What Does It Mean to Have a Circumcised Penis?

What Does It Mean to Have a Circumcised Penis?

So what are you, cut or uncut? I’ll be brave here and admit that I am cut, or for a better Urban Dictionary term, have a ‘jew-willy, ‘skinless chicken’ or ‘hoodless cobra’. By all means, the topic of circumcision is tricky, controversial and sensitive, but now we’re here, with it or without it, let’s chat about it.

For some, circumcision provides a point of interest laced with humour and lad banter, or an opportunity to share their knowledge of the myths that surround the issue. For other men, circumcision is not only a cosmetic mutilation, but a fundamental psychological trauma engendered in the manifestation of lacking physically, thus lacking sexually. So does circumcision limit men? Does it circumscribe a definition of reduced masculinity? Or, controversially, can it empower?

The symbolic function of circumcision can represent the move from adolescence into manhood.

History has shown varying representations and attitudes towards cicrumcision explored through art, religion, culture and paradigms of power – accepted or exploited within society. Ancient Greeks would paint on pottery fully sheathed, proud olympians, admiring the foreskin for its aesthetics – and medical and sexual benefits. Victorians, on the other hand, promoted the cut for concupiscence, instrumental in repressing the primal, yet sinful urge to forincate with oneself, and with others. What we cannot ignore is its inextricable symbolic nature with historical, cultural and religious rites of passage. The symbolic function of circumcision can represent the move from adolescence into manhood, or can signify the special eternal bond with God, as it does in Judaism.

From looking more aesthetically appealing, to being more functional in sex because of its ‘bullet like’ ergonomic, circumcision seems to offer some benefits. The internet will pull up dense research, a lot of it anecdotal, and mostly contradicting claims of myths about the usefulness and effectiveness of circumcision. One of the most exaggerated myths, predominantly in the Philippines (a rite called Tuli), claims that circumcision can increase height. Most Filipino men are circumcised on the cusp of puberty, so a natural growth spurt is misidentified as being attributed to circumcision. Steeped in cultural and social significance, height represents a latent potency that calibrates expectations for a place in the socio-economic hierarchy, from getting a girlfriend, to being the right height for a job, as with flight attendants or security guards. The ritualistic element of Tuli far exceeds symbol and appears to be a tool that facilitates success.

Here are a few other circumcision myths…

  1. Another common myth is that a cut penis is a cleaner penis (although this in general should be the prerogative of any man to practise good hygiene whether cut or not), which also goes along with the idea that they are uglier looking, too.
  2. The penis is packed with thousands of nerve endings, so for men who haven’t been cut, the assumption might be that circumcised penises either have more sensitivity, or less sensitivity – ultimately affecting sexual performance.
  3. Circumcision (might) also reduce STIs. Results from three WHO studies conducted in Kenya and Uganda have shown that circumcision may be an effective way to reduce or even prevent HIV. Transposing the prophylactic procedure into a population with considerably less HIV rates than some African countries, though, is much harder to justify. 

These myths are generally learnt through exchanges with other guys when growing up, leading to many misconceptions and misrepresentations of masculinity. Within the UK, the polarised cultural and social phenomena of toxic masculinity and incels (involuntary celibates) could be attributed to a deep seated bias and misappropriation of what circumcision means for being ‘manly’. Strangely enough, circumcision subtly disrupts the normalised notions of power and control that masculinity is usually ascribed to by offering deeply embedded examples of masculinity channeled through cultural rites and rituals of ‘becoming’ a man. So this begs the question of whether a circumcised man is more of a man, or less of a typical man?

Intactivists prompt and promote men to reclaim their foreskins, and create a space for affirming ‘penis dialogue’. Circumcision goes way beyond sexual performance, particularly when you can’t consent to surgery that permanently changes your anatomy. Many claim that ‘it’s his body, he’s the one to decide what should be done with his flesh’, which is true, yet in many cases a child may grow up with a foreskin that is too tight (phimosis and paraphimosis),  causing greater issues such as swelling, infection, bleeding, difficulty and pain when urinating, injury and discharge. 

When I realised that not all penis’s were like mine, I was terrified of others at school finding out I was circumcised.

Who would willingly want to be circumcised? For those who were circumcised at a young age, whether for religious or medical reasons, the common ignorance in thinking that all men’s penises look the same is shattered once puberty hits, or they have sex for the first time, or do extra-curricular net browsing, or their male friends have comparing competitions (yes it happens!). When I realised that not all penis’s were like mine, I was terrified of others at school finding out I was circumcised for fear of mockery, rumours, or even anti-semitisim. 

The experience of growing up circumcised poses questions about sexual performance and whether circumcision causes later sexual dysfunction in adulthood. The social debate rages on, but according to systematic surveys and tests, results suggest that the circumcision doesn’t directly affect sexual performance. In fact, some results have shown that nerve endings in the foreskin have little or no role in creating erotic sensation, but it is nerves in the glans (the penis head) that provide sexual sensations. Post circumcision, there is the risk of the glans becoming keratinised (hardening of the skin), which could reduce sexual sensation. The trials also concluded that statistically circumcised men didn’t report any difference in sensation or pleasure, though some reported more difficulty in reaching orgasm and increased issues with erectile dysfunction.

 The language we use to describe circumcision needs addressing.

Sexual performance anxiety cannot be overlooked. If circumcision doesn’t directly affect sexual dysfunction, then arguably the issue is more pathological and disrupted by cognitive bias. This means, men who suffer with low self-esteem and negative self-perception of their own body image could contribute to the experience of less sexual satisfaction, if they have a negative perception of their own circumcision. A more basic issue could be about how they are perceived by a sexual partner, about how it looks and feels and whether it has more or less capability to please. 

The language we use to describe circumcision needs addressing as well as finding solutions to circumcision. We could embrace modern surgery and reclaim the foreskin by undergoing a restorative procedure while challenging normative lexicons from ‘circumcision’ to ‘MGM’ (Male Genital Mutilation). For if FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) is considered to be mutilation and brutality, then surely circumcision is, too. Just like circumcision, FGM usually occurs in the first few days of infancy (in many cases done unsterilised and can lead to adverse health complications when older) to which the act is circumscribed as a way to control women’s sexuality, culturally embedded with notions of purity and modesty. Conflicting opinions, even by doctors, suggest that the idea of circumcision being termed ‘mutilation’ simply does not hold up. It is neither mutilation, nor amputation, for the reason being that the foreskin is surgically removed and doesn’t harm the actual penis.

I am disinclined to mourn something that I don’t remember having.

For those who have been circumcised, we could submit to our skin, embrace body positivity and learn to be empowered by it while identifying and challenging the greater social, cultural and medical issues that circumcision presents. Afterall, there isn’t one, shared singular experience of circumcision, but many experiences. 

I have no recollection of my circumcision. I don’t remember the pain, the discomfort, the immodesty of being splayed out on a table, arms and legs tied down, genitalia like a lure to a fish. I am disinclined to mourn something that I don’t remember having. I was also fortunate enough that I grew up in a tradition where all men in the community were circumcised. Fortunate might be a strange way to describe it, yet it does bring about a sense of social, even spiritual inclusion. Which is why I struggle to locate my admonition for circumcision. It meant belonging, a sense of shared identity and belonging to a community, devoid of any sexual connotation. Then again, growing up in a tradition that repressed sexuality meant that my instrument for fun and pleasure, was actively regarded as an object of dangly revulsion.  

Circumcision has, and always will be a nuanced and controversial issue, especially when openness to dialogue about it still remains taboo. The damage that circumcision can do psychologically and physically must not be underestimated. So, for men considering undergoing circumcision for either medical or cosmetic reasons, the choice is yours, but do seek advice from your GP first. If you have a child who may need to be circumcised, again, seek advice from your GP and don’t underestimate the issues it may cause. You’re not alone.

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Shmuel is a poet, screenwriter and English language teacher.

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