Posted on | November 3, 2009 | 25 Comments
I am very much a non-fan of male circumcision. You can read my previous writings on the topic here, here, here and here. An unfortunate holdover from our sex-negative Victorian past, the genital modification discards the most sensitive part of a man’s sexual organ and changes the way that organ functions. This kind of thing clearly has no place in our medical community, but what torments me as a sex educator is how to advocate against circumcision in a country where many men are, unfortunately, already circumcised, myself included.
Each of us starts from a powerful basic assumption that we are normal, so it’s a rhetorical challenge of the highest order to convince a population of circumcised men or women that they are mutilated or lesser than, the biggest problem of that effort being that you might succeed: Sex is so much in the mind that the very thought that you are missing something could cause the system to malfunction much more powerfully than any excised bit of flesh. In an Italian study of circumcised immigrant women, researchers concluded that:
In FGM/C women, when their culture makes them live their mutilation as a positive condition, orgasm is experienced. When there is a cultural conflict, the frequency of orgasm is reduced even if the anatomical and physiological conditions make it possible.
For a second example, a recent study of men in the US demonstrated that giving a man false negative feedback on his erection actually had a real negative affect on his erection. In other words, a guy watches a dirty movie. Without being able to see or touch his erection, he predicts how hard he is. When the researcher tells the guy that he’s less hard that he actually is, his actual erection goes down.
(Two things worthy of more examination. First, what might be the effect of pharmaceutical companies bombarding American men with false concerns about whether our erections are good enough? Second, I always thought it was dumb when women said, “You are so hard!” Apparently, not so dumb. Keep up the good work ladies.)
Considering all these complicating factors and also not much wanting to dwell on the idea that I myself am mutilated, I have landed at the following way to frame circumcision for the circumcised:
The human body in general and the sexual system in specific is massively over-engineered. You can excise a shockingly large amount of female erogenous tissue and these women still are capable of sexual pleasure and orgasms. In the previously referenced Italian study, 95 of 137 circumcised women (69%) from a Somali community in Florence reported having an orgasm every time they had vaginal intercourse. That beats every study I’ve read of intact Western women.
My point is not that Western women should consider getting circumcised for the sake of their own sexual fulfillment. I quite obviously don’t think we should be cutting anything off of anyone. All I’m saying is that the sexual response is plenty rugged enough to absorb the fallout from humanity’s favorite indoor/outdoor sport from time immemorial: Fun with the Body.
We bind feet, we tattoo, scar and pierce skin, we stretch ears and lips and put so many rings around a neck that it can no longer stand up on its own, and in our favorite Fun with the Body game with out most rugged system, we giddily trim bits off of genitals. Once we’re done, we look at our own culture’s work and chat about how civilized and healthy and clean we are and then we point across a border to another culture and shake our heads over their savagery. It’s the standard issue, peculiar, familiar and all-too-human nonsense.
To both circumcised men and women, I would say that whatever you have, it works just fine and don’t let anyone tell you different. But at the same time, don’t let that confuse you. The fact that it works is no thanks to the guy or gal who came at you with the scalpel or sharp flint or burning ember or whatever it was. It’s thanks to the great bounty of nature that endowed each of us with a sexual response with so much excess capacity it is capable of overcoming the most unthinkable mutilation we can throw at it.
Most importantly, the fact that your sexual system was forced to overcome a certain challenge does not in any way mean that you have to throw that same challenge at your child. Fun with the Body is a game we can stop playing any time we want. We should stop.
* Nov. 8, 2009. In response to an exchange with a reader, I added a parenthetic (Happily) to the title of this post. There are men and women who have been so injured by over-enthusiastic circumcisionists. I don’t want my comments about the ruggedness of the sexual system to imply that I think any resulting dysfunction is all in their heads. This title is more accurate also, in that my particular interest in the debate over the practice of circumcision is how best to approach a population who are themselves circumcised and think of themselves as fully functioning and normal, and therefore experience strong incentives to pass their exact genital styling to their girls and boys.