Opinion: A cut above
This summer, the workshop I most wanted to attend was in Oxford at the Fifth International Symposium on Sex Mutilation. Who could resist the chance to join a discussion titled 'Our sexual organs - between God's hammer and the Devil's anvil'? Unfortunately I failed to get there and so missed a chance to witness the British launch of a new men's pro-choice movement.
The meeting had been convened by NoHarmm (National Organisation to Halt the Abuse and Routine Mutilation of Men) and Norm (National Organisation for Restoring Men); both US inspired, but now international campaigns to outlaw circumcision. Norm also advises men on how to repair their damaged organs. Its founder, Dr James Bigelow, runs UnCirc (the Uncircumcising Information and Resources Centre) and has written a book, The Joy of Uncircumcising. This explains - in more detail than you will care to know - how 'victims' of circum-cision can 'gently stretch' the remaining penile shaft skin to cover the glans. Apparently this restoration cannot give back the erotogenic nerves that Bigelow claims are concentrated in the foreskin, but it can recreate a more natural looking penis. This, the reconstructionists claim, is therapeutic in itself as it improves body image, boosts self-esteem, dispels feelings of victimisation, and empowers men to make choices about their own sexuality.
The men's pro-choice movement is, according to one self-proclaimed member, fighting for the freedom of men to keep the sexual organs nature intended them to have. Or as NoHarmm's Louisiana representative eloquently declared: 'The men's pro-choice movement empowers men to fight to protect the rights of future generations. By saying "no" to circum-cision, American men are saying "yes" to men's rights. We are wrenching the stainless steel scalpels from the hands of the circumcisors and beating them into silver spoons for our sons.'
The movement might be pushing at an open door. In Britain the popularity of the operation has declined sharply since the 1950s and now it is estimated that just three per cent of boys are circumcised. Even though about 30 000 procedures are carried out by the NHS each year, it is no longer routinely available. Even those who do not view it as a life-shattering mutilation tend to regard it as an unnecessary incon-venience for everybody concerned. Who wants to do anything to a newborn baby to make it even crankier than it already is?
In the USA, circumcision is still the norm but probably not for long. The health grounds that have been used to justify circumcision are generally accepted as spurious. Yes it may slightly reduce the risk of penile cancer, but that disease is very rare anyway. Female partners of the circumcised may have a lower rate of cervical cancer - but a close look at the studies suggests that other sociocultural factors may 'confound' the conclusions.
However, there are those who are as passionate in the defence of circumcision as those who oppose it. One careful and convincing review of the literature on the medical benefits of circumcision suddenly goes off the rails with a weird assertion that 'bacteria [under the foreskin] give off an offensive odour necessitating several showers a day by uncircumcised men, some of whom, together with their partners, find the stench so unpleasant that this smell has caused these men to seek a circumcision on this basis alone'. Concern is expressed for uncircumcised boys who are prone to trap their foreskins in their zippers. The results of an Australian survey are used to counter the claims by Norm and NoHarmm that circumcision undermines men's capacity to enjoy sex. The Aussie research found that circumcised men had sex more often and were more likely to reach a simul-taneous orgasm with their partner, and that women preferred the look (and taste) of a circumcised nob!
Personally I've never found the presence or absence of a foreskin to be much of an issue. Call me old-fashioned, but of all the things that matter about sex (and sorry chaps - size is one them), foreskins do not merit a nanosecond of consider-ation. And I find it difficult to see the growing concern about circumcision as anything other than the wailing of a bunch of insecure, self-obsessed guys in search of victim status. If they are socially and sexually inadequate it is not because they lack a foreskin, but because they lack an attitude to life which allows them to let themselves live it. But then this is easy for me to say; I don't have a foreskin. And I suppose in an age where a gold ring through the foreskin is regarded as high art in self-expression one can understand a man being peeved that he does not have that 'choice'.
I hope somebody told the guys at the Oxford conference that it is a sad day when men from all over the world gather to contemplate the end of their dicks - just marginally more interesting than contemplating their navels.
Reproduced from LM issue 113, September 1998