Why are some men circumcised?
Let’s talk about circumcision. Drop your pants and let’s take a look.
What is male circumcision?
Circumcision is the removal of the foreskin from the penis, a procedure usually performed as an infant for religious or cultural reasons.
An estimated one-third of males worldwide are circumcised. The procedure is most common in the Muslim world and Israel, where it’s near-universal for religious reasons. It’s also very common in the United States – where it’s estimated that four out of five men are circumcised – and also parts of Southeast Asia and Africa. Circumcision is relatively rare in Europe, Latin America, parts of Southern Africa, and most of Asia.
The penis map
The map below illustrates the geographic spread of circumcision.
The colour code maps the percentage of males that are circumcised. The dark blue is the lowest percentage, the red is the highest percentage.
How did the tradition of male circumcision begin?
One of the world’s oldest recorded surgical procedures, the history of circumcision can be traced back back over 15,000 years.
What’s not particularly clear is why it began. One theory is that it began as a way of permanently marking captured soldiers as slaves. Confusingly, there’s evidence that the practice emerged in different cultures and geographic regions — Sudan and Ethiopia, Indigenous Australians and Polynesians, and the Aztec and Mayan peoples.
It seems to have been the cultural practices that evolved from the civilisations of Sudan and Ethiopia that has had the most lasting impact — influencing the Ancient Egyptians and the Semites, and subsequently being adopted by both the Jewish and Muslim faiths.
It was in the 19th century that the practice of circumcising of infant males dramatically increased. British and American doctors began advocating circumcision as a deterrent to masturbation.
This recommendation was subsequently revised in the late 20th century, but the practice continues despite there being no health benefits and the potential for psychological and physical damage to circumcised boys.
What’s the current thinking on male circumcision?
Today, there’s still some discrepancy in the positions of the world’s major medical organisations on the practice of circumcision. Some consider that the elective circumcision of babies and children has no health benefit and involves significant risks to the child, while the guidance from others is that it has a modest health benefit that outweighs the small risks involved.
Studies suggest that circumcision doesn’t negatively impact sexual function in any material way, although it does result in a loss of sensitivity for the head of the penis. Beyond the physical impact of the procedure, the emotional impact of circumcision seems to be completely unknown.
At its most extreme, there are cases where men have suffered severe mental health issues that have been linked to their circumcision. One example is Jonathon Conte. It’s a number of years since Jonathon Conte committed suicide. At the time of his death, Conte was 34. He lived in San Francisco. He suffered from depression. His depression was reportedly linked to his circumcision . Conte was an activist campaigning for the end of routine male circumcision. He was an intactivist.
Is there a difference between male circumcision and female genital mutilation?
There are obvious parallels between female genital mutilation – FGM – and the circumcision of infant males. While it could be argued that FGM has more obvious impacts on sexual function, it seems fairly obvious that it’s a medical modification of otherwise healthy genitals - purely for the purpose of religious or cultural tradition. At last count, around 52 countries around the world have explicitly banned FGM.
While there are restrictions that have been enacted in various jurisdictions, there are currently no countries that have banned the circumcision of infant males.
Can you restore your foreskin after you’ve been circumcised?
It’s difficult, but not impossible. There are methods that help you to stretch the skin of the penis so that it provides some protection over the glans of the penis. This takes a long time and a lot of discomfort. By restoring the foreskin in this way, it’s possible to recover some of the sensitivity of the penis that is lost as a result of circumcision.