In this blog entry, I retrace my steps to when I first became aware of circumcision, and how deeply it was ingrained in American culture. Up until a certain point, it hadn't dawned on me that having anatomically correct male genitalia could be any kind of concern in the country where I was born and raised. I had known somewhat about circumcision, but until something prompted me to actually start looking up circumcision, I was blissfully unaware.
It all happened one afternoon at high school. I must have been 15 or 16 years old. It was during a P.E. class, and we were all walking from the gym to the football field to do our routine run around the track. All students had just finished changing into their P.E. clothes, and we were all walking slowly out of the locker rooms, slow enough that one could hear casual conversations among students. (At my high school we didn't get naked nor shower in front of each other, so no one ever saw each other naked. Cut and intact status was unknown amongst us.) I overheard a conversation among a group of 3 or four students. A male friend was pontificating to a group of 2 or 3 girls on the truths of the male penis. "Circumcised penises look like mushrooms, and non-circumcised penises look like carrots," the guy said. "Oh! So that's the difference," I heard one of the girls say. "Yes." They all agreed. It all sounded so matter-of-fact.
I remembered thinking "Circumcision? Now let's see... where have I heard this before... Circumcision, circumcision... Oh yes! This is something Jews do to their children as newborns." At that time, what I knew about circumcision was second-hand information, and limited to what I'd heard about. For example, I knew that circumcision was some important ritual for Jews. I think I've mentioned before on this blog, that I came from a very conservative protestant church that was very pro-Israel, very pro-Judaism. This church would have rabbis come speak, they would hold menorah lightings at Chanukkah, some homes had metzuzot on their door frames, and sometimes male members would wear yarmulkas to church. Now that I think of it, how pretentious and silly! I hope some members didn't take it as far as circumcision. I'm almost sure that some members thought they were being more Jewish by opting for circumcision for their children at hospitals. If Jewish scholars like Leonard Glick are correct, that's not the way it works.
I first became aware of circumcision as a religious ritual by overhearing others discuss it at bible studies. As far as I knew, it was something Jews did, but wasn't required by Christians because we've got baptism. Being called "uncircumcised" was supposed to be an insult in the Bible from Jews to non-Jews, and not being circumcised was, I guess, a problem back then. So I knew from a young age that not being circumcised could be seen as a problem by some, but I wasn't sure to what extent. To be sure, even though I knew there was a difference, I wasn't quite sure what that difference was, and what it actually meant to be circumcised.
I remember that one time I asked my mother this question. My father and some friends who were over at our house were having a bible study one day, and one of the topics that came up was circumcision. I must have been eight or nine. I take my mother to a different room and I ask her "Mom, what's circumcision? Why is it talked about in the bible?" The way she explained it was "Well, in Jewish families, when a boy is born, they cut off a little bit of skin from his little bird." (That's what she used to call it.) "Oh." I thought. "That's what this is all about? Cutting off a little bit of skin off a child's pee-pee? Doesn't sound like too big of a deal. Why is this always a big deal when people discuss it in the bible?" But those were just thoughts in my head. With my mother I just said "Oh! OK..." And that's where the conversation ended.
The image I had in my head following that conversation was light years away from the reality that is circumcision. I imagined someone taking a knife or blade and literally just taking a small piece of top layer of skin from the top of the penis. I didn't even think it had anything to do with the sleeve of flesh that covers the head of the penis. As a child, I thought maybe the piece of skin may be taken from the glans of the penis itself. I had absolutely no idea that circumcision actually meant taking a blade and actually cutting off the entire flesh hood covering the head of the penis to leave it exposed and raw.
My idea of circumcision as a 8 or 9yo...
In retrospect, circumcision may be closer to this...
Except it's not removing a top layer of skin,
but cutting off an entire sleeve of flesh.
At some other point, a few years later, my father would try to introduce me to the ritual of circumcision in his own way. I must have been 13 at this point. How did he do it? He showed me the movie "Europa, Europa." Before showing me the movie, he told me "This movie is a movie about the Jewish ritual of circumcision. It's right at the beginning of the movie, just so you know. It's about all the hardships that Jews have had to face, all because of circumcision," he briefed me before showing me the movie. So I watched the movie, and I thought "Now I'm going to see what it's all about. I'm going to see what was being talked about all these years." What I saw was a semblance of the ritual, people gathered, a baby screaming and a mohel there, but the movie didn't quite show the actual cutting. I think had the movie actually showed a real live circumcision, I might have been made an intactivist there and then. But it didn't happen this way.
After the movie, just like after any other holocaust movie, I felt real bad for Jewish people living in the Hitler era. It left me with the feeling of "Wow. It's so sad that Jews can't be allowed to practice their religion, and this is a part of their religion that they can't hide from anyone should they be stripped naked. When you're naked who is Jewish, and who is not is that obvious. And it's so sad that for Hitler to find out who is Jewish, all he had to do was strip people naked." I was left feeling sympathy for Jews and circumcision. Especially that last scene where two newly freed Jewish prisoners were allowed to "pee freely," to do something that you need to do every day without discrimination. It was touching. And now having grown up and being 35, kind of gross when I think about it... When a man is peeing, you look away, not check out to see if he's cut or not. But after seeing this movie, it makes you kinda wanna look, doesn't it.
Even after having watched that movie, the difference between circumcision and having anatomically correct male genitals wasn't clear. I think I can recall thinking that some guys' penises looked weird, that something was different about them, but I didn't put two and two together and thought that the reason was that those penises had been purposefully distorted to look that way. I can remember going to swimming classes and watching other men shower, and noticing that some men had funny looking penises. I think I can remember thinking to myself "Why do the ends of their penises look bulbous and discolored and dry like that? What's wrong with those men's penises?" At that time, I reasoned "It must be some genetic trait. Just like some people have outie belly buttons, and some people have innies, it must be that some people's penises just look that way." It hadn't dawned on me that I was looking at the results of circumcision.
Until that day in highschool when I heard the mushroom/carrot comparison. Even then, I was confused. I'm not circumcised, but I can assure you, when I get an erection and I pull back my foreskin, I most definitely have a mushroom. Even when I'm soft, I don't think my penis looks like a carrot. Maybe a bulbous, deformed carrot, but not really a carrot.
Hearing those words made me want to research what circumcision was once and for all. That same day, when I got home, I decided to look it up. Back then the big search engines were AltaVista and Ask.com. And that's how my interest in this issue all began.
I describe in another post my journey to becoming an intactivist. It would be a while after this before I would finally call myself an "intactivist." It was a difficult thing, coming to grips with how I really felt about male infant circumcision, and putting aside all that I was taught in childhood, that Jews were a special people who had suffered a lot, that circumcision was this important ritual for them etc. I felt, and continue to feel a pang of guilt when I think about it. I acknowledge that Jews have faced persecution for ages, and I understand that circumcision is an important rite for them. Even so, I have decided to break with my upbringing. I realize that in some people's eyes, this makes me look like an anti-Semite, and I accept this, for I feel that the forced circumcision of any sex, at any age, regardless of who does it, and for what reasons, is abuse, mutilation, and a gross violation of the most precious of human rights; the right to one's own body.
Life is short. You're born with one life, one body. Forced infant circumcision destroys this and condemns an individual with a damaged, maimed body for the rest of his life.
What does a human penis look like?
Before comparing it to mushrooms, carrots, anteaters, elephants' trunks or whatever, we must first ask ourselves, what does the human penis look like in its natural state? What does it look like left to be as nature intended it?
This is what the human penis is supposed to look like.
Anything outside of that is a forced, artificial phenomenon.