Purely a figment of your imagination

What amuses, annoys, concerns or otherwise interests me – Noodlemaz

My no. 1 overlooked issue in skepticism


This week I submitted a guest report for the Strange Quarks podcast (you can also listen on the Guardian website, ooh!); you can follow them on Twitter.

Here’s what I said in text format with some links and a bit of stuff that had to be left on the cutting room floor; also see my earlier posts here and here for expansion. I hope to find time to do a proper post on the HIV/circ issue some time but my free time is practically non-existent right now!

I’m going to talk about my number 1 overlooked issue in skepticism, which is: circumcision. I think people should be talking about it more.

We’re quite rightly disgusted by and vehemently opposed to female genital mutilation or FGM.

All its various forms are reviled and usually illegal, from those as minimal as a pinprick to the most severe and life-threatening.

However, the developed world, including the UK, used to widely practice FGM alongside male circumcision or MGM both for similar reasons, including beliefs of hygiene benefits, curing disease or unwanted behaviour and aiming to reduce or remove sexual desire.

But girls now have their healthy, functional tissue – their bodily and genital integrity – protected by law; makes sense.

I’d argue all children should be protected from unnecessary, damaging, permanent genital surgery; routine infant circumcision is cosmetic surgery, encouraged by parents, religious traditions, or physicians who sometimes make a profit from it, in the case of the US.

No baby can consent to having a healthy part of his body removed or altered and this is surely a violation of his basic right to protection from abuse and, indeed, of a doctor’s oath to Do No Harm. Edit: it pays to think before it starts to matter more, because then it can be too late. Watch this medical student, and read his comment underneath his video.

There are a lot of lame excuses around.

People wrongly believe that “It’s harmless!” The deaths of over a hundred babies per year in the US alone suggests otherwise, not to mention non-fatal complications such as scarring, meatal stenosis, skin bridges, fistulas, cysts, impotence and the one-in-a-million chance of the loss of the penis altogether.

Edward Wallerstein said, “Circumcision is a solution in search of a problem.”

It’s been cited as a cure for all sorts of ridiculous things down the decades, from epilepsy and masturbation to bed-wetting and blindness. It offers no more hygiene benefit than 10 seconds in the shower with a bar of soap. I file it with alternative medicine-style quackery and the reasons for its persistence are strangely complex.

One problem now being recognised with the latest in a long line of dubious justifications is that suggesting “circumcision could prevent the spread of HIV!” to already poorly-educated populations causes a sort of invincibility complex to form, where people believe they are resistant and therefore end up spreading the virus even more.

Improving sanitation, education, barrier contraception availability, and reproductive autonomy for women are things we should be striving for anyway, not trying to shoe-horn in outdated surgical procedures.

Then there’s the “He won’t remember if we do it when he’s a baby!” line. People don’t really remember anything from their infant days but that doesn’t mean you can abuse them in any way you like.

“Oh, the foreskin is useless!” people proclaim light-heartedly. A false perception likely the product of depressingly insufficient sex education, including within medicine. It’s actually the most nerve-dense, sensitive part of the penis. Any volunteer test subjects for this assertion? I thought not.

Studies assessing whether circumcision affects sexual function and pleasure often make two critical mistakes in the groups they compare to intact men; 1. those circumcised at a young age (who therefore have no ‘natural’ sexual experiences to relate to) or 2. recently-cut adult men reporting increased pleasure, when it takes a few years for permanent glans exposure to have its desensitising effects. Men attempting foreskin restoration in later life should surely also be consulted – yes, there is such a thing, do check it out.

Some will make exceptions for “it’s a religious/family tradition” – or even “we want him to look like his dad!” The children of amputees surely feel relieved. These also reasons given for FGM that we reject.

It’s quite sickening to read women’s comments about their sexual preferences used as reasons to force it upon their children– “it looks better!” and “intact is ugly” are too frequently heard. If a man confessed to saving up for his daughter’s breast enlargement or labioplasty we’d be appalled, right? We don’t do this with any other body part.

There is also increasing evidence that permanent psychological damage can result from such a huge physical trauma in early life, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. These effects are not only limited to recipients of the surgery; read experiences of women who deeply regret allowing it here (NB/ is quite upsetting). One man seeking compensation writes:

I was circumcised as an infant and my mother was not informed of the great injustice being performed on her only son. Not only has it caused great physical trauma but psychological and emotional as well. Damages are immeasurable. I want justice for what was done to me, and I never want another child to be sexually assaulted and butchered in their first moments of life. It has long lasting horrid affects. How can you ever trust when the first thing you know is pain and the most pleasurable part of your body is taken away?

There are other quote-unquote ‘reasons’ for the practice, which I’ve gone into more detail on in my blog and maybe could expand upon at a later date. No medical organisation recommends routine infant circumcision, yet thousands of boys are subjected to it every day.


Have you thought about it?

Author: noodlemaz

I prefer to think of myself as a realist rather than a pessimist, but perhaps that's just optimistic. Honest, atheist, scientist, feminist.

9 thoughts on “My no. 1 overlooked issue in skepticism

  1. Thanks for this! I really enjoyed it on Strange Quarks.

    I completely agree with your position. I actually had a circumcision as an adult and can say without reservation – it does desensitise the glans! I am still glad I had it done as I had a shortened frenum which made sex very painful, but I get a little worried by my partners comments along the lines of ‘it looks better’ etc. since I would not want the same for any baby boys we have. I am already preparing myself for a ‘discussion’ and will definitely refer her here ASAP!

    Again; many thanks!

    • Thank you for your reply, Antony!
      More people like yourself need to be consulted in these studies.
      Of course I would never object to a medically-necessary operation (though full circumcision is still ‘over-prescribed’ at the expense of steroid creams and other less major surgical procedures) or something an adult chooses for themselves – we can all decide what we want to do with our own bodies!

      The issue of course here is for babies who have no such power and I’m very glad you hold your ground on this one; any future sons will thank you for it, I’m sure!

      Women’s comments are very disturbing to me, they just don’t seem to think it through. For some reason all this ‘hey, if it makes them last longer/look better…!’ seems to be acceptable, yet coming from a man, similar arguments would be instantly put down. These women should be ashamed of themselves.

  2. In Europe we just don’t circumcise boys. It’s not even discussed; it just doesn’t happen – okay, among Muslims and Jews it does, but it’s not done for cultural reasons at all. And I find it so strange, and sad, that Americans do it. And as you say, the reasons are just not credible.

  3. Great post, Noodlemaz.

    Now you can, in some ways, make a case for male circumcision along the lines of STD prevention, but to do so would be to completely miss the point.

    Any benefits in terms of STD prevention (and those benefits are in any case probably open to question) are going to be totally irrelevant in neonates. They will only come into play when the person is old enough to start having sex.

    So even if you are going to make a case for circumcision as an STD prevention measure, there is absolutely no reason to do it shortly after birth. When you are old enough to start having sex, you are probably old enough to say whether or not you want to be circumcised. That would be the time to do it, if you are going to do it at all.

    For me, the whole thing comes down to the simple ethical issue of informed consent. It is unethical to carry out a medical procedure on someone without that person’s informed consent. There are of course exceptions to that, if it is impossible to get informed consent and the intervention is clearly necessary in the best interests of the patient (such as neonatal vaccinations or emergency surgery for someone who’s just been seriously injured in a car crash). But none of those considerations apply here. There is no possible health benefit to a neonate of circumcision, and not only that, but you are doing something irreversible which may be highly undesirable.

    So the bottom line is that circumcision should only be done on patients who give voluntary and properly informed consent. That rules out all neonates, as they are incapable of giving informed consent.

  4. Some years ago I saw an early episode of the TV drama Nip/Tuck, in which a main character’s teenage son attempted a circumcision on himself after being told by at least one girlfriend that his foreskin was so horrifying she couldn’t bear to go near it, and surely nobody normal still had those, and it was really weird.

    This was the first time the subject was ever really on my radar, and it took a while to shake a distinct paranoia that I somehow stood out in a way that a lot of people apparently find unappealing.

    And then a few years later I saw the episode of Penn and Teller’s Bullshit! that discussed this and a completely different set of very strong feelings flared up. It’s difficult to watch and makes the case pretty conclusively.

    So yeah, I’m totally with you on this. It could definitely do with more conversation and being de-normalised.

  5. Found this post recently, and I have one comment, and then a question.

    Comment: if circumcision desensitizes the glans, then I’m very glad that my mother had me circumcised, since my glans actually seems oversensitive, to the point of being painful on occasion.

    Question: This guy’s recent post, http://sexualintelligence.wordpress.com/2011/05/28/criminalizing-circumcision-self-hatred-as-public-policy/ , makes me wonder about the studies on the health benefits of circumcision that he mentions (the UN one on HIV, for instance). Are there issues with that study? Have there been follow up studies? Is this even still an issue on your radar?

    Thanks much!

    • Hey Nathan.

      Re: comment – how can you know your sensitivity issue is not a *result* of the operation? My only recommendation here would be to see a doctor about it. Women are the same anyway, people’s sensitivity varies. Some opt for an operation to increase access to the nerve-dense areas to increase the sensations, some people require help to desensitise because it’s too much.
      However, these are things we discover when we become sexually active; I still disagree that it’s justification for performing such operations on babies and children.

      Yes, HIV is a huge issue. I have a draft post on it but things have been moving quickly, there’s a lot to go through and I simply don’t have time right now! Sorry about that :/

  6. The glans is not erogenous . All erogenous nerves are in the foreskin. No foreskin equals no pleasure. Mgm is worse than fgm in terms of sensory loss.

    • Not sure you know what erogenous means.
      Wikipedia here and yes it’s referenced but see also this examination of a recent study that did indeed confirm the foreskin as the most sensitive area.
      The shaft is nerve-sparse, but not devoid. I’m guessing I’ve played with more sets of male genitals than you – while you might own some, I can definitely confirm the glans and foreskin have sensitivity (in both intact and cut men though obviously the latter do not have the former to experience).

      I am against all forms of genital cutting on minors, of any sex. It is not a competition. Both FGM and MGM have several forms that differ in severity. It depends which are being compared as to which is ‘worse’ and ultimately that does not matter – it is not ethically permissable and it is dangerous for the child regardless, and I oppose it. As regarding your ‘pathetic, kill yourself’ comment elsewhere – perhaps take a little more time to consider what you’re writing before you click “Post”.

      And I will delete your comments if you display unacceptable prejudice towards other commenters here.

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