This article discusses depression, suicidal thinking, and sexual assault and may be triggering for some readers. The Canadian Mental Health Association Crisis Line can be reached at 1-800-875-6213.
“You know it’s extremely common, right?”
That’s what a psychiatrist said to me last summer when I admitted I was contemplating suicide because of my circumcision.
I was circumcised sometime during the first month of my life by a doctor in the hospital where I was born. Until recently, I didn’t care one bit about losing my foreskin. When I thought about the topic, which was rare, I believed the myth that foreskin is just a useless flap of skin prone to disease and infection.
Looking back now, I guess I was never happy about being cut—I was indifferent. In my mind, it was just something that had to be done; I didn’t remember it happening anyway, so I didn’t really care.
It never occurred to me that the foreskin plays an important role in maintaining the overall health and sexual function of the penis—I was never taught this in health class when I grew up. Surely the foreskin must be disposable because mine was disposed of, I thought.
Little did I know, the choice my parents made on my behalf when I was too small and frail to lift my own head was a ticking time bomb set to explode when I became a man.
In 2019, my troubles began.
It was my 20th birthday. I’d met a girl on Tinder a few weeks earlier, and we’d already been on a few dates. Like most guys, I was excited and nervous to finally get laid. I expected sex to feel like masturbation times a thousand.
I’d always heard that for guys it’s too easy to reach an orgasm. If anything, I was worried about ejaculating prematurely and failing to please her. I was shocked and confused when I was the one who felt nothing at all.
She pulled out all the stops for me, too. Hand job, blowjob, vaginal sex. Nothing made me feel good. I was spiralling. I thought there must be something wrong with me. I questioned my sexuality and wondered if I was deficient in some way.
After a second failed attempt at sex, I called off the relationship and buried my feelings. Blaming myself, I didn’t connect this bad experience with my circumcision status right away.
But that changed when I stumbled across this YouTube video: Patrick Stewart discussing not being circumcised on The Graham Norton Show. In the clip, Stewart jokes about not knowing whether he was circumcised or not until he was well into adulthood. Spoiler alert: he’s not.
I was surprised to learn this. Up until that point, I thought virtually every baby boy the world over was circumcised as a disease prevention method. If Captain Picard himself wasn’t circumcised, why was I?
Then I read the angry comments from circumcised men.
“You’re lucky.” “You dodged a bullet there, Patrick.” “Circumcision is not something to laugh about.”
My heart was pounding. Never before had I heard a single bad thing about child circumcision. Now, I was seeing all these other cut guys who were upset about what was done to them.
Panicked, I began to do more research. I could never have guessed at the horrible things I would learn in the internet rabbit hole I was about to fall into.
Most of you will already know that circumcision is an ancient practice considered a religious rite of passage among Jewish people. While it’s most often associated with Judaism, Muslims also practice child circumcision.
I am not a religious person, but I believe the body is sacred. No child is truly born of any religion. I was born to a Roman Catholic father and a Jehovah’s Witness mother, but as a free-thinking adult, I am an agnostic atheist. Religion is no excuse for taking away your child’s right to choose what happens to their body.
It wasn’t until the Victorian Era that circumcision became ‘medicalized.’ At the time, doctors believed masturbation was the source of physical and mental ailments including insanity. It was none other than Dr. Kellogg—of Kellog’s cereal fame—who advocated for circumcision of both boys and girls.
“The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anaesthetic, 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 […] In females, the author has found the application of pure carbolic acid to the clitoris an excellent means of allaying the abnormal excitement,” Kellogg wrote in 1877.
This notion we have today that circumcision doesn’t reduce sexual pleasure is a mere fable—a product, I suspect, of circumcision’s alarming prevalence and men’s desire to justify what happens to them. But the practice, in its medical context, originated as a means of reducing pleasure, and of preventing self-pleasure. That was the whole point.
The United Nations and World Health Organization condemn female circumcision as genital mutilation—and rightly so. In Canada, if anyone took a knife or some acid to their daughter’s clitoris or clitoral hood, the female foreskin, they’d be locked up.
How ironic that we condemn others for putting their daughters through painful, unnecessary, sexually reductive genital surgery while normalizing doing the same thing to our boys. People need to realize that the way we look at other cultures with disgust for their practice of female circumcision is how other cultures view us for male circumcision.
In this country, we believe in the principle of equal justice, yet our laws say that those born with vaginas have a right to genital integrity while those born with penises do not.
Somehow, male infant circumcision stubbornly persists, divorced from its original context as the masturbation cure. Over time, as our culture became more sex-positive and doctors realized that masturbation is normal, healthy practice, the justifications for circumcision had to change.
I’m reminded of the famous quote, “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.”
Today, some doctors recommend male infant circumcision as a means of promoting genital hygiene, reducing the risk of HIV, UTIs, and penile cancer, and preventing phimosis and balanitis.
The website Doctors Opposing Circumcision delves into each of these claims in a level of detail beyond the scope of this article, but the general idea is that none of these claims are sufficient justifications for circumcising babies with healthy foreskins where no disease is present.
Medicine is supposed to be governed by a strict body of ethics. The first oath of every doctor is to do no harm. Likewise, invasive surgical procedures ought to be performed as a last resort with the patient’s consent, and only when conservative treatments fail.
In that sense, child circumcision is a medical anomaly. For no other body part do we advocate preventatively cutting it off as an “immunization” against rare diseases. It goes against our basic universal values of bodily integrity and autonomy. No one has the right to permanently alter someone else’s penis.
The same arguments used for infant genital cutting could be used to justify child appendectomies or a slew of other amputations on unsuspecting children. Why not take from each boy one testicle to reduce his risk of testicular cancer? If this sounds ridiculous to you, then you should be equally offended by the notion of amputating a boy’s healthy foreskin.
In this lecture video, Child Circumcision: An Elephant in the Hospital, Professor Ryan McAllister argues that infant circumcision is a cultural surgery, not a medical treatment. I have found this to be true. The reason I was circumcised isn’t that my parents thought it would prevent illnesses—although this played a role in their choice—it was that my father was circumcised. Likewise, for my peers who are intact, their fathers are intact too.
When I first complained to my dad about being circumcised without my consent, he said, “I never had any problems.” But if he’d been left intact, he would have said the same thing to any doctor suggesting I be cut.
In the video, McAllister also exposes the fraudulent notion that child circumcision is harmless and risk-free. Risks of child circumcision include infection, blood loss, death, and the removal of too much skin leading to tight, painful erections in adulthood.
What’s more, there’s serious doubt about whether the method of pain reduction used in neonatal circumcision is sufficient. McAllister plays a video of a baby boy being circumcised. The child’s screams are not the normal crying of a newborn. They’re the shrieks of a person experiencing intolerable pain.
The first time I watched this, I cried. I saw myself on that operating table.
Infants are too young to receive general anaesthesia so instead, a numbing cream is applied to the outer foreskin, which, by the way, is fused to the glans or ‘head’ of the penis at birth like your nail to your finger. The skin is forcibly retracted, crushed for five minutes, then cut. The resulting wound is stitched together, and the baby is sent home.
There have been very few studies on the effects of excruciating pain on a child’s brain and development. At times, I feel very scared about how this might have affected me in ways I can’t know.
When I learned about how my circumcision was performed, and the piss-poor reasoning behind it, a dark cloud materialized over my life. I became so consumed by fear and anger no one could reach me.
For the first time, when I looked at my penis, I didn’t see a normal body part. I saw the ugly scar line, my ridged band completely ablated, my glans numb and dry, a mere remnant of my frenulum remaining. The negative toll this has taken on my body image and mental health cannot be understated.
To make matters worse, our very own Queen’s University published a study in 2016 claiming circumcision does not reduce penile sensitivity. But the study was deeply flawed.
It asked men circumcised as infants and intact men to each subjectively rate their sexual pleasure. How can those of us cut during infancy ever know what sensations we’re missing? The researchers also ignored variables like how much of the original foreskin was remaining and how tight or loose each man was cut.
This study has surely contributed to slowing the inevitable decline of child circumcision.
In 2015, a boy named Alex Hardy, circumcised in his teens, killed himself. Before he died, he wrote, “Where I once had a sexual organ I have now been left with a numb, botched stick […] My sexuality has been left in tatters.”
Although I have never known the pleasure of my foreskin, I feel the same way as Alex toward my circumcision, and I am hardly the only man to feel that way. I believe there’s a silent majority of circumcised men out there who are unhappy about it. However, because there’s so much anger and humiliation attached to this issue, not many are keen to speak up in a public forum like this. If you met me in a class or passed me on the street, you would never know the depths of anguish I carry with me each day.
Still, I believe that one day the world will recognize this practice for what it is: a crime against humanity. If I’d been left intact and later asked if I wanted to be cut, the answer would’ve been a firm, “Fuck no.”
One day, hopefully soon, doctors will be able to regenerate our sensitive foreskins and reattach them without a scar. A non-profit company called Foregen is working on that project right now, but lack of awareness and funding delays its mission.
In my experience, if you complain about your circumcision, doctors will dismiss you, mock you, and ignore your protests. They’ll adamantly claim you weren’t harmed by the amputation of your foreskin, that you should be thankful for it. There can never be reconciliation until there is an acknowledgement of harm by the medical community that failed so many of us.
It wasn’t until I worked up the nerve to show a picture of my erect penis to a urologist last summer that my worst fears were confirmed. Too much skin had been removed. Aside from the day I was cut, this was the worst of my life.
As I left his office in shambles, I saw a sign on the wall: “It’s a boy! Thinking of circumcision? $275.” I wanted to tear it down, throw it on his desk and scream, “What the fuck is this?” Instead, I shuffled out with my head down and read online about how circumcision isn’t covered by OHIP because it’s not a medical procedure.
Advocates of circumcision will call me an outlier, an unfortunate accident. But I’m not an outlier. I’m a human being. What happened to me could easily happen to any child. Doctors have no way of knowing what size a boy’s penis will grow to when he reaches maturity, so there’s no way of knowing whether he will end up with a tight or loose cut. For an unnecessary surgery that removes healthy, erogenous tissue from the genitals of non-consenting minors, no degree of risk or pain is acceptable.
To the psychiatrist who dismissed my plea for help and the urologist who continues to pedal child circumcision in order to line his pockets, I say: not everything that’s common is good.
Throughout human history, plenty of things have been common that shouldn’t have. Footbinding little girls used to be common in China. I shudder to think of those poor girls whose bodies were violently altered so they would conform to their parents’ idea of beauty. I see myself in them too.
My experience taught me that social pressure and cultural beliefs are supremely powerful. They will drive good people to do unspeakable things with good intentions in their hearts.
Unlike me, my parents couldn’t whip out their iPhones in the year I was born and learn about the function of foreskin, the rareness of complications for intact males, and how the Canadian Pediatric Society issued a statement against routine infant circumcision three years prior to my birth. The doctor neglected to tell them those things.
Nowadays, I am still prone to waves of sadness and anger about what happened to me. But I made a choice that rather than destroy myself, I would work toward self-improvement.
I discovered that in lieu of true foreskin regeneration, foreskin restoration is entirely possible. Skin cell division is triggered by tension over time. By gently tugging the remaining inner foreskin and scar line, a new foreskin can be grown. Although it lacks the nerve-dense frenulum and ridged band, the new skin covers the glans as nature intended, allowing it to become moist and sensitive once again.
I’ve been restoring my foreskin for the last seven months. Progress is excruciatingly slow, but my penis is already looking healthier, and that brings me inner peace. The negative effects of my botched circumcision are disappearing the more skin I grow.
If you’re like me and you hate being circumcised, I want you to know this is an option for you. It’s not easy, but nothing worth doing ever is. There’s a supportive foreskin restoration community on Reddit and other places online with a treasure trove of information on methods and devices for safely restoring your foreskin.
All it takes is more patience and discipline than you ever thought you could muster, and the courage to get started.
Health, Mental health, Postscript
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