Actor Russell Crowe railed against circumcision in a profanity-laced tweet last week, calling the ancient and still-popular practice “barbarism.” This month, Colorado becomes the 18th state (California among them) to stop funding circumcision with Medicaid. And in November, San Francisco residents will decide whether to outlaw the procedure outright when they vote on the “Male Genital Mutilation” bill.
Once the norm in the United States, the practice of slicing off a boy’s foreskin shortly after birth has become less common, and more controversial, in recent years. On the one hand are Jews and Muslims with religious and cultural reasons for making the cut, and statisticians convinced the practice reduces the likelihood of urinary tract infections and HIV. On the other are outraged “intactivists” stumping for “genital integrity,” arguing that lopping off the penile hood violates infants’ bodies, reduces sexual sensitivity, and was only popularized in this Puritanical nation as a (clearly futile) means of discouraging masturbation among naughty boys.
Outside the United States, circumcision is prevalent only in Muslim nations, Southeast Asia, Israel, and South Korea. It’s rare in Europe, Latin America, and most of Asia.
While the nation’s circumcision rate has been declining for years (only 15 percent of American boys were intact in 1965; almost half are today), the numbers vary wildly from region to region. In 2006, the circumcision rate among boys in the North Central states was 78 percent. In the South: 55 percent. In the wild, um, unabridged West? Less than 34.
Peter Hasler, medical director of Santa Barbara County’s Primary Care Family Health Division, says few local pediatricians even provide the service these days. “I think it’s now just a norm to be either way,” he says. What accounts for the lower rates on this side of the country? He guesses it’s the Left Coast’s tradition of questioning the status quo (yeah, San Fran, we’re talking to you), and also our large Latino population, for whom circumcision isn’t a cultural norm.
Personally, I feel about circumcision the way I feel about piercing babies’ ears; I’ve never understood the instinct, and I didn’t do it to my kids, but neither am I inclined to pronounce it “wrong.”
My husband’s reasons for not circumcising our sons were principled: It’s weird, perhaps even cruel, to amputate part of a perfect and perfectly functioning human being—at least tonsils, wisdom teeth, and gall bladders have the opportunity to malfunction before we rip ’em out.
My reasons were lazy: Between diaper rashes, cracked nipples, and my own been-through-the-wringer netherparts, I would have enough raw regions and tender terrain to contend with after delivery. A tiny, post-surgical penis was simply more than I was willing to manage.
I had a few concerns, though: Would our sons be mocked for looking different than other boys? And how would they feel about looking different than their traditionally trimmed father?
My husband laughed at this notion. Laughed. Out loud. At a pregnant woman. Boys’ genitals, he explained, don’t look anything like their fathers’ until they’re old enough that they no longer see each other naked anyway.
My concerns about peer mockery turned out to be foolish, too—at least in freewheelin’, foreskin-favorin’, “mutilation”-legislatin’ California, where a generational genital shift is clearly taking place. My 8th grader told me the subject of circumcision came up among his pals over lunch (don’t ask; I didn’t). One after another, each boy casually proclaimed, while chomping Sun Chips and cafeteria cookies, that he was not circumcised.
“I’m not.” “Not me.” “Nope.” “Me neither.” Then, after a few seconds of silence, several of them announced in unison: “But my dad is!”