I saw plenty of penises as a child. As my family is of Latin American extraction, this was never considered strange. If my father was showering for work and needed a new bar of soap or a towel, he called for me to grab it from under the sink and hand it to him, no regard for young eyes necessary. If we went to the public pool (usually with family), communal changing rooms were used. In public, I was told to not stare, as it’s impolite. At home, all bets were off.
I never asked questions. The most instruction I ever received was to never let anyone touch me in my “private parts” (my parents’ preferred term). I saw my father and my uncles and my cousins. None of it was ever a big deal.
I didn’t see my first circumcised penis until about seven or eight. I was over at the home of my best friend at the time. His grandmother was upstairs asleep while we watched movies in the living room. I remember that it was my friend’s idea to show and compare. I remember going along with it because I went along with everything my friends came up with back then.
I remember thinking the tip of his was shaped like one of my well-used crayons nestled in my desk at school. I remember thinking, for the first time, that mine looked more pencil-shaped by comparison. Nothing more happened. We watched more movies and ate food, and I biked home.
I didn’t really talk about the experience with anyone, but I did start occasionally asking questions of my friends about theirs: the overwhelming consensus was that crayon-shaped was the norm. Sometime around middle-school, the term was replaced with “Darth Vader’s helmet-shape” because we were nerds who had just discovered the availability of free porn if we were patient enough to sit and let the dial-up connection load. We never came up with a new term for pencil-shaped. Some didn’t even think it was a real thing, and I didn’t speak up.
Eventually, a combination of catechism in Abraham and a South Park episode about a bris taught me enough to know what circumcision is and that, in my parents’ home country (as in most of the world), the act is only done among Jewish and Islamic populations. My father’s atheism and cultural distaste for the practice motivated him to decline the procedure when I was born in the United States.
That has been a comfort to me over the years, and I remain grateful to my parents for making that choice. Foreskin is a natural part of the human anatomy and a boon to sexual pleasure and practice. As a proponent of bodily autonomy, I do consistently take umbrage to unnecessary, cosmetic medical procedures on children too young to understand or consent to what is being done to them.
The non-religious, medical practice of circumcision in the US can be tied to medical doctor and anti-masturbation crusader John Harvey Kellogg (and yes, he did also invent corn flakes). In 1881, he wrote:
A remedy which is almost always successful [in preventing masturbation] in small boys is circumcision…The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anæsthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment, as it may well be in some cases. The soreness which continues for several weeks interrupts the practice, and if it had not previously become too firmly fixed, it may be forgotten and not resumed. (Source: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/19924/19924-h/19924-h.htm)
While this particular teaching of Kellogg’s has fallen out of vogue, others – such as the suggestion that removing the foreskin is a remedy for “local uncleanliness” – have persisted. I spent a disconcerting amount of time hearing from both friends and partners how really, the way that I’m “set up” just isn’t as clean – that I, in fact, should be taking painstaking care to pull back my foreskin in the shower and make sure that on a daily basis, I am scrubbing away to prevent an infection.
They thought they were being progressive and helpful. Really, they were making it harder for me to want to ever take my clothes off.
Since Kellogg’s time, the cultural standard in this country has remained the circumcised form. An episode of The Drew Carey Show, in which the men decide to do a Full Monty-style strip show to raise money, has the incomparable Craig Ferguson deliver a line about how his “Captain still wears his cap to dinner.” An entire Friends B-plot sees Joey and Monica trying to fashion him a prosthetic foreskin so that he can audition for a full-frontal part in a period film. (Surprise, the foreskin falls off and some of us are left feeling quite awkward at hearing the laugh track.) “Uncut” pornography is a specialized category. Penis-based insecurity is comedy gold.
In recent years, there has been a legitimate pushback against this norm, largely in the scientific and public thought communities. When I became an atheist and began reading the work of Christopher Hitchens, I was extremely encouraged by his diatribes against the practice of circumcision and his insistence that it amounted to child abuse. That he was also an Islamaphobic, misogynist blowhard has not been lost on me in the years and reading hence. Groups like Doctors Opposing Circumcision have grown in exposure and influence. I’ve even met a few dudes like myself who’ve copped to the pencil shape, a what’s the big deal? grin flashed across their faces.
In some ways, I love this. I don’t feel as alone, and there are people out there trying to advocate for those like me. I adore a good debate and believe, with all my heart, that by having it out in the public forum, with science and reason disseminating truth over misinformation, we can change American culture.
On the other side, however, we cannot trade shame for shame. Too much rhetoric from anti-circumcision activists refers to healthy, well-adjusted human beings as “victims” and “the mutilated.” Pity of this kind is condescending and only serves to breed humiliation. I know these sensations and no one deserves them.
My current partner is the first who has ever looked at me bare and whispered, with shining eyes and intimate touch, the word “Pretty…” I remember that night, the way that she dragged the word out like the slow exhalation of a cigarette. I was her first uncut lover. She was the first person to actually convince me that I didn’t look weird.
That was a mistake. I should have been the one to make that decision, to decide that the person I am, with the body and appendages with which I was born, are beautiful and worthwhile. It’s my job to love myself, to accept that whatever may be said amongst my peers and whatever the result of the public debate, my own state is correct and proper for myself.
I do believe that it is wrong to perform these procedures on infants incapable of consenting to them. That belief is my own, and I will defend it until I hear a convincing enough argument against it—an argument for which I am always willing to listen. But I do not believe that it is wrong for adults who have been circumcised to appreciate their forms as they are.
Quite the contrary – in unshackling self-worth from the appearance or, indeed, presence of a penis, we take an extra step in addressing heterosexism and patriarchy.
Avoiding corn flakes doesn’t hurt either.
[Headline image: The black-and-white photograph shows a light-skinned man resting his cheek against his left hand. He has short dark hair and a mustache, and he is wearing a dark shirt.]