The Circumcision Decision: Who Made You The Decider?

By Nina Cohen © 2012

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. 

Dear Norine,

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.


  1. I don't think parents can be blamed. I believe they want what's best for their kids at heart. But they place their trust in people who are supposed to be properly informing them. It ought to strike people as odd that not a single 1st world med organization in or outside of the US endorses infant circumcision They all say that there is not enough evidence. And yet, for whatever reason, doctors push parents to weigh this same "evidence?" How is it they even have the gall to elicit any kind of "decision?"

    The bottom line question is, without any medical or clinical indication, can doctors even be performing surgery in healthy, non-consenting individuals, much less be eliciting any kind of "decision" from parents? If there is no medical problem in need of surgical correction, why is the conversation even happening? This is nothing more than systemized charlatanism at the expense of children and parental naivete. This is medical fraud, and sooner or later doctors are going to be held accountable.

    Bottom line:
    The foreskin is not a birth defect. Neither is it a congenital deformity or genetic anomaly akin to a 6th finger or a cleft. Neither is it a medical condition like a ruptured appendix or diseased gall bladder. Neither is it a dead part of the body, like the umbilical cord, hair, or fingernails. The foreskin is normal, natural, healthy, functioning tissue, with which all boys are born.

    Unless there is a medical or clinical indication, the circumcision of a healthy, non-consenting individual is a deliberate wound; it is the destruction of normal, healthy tissue, the permanent disfigurement of normal, healthy organs, and by very definition, infant genital mutilation, and a violation of the most basic of human rights.

    Without medical or clinical indication, doctors have absolutely no business performing surgery in healthy, non-consenting individual, much less be eliciting any kind of "decision" from parents.

    Genital mutilation, whether it be wrapped in culture, religion or “research” is still genital mutilation.

    It is mistaken, the belief that the right amount of “science” can be used to legitimize the deliberate violation of basic human rights.

  2. What a well written letter. I went back and read the original article ....I wonder if the writer of Circumcision Decision now looks back at her banality and shallow attitudes and regrets her actions? I hope so!This needs publishing along with the original article in every parenting forum and magazine around!....and as for oral sex without a quick freshen up first regardless of shorn or not....yuk!THAT is what needs the focus!Cleanliness is next to godliness!

  3. Thanks for a nice response to this disturbing essay. I too wrote a response a while back which had similar points.

  4. I appreciate this post and don't want to go into everything circumcision. Rather, I'm interested in the point about babies going into shock. I have read some responses from mothers who say their children did not cry from circumcision. I wonder how this is possible. Are the babies maybe in shock? ~sheila

  5. Assuming this actually happened, and it isn’t a work of satire, I’m not sure I understand this lady’s determination to have her son cut. Usually it’s the father who demands it, and the mother who does everything she can to spare the child. In such situations, I understand that it’s a matter of paternal vanity. Though irrational, I understand that some men’s egos outweigh their reason and compassion. I can’t, however, fathom why a woman would be adamant that her son be circumcised.
    Mrs Dworkin-McDaniel, claims to be an atheist, albeit one who was raised Jewish, so what exactly is her motivation? I’m genuinely confused here. Regarding her statement that women won’t perform oral sex on a man who still has his entire penis, while this might be true in some cases, it certainly isn’t universal. Is this, in fact, her own prejudice that she’s assuming all women share? Anyway, in those scenarios, the problem is with the woman, not with the penis. Circumcising your son to pander to the preferences of women he may meet in the future is foolish indeed. If Mrs Dworkin-McDaniel had a daughter who wanted breast enhancements to appear more attractive to men, I’m sure she , like most mothers, would try to dissuade the girl and convince her that she’s fine as she is. Altering your son’s genitals on the basis that all women are ignorant isn’t fair to him, not to mention it does a great disservice to women in general. It’s her son’s opinion that Mrs D-M should be concerned about, not those of some faceless girls. An intact man can get circumcised whenever he wants, and if he regrets it, then the onus is entirely on him. A man circumcised in infancy can do nothing about it. He has to live with what his parents have done regardless of their motivations. This is perhaps the chief reason why parents should leave well alone, they aren’t the ones who will have to bear the brunt of their decision. Even if they regret it, they can’t undo it, and the chances are they won’t regret it nearly as much as their son will resent it.

  6. 2 billion (lowballing here) guys skipped from second to fourth base apparently according to the initial essay. No fallation for billions i suppose.

  7. "I have read some responses from mothers who say their children did not cry from circumcision. I wonder how this is possible. Are the babies maybe in shock?"

    Yes. The 'did not cry' and 'fell asleep' claims are made by people who are unaware that the child is in a state of neurogenic shock caused by the trauma of the procedure.

    For explanation, see here:

  8. I read her essay Circumcision Decision and didn't find it particularly amusing.

    She seems to defend it over and over in the comments section by saying that she writes for a particular audience (people who find non-consensual surgery on minors hilarious perhaps) and her mantra is that "not everyone enjoys my humor but I write for those who do."

    What kind of sick humor is based on a cosmetic procedure that causes your child pain and makes him bleed? That's not funny.

  9. roger desmoulinsApril 06, 2012 11:35 PM

    Ms Nina Cohen, your being an intactivist of Jewish ancestry is evidence of a very deep inner strength and an immense moral courage. I share your dismay with Norine Dworkin-McDaniel's essay, and thank you for having taken the trouble to reply to it as you did. And thank you also for revealing that you have experienced both kinds of penises. You are not the first American Jewish woman whose journey to intactivism included the personal discovery that intact makes for better intimate experiences.

    Ms D-M is a self-professed atheist married to a gentile atheist. If you don't believe in God, Jews cannot be a Chosen People. No God and no Chosen People means that the Covenant does not exist. If an ancestral or cultural Jew denies the Covenant, why circumcise??

    "Amputative surgery on healthy penises is culturally acceptable" because it is a solemn Jewish requirement, and Jews and Christians have lived side by side for 1900 years.

    I too am deeply grateful that my mother insisted, over the wishes of my father and his mother, that I retain all the sexual equipment that Mother Nature saw fit to hand me at birth. There was zero support for her choice in 1949 USA. Nevertheless, she simply could not see how it made sense to carve up at birth that part of the male body.

    BTW, you write very well. "...mothers who say their children did not cry from circumcision. I wonder how this is possible."
    A fair fraction of American doctors now inject lidocaine before cutting. Sometimes they even give the lidocaine enough time to have its full effect. The result can be a "painless" circumcision. But when the lidocaine wears off, there can be some pain and irritation under healing is complete. Putting a freshly circumcised penis in a diaper has always struck me as self-evidently painful and unhygienic.

  10. A client of mine from a mix religion mariage has done it for her first born. Her husban is Jewish. They both were so horified by the whole trauma they put there first born through that they didn't do it for there second son. I am so thankful that in Catholic Quebec we were mostly all intact( with few exeptions). Thank you for a very well written letter.

  11. What a horrible thing it is to have your own loved one be circumsised! I could never do that to my babies!

  12. Thank you all so much for your positive feedback regarding my letter! After I read "Circumcision Decision" for the first time I couldn't sleep, so I stayed up all night writing a response to it instead. I so wanted my words posted alongside Norine's that I sent what I had written to the woman who had published Norine's contest-winning submission on her blog.

    This woman liked my essay, though she chose not to post it. Instead she forwarded it to Norine, which made me really happy. To her credit, Norine also had a positive response, despite the profound level at which my letter challenges and critiques her. They both encouraged me to publish it on my own, which I appreciate (though it continues to confound, amuse, and irk me that the two of them manage to be open-minded enough to praise the style and intent of my piece, yet sufficiently closed-minded that the content seemed not to affect them in a meaningful way) and publish it I did. On one of my absolute favorite websites, no less! (Thank you, Dr. Momma!)

    I am thrilled that my letter not only found its way to the writer to whom it was written - whether or not it changes her mind - but to the wider audience it is truly intended for.

    Thank you for reading.


  13. Consider me an activated inactivist. My comment on Norine's blog this morning...

    April 11, 2012 at 11:41 am

    E. Brian says:

    I want to thank you Norine…

    Your tongue-in-cheek article about the genital mutilation of your son has prompted me to do something that I have wanted to do for a while now. I have officially become a member of the SOS Baby-Saver club at Peaceful Parenting (

    Also, due to your making light of this extremely sensitive and personal topic, I have also finally become brave enough to get myself an info-pack ( so that I can truly understand what happened to me when I was only days old over 40 years ago.

    Finally, due to your attempt at humor at the expense of yet to arrive, wonderfully intact boys and those boys/men who are unfortunately already altered, I am finally ready to do something about the sense of loss I experience by making sure others are fully aware of the damage a decision such as yours (both the event and the article above) causes to many boys and men in our society.

    My sincere thanks for the push to do the right thing,
    E. Brian

    Her reply came rather quickly...

    norine says:
    April 11, 2012 at 11:56 am

    That’s wonderful. Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing that. I’m so glad I could be a catalyst for your change. Everyone should have a passion. I’m thrilled my writing helped you find yours. Good luck in all of your endeavors!

  14. I'm English, living in England. The whole issue of circumcision as a 'cultural norm' was totally unknown to me until a few years ago. I'd never heard of it before. Leave the US and you'll find the vast majority of men in the world are not circumcised! How bizarre to want to do that to your child for any reason other than medical or compelling religious needs (and even then I'd argue against the latter).

  15. Dear E. Brian,

    I am so glad you've been spurred to action! When I became an activated intactivist (nice turn of phrase!) I felt SO MUCH BETTER to be doing something to fight circumcision instead of feeling helpless and haunted, upset and alone. The shift was immediate, and I hope you're feeling it too! Bravo - I applaud your joining the good fight.

    (For the record, just reading your comment here helps me to know that my activism is having an impact! Thank you!!!)

    I also want to say that I am sorry for your loss those many years ago; many of the men I have met in the movement are "restoring" their foreskins (as in expanding the skin they have left towards covering the glans, which ultimately improves sensitivity) and it appears that many of them find it to be empowering and healing. If that is a path that interests you, I know one relevant site is: and I have also heard of something called the "DTR" that many of the restoring men I met recommended.

    As for Norine's encouragement - she's an odd duck, don't you think?? That said, I'd rather have her responding positively to her detractors than not.


  16. Thank you for posting this. I wish I had known all the facts and risks involved before I decided to circumsize my son. Why I didn't research it more while I was pregnant, I don't know. I really didn't give it much thought, I just thought that is what you do to little boys after they are born. I had always heard it was a health issue. I'm horrified by my decision, but what's done is done. I will gladly share this information in hopes that this rediculous practice will soon be a thing of the past.

  17. Not Looking before we leap can and has cost people dearly, and everyone has overlooked important details about decisions that they can't change. I hear this a lot In the case of RIC, Sara and all mothers who blindly trusted people with their baby thinking it was in the interest of their tiny new sons. But unfortunately, it is abnormal thinking to attach benefits to child abuse, and knowingly hurting a child to have its genitals severly injured as one of its first human life experiences can't be made to sound right. The only thing that separates life and death - is a tiny faint new hearbeat with a newborn - and to risk it in any way for any reason, just can't be justified with sanity. No circumciser would CONSENT to being forcefully strapped to a restraint and cut mercilessly while awake. It is mentally as cruel for a mother to learn the details of this life altering snip "after the fact". That has to be mentally traumatic. Mothers hurt inside and blame themselves when they make wrong decisions, but in these cases, they sure had a lot of help making that "wrong" decision. Mothers are guilty of trusting people paid to care for them and theirs and I hardly believe they paid for administering masterbation punishment to their infant changing its life forever at birth. And furthermore, to add insult to the injury, Circumcisers did not exactly "cut around", they cut the foreskin off. The deceptive word "circumcision" means "cutting around". The word is a lie as much as the fake supposed benefits. Not only the sons take this cut. The sons take it on their genitals and mother takes it on her emotions, heart and life. I am sure its life shattering harmful emotional distress for all concerned. When cut babies who had heartbeats strong enough to withstand such torture grow up I think most of them will rightfully focus on circumcisers who lack normal human compassion and gentleness, and understand mommies were highly victimized as well, although you seldom hear much about that.

  18. In Japan, we have a custom to "train" penile skin so that it stays retracted. As adolescents or young adults, many boys retract the penile skin manually and keep it there with the aid of underwear. Then, magically, within a month or so, the skin decides to stay there semi-permanently!

    I recall having done so when 17 as I wanted my penis to look "mature" like that of my father's. It felt strange and hurting at the beginning, and I had to pull it back before practicing sports at times. Soon, however, I got accustomed and still keep it there (34 years later). Actually, the skin would not want to go back to the normal position after a few years. No one taught me to do so, but later in college I found out that many of my friends also had done it or were "working on it" then. Some even used special band-aids for the maneuver!

    I believe that in old days in Japan older folks taught young boys (while taking bath in communal baths, for example) to keep penis clean by making them believe that adult penises should not be covered with skin. No one teaches that nowadays, so boys often go through difficult times longing for their masculine maturity until they find out that it is possible to "train" their penile skins. The industry of cosmetic surgery takes advantage of the gap between the traditional belief and the lack of traditional teaching. Recent years, they make lots of money conducting adult circumcision in great numbers.

    I am now 51 teaching international relations in a university near Tokyo. I so much want to teach young Japanese that a "normal" penis should have skin on it, which I do every year to my students, and also to inform people in other countries that it is unnecessary to cut off the skin if you only want to keep the glans exposed.

  19. My heart goes out to all victims of circumcision; I agree that both parents and babies are victimized and traumatized by a all-too-often self-serving, pro-cutting medical establishment.

    Sara: I am so sorry that you were led stray in regards to your son, but I am also deeply heartened that you are taking up the cause! Perhaps you will be able to protect future sons - yours and others.

    Thanks for reading and sharing my words.


  20. To Sara, my MIL deeply regretted having my husband circumcised when he was born after she learned more about it, and he became very opposed to the practice as well even though he is circumcised himself. We have 3 intact sons, so her honest and open discussions with him really did help her grandsons. It is never too late to make a difference.

  21. Nina, thank you so much for writing such a wonderfully eloquent piece. It is sad that so often we feel too embarrassed to speak out. My mother had me circumcised shortly after birth for all the wrong reasons, but I know she meant only the best for me. I was blissfully unaware that I had been altered until the first night at a boys boarding school when I entered the open, communal shower room. I was shocked at the realization of what had been done to me. From that day on, I have resented that I was deprived of my foreskin. The strange thing is that I was too shy to broach the subject with my parents. As I grew up I had opportunities to discuss the issue, but deferred out of self consciousness. I wish that had not. It was not until middle age that I finaly found the courage to speak out.
    Thank you, and all the others who care enough to speak out and educate all those prospective parents.



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