Tuesday, April 14, 2009

My Fight for the Foreskin

When writing a blog about any controversial topic, in this case circumcision, here are the steps:
  1. Write a well thought-out, intelligent argument.
  2. Post blog.
  3. Open can of worms.
  4. Dump on your head.

There was a joke when I was pregnant that I loved talking about baby boy penises (penii?). Namely, my unborn son's penis.
This was the biggest [rational] argument that Mark and I ever had: to snip or not to snip?

On each side, we had our reasons. Even good ones, at that. Mark started finding reasons to circumcise online, but I found many, many studies refuting those reasons.
  • Penile cancer is rare, and mostly only found in the elderly. Rarer than breast cancer in men, actually.
  • Urinary tract infections, while slightly more common in intact boys, is not common overall for males. It's much more common in girls, and we Westerners certainly don't krunk up infant girls' bodies over it.
  • Phimosis, or a foreskin that doesn't retract, is also quite rare and can be treated with a topical steroid cream. Or by the boy "massaging" the area as he grows up. What boy doesn't do that?!
  • The STD studies go back and forth on this. Though I will say that most of them in the past have been done in Africa, where HIV is more prevalent than the U.S., and some studies compare circumcised men (generally practicing Muslims) with intact men (the non-religious). I'd say religion might play a part in those men's behavior, wouldn't you? A recent study suggests that it's the number of prostitutes in a population that better determines the rate of HIV.
In most cases, the "problem" with leaving intact is so rare that it simply does not warrant genital mutilation at birth. Or as one anti-circ Web site calls it,
Circumcision is a solution in search of a problem.

But circumcision can be a touchy subject for men, and Mark was no exception. When upset about it, he even wondered,
What, you don't like the way I look?!

Ahh. To question the benefits of cutting off part of an infant boy's body is a reflection of how I feel about your virility. Got it. Plus Mark? You're mom is certifiably crazy. I won't base any choices for my boys on what she chose for her sons.

Needless to say, the "discussion" was quite heated and went on for weeks.

While I was despairing that this still wouldn't be settled by the time Elijah was born, friends offered advice.
One told me to look into the plastic, non-surgical method of circumcision. Apparently there's a device that looks like one of those dog funnels, and you put it around the penis head (so it doesn't lick itself?!) and eventually the foreskin falls off. I'm not even sure if that's true. Too freakin' weird, and that doesn't solve me wanting my son to keep his foreskin.
Another had this creative advice, which worked on her husband:
Tell him that he can do it two weeks after the baby is born. That you don't want it done after going through the feat of childbirth, but if it's that important to him, he finds the doctors, he pays for it out of pocket, and he takes care of it after the surgery. That's how my son is still intact!

Mark didn't fall for it: "If I'm responsible for everything, of course it's not gonna happen. I'm not stupid, Cate." Oh well. Nice try. Damn! And to think I loved you for your intelligence.

I wish I could tell you that my counterarguments and clear, rational points were how Elijah is still intact today. Not so.

A couple things happened.

First, Mark found out that his best friend since age 8 is intact. I gave the ol', "Seems you don't all stand around, checking each other out, eh?"
The other was that he found out that someone close to him has a son with a botched circ: there's still a bit of the foreskin left on there, and Mark's friend is not sure that if he had the chance to do it all over again for his son, that he'd choose circumcision.

Mark was bending, but still not on board. The doctors didn't help. All the idiots--er, doctors--at the OB office (bitter much, Cate?) were hands-off. Blah, blah, blah, "It's your own decision. Yes we perform it. No we can't medically recommend it." Our ultrasound doc, who we'd been seeing for weeks for non-penis-related issues, was someone Mark trusted. "He'll trump Cate's arguments," he thought. Sorry, bud. That doctor was anti-circ. Very clearly, he gave a firm, "No!" as to whether we should snip the boy. He even chuckled when I joked about chopping off the baby toe or giving the baby an appendectomy, as those body parts are also "not needed" and "possibly problematic."

Finally, I needed to break my stubborn man. I couldn't chance an argument while pushing Elijah out. I did what any rational, reasonable woman would do: I pulled crazy mama bear on him.
If you insist on mutilating our son right when he is born, I cannot have you present at the birth. I will not be able to labor properly if I worry the whole time about his well-being right after he is born.

Yikes. I know...pretty crazy! But it worked. Mark grudgingly gave in. While he doesn't regret not circumcising, it is still a touchy subject between us.

I bring all of this up because in February, I wrote 3 blogs for Eco Child's Play on circumcision. One was "recycled" and edited: "Put Down the Knife! 11 Reasons Not to Circumcise." (That post has since been re-posted in two other venues. Yay!) The second was, "Caring for the Intact Penis," because of the argument that "boys don't bath, and you must keep the foreskin clean." The third was where I rounded out the series with some humor and posted a video I'd previously blogged about on Nature's Child: Penn & Teller's take on circumcision from their "Bullshit!" show. It debunks a bunch of circumcision myths, yes, but with gratuitous phallic images and penis jokes. Hilarious.

But the pro-circ people still weren't biting. This is what I've realized from the discussions in the blogs' comments sections: If you are not complacent about circumcision, you are passionate about it one way or the other. There's little room to argue. Though the commentators certainly did!
And I thought, foolishly perhaps, that my "11 Reasons" might help some people look further into the matter and make a better choice for their sons. (Yeah, Cate. You couldn't even convince Mark without making crazy threat, and you think you'll convince complete strangers?!)
I kept it pretty simple, pretty basic, and was called "ignorant" by one poster for even arguing against the certain silly reasons people give for it, like "I want him to look like me," or "He'll be a freak in the locker room." Are those credible reasons for what could be considered a form of genital mutilation? No! Are they some of the most common layman's reasoning you'll hear? Hell, yeah.

Luckily, there are Intactivists. I think it is pretty creatively hilarious that these men (usually) call themselves this. And boy, if anyone can argue the point, it's them. I had approximately 4 or 5 come down hard on all the ignorant posters. They moved between the 3 blog comments' sections debunking every myth and sorry study that got in their way. They were articulate, educated, and most importantly, civil.
So I write this blog to officially thank them. Thanks, guys, for stepping in and educating the masses where I failed to do so. I can't speak personally about foreskin removal or regeneration, so thanks for sharing your experiences and knowledge.

My knights in shining armor. That is, flesh-colored armor.

Images: The first is via Jen from Cake Wrecks, who e-mailed me this cake after I linked to her blog in one of my circumcision blogs. And who said that cakes and circumcision don't go together?
The second is what Lucian recently drew on his wall. Those boys...they love their fire hoses!


NotStyro said...

So you browbeat your husband into keeping your sons uncircumcised. Congratulations.

Of course you know that you sons now have 12 times the risk of UTI and 22 times the risk of penile cancer and when they become sexually active they must use a condom otherwise have a 60% greater risk. But your willing to gamble with your sons health, so all is good.

For other parents considering circumcision, check out these links to research findings...






Cate said...

Oh. My. God. Wait...you mean I'm going to have to teach my sons to respect their own bodies and that of their partners and wear condoms?! I never thought of that! Good thing you're here to remind me; I better notify the masses of equally unreasonable and selfish parents who have left their sons intact and notify them of this development.

The rate of penile cancer is .2 percent. The rate of UTIs in boys is 2 percent, and they've both already passed the first "worrisome" year when it is more likely to happen.
I think I'll buy both of them some scratch-off tickets, because now they have a better chance of winning a few bucks than having their foreskin give them or anyone else any problem whatsoever.
I mean, anyone besides YOU.

I won't dignify your "browbeat" comment with a remark.

RD said...

Cate, you praised us male intactivists in words that were as moving as they were grateful. Thank you, but the fate of the American foreskin rests in the hands of mothers of your generation, and the young unmarried women who will become mothers 5-20 years from now.

There are many women intactivists, and I have greatly enjoyed reading them. The leader of the intactivist community is Marilyn Milos of California, nurse, mother, and grandmother. Time and again, I have been elated and deeply moved by the passion and common sense that women bring to bear to something seemingly very alien to a woman's thinking and emotions.

All a woman need understand is that the only advanced country other than the USA to circumcise heavily for nonreligious reasons is South Korea. They adopted the practice in the 1960s and 70s, under strong USA influence, but do it at puberty instead of birth.

The UK and New Zealand used to routinely circumcise, but gave it up 1-2 generations ago. In Canada and Australia, it's at 15% of babies and falling. In the foreskin is a health problem, we would know it by now. When I was a teen in the 1960s, I overheard that Europe did not circumcise because it was medically and hygienically backward. You decide if such smug provincialism can fly nowadays!

In my view, circumcision discards is the most sensitive bits of the male body. Hence a lot of potential male pleasure is at stake. This is not to deny that many, perhaps most, circumcised young men are satisfactory sex partners. There is a possibility that the foreskin contributes to female pleasure. I can promise you one thing: the factory model makes for great foreplay!

We are agreed that, now that American hospitals mostly do not push routine circ, the main motive is parents fearing that their boy will look weird in the locker room and on dates. Parents also don't want to be reminded of the foreskin every time they change Bubs's nappy or give him a bath. Intact is almost like a third sex, you know!

Here's my retort to this mad pursuit of conformity. 1-2% of women grow up to have ample inner lips. Some women for which this is true are ashamed of using a locker room, are scared to death of the first time with a new partner. There are plastic surgeons in every major USA city who will do cosmetic surgery to women insecure about their privates. Do you as a woman approve of such surgery, or do you believe that women and society should mature and become more tolerant of diversity?

If you love your spouse and the father of your boy, but have decided that circumcision is sexually weird, your emotions are normal, and you have linked arms with many of your North American sisters.

Joel said...

Thank you SO MUCH for standing up for this cause.

It means a LOT that you are brave and honest enough to share your story with us.

It is only through talking about it that we'll end this practice.

You thanked us, but you need just as much thanks in return for what you've done.

I hope your son will realize how fortunate he is that you cared SO MUCH for his right to genital integrity.