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Circumcision: It was good enough for Jesus

'Intactivists' are trying to get the practice outlawed in the U.S. and elsewhere. But how bad can it be?

August 12, 2012|By Charlotte Allen
  • A baby is seen in San Francisco during his bris, a Jewish circumcision ceremony. By the mid-1960s, 90% of male U.S. babies had their foreskins removed within days of birth.
A baby is seen in San Francisco during his bris, a Jewish circumcision ceremony.… (Noah Berger / Associated…)

The "intactivists" — anti-circumcision people who are trying to get the practice outlawed in the U.S. and elsewhere — claim that cutting off an infant's foreskin reduces his capacity for sexual pleasure as an adult. Whenever I hear that, I always say, "Huh?" That's because I'm a member of the circumcision generation.

During the middle part of the last century, hospital births, and hence the circumcision of baby boys, became nearly universal in the U.S. By the mid-1960s, 90% of male U.S. babies, Gentile and Jewish alike, had their foreskins removed within days of birth.

And in case you're not making the connection, this is also the generation that brought you the Summer of Love. It was circumcised men and the women (or men) who loved them who were the Sexual Revolution, and they weren't complaining about an inability to feel pleasure.

Intactivism, a movement of the last 20 years or so, got a boost recently when a German judge ruled that non-therapeutic circumcision of children amounted to "bodily harm" and must henceforth be outlawed. German hospitals stopped performing circumcisions, and several Swiss hospitals followed suit. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, embarrassed that the decision had been handed down in Germany, where only 120,000 Jews currently live in contrast to the millions who lived there before the Holocaust, vowed to restore protection for religious circumcision.

Meanwhile, the intactivists have been busy in the U.S. Last year they qualified a measure for the ballot in San Francisco that would have made it a crime punishable by a year in jail or a $1,000 fine to circumcise any male under age 18. Activists in Santa Monica tried to introduce a similar law.

Their case wasn't helped by the circulation of an anti-circumcision comic book featuring a blond and hyper-Aryan "Foreskin Man" rescuing a baby from a hook-nosed, side-curled caricature of a mohel that could have come straight out of Der Stürmer. And eventually, a judge ruled that only the state of California, not its localities, had the power to enact health laws. Undaunted, the intactivists continue to press their "Bill to End Male Genital Mutilation in the U.S." in state legislatures and theU.S. Congress.

Circumcision is integral to Jewish identity. In Genesis, God commands Abraham to circumcise himself and to have his male offspring circumcised when they are 8 days old. Circumcision of 8-day-old boys has thus been a Jewish tradition for as long as there have been Jews.

Muslims, who also trace themselves to Abraham, similarly circumcise their male children, although often at a later age. The Gospel of Luke reports that Jesus was circumcised "after eight days had passed." As a Christian, I've always thought: If circumcision was good enough for Jesus, how bad can it be?

The intactivists like to paint circumcision in lurid colors. The phrase they use to describe it — "male genital mutilation" — evokes the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation. But the two have almost nothing in common. Female genital mutilation is invasive and ghastly, and results in long-term health risks for women subjected to it, not to mention the diminution or elimination of the ability to feel sexual pleasure. Male circumcision involves snipping off about three-eighths of an inch of skin. It hurts, briefly, but so do the shots that babies routinely receive. And according to the World Health Organization, it "reduces the risk of heterosexually acquired HIV infection in men by approximately 60%."

The notion that circumcision reduces a man's sexual sensitivity has little basis in fact. Two medical studies, in 2003 and 2007 — one presented to the American Urological Society and the other published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine — found that circumcised and uncircumcised men experienced the same levels of response to touch and pain during sexual arousal. A press release issued by the 2007 study's chief researcher, at McGill University in Montreal, stated: "This study suggests that preconceptions of penile sensory differences between circumcised and uncircumcised men may be unfounded."

Many intactivists seem to be circumcised men dissatisfied with their sex lives and obsessed with their penises — and with their parents as objects of blame. In an interview with the Jewish online magazine Heeb, Matthew Hess, the creator of "Foreskin Man" and circumcised at birth, described his efforts at "restoring" his own foreskin by stretching out the remaining skin, a common intactivist activity, according to Hess.

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