24 April 2006
Forsaking The Foreskin
by Paul A.
When I was three days old, still cranky and bewildered at having been ejected from the cozy womb that had been my home for the previous nine months, I was taken from my mother's side to a nearby operating room. I was given a piece of gauze soaked in a sugar solution to suck on while a cold metal device that looked like something out of the movie Dead Ringers was clamped over my penis. My foreskin was then stretched taut and unceremoniously sliced off. The whole operation took all of five minutes. At the time it was believed that newborns forgot pain as soon as it ceased, so no painkillers were necessary (the logic of this still astonishes me). I howled bloody murder of course, but hey, I was baby and that's what babies do. I have no memory of the event and if I was psychologically scarred by the searing pain, then I'm completely unaware of it now. What happened to me happened to 95 percent of the male babies then born in the English speaking world. And excepting a very small minority whose little baby dicks were accidentally butchered or who bled to death, nobody seemed to mind too much. After all you can't miss something you never had. No harm no foul, right?
Well according to a vocal - and somewhat sanctimonious - group of male activists, a great wrong was perpetrated against me and my generation. Not only were we subjected to unnecessary pain and risk, we were forever deprived of the most glorious part of our anatomy. And I gotta say, while I harbor no ill will against my parents or the doctors who strongly recommended the procedure (you were thought to be an irresponsible parent if you didn't agree to the operation), I'm starting to wonder if the activists might have it right. Sometimes we're so immersed in a culture that we don't think to question the accepted norms. It's only in retrospect when new cultural norms are in place that we can see how messed up the previous modes of thinking were (think slavery). So when I need a culturally detached perspective I try to apply what I call the "alien perspective test". Putting aside the ludicrous notion that forgetting pain is the same thing as not experiencing it (would you submit to an operation without anesthetic if you knew you wouldn't remember it?), what would an alien make of our practice of mutilating a baby's genitals for no other reason than:
If I were an alien, I'd be an incredulous alien.
- Everybody's doing it
- God wants us to
- It will statistically reduce his already slim chances of getting a minor infection.
Now there isn't enough space here to debate all the pros and cons of circumcision, but I'll explore some of these in future columns and I'll also be delving into the history behind this bizarre ritual. But first, it might be instructive to learn what this little flap of skin is all about. What exactly is the prepuce, or foreskin? If you're clever enough to read this you probably know the basics. But what you may not know, and what science is still discovering, is just what a complex piece of the anatomy the foreskin is. All primates, and most mammals, have some form of prepuce. It's something we share with cats and rats and elephants. A blue whale has a foreskin you can make a pup-tent out of. It's an anatomical feature that has been around for at least a hundred million years and it's unlikely to have survived in so many different forms if it didn't confer some kind of benefit. Far from being a vestigial piece of excess skin, the prepuce has a complex internal structure and a number of functions that are only now being appreciated.
The first and most obvious function is protection. In an uncircumcised male the glans (head) of the penis is highly sensitive and vulnerable to abrasion and frostbite. This is probably less important now that we have pants, but there are still situations where a bit of foreskin can come in handy. On one of his polar treks, the uncircumcised Sir Ranulph Fiennes had a better time of it than his circumcised comrades who were subject to blistering and frostbite in an area you really don't want to get frostbite. Now given that most men are unlikely to engage in polar expeditions or off-trail nude hiking, the protective function is probably not a make or break issue. But that doesn't mean we should be hacking off foreskins just for the hell of it.
The second major function is sensation and it is this function that paradoxically provided the original rationale for excision. Foreskins feel good. How good I'll never know, because mine was ripped off long before I had a chance to compare. But a friend who became circumcised as an adult described the difference in pleasurable sensation as akin to the difference between black-and-white and color. The reasons for this are twofold. First, when the foreskin is removed, the normally moist surface of the glans becomes keratinized, a process where the epithelial cells become dry and harden. Nerve endings ultimately die off and sensation is lost.
Secondly, the foreskin is dense with nerve endings, particularly in the ridged band at the base of the foreskin and the frenulum along the underside of the penis just below the glans. Both these structures contain Meissner's corpuscles which are fine touch receptors (also found on the tips of fingers, the lips and nipples). Meissner's corpuscles do not detect pain but are exquisitely attuned to light touch. It's been observed that men who have been circumcised are far less interested in foreplay than uncircumcised men. They also whack off less, which depending on your point of view can be good or bad. Certainly in the 19th century, when masturbation was seen as the root of all disease, this observation was behind much of the propagation of circumcision.
I thought an argument could be made that if circumcision desensitizes the penis it may help prevent premature ejaculation. Sadly though, this doesn't appear to be the case. It certainly wasn't with me. If the race to orgasm was an Olympic event I'd have won the gold hands down. If anything, the increased sensation of the foreskin allows for greater control. It's been described as the difference between having an accelerator and a simple on-off switch.
The foreskin also provides protection in the early years against infection. The mucosa layer on the underside of the foreskin contains enzymes called lysomes that attack the cell walls of bacteria. It's believed that the reason the foreskin does not generally retract in infancy is to allow these antibacterial properties to act as a bulwark against the bacteria present in the child's own feces. All in all, not bad for a little piece of vestigial skin.
Now, the anti-circumcision zealots would have you believe that circumcision is at the root of all evil. "Pro-choice" proponents have claimed, in all seriousness, that anger at circumcision lies behind such anti-social acts as rape. I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that this is pure bunkum. But the essential point remains. If circumcision never existed would anybody invent it? I suspect not. There are situations which may require circumcision and the fact that adults - fully cognizant of their options - sometimes choose to be circumcised attests to this. But all in all, given the potential for permanent loss, my feeling is that this is probably something you should do to yourself rather than somebody else. As I said, I harbor no ill will to those that did this to me, and I'm certainly not about to fly off on a rampage of rape and murder, but the more I learn about what I've lost, the more I wish I had it back.