It’s one of my hazy memories — the kind that doesn’t exist temporally, just as a snapshot.
In the bathroom at after-school day care, around age five or six, I needed to replace the bandage on my penis from a surgical correction for phimosis — the result of a surgeon removing too little foreskin during my circumcision. I remember the shame I felt having to bandage my penis, the pain of every step I took when the rough denim of my jeans rubbed against my groin. But my parents insisted that it was necessary, so I never questioned my lack of foreskin. In fact, the botched surgery crosses my mind rarely, even though it’s something I see evidence of every day.
This is a rare type of memory for most men. Over 60 percent of boys born the same year as me, 1997, were circumcised successfully as infants, with no memories spilling into adolescence. It’s not like I ever had reason to question whether my anatomy was natural or not — a circumcised penis is the norm in American culture, shown in everything from cartoon drawings to medical diagrams to pornography. This is unsurprising, since about 80 percent of male infants in the U.S. are circumcised — but this simply shouldn’t be the case.
Circumcision is widely practiced in the U.S. due to religious justification, cultural norms and perceived health benefits, but infant circumcision is a violation of the basic human right to physical integrity — and we need to think more critically about why we put our sons through this.
Circumcision is a prominent practice throughout history and has its roots — like many things — in religion. In Genesis, God declared circumcision as the Jewish fulfillment of the covenant. Later, Jesus freed new Christians from this requirement, making Judaism the only religion where circumcision is strictly required. But the practice is still common among Christians, mostly due to the normalization of it in our culture.
Seeing as neither of my parents are especially religious, only frequenting church on Easter and Christmas, a covenant with God cannot explain my circumcision. In fact, when I asked my parents why they had me circumcised, my mother said she let my father decide. His justification? He’s circumcised, as are all his brothers — he said it seemed like the normal thing to do, to make me look as much like him as possible. But to me, permanently altering my anatomy didn’t seem like it should be the ‘normal’ thing to do.
My parents mentioned nothing about the health benefits of circumcision — and I’m not surprised, because they are quite confusing, and few physicians bother to explain them since so many parents rarely hesitate on the matter. The cellular makeup of the inner foreskin is more susceptible to infections than the skin on the shaft of the penis, meaning circumcision can help prevent potential HIV infections. But consistent use of male condoms can prevent HIV 90 to 95 percent of the time. If HIV is our chief concern, we should prioritize access to condoms instead of infant circumcision.
But separate from, and perhaps more important than, health concerns is the basic human right to physical integrity, a prevalent argument in medical ethics. It’s a simple concept: any adult must first be informed about any prospective procedures and consent to them before they are performed.
Female genital mutilation, which is performed based on cultural norms regarding purity instead of health concerns, offers a similar discussion point for anatomical control. While these two ideas are different, they both permanently alter a child’s genitalia without proper consent. And we’re swift to criticize and condemn FGM around the world while we practice male infant circumcision in our hospitals daily.
Even if the arguments for physical integrity are ignored, there is a serious psychological risk associated with circumcision, too. Circumcision, from the perspective of the infant, fulfills many aspects of the definition of trauma as provided by The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Today, the types of anesthetic vary from nerve blocking to general so that the foreskin can be removed. Both methods can cause serious pain to the infant, which can result in serious trauma.
Merely outlawing circumcision disregards the cultural weight that the practice carries, but elective circumcision provides space for the procedure to exist and fulfill its medical benefits. Since the advantages aren’t even applicable until a man’s first sexual activity, then cutting the foreskin should be delayed until the individual is old enough to consent to — and understand — sex and surgery.
And at the appropriate age, physicians should discuss with boys the procedure’s benefits the same way they discuss the benefits of using condoms and practicing safe sex. Although circumcision later in life only postpones the painful surgery, it’s more important that no child should be subject to involuntary genital mutilation, regardless of the justification.
And even more importantly, nobody should be ashamed of the body they have today — I’m not ashamed to be circumcised, even though I wish I wasn’t.
Circumcised or not, all penises deserve respect.
Christian primarily writes on social justice and campus issues for The Pitt News.
Write to him at [email protected].