Slices of life

Anyway you cut it, male circumcision is a painful controversy

The twisted history of male circumcision is a wild and woeful tale.

The twisted history of male circumcision is a wild and woeful tale.

Photo By David Robert

The first thought that comes up for most people when thinking of circumcision is, “Ouch.” At least, I hope so. I could be wrong. It’s a strange world out there. And few things point out that strangeness as clearly as circumcision.

Although the practice is often attributed to the first Biblical patriarch, Abraham, most experts agree the practice is far older. And while the question of what the hell they were up to dogs all our inquiries into the ancient past, the question of what the hell are we up to now is equally baffling.

What we’ve been doing is a lot of debating and a lot of snipping. According to the National Hospital Discharge Survey, 57 percent of newborn males were circumcised in this country in 2004. And that’s a historic low for the past hundred years. Although many doctors in the 1800s called for universal circumcision to reduce masturbation, infections and venereal disease, it was WWI that gave the practice its biggest boost in the United States. In that war, which we won, the military circumcised soldiers and sailors because it believed it would make them less susceptible to venereal disease from the women of Europe. So Uncle Sam circumcised thousands of young men. And when those soldiers became dads, they told doctors they wanted their sons circumcised, because dads are like that.

So that’s the way things continued. The circumcision rate in the ‘50s was in the 90 percent range. But a debate over the foreskin’s place in American society began raging not too long after.

In 1975, the American Academy of Pediatrics determined that there were no valid medical reasons for circumcising newborns.

Photo By David Robert

But that view may be changing. Studies in Africa have shown circumcision reduces the likelihood of HIV transmission by 50 percent, notes Kristen Clements-Nolle, Ph.D., M.P.H., professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. She does note that the HIV virus is of a different subtype in Africa than in the United States, and that the predominant means of viral transmission are also different.

“Circumcision is no magic bullet,” she says.

And the snip won’t save you from sexual exploration, says a 1992 National Health and Social Life Survey study. It found that circumcised men engaged in more masturbation, oral and anal sex than their uncut peers. The difference was most pronounced when it came to wanking. The irony is that circumcision was often pushed as a way of reducing a little tyke’s future capacity for self-love. Instead, 47 percent of circumcised men reported masturbating at least once a month, as opposed to 34 percent of uncircumcised men. Maybe circumcised men are just a little more honest.

The rest of the study’s findings aren’t as dramatic. But the slight statistical differences between men lugging around a foreskin and those without one are surprising, and telling. Circumcised men are slightly less likely to experience sexual dysfunction and slightly more likely to catch an STD. On the whole, they sound like a pack of satyrs on Saturday night.

So it sounds like circumcision is the somewhat painful key to a friskier, harder-partying world. Who would be against that? The Bay Area-based National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers is who. It bills itself as a non-profit “committed to securing the birthright of male, female, and intersex children and babies to keep their sex organs intact.”

What a buzz-kill. NOCIRC’s logo is, however, a cool drawing of a multiracial throng of children raising a NOCIRC flag, Iwo-Jima style. And that makes sense. Because the historic parallels are unavoidable.

Maybe they have a point. Circumcision is painful, unnatural and of dubious value. But then again, so is most of the modern world. And we mostly like it here, don’t we?