Circumcision Myths: Riled Readers and a Feisty Cat
“If we are ever to have real peace, we must begin with the children.” —Gandhi
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 these comments, I selected five common objections to consider in this article. Actually, I call them myths. I’ve heard these myths repeated frequently 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 #1: “That little hangy fleshy thing is gross!”
This myth came from a woman friend who, like me, was socialized to accept circumcised penises as normal. I suggested that she could change her thinking about this, and she agreed.
Social conditioning can be overcome, but this doesn’t mean my woman friend should stop liking circumcised men. Instead, those of us who were conditioned in this way can expand our repertoire to include enjoyment of intact penises.
As a counselor, I’ve helped hundreds of people learn to soften harsh judgments against themselves and others. 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 #2: “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 it, I encourage you to watch a circumcision video. See the end of this article for a link to find videos of involuntary infant circumcisions.
When you watch one of these videos, be sure to have the sound on. Please listen carefully to the sounds the baby makes as he undergoes the surgery. His screams will give you a truer sense of his feeling-level experience.
If you can witness the circumcision with your eyes and ears open, and still believe that circumcision is “no big deal,” then I’d say this. I’d say your eyes and ears may have been open, but I doubt your heart was.
If this happens for you, 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 pain of others without desiring to stop it.
On the flip side, if you view the circumcision video and still think it’s fine, I’m stunned. What’s more, if you don’t want to do anything about your lack of empathy, I hope you’re never in a position of power in relation to an infant—or anyone else. Why? Because without empathy, you cannot be trusted to consider the needs of others.
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. It doesn’t matter if you know what you’re doing or if you’re oblivious to your abuse of power. If you think it’s okay to harm helpless infants, how will you treat others who are younger, smaller, weaker, poorer, or otherwise less powerful than you?
Myth #3: “Foreskins are irrelevant to good sex.”
One anonymous emailer 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. It’s healthy to be upset that no one ever told you how sex is supposed to be. And it’s healthy to be upset 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 if you can do that, then you can help 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 Genital Autonomy America (formerly NOCIRC; see end of article for link).
“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). The head of the penis 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 in order to reach orgasm (see end of article for diagram information). 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 #4: “Circumcision is a only men’s issue!”
First of all, mothers betray their protective maternal instincts by allowing their sons to be circumcised. As long as women have relationships—of any kind—with males 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 true humanitarian would want to prevent something that hurts people of either sex.
Myth #5: “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. These writings even come from doctors and religious officials who belong to religions that still practice this ancient blood ritual. Since I’m not Jewish, Muslim, or animist, those of you who are may prefer to read articles 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, defenders of ritual circumcision are hypocritical when they claim their “right to religious freedom” while denying the religious rights of those they subject to it. 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. This “forever marker” persists even if they want to practice another religion later in life.
Thus, circumcision is an act of coercion, not freedom. It can therefore only happen within religions—and in countries—that still regard children as property.
Please understand that involuntary circumcision would be considered assault if it occurred for anyone besides a newborn baby. Therefore, “intactivists” believe that male babies should be included in the 1995 U.S. legislative bill that outlaws female genital mutilation.
Ultimately, the persistence of religious blood rituals boils down to the need to belong versus the fear of being different. Generally speaking, it’s more helpful to work with this fear, rather than against it. Dr. Jenny Goodman (a Jewish physician) says: “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 the U.S., where male babies continue to be “routinely” circumcised, nearly half 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 Muslim, Jewish, or animist. But I assure you that your intact baby will not be alone. Therefore, if your religious group ever ridicules you for choosing to protect your baby, please hold your head high. 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, the people who refuse to perpetuate ancient blood rituals are the ones who will ensure the survival of their religions.
This article was originally published by The New Times in December 2001 and updated in June 2017.
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.
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).