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And, minimize! What it was like being circumcised in my 60s | Circumcision

The day earlier than I had the chop, I visited the Nationwide Gallery in London to review a portray of the child Jesus. With out wishing to get too CSI: Bethlehem about this, there’s little or no bodily proof to warrant the title The Circumcision. On this portray by somebody from the workshop of Giovanni Bellini, the sumptuously bearded mohel, tasked with eradicating the foreskin, hides the operation from our view along with his hand. Look as I’d, I may see neither knife nor holy penis.

The day after my encounter with Jesus, I’m because of have a centimetre of my foreskin eliminated for a situation known as phimosis, which implies tight foreskin. Whereas phimosis is regular amongst male infants because the foreskin is connected to the glans in early improvement of the penis, in adults the situation is pathological. I’ve not been capable of learn the way many British males have been circumcised as adults, however my urologist instructed me it’s not unusual: throughout what he hilariously known as “insertive sexual activity”, the foreskin retreats, inflicting tearing whether it is non-retractable. Tearing didn’t occur in my case, however the attachment of foreskin to glans precipitated soreness and, with out wishing to recommend this was a beauty process, seemed mistaken.

The Circumcision from the workshop of Giovanni Bellini, about 1500.
The Circumcision from the workshop of Giovanni Bellini, about 1500. {Photograph}: Stefano Baldini/Bridgeman Photographs

The situation could be handled with steroid lotions, however my surgeon advised that a couple of minutes in his working theatre would do the trick. Having been handled below native anaesthetic 4 occasions final yr for a indifferent retina, the prospect of getting my crown jewels minimize, stitched and cauterised didn’t terrify me fairly as a lot as it could have completed a number of years in the past.

A pal who had the identical operation instructed me: “I’d been so embarrassed about my foreskin sticking to my knob that I grew to become afraid to have intercourse. I didn’t know what to do, so I steeled myself to go to the GP. They had been very useful, telling me that there was a surgical procedure and that it could minimize off a part of my foreskin and permit me to see my glans in all its unsheathed glory for the primary time in ages.” And so it got here to cross. My pal says his intercourse life has improved 100% since then.

In some ways, my expertise was nothing like Jesus’s. My circumcision was elective. It happened not on a Galilean plinth however at a hospital in Hendon, north-west London. I’m not eight days previous however eligible for a free bus cross. Few of my countrymen have had their foreskins eliminated (within the UK, the newest figures point out 20.7% of males, in contrast with, say, 71.2% within the US, 13.5% in India, 96.4% in Pakistan and simply 1.3% of Brazilian males). Most significantly, I used to be operated on below common anaesthetic. With out these medication, I’d have completed greater than clutch my fists and look heavenwards – I’d have run by way of Hendon’s streets screaming with my surgical robe flapping behind me till I used to be arrested.

After the operation, I reclined for some time on the mattress in a personal room (although the operation was on the NHS, it happened in a hospital so posh that the nurse confirmed me a menu earlier than I used to be taken into theatre) and thought, deliriously, of the late Miles Kington’s droll Channel 4 documentary In Search of the Holy Foreskin. Within the programme, he toured Italy attempting in useless to search out all people’s High 10 favorite holy relic, Jesus’s foreskin, which has been honored for hundreds of years as a non secular icon. What occurred to mine, I requested the nurse when she got here to remove the tea tray. It was disposed of with the remainder of the medical waste, she stated. Disgrace: I imagined it in a glass case, the trustworthy abased earlier than its majesty. Or worn on Saint Catherine’s ring finger following her mystical marriage to Christ. Or, as one Seventeenth-century theologian maintained, rising from the Earth to discover a new identification as a hoop of Saturn.

My spouse drove me residence a few hours after the surgical procedure. The anaesthetic was sporting off and each pace bump was a kick in what remained of the crown jewels. Again residence, I reclined as soon as extra and Googled questions that troubled me. What, I questioned, is the foreskin for? It should serve some evolutionary operate in any other case it could have withered, you’d assume, on the proverbial vine. And why, traditionally, have so many cultures had it ceremonially faraway from their child boys?

Definitely, circumcision is a ceremony marking the covenant between God and Abraham however, as journalist Elon Gilad contended within the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, that covenant appears to be a later improvement. When historic Semitic peoples grew to become farmers, Gilad argued, they got here to affiliate pruning with improved fertility. Certainly, Leviticus 19:23 hyperlinks circumcision to this agricultural observe: “And when ye shall come into the land, and shall have planted all method of bushes for meals, then ye shall depend the fruit thereof as uncircumcised: three years shall it’s as uncircumcised unto you: it shall not be eaten of.”

In Israel at the moment, 91.7% of males (not all Jews, after all) are circumcised. For a proudly Jewish author like Philip Roth, circumcision was a symbolic second. “Fairly convincingly, circumcision offers the mislead the womb-dream of life within the lovely state of harmless prehistory, the interesting idyll of dwelling ‘naturally’, unencumbered by man-made ritual,” as he put it in his novel The Counterlife.

Tlisted here are different views. For example, Islamic scholar Dr Khalid Zaheer cites medical and non secular causes for toddler male circumcision. “An uncircumcised individual can not, at occasions, maintain himself clear after urinating. We now have to maintain ourselves mentally and bodily clear 5 occasions a day to formally bear in mind God in our prayers.”

In Britain, circumcision is uncommon. Partially, that is due to an influential and surprisingly fascinating 1949 paper known as The Destiny of the Foreskin by Douglas Gairdner through which the Cambridge paediatrician argued strongly towards the view prevailing in America that boys are higher off with out foreskins. “As quickly because it [the boy’s foreskin] turns into retractable, which can usually happen a while between 9 months and three years, its bathroom [ie cleaning] must be included within the routine of bathtime … If such a process grew to become customary the circumcision of youngsters would develop into an unusual operation.”

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By contrast, in the US male circumcision is so common that an uncircumcised male would stand out in the locker room. This is chiefly because of the strong medical case that removing the foreskin reduces risks of several infections and diseases. According to the American Academy of Paediatrics, the risk of urinary tract infections in uncircumcised boys under age two is about 1%; in circumcised boys, the risk decreases between threefold and tenfold. The risk of penile cancer is also apparently reduced by circumcision, though as the New York Times reported, penile cancer is so rare – at least in the US – that an estimated 300,000 newborns would have to be circumcised in order to prevent a single case. Circumcision has also been claimed to reduce the risk of some sexually transmitted infections, including genital herpes (reduced by 28%, according to one study).

I read these and many other reports and papers, fascinated, as I convalesced. So far, I have been fortunate: bandages and stitches fell away, pain was minimal and the prescribed gels did the trick of soothing my soreness. Others have not been so lucky. Terry Brazier, 70, made headlines in 2019 after going to Leicester Royal Infirmary for a bladder procedure and being mistakenly circumcised instead. Brazier was awarded £20,000 in compensation. Three years ago, under the headline “I’m scared of my penis”, a 21-year-old man named Curtis told the BBC that he developed post-traumatic stress disorder after his wound became infected following a partial circumcision aged seven.

I wince over the problems these men suffered, but prefer to look on the bright side. According to a 1988 survey, American women favoured the appearance of circumcised penises. Ninety per cent of women reported circumcised penises look better, 92% said they were cleaner and 85% said they were more pleasant to touch.

Photograph of a banana with a dotted cut line around the tip
Photograph: Kellie French/The Guardian

Disappointingly for me, Georganne Chapin, author of the forthcoming memoir This Penis Business: Circumcision in the US, is sceptical about these kind of claims. Chapin is founder and director of Intact America, which for the past 15 years has lobbied against baby boys being circumcised in the US. “Every single circumcision leaves a penis smaller and less sensitive than it was in its original state,” she says over a video call from Atlanta. “The foreskin is there for a man’s pleasure and the pleasure of his partner. It contains thousands of highly sensitive nerve endings that make sexual intercourse more enjoyable. It also protects the glans, or the head of the penis, from everyday chafing, drying out and losing sensitivity.” (Although a topic of continued debate, a number of studies have in fact shown circumcision has minimal effect on sensitivity.)

Chapin argues that there is a very simple reason for the difference in circumcision rates between the US and UK. “In Victorian times, circumcision was put forward as prevention for a huge range of diseases in the US and the UK. But now you have a national health service that doesn’t pay for unnecessary services, while the US has a health system whereby you can have anything if you can pay for it. Here, private insurance in a lot of cases covers circumcision. It’s outrageous that that is the case. In the US, it’s part of the business of medicine.”

Chapin’s memoir discloses that she first became aware of the practice aged 10 when her baby brother came home from hospital with bloody genitals after circumcision, and two days later following complications was returned to hospital for treatment to his urethra.

“Then people started speaking out about female genital cutting and I thought: ‘Well, we do that to boys – but why?’” When she gave birth to her son in 1980, she did not want him circumcised. “I wouldn’t have had him circumcised any more than I would have poked out one of his eyes. When he was 18 he thanked me.” Why – because he believed he had better sex? “Of course. He was obviously sexually active and enjoying his whole body. That’s why he thanked me.”

But surely she doesn’t oppose circumcision for medical reasons. “There are cases where it is medically necessary, but as far as I’m concerned, if you can give informed consent, that’s fine. Babies can’t.”

Surely female genital mutilation and male circumcision are different? “They’re both child genital cutting. For girls, genital cutting can range from pricking blood on some part of the genitals, the clitoris or the labia to infibulation [the ritual removal of the external female genitalia and the suturing of the vulva, practised in some east African states].”

This can be a controversial view. For example, anti-FGM campaigner Leyla Hussein rejects the parallel, writing on HuffPost that its function is “to regulate a lady’s sexuality. Full cease. FGM is completed to forestall a lady from having fun with intercourse so as to maintain her ‘pure’. Male circumcision is completed for utterly completely different causes, together with non secular, aesthetic, hygienic … a circumcised male can nonetheless take pleasure in intercourse, and the observe shouldn’t be completed to lower sexual pleasure. FGM is way extra damaging to a lady’s sexuality than MGM is to a person’s.”

What, I ask Chapin, about thousands and thousands of Muslims, Jews and others who for cultural and non secular causes had been circumcised as boys in ritual practices going again millennia. Do you object to them? “I do object! There’s completely no purpose for reducing regular, un-diseased physique elements of an individual who can not give consent.”

Of 1.5m circumcisions completed annually within the US, she reckons, solely 25,000 are carried out for non secular causes. The rest, she argues, are completed as a result of the medical occupation has satisfied the American public that foreskins usually are not hygienic.

Although my expertise wasn’t fairly the form of trauma described by Chapin, I can empathise with those that suffered the unkindest minimize whereas, you’d think about, they had been nonetheless struggling PTSD from being born.

I name up an internet model of The Circumcision and look once more on the little chap’s tiny clenched fists and eyes raised heavenwards as if to say: “Cheers for this, Dad.” In some ways I’ve been a lot luckier, although I nonetheless have considerations. Maybe I’ve made a mistake. Maybe I ought to have tried the steroid lotions. Perhaps, if I’m involved about diminished sensitivity in my penis (which I hadn’t been, till speaking to Chapin), I ought to stretch what stays of my foreskin over my penis. Or purchase Novoglan’s non-surgical phimosis remedy foreskin tissue expander package (RRP £150), which guarantees outcomes inside weeks, regardless that the illustrations make it look as if I’d be placing a Vacu Vin over my penis. Irrespective of. It may develop into a passion.

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