Right before this semester started, I came home from a trip to Iran to find my aunt in early labor. Excited to see her have her first child, I threw myself into helping in any way possible. Many lost hours of sleep later, she gave birth to a perfectly healthy boy. For me, witnessing the birth process was something of a transformative experience: It seemed almost sacred, and everyone in the room was on an emotional high. Then the nurse came in and quietly asked if my aunt would like to do a circumcision. I tensed and felt as though I had been abruptly yanked back down to earth. My aunt quickly but politely declined. I felt myself let go of a breath I hadn’t realized I had been holding.
The first time I slept with a circumcised person, it didn’t seem too abnormal. It was a quick, tipsy hookup with a friend who yelled “mazel tov” when I told him he was the first circumcised person I’d been with. But the first time I actually got a good look at a circumcised dick, I was taken aback. There was a clear scar halfway up the shaft, another scar further down, and because the circumcision wound had healed slightly improperly, pubic hair grew a good inch up the base of the shaft. Every time I saw it, I couldn’t help but think about how wrong it seemed that his loving parents had so majorly affected his sex life before he could have possibly consented.
The first time I had sex with a circumcised person sans-condom was equally surprising. We used lots of lube, started slow and did everything you’re supposed to do to have a good, comfortable time. Except my vagina bled.
At first I thought it could just be spotting. But it happened so regularly whenever I had condomless sex with circumcised men that I started to realize that their dicks were just rougher on my body.
My physical discomfort when interacting with circumcised dicks led me to start questioning why people did this to their children in the first place. After a many a Google search and several impassioned conversations, it seemed that there were three main reasons people circumcised infant boys: it just looked more “normal” to them, the parents believed it to be the healthier option or it was part of the parents’ religious practice.
The aesthetic tradition of fathers saying “well, his should look like mine” is relatively new. In the United States, circumcision was rare before the turn of the 20th century. John Kellogg (the same guy responsible for corn flakes which, incidentally, he invented to prevent sexual excitability), was one of the first American advocates for male circumcision as a means to prevent masturbation. Kellogg was also a purveyor of pouring acid onto women’s clitorises to prevent impure thoughts.
The public dialogue surrounding the medical benefits of circumcision emerged about the same time, but ironically, the movement’s “health advocates” also pushed a clamp-like product that would render a surgeon (someone who would insist on a longer procedure involving proper disinfection and anesthesia) unnecessary. This device allowed for the proliferation of infant circumcisions inside and outside the hospital.
Later, the United States military would cite these advocates’ shaky claims of cleanliness when they insisted that some sailors in World War I get circumcised before deployment. When those soldiers returned home, many asked doctors to circumcise their sons (whom they assumed would also spend time in the military) in infancy to prevent them from having to go through the same debilitating pain in adulthood. After World War II, circumcision had become so common in the United States that it was as routine as cutting the umbilical cord.
Ironically, the supposed health benefits of circumcision have been all but debunked. An uncircumcised dick doesn’t require any special cleaning in infancy or adulthood nor does it make it more likely that the owner of said dick will contract urinary tract infections. In addition, the claim that circumcision makes the transmission of STIs less likely is fairly ridiculous: Why not just wear a handy piece of rubber instead of lopping off a body part?
Male circumcision for aesthetic and “health” reasons is a largely American trend. According to a national survey in 2000, only 16 percent of male babies in the UK, 11 percent in Germany and less than 2 percent in Sweden and Spain are circumcised.
Regardless of Americans’ reasoning behind circumcision, the procedure is inarguably nonconsensual. A tiny infant can in no way consent to an immensely painful procedure that the Council of Europe has called “a violation of the physical integrity of children.”
When I talk to my friends about their dicks, circumcision is always a testy topic. Those who are circumcised are usually either defensive of their dicks (as if their dicks are connected to their egos) or obviously saddened that they don’t experience the heightened sensitivity they’ve heard is associated with being uncircumcised.
Though I would never refuse to have sex with someone based on whether their parents circumcised them, it’s undeniably more pleasurable for both of us when their dick is uncircumcised. Like a coworker of mine said, “having sex with an uncut dick is like getting a hug from the inside.” And who doesn’t like hugs?
Trixie Mehraban writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact her at [email protected].