On October 11, 2021, the New Yorker magazine published an essay by popular writer Gary Shteyngart, recounting how being circumcised when he was seven years old resulted in decades of misery and complications. On November 1, the magazine published three comments in response, mine, one from a rabbi, and one from a urologist. The post below is the follow-up letter I wrote to the urologist, Dr. Michael Mooreville.
Dear Dr. Mooreville:
I am writing about your letter to the New Yorker, which appeared after my own among the responses to Gary Shteyngart’s essay about his decades of suffering because of a botched circumcision. Thank you, in advance, for taking the time to read my comments below.
First, you suggest that Shteyngart’s problems occurred because he was circumcised too late, and then say that it’s easier (somehow) for a physician to know how much foreskin to remove from a baby than from an older male. My decades of working to end unconsented-to, medically unnecessary circumcision suggest this is not true. Men who have spoken or written to me, or who have spoken out publicly about their circumcision-induced penile deformities, overwhelmingly were circumcised as newborns by doctors in American hospitals. Some of them have undergone one or more additional surgeries to correct cosmetic or functional problems; others, out of parental ignorance or shame, instead have learned to live with the harm just as Shteyngart did. In none of these cases did any of these surgeries result in a better, healthier penis than the penises of men who were fortunate enough to have grown up with their natural, unaltered genitalia. As a practicing American urologist, your caseload is likely similar to that of other urologists who have told me that more than one-quarter of their medical practice involves addressing circumcision-related damage, including meatal stenosis (which occurs nearly exclusively in circumcised males), skin bridges (such as Shteyngart’s), and degloved penile shafts.
Second, I am curious about your comment that amputating a baby’s foreskin will allow his penis to “grow into a fully mature look…” (emphasis mine). Are you suggesting that the penises of men with foreskins (comprising around 75% of the world’s males) are somehow “immature”; this makes no sense. How can a penis shorn of its natural protective covering, with its nerves, muscles and blood supply be superior to the natural, unaltered penis that evolved over hundreds of thousands of years? Frankly, I’m astonished that the New Yorker’s rigorous fact-checking protocol didn’t eliminate this nonsensical statement from your letter.
Finally, I wonder if there are other healthy body parts you would suggest removing from babies or children because they “can be the source of multiple (?) medical problems in older men” (or women). The appendix (1.1 cases of appendicitis per 1000)? Teeth (prone to infection-causing decay)? Breasts (1 case per 1000 of breast cancer among American women aged 40, increasing over time), while the rate of penile cancer (which occurs in both intact and circumcised men) in the United States is 1 per 100,000. I might add here that genital hygiene is not complicated. If a boy can learn to become a teacher or chef or woodworker or tennis player or truck driver or urologist, he should be able to learn how to wash his penis.
I hope you will think about my questions, and dare to think in a more common-sense way about a forced bodily alteration that does nothing to make American boys or men healthier than their counterparts in countries where males retain the genitals they are born with.
Georganne Chapin, MPhil, JD
In a new “listicle” posted on its website this week, The Huffington Post outlines Eight Things America Gets Wrong About Sex. From health care to homophobia, the piece covers a range of historical and sociological reasons for America’s sexual dilemmas. It speaks to just about everything, except anatomy. And what’s one thing about American sexual organs that’s unique compared to much of the rest of the world? That’s right—routine male circumcision.
It astonishes me that in talking about sex, pretty much nobody mentions that most adult men in the United States today have been deprived of the most pleasurable, sensitive part of their penises. Without a foreskin and its sensory feedback, a man has difficulty controlling the timing of his orgasm. Also, because he’s missing the very organ that serves a gliding and lubricating function—and because he has a scar where his foreskin used to be—his penis is calloused and dry, when compared to that of an intact man; this creates a friction during intercourse and compromises the pleasure of both sexual partners.
Don’t believe me? Then explain the uniquely American proliferation of lubricants and masturbation creams, the existence of which many Europeans—most of whom are intact—find strange. CIRCUMserum is available for those who want to combat what it calls “Dullness Syndrome” by restoring “natural feeling for more intense sex”; Stroke 29, Wicked Cream, and others are designed to help circumcised men seeking solitary pleasure, who find the after-effects of circumcision to stand in the way of sensory pleasure.
Understanding the history of American circumcision helps to explain all of this. In fact, when doctors began promoting circumcision in the Victorian era (late 1800s), the purpose was precisely to reduce pleasure and cause pain–to dissuade men from the “immoral” and “unhygienic” practice of masturbation. Among those who pushed the circumcision solution to masturbation were American physicians Abraham Jacobi (the organizer of the American Pediatric Society) and J.J. Moses (then-head of the New York State Medical Society and president of the Association of American Physicians).
Just as Jewish physician and philosopher Maimonides had recognized 800 years earlier, these fathers of American medicalized circumcision believed that its physiological and psychological effects–aversive pain memory and loss of sensory tissue–would help to diminish sexual gratification, whether self-sought or through genital contact with a partner.
Should we be surprised, then, with findings such as those from Denmark, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology in 2011, showing that circumcised men have greater difficulty reaching orgasm, and that female partners of circumcised men are less likely to feel sexually satisfied?
What is astonishing is that American doctors persist in a practice designed to ruin the natural pleasures of sex, and then deny that it in fact does so. Meanwhile, the vast majority of adult American men are living with scars instead of foreskins. Half of the couple is missing a most basic, sensual part of his anatomy, and we wonder why Americans find sex less than fulfilling.
Ok, I’m a sucker for provocative headlines. So when I saw a link to a Huffington Post piece called “What French Women Can Teach Us About Sex and Love,” of course I opened it.
The author gives a few rather mundane observations about flirting, romance, the non-importance of marriage. But, for me, there was one rather interesting factoid mentioned – data from a 2008 study which found that 90 percent of French women over the age of 50 are sexually active, as compared to an estimated 60 percent of American women. Now, this didn’t just get my attention because I’m a woman over 50. It was interesting because it told me that more MEN over the age of 50 are also having sex in France than in the U.S., and made me ask why that might be?
The answer to that question must lie in one very important difference between the French and Americans. Largely, French men (and, of course, women) are having sex with intact genitals, while the vast majority of American adult men (probably around 80 million, to be specific) are missing the most sensitive part of their penis – the prepuce, or foreskin.
In addition to the intuitively obvious (that having a body part removed would mean you’re missing, at minimum, the sensation and function of that body part), scientific data is starting to show long-term sexual consequences from removing this highly sensitive tissue from boys’ genitals. Both circumcised men and their female partners report higher levels of sexual dysfunction, less sensitivity, and less satisfaction.
This should not surprise us. We have absolutely no problem accepting that women whose genitals have been mutilated will experience sexual pain or ongoing trauma, or that their male partners might find sex with such women to be less enjoyable. Yet many Americans continue to resist the clear parallels when it comes to male circumcision. This is particularly ironic, given that historically and across cultures one of the main rationales for cutting off a boy’s prepuce was to reduce his sexual pleasure, whether self-administered through masturbation (thought in Victorian times to be the root of all evil), or through intercourse. Moses Maimonides, the Jewish Medieval philosopher and physician, indeed cited the diminution of pleasure as an explicit benefit of male circumcision:
“The fact that circumcision weakens the faculty of sexual excitement and sometimes perhaps diminishes the pleasure is indubitable. For if at birth this member has been made to bleed and has had its covering taken away from it, it must indubitably be weakened.” – Moses Maimonides, Jewish Medieval philosopher and physician
So after reading about French romance, French foreplay, and who takes the initiative in French lovemaking, here’s my take:
The most important thing the French – men and women – can teach Americans about love and sex is to leave our children with the bodies that nature intended them to have.