Cutting comments: the foreskin debate

News  Sunday Times (London). Sunday, 4 November 2007.

Simon Mills

Some say it’s barbaric, others a matter of hygiene. But with babies dying from circumcision, should it continue? Our correspondent hears from the intactivists

The actor Alan Cumming gets quite a reaction when he drops his trousers. Especially in America. Why? His penis is uncircumcised. He is genitally intact, a cavalier rather than a roundhead. His johnson wears an opera cape, as they say in US gay circles. This gives him something akin to freak status in the hygiene-obsessed States, where 70% of the mature male population have been circumcised.

Cumming, an endearingly puckish type, is really rather proud of his foreskin. During interviews in America, I have made a point of talking about it, he says. I think it’s insane that an entire nation is ignorant about a part of their body they have lost. When I take my pants off in America, people gasp, which is kind of nice, until I realise that they’re actually staring at my penis as if it’s some kind of National Geographic photo come to life. Nobody has a foreskin there. They’re, like, ‘Wow! What do you do with that? How does it work?’

Why is it that so many American men are circumcised? Well, it seems the Brits are responsible. Queen Victoria, who, along with much of the British aristocracy, believed that the English descended from one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, chose to have her sons circumcised. It became fashionable, and the procedure travelled to America. It was there that John Harvey Kellogg campaigned for circumcision as a cure for masturbation, which was, in his opinion, a cause of psychological problems. And ever since (in the 1950s, it is estimated, 90% of American boys were snipped), middle-class Americans have grown up believing that foreskins are filthy, wholly unnecessary fleshy adjuncts that harbour disease and make a sensitive teenage boy something of a fairground attraction in the communal-shower environment.

That’s why the uncut likes of Nick Nolte, Leonardo DiCaprio, Willem Dafoe, Emilio Estevez, Nicolas Cage and Keanu Reeves, all born during the barbaric period of the last millennium, are listed on pro-foreskin websites as if they were all some kind of heroic locker-room maverick.

Blame Cumming and the unlikely figure of Ben Affleck, if you like, but the circumcision debate has suddenly caught the attention of a new breed of quietly militant pro-choicers and so-called intactivists who are putting foreskins to the fore again and unleashing some appropriately cutting comments from the high-minded and famous.

Men with foreskins squirm and buttock-clench comedically when the subject is broached, while men who were cut as babies can’t see what all the fuss is about. Foreskins are said to heighten sexual pleasure but harbour disease. Circumcised men are said to suffer from, wait for it, significant penile sensory deficit, although - get this - a Men’s Health magazine survey in 2000 suggested that uncircumcised men lasted an average of four minutes longer during sex than their circumcised peers.

Pressure groups such as Brothers United for Future Foreskins (Buff) and Uncircumcising Information and Resources Center (Uncirc), and even  External link Jews Against Circumcision, fronted by Rabbi Moses Maimonides, do their best to break with tradition and prevent unnecessary cuts in the United States, while Cumming and the art critic Brian Sewell are both spokesmen for the British branch of the  External link National Organization of Restoring Men (Norm, originally known as Recover a Penis, or Recap), founded in 1989 for men hoping to restore their foreskins. Foreskin restoration? It can be done. Sort of.

Medical techniques are not sufficiently advanced to give back the erogenous tissue and nerves amputated at circumcision, but careful stretching can create a more natural-looking penis, and softening the epithelium (or outer tissue) of the glans (or tip) can return the penis to a much higher level of sensitivity. The pro-choicers feel that they are on a roll right now. Non-medical circumcision for children is now illegal in Sweden. The numbers of circumcision procedures in the UK are slowly declining and, after peaking in the 1930s, when 35% of British boys were snipped, fell to a mere 6.5% in the 1980s. Today, only 12,200 circumcisions are performed in the UK annually. Most of them go ahead without a hitch. A few end in tragedy.

The inquest into the death of Amitai Moshe, who was just seven days old when he stopped breathing after being circumcised at a synagogue in north London last February - he died a week later from a heart attack - is to be held tomorrow at Hornsey coroner’s court. No causal link has been established between the circumcision and the baby being taken ill. There is no indication that this was anything other than a tragic juxtaposition of two events, a spokesman for the synagogue said after the child’s death. The mohel [appointed circumciser] is a registered member of the  External link Initiation Society, which has been licensing and training practitioners of the procedure for more than 200 years. It is a well-established and well-regulated practice.

Anti-circumcision horror stories such as this have served only to rally the pro-choice, intactivist PR machine. As well as Affleck, who has made it known that he is against routine infant circumcision, celebrity supporters include Colin Farrell. Affleck, it should be noted, was apparently circumcised in adulthood, after suffering injury during the filming of a superhero movie; a doctor decided that removing his foreskin would be easier than repairing it. Which has to hurt.

But this isn’t just about cautiously radical telegenic celebrities or grown men checking one another out at the urinals or intact males doing histrionic winces and leg-crosses at the thought of the dreaded bris. For parents, there’s a basic guilt issue at play, too. In his eloquently incensed invective against religion, God Is Not Great, the firebrand polemicist Christopher Hitchens rails against parents who have their boys circumcised.

As to immoral practice, he writes, it is hard to imagine anything more grotesque than the mutilation of an infant’s genitalia. He argues that circumcision weakens the faculty of sexual excitement and diminishes its pleasure, pointing out the significance of the operation being performed on babies rather than those who have reached the age of reason. (One study found that 92% of male infants subject to circumcision were not given anaesthetic during the procedure.)

Unconcerned that militant Jewish factions rancorously dismiss the intactivist lobby as wholly antisemitic, Hitchens states that, as recently as 2005, a mohel in New York City quite legally performed a ritual known as metzitzah (taking a mouthful of wine and then sucking the blood from the circumcision wound) on newborn babies, giving genital herpes to several small boys and causing the death of at least two.

And what happens to all those lopped-off foreskins? Believe it or not, there is a handsome profit to be made from harvested bits of young penis. The  External link Norm UK website features the following item: Since the 1980s, private hospitals have been involved in the business of supplying discarded foreskins to private bio-research laboratories and pharmaceutical companies, who require human flesh as raw research material. Human foreskins are in great demand for commercial enterprises, and the marketing of purloined baby foreskins is a multimillion-dollar-a-year industry.

There is even an expensive face cream, SkinMedica, on the market, made from a formula grown from young foreskins. Yes. Really.

There’s a sinister side to all this, Cumming says. It’s tradition, control and pleasure-removing masquerading as a hygiene thing. What it comes down to is mass genital mutilation. It’s barbaric. I don’t mean to offend anyone, but I’ve heard about men who can’t orgasm for ages because they have no sensation. People in America are impeded, because they don’t feel, you know?

There have been a number of studies conducted to find out whether male circumcision reduces the risk of acquiring sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/Aids. While some of them show it may reduce the risk, they are not entirely conclusive, and using a condom still offers the best protection.

For Cumming, it’s more of an emotive issue. As far as I am concerned, the default-setting arguments about hygiene just don’t stand up, he says. The sanitation issue, especially, always comes up when I am in America. But you know what? I am very clean. I shower frequently.

I am very proud of my foreskin. I believe it’s there for a purpose. And I just want people to stop and think for a second before they decide to get a big bit of their newborn son’s cock cutoff.


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