Thursday, September 14, 2006

Circumscriptions

I suspect that I am carrying at least one boy. Because I am more likely to think about stuff that will happen six months or twenty years from now than what I will eat for breakfast, I've recently started thinking about the whole circumcision debate.

I have friends and family that stand militantly on both sides of the issue. And I understand them all.

For most of my life (well, for the period of time that I was cognizant of circumcision and had any meaningful thoughts about it), I was generally in favor of someday having my theoretical son circumcised. It was the generally accepted practice, but even if it wasn't, it had been shown to reduce a man's risk of contracting HIV. That was enough for me.

I went through my teenage years in the 1990's. At that time, at least in New York (and possibly also Colorado, as there is a great South Park episode on this subject), school health education seemed primarily designed to terrify us about AIDS. We were told to assume that everyone has it, that we should really avoid "deep" kissing, and that we should wear rubber gloves if there was a possibility of handling semen or vaginal fluids during our primitive groping sessions. I heard a statistic that I really hope I'm remembering wrong (though I don't think I am!) because, in retrospect, it was so utterly ridiculous: "By your tenth high school reunion, 25% of you will be dead from AIDS. Make sure you're not in that 25%!"

Even though I had no sex of any kind in high school, I still lived in perpetual fear of AIDS. I would literally lie awake at night, wondering whether I was already doomed by virtue of having had a nursery-school teacher who died of AIDS and had probably handled staples or push-pins in my presence, or whether the stray, used Band-Aid I had accidentally touched while lifting my bag off the floor was going to kill me.

I don't want to undermine the importance of AIDS education and prevention--it is extremely, extremely important--but the scare tactics used on us high school kids were outrageous. And school officials wonder why they have so little credibility with teenagers!

So, fast-forward to my twenties (with more than 75% of my graduating class still alive and bitching), after I realize that the best way for a man to prevent HIV infection is simply to use condoms unless the man is sure of his partner's negative HIV status. It's the same common-sense approach for the cut and the uncut. Suddenly, circumcision for HIV prevention is far less relevant.

There is evidence that the female partners of circumcised men have fewer yeast and bacterial vaginal infections. As far as I'm concerned, this is the best argument in favor of circumcision.

Another argument in favor of circumcision is that most men in the U.S. have circumcised penises, and I want my son to feel comfortable with the way he looks. I want him to be comfortable around women and other men. Will he be if he looks different?

On the other side of the debate, it's painful. There are risks. Circumcision removes something that nature put in place. I'm opposed to female circumcision--correspondingly, shouldn't I be opposed to male circumcision? (I know the two aren't fully analogous, but they're certainly close enough to consider.) I don't want my son to grow up feeling like he's missing something.

Religiously, we have no requirements one way or the other.

So, readers, what would you do?

16 Comments:

Anonymous Tony said...

I would refuse circumcision. I would never have chosen it for myself, so it's preposterous to think I have the right to choose it for someone else, barring clear medical indication.

A common argument is that circumcision is like a vaccination. That logic is faulty because we vaccinate against communicable diseases. Sure, HIV can be transmitted, but it's behavioral. Polio is not. As you say, we can teach children to behave responsibly with sex by using condoms. Also, the studies showing the link only looked at female-to-male transmission with and without adult male circumcision. Adult is the key word there, since men are best equipped to decide for themselves how much risk they face. But it's useful to note that female-to-male is the least common transmission route involving men.

I don't have the evidence on yeast and bacterial infections for women, but I don't recall reading any such significant statistics. Anyway, proper hygiene (soap and water) seems to be a better technique than surgery. But even if surgery is reasonable, a man can decide that just as well with input from his partner. They're the two with the best knowledge of how it affects them.

As for your son feeling comfortable with the way he looks, may I offer two anecdotes? First, I have red hair. People still tease me today (I'm 33) about it. Should my parents have dyed my hair to save me from teasing? I wouldn't dye my hair just to please the imbeciles, so I certainly wouldn't have cut off part of my body. Based on my experience growing up, boys just don't see each other naked that much, if at all. And with circumcision rates hovering around 60% (depending on location), being intact won't be uncommon. Related, more women will have experience with intact males, so they shouldn't be freaked out about it. And if they are to the point of rejecting him, they're probably not the right partner for your (possible) son.

Second, and possibly more telling, since most men in my generation are circumcised, the talk in the locker room was not whether or not someone had his foreskin. The only comparison I ever heard went something to the effect of "you're not cool unless you hang to the left." Childish and stupid, sure, but also completely out of the boy's control. The circumcising doctor had control over that, and he/she can't guarantee a clean outcome (no circumcision outcome is clean, of course). He/she does not know how much skin to remove after tearing the foreskin from the glans. And he/she can't know how much skin to remove. A slight nick to one side and the kid goes from being "cool" for hanging to the left to "uncool" for hanging to the right.

Kids will tease for anything. Better to teach children to respect themselves and not value someone else's opinion more than their own.

To make this really long, let me add that I respect your realization that female and male circumcision are close enough. Female circumcision usually involves far more damage, obviously, but qualitatively they're the same: genital cutting of non-consenting individuals for non-medically indicated reasons. The difference is degree, not kind.

Finally, may I suggest a couple of documentaries. First, Penn & Teller did an episode of their show Bulls**t on circumcision. It's very good. Also, "Mother, why was I circumcised?" is excellent. You can find it most easily within iTunes.

12:35 PM  
Anonymous mamatulip said...

I can tell you what I did with Oliver and how I felt about it, and why we decided to go the route we did. But, to be honest, I'd rather not talk about it in your comments section -- so if you'd like to hear my story, feel free to email me. :)

12:45 PM  
Anonymous geena said...

Dh isn't, neither is my son Lucas. I left the decision mostly up to my husband since he is the one with a penis, but i was totally cool with not doing it because i don't think there is a medically necessary reason to do it. You put that there is evidence that women whose partners are circumsized have less yeast and bacterial infections...i've only been with my hubby and i don't get these type of infections. And as for feeling uncomfortable if he's surrounded by circumsized men...i don't think that would be the case as more and more people are not circumsizing their sons....

12:59 PM  
Anonymous c.s. said...

oh arabella, one of my favorite topics... excellent breakdown on the issue, both arabella and tony.

i've read discussion about relative sensitivity between a circumcised and an uncut penis. because the male organ is external, the foreskin provides a natural protective sheath against irritation as well as unintentional stimulation.

the foreskin is also a means of natural lubrication. oh, how very important to sexual enjoyment, both with a partner and alone. specifically during intercourse, it limits uncomfortable friction in both partners, since the foreskin remains more stable while the penis thrusts. the extent of this benefit varies depending on the size of the foreskin though.

the cleanliness factor -- the boy needs to be taught how to clean himself. it's not difficult. i know a few guys who weren't circumcised, and it wasn't a problem with them. i've been with someone who's uncut, and i've heard other people's stories, and yes, sometimes it can stink. but i ain't no rose garden either. nor were my other circumcised partners.

i never thought circumcision made sense, even when i was young. it horrified me. though the following bagel spread was always primo.

1:39 PM  
Anonymous Heidi said...

I don't think it's as big of a deal as it used to be. My guess would be that there will be other uncirc. kids in his middle school PE class.

I left it up to my husband and he decided to go ahead and have L circ., because he is.

It was so sad to see him hurting.

2:17 PM  
Anonymous wordgirl said...

We weren't going to have our boys circumcised, but the pediatrician offered the same stats regarding non-circumcised men and their female partners. Also, there was information about infections with their own man-parts. Sure, you can lecture all you want to boys about "keeping the area clean", but at some point they get too old for that to be your domain anymore and you have to trust that they're doing a thorough job. If they're not, you've got a case for infections like the stats said.

Also, after we had our first two kids, a friend had a son. They didn't circumcise him. He was born with neurofibromatosis and it required many, many surgeries (and therefore CATHETERIZATIONS) during his life. By age four, he developed massive infections and circumcision was absolutely necessary. She told me that a four year old kid is definitely going to remember going through that kind of thing, whereas an infant will never recall it and that she was sorry they didn't go ahead with it when he was young enough have the memory fade by the second week.

Yes, a circumcised baby boy requires a little extra planning and care in the diaper-changing department...for the first couple of week.s You can treat it quite gently with creams and it heals quickly. Was it hard to watch them take each boy away from me to do such a thing? Harder than I can say...but I can tell you that having to do it NOW would be even worse.

2:45 PM  
Blogger ceece said...

we had bean-town circumcised and it was uneventful as are most of them.

we went that route because:
daddy is,
it's easier to clean
and it's normal

BS reasons? Maybe, but it's also not something we ever second guessed and really didn't know there was that much controversy until we asked the pediatrician and she gave us a few websites to check out.

You're going to have die hards either way, don't let anyone pressure you or make you feel bad.

I also think it's A LOT differant then female circumcision.

3:05 PM  
Blogger ceece said...

oops different.

3:05 PM  
Blogger Mrs. Harridan said...

I think to deny anyone sexual pleasure in favor of "cleanliness" is wack.

More and more people are not circumcising their boys in the U.S., so it's not so uncommon these days.

Booby is going to make the decision when the time comes, but we've discussed it and we're in agreement that it's not medically necessary.

Of course, there are cases for either route, but I've never heard an uncut guy complain that he wasn't circumcised (versus all the cut guys I've know who have wished they hadn't been).

4:33 PM  
Blogger V-Grrrl said...

No to circumcision.

I remember researching it and talking to my Ivy-league educated pediatrician who told me the so-called medical benefits are negligible, that the U.S. was the only country in the world where circumcision was regularly practiced for non-religious issues and the "research" didn't support it medically. She told me that 12 years ago--explaining that it was really a cultural issue, not a medical issue. The practice was put into place long before there was any research to support it and that it stayed in place mostly because of tradition.

My OB, who's husband was a surgeon, told me she wouldn't perform circumcisions on babies she delivered and her husband didn't recommend them either. I understand the American Academy of Pediatrics now opposes circumcision as well, though at the time I was researching it, they had a wishy-washy non-position on the matter.

I haven't seen the research on vaginal and yeast infections. I wonder if it was based on research done in the U.S. on U.S. males and how big the sample was. If it wasn't done on U.S. men, I'd wonder if the correlation was based on hygiene rather than circumcision. And remember, correlation doesn't equal cause and effect--that was the single most important thing I learned in college science classes.

Even if there is a link, here's how I feel about it: Having a surgical procedure to reduce (but not eliminate) the possiblility of a vaginal infection in someone's possible future sex partner seems ridiculous to me. Tight jeans, panty hose, wet bathing suits, and antibiotics also contribute to vaginal infections but most women don't give them up. Why should their sex partners be expected to give up their FORESKINS? A vaginal infection is a nuisance and easily treated. Would I have surgery on MYSELF if someone told me removing my labia or hymen or altering my vulva would mean I'd be less likely to need to buy a Monistat kit again? NO.

The foreskin is there for a reason. Removing it is surgery that's done without anesthetic, makes a permanent change on your child's body to "treat" medical problems that don't exist yet. I have a big problem with that. It's like cosmetic surgery for babies--we want them to look like Daddy.

Lots of uncircumcised males in my circle--never known of an adult or child that had problems as a result of that. Male plumbing is remarkably low maintenance. I wish women had it so easy...

4:50 PM  
Anonymous c.s. said...

while i agree with you v-grrrl on all counts, i just want to add something about yeast infections.

having been completely yeast or bv free for about 5 days out of the past 5 years, i would probably jump at the chance to get rid of this problem with surgery. for some it is definitely not easily treatable, and can be a source of much pain and discomfort which can also have an impact on sex. ah, if only it were so simple. for now it's just a lot of hocus-pocus wish-for-the-best.

but if it were an option, that would be my choice for my body to get rid of an actual, not potential, problem that is directly affecting me.

5:52 PM  
Blogger Jess Riley said...

I haven't really thought about it, but I probably wouldn't want to mess with the original design, to put it bluntly. It's a difficult decision, and I wish you luck.

(I'd almost forgotten about the 25% stat scare!! We've come a long way concerning HIV...)

11:42 PM  
Blogger Tits McGee said...

Hubby and I agreed that we would not have any sons of ours circumsised. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. And why on earth would I want to deny my son the enhanced pleasure the foreskin provides? Hubby is circumsised, but doesn't worry about a son feeling like he looks different from Daddy. After all, my daugher's labia look different from mine and I'm not worried about this being traumatic for her.

11:55 PM  
Blogger Arabella said...

You've all really given me a lot to think about. Thank you for such well-thought-out comments.

This parenting thing is no joke!

8:52 AM  
Blogger Mignon said...

I know I'm late but I have to say this is a very sore (!) subject for me. I left the decision entirely up to my husband, which I would do again if we had another boy. Jim was a high school and college athlete and experienced every day the joys of being naked with other boys/men and what it's like for the cut and uncut. Considering our son will most likely be a lot like his dad, I let his dad decide what our son would probably want.

But. With that being said, I bawled when Quinn was circumcised. Before the procedure, during it, and after it. I still cry on occasion when I'm changing his diaper, because I see his tiny still-irritated-looking-foreskin-stub and I feel like I muitilated him for no other reason than to avoid a teasing in the shower.

I love what Tony said about the red hair. I also think you CAN teach a son to clean himself well, and eventually even discuss the potential for embarrassment with a girl if he doesn't clean well. I constantly regret having my son circumcised and I will carry this with me forever. Period.

(I don't think you're wrong if you circumcise your son. I just look at my own little boy and remember him crying and bleeding and kick myself, over and over and over...)

11:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We chose circumcision because it is what we were used to, and comfortable with. Sad to say, but that's the truth. I can say, that our 16 year old son seems glad we did,,,,but then he wouldn't be "used" to or "comfortable" with something he'd never known either. He certainly at his age isn't showing any regrets on our decision. It's tough. When my second son was born 7 years ago, I nearly jumped out of a hospital bed, c-section and morphine drip be damned,,,,to murder a sweet, elderly, white-haired grandma nurse, when she tried to peel the stuck on gauze from my baby's red, swollen, sore little turtle. The mama bear/hormones raging/hurt baby/morphine drip combo is potentially a lethal one. My husband went with our son while it was performed, and said it was absolutely awful to see. I'm not sure he would recommend it be done had we ever had another son. I'm sure this sounds completely confusing, but as much as we regret the pain our son's experienced, we do not regret that they are circumcised as adult men.

1:55 PM  

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