Anyone who has ever tried to discuss this issue online knows that there's a lot of very strong anti-circumcision sentiment on the 'net. I don't think it's such a pressing issue in real life, where it's generally considered a valid parental choice either way. However, saying one circ'ed one's son is likely to get a parent called "abusive" in much of cyberspace and googling circumcision is bound to find a plethora of what I would consider quite extreme and unsupported claims of harm. There are (in my opinion, after careful research into these claims) some crazy ideas out there about damage to men physically and psychically, due to neonatal circumcision. I think it's pretty scary to prospective parents because the cybervoices are so loud they drown out the voices of reason and real research. So, having been down this road before I was reluctant to open myself up to crazy accusations again.
I decided, though, that it’s my journal and I can control comments. I’m not going to screen but will delete any comments that are not written respectfully (and, as the owner of the journal, I alone get to decide what’s respectful). I recognize that some people – including some people I admire greatly – are unable to discuss this issue with any respect for those of us who choose neonatal circumcision, and I just ask that if that’s you, please don’t comment. You might do better not to read at all.
What is Neonatal Circumcision?
It’s the removal of the prepuce or foreskin from an infant’s penis. It has been done as a ritual practice by Jews for thousands of years. Muslims practice circumcision as well, but often not neonatally. As a non-religious practice, it became popular in the US – and to some extent in other countries – in the latter half of the twentieth century. A belief that circumcision is more hygienic and prevents disease was the original impetus for the post-World War II growth in the practice (many of the assumptions of disease prevention were later disproved). The next generation had a lot of circumcisions because it had become common practice and men often wanted their sons circumcised because they were. This wanting the son's penis to have the same circumcision (or not) status as the father's seems to be a powerful motivator for many men. On the other hand, it should be noted that it was not always a deciding factor or there wouldn’t have been that huge growth in neonatal circumcision in the post-World War II era.
Circumcision in Judaism
In Jewish tradition, circumcision is done by a mohel – a trained ritual circumciser – who may or may not be a doctor. The ritual is called brit milah (or bris) and it is a celebratory one, with friends and family in attendance, and is also when the baby boy’s name is announced to the community. It occurs on the eighth day after birth (barring medical issues that would prevent it) and is generally followed by a reception of some sort. It can be held in the home or in a shul or other gathering place.
Circumcision has been pretty universally practiced by Jews throughout our history. In many times and places, the Jewish practice of brit milah (ritual circumcision) was dangerous because it was a physical mark that a man was Jewish - he couldn't pass, at least when naked. A good memoir of a Jewish man trying to pass as a non-Jew in Nazi Germany to escape the death camps is called Europa Europa. In it he talks a lot about having to hide the fact that he was circumcised. The Hasmonean rebellion (which Hanukah celebrates) was in part because of the ruling by the Seleucid Occupation government that Jews could not practice circumcision.
I think that bris is kind of a bizarre ritual, if we look at it objectively. After all, what else is there that's both a party and a surgical procedure? But I do feel it's a real disservice to a boy to not circumcise him and to raise him Jewish. Judaism is very varied, as I'm sure anyone with knowledge and experience of the religion knows. There are very few things that all the major movements within Judaism (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist) agree on. Circumcision is one of those very few. I think if it is very important to someone that a son not be circumcised then s/he should consider withdrawing from Jewish community participation altogether. I find Judaism such a rich and fulfilling culture that I have trouble relating to giving it up for a foreskin, but I think for those for whom this is a major issue, that’s a legitimate response.
I think that neonatal circumcision is not a big deal, really. It's a very safe procedure and there is fleeting pain but no lasting discomfort, ime (as judged by the baby being perfectly happy shortly thereafter). I researched carefully before my son was born and found that there really is no basis for believing in the horrific effects anti-circ people claim it causes. There are some health benefits of circumcision (the benefits in reduction of HIV risk are significant and have been proven in some large scale trials) but none that I personally would view strong enough to warrant a surgical procedure. I think if I were not Jewish I would not have circumcised my son. But I think the belonging aspect (and allowing him to have a bar mitzvah in a shul and - should he choose to - get married in a Jewish ceremony) were sufficient reason for me to decide to do so.
I know that some people say that if you don't do it now, the boy can choose to do it as an adult, so that's the safer choice, but I don't think that's really true. He can't choose to have been neonatally circumcised; he can only choose to do it later. If he decides that he wishes he were circumcised, he may well wish he were neonatally circumcised. It is a bigger deal later, both medically and in terms of body image and sense of self. I do know some boys whose parents chose not to circumcise and then the boys themselves had to decide whether to have the operation in order to have a bar mitzvah. I think 13 is not an age to be deciding whether to have surgery on one's genitals.
Deciding on Neonatal Circumcision (or not)
Circumcision is a very brief procedure and generally, in my experience, seems to cause very little distress to the baby (less than other common activities, like some messy diaper changes or waiting to nurse for a few minutes while mom is in the shower). It also does not appear to have long term negative effects of any kind. On the other hand, it is a permanent alteration of the body, and it’s worth thinking about why one wants to do that and whether the benefits are worth the (small, but real) risks of any surgical procedure. As said above, I find the benefits significant for a Jewish boy, but I don’t think there are such clear benefits for others.
I recommend the American Academy of Pediatrics statement on circumcision. The AAP is against routine infant circumcision, judging that it is not necessary medically, but it is also reassuring to those who choose to circumcise their infant sons. The summary statement says
"Existing scientific evidence demonstrates potential medical benefits of newborn male circumcision; however, these data are not sufficient to recommend routine neonatal circumcision. In the case of circumcision, in which there are potential benefits and risks, yet the procedure is not essential to the child's current well-being, parents should determine what is in the best interest of the child. To make an informed choice, parents of all male infants should be given accurate and unbiased information and be provided the opportunity to discuss this decision. It is legitimate for parents to take into account cultural, religious, and ethnic traditions, in addition to the medical factors, when making this decision. Analgesia is safe and effective in reducing the procedural pain associated with circumcision; therefore, if a decision for circumcision is made, procedural analgesia should be provided. If circumcision is performed in the newborn period, it should only be done on infants who are stable and healthy."
The whole statement is available at http://aappolicy.aappublications.org/cgi/content/full/pediatrics%3b103/3/686. It should be noted that this statement was made before the results of large scale studies on HIV risk reduction and circumcision.
Some people are concerned about “the locker room effect” – the idea that their son might be mocked for having an anomalous penis among his peers. I think that is just not a factor in current USAmerican society. I'd recommend that those concerned about the "locker room effect" look at the statistics collected by the CDC on this. Circumcision rates in the US are at about 64% nationwide and have been there for about 20 years, with variations by region and by ethnic group. In the post-WWII era they were higher, pre-WW II quite a bit lower. These data do not typically include Jews, since we do circumcision ritually on the eighth day and the government records those circumcised in hospitals before mother and newborn go home (typically two days). Jews are such a small portion of the population, though, that I think that doesn't matter for the overall stats. Details can be found at http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/pubs/pubd/hestats/circumcisions/circumcisions.htm but, in short, there is nowhere in the country where a boy will be an anomaly by being circumcised or by being not circumcised in terms of the general population. In Jewish or Muslim communities, it's a different story.
Often circumcision is the first hard decision because you make a choice in infancy but based on how you think your child will feel about it many years later. But that's true of a lot of parenting decisions, and not all of them are going to be ones with which we have practical experience (e.g. my elder daughter was born with a birthmark covering her left eye and we had to decide on whether to have laser surgery to remove it). And some where we do have practical experience it can get in the way of good decisions (e.g. parents who were spanked and can't think farther than "My parents did that to me and I turned out okay" don't make thoughtful, careful decisions about discipline). I think it’s good for parents to consider this – and other parental decisions – carefully, but I also think that other than the specific situation of raising a boy within a Jewish community, it’s unlikely that either decision will be problematic for a son. The vast majority of men are perfectly satisfied with their circumcision status, whatever it is.
Circumcision in Fanfic
Online fandom is very much dominated by USAmerican influence, and in “adult” fanfic and fan art, men are probably portrayed as circumcised more often than is realistic, because it’s what the authors are familiar with. I think – as with other cultural issues – authors ought to research whether or not circumcision is a likely practice among men in their fandoms. They may also need to do research to realistically write sex that includes foreskins if they have not experienced that themselves. However, I think writers (particularly slash writers) ought to be researching sex that they have not experienced to write it credibly, anyway.
In deciding whether or not a character in my slash is circumcised, I consider primarily
- his cultural background
- when he was born
- where he was born
and make a determination accordingly. So, for example, Adam is of course circumcised but Jean-Paul is not. When they are first getting to know each other and Adam is a bit bowled over by falling in love with a mutant he says to Jean-Paul that he just can’t get used to the idea that he’s involved with someone who can fly. And adds, “Where I come from, even the skiing is exotic enough. Not to mention the foreskin.” Later on, when they agree to raise their son Jewish, Wendy asks Jean-Paul if he’s going to convert and he says he wouldn’t even consider it because “it would involve surgery that just isn’t going to happen.”
My one anomalous penis :-) is Logan's. I write him as circumcised, in spite of the fact that he was born in the nineteenth century, when the practice was not common at all. I also think he had to have been circumcised as a baby or child, since his healing factor would have ensured that the foreskin would have grown back if he’d had the procedure after he came into his powers. So it’s a bit of a mystery why he’s circumcised.
At some point I will deal with that mystery in my fiction. Scott will ask him why he's circumcised. He'll say "I don't know, why are you?" To which Scott will respond, "Because I was born in 1978 in Indiana. My parents would have been making an unconventional choice not to, and they never made unconventional choices." And then they'll think about how it could be that Logan has no foreskin. Clearly it was done before he came into his powers, but why? His amnesia still prevents him from remembering anything of his childhood, so he only knows that as long as he can remember he has been without a foreskin.