BRING BACK, BRING BACK,
BRING BACK MY FORESKIN TO ME, TO ME!
By Andrew Williams
I was critical of Penn
& Tellerıs show on Showtime, classically named Bullshit!, in an essay
published here about a year ago. However, I did praise one of their shows for
its scientific objectivity and refusal to bend over for fundamentalist
orthodoxy regarding creation science/intelligent design. And now, I want to
praise them like I should for one of their latest episodes dealing with the
controversial surgical procedure known as circumcision.
and other human rights groups decry the incidence of female genital mutilation
as practiced in certain African countries. Yet, they are silent regarding the
practice of male genital mutilation. Both practices are abhorrent and inhuman,
but one difference between the two is that female genital mutilation (which
involves cutting off the head of the clitoris and sewing up the labial folds,
leaving only a tiny opening for urine to pass through, which leaves the woman
vulnerable to an increase in urinary tract infections and sexually transmitted
diseases) is performed when the girl reaches the age of sexual maturity,
whereas the male genital mutilation is done in the first year of the baby boyıs
life, usually within the first month.
It is a difference of
awareness. The girl may know that something will be done to her and she and/or
her parents may have some recourse: refusing to allow her genitals to be
mutilated, leaving the country, persuading an international agency such as
Amnesty to intervene. The baby boy has no such recourse. His opinion is not
sought nor listened to. He cannot get up and leave. His cries of anguish and
pain--so loud, high-pitched and prolonged that the infant often loses his voice
as a result--are ignored and whitewashed with the phrase, ³Heıll get over it.²
In at least one respect,
however, both mutilations are done for the same reason: to decrease sexual
pleasure. Removal of the clitoral head removes much of a womanıs pleasure in
sex, while removing a boyıs foreskin decreases his ability to feel pleasure in
sex by thirty percent. No wonder so many people in this and other countries are
so sexually frustrated: it ainıt just the fear of STDıs like AIDS or our
And who would be inhuman
enough to encourage these mutilations? People like John Kellogg (thats right,
the cereal guy), who had the entertaining theory that masturbation enervates a
young manıs body and spirit, causing him to turn from God and towards sin. Add
to that list the revered Hebrew scholar Simon Maimonides. Although the latter
expressed his feelings more concretely and poetically, both men made references
to scripture to support their claim.
I am not being
hyperbolic in my use of the word mutilation to describe these procedures.
Surgical alteration is too clinical and imprecise a term. Unnecessary surgery
is mutilation. Male circumcision is an unnecessary surgery. So says the
American Medical Association. And Dr. Paul Fleiss. And Penn and Teller. And me.
There is admittedly some
question as to whether uncircumcised men are more prone to contract sexually
transmitted diseases. One study indicates that the answer is yes; another
indicates no. And thatıs the only possible downside I have found to
retaining oneıs foreskin.
The only other reasons
given are hygiene and tradition. As to the former: Smegma is the name for the
material that collects between the foreskin and the glans penis, composed
mostly of sweat and dead skin cells. A Yiddish term that can also be used is
shmutz (although its general definition is ³dirt²). Anyway, what you do with
smegma is, every little once in a while you take a clean, wet cloth, pull back
the foreskin, and wipe off the glans. This is not a big deal.
Which leaves tradition,
i.e., conformity. Your father got circumcised, so so should you. If youıre a
baby boy whoıs Jewish, the moyl is sharpening his knife for you. If youıre a
goy, itıs a medieval looking device applied to the tip of your penis while
youıre strapped to a board. Just your legs, though--your arms too short to box
with God when youıre a month old.
Penn and Tellerıs show
is the first Iıve seen on television that challenges the orthodoxy of male
genital mutilation. The two sitcoms Iıve seen that dealt with it--Seinfeld and
Dharma & Greg--ended with both sets of parents bowing to tradition and
allowing the moyl to mutilate their little boyıs penis. I wouldnıt be so
surprised or upset except that I learned years ago that a comedianıs job is
challenge orthodoxy and conformity, not surrender to it. Thatıs where the humor
comes from: challenging authority and its evidence--or lack thereof.
This is a big deal.
Letıs face it: Penn and Teller can reach an audience which is (sorry, Crispin)
at least 10 times bigger than Crispinıs and 100 times bigger than mine.
So if they can convince a million people that circumcision is barbaric mutilation,
then every voice raised in concert will reach millions. This is how reason
works: you find out why things are done. If the reasons for taking an action
are insufficient in some way, and if more harm than good is done, then you want
to inform others and challenge authority.
And this is not an
unorthodox position: in fact, 75 percent of the men on this planet are
uncircumcised. The British National Health Service stopped doing circumcisions
50 years ago. Have we seen a corresponding spike in STDıs worldwide as a
result? I donıt believe so. Such spikes, if they occur, could be attributed to
other causes such as deliberate infection (like that guy in New Jersey who
knowingly gave a bunch of women HIV), lack/misuse of birth control, or improper
hygiene. And, as I mentioned above, female genital mutilation tends to lead,
for obvious reasons, to more UTIıs and STDıs, not less.
Even in the Jewish
religion, there is debate. Those who cite tradition are challenged to cite
scripture to prove their point. And, as many Jews would concur, it is not
necessary to have oneıs foreskin removed to be a good Jew, any more than
growing a beard or going to synagogue every Saturday makes one a good Jew.
If youıre still not
convinced, citing religious reasons, I ask you this: If God made us in His
image, then why do we remove an entire section of a little boyıs penis or a
girls clitoris? Are we saying, in effect, that God fucked up? Or are we
listening to the voices of fallible humans, humans who may have cited scripture
to back their claim, but at bottom were so fearful of sexuality--including
their own--that they decided to associate sex with pain and make that the gold
standards of theirs and other peopleıs lives?
By scientific and
medical standards, circumcision is an unnecessary procedure. It has not been
proven that it cuts down on the transmission of STDıs. It does not cause
significant problems in hygiene. It is merely a tradition that stubbornly
refuses to give way to the calm, implacable facts produced by logic and medical
The good news is
two-fold: more and more people every day are deciding for themselves that
circumcision, male and female, is mutilation. Second, while surgery is
necessary to restore the mutilated clitoris, it may be possible to restore a
manıs foreskin by non-surgical means. A simple stretching exercise, which may
be done manually or with hanging weights, can apparently bring back the
foreskin within a period of months.
As for mewell, Iıve
gotten kind of used to the appearance of my penis so, frankly (pun intended),
Iım in no hurry to repair the damage done. But as an adult, I have a choice: to
restore or not, to be circumcised or not. Itıs past time to offer children that
same choice. Itıs the civilized--and humane--thing to do.