive interior band of nerve receptors glides back and forth across the corona of the glans (the head of the penis), which itself has a high concentration of neurovascular end organs. Thus, the foreskin and the glans stimulate each other. The loss of this foreskin-glans stimulation is probably why men who are circumcised as adults say the difference is like seeing in black and white, rather than seeing in color.

    During heterosexual sex, the intact penis is stimulated both by the vagina and this foreskin-glans action. Therefore, the movements an intact man needs for stimulation are small. Circumcised men, however, must stimulate whatever is left of the frenulum (diagram information follows) in order to reach orgasm. The long strokes necessary to stimulate the remaining frenulum take the man's body away from the woman's mons pubis (pubic mound), so her clitoris isn't stimulated.

    Thus, the movement necessary for a circumcised man to reach orgasm is not compatible with the movement a woman needs to reach orgasm. No one talks about this potential cause for deep tension in relationships. However, it's important to understand that the natural mechanics of sex are disturbed when men are circumcised.

Myth: "Circumcision is a only men's issue!"

    As long as mothers betray their protective maternal instincts by allowing their sons to be circumcised, and as long as women have relationships — of any kind — with men whose first sexual experience was violent, it's absurd to say that circumcision is only a men's issue.

    Circumcision is also an issue of child abuse, so men and women should both be involved in stopping it. Besides, even if circumcision was "only a men's issue," any humanitarian would want to prevent something that hurts people of either sex.

Myth: "Religious circumcision is okay."

    Many anti-circumcision organizations are afraid to touch the hot-button issue of ritual (religious) circumcision. I'm scared, too, but I'm doing it anyway. What kind of human rights activist would I be if I only wanted to protect some babies, but not others? Besides, history notwithstanding, religious groups should be leaders, not offenders, in the area of human rights.

    Many excellent articles, religious treatises, and medical papers have been written against circumcision by doctors and others who belong to religions that still practice this ancient blood ritual. Since I'm not Jewish, Muslim, or animist (as in certain African tribes that practice ritual circumcision), those of you who are may prefer to read writings by people of your own faith (see end of article for resources).

    If you're open to the perspective of a spiritual eclectic, I'll describe a few of my many objections to ritual circumcision. First, involuntary circumcision of any form violates the basic human right to preserve the integrity of one's own body. Basic human rights must supersede religious rights. After all, if your body isn't safe from violence, how can you safely practice the religion of your choice?

    Secondly, it's hypocritical for defenders of ritual circumcision to claim their "right of religious freedom" while denying the religious freedom of those they subject to this involuntary and inhumane practice. It's particularly appalling that anyone who remembers the Holocaust could perpetuate a blood ritual based on the inability of its victims to resist.

    In point of fact, parents who circumcise their babies are forcing their religious beliefs on their children. Obviously, these children cannot "uncircumcise" themselves, so they are forever marked as members of a particular group, even if they want to practice another religion later in life.

    Therefore, circumcision is an act of coercion, not freedom, and it can only happen within religions — and in countries — that still regard children as the legal property of their parents.

    Please understand that involuntary circumcision would be considered assault if it occurred in any situation other than on a newborn baby by parental request. This is one reason anti-circumcision workers believe that male babies should be included in the 1995 U.S. legislative bill that outlaws genital mutilation for girls.

    Ultimately, the persistence of blood rituals in otherwise enlightened religions boils down to the need to belong — and its flip side, the fear of being different. Since this is the case, I think it's more helpful to work with this fear, rather than against it. In the words of Dr. Jenny Goodman (a Jewish physician): "Most of all, we need to reassure people that their child will not be alone, will not be the only one, will not be exiled."

    Thus, if you're a parent struggling with religious loyalty vs. loyalty to your child, please choose both. Your child can grow up intact and still be a valued member of your community. Even in America, where male babies continue to be subjected to circumcision (for whatever reason), 43% of male babies are now left intact. This percentage is increasing every year, so the minority will soon be the majority.

    I don't know what percentage of intact babies are Jewish, Muslim, or animist, but I can assure you that your intact baby will not be alone. Therefore, if you're ever subjected to ridicule by others in your religious group for choosing to protect your baby, please hold your head high and have compassion for those people's fear. Not everyone has the courage to challenge religious traditions, even traditions that are cruel.

    Ironically, if you're brave enough to protect your children by refusing circumcision, you'll also be protecting your religion. Why? Because only those religions that evolve will survive.

    Circumcision itself won't survive much longer in a world increasingly committed to human rights for all, children included. Thus, it will be the people who are not afraid to be different — who refuse to perpetuate the ancient blood rituals — who will ensure the survival of the truly beautiful and nonviolent core of their religions.

  This article was originally published by The New Times in December 2001.

Online Resources

    www.nocirc.org, www.cirp.org, and www.noharmm.org, www.circumstitions.com, and www.IntactAmerica.org all have extensively researched sites to answer all your questions about circumcision.

   To see a video of an actual circumcision, please visit www.circumstitions.com. The home page of this site has an overwhelming array of links, so be ready! Scroll down until you see a highlighted box that includes links for several different videos of live circumcisions, which are all viewable online.

   For detailed descriptions, diagrams, and photographs of foreskins, including a moving picture of a real foreskin in action, please visit noharmm.org/anatomy.htm.

   For a startling comparison between female genital mutilation and male circumcision, please visit fgmnetwork.org/intro/mgmfgm.htm.

Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a longtime counselor, consultant, and nonsectarian minister in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Dr. Cat's Helping Handbook (available at Amazon.com). Click here to contact Cat or learn more about her work by returning to the home page. To schedule in-person or telephone consultations, please email Cat or call her 24-hour confidential voice mail at (206) 329-0125.