An open letter of response to Norine Dworkin-McDaniel's essay Circumcision Decision which won the 2012 Third Annual Two Kinds of People Essay Contest.
Photograph by Danelle Frisbie, Genital Integrity Awareness Week 2012, Washington D.C.
Your sexual preference for circumcised penises aside, the genitals you chose to have cosmetically, functionally, permanently and surgically altered belong to your son. He may grow up to have preferences different from yours. His future lovers may have preferences different from yours. Your husband's preference differed from yours. As a woman who has been fortunate to have both intact and circumcised lovers, I can assure you that my preferences differ from yours.
Key men in my life would also beg to differ; my partner thanked his mother for "letting him keep" his foreskin. My brother wishes that our parents had told the doctor to leave his alone. It pains me to think about how different his introduction to life outside the womb was from mine, and how I got to keep the body I was born with, but he did not. Circumcised boys will never know what it's like to have a whole sex organ. They will never experience the full range of pleasure they were meant to have, and are likely to lose sensation as they age. Countries with lower rates of circumcision have lower rates of ED. The sensitive glans, meant to be an internal organ and protected by the foreskin, grows calloused from years of rubbing against fabric, and the most sensitive areas of the penis, such as the frenulum, are amputated in circumcision.
As for wanting your son to fit in, a significant percentage of parents are now choosing to "bring their whole baby home," which means many of your son's peers will be au naturale. The stigma around having one's whole penis is fading - as well it should! Why should human bodies in their natural form garner distaste?
As for sexual health (which should be a non-issue for babies and little boys) I recommend that you examine the studies that show that the incidence of sexually transmitted infections is lower in circumcised men. The statistical methodology is flawed. In fact, the rates of HIV infection are higher in the United States, where more sexually active men are cut than in similarly developed regions where intact men are the majority, such as in Europe.
Again, you are neither the person whose penis is being forever diminished by your choice, nor are you a "special someone" who will ever engage in sexual activity with said penis. You are mother to the boy, not "owner." You are not a doctor making a necessary medical decision; no major health organization recommends routine infant circumcision. So why should your preference to have your son's penis surgically tailored to suit you be prioritized?
Personally, I feel truly blessed to have been born a girl in America, not a boy, such that the choice to keep my body intact as nature intended was not taken away from me by parents who felt it was their right to do so. Should I happen to want my prepuce ("clitoral hood") amputated I would want to be able to make that decision for myself, as an autonomous adult.
After all, one can always make the choice to remove healthy skin for personal reasons; whereas your son cannot choose to have himself un-circumcised should he wish to have his foreskin back. At best, he could choose foreskin restoration, a process by which the remaining skin is expanded to cover the glans. Hundreds of thousands of men are restoring, though they will never truly get back what was taken from them against their will.
Furthermore, as an adult, I could be fully anesthetized prior to surgery, as well as have effective pain relief during the recovery period. Infants are not afforded this option, as it is too dangerous to properly medicate them, and local numbing agents neither suffice to fully block the pain of circumcision, nor are they consistently used on neonates. Moreover, the recovery period is spent in diapers, where the fresh surgical wound is in frequent contact with urine and feces.
I suspect that if you were to witness a circumcision (YouTube makes such things possible for all to see) the baby's cries of pain as the foreskin is ripped and clamped and cut from the glans will likely ring in your ears for some time. In young boys, the foreskin is not yet retractable, and must be severed from the glans in a manner similar to peeling fingernails away from the nail bed. Currently, I cannot hear a baby cry without flashing back to the screams of the baby boy I watched on video, as he lay strapped spread-eagled to a Circumstraint while a doctor calmly amputated the most sensitive part of his body. How the doctor could ignore the baby's obvious agony and continue with the unnecessary surgery is beyond me. The baby went from uttering heartrending shrieks to an abrupt and eery silence. Studies show that cortisol levels skyrocket in infants traumatized in this manner, followed by their systems going into shock. They withdraw physiologically to escape the unbearable pain. Some vomit and defecate; sometimes their stomachs are pumped so the surgery can proceed. Many babies have trouble breastfeeding following circumcision. Some suffer "botched" circumcisions which require corrective surgery, or worse: some die. Why we Americans think this is "normal" is beyond me.
There are profound reasons so many of the responses to your essay are intensely negative and emotional. One of the phrases invoked by those of us who fight for the rights of girls and boys (and ultimately the men those boys will one day be) to keep their genitals intact is "Circumcision: the more you know, the more you are against it." Also favored is "His body, His choice."
For dedicated advocates of universal human rights - and most especially children's rights - there is no middle ground when these rights are at stake. In routine infant circumcision the rights of newborn males to bodily integrity are violated by parents who mean well but do not see the whole picture, as well as by a medical establishment that profits from needless penile-reduction surgery on healthy intact infants.
Please do not let prejudice and parental power blind you to the sacrifice of erogenous flesh you mandate for the man your baby will one day become when you "choose circumcision" for a son. Please let him keep the body he was born with. If all were right in the world, gratuitous genital surgery would not be a "choice" parents could inflict upon their children. To cut a male infant would be as illegal is it is to cut a female infant.
It has been against federal law to cut the genitals of girls in any way, for any reason, in the United States since the 1996 FGM law went into effect (March 30, 1997). Why are male infants undeserving of similar protection, bodily autonomy and genital integrity? What is so wrong with the bodies of baby boys that amputative surgery on their healthy penises is culturally acceptable?
Babies come into this world perfect and trusting and intact. They want comfort, safety, pleasure - not fear, separation and pain. They need nurturing in loving arms and at the breasts of their mothers - not excruciating, terrifying genital surgery at the hands of callous strangers who know full well that circumcision is medically unnecessary. Circumcision is elective surgery chosen by the parents of unwitting patients - not the patients themselves, who are too young to speak for or defend themselves.
In the hope that a more empathic perspective will dawn, I urge all of us to reread Circumcision Decision with "girl" and "daughter" in place of "boy" and "son" - with the organ known as "foreskin" replaced with "clitoral hood," and with clitorises in place of penises. We protect one, why do we chop up the other?
Imagine a father telling a mother, in no uncertain terms, after all other propaganda has failed because there is no true rationale for elective genital surgery on an intact and healthy infant: "Trust me, Sweetie - if you ever want a guy to go down on our daughter, cut off the skin around her clit. She and her future boyfriends will thank us."
Cohen is a Jewish performer and teacher who grew up in Ithaca, NY, and moved to Austin, TX for the arts scene and the sunshine. When she's not at the piano or on the stage, she puts time and energy into saving babies through her work with Intact Austin.