I was circumcised and I want my foreskin back!
I was in kindergarten when I first realised parts of my penis were missing - and it felt horrible. My parents were forthright in explaining my body to me as a child; I have clear early memories of bathing with my Dad and I can’t recall a time when I didn’t know I was circumcised.
However, when I saw other preschool boys who had “the whole package” I was taken aback by the contrasts – their penises had interesting parts mine lacked, and the glans (head) of an intact penis looked glossier, smoother, moister and far healthier than mine.
Proponents of circumcision claim that those against it have been brainwashed by anti-circumcision websites, however my own discomfort originated in these early observations available to any child with even a passing interest in difference.
I first considered foreskin restoration in my late teens, but dismissed the notion as outlandish and impractical. Yet in my mid-twenties I re-examined the option, seeking to relieve my anguish with my perceived genital mutilation and my concerns that I had little sensitivity in my penis.
Fortunately, most of the circumcised population get by just fine, even believing that reduced sensitivity with age is natural, but anecdotally it is easier to bring an intact man to orgasm, as borne out last year in a Danish study which found difficulties reaching orgasm to be almost three times as common in circumcised men.
We often hear medical updates about male circumcision, but considerations of human rights remain inadequately explored. The psychological issues in this debate are the most fascinating and difficult to access, yet are essential for understanding the moral dimensions of what is most often presented as a purely medical question.
I am a mental health worker and it is clear that the most psychologically adaptive response a man can make to having a circumcised penis is to be pleased with it and not give it a second thought – after all, there is nothing that can be done and being anguished by something that can’t be changed is neither adaptive nor helpful.
I think a majority of men are successful in coping in this way, and it is common to see circumcised men contribute to this debate accordingly. However, the margins of every page of a widely read text on the history of circumcision and the techniques of foreskin restoration are filled with correspondence from men who feel harmed by circumcision, who resent having been robbed of their genital integrity and who want their foreskins back.
There are far more adult men trying to restore their foreskins than adult men lining up for cosmetic circumcision.
In childhood, my discomfort with having an altered penis was a minor issue and, as I became sexually aware in my early teens, I remember attempting to reframe my status into something positive by aiming to identify with a tribal preference for being in the circumcised faction.
But cognitive dissonance took its toll and this effort became untenable. I admitted to myself again the feelings I had been attempting to bury. I felt robbed and mutilated, even though I have what would be considered a physiologically uncomplicated, ‘successful’ circumcision. It was my psychological experience as the owner of a penis which determined my (dis)satisfaction.
In my mid-twenties, my GP supported my decision to restore my foreskin. He referred me to a specialist urologist who supervised and advised on my plan to manually stretch my remaining foreskin tissue back into the form of a full foreskin, just as many adults choose to stretch their ear lobes. Unfortunately, foreskin restoration options are limited – surgical procedures are generally unsatisfactory, especially insofar as they borrow skin from the scrotum or thigh.
Manual stretching does restore the mechanism of the foreskin and protect the glans of the penis, ameliorating its dried and callused condition, but does not restore the nerve endings of the foreskin, which originally included an extension of the sensitive frenulum to run around the aperture of the foreskin.
Restoration is an elaborate and demanding process, requiring a man to attach a device which gently grips the remaining foreskin on the shaft of the penis and apply tension by hanging weights or stretching an elastic strap from it to their thighs or shoulders.
This must be done for several hours most days for three to five years, the equipment must be hygienic and the process is often supplemented with limited use of a prescribed steroid cream to encourage the targeted cells to multiply. The whole process demands dedication, discipline and a constantly stable home life.
While it is an ordeal, online support communities of men restoring their foreskins number their members in the hundreds of thousands. Like me, they are sufficiently dissatisfied to pursue ultimately suboptimal remedies, even to these extents.
On the rare occasions the issue of surgically altering the genitals of future men makes it into the media, we are usually advised of the latest research showing circumcised men are very slightly less likely to contract various diseases that are either mild, vanishingly rare, or treatable like female genital conditions are – with antibiotics, creams or actual vaccines (rather than so-called “surgical vaccines” which prevent infection of a body part by removing it, denying the owner of that body any autonomy or responsibility for their own sexual outcomes).
We should protect our men from feelings of hurt and violation as we do our women.
My parents wanted the best for me, and like any parents did the best they could with the information they had. By sharing my experience, I hope to give voice to the countless unseen men who do complain about having their sexual anatomy altered needlessly when they were too young to hold an opinion, or mount opposition.
Parents must make many choices for their children – from their name, to what values to model for them. However, whether or not irreversibly cut off an erogenous, healthy part of their genitals is not a decision parents need to make during their custodial years caring for their offspring.
Circumcising children only closes off options, permanently. A few intact men do have dissatisfaction with not being circumcised, but the situation is not symmetrical: an intact man can always have the operation if that is what he wants, but once the foreskin is gone there is no way to adequately replace it.
Since penile preference is so subjective, it seems both logical and fair to leave the choice to the owner of the penis, thus empowering men and avoiding the lifelong pain that I and so many others have experienced. Childhood is a passing phase; circumcision lasts forever.
Elwyn will be amongst the guests on Insight in a discussion about male circumcision, tonight 8.30pm on SBS ONE.
Comments on this post will close at 8pm AEST.
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