Cut v. Uncut: An exploration of male circumcision (and foreskin restoration!)
I don’t know exactly why I was circumcised. My family is Catholic, so it wasn’t for religious reasons. Maybe it was because of the “a son should look like his father” argument, although I have yet to stand around comparing my nether regions with my dad’s. Nor do I plan to. For all I know I might be the only circumcised – ahem – family “member.”
I’m going to assume that I was circumcised for the same reasons that most circumcisions in the US are done–for health reasons, and, because that’s just what we do.
The vast majority of circumcisions in our country are performed on non-consenting individuals (newborns). Healthy foreskin tissue is preventatively removed to prevent problems that have not yet happened. Something about this feels unethical. I haven’t heard the argument for newborns to receive appendectomies, even though the appendix is a far more life threatening organ than the foreskin. And looking at some of the devices used in infant circumcision makes me wonder just how much the medical technology in this field has advanced since the Old Testament.
To be sure, there are health benefits associated with circumcision. Because it is a moister environment, the glans of an uncircumcised penis is more susceptible to viral and bacterial infections and is a more likely conduit for disease transmission. Circumcision has been found to reduce risk of herpes simplex virus type 2, human papillomavirus, and genital ulcer disease. Randomized controlled trials with thousands of participants in sub-Saharan Africa have demonstrated that men who are circumcised are significantly less likely to become infected with HIV from other partners compared to men who are not circumcised. New research has even suggested that circumcision changes the delightfully named “penile microbiome” in a way that reduces bacterial inflammation and consequently susceptibility to HIV.
Health agencies, however, do not give a blanket recommendation for all men to be circumcised. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are currently in the process of revising their recommendations about the procedure as it relates to disease prevention (and have received thousands of public comments on the matter in an online forum).
The American Academy of Pediatrics shares that neonatal circumcision leads to a reduction in urinary tract infections among babies and children, and says that there are potential health benefits from circumcision later in life. They conclude, however, that “Evidence regarding the relationship of circumcision to STD [sexually transmitted diseases] in general is complex and conflicting.”
In terms of my own personal awareness of circumcision–well, I didn’t think or learn much of anything about it until junior high. And I learned it through art class. Looking at Michelangelo’s David, his buttocks square, his pecs flared, and yet his penis so chaste, I assumed that his demure member was a convention of art. That if you couldn’t put in a fig leaf, you had to put in a foreskin.
Of course I was mistaken. As it turns out, David, despite being hewn of rock, was more anatomically accurate than I was.
I’ve heard the claim that uncircumcised boys are made to feel ashamed of their intact members. And that they would presumably learn that other boys had other equipment sometime during their childhood. But David’s was the only other penis I saw until college, and he certainly seemed to feel no shame, his hips cocked, his left arm draped carelessly over his shoulder, his member modest, but nonetheless center stage, caught mid bow before the audience.
Personally, I’m not regretful about the procedure itself, and it doesn’t look like the medical professionals broke anything. Not to humble brag, but I still have never had an STI, though I’ve also never measured how much of that is due to being circumcised and not from a combination of safe sex practices.
So I don’t consider my own circumcision a “mutilation” as some men do. I’m not angry about what was done or for what I don’t have, but I am curious.
Advocates against circumcision, also called intactivists, argue that the foreskin provides protection and enhanced sensitivity to the glans, making sex more pleasurable. The increased lubrication means less friction for either partner as the intact penis glides against the foreskin when inserted into the vagina or anus, and not directly against the vaginal or anal walls.
The majority of men, whether they are circumcised or uncircumcised, are perfectly happy with their penises. But the thing of it is that uncircumcised men who want to be circumcised just need to schedule an appointment with a doctor or rabbi. Circumcised men who want to be uncircumcised, well, there’s not much that can be done about that. (Jonathon Conte, a founding member of Bay Area Intactivists committed suicide in 2016. The website reports that “the pain and rage over his own mutilation” was a contributing cause.)
There is a growing interest in foreskin restoration. Current restoration methods, however, are more like earlobe stretching and not actually tissue regeneration. Participants use weights, clamps, or other devices, or if nothing else their hands, to stretch shaft tissue until it eventually pulls down to cover the glans. The years of dedication required to grow a few extra inches of skin may lead some to question priorities, although the results for the persistent may at least be an effective simulation of the original. As to whether the foreskin 2.0 will ever be exactly as good as the original, well, that’s just not something we know.
While most ‘restorers’ use some manual rather than surgical intervention to regenerate foreskin, there are at least a few organizations out there attempting a more scientific approach—to regenerate foreskin from stem cells.
I’m fine with what I’ve got (or more precisely, what I don’t have), and at least for the time being, am not about to try fixing what isn’t broken. But I do have to admit I would have been happier had I been asked.
Premium aged, naturally aromatic, produced in a facility that also uses soy, nuts, dairy, and gluten: these are the words that might be used to describe Cirrus Wood. Or they may just be something he read off a bag of basmati rice he had in the pantry because he didn’t know what to write here.
Cirrus Wood is a freelance writer and photographer, fine art model, bike messenger and, occasionally, adult film actor. His writing has appeared in the Bold Italic, California Magazine, UC Berkeley alumni journal and other publications.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of BETA or of San Francisco AIDS Foundation. BETA serves as a resource on new developments in HIV prevention and treatment, strategies for living well with HIV, and gay men’s health issues. Our goal is to inform, empower, and inspire conversation.