“We wanted to challenge the assumption that there are no delayed consequences of infant circumcision apart from the purely physical because of the absence of foreskin,” he said. “Our findings are especially interesting for coming parents who want to make an informed choice about circumcision on behalf of their child, but are also directed at anyone who wishes to see more light shed on a very taboo topic that often drowns in an emotional discussion.”
To test their theory, researchers enlisted 619 American men — 408 circumcised and 211 still in their natural state — and had them complete a series of questionnaires that tested their ability to handle stress and bond with others.
“The study showed that men who had undergone circumcision as an infant found it more difficult to bond with their partner and were more emotionally unstable, while the study did not find differences in empathy or trust,” Winterdahl said. “Infant circumcision was also associated with stronger sexual drive as well as a lower stress threshold.
“We know from previous studies that the combination of attachment to a partner and emotional stability is important in order to be able to maintain a healthy relationship, and thus family structure, and a lack of such, may lead to frustration and possibly less restricted sexual behaviour,” he said.
The stress experienced by circumcised infants only reveals itself in adulthood in the form of these altered behaviours, the researchers said. While the behavioural changes are not pathological, or indicative of illness, they have implications on a global level.
“Our study says something about differences at population level, not about individuals,” Winterdahl said. “It’s important to remember that as individuals, we vary enormously in virtually all parameters — also in how we bond with our partner, for example.”
Canada’s current circumcision rate is 32 per cent, according to a study by a group of Saskatchewan researchers that found the status of the father’s foreskin to be the single most important factor in determining whether or not his newborn would also have the procedure. Overall, 56 per cent of those polled said they would consider circumcision if they had a son. In situations where the father was circumcised, that number rose to 82 per cent; where the father was not circumcised, the number dropped to 15 per cent.
While conflicting information about the potential health benefits of circumcision has stirred a long and heated debate on its necessity, the Canadian Paediatric Society updated its policy in 2015 to offer a more neutral stance than its 1996 guidance that advised against the procedure. “The main thing that has changed between now and then is there is convincing evidence that circumcision can actually prevent HIV,” said Dr. Joan Robinson, a pediatric infectious disease specialist in Edmonton.
“I think for most parents, it’s basically a cosmetic procedure, unless you’re part of a religion that insists that you have to have it done,” she said.