Women and circumcision: Leave me out of it


Here’s the thing about the circumcision debate: Like everything else between men and their foreskins, women want nothing to do with it.

A while back, I was at a blues club when a tall, slim, blond fellow asked me for a dance. I’d seen him out on the floor and he seemed like a smooth mover (blues dancers, unlike your average oonst-oonsters, tend to trade partners), so I said yes.

Turns out, I was right. He was a good lead: firm but gentle, playful yet clear. The only problem was, about a minute into the song, he started urgently not-quite-whispering about circumcision. Like, did I know it was mutilation? Had I ever slept with a natural guy? Wasn’t it better?

When I told him I wasn’t accustomed to discussing my sex life on the dance floor, he assumed I didn’t and I hadn’t so I couldn’t possibly say – and, in a show of great evangelical fervor, handed me a card directing me to a website of one, Ms. Kristen O’Hara, who’d authored a book called “Sex as Nature Intended It.”

I dismissed him for the sheer absurdity of his timing as much as anything else. But that was before his cause was set to appear on November’s ballot, thanks to the efforts of Lloyd Schofield and the intactivists (band name, anyone?) who’ve collected more than 7,000 signatures from preservation-friendly petitioners.

As an indisputably happy transplant to the land where cheeseburgers come toy-less and cats have their claws, I was perplexed to find myself perplexed by the proposal.

Was it a latent shred of Judaism somehow stirred up? A knee-jerk reaction to state intervention into this most private of matters? The inevitable result of growing up in a society that gets giggly over the merest suggestion of sexuality – Weiner’s wiener being only the latest example?

Or was it because we’re just so culturally inured to the custom that we treat those who oppose it as freaks? (Anyone else remember Alan Tudyk’s caricature of a gay German drug addict lamenting his lost foreskin in 28 Days?)

I wasn’t – and still am not – prepared to say. It’s complex issue, muddled by the phenomenon in which inhibition and hilarity combine to derail honest conversation. Add religion, equal protection, and a loaded term like “nanny state,” and it’s no surprise the matter has billowed into overwrought emotion on all sides.

But let’s forget – for a moment – vicious Monster Mohels who thirst over infant blood, fathers protecting their sons’ locker-room status, and doctors citing STI-prevention studies that were neither conducted in, nor aimed at, populations in this country. Let’s focus on one group that definitely doesn’t belong in the debate: women.

If my erstwhile blues partner was seriously trying to recruit supporters to his way of thinking, he should have known that an unsuspecting woman on the dance floor would not an ideal target make.

Nonetheless, I admit that a mix of consternation and bemused curiosity got the better of me. I ran reconnaissance on the website – a dreadful 90’s flashback minus only the midi – and was horrified to find that, as an unsuspecting women, I was precisely this Mr. Blues’ target. Indeed, I was the crucial component of his argument.

“The surgically altered circumcised penis makes it difficult – in some cases impossible – for most American women to achieve orgasm from intercourse,” the website proclaimed boldly.

Amid jerky, continuous-loop videos that looked like low-def pornos, and first-person testimonials that sounded like amateur online erotica, nary a word could be found about the person behind (or not, as the case may be) the prepuce. The entire site purported to tell me what I, as a woman, would want from my lover. And all signs pointed to extra skin.

Among O’Hara’s various assertions are that cut members miss out on the retracted foreskin bunching up to seal in vaginal moisture; that decreased sensitivity forces circumcised men have rough “adrenalized” sex; that circumcised men must take longer strokes which deny women ideal clitoral contact; and that the coronal “hook” of a circumcised penis rides along the rippled skin of the vagina, creating uncomfortable friction (the accompanying illustrations put me in mind of the Ruffles have R-R-R-Ridges commercials. Of course, Trojans have r-r-r-ridges, too – on the “Her Pleasure” condoms designed for the very purpose of creating friction.)

The website claims that the head of an uncircumcised penis is “soft, like velvet,” but that circumcised sex is like “being poked with a hard broomstick.” All of this to the following conclusion: men who are bad lovers, who pound like jackhammers, who leave their partners sore, simply can’t help it.

I’m sorry. I’m not denying that there may be physical differences, but my book, the unpracticed and unskilled just don’t get off that easy – pun totally intended.

Now, as it turns out – Mom and Dad, if you’re reading this, I sincerely apologize – I’ve had it both ways. And I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that I speak for a large number of women when I say that I don’t find there to be categorical difference between men who are intact, and those who aren’t.

I’m sure O’Hara and her passionate band of male followers would tell me I’m either vastly lucky, vastly unlucky, or too tuned-out to tell the difference. But I have another analysis: sex is a highly variable, highly personal act.

Take the following unattributed account from O’Hara’s book: a woman describes sex – her first time – with a cut boy on the beach who “literally jumped [her] bones,” pummeled her, and left her feeling “almost dead.” A year later, she had her first natural sex with a boy she’d spent an idyllic summer skinny-dipping and milking cows alongside. Unlike the beach bum, he began the event by kissing her.

Well, no shit she felt differently.

If O’Hara were really a maven of sexuality – or if she paid any attention to the decades of medical literature that precede her – she’d know that sex has as much to do with a person’s head as his or her loins. And if she really had a drum to beat for female satisfaction, she’d be saying anything but “I’m sorry folks, it’s all out of your control. You’re at the mercy of what a masked doctor did 20 or 30 or 40 years ago.”

Women who are in bed with men – indeed, people who are in bed with people –should be encouraged to discuss their needs, say what they want, and help their partners become the best lovers possible. To suggest that a certain kind of sex is the inevitable result of circumcision is not only disempowering, but downright demeaning – for all parties involved.
While O’Hara’s website is clearly over the top, speculation as to women’s preferences pepper online information sharing forums, anti-circumcision websites, and even the literature listed in the resource section of MGMbill.org, which sponsored the San Francisco ballot measure.

To be certain, intact penises have some nifty tricks up their sleeves – thank you, I’m here all night – that circumcised penises just can’t pull off. Or course, if you’re wearing a condom, a lot of them won’t matter. And the – erm – polls can be twisted either way: many say women prefer circumcised penises. Since we’ve put the size debate (for the most part) to rest, it seems fair to reiterate that what you’ve got is less important than how you use it.

I am not trying to say that men shouldn’t get a say in their own anatomy. Even if you call circumcision a personal choice, no matter how you slice it – ok, ok, enough – it’s never really been down to the person who actually matters.

This is about a man’s relationship to his own body, which is why “what women want” shouldn’t play a role.

After all, we’re universally appalled when men’s preferences drive women to seek labiaplasty. (An analogy carefully chosen: it seems greatly unfair to draw a comparison to the vastly more invasive, vastly more dangerous practice of female genital cutting – which, unlike circumcision, has nearly always served to make sex difficult to completely impossible for women .)
There’s a more sinister side to the tendency to make male circumcision into a female issue. It overrides the question of bodily autonomy, and implies that men can only experience their body by acting out their sexual identity through women.

The issue becomes a man’s ability to please women – the equally problematic flip side, of course, being that if a man does a fine job of pleasing his partner, no harm has been done.

Framing the debate in this way cements women’s role as a passive fixture in the relationship, while also diffusing the man’s power (and responsibility) by focusing attention on an external, uncontrollable element.

Making that uncontrollable element controllable sounds great. The problem is, your infant son didn’t choose to be circumcised, but he also didn’t choose not to be. While a neonatal circumcision is irreversible, it’s not like waiting “until he can decide” is wholly without consequences, either.

“I’m glad I’m circumcised,” a friend told me recently, “and I’m sure glad I don’t remember it.”

It’s impossible to say how my friend would have felt about his circumcision had he grown up in a different cultural atmosphere, and mores may well be changing to the point where he would be just as happy whole.

According to the MGM bill’s own website, 90% of male babies already leave Bay Area hospitals intact. It would be foolish to pass a ban based on the assumption that masses of infants are senselessly whisked away to be docked while their mothers, drugged-up and dopey, lay unawares.

And, regardless of your views on the matter, it is likewise foolish to assume that damage between men and women can be introduced or repaired by a foreskin.

Take, for example, Mr. Blues. Now I didn’t ask, but both his fervor on the subject and statistics – as intactivists are fond of pointing out – would indicate that he was altered. side from his attempt bordering-on-low-grade-sexual-harassment to brainwash me, he seemed like a nice guy. And, despite all, we had chemistry. At least on the dance floor.
He was sensitive, attentive, spontaneous – and though I’d never want to be in bed with him, I daresay someone would. Because in the end, all those things matter – at least to women – a lot more than a few inches of skin, nerve-rich though they be.



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