One of the most shocking, upsetting, and frustrating things I deal with as an intactivist on a constant basis is the incredible number of expectant parents I encounter who are determined to have their sons circumcised because they think the foreskin must be "icky."
Now, as frustrating as this is, I must admit that I can empathize with the myth. A few years ago I was there too, and not surprisingly as I was a product of U.S. culture – a cutting society where the foreskin has been vilified in popular television shows, parenting circles, and locker rooms alike. Where intact men have been made, at times, to feel embarrassed about the natural state of their body. Where we consider a normal body part that every single mammal is born with to be some sort of defect.
When my first son was born, I honestly was not fully informed on the issue. And I'm not sure what I was expecting. I had never actually seen an intact penis in my entire life – not on a baby, not on a man. I guess I was expecting it to be gnarly, or to somehow look wrong. I expected there to be an obvious part of the penis that looked as if it did not belong - one which begged to be cut off.
The reality was that my baby was perfect just the way he was. Nothing looked out of place and I wasn’t grossed out. It was kind of shocking, actually. I hadn’t been educated on the foreskin and I didn’t realize that it would be tightly fused to the head of the penis in infancy. I was fortunate to learn from our foreskin-friendly pediatrician that I should just leave it alone and never try to retract it. This was a relief! When we said “NO” to the circumcision question I thought I might have a long road ahead of me having to retract and inspect and be some sort of detective to seek out any dreaded smegma. Instead, I learned I would never have to do any of that – just leave it alone you say? Wipe like a finger? AND I don’t have to deal with caring for a festering surgical wound on the most sensitive part of my baby’s body? WIN!
For those who've never seen the difference between a perfectly intact baby boy vs. a circumcised newborn, here is one example:
Later on, in my first son’s toddlerhood we moved to Europe, where I learned that routine infant circumcision is not performed outside the USA. I began talking to European mothers about the issue and found out they were literally shocked that Americans would do such a thing to their babies – just as shocked as we are that knives are needlessly taken to girls’ genitals in other countries. But what was more surprising than this was when the discussion would turn to the subject of circumcision status on adult males. Their eyes would get big and wide and they would say things like, “I have never even seen a circumcised penis! What does it look like? Is there a scar? What does it feel like?”
This got me thinking about how the appeal of such things really just comes down to one very simple factor: what we are accustomed to. Everything about the discussions are exactly the same no matter which side of the pond you’re on – the only difference being which state of the penis is being talked about.
A comparison that comes to mind is that we are accustomed to all other mammals remaining intact. Consider how people giggle or get silly when they see a dog's "red rocket" for example (an internal organ typically hidden by the foreskin)... Wouldn’t it be strange if it was always just hanging out there? Scarred and callused for the world to see? This is how I’ve come to think of the human body. It is so utterly strange to see tiny penis heads just hanging out there…exposed. Wounded.
At the time, with nothing to compare it to, I couldn’t really enlighten my European friends. But I looked into the subject a bit further and discovered that a study in New Zealand found that 9 out of 10 women who had experience with both intact and circumcised male partners prefer sex with an intact man. Reading this absolutely stunned me. Wasn’t it just a "useless flap of skin?" Apparently not. I learned that it provides a gliding motion and a rippling effect. It keeps things soft and supple. The head of the penis is meant to be internal – not exposed to the elements, not rubbing against fabric all day, every day for years as it calluses over (the circumcised penis builds up layer upon layer of skin thickness due to callusing in an effort to protect itself). The glans (head) becomes dry and the skin becomes thick, and it loses sensitivity and natural reflex. The result is that the circumcised man needs to work harder to feel something good, and has less control over how things happen. This is a simplified version of the mechanics of natural sex. For more information, please see Marilyn Milos’ video, Penis 101, here.
As I read about this, and began to talk to women who have had intact partners, my ideas about foreskin began to change. Foreskin wasn’t so icky anymore. It was becoming…alluring. There also grew a bad nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach. What are we doing to our boys? To our girls? I have heard the line so many times in online debates: “His wife will thank me someday.” I wouldn’t be so sure. I’m not thanking my mother-in-law! And I’ve begun to understand the sense of loss that the thousands of men who have gone through foreskin restoration must feel. There are millions of us who will never know what sex is supposed to feel like - the way it was designed perfectly to be.
If there is anything I would like today’s parents to know it is that the U.S. circumcision rate has dropped so low in recent years (32.5% in 2009) that by the time today's babies are sexually active, this will all be common knowledge. The functions of the foreskin are already making their way into American consciousness. By the time they are adults, boys who were circumcised at birth today will understand what they are missing. And so will their partners.
Read more from Bryk:
Why All the Circumcision Posts?
For additional resources on the prepuce (foreskin), circumcision, and intact care see: Are You Fully Informed?