By Raul Martinez
On August 20, 2012, health economists with the John Hopkins University School of Medicine published a study titled “Costs and Effectiveness of Neonatal Male Circumcision.” In this study they estimated an increase in health care costs (mostly related to STDs) if circumcision rates in the United States continue their current trend and eventually drop to ten percent – the average in many European countries.
On August 27, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) published a revised position on neonatal male circumcision where they stated that the health benefits outweigh the risks, but the benefits are not great enough to recommend universal newborn circumcision. They did not forget to mention that the procedure should be covered by insurance.
Organizations that oppose neonatal male circumcision were quick to respond (cue dueling banjos). Some accused the AAP of being biased and motivated by monetary gain. Others accused opponents (aka “intactivists”) of being blinded by emotion–their arguments heavy on zeal but light on credible evidence.
I have been opposed to routine neonatal circumcision (male and female) for a long time but I am not as interested in the debate as I once was (even though I’m still appalled by how popular it is in this country to cut a chunk of flesh from a baby’s wiener). Maybe it’s the current downward trend that makes me relax with the conviction that in a few more decades, for prophylaxis, circumcisions will be as common as tonsillectomies. For both, the same argument applies: if it ain’t broke, why fix it?
I did, however, decide to share my views with you because of a comment that I read on Facebook (darn you social network – so full of opinions other than my own!). A friend of mine said that he didn’t think much of an evolutionary argument could be made for the foreskin (aka “the prepuce”), and he speculated that the foreskin was useless and vestigial. His comment prompted me to respond. I know that anecdotal evidence does not carry a lot of weight but just because it’s not scientific does not mean that it’s not worth sharing, am I right?
DISCLAIMER: The following includes highly graphic sexual descriptions. (I wonder if this disclaimer will serve to dissuade or persuade more readers?)
I should probably start with something called “the gliding mechanism.” Do me a favor: gently put your finger on your eyelid and move it slightly back and forth over the corner of your eye. It is not exactly the same as the gliding mechanism of the intact penis, but it’s close enough for you to understand how it works. It is through the gliding mechanism that the uncircumcised adult male can pull back the skin of his penis, fully retracting the prepuce and exposing the glans or head of the penis. On average, you will retract your foreskin once every time you wash, once every time you urinate and at least 537 times every time you masturbate.
So, what is the foreskin for? The answer is simple: SEX!
Turns out that the penis is a sex toy—a sex toy that is frequently used for urination, occasionally used for procreation, and enthusiastically used for entertainment. The foreskin happens to be a very important part of this magnificent toy.
During foreplay or any period of sexual arousal, human genitals produce a natural lubricant which prepares the genitals for intercourse. In the male this is known as pre-ejaculatory fluid or Cowper’s fluid, named after anatomist William Cowper who in the 17th century discovered the bulbourethral glands which produce this fluid.
This is a fancy way to say that when we’re horny, we get wet.
Let’s imagine for a moment that you are an uncircumcised male and you start making out with your girlfriend … or boyfriend … or wife … or pet iguana … whatever floats your boat. When your glands start producing the pre-ejaculatory fluid, the head of your penis is encased by the foreskin. The foreskin helps you hold this fluid where it’s supposed to be: coating the surface of your glans. Even with your clothes on, not a drop is wasted on your underwear because even with a full erection the head of your penis may remain covered by the foreskin. It is also because of the foreskin that the size and shape of your erection will not be dictated by how tight your skin can get. This is what we call “allowing your erection to be all that it can be.”
During intercourse, you want the head of the penis to be uncovered. Of course! The glans is the most sensitive part of your penis so you want it uncovered to ensure maximum stimulation. When do you uncover it? Well, you can do it any time you like but I recommend waiting until the moment of penetration. Because, if you keep the head covered until then, the head of your penis can go straight from its safe, comfortable and protective cocoon straight into the wonderfully welcoming warmth of the vagina, without ever seeing the light of day! As the penis enters, the foreskin is slowly pushed back by the labia of the vagina and all the lubrication that by now has been accumulating for a while is spread perfectly by the foreskin.
This sensation … ah … how to explain it? This sensation is like hugging a warm puppy. It’s like going from warm butter into I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. It’s like unicorns and rainbows sprinkled with chocolate chips and a whole bunch of AWESOME!
Unfortunately, if you are circumcised, you will have to take my word for this.
Does this make sense? That this useless piece of skin could actually have a purpose? That it evolved because it performs a function that is beneficial in some way? (Maybe help us save on hand lotion?)
Now do me a favor and with your tongue feel the inside of your mouth. Feels nice, eh? Warm and moist. Just like the head of the uncircumcised penis. And it makes sense because that is the nature of mucosal tissue. The glans is normally an internal organ protected by the mucosal membrane of the foreskin. Without the foreskin, the glans is constantly exposed to the elements: wind, dust, the sun … lasers … but mostly, your underwear. The skin of the circumcised glans dries out and due to the constant contact of the skin against your knickers, the head of your penis develops extra layers of skin through a process called keratinization. Keratin is an extremely strong protein which is a major component in skin, hair, nails, and teeth. Keratin is there to protect us. If our skin suffers too much constant friction and/or pressure, this causes keratin to proliferate with the formation of protective calluses. These are useful for athletes or if you play the guitar—you’ll want calluses on your fingertips but YOU DON’T WANT THEM ON YOUR PENIS! I am not going to exaggerate and tell you that your glans will end up looking like the heel of your foot but the skin of your glans will definitely cease to be the mucosal tissue that it was meant to be. It is reasonable to deduce that, due to the condition of the skin, there is some difference between the sexual experience of the circumcised and the uncircumcised male.
One last thing: if anyone ever tells you that the foreskin itself doesn’t feel a lot, that this “useless piece of skin” is not that sensitive anyway, I can assure you that this person has never had his foreskin properly stimulated. And if he is circumcised, he never will.
If you don’t agree with anything I have said, and you still believe that the foreskin is vestigial and that circumcision is the coolest invention since sliced … prepuce, I will support and defend your right to have a circumcision—heck, hand me the scissors and I will help you!
If you are an adult male, you can tie your penis in a knot, shove it down a meat grinder, and I will support you in your decision because it is your own body and you should be allowed to do whatever you want with it … but leave your child alone. Give your baby boy a chance to grow up, do his own research and make his own decisions. Even if circumcision is the coolest thing, I don’t think that having to wait 18 years to get one is such a bad idea. Just like a tattoo, a piercing or anything else that will permanently alter our body, I believe that every man deserves the right to make that decision.
As a humanist, I feel compelled to defend our basic human right of self-determination as it pertains to body integrity.
Raul Martinez is a member of the Board of Directors of the American Humanist Association. He lives in Las Vegas, Nevada.