column from gay author Charles-Gene McDaniel


Pruned Pricks
Foreskin Folly

American baby boys are being mutilated and the public outcry is hardly a whisper. While human rights activists have campaigned--quite rightly--to stop genital mutilation of little girls in Africa and elsewhere, few voices have been raised against routine circumcision of baby boys, an abomination now practiced mostly in the United States. Except for ritual circumcision practiced by Jews and Muslims, the practice is perpetrated primarily by doctors who approach the new parents just after the baby is born at a time when it is difficult for them to make a rational decision about their baby and who think they have no option because the god doctor recommends that the baby’s weenie be whacked. The doctors, of course, have a financial interest.

The procedure is not benign and it is not in the interest of good physical or psychological health. When the circumcision is botched the baby often undergoes sexual reassignment--a now controversial practice to turn them into girls--and may even die from the complications. The male baby has no say. And when as an adult he recognizes what has been done to him without his consent it is too late effectively to undo what was a couple of decades previously.

Gay men especially seem to be bothered by their mutilated penes and gay publications have been carrying articles about the practice, although it really is too late to do anything about it. Since most gay men do not become parents they have no voice in what is happening to baby boys. There is, however, a bit of encouraging news. The National Center for Health Statistics estimates that 90 percent of baby boys were circumcised during he 1960s. The American Academy of Pediatrics, which recently advised against routine infant circumcision, says that has now dropped to 65 percent. Elsewhere in the industrialized world that percentage is even lower. In Canada an estimated 25 percent of infant males are circumcised. In Sweden it is illegal, unless there are medical problems, to perform circumcision on a male before he is age 17, the age when most foreskins can be fully retracted.

Non-ritual circumcision is a relatively recent practice. It was begun in the mid-1800s in English-speaking countries to prevent masturbation, which doctors blamed for many diseases, including epilepsy, tuberculosis and insanity, among other diseases. It entered clinical medicine in the United States in the 1870s. To further buttress their case, doctors offered evidence that male circumcision helped prevent cancer of the cervix and venereal diseases in their female partners. The evidence was weak and even more specious in that it was based on population studies in which modern hygiene was not available. Men who do not bathe regularly and retract their foreskins accumulate smegma, a secretion of the sebaceous glands, around the glans. This is a thick, cheesy, odiferous secretion that is unpleasant for the sexual partner as well as unhealthful. Smegma is not unique to men, however. Women have it under the labia minora and about the glans clitoris. But they are spared surgery.

The foreskin actually performs important protective, sensory and sexual functions. That is why the gods gave them to men. The little hood keeps the glans--the head of the penis--soft and moist and protects it from trauma and injury. Without this integument, the glans becomes dry and desensitized from exposure and chafing against clothing. Because the foreskin contains so many nerve endings, it also enhances sexual pleasure.

Just as eyelids protect eyes, the penile hood maintains optimal warmth, pH balance and cleanliness. The glans itself contains no sebaceous glands, which produce the sebum that moisturizes the skin. The foreskin also contains apocrine glands that produce antibacterial and anti-viral proteins such as lysozyme, which is found also in mother’s milk and serves an immunological function.

One problem that may develop in the uncircumcised male is phimosis, a tightness that prevents retraction. This condition, which prevents good hygiene and results in painful intercourse, is rare and is easily remedied when it does become a problem.

The foreskin contains 50 percent to 80 percent of the skin system of the penis, depending on the size. It contains more than three feet of veins, arteries and capillaries, which help supply the penis with blood. It has on average 240 feet of nerve fibers and 20,000 nerve endings. Unfolded, the adult foreskin measures 15 to 20 square inches.

It’s no wonder that men, gay or other, are angry that they have been deprived of so much pleasure without being asked or granting permission. So far, apparently, none has sued his parents for child abuse, but in these litigious times such suits are entirely possible, even foreseeable. In fact, in Canada the Association for Genital Integrity is raising money to enter a court challenge. A Canadian physician, Dr. Arif Bhimji, and his group advocate amending the part of the country’s criminal code that bans female genital mutilation to include a ban on circumcision. Not doing so amounts to sexual discrimination, he alleges.

On its web site, the National Organization of Circumcision Resource Centers (NOCIRC) cites a number of myths about circumcision. It does not prevent penile cancer, cervical cancer in female partners, sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS or HIV infection, or masturbation, nor does it improve penile hygiene or prevent infections or urinary tract infections. And it is not painless to the infant.

Once the foreskin is gone it is essentially gone. Men who are especially bothered by its absence can undergo a number of procedures to restore the covering of the glans. These, though, do not restore full sensation. The National Organization for Restoring Men (NORM) provides information on its web site about restoration options.

The simplest and most common is gentle stretching, or tugging, the skin remaining below the glans. Application of a corticosteroid cream can help make the skin more pliable. The stretching is done two to four times a day. But it takes two years or more of effort to achieve a covering. The resulting skin covering does protect the glans and helps keep it warm and moist. And the penis does appear to have an intact foreskin. Medical advice is recommended before any restorative effort is begun. Surgical procedures also are available, but they cost $25,000 to $30,000.

The high value gay men place on the foreskin, called lace curtain, bishop’s mitre, the army flap and a number of other affectionate terms, is evidenced in the personals ads in gay publications and web sites for "models/escorts." In addition to listing the rent-boy’s appearance and physical statistics, including cock length and girth, the ads usually stipulate whether he is "cut" or "uncut." Those who are uncut often are from Latin America or Eastern Europe. Their clients, especially those who are cut, hire them for the additional pleasure to be provided by the shared foreskin. Among other functions, the rented foreskin can be used for "docking," a practice in which the foreskin of one man’s erect cock is pulled over the head of the other’s. It’s not quite the same as having an intact foreskin of one’s own, but it’s nice to be able to share those who are fortunate enough to have kept theirs.