Circumcision: The Untold American Story
By Max Fairshield, 19 years old
I want to start off by saying how wonderful of a country we live in. America isn’t perfect, and it may not be the best, but it’s pretty damn great. It isn’t supposed to be about getting rich or powerful or rising above our fellow people; it’s about people getting to live how they want and doing what makes them feel comfortable and happy. Individuals are supposed to have the right to make personal choices for themselves. The biggest problem in our system is that it often substitutes the individual for the family. The system is supposed to be protecting every individual’s freedoms and human rights. Instead, it is not the individual’s choices and beliefs that are protected, but those of families — namely, the parents. The system respects that parents have a right and desire to teach their beliefs. However, parents often take advantage of this right by forcing their views and opinions onto their children rather than respecting their autonomy. The role of the parent has been lost in our society. Parents are supposed to be protectors, providers, and teachers. Children are supposed to take what they have learned, develop their own ideas, and decide for themselves what they want out of life. Currently, America views children as copies or even as property of parents. Nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to circumcision.
Circumcision is a rather taboo topic in most of American society. It’s like America's dirty secret that everyone knows about but ignores. For a country that seems so obsessed with the human body, freedom, and sex, you’d think people would be more open. When it comes to the topic of circumcision, there are people with strong views on both sides of the debate. You have the people who think it’s the best thing since sex, and people who think it’s the biggest violation of human rights since slavery. Well, let me share with you a perspective that you probably haven’t heard much or thought much about - the perspective of a teenager who was circumcised at birth, and wishes to high heavens that he hadn’t been.
As far as settings go, I grew up in a moderately sized town in New York. My family is pretty well off financially. My parents met in college and get along well, and my siblings argue like any others. My family is pretty average, and my life has probably been pretty boring compared to others. In many aspects my life has been pretty nice. For a long time the only worries I had were about grades. Back then I felt like I was safe and in control, and that I could be or do anything.
In school I had to put up with a lot of bullies but it never really bothered me. School left everyone with a lot of stress and I was an easy target. Words are powerful, but their power comes from the person saying them. To me their actions were a testament to how much they weren’t worth being bothered over. After all, they only used words, and I wasn’t concerned with what they said. I never sweat the little things, and I always have looked at situations and focused on how much worse things could be. That’s how I got by, and I considered physical/bodily damage the only thing worth getting upset over. To me my body was the one thing I had absolute control over; in fact, it was the only thing I felt I had control over at all. It was more than just an object — it was my home, my temple, and as far as I knew, I was the ruler.
There are always things out of your control, like how people treat you. But the human body is the one thing that everyone starts out with. Everyone gets their very own and they are all unique. You call the shots, you’re free to move it and make it do what you want. In my eyes, a person’s body is the most important thing, and to do anything to a person’s body without their consent is the worst kind of offense. You have your own body to treat however you want and do with what you want, so no one has a right to control any aspect of another’s body. For a long time I thought I had always been in control of my body. The thought of someone else making choices about my body never even crossed my mind. It was ridiculous, as far as I knew my body was exactly the way nature intended. That’s the way I wanted my body: natural, untouched, and whole.
It took a while before I learned what circumcision was and, to my horror, that I had been circumcised. I first randomly came across the topic on the Internet. It was a word that I had never seen before and it had seemed to stir up quite a large debate. I was curious so I read a little bit of the conversation. From what I read all I really got out of it was that it apparently was something that people disagreed on a lot. The curiosity from that one run-in with the word led me to do a bit of research in the weeks to follow. I found plenty of people and articles talking positively and negatively about it. I came to understand that it was a “medical procedure” that removed skin off of the penis. As a teenager who was just starting to learn about the sexual realms of life the idea both intrigued and terrified me. I thought how horrible such an idea sounded, yet I was fascinated that so many people seemed to not only defend but practically worship the idea. Once in a while I’d do a bit more research to figure out why people would choose to do such a thing to their bodies. It didn’t take long for me to understand that it really wasn’t something people got to choose for themselves; rather, it was decided by their parents and forced onto them. I learned about a lot of health arguments people were making for it and arguments being made debunking such reasoning. I wasn’t really sure what side to believe but the stated “benefits” didn’t sound great enough to warrant cutting body parts off. All I knew was that I was extremely happy that my parents would never do such a thing to me. I knew my parents would never have any part of my body cut off; it wasn’t even a question. And if they had, surely I would have known about it.
Then came one of the worst days of my life that I can remember. I really love debating and philosophy and trying to think of solutions for big problems. So when I researched more, I was fascinated by how big and fierce of a debate surrounded circumcision. I had been casually researching circumcision for almost five months. I was reading through an argument one day that someone was making against circumcision and I saw something odd. It was a diagram of an intact penis. I was immediately very confused. “What is that covering the head?” I asked myself. It was then that something clicked, and I realized that it must be the foreskin that I had read about. However that didn’t make any sense. If that was what a foreskin was, then why didn’t my penis look the same? I suddenly had that stomach dropping moment as my heart began to race and I went into full panic mode. I had to be sure, so I immediately looked up comparison pictures of what a circumcised and intact penis looked like. I stared at the screen fully aware and realizing that my penis did not look like the intact picture. In that moment I learned that my parents had circumcised me.
Now, I like to think that I’m a very fair and rational person. So when I learned my parents had me circumcised, my mind didn’t go straight to “This is terrible! I hate this!” Instead it went to “Okay, they must have had a damn good reason.” This began my serious research into circumcision. I read literally anything and everything I could find on circumcision, from medical journals, to books, to blogs, to debates, to personal stories. I needed to know everything there possibly was to know about circumcision and the human foreskin. It didn’t take too long to come to a conclusion. There were some really damn good arguments against circumcision and they all used pretty basic common sense and ethics. The biggest factor in my conclusion was that I could not find a single supposed “benefit” that I believed was anywhere good enough to justify cutting off part of my body. At first I wasn’t even questioning the supposed “benefits” - any argument I could find in favor of circumcision I initially just accepted as fact. Even believing every positive thing I could find and adding them all together, it still didn’t come close to making me think circumcision was justifiable. The urinary tract infection argument seemed stupid because it seemed to rely on poor hygiene. Plus I was no idiot and knew what antibiotics were, and I showered every day. The STD argument was ridiculous because I was waiting until marriage to have sex. The cancer argument seemed pointless after learning how rare penile cancer was to start with. Everything pointed to circumcision being completely unnecessary. The biggest shock was when I learned how rare circumcision was in the world. Only 20-30% of men are cut and a lot of that is for religion. If it was in any way, shape, or form necessary, surely it would have a much larger following. Yet when you factor out ridiculous old religious traditions, Americans are virtually the only ones doing this to infants!
After I learned what had been done to my body, my viewpoint changed on a lot of things. For the first time in my life I was genuinely angry and upset, but at the same time I was really embarrassed. I couldn’t confront my parents because we never talked about anything even remotely sexual at all. I was too embarrassed and angry to say anything. Instead I talked with some friends at school. This was when I learned another nasty truth about circumcision: people get downright hostile when you bring up the issue and even think about questioning it. It’s like people are incapable of talking about it. I lost a few friends who would never talk to me again after bringing the topic up a single time. This realization, along with the overwhelming embarrassment, got me to pretty much keep my feelings and emotions to myself. I dealt with the anger and emotions the same way I had all my life: I bottled them up and pretended they weren’t there.
I basically lived my life like that for the next four years. I kept it all to myself and put on a face for the world. I acted like there was nothing wrong, nothing bothering me. For those four years, my parents had absolutely no idea how I felt. However, for those four years, one thing continued: I would spend a lot of my free time researching circumcision, the foreskin, human anatomy, sex, and sexuality. Being bullied in school doesn’t give you the best self-confidence. I wanted to make sure I knew everything there was to know inside and out. That way if and when the topic came up I could argue and debate it with confidence, facts, good logic, and ethics.
The fifth year after I learned that I was circumcised, I learned something else: no human can bottle everything up forever, and that when you bottle your emotions up, they don’t disappear — they pile up and fester. My parents started realizing that something was wrong, and after four months of nagging, they finally figured it out. You would probably think that my parents finding out would be a good thing, but it really wasn’t. I didn’t know how they would react, but I certainly didn’t expect them to react how they did. They were completely incapable of understanding why I was upset. To them, circumcision was just something you did without questioning it. Everyone else did it, so you went along. In their eyes they had done nothing wrong, and instead, they blamed me. They claimed that circumcision was not something to be angry about, that someone emotionally couldn’t be as angry as I was just about circumcision. They tried repeatedly to come up with other things that my anger could really be coming from.
Little by little, my mother started to kind of understand; either that or she was feeling so upset over seeing me so angry that she just acted like she understood. My father, on the other hand, refuses to believe that circumcision could make someone angry because he himself isn’t angry about being circumcised. He has run out of ideas and now claims that I’m just a naturally hateful and angry person by nature, and that there is no real cause of my anger and emotions. After all of this, it became harder and harder to look at my parents and view them in a positive light. I suppose if they did understand fully, then they would have to live with the immense guilt and regret. So it’s possible that it isn’t their complete fault for not understanding. After all, who wants to consciously accept that they had their son mutilated? Even so, denial doesn’t help those who were hurt.
Since I was no longer able to bottle my emotions up, I was faced with figuring out how to deal with my anger and diminish it if I could. The only thing that seemed to help at all was speaking out against circumcision. I felt that if I could save other children from what happened to me that I might feel better. However, speaking out comes with its own challenges. As I already knew, people become very hostile and almost abusive when you try and tell them that circumcision isn’t a good thing. Men and women both don’t want to listen to or even allow you to talk with other people about it. The reasons for this became pretty clear over time. For men it’s pretty simple. They don’t want to accept that their bodies have been damaged. They want to feel superior and since circumcision is permanent, the easiest path is for them to deny any and all negative aspects of circumcision. For women it’s sometimes that they have had so little exposure to intact penises that they have grown accustomed to only circumcised ones. Some women view the natural male genitalia as grotesque. Others are usually mothers or soon-to-be mothers who have the idea stuck in their head that they have some kind of right to do whatever they want to their children. It’s a good feeling when someone will listen, but those times are rare. Most of the time I end up a little depressed and frustrated as a mother ignorantly and immorally declares her “right” to do whatever she wishes to her son’s body, as if he was a doll or object and not a human being who will one day have opinions of his own. People refuse to take the time to just listen to both sides. They assume that since it’s been going on for so long and since doctors still do it that it must be fine.
People don’t really understand what it’s like to be circumcised and not want to be. It makes you feel completely helpless. I wake up every day and go to sleep every night knowing that I’m missing part of my body. I have to come to terms with the fact that part of me was cut off and that I had absolutely no way to speak out or defend myself. It makes me feel so powerless, so vulnerable. I constantly am asking myself, “Why did no one respect my body? Why did no one respect what I might want in the future?” It always confuses me how people truly care about how others feel when they have been overpowered, but for some reason if it was a doctor that overpowered you, then people take the doctor’s side. Do a few years of schooling and a white coat mean that it’s completely all right for you to go around doing whatever you want to people’s bodies without consent?
When someone is raped, people genuinely understand that their body was assaulted and violated and that it is hurtful both mentally and physically. But my body wasn’t just assaulted and violated — it was mutilated, and I am missing anatomy because of it, yet people somehow don’t see that as wrong. Apparently in our culture if you touch someone’s body in a negative way, you’re a criminal. But if you go one step further and permanently mutilate someone’s body, cutting pieces off, it’s all of a sudden nothing to be upset over. How does that make any sense? It’s like the world’s biggest double standard. In America we are not even protected against people chopping off parts of our anatomy. And not just any parts - some of the most intimate and private parts that we are born with. You feel truly worthless when people treat your body and your own views like trash. You feel alone because no one seems to care at all.
Whenever people find out I’m mad that I was circumcised, they never feel sympathy; instead, they always get angry themselves. They say things like “How dare you be angry! You should be happy, grateful that they got rid of that disgusting extra skin!” When you’re an infant, people don’t care what you might want in the future, and when you are old enough to have formed an opinion, they still claim your opinion doesn’t matter. How can my own opinion, my own feelings and views about my body not matter? Why do I have to accept other people doing things to my body that I don’t like, that I didn’t consent to, that I couldn’t do anything to stop? One signature on a piece of paper and suddenly boys don’t own their bodies anymore; their parents do. One signature that isn’t even their own and suddenly circumcision is treated as “their” choice, as if they actually got to choose or have any part in the decision making process whatsoever. All the talk of rights, and love, and protection, but all we really are is property, like slaves — at least until we grow strong enough to put up a fight.
Other guys sometimes ask why I would ever want a foreskin anyway. Frankly, I believe that bodily autonomy is important. I really wish I knew what it felt like to have a foreskin. Honestly I even think the human penis looks better with a foreskin. That’s just my opinion though, and it’s clear how much my opinion about my own body is apparently worth. I want to know what it feels like first hand to have all the nerve endings, to feel the gliding motion of the skin, to feel natural lubricant instead of rough dry skin. I always ask those men how they know they would want to be circumcised if they had been left intact. 70-80% of the men in the world are intact and the majority seems pretty damn happy keeping their foreskin. So many men don’t even really comprehend what was actually done to them, what they actually lost. It’s really upsetting when they try and convince everyone that all guys love being circumcised. If they are happy that’s fine, but not all guys are happy with it, and some are really upset. And I don’t think it’s right to ignore and harass those who genuinely feel hurt, just to make those who have no idea what they are missing happy. The way things are right now, a guy who is upset about being circumcised gets harassed into silence and put down. Society is really harsh towards them because people would rather believe that all guys are happy being cut, but we aren’t. How have we gotten to the point where someone else gets to make such permanent and personal decisions for us, and we don’t even get to express our pain?
Everyone seems to think that parents will know exactly what their sons want. There is no way of knowing. If a parent chooses incorrectly, then their son will be physically and emotionally damaged forever. Parents always think, “Oh, my son won’t be upset. I know he will be happy that we had him cut.” But I guarantee that’s how the parents of most boys who are upset probably thought. Parents would rather take a chance and roll the dice with our bodies than wait until we can make a decision ourselves. I can barely stand to look at my parents these days. I look at them and feel anger where love used to be. It’s strange how quickly your view of someone can change when you learn that they hurt you, that they quite literally scarred you. Their decision to mess with my body basically ruined our relationship before it even began. On top of that I have lost any and all faith, trust, and respect for the American medical community. They violate people’s bodies and treat them without care or respect, so why should they receive any? I look at doctors and all I see are monsters that are manipulating and hurting people. Just because it’s easier to do something when someone is young doesn’t mean you should. If someone really feels so strongly about getting circumcised, then the pain of the surgery shouldn’t dissuade him.
People call it a little snip but it’s so much worse than that. Circumcision took away more than my rights and my foreskin. It took away my peace of mind in my own body. My body doesn’t feel like my own anymore. It feels like someone stole my body and mutilated and violated it. Then when they were through, they tossed it back, damaged and missing pieces. You can’t imagine what it’s like losing peace of mind in your own body. It’s like when someone survives a home invasion. Your home is supposed to be your castle, the one place where you’re in control and feel completely safe. But then someone breaks in and violates that peace, that safety. The burglars might steal valuables and keepsakes, and while those do matter, it’s your peace of mind that’s the biggest loss. You never feel safe again. You’re always worrying, thinking, “What if something like that happens again?” That’s how I feel. I don’t feel safe or at home in my own body. I’m terrified of someone damaging it again. Why? Why must parents and doctors insist on messing with someone else’s body? What did I ever do to them to deserve having no protection or say over my body?
I honestly don’t know how or if I can truly get over what was done to me. When you feel this violated, vulnerable, and hurt you find it affecting all aspects of life. Sleepless nights are all too common for me. I lay in the dark tossing and turning as my mind races over a million things at once. The harder I try to get to sleep the worse it gets. When I do get to sleep I’m haunted with nightmares of being tied down and hurt, cut apart with giant knives. Or sometimes it’s dreams of having a relaxing happy day until pieces of my body start to fall off uncontrollably and permanently. I have actually had these nightmares my entire life, but they never made any sense until I found out what was done to me. It turns out boys do remember, at least subconsciously. And it affects them whether they realize it or not. Even my appetite has been affected. Sometimes I’m so disgusted with the thought of what was done to me that I just lose my appetite and skip meals. So many people see circumcision as this great thing, yet they have no idea what it truly does to people. And when you try to tell them, they refuse to listen. It’s difficult speaking out against what was done, and it took me years to find the strength and confidence to do so. You feel embarrassed talking about your violated body. You feel the shame, hatred, and harassment of those desperate to convince the world that it’s great to damage helpless infants’ bodies. I often wonder how many people are suffering quietly like I used to and often still do, putting on a face for their family and friends, acting like it’s all okay when it’s slowly eating them alive. Even if every “benefit” people talk about was true, there’s no way it is worth all of this.
America needs to protect the rights and decisions of the individual and not allow parents to treat children as objects. Cutting healthy body parts off is not parenting, and it’s not medicine — it’s mutilation. There is no reason not to wait and let children decide what they want when they have matured. Most of the rest of the world understands and respects children’s right to a natural and whole body. Why is it so hard for America to understand that? People just don’t want to come to terms with the realization that they harmed their children and were harmed themselves by their parents. And trust me, that realization is a very heavy thing. It destroys trust, piece of mind, relationships, and your overall perception of the world. There’s no excuse. The only good news is that it’s the easiest thing in the world to stop — you just have to not do it. You even get to save some money; how about starting a college fund instead? It’s too late for people like me, but it’s not too late for the thousands of boys who are born each day.
Unlike what many people think, people like me don’t speak out because we have nothing better to do. We don’t speak out because we are obsessed with your child’s genitals. We don’t speak out because we want to take people’s rights away. We speak out to protect children, to give them the rights they deserve and that we never got. We speak out to make sure no boy has to grow up hating his parents and culture and body. In the end, our only goal is to make society a more peaceful, thoughtful, safe, and happy place for all.