Tuesday, April 22, 2003

WARNING: Mature subject matter and sexual content.
Andrew Sullivan keeps hammering away on the circumcision issue. As the communists would say, it is no accident.

To judge between the circumcised and uncircumcised penis, one would think, requires a good deal of analytical comparison -- and Sullivan has done plenty of that.

Ad hominem? Homophobia? No, not at all. It is Sullivan himself who has made a public issue of his homosexuality. And when someone who has such wide experience with male genitalia begins advocating foreskin envy, wouldn't we be a bit naive to think that the one had nothing to do with the other?

To the issue, briefly ... Circumcision is not "mutilation." Unlike the ghastly procedure known as "female circumcision" -- or, more accurately, female genital mutilation (FGM) -- the surgical removal of the foreskin does not impair the essential function of the sexual organ. The sexual response of the circumcised penis in arousal, orgasm and reproduction is normal, and in most ways indistinguishable from that of its uncircumcised counterpart. (Yes, I realize there is a cottage industry dedicated to demonstrating the many wonders of the foreskin, but am unpersuaded by such blatant special pleading.)

Attempts to argue that circumcision is analagous to FGM are absurd. FGM generally involves clitoridectomy and excision of the labia minora, destroying organs essential to female sexual pleasure, and often also involves "infibulation," leaving the victim with a narrow, scar-encrusted vaginal opening that makes sex extremely painful and makes childbirth difficult and dangerous. For circumcision to be analogous to FGM, it would have to involve not merely the removal of the foreskin, but also the excision of the glans and much of the penile meatus, as well as some sort of butchery to the scrotum. The comparison just won't withstand scrutiny.

Form follows function, and if both the "cut" and "uncut" members function properly, the distinction of form is not exactly a civil rights issue. The Jews have been circumcising their sons for upwards of 3,000 years, as have Muslims for 1,300 years. With them it is a religious principle. Most American Protestants adopted the practice in the 20th century for reasons of hygiene. In the industrial West, circumcision became a matter of parental preference, informed by family tradition or pediatric advice.

So long as chastity and modesty were societal norms, there was no way for circumcision to become an issue of public discussion. In an age when the vast majority of American women married the only man they ever slept with, most women never saw a penis other than their husband's, their son's, or perhaps a brother or two, so certainly women in the pre-Sixties era would have had no basis for comparison between "cut" and "uncut." (Even among today's liberated women, I suspect, most have no strong preference in this matter.) And in the old days, men might have had the occasion to observe other penises in the locker room shower or in the Army barracks, but they wouldn't have spent much time staring. So there was no real reason, back then, for a circumcised man to compare himself favorably or unfavorably to his uncircumcised peer, or vice versa.

It is, then, the sexualization of American society over the past 40 years that has given rise to the contention over circumcision. Promiscuity and pornography have permitted a greater scope for comparative anatomy. Women get breast augmentation and fret over their too-fat thighs. Men trek to the gym seeking the perfect "six pack" abdomen, and wonder if they should get laser treatment for the hair on their backs, or just wax it.

This is the fertile ground from which has sprung our contemporary Cult of the Uncut, a foreskin fetish increasingly common among circumcised men. Straight men, from viewing porn, or gay men, from more intimate perusal, have become obsessed with the Other. Like the Connecticut WASP who decorates his home with Africana, or British schoolboys obsessed with American blues, the circumcised man suffering from foreskin fever is experiencing what can only be described as xenophilia -- a perverse preference for the strange and foreign over the local and familiar.

If Andrew Sullivan feels damaged in having been surgically deprived of the Joys of Foreskin-dom, well, what is his basis for this angst? Is there some sort of dysfunction or inadequacy involved? Having gotten a few decades of quite satisfactory service from my own circumcised unit, I certainly feel no need to complain. If uncircumcised fellows (and their partners) are similarly satisfied with their own equipment, fine for them. But this absurd campaign of invidious distinctions, apparently designed to make circumcised men feel as if they're victims of oppression, serves no good purpose. I'm having a Rodney King moment: Can't we all just get along?

Whether your Little Soldier is wearing a helmet or a hood, be at peace with your penis. Covet not thy neighbor's foreskin. Or lack thereof.