1 October 2013

You can't be sex-positive and pro-circumcision

I'm sure that for many people that's a controversial title - and for the record I'm talking here in reference to infant circumcision exclusively - but this is something I've been contemplating writing about for a while, and I've decided that sometimes it takes a little controversy to get people thinking about things. While the circumcision debate has been gone over countless times already I thought I'd look at it from a slightly different angle for a change, and also consider the wider subject of non-consensual genital modification in general, whether it be of boys, girls, or intersex children.

Sex positivity is one of those terms which gets thrown around quite a lot at the moment because it's the en vogue thing and everyone wants to think of themselves as being sex-positive, even while indulging some casual misogyny, slut shaming, and body shaming. But what is sex-positivity exactly, and how does it relate to this topic that I've chosen?

Now before I launch into this I just want to preface it by saying that I'm a big fan of circumcised penises, because I'm a fan of penises in general; whether they be big or small, intact or cut, I enjoy them, so this isn't going to be another one of those pointless pieces where someone on the Internet tries to argue that one is better than the other. If someone were to come up to me tomorrow and tell me that they've decided to get themselves circumcised then I'd be behind them 100% because I respect anyone's choice as a grown man without judgement.

Circumcision is a bit of a funny topic because in the Western World it's nearly exclusively an American phenomenon, and the fact that it's been going on there for 100 years or so colours attitudes and normalises the practice. In Europe, where it's not something that's done without medical necessity, people are frequently shocked about how widespread it is and don't really understand why it's done at all. It's interesting to see the different cultural attitudes to the subject, and being from the UK I definitely fall into the latter camp, so that's the perspective that I carry with me even before starting on this.

So let's begin by asking "what exactly is sex positivity?" and after that we can move on to addressing how that definition relates to the practice of infant circumcision. I think that sex-positivity has three main components:
  1. Sex positivity is about celebrating sexuality in whatever form it takes, and not judging people on their bodies whatever the shape, size, disability, etc.
  2. Sex positivity is about respecting people's choices about how they choose to experience sex, and not trying to impose your own will on them.
  3. Sex positivity is about empowering people to have the best and most pleasurable sex that they can.
Now let's look at each one of these individually and in more detail, and how they relate to the topic:

Sex positivity is about celebrating sexuality in whatever form it takes, and not judging people on their bodies whatever the shape, size, disability, etc.
  • Women often find themselves under a lot of pressure sexually, they're constantly being told that they're not good enough because of something to do with their bodies: they mustn't have hair anywhere, their breasts are too small or too large, their labia are too long, they're too fat to have sex, and of course there are a whole slew of products marketed at disinfecting their vaginas because society keeps telling them that they're dirty and have unpleasant smells. When you take a baby boy and circumcise him you're pretty much telling him the exact same thing, that he's not perfect the way he is, that a part of his body is ugly, that it's unclean, and that it was necessary to surgically modify him in order to make him acceptable, to make him look attractive, to make his genitals no longer 'dirty.' It's also patronising to suggest that a man can't keep himself clean; the foreskin shouldn't even be retracted until after the age of 5, and even then it only needs a quick rinse to keep it fresh. To me all of this sends a very damaging message, and as much as one can learn to tune out the adverts for feminine hygiene products, circumcision leaves a very real and lasting physical scar along with the mental implications.

Sex positivity is about respecting people's choices about how they choose to experience sex, and not trying to impose your own will on them.
  • When you take a child who's only days old and amputate a healthy part of his penis, you're taking away a fundamental choice that he should have about his own body, and forever changing the way in which he will experience all forms of sexuality. Every human being on the planet only gets one brief life to live, and in a single moment at the very beginning you're depriving him of an experience that he'll never be able to get back for so long as he lives: the experience of having his whole body and using it all to its fullest potential during sex. Instead what is essentially his first sexual experience at that tender age is one of pain and loss, and when he grows up every single sexual experience he has thereafter will not be one which is entirely his own, but one which is experienced in accordance with the will of the person who imposed a permanent change upon his body. Choice is eliminated and a single path is engraved in stone. Another important point about choice is how circumcision affects boys who grow up with gender dysphoria; not everybody born with a male body will identify as male, and some people even choose to alter their body surgically to reflect how they feel inside. One of the common methods used in sex reassignment surgery involves inverting the skin of the penis and using it to build a new vagina, and with a circumcised penis there's simply less skin, resulting in a shorter vagina, so it can have repercussions and restrict choices far beyond what you might imagine.

Sex positivity is about empowering people to have the best and most pleasurable sex that they can.
  • One of things we know about the foreskin is that it's a highly-erogenous zone; it feels good when it's touched and played with, and stimulated in any manner. It's an oft-cited fact that the clitoris has twice as many sexually-sensitive nerve endings as the glans of the penis, despite both sexes being identical at the fetal stage, and that's because the rest of those nerve endings are in the foreskin. Removing the foreskin removes a significant and fundamental part of a man's sexuality, because nerve endings cannot be stimulated when they're no longer there. The other important fact to remember about the foreskin is that the glans penis is intended to be an internal body part, and it's the foreskin that maintains that. If we think about the clitoris again, protected by its own prepuce (the clitoral hood), and the folds of the labia, it's very much internal, and very sensitive. When you remove the foreskin the most sensitive part of the penis is externalised, suddenly no longer protected and forced to rub against clothing constantly. I'm sure that any woman would equally find constant abrasion of her clitoris uncomfortable, so the body is forced to adapt. The glans of the penis, which is ordinarily a delicate mucous membrane, develops a thick layer of keratin over the surface to protect it. Keratin is the substance which hair and fingernails are made from, so essentially the head of the penis becomes callused and this dulls any sensory input to make its exposure more bearable (it also explains the difference in appearance between the shiny glans of an intact penis, and the dryer-looking circumcised one.) One other fact about the foreskin is that its gliding action makes for more comfortable sexual experiences. For solo play the foreskin is like an inbuilt masturbation aid and eliminates the need to use lube, and during intercourse it helps to reduce friction, again reducing the likelihood that lube will be needed, or that either party will feel sore afterwards. These are just three ways in which removing the foreskin will have a degree of negative impact on a man's ability to enjoy sex.

For these reasons I believe that if you choose to circumcise a child then you lose the right to use the label of sex-positive for yourself, because non-therapeutic and non-consensual circumcision is anything but a sex-positive act. It sends a negative message to male children about their bodies instead of celebrating the beauty of them in their natural state, it takes a choice away from a man at an age when he has no way to protect himself, and it removes something which exists for the benefit of sexual pleasure, leaving behind something diminished. These are just the facts about circumcision, but if you want a bigger picture of the subject then you need only read up about John Harvey Kellogg, the man largely responsible for introducing circumcision to America, and his views were anything but sex-positive.

Now where it becomes a difficult issue is when we start asking why so many parents in America still do this, because I don't for a second believe that people go into it with bad intentions, and my purpose isn't to attack parents who made that mistake once already. A lot of it is simply ignorance; it's ingrained in the culture as the done thing, so people go along with it without question. Some of it is a little stupid though, like a father's desire for a child to look like him, but this can be explained more sympathetically if we look at look at the psychological reasoning behind it. A circumcised man may not be entirely at peace with what happened to him, but he reassures himself that his parents would only have done it if it's better to be that way. He knows that he'd do no harm to his own child, so if he circumcises his son on the belief that it's better then he justifies his own circumcision. If he doesn't circumcise his own son then he brings into question whether the procedure is fundamentally good, and then he's confronted with the thought that his own parents may have damaged him as a child, and that can't be easy to deal with. 

The other reason of course that parents may decide to do it is because they've been mislead by scientific studies which allege that it's beneficial, scientific studies which interestingly enough only seem to carry weight in America where doctors charge parents hundreds of dollars for the procedure, and not anywhere in Europe where healthcare is state-funded and heavily scrutinised to ensure the best use of the money. Many of these studies have been debunked as being bad science, but I won't recount them here in this already-lengthy post as there are better sources which can easily be found on the Internet. One interesting study is the one about HIV infection, which claims that circumcised men are less likely to catch the disease. This has been shown to be bad science because the two test groups of men, the ones to be circumcised and the ones to be left intact, were both being monitored from the same start point to the same end point, but the circumcised group was unable to have sex for the first 6 weeks of the study as they were healing from surgery. This gave the intact group a 6 week head start in which to have sex, giving them a greater chance of encountering a partner with HIV and contracting it from them. It also doesn't explain why America which has the highest circumcision rate in the West also has the highest HIV infection in the West, compared to an intact Europe. 

Interestingly another point is that things which circumcision is supposed to prevent, such as UTIs are actually incredibly rare, but complications from circumcision are quite common. Something like 3 out of 100 boys who aren't circumcised will develop a UTI, but 16 out of 100 circumcised boys will develop meatal stenosis as a direct result of the procedure. So in effect you're cutting off 100 healthy functioning foreskins, and causing 16 problems which need to be addressed by further surgery, just to prevent 3 occurrences of a condition which could have been treated by antibiotics. This doesn't even take into account of the other circumcision complications such as skin bridges, excessive skin removal, bleeding, accidental glans amputation, penile necrosis, and even death. By comparison most conditions which arise in connection to the foreskin, such as phimosis, can be treated non-surgically through the use of steroid creams and gentle stretching.

I'm starting to drift away from the main point here, and to try to get back to it, as sex-positive people we shouldn't be performing unnecessary genital surgery on unconsenting children. We banned it on girls, we're starting to come around to the idea that it's better to let intersex children decide for themselves what gender they identify with and then get surgery if they wish, and we need to start treating boys in the same way. As sex-positive people we should be empowering people with their sexuality, leaving them with their whole bodies and encouraging them to explore them to the fullest, and giving them the ability to make their own choices, and the resources to ensure that they're good choices.

Circumcision can be an emotive issue, and many parents feel strongly that they have a right to make these sort of decisions, and will argue that no one should tell them what to do or try to take away that right, but it's not about taking away any right that a parent has, it's about protecting the right that a child should have. There is a saying "your rights end where my body begins." We trust parents to look out for the best interests of children, but children are not property to be done with as a parent pleases, so sometimes someone needs to take a stand for them. When something is irreversible, not medically warranted, and conveys no immediate benefits, then the right thing can only be not to do it, and to allow the person who owns the body to come to their own decision when they're old enough.

Congratulations if you got to the end of this; I could probably write even more if I allowed myself to go off on a series of tangents, but I've endeavoured to stick to the main point, and I hope that I've conveyed myself in a convincing way. My only hope is that maybe something I've said will make someone think about the issue, and if you consider yourself to be sex-positive then stay true to that and don't circumcise. Feel free to comment if you agree, or if you don't, but please be civil.

Oh, and one final point to all the men out there, be happy with your penis whatever you may have, they're all wonderful! I haven't yet met one that I didn't like.

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