May 31, 2011
The Unkindest Cut? Gay Men vs. Male Circumcision
Peter Cassels READ TIME: 6 MIN.
In what will be a first for the nation, San Francisco voters will consider a controversial ballot measure to ban circumcision for males under the age of 18 in the November election.
Each violation would result in a $1,000 fine and there's no religious exemption.
If voters approve, a ban would certainly face court challenges from the city's large and politically powerful (Diane Feinstein, e.g.) Jewish community, not to mention Muslims. Both religions trace the practice to the biblical injunction God gave Abraham in the Book of Genesis and have been practicing infant circumcision as a religious rite for thousands of years.
Groups opposing the ban are already lining up against it, but supporters passionately assert that circumcision is medically unnecessary and nothing more than genital mutilation.
One only has to visit websites whenever the subject is discussed to see how many readers ardently condemn the practice. They have been doing so for years.
For most, the controversy has been under the radar until widespread news coverage of the San Francisco ballot measure. Santa Monica voters may consider a similar referendum in November 2012.
Because California is often the trendsetter in American culture, there may be similar moves to ban circumcision elsewhere, unless such efforts are quashed by court rulings that it's unconstitutional.
'Intactivists' State Their Case
"Intactivists," as those opposing circumcision call themselves, offer a litany of reasons why it's wrong.
They are men and women, gay and straight, who have formed organizations with members in all 50 states and some foreign countries. For several years, intactivist contingents have marched in gay pride parades in San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Vancouver, Canada.
Intactivists say circumcision traumatizes infants, sometimes results in their deaths, suppresses feelings in the penis and interferes with sexual pleasure and performance. They also point out that the vast majority (perhaps 85 percent) of males in other countries are uncut.
They dismiss out of hand contentions by the medical community that circumcision helps prevent STDs, as well as HIV.
An AIDS Preventative?
Medical experts beg to differ, however.
Studies in Africa, where most men are uncut and HIV is transmitted mostly through heterosexual sex, showed a 60 percent decrease in infection if they were circumcised. No similar research has been done among men who have sex with men.
Dr. Kenneth Mayer, medical research director at the Fenway Institute in Boston and professor of medicine and community health at Brown University, is an internationally known researcher who has studied HIV/AIDS since the early days of the epidemic. He believes that the foreskin can harbor cells containing HIV, which can then be transmitted to the urethra where microbes can cause infection.
"It is reasonable to assume that men who are exclusively tops and are uncircumcised have an increased risk of becoming infected through insertive anal intercourse," he explained in referring to gay sex. "If someone is a bottom, it does not seem relevant."
"I don't understand people wanting to ban circumcision when there are clearly health benefits," Mayer added. "It doesn't make sense and seems to be a little misguided," particularly in San Francisco, which has had so much experience with HIV/AIDS.
A Cultural Anachronism?
The intactivists argue forcibly against such health reasons. For many of them, the matter is personal. For many of them, it's as much a human-rights issue as female genital mutilation as practiced in many African nations.
Lloyd Schofield spearheaded the successful petition drive to get the circumcision ban on the San Francisco ballot. "No one is speaking up for men's rights," he contended. "That's why we are doing this."
He pointed out that no medical society in the world maintains a policy of recommending circumcision for health reasons. "In 1971 the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement that there's no medically valid reason for it," Schofield reported.
The U.S. "is really the odd man out," he continued. "In Europe, virtually no men are circumcised and no one has a problem with it. Even in Israel it is being questioned."
Schofield cited the book "Marked in Your Flesh" by cultural anthropologist Leonard Glick. It traces the practice of removing the foreskin to Greco-Roman times when Jews wanted to set themselves apart from other cultures. Glick is among those advocating an end to circumcision.
Cutting off the foreskin not only mutilates the penis, it also endangers the life of infants, Schofield maintained. Between 150 and 200 baby boys die each year in the U.S. from undergoing the surgery, but people are unaware because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn't have a proper reporting structure, he contended.
"What is reported is hemorrhage or shock," he explained. "It's never directly linked to circumcision on the death certificate. Parents sue and it's settled with secrecy agreements. It's horribly distressing for them."
Circumcision also has an impact on the mechanics of sex, according to a Jonathon Conte, a spokesperson for Bay Area Intactivists. Many of its approximately 70 members were among those who participated in the petition campaign, which was conducted separately because of the organization's nonprofit status.
"Because circumcision is a horrific thing," Conte said when asked why intactivists are so passionate about the cause. "It's a brutal assault on a man's sexuality when he is completely defenseless and unable to fight back. People who are less passionate are ignorant about what it takes away from a man and his partners. They're ignorant about the functions of the foreskin and how large it is -- 15 square inches of erogenous tissue, the approximate size of the foreskin on an average adult man."
The foreskin makes the penis self-lubricating, Conte explained. Removing it makes the penis more abrasive.
Universality Relatively Recent
With the exception of those who had it done for religious or cultural reasons, circumcision became uniquely American in the late 19th century when a movement against onanism began, he reported. That's when cutting the foreskin first gained popularity among physicians.
John Harvey Kellogg advocated the health benefits of circumcision to prevent masturbation, just one in his bag of medical tricks that also included yogurt enemas. Think about that the next time you have a bowl of corn flakes.
"He wasn't the only one, but he was a main proponent," said Conte.
Many who are against circumcising infants take it very personally and consider themselves victims, another reason why they are so passionate.
"I was circumcised as an infant," Conte reported. "I'm extraordinarily resentful. I feel it was a medical fraud. I don't feel that my parents were fully informed of the lack of necessity for the procedure."
He's fighting to keep foreskins "so that other guys can fully experience sex the way it was intended."
One would think that because circumcision is usually performed on infants who don't remember the procedure, it doesn't affect them.
Not so, according to Jeff Brown, another Bay Area Intactivists member. "There are studies of what happens to infants. There is an effect subconsciously," he contended. "Circumcision influences your whole life."
Brown cited one published in the medical journal Lancet in 1997 that showed circumcised babies experienced more pain during routine vaccinations. "The ones who had the least response to them were the boys who were intact," he reported.
"It should have been my decision," Brown said about why he's so passionate about banning circumcision. "What other normal part of a child's body is it legitimate to amputate for cultural or religious reasons?"
The Whole Network is an international grassroots organization formed last year that communicates with about 4,500 members, 3,000 of them via Facebook.
"The majority of people in the movement bring their own personal testament," explained spokesperson Travis Wisdom of Las Vegas. "A lot of men feel they have been victimized by the procedure. Women involved believe they have been mistreated by the medical community. If they chose circumcision for their babies and did research after, they found out they made the wrong decision."
Wisdom got involved after he viewed a video of a circumcision during a college class. "I made it about eight minutes into the video," he said. "The screeches of the child when the foreskin was crushed literally sent me to the bathroom."
He's now in the lengthy process of restoring his foreskin. "It's easy to do. The devices are pretty cheap. You take the remaining shaft skin and stretch it. The result is a foreskin that will function in many ways. You will have a drastic increase in pleasure."
Another benefit, Wisdom maintained, is preventing premature ejaculation. The foreskin covers the corona of the penis so a sex act will not cause immediate stimulation.
He believes gays have a stake in the battle.
"The LGBT movement combats the systematic attack on gay people's lives," he asserted. "It is important that they realize that forced circumcision is a gay rights issue and not dismiss it as a heterosexual phenomenon. Circumcision affects everyone, whether or not the person has a penis, is gender queer, LGBT or straight ally."
Perhaps Jeff Brown put it best in explaining why intactivists are so passionate.
"It is extremely offensive for someone to say it is ethical to cut off a normal part of my penis without my consent because they think I am too stupid or too irresponsible or too lazy to practice safe sex," he said. "Whether you are circumcised or not, you always need to use a condom when you have sex outside of a long-term relationship, so why cut off a part of your penis that feels good?"
Peter Cassels is a recipient of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association's Excellence in Journalism award. His e-mail address is [email protected].