To all my friends considering circumcising their boys:
I get it; it’s strange talking about baby penises. It’s uncomfortable and personal and icky and feels vaguely inappropriate.
So please bear with me - as this is a topic that is deeply important to millions of people, including, potentially, your son.
I write in the spirit of sharing, compassion, and connection, and in the hope that we can have a mature conversation about this most taboo of topics. Please know that, regardless of your decision, I respect and love you.
What is circumcision?
Circumcision refers to cutting away parts of the genitals. While female circumcision is widely discouraged, it is still practiced in certain cultures. Male circumcision is far more popular today. In the US it is typically done within a week of birth, and involves cutting away the foreskin of the penis, or prepuce, leaving a scar.
Why circumcise at all?
I begin with my own curiosity: Why have you decided to circumcise your son?
In the US, circumcision’s popularity is rooted not in health but in sexual repression. As Psychology Today reports, (and as shown in this Adam Ruins Everything Clip), it was considered throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a way to discourage masturbation. Today, most fathers in America do it because:
They are circumcised and haven’t had any “problems”
They want their sons to look like them
They think that it’s what’s “normal” in the US
They have health concerns about not doing it
I'm not against circumcision, per se - I'm against the involuntary circumcision of infants. And the strongest argument against infant circumcision is that it is a human rights violation: An amputation of a functioning part of a child’s genitals, without his consent.
As parents you will make many, many decisions for your son, but no one, not even parents, should have the right to harm a child.
Adults circumcise themselves for a variety of reasons. Although by then the foreskin is about the size of a 3x5 index card, which makes the procedure more complicated, it remains safe, cheap and accessible in the US.
Are you willing to consider leaving the decision to circumcise your son up to him?
No national medical organization in the world recommends routine circumcision of male infants. According to Healthline, The risks of urinary tract infections and penile cancer, the two main health concerns, are simply due to smegma build up in an unwashed penis. One simply needs to clean the penis regularly and the risk goes away. The Mayo Clinic agrees, stating that "the risks of not being circumcised . . . are not only rare, but avoidable with proper care of the penis." WebMD agrees, citing the “mounting evidence that the medical benefits aren't as compelling as once believed.” As a result of these findings, the Atlantic reports a “groundswell against circumcision” in the US, and the New York times features multiple stories, such as this one, of parents who have decided not to undergo the procedure. Here is a group of doctors who object to the procedure’s unnecessary, traumatizing violence.
Are you open to speaking with other parents who have chosen not to circumcise their sons?
The inside of the foreskin is a membrane that has HIV receptors, and so provides a large surface area for HIV to be transmitted, hence the high transmission rate from HIV positive women to uncircumcised men not using protection. This has not been proven true for other STD’s. All that said, circumcision is not a safeguard; circumcised men contract and transmit HIV and die from AIDS. All the procedure does is reduce the risk of already risky behavior (unprotected intercourse)
Benefits of Foreskin
Like the clitoral hood, the foreskin is a normal part of the male anatomy. The British Journal of Urology reports that the foreskin, or “‘prepuce,’ is an integral, normal part of the external genitalia that forms the anatomical covering of the glans penis and clitoris. . . It has been present in primates for at least 65 million years.”
Humans evolved a foreskin for a variety of reasons:
It keeps the head protected: The head of the penis, or glans, evolved to be protected by the prepuce, to prevent irritation and contamination, just like the inner parts of the vulva or clitoris. The result of circumcision is too much sensitivity at a young age, and then, over time, abrasion, drying and callousing of the head of the penis and overall reduced sensitivity in an area men actually want to be sensitive, to enjoy sex more.
It's actually an erogenous zone: The foreskin itself is not just skin - it contains sexually responsive tissue and tens of thousands of nerve endings.
It makes for better heterosexual intercourse, creating a natural, non-abrasive gliding motion within the vagina, providing its own lubrication and retaining vaginal lubrication. The bunched up foreskin also stimulates the clitoris, and reduces female pain during sex.
These, and over a dozen other benefits of the foreskin are listed here.
How does this information resonate with your own experience? Are you curious to learn more?
An infant circumcision is violent physical trauma, a cutting away of a naturally created part of your son's penis, done without his consent. In a three part series, Psychology Today unequivocally agrees, stating, that “science and data do not support the practice of infant circumcision. The adult male should have the right to make the decision for himself and not have his body permanently damaged as a baby.” They cite, as evidence, that circumcision “clearly meets the clinical definition of trauma,” and “causes significant psychological harm in children and adolescents.” They further state that “studies of men who were circumcised in infancy have found that some men experienced symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, depression, anger, and intimacy problems that were directly associated with feelings about their circumcision.”
I invite you to consider the possibility that you would be literally traumatizing your son by genitally mutilating him as an infant.
On Being Different
One of the most striking aspects of circumcision in America is how often it's done simply because that's what seems "normal." Yet the vast majority of men in the world are not circumcised, and only about half of American men are. Inded, circumcision rates have dropped drastically since the 80’s in the US, so it’s unlikely that your son’s peers will all be circumcised. That said, if your son ever asks why he looks different from his father, I invite you to explain to him that you valued his bodily autonomy, that he can do it if he chooses when he's old enough to decide for himself, and that, most importantly, his body is perfect, just as God or Nature intended it.
How might this conversation with your 16-year-old son look so that it best reflects your values?
Perhaps, like most Jews in the world, you are motivated by your Judiaism, and if so, I admire you for keeping to Jewish tradition. It’s a beautiful testament to your faith.
One of the other beauties of Judaism is its malleability - the simultaneous adherence to tradition along with the mandate to constantly question our traditions in the face of modern values. I invite you to consider some of the traditions that were once mandatory but have now been questioned or discarded: only marrying within the faith, denying women the rabbinate, family purity laws requiring separation during menstruation, etc. There is an entire movement of Jews, many of them successful professionals in major cities, who are questioning this tradition.
As for the ceremony itself, there are alternatives! As Rabbi Joseph Berman, of the New Synagogue Project writes,
“We can lovingly welcome baby boys into our families and communities, give them names, and enter them into the covenant of the Jewish people all without circumcision. I am grateful to live in a Jewish world where these ceremonies now take place for babies who are assigned both male and female at birth. There are also ceremonies that don’t make gender the salient aspect of welcoming a child into the world.”
One book that proposes a ritual specifically for boys is Celebrating Brit Shalom.
If you see that this particular decision is no longer in line with your values, are you willing to consider a break from tradition? Are you open to speaking with a Rabbi who can offer you alternatives?
I have personally experienced trauma around my own circumcision and went through a deep forgieness process with my father, who also said he wanted his son to "look like him." I have found my penis less sexually responsive as a result of my circumcision than other uncircumcised men, and I have experienced profound pain, regret and anger that my sexual agency and bodily autonomy was taken away from me as an infant, denying me the full natural spectrum of my sexuality.
As a men's coach, I have also listened to over a dozen men share similar trauma around circumcision. Sometimes because of the violence of the act itself, or because it was done in such a way that left residual physical pain, or because of the consent violation. This is far more common than is discussed in mainstream America, in part because sexual trauma remains such a stigmatized subject, but also because men are unlikely to be in touch with their traumas in general.
Infant circumcision can be seen as an assault on male sexuality - it carries with it the connotation that male sexuality is fundamentally violent and dangerous and needs to be "clipped." This is, after all, the root of the widespread adoption of this practice in America: puritanical belief that masturbation is bad and that circumcision would decrease it. Because of this tradition, we literally have normalized inflicting sexual violence on infant boys. This sends them the message that there was something wrong with them the second they were born that needed to be cut away.
Imagine yourself uncircumcised. Knowing everything I’ve just told you, would you choose to circumcise yourself today, right now, if you had the choice?
I invite you with all my love and respect to consider these thoughts, check out some of these resources, and perhaps speak to other parents who have opted not to circumcise their children. I would be happy to facilitate or support you in any way as you explore this decision.
Thank you so much for reading, and considering such a challenging topic with me.