Circumcision: A Conversation with Four Men
“We Americans recoil in horror at reports of female circumcision in other
countries, yet we refuse to see that brutal acts of genital mutilation are
committed every day on baby boys in the United States.” —Cat Saunders
By Cat Saunders
If you’re a man who was circumcised at birth, you are a victim of abuse. That’s what I think, anyway. I’m not saying someone was purposely abusing you. They probably even thought they were doing it “for your own good.”
The point is, if you were circumcised at birth, you had the foreskin of your penis removed without your permission. I don’t know what the statistics are, in terms of how many males are still being circumcised at birth, but even if there were only one baby circumcised against his will, it would be one too many for me.
This isn’t an article full of facts. It’s an article full of feelings—my feelings and the feelings of the four men friends I interviewed. Since Halloween of 1988, when I dressed up like a man, I’ve been thinking about a lot of things I’d never really thought about before, and circumcision is one of them.
Actually, I had thought about circumcision before, but I’d never really let myself feel anything about it. Once I started feeling my feelings about circumcision, I became increasingly appalled that our so-called “civilized” society continues to perform this brutal and unnecessary surgery on infants.
I mean, let’s get serious now. Can you imagine a full-grown man allowing a doctor to put him in four-point restraints and cut off the foreskin of his penis without anesthesia? I can’t.
So far, I haven’t met any man who would want a doctor to mess with his genitals with anesthesia, much less without it. And I certainly don’t know any man who would let a doctor operate on his penis without his (the patient’s) permission. But that’s exactly what happens to thousands of male infants in the United States every day.
Imagine, if you will, a typical hospital birth in this country (not including the more conscious, natural-style births that are finally becoming more common). Imagine you are a little baby emerging from the dark, warm, wet, safe environment of your mother’s womb. You are suddenly accosted by bright lights, dry air, a big drop in temperature, and strange people with rough hands and cold instruments.
As soon as you get out, someone will probably put silver nitrate drops in your eyes and stick something down your nose and throat to make sure they’re clear. Chances are, they’ll probably cut off your air supply (umbilical cord) before you have a chance to start breathing on your own. The doctor might even turn you upside-down and whack you on the butt to force you to start breathing. Some welcome party, huh?
If you happen to be a male infant whose parents want you to be circumcised, you are now ready for the worst insult of all. You get to have the foreskin of your penis cut off—without anesthesia!
Since you’re just a tiny baby, they can’t risk “putting you under,” so the operation is performed while you’re wide awake. You can kick and scream all you want, and it won’t make any difference. Those “in charge of your welfare” have decided it’s going to happen whether you like it or not. And if you’re like any healthy infant, you’re not going to like it one bit!
Recently, I was talking to a my partner’s mother about circumcision. Even though she is the mother of five circumcised sons, including my partner, she said she had never seen a circumcision until after her fifth son was born. At that time, she happened to walk by a room where another infant boy was being circumcised.
He was strapped, spread-eagle, to a table, screaming at the top of his lungs while the doctor did the operation. My friend was horrified. It was not a pretty sight, to say the least. Just the fact that the baby was removed from his mother’s view lets you know something was wrong with this picture.
When I started thinking more deeply about the reality of circumcision, I came to believe that it must have a profound effect on the psyche of a newborn infant, quite apart from the physical and sexual consequences. I simply cannot believe that having such violence done to you as a helpless infant would NOT have significant consequences.
For example, a baby boy would likely experience a powerful sense of betrayal by his mother for allowing him to subjected to such excruciating pain. Psychologically, I can see how this could easily damage the mother-son relationship at a very deep level. This could also contribute to trust issues in male-female relations in general as time unfolds.
As a counselor, I think people make some important decisions about life based on what happens to them at birth. It’s not that birth is the only time we make big decisions, but it’s a significant turning point. Many people believe that if you don’t remember you birth (or your circumcision), then it must have been “fine.”
On the contrary, what I’ve observed is that not remembering your birth is usually a function of blocking out the trauma. People often block the memory of pain or trauma when it is too much to bear. For example, none of my male clients (so far) have ever recalled their circumcisions. This includes the men who have remembered other details about their births. The more horrible the trauma, the more likely a person is to repress it—and circumcision is pretty horrible.
Some men may be triggered into remembering the trauma of circumcision just by reading this article. But you don’t have to remember it in order to think about it. And you don’t have to remember it in order to have feelings about it being done to you, or to others. You don’t even have to be a man to have an opinion. For all you women who think you can’t relate, consider circumcision for yourself. Like the head of the penis, the clitoris is also surrounded by a fold of tissue called “foreskin.” Imagine having that cut off as soon as you were born!
This interview is definitely meant to stimulate your thoughts and feelings, whether you are a circumcised man or not. It is not meant to answer all your questions about circumcision (see end of interview for links to resources for more information).
This interview is not intended to make up your mind for you. But I freely admit that I hope my writing convinces people that involuntary circumcision is a cruel and unnecessary travesty. As long as circumcision is a taboo subject that happens behind closed doors, it’s bound to continue. On the other hand, if people would simply educate themselves about the negative effects of circumcision, I think they would stop doing it.
The following interview is a spontaneous conversation that happened one night in the tiny basement kitchen of the infamous Dolphin House on Portage Bay. Dolphin House is a favorite converging spot for a large and rather unusual assortment of family and friends. My partner, John Giovine, and I were cooking dinner and the other two men I wanted to interview happened to stop by that night.
When I asked them if they would help me with an interview on circumcision, everyone just started talking about it. So I got a tape recorder and let the conversation flow. Perched on the stairs near the back door was John’s older brother, Marc Giovine. Standing in the threshold to the kitchen was Scott Ayon, another member of our extended family. At the end of the interview, John’s and Marc’s stepfather, Bob Kerr, walked in. Since his comments rather plainly summed up our consensus opinion of circumcision, I’ve included his few words as well.
Marc: If the baby could stand up and make sense out of circumcision, other than pure pain, and if he could react, there would be a lot of beat-up doctors. There’d be a lot of hurting, once-attempted-circumcision doctors. I’m coming around to the truth here. The whole thing is a bunch of baloney.
Scott: It’s a racket. My feeling is that there has been more pain and suffering from the after-effects as opposed to the actual operational procedure. There are men out there who have been maimed, who have been really hurt. There are doctors who are so insensitive that they didn’t care how they circumcised somebody. So sometimes they actually maimed the baby; they actually changed the shape of the penis. Psychologically, there are guys out there who are screwed up, thinking they’re not okay sexually.
Marc: I think that happened a lot. I mean, look what they’re doing! They’re pulling the foreskin out and using a razor-sharp scalpel, and they’re just running it around the head of the penis.
Cat: Good Lord! I’m guessing that the doctors doing it are probably circumcised themselves, so when they’re in a position to do it to someone else, they don’t think it’s a big deal. I think that psychologically, circumcision has to have affected you, to have such violence done to you when you’re helpless.
John: It’s almost like the chain of child abuse.
Scott: I think it goes beyond child abuse because I think there’s something about doctors’ attitude about themselves. They’re egomaniacs, that’s what they are, in some regards, because of the power they feel they have to do things.
Cat: So how does it change? How do we stop this practice? I mean, the least it can be is elective surgery, once the boy is old enough to decide for himself.
Scott: Well, we could have bumper stickers that say, “THE SKIN STOPS HERE.” [Group laughter.] Then we’d have a bunch of people getting curious about what that means. And then we could have a telephone number they could call to find out what it means.
John: “CIRCUMCISION HOTLINE!” [Group laughter.] Sue your doctor! Sue your parents! Thirty years! I didn’t want this, you did this to me!
Scott: Yes, and we’ll interview a bunch of kids: “Did you want to be circumcised?” They’ll scream, “No, no!” Then we’ll show pictures of butchered penises and say, “Do you want to look like this?” [Group laughter.]
Cat: You guys are impossible! But I know we’re so used to butchering babies and women—and men, too for that matter—that we need some comic relief because it’s so horrible to even think about, much less talk about. But it needs to be talked about, otherwise it will never change.
Scott: There are some things that concern me about circumcision. Like, I have a son who’s eight years old. His mother has full custody, so she got to decide if he was going to be circumcised. I could raise objections, but she had the right to do anything with him that she wants.
John: See, that raises a point right there. She can do anything with him, just like the doctors can. You can do almost anything you want with your kid, even cut off part of his penis, if it’s legal [and at the time of this writing, infant male circumcision is still legal in the U.S.].
Marc: Maybe as an alternative to talking someone out of it…why try and talk somebody out of it? Maybe we’re not talking about being circumcised or not, but it’s what you’re happy with.
Scott: What his mother is happy with? Or what I’m happy with? Or what the baby is happy with?
Marc: The base sorrowful problem is that the child can’t make the decision. So we’re accepting the present value that it’s the person in care of the child who makes the decision. Maybe someday there will be some way to let the child make the decision.
Cat: Well, there is. Just wait a while.
Marc: Yeah, you’re right. Just wait a while.
Scott: That’s a good point. Waiting a while—until the child is old enough to decide for himself—is not going to happen in that [the old] mentality. There’s no scientific reason for circumcision as far as health goes. In certain instances, there may be a reason. In some male children, their foreskin is too small and the head of the penis can’t come through it, so they need to be circumcised. But generally, if the foreskin is “made properly,” it slides back and forth and provides a protective shield, so circumcision is not needed. Other than that specific instance, there’s no reason for circumcision other than certain religious beliefs.
Marc: So religious beliefs get shaken down until it comes to the day to make the decision. But the decision is an action taken against the child. It really comes down to a simple decision of yes or no.
Scott: So a good question would be, if you are in a situation of having to make that decision for your son. Here’s the time. Now’s the time to do it.
Cat: That ‘s the bullshit, the idea that “now’s the time to do it.”
Scott: I know, but that’s the religious part of it. That things should happen at a certain time.
John: I can hear that right now in a hospital. Parents saying, “Well, doctor, should we have him circumcised?” And the doctor says, “Well, you’ll probably want it. Now’s as good a time as any. He’s young and we have him here, so let’s go ahead and do it.”
Marc: I agree that’s probably how it happens. But I would guess that someone making a good decision wouldn’t sound like that. They would sound happy or joyful instead. So to all prospective circumcisers, I would say, “Try making this decision truly joyfully. That’s the test.”
Scott: There’s something else we haven’t talked about yet. You know, every woman I’ve ever known gets her hair standing up on the back of her head and her teeth gleaming when it comes to any decision that has anything to do with her children. So how many women are responsible for making the decision to have their sons circumcised?
Cat: Yes, I’ve thought about that. Circumcision is a female issue, too. Mothers are probably the ones who make the decision a lot of times. Sometimes the fathers aren’t even around.
Marc: The fathers are probably too restimulated at the thought of circumcision to be able to make a decision.
Cat: That’s a good point.
John: Even still, circumcision isn’t necessarily wrong. It’s just that it should be up to the child to make the decision.
Cat: The decision should definitely belong to the child, but how are we going to change the status quo? There are many people who actually believe that boys should be circumcised for hygienic reasons or because of some religious belief. The legal system is really just beginning to wise up to children’s rights.
Scott: Yes, and I think the majority of people don’t really want to know things. You can try to tell them things all day long and they’re still not going to know. So to do things by example is really the only way to go—to make changes in your own life. If a few people change things by not being abused, then they will be the ones who will be able to tell other people about it when they grow up. The changes will spread out from them.
Cat: That reminds me of a certain political representative from California who says that it would be faster to change our prison system by changing our birthing methods. He says this would be faster than working on the actual penal system itself, because studies show that the most violent criminals typically had the most violent births.
[Bob Kerr walks in.]
Cat: Come on in, Bob. We’re on tape. We’re talking about circumcision for an article for The New Times. How do you feel about it?
Bob: Well, I’m agin’ it.
Scott: How do we stop it, Bob?
Bob: More publicity.
Cat: Yes, more publicity! This newspaper has an estimated readership of about 30,000 people. Out of all those people, this article is bound to get some of them thinking about circumcision. I really believe that if people would just stop to think about circumcision, they’d stop doing it. It can be as simple as that.
Postscript: Andrew Vachss, a longtime attorney who represents only children, puts it this way: “Propaganda, especially subversive propaganda, is a major element in social change. I absolutely believe that there are people who, exposed to the truth, will react.”
You know in your heart that it is wrong to hurt babies. Please “react to the truth” and stand up for innocent infants who cannot stand up for themselves.
This interview was published by The New Times in September 1989 and updated in April 2017. It is dedicated with love to Scott Ayon, who died of cancer in November 2008 at the age of 56.
Additional Information and Resources: gaamerica.org, www.cirp.org, www.noharmm.org, www.circumstitions.com, www.IntactAmerica.org, www.CircumcisionandHIV.com, and doctorsopposingcircumcision.org all have extensively researched sites to answer all your questions about circumcision.
Several different videos of live circumcisions are available for online viewing through 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 various videos of live circumcisions. Note their warning comments about which videos are not for the squeamish. And if a video makes you squeamish, just think about the poor infant who is experiencing what makes you squeamish!
For detailed descriptions, diagrams, and photographs of foreskins, including a moving picture of a real foreskin in action, please visit noharmm.org/anatomy.htm.
Some of Cat’s other articles and interviews about circumcision are reprinted on this website at the links below:
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).