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My wife and I are expecting a baby boy. Soon we will face the prickly question: to circumcise or not to circumcise? As far as we can determine, the dispute has not been settled which is healthier. As youngsters we heard that circumcision fosters cleanliness. Then we heard that this argument is feeble in a society familiar with the concept of soap. Then we heard of correlations between uncircumcised penises and cancers of the prostate and vagina. Then we heard that these reports are bunk. If you can resolve these questions, great.

But it's the sexual angle that most intrigues us at the moment. Which choice is the right one in terms of the sex life of the boy and a future partner? Some argue that circumcision is cruel because a circumcised penis is less sensitive, providing the man less sexual stimulation. Others counter that this is a good argument for circumcision: a reduction in sensitivity delays male climax, providing both partners more satisfaction. What say you, Cecil? --J.B., Chicago

Doesn't make much difference, on average. Which is not to say it doesn't make much difference. It's just that individual reactions to circumcision run the gamut and there's no telling how things are going to turn out for your kid.

Cecil knows this because he has been inquiring once again on the Internet--not the most scientific technique in the world, but how else are you going to find out about things like this? I turned up four men who were circumcised as adults and could thus compare. Two said sex was better before, two said it's better now. The two who bitched said that over time the foreskinless glans (the tip of the penis) became less sensitive, maybe due to abrasion from clothing. It certainly isn't because the foreskin contains more nerve endings, as some circumcision opponents allege; from an anatomical standpoint, God's little mudguard is basically ordinary skin.

Of the two satisfied customers, one was circumcised because he had a tight foreskin that split and bled copiously during his first attempt at intercourse--mercifully not a common problem. The other guy just didn't like the way his stalk looked. Now, he says, he's not only more sensitive, but he doesn't have problems with odors, splash when urinating, or get his foreskin caught in his zipper. Your kid's prospective partners (in a moment of heterosexism, Cecil assumed they would be women) were also divided in their views; several said an uncircumcised man had more to play with, while others preferred the streamlined look.

This isn't really helping you, is it? It gets worse. One analysis (Ganiats et al, 1991) found that circumcision had a "net discounted lifetime cost" of $102 and a health cost of 14 hours of healthy life. In other words, you wound up poorer and sicker--but only slightly. Conclusion: "The financial and medical advantages and disadvantages of routine neonatal circumcision cancel each other."

In English-speaking countries routine circumcision of newborns began in the late 19th century as a quack medical technique intended to curb masturbation and other ills. Circumcision opponents, a passionate lot, decry the practice as "ritual genital mutilation." Those unhappy with their circumcised members (a common complaint is that the skin is too tight, making intercourse and, yes, masturbation painful without lubrication) sometimes resort to "foreskin restoration," in which the skin is stretched with clamping devices. Sounds awful, but they say it works.

Doctors first began questioning the wisdom of routine circumcision in 1949; since 1971 the American Academy of Pediatrics has opposed it. Apart from cultures where it's done for ritual purposes, it remains common only in the U.S., but is dropping in popularity here--from 86 percent in 1975 to 71 percent in 1984, according to one study.

So chuck it, eh? Not so fast. In 1989 the AAP withdrew its opposition to circumcision because accumulating evidence suggests it prevents penile cancer and reduces urinary tract infections in infants. And circumcisees do wind up with a maintenance-free tool. Bottom line? He'll survive either way. Flip a coin.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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