08.27.2020 Culture

Exploring American Circumcision

Johanie Cools
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As people, we have universal human rights that should be adhered to at all times no matter our race, ethnicity, gender, or social status. Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.” We have the right to autonomy and should be able to choose what happens to our bodies. This includes adults, teenagers, children, and even newborns who don’t get a say over what happens to them. Of course, children don’t govern themselves, so parents and guardians do what they believe is best… but, sometimes, those decisions are irreparably harmful.

In the 2018 documentary American Circumcision, Shannondoah Dartsch spoke about the effects of her son’s circumcision. Shortly after his birth, Dartsch’s son was routinely circumcised as is the norm in the US. Later in life, however, he developed what’s called a hidden penis which can be caused when too much foreskin is removed and the scar tissue becomes so tight that the skin pulls forward, covering the penis. Dartsch only discovered the cause when she watched Intactivast Marilyn Milos, RN and founder of the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers (NOCIRC), speak on the dangers of circumcision. Before the surgery, Dartsch described her son as being “just fine” but was told by a doctor that she really didn’t know what she was talking about — after all, doctors perform this surgery all the time.

In the US, circumcision (the removal of the foreskin from the penis), is the most common surgical procedure. It’s so common, in fact, that most people don’t even think about it. 

Textbook illustrations almost exclusively show circumcised penises as if they’re the natural form, even though they’re not. 

Part of the normalization comes from the idea that circumcision is healthier for the baby. The US National Library of Medicine lists its supposed health benefits to include a lower risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, along with a slightly lower risk of urinary tract infections and penile cancer. But it also states that the latter two are rare. 

Penile and clitoral circumcision alter a person’s genitalia and their life. Some have described it as missing out on the full human experience as foreskin is a sleeve of skin that has many natural benefits. Glen Callendar, founder of the Canadian Foreskin Awareness Project, tours around teaching those with penises about their foreskin. For one, the foreskin and glans work in unison during sexual activity creating a full-bodied sexual experience. Callendar says that uncircumcised men are able to have multiple orgasms without the rough stimulation typically needed with circumcised men.

Intactivist Nickolas Kusturis shared his story of adult circumcision with American Circumcision, describing the result as “like losing your eyesight” or “like eating food and not being able to taste it.” When the foreskin is removed from a penis, the body begins the process of keratinization — the formation or conversion into keratin that normally occurs in the outer layers of the skin, especially prominent when the skin is exposed to constant localized pressure. (This would include friction from clothes, bedding, or fabric.) It’s essentially a callous, and like a callous, that means desensitized skin which results in less pleasurable sex. 

And it’s not just sex that’s in jeopardy. The aftereffects can be much more severe. Some people may develop adhesions (foreskin that’s stuck to the glans), cysts that may become infected, or chordee (uneven amounts of foreskin removed causing curvature). These are only a handful in a long list of complications, however, because circumcision is the norm, most complaints tend to be dismissed.

Circumcision is an American tradition — one that’s difficult to let go of despite its peculiar beginnings. The practice was thought to deter masturbation and cure a variety of ailments like clubfoot. Naturally, only the wealthy had access to that kind of healthcare. So, according to David L. Gollaher, author of Circumcision: A History of the World’s Most Controversial Surgery, a circumcised penis became a mark of distinction, a sign of good breeding, sound hygiene, and the best available medicine. Now, just as there was back then, there’s a religious obligation as well, specifically with Judaism and Islam. To choose not to circumcise a child is to go against societal, cultural, religious, and even medical pressures — but the end result is still a loss.

Some self-identified males have undergone a restoration process for growing their foreskin back with success. But with that triumph mixed with the inevitable comparison of circumcised life, feelings of anger and betrayal might come as well. One activist group called Bloodstained Men turned that frustration into a 13-day tour across Florida calling circumcision “foreskin theft.” There’s no consent, and millions of newborns have to live with the consequences.

The fight isn’t against circumcision as a whole, but against routine, neonatal, and nonconsensual circumcision. As Ron Phillips, Los Angeles Coordinator of National Organization of Restoring Men put it, if you’re an educated, consenting adult, you can do whatever you want — but a baby, who also has rights, shouldn’t have that decision made for them.

Circumcision is and will continue to be a hot button issue in this country. There are a lot of emotions tied to the practice as well as a sense of obligation. But it’s important to consider if permanently cutting off a part of a child’s body is really worth it in the end.

Johanie Cools is a blogger, writer, book editor, and aspiring author. Follow her on Twitter at @jmartdotcom or on Medium at @jmcools.

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