Circumcision is not something most of us - in the United States, at least - think about terribly often. Not in any sort of inquisitive way, at least. Much like the snipping of the umbilical cord and the requisite inked and stamped footprints, circumcision is a birthing ritual that just, well, is. I certainly never thought about it when I was younger. I don't have a dick.
But circumcision is on the decline in the U.S., and in almost every other developed country (except for Israel and parts of the Middle East and North Africa), has been almost entirely eradicated. Now, in most areas of the world, circumcision is finally understood for what it is: a religious or coming-of-age practice that is, when approached objectively, pretty barbaric.
Now, I'm not saying that circumcision is bad or that most men who've been circumcised don't feel perfectly chipper about having undergone the procedure in their immediate infancy; I'm merely saying that cutting off a portion of someone's genitals certainly calls for some degree of re-analysis. You've probably heard that circumcision is cleaner, no? While that may be true in some ways (or was true, more specifically), there's another very important factor at play: Masturbation and sexual pleasure.
Imagine this: It's the 1800s, a very religious time period in the U.S. and the UK, when sexual pleasure was more or less sin, particularly the masturbatory variety. There's a time in every young man's life when he realizes how good it feels to stroke his penis and he does so frequently. This alarmed his elders - after all, masturbation was considered the cause of mental illness, alcohol, epilepsy, blindness, and, of course, damnation. So what did you do to make a young boy stop touching himself?
The Ritual of Circumcision, by Karen Erickson Paige, addresses the beginning of this practice.
“In the United States, the current medical rationale for circumcision developed after the operation was in wide practice. The original reason for the surgical removal of the foreskin, or prepuce, was to control ‘masturbatory insanity’ – the range of mental disorders that people believed were caused by the ‘polluting’ practice of ‘self-abuse.'”
Kellog himself - the man behind the cereal - was deeply against self-pleasure and overactive sex drive and used to perform circumcisions himself. In his own book, he wrote:
“Covering the organs with a cage has been practiced with entire success. A remedy which is almost always successful in small boys is circumcision, especially when there is any degree of phimosis. The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment, as it may well be in some cases. The soreness which continues for several weeks interrupts the practice, and if it had not previously become too firmly fixed, it may be forgotten and not resumed. If any attempt is made to watch the child, he should be so carefully surrounded by vigilance that he cannot possibly transgress without detection. If he is only partially watched, he soon learns to elude observation, and thus the effect is only to make him cunning in his vice.”
Obviously, removing the foreskin didn't exactly work in terms of making men stop masturbating or making the practice unenjoyable. This does, however, give us some insight into why men may have found their foreskin such a valuable part of their genitals. It slides up and down over a protected shaft (which remains a lot smoother and more sensitive when constantly covered by skin) much how I think of those water snake toys from the 90s, and obviously seemed crucial to the masturbatory process at the time. To circumcise women means to remove their clits, which is illegal in most developed countries for good reason. To me, this seems an odd double standard.
Like a little sweater!
That's not to say that medical reasons for the prevalence of circumcision don't or didn't exist - it's simply that those reasons were by and large developed later and are more justification than causation according to most reports. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, in the heyday of circumcision, the removal of the foreskin helped diminish the spread of AIDs and STIs (which, of course, is also achieved through safe sex practices, but that's another article). In a time when regular bathing was not common practice, it could also incubate bacteria and lead to infection for men as well as their sexual partners.
Today, foreskin doesn't really pose any of the above risks. Hygiene solves any bacteria and smegma-related issues, while STD testing and prevention (along with widespread condom availability) is very effective. The only remaining medical argument is UTI rates in infants; when baby boys are a few months old, they run a higher risk of contracting this kind of infection due to the foreskin, particularly in warmer, more humid climates. That said, as they pass the year mark, UTI risk falls rapidly - way below the risk little girls face. (The vulva, labia, and vagina hold a great deal of moisture, too!) Some men suffer a hardening or tightening of the foreskin as they age, which can be painful and require a procedure to rectify.
Of course, perhaps the most important part of the Great Circumcision Debate is its effect on sexual pleasure - something we all have a right to. As I mentioned before, removing the foreskin means the glans gets more keratinized and calloused over time. Men who go through foreskin restoration (a real thing) can often reverse some of those things. And then, being able to slide your foreskin up and down over the shaft seems pretty amazing. There's also the bit about all the nerves in foreskin - it's not merely a "flap of skin." So yeah - it seems having a foreskin changes the sexual experience and makes the head and shaft more sensitive.
But men who are circumcised don't frequently report being dissatisfied with the way sex and masturbation feels. Studies are pretty mixed about which feels better, and some men feel sex is a little more convenient without the foreskin getting in the way. Some men prefer how it looks cut, but that's predominantly due to our culture - it's what we're used to. Many famous European porn stars are uncut, and it has obviously not affected their performance or ability to work.
Manuel Ferrara is a great example of an uncut performer
I'm not particularly pro-circumcision or anti-circumcision in terms of personal preference in a partner - I could honestly care less, as it more or less feels the same for me. But I do think women are more biased against uncut cocks than men are, probably because women don't see that many penises before a certain age. Most dudes shrug when you bring up circumcision, not really all that concerned with whether they've been snipped or not, and gay men are equal opportunity fuckers most of the time. I imagine it can be very hard for uncircumcised dudes to deal with the judgment of their peers when they're young, particularly women who see one for the first time and gasp.
Like many other forms of body modification procedures, circumcision has its pros and cons, which generally means the "correct" position is pretty personal. Some men would prefer the risks of staying uncut if it means enhanced sexual pleasure, and some men would rather have sex that's already pretty damn good without having to fuss around with foreskin. My only hope? That both men and women will educate themselves about the procedure so as to be more accepting - and allow for individual decision.
My only hope? That both men and women will educate themselves about the procedure so as to be more accepting - and to create an environment where the decision to remove the foreskin isn't dependent on conformism or a culture based in fear of sex.