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Circumcision: Harm and Psychological Factors Ignored

Leading Jewish circumcision opponent Ronald Goldman, Ph.D., highlights the absence of the mention of the harms of circumcision in public discourse.

An initiative banning circumcision that was removed from San Francisco's November ballot stimulated a wave of articles related to the topic, but virtually all of them avoid discussing the inherent harm of circumcision. By defending or advocating circumcision, proponents avoid some of the emotional discomfort connected with questioning circumcision and fail to disclose the adverse effects. Consequently, they do not help us to see the whole picture. Psychological factors affect every aspect of the practice, including who chooses to study circumcision, what questions are studied and what questions are ignored; which studies are approved for publication and which studies are rejected; what circumcision information is communicated to parents and what information is withheld from parents; what recommendations are made by policy committees and what recommendations are ignored; and what circumcision information is reported in the media and what information is withheld from the public.

Circumcision is a very misunderstood subject, and statements by "experts" may be misleading. National medical organizations unanimously find no proven medical benefit for circumcision. The endless search for a medical benefit―from treating epilepsy, irritability, and masturbation in the late 1800s to preventing sexually transmitted diseases today―has always been suspect.

Studies show that circumcision is significantly painful and traumatic. Some infants do not cry because they go into shock. After circumcision infants exhibit behavioral changes, and there are disruptions in mother-child bonding. Changes in pain response of circumcised infants have been demonstrated in baby boys at six months of age, evidence of lasting neurological effects and a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. Anesthetics, if used, do not eliminate circumcision pain. Circumcision also has about two dozen surgical risks including, in rare cases, death. Some doctors and nurses refuse to perform or assist with circumcisions because of ethical considerations.

Long-term harm is also a consideration, but circumcised American researchers also typically avoid the discomfort of studying the sexual and psychological harm (e.g., erectile dysfunction) associated with circumcision. This pro-circumcision bias in American medicine reflects the pro-circumcision bias in American culture. The United States is the only country in the world that circumcises many of its male infants for non-religious reasons. Europeans think we’re crazy.

Americans generally ignore the fact that the loss of the foreskin matters. Most circumcised American men (and doctors) do not know what they are missing. Based on recent reports, circumcision removes up to one-half of the erogenous tissue on the penile shaft. The adult foreskin is a double layer, a movable sleeve equivalent to approximately twelve square inches. Medical studies have shown that the foreskin protects the penile head, enhances sexual pleasure, and facilitates intercourse.

Cutting off the foreskin removes several kinds of specialized nerves and results in the thickening and progressive desensitization of exposed erogenous tissue as men age. This tissue would normally remain sensitive because it would normally be protected by the foreskin. Some men who are circumcised as adults (usually because they followed the questionable advice of a doctor) report a significant decrease in sexual pleasure as a result. For example, having sex after being circumcised has been compared to "seeing in black and white instead of in color."

Some dissatisfied men report wide-ranging psychological consequences of circumcision including anger, a sense of loss and sadness, and sexual anxieties. Reduced emotional expression and the avoidance of intimacy may also be related to circumcision. Most circumcised men may seem satisfied because they accept cultural beliefs about circumcision and may not understand what circumcision is and the benefits of the foreskin, they may suppress certain feelings about circumcision because they are too painful, or they may not disclose these feelings due to fear of being dismissed or ridiculed.

We have not had the courage to admit we are making a very serious mistake by continuing to circumcise. For American society, circumcision is a solution in search of a problem, a social custom disguised as a medical issue. Defending circumcision requires minimizing or ignoring the harm and producing overstated medical claims. Beware of circumcised American medical doctors who defend or advocate circumcision. Instead, watch a circumcision video and trust your feelings, instincts, and common sense. You will certainly want to keep your baby safe and intact. 

Ronald Goldman, Ph.D. (psychology) is executive director of the Circumcision Resource Center and author of Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma and Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective.