Congratulations!
It's a BOY!
And that means...
 baby 
He's got a penis!
Which means...
He's got a foreskin!
 

 

Now, it may happen that his father doesn't have a foreskin, but don't worry, your son's foreskin is not some kind of python that's going to rise up and strangle him. About 70% of the males in the world (about 2.1 billion men and boys) have them, and they're very trouble-free. In fact many men say they greatly enjoy having one and would not willingly part with it. There are several good reasons for this.

First, let's look at what his foreskin is. You've probably heard it called just "a flap of skin covering the end of the penis". Well, there's more wrong than right about that expression:

  • It is the end of his penis, an integral part, not some kind of optional extra,
  • It's not a flap, but a double-walled tube with, later on, a unique rolling action,
  • It's not just skin, but also nerves, sensitive nerve-endings, a thin layer of muscle, and on its inner side, the same kind of surface as the lining of your mouth
  • And it's remarkably big - especially when he's grown up, but even as a baby. Unfolded, an average man's foreskin is as big as a 3"x5" filecard.

 

So what does his foreskin do?

Some people say "Mankind used to need it when we ran around naked, but no more." Well, it still protects the surface of the head (glans) of his penis and keeps it soft. Clothing doesn't do that - on the contrary, clothing rubbing his glans hardens it, the way walking barefoot hardens your feet.

While he's a baby, it also protects his urine-tube (urethra) from bacteria entering, acting like a kind of flap valve; that's why a baby's is so long. Babies who don't have a foreskin are more likely to get ulcers around the opening in the head where the urine comes out, which causes it to close. Then they have to have surgery to fix that.

There is some suggestion that the cells of the inside of his foreskin are part of his immune system.

All those nerves, some 20,000 of them, will probably have a sexual function when he grows up: they're in the right place and they're of the right kind. If his father doesn't have a foreskin, what's the most sensitive part of his penis? The underside, just behind the head (the frenulum), right? Well, there is a ring of tissue, just as sensitive as that, running right around inside your son's foreskin. Sadly, for men without foreskins, the frenulum is all that is left of that.

 

Now here's a question for you: Whose foreskin is it, anyway?

Why, his of course! Who else? Why do you ask?

Because now, at last, it's time to use the "c" word -

Circumcision

Which is...?

Cutting off his foreskin. But you probably knew that.

You may not know, though, that when he is born, the inside of his foreskin is closely attached to the head of his penis. Before it can be cut off, the doctor has to run a blunt probe around between his foreskin and his glans to separate them. That hurts like hell, as you can imagine, and leaves the surface of his glans bloody and raw. There's a real risk that the raw edge of his cut foreskin will heal back on to the raw surface of his glans, forming a "skin bridge". These are not at all uncommon in circumcised men, and they can form little tunnels where it's very hard to clean - which defeats one of the purposes of circumcision.

In fact, damage of various kinds is not all that uncommon, it just often goes unreported. A surprising number of men have a scar across the head, a stray tag of skin hanging off their penis, or ugly lumps where the two kinds of skin healed together and where the veins had to find their own new routes.

The pain of circumcision is now known to be excruciating, and can only partly be deadened with drugs. Better not to give babies drugs anyway. The shock of circumcision makes breastfeeding harder to establish.

Worse things can go wrong with circumcision. You may have heard of the man in Winnipeg, Canada who was raised as a girl after his penis was accidentally burnt off or the boy in Washington state who's brain-damaged. Babies sometimes die from circumcision - very rarely, but that's small consolation to their parents.

 

So why does anyone do it?

Good question. Cutting off part of boys' genitals goes back to the dawn of time, probably to Africa, but it was invented independently in Polynesia and Australia. It seems to have arisen as some kind of magical attempt at taking control of sex. Maybe it was to make the penis look like an erect one all the time, giving magical potency. Or maybe the shedding of the baby's blood was a sacrifice, perhaps in imitation of women's shedding of blood that gave them the power of birth. In various parts of the world it's still a tribal rite. Once started, circumcision seems to be a habit that's hard to break.

  • Its modern secular practice began in the 19th century to "cure" masturbation. (It didn't work, of course.)
  • When that lost credibility, men came back from the First World War with sexually transmitted diseases and circumcision quickly attached itself to that. (Studies show any difference is marginal at best. One found only circumcised men had the commonest STD, chlamydia.)
  • Then Dr Abraham Wolbarst thought he had shown that circumcision protected men against penile cancer. (All he really found was that older men, born before circumcision was fashionable, are more likely to contract penile cancer. Penile cancer rates are much lower in some countries that do not circumcise {such as Denmark}, than in the US.)
  • During the Second World War, men were circumcised when they caught VD (maybe as punishment) but they told their families their foreskins had got infected, and many babies were circumcised to prevent that.
  • About this time, Dr Benjamin Spock recommended it, which really set the bandwagon rolling. (He later changed his mind.)
  • Then came cervical cancer (in the men's partners). (These studies compared populations with many other cultural differences as well as circumcision.)
  • Urinary Tract Infection. (Girls are more likely to get UTIs than any boys, and they of course are treated with medicine, not surgery. Boys born prematurely are more susceptible to UTI and are more often left intact. Some studies failed to correct for this.)
  • And now almost inevitably, HIV/AIDS. (The randomised trials in Africa are not as conclusive as is often claimed. Other African studies compared men of different cultures, and the virus is rampant there. The AIDS rate in Europe and Scandinavia, where hardly any men are circumcised, is much lower than in the US. Even if the studies are correct, circumcising would be a very ineffective way of preventing HIV in the developed world.) It would be very foolish for anyone to rely on his circumcision to protect him against HIV.

So it's reasonable to be skeptical of each new claim that circumcision protects against the disease of the day.

Circumcision used to be as fashionable in the rest of the English-speaking world as it is in the US, but it's virtually obsolete there now - and there have been no epidemics of foreskin-related diseases since it stopped.

 

But shouldn't a boy look like his father?

When the boy sees his father's penis, what he'll notice most is its hairyness and size. When he notices the other difference, his dad can explain in simple language what happened to him. Your son will almost certainly say, "Boy, I'm sure glad you didn't let them do that to me."

 

Circumcision never harmed me!

Perhaps it didn't, perhaps you were just lucky. A baby's penis is tiny, and how much and exactly what is removed is very much a matter of chance. Your son might not be as lucky as you.

 

Isn't it cleaner?

There's much less to clean with a boy than a girl. He just needs to wash the outside until it pulls back easily (probably not till he's talking) and then wash the inside as well, but only with very mild soap if any. (The very small amount of stuff inside is called "smegma" which is Greek for soap - it washes out easily) The best person to decide when he's ready to do that is him. It's very important not to force his foreskin back before it's ready. That can cause tearing and damage (which can almost always be fixed without circumcision, though).

 

Won't he worry about looking different?

Circumcision is no longer nearly universal anywhere in the US. He'll certainly find others like him, and may even be in the majority: it could be the circumcised boys who'll feel different, and they won't have the consolation that he has, that he's got something more than they have. If his brothers are circumcised, it need not be a big issue between them: just tell them, "They used to tell us it was a good thing to do, now they don't think so."

 

It's very important to our family/congregation/community that he be circumcised.

Again, whose penis is it? You'd fight to the death if some stranger tried to grab your baby and cut off part of his or her genitals. What difference does it make to him if this time it's people close to you?

Circumcision is a human rights issue. Where it's a religious matter, there are movements within those communities to end the practice. The great religions of the world celebrate kindness, compassion and the integrity of the individual. Why should the treatment of a baby's genitals be an exception?

Cutting of a girl's genitals for any reason at all except medical need is outlawed in the US and many Western countries. That includes even token cutting and pricking, far milder than male circumcision. Why should boys go unprotected?

 

It takes a brave man to admit
that his sexuality might not be
all that it could be.

It takes a strong man
to grant his son
something that was taken from him.

 

Congratulations on your baby!

He's wonderful.

All
of him.

 

 

 


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Related pages:

An article in Nurturing Online also adresses this topic.

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