Criminalizing Circumcision: Self-Hatred As Public Policy

Full disclosure: I’m circumcised.

Too much information? Tell that to the people—well-meaning or otherwise—who have actually created a ballot measure to criminalize circumcision in San Francisco. Yes, this fall, San Franciscans will vote on whether or not babies (and all minors) can be circumcised. In the wake of the ban’s (unlikely) passage, one can imagine the surgical equivalent of speakeasies or underground abortion clinics to which families bring little Joshua, Omer, or Justin.

In the law’s hostility to Judaism, one recalls the 1492 Expulsion ordered by Spain’s Ferdinand & Isabella. But hostility to religion is only one impetus for the bill; the psychological anguish of a small number of activists is the other. The main source of information about their emotional torment is contained in the bill’s language:

“It is unlawful to circumcise, excise, cut, or mutilate the whole or any part of the foreskin, testicles, or penis of another person who has not attained the age of 18 years.”

Equating the removal of an infant’s foreskin with the “mutilation” of the testicles or penis is ignorance, willful distortion, or delusion. No one in the city has been accused of touching anyone’s testicles or penis (Catholic priests notwithstanding). But lumping these together with the routine, nearly painless removal of foreskin—which has no impact on later physical function—shows just how theatrical the bill’s sponsors are. They are acting out their own odd sense of bereavement with a grand display of concern for future generations.

As a sex therapist for 31 years, I have talked with more men about their penises than you can shake a stick at. We’ve discussed concerns about size, shape, color, and the angle of the dangle. We’ve talked about the ability to give and receive pleasure. We’ve talked about the amount, color, taste, smell, and consistency of semen. We’ve talked about what women (and other men) supposedly like. And a small number of men have talked about how they feel about being circumcised or not circumcised. Invariably, anyone who talks about the issue is convinced that they’d be better off different than they are—the cut guys want to be uncut, and uncut guys want to be cut.

Many of these thousands of patients were perfectly sane people who were over-concerned about their penises. Others were a bit less sane. And a few were intensely involved with their feelings to the point of ignoring science, logic, and the sworn statements of one or more lovers.

That group includes the people behind the San Francisco proposal to ban circumcision. In 31 years of talking with men about circumcision, I have never met a man who felt damaged, mutilated, or emasculated by his circumcision who did not have other emotional problems. The pain they claim to remember from the brief procedure is impossible; the rejection from “all women” a childish overgeneralization; the sense of being incomplete a neurotic problem that has other sources.

Yes, there are a few sensible reasons that some sincere people want to discourage routine circumcision. But this is dramatically different than men who feel mutilated or disgusted with their penis, blaming all their life’s problems on an event they can’t possibly remember.

The sexual effects of circumcision are clear: there are none. Say what you want about foreskins protecting penile sensitivity—virtually no one complains that their penis isn’t sensitive enough. I make my living listening to stories of sexual frustration and dissatisfaction, and they never center on “my penis doesn’t feel things intensely enough.” The idea that a penis being 2% or 20% more sensitive (from the protective action of a foreskin) would prevent men’s sexual distress is nonsense. You might as well say that bigger testicles would make sex better. Men who cry that they can’t enjoy sex without a foreskin are in real pain—but it isn’t about their circumcision.

The United Nations recognizes the health benefits of circumcision; the World Health Organization is now promoting a huge circumcision campaign in southern Africa. Ironically, it’s world-famous San Francisco urologist Ira Sharlip who’s been asked to advise the project. Halfway around the world, the Phillipines recently offered free circumcisions for poor people, who lined up enthusiastically.

Indeed, studies around the world show that circumcision reduces urinary and other infections, has no negative sexual effects, and is rarely dangerous when done using simple public health guidelines. There is absolutely no evidence that the sexual experiences of circumcised and uncircumcised men are different for them or their partners (outside of partners’ simple personal taste, of course).

As a therapist, I am sworn to empathize with the pain of every man, woman, and child in my office. I am also devoted to reducing suffering—by helping people understand the meaning behind their pain, the better to resolve and escape from it.

As a citizen, my sworn concern is to keep emotion out of public policy, the better to enshrine science and enhance everyone’s well-being. So I urge anyone feeling damaged by their circumcision to get as much therapy as necessary, as much good sex as possible—and to keep their self-admittedly damaged psyches away from public policy. Guys, pleasure and intimacy await—as soon as you make friends with your penis. The ballot box is not the place to work out your self-loathing.

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