I can still remember the first foreskin I ever saw. I was about three and at my local swimming pool, and a boy about my age was in the communal showers, naked. Liquid seemed to cascade off the tapered end of his tiny penis, turning him into a living Belgian water feature.
I was horrified and hypnotised. Coming from household that was both perpetually nude and perpetually Jewish, the only penises I’d seen were my dad’s and my brother’s. They did not look at all like this boy’s. My world – or at least the part of my world to do with penises – was shaken.
I can comfortably say that I was raised anti-foreskin. Although not remotely religious, my parents made sure my siblings and I were exposed to chopped liver, Woody Allen films (acceptable in the Nineties) and pro-circumcision rhetoric. Circumcised penises were “cleaner” and more aesthetically pleasing.
My mum kept the tiny plastic ring used to circumcise my brother in her jewellery box: she used to threaten to bring it out on his wedding day. And when my sister told her she wasn’t going to be having her baby boy circumcised, my mum made a face like Winston Churchill chewing a stinging nettle.
I never thought to question my parents’ aversion to foreskins – an aversion shared by the vast majority of Americans (Jewish, Muslim or otherwise). Statistics on the number of circumcised American men seem to vary, but the overall rate in males aged 14 to 59 – as stated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – was 81 per cent in 2014. My assumption had always been that circumcision is, at worst, unnecessary, but harmless.
Maybe this is why, while scrolling into the weirder section of Netflix documentaries – the ones with aliens, demonic possession and truthers of all denominations – I was drawn to one called American Circumcision. It occurred to me that I don’t really know anything about this surgical procedure, undergone by men in my family since bants king God was like, “Hey Abraham, dare you to cut off some dick.”
American Circumcision, it turns out, is as ham fisted in its approach as the botched circumcisions it cites as an argument against the practice. It’s 100 minutes of clumsily edited talking heads, one of which is emerging from a torso bearing an “I love my foreskin” t-shirt. The film is also recommended on the website of Justice for Men and Boys, which is – for those who have forgotten – that political party that cropped up in the UK a few years ago, in response to the dangers of feminism. If this isn’t a red flag, I’m not sure what is.
Then again – and a thousand apologies for sounding like Jordan Peterson – poor editing and a fan base consisting at least partially of men’s rights activists does not detract from some of the facts. The film opens with a big-eyed baby boy being prepared for his circumcision. He’s placed in a thing I can only describe as a car seat that contravenes the Geneva Convention, and in which his arms and legs are strapped down. I’m not sure how I imagined a circumcision was conducted, but this had me partially covering my eyes while repeating the word “No”.
According to a number of paediatricians interviewed in the film, the pre-circumcision anaesthetic is not always effective. Plus, the injections directly into the penis that the process requires are in themselves pretty torturous. There’s even a study cited that shows circumcised males have a stronger reaction to the pain of vaccinations, because of needle-induced PTSD.
But the main argument of the “intactivists” – the most vocal pro-foreskin group in the US – is that Big Circumcision is peddling the lie that the procedure is in any way necessary. A historian notes that, in the 19th century, circumcisions were carried out to prevent the “disease” of masturbation. By the time of AIDS crisis, circumcision was purported to help prevent HIV. These studies, which were carried out “in Africa” – the doc doesn’t go into which specific countries; perhaps another red flag – seem not only to have manipulated the figures in favour of circumcision, but also led to the spread dangerous misinformation which suggests circumcision making condoms redundant.
Perhaps the most compelling talking head is that of a woman who underwent female circumcision (more commonly and rightfully referred to as female genital mutilation). She says that the footage she saw of a baby boy being circumcised reminded her overwhelmingly of her own deeply traumatic “cutting”. I’m yet to see any compelling evidence that male circumcision is as damaging as FGM, but there does seem to be a double standard there. Why is what goes on “in Africa” any more questionable than what takes place every day in hospitals across the US?
American Circumcision reminded me of documentaries made by conspiracy theorists: it’s like Loose Change for schlongs. But still, after watching it, I’m certain that, if I had a baby boy, I’d leave his penis the hell alone.
Mostly, it’s a film that made me think about the various things we can spend our entire lives taking for granted as harmless and normal. It’s only in recent years have women started to react en masse against the idea of wearing shoes that maim our feet, and sales of high heels are now dropping. Retrospectively, it bothers me that I never really thought to question the idea of messing with the genitals of someone who can’t even give consent.
It destroys me to say this, but I appear to have become “woke” to the single issue on which MRAs have a point.