December 8, 2005
Does circumcision offer health benefits for men?
If you were circumcised as an adult and have experienced sexual relations both before and afterward, then Emily Bazelon wants to know about it. Why that concerns me -- and may concern you -- takes a little explaining.
Bazelon, a writer for the online magazine Slate, commented in her column on a study conducted in South Africa that showed that circumcised men are less likely by some roughly 70 percent to contract the HIV virus from an infected female partner. That report has generated tremendous interest and a degree of controversy among international AIDS researchers, especially as regards Africa, where the disease is often transmitted via heterosexual partners.
As Bazelon notes, the study adds new fuel to an old debate: Does male circumcision (assuming it is done in a sanitary and correct manner) offer any health benefits? Or conversely, does it have adverse effects? For most Jews, of course, that debate is essentially beside the point. Circumcision is not carried out as a health measure, but as a divine commandment stressed several times in the Bible ("Every male among you shall be circumcised/and ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin as a sign of a covenant between Me and you" -- Genesis 17:11-12).
It is unquestionably the most widely practiced religious ritual among Jews, and also most likely the oldest. Considerable evidence has been found to prove that circumcision was a common practice among other peoples in this region long before the rise of the ancient Israelites.
But even if health concerns are not the reason that Jews practice circumcision, it doesn't mean that (just like with kashrut) Jewish sources haven't tried to also credit it with physically beneficial properties. A long line of Jewish thinkers equally versed in medical matters, beginning with the first-century C.E. philosopher Philo, continuing on to Maimonides and to such present-day experts as Dr. Mordechai Halperin, have argued that penises without foreskins are more hygienic and less prone to infection.
For decades, that was also the prevailing medical opinion in the United States (but not Europe); as a result, circumcision was a commonplace medical procedure until the past decade. Although its use in the U.S. general population has declined after studies in recent years failed to conclusively prove its health benefits, circumcision is still carried out on more than half of all newborn American boys.
Although its positive properties are widely debated, the same isn't true regarding any possible drawbacks. Only small fringe groups with little medical credibility have argued that circumcision is detrimental. One such group, the Society Against the Genital Mutilation of Infants, actually petitioned (unsuccessfully) Israel's High Court of Justice about a decade ago, claiming that brit mila violated the basic law: human dignity and freedom.
These opponents of "male genital mutilation" usually base their opposition to infant circumcision (as a religious practice) on the claim that it is a traumatic experience with lasting psychological consequences for the newborn.
Speaking from personal experience, I can't agree. On a more objective note, it's hard to imagine how circumcision can seem quite so traumatic to a newborn boy who just a week earlier was so rudely ejected from the comfort of his mother's womb into the wide, cold world.
There is although another possible downside to circumcision cited by its opponents -- that losing a foreskin reduces a man's capacity for sexual pleasure. As Bazelon notes, that idea has long existed in traditional Jewish sources, including Maimonides, who wrote that brit milah helped "to bring about a decrease in sexual intercourse" by "diminishing lust beyond what is needed" for procreation.
That prospect has her, the Jewish mother of two circumcised boys, asking: "What about my kids' future sex lives -- have they been deprived of the capacity for optimal pleasure? With no definitive scientific literature on the question, here's the best way I can think to find out.
"I propose a highly unscientific Slate study of men who have experienced sex as both circumcised and uncircumcised -- in other words, who changed their status as adults. If you fit that description and would be willing to discuss it (tastefully, of course), write to email@example.com."
Well, even if I can't contribute to Bazelon's survey, perhaps I can steer her in the right direction. In 1998, then-Jerusalem Post writer Esther Hecht, in a comprehensive article on the circumcision debate, noted that "Israel, with its sizable population of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who were circumcised as adults, would seem to offer a unique opportunity to test the claim that the operation dampens men's sexuality.
"Gynecologist Avraham Teper, who also heads the Women's Health Center at the Ben-Gurion Clinic in Upper Nazareth, concluded from reports of 138 men who had been in the country at least a year and had been sexually active prior to their circumcisions, that, once they had healed, they had intercourse less often and enjoyed it less."
Uh-oh. Are the Bazelon boys, myself and almost all Jewish men missing out on some pretty good times? Not quite.
Hecht adds that "a study like Teper's could be colored by, among other subjective factors, the respondents' attitudes toward their own circumcisions, according to Jerusalem-based sexologist Uri Wernik. If a man had himself circumcised because of his religious convictions, he might perceive sex as more pleasurable afterward, Wernik says. But if the operation resulted from social pressure and was fraught with anxiety, that might reduce subsequent pleasure."
That certainly makes sense to me. While I hate to throw cold water on Bazelon's proposed survey, I can't possibly see how the experience of undergoing circumcision in adulthood can be compared to that of infants. Let me also suggest that it strains credibility to think that such a large percentage of the world's male population (Jewish and otherwise) would over the millennia willingly submit (or submit their sons) to any procedure that would diminish their own capacity for sexual pleasure (alas, it is conversely all too easy to believe that so many would do just that to the opposite sex in those societies that still maintain the horrific practice of female genital mutilation).
Put another way, as tastefully as I can, I find it hard to believe from a personal perspective that sex gets better than it already is -- and if it does, I'm not sure I even want to know about it.
Then again, as the father only of two daughters, perhaps I'm being a little complacent about the issue. The same could be said of Israel as a whole. In a society where almost every Jewish custom is a matter of debate, circumcision is a consensual issue -- no doubt, in part, because there is no law making it compulsory, unlike, say, Shabbat restrictions.
Outside this country, though, complacency about circumcision's acceptance may no longer be a wise position. Responding to Bazelon's piece, the widely read Gay-Catholic columnist Andrew Sullivan wrote: "My own view is that circumcision should be a decision made by an adult male on health grounds alone -- and the data on HIV should make many men consider it. But the involuntary genital mutilation of newborns remains an outrage."
As a "victim" of "male genital mutilation," I certainly don't share that outrage. Quite the opposite; I proudly wear my circumcision (privately) as a badge of honor in the oldest continuing men's club in the world. As no less than Philip Roth (surely the last man on Earth who would support a practice that inhibited male sexuality) once wrote in defense of brit milah: "Circumcision confirms that there is an us."