Rolling Back America's Cultural Hatred of Foreskin
While Americans and Brits share many things in common, a love for circumcision is not among them. We explore the rich cultural history of this tiny patch of skin.
Illustration by Grace Wilson
Throughout the course of human history, wars have been fought and lost for seemingly trivial things. Whether it's a patch of land between two countries or the Second Amendment, there's no end to the limits that people will go in order to defend an abstract concept or physical place they're attached to in some way.
The foreskin is admittedly not exactly the same as the West Bank or the right to bear arms, but the issue of circumcision has still ignited a fierce internecine war that has swirled for decades. The ins and outs of the circumcision debate cut to the core of the cultural differences between Britain and America—nations with very different approaches when it comes to how we treat our infant males.
In an increasingly globalized world, the foreskin is so much more than just a piece of skin or the plotline in a Friends episode. It's the cultural dividing line that separates Yanks from the Brits.
"I'm not sure I've ever seen a uncircumcised penis," says 27-year-old New Yorker Olivia. "If I saw one in the wild today I would probably not recognize it."
"I've never seen one," agrees Brooklyn resident Chloe, 23, "but I don't think I would hold someone not being circumcised against them. It would probably be a learning curve, though."
Despite the perception of American women as foreskin haters—reinforced by the infamous Sex And The City episode where Charlotte shames her boyfriend into getting circumcised because she thinks his dick looks like a Shar-Pei—not all women will judge a bro with foreskin. "Mean people say it would put them off a guy," says Meera, 26, also from Brooklyn, "but I think they're just showing off."
It may seem remarkable to British women that our American peers have never seen a penis in all its natural glory, but the statistics help explain. The US has one of the highest circumcision rates in the world at around 81 percent of adult males aged 14 to 59, although this is declining. This is more remarkable because, unlike the Middle East or Israel, where circumcision is prescribed by the Islamic or Jewish faith, most American males aren't circumcised for religious reasons. In the UK—a relatively safer space for foreskins—only around 3.8 percent of male children in the UK are circumcised by age 15, mainly for religious reasons.
"Although the health benefits are not great enough to recommend routine circumcision for all newborn males," says Douglas S. Diekema from the American Association of Pediatrics, "the benefits are enough to justify access to the procedure for those families choosing it." He tells me that circumcision has been linked to reduced rates of HIV transmission (it is recommended by the WHO in high-risk areas for HIV) and genital herpes, a lower risk of cervical cancer in sexual partners, and a lower risk of penile cancer.
Detractors argue that removing the foreskin leads to diminished sensation during sex (although opposing evidence also exists), and that it's a pointless and painful procedure to inflict on children unable to make the decision for themselves. Dr Diekema acknowledges the criticisms. "It's important for parents to recognize that when they decide to circumcise their child—it means that the boy will not be able to make a decision for himself later in life. While most men are quite happy with the decision their parents made, there are some who wish their parents had made a different choice."
Unpacking the reasons why Americans have evolved to hate the foreskin is difficult. Anti-circumcision advocates claim circumcision as a practice emerged out of Victorian prudishness about masturbation.
"Circumcision began in American medicine during the mid-19th century, when some doctors proposed it as a way of stopping boys from masturbating," says prominent anti-circumcision (or "intactivist") campaigner Georganne Chapin. She says that the pseudo-science was soon reinforced by elitist social views. "At the beginning of the 20th century, circumcision was a status symbol, showing that families had enough money for their sons to be born in hospitals, [as] circumcision was performed by doctors."
So why doesn't Britain—hardly a paragon of a classless society—feel the need to out-dick their neighbors? "It died out when Britain adopted a national health care service after World War Two, as it didn't pay for medically unnecessary services," Chapin says. As American medicine is privatized, "circumcision is just one more procedure that doctors could bill for."
The US medical establishment may disagree: The American Association of Pediatrics told Broadly that it hasn't gone as far as recommending circumcision for all infant males. As such, pediatricians wouldn't advise it for new parents.
Some of the people I spoke to for this piece admitted being repulsed by foreskin. "When I used Grindr, I only discriminated against uncut dicks," says 24-year-old Connor from LA. "Muscles, twink or masc, sexual preference (vers, bottom, or top)—that was all depending on a dude's general vibe. But uncut or cut? Non-negotiable."
He explains that while "once upon a time, I would suck anything connected to a hot guy," now it is imperative that the guy's cut. "Every uncut dick I have touched smells like feet. Men say they clean beneath their flap, but it doesn't smell like it."
I'd never dealt with [an uncircumcised penis] before, and I was worried I'd do it wrong, and my worst fears came true!
Not all are so anti-foreskin. "I'm opposed to circumcision, primarily because the child can't consent and because social norms have caused generations of Americans to find foreskin disgusting," says Maya, 27. She disputes the idea that uncircumcised guys smell bad. "I've heard people say it is cleaner without the foreskin. Perhaps that is so, but my mouth might also be free of cavities forever if I remove my teeth."
If you've never been with an uncut bro, it can help to do your research—although beware the horror stories. Christina, 25, broke a guy once, although she maintains it wasn't her fault.
"I'd never been with an uncircumcised man, and I'd Googled 'how to have sex with an uncircumcised dick' beforehand. We had rough sex and, after a bit, he said his dick hurt." She tells me that in the morning he sulkily accused her of breaking his penis—specifically, of tearing his frenulum, the thin piece of skin that connects the foreskin to the penis. "I'd never dealt with [an uncircumcised penis] before, and I was worried I'd do it wrong," she explains, "and my worst fears came true!"
In contemporary life, we're quick to condemn those who shame others' bodies in public, like the Playboy model so outraged by the sight of a naked woman's dimpled flesh in her gym that she posted a picture to Snapchat. Although there's still some way to go, we are moving towards increasing acceptance of all body types and shapes—but dicks remain the fleshy exception to this rule. Whether it's embarrassing men for having small dicks or slandering the micro-penised men of the world by implying Donald Trump is one of their number, somehow dicks—cut or uncut—are fair game.
Perhaps the answer is to recognize that the foreskin is—after all—pretty insignificant, and men should be allowed to decide what to do with it when they're adults. If it's still grossing you out, why not envisage it as a cute little dick coat, there to help keep your guy warm?
"We hope that people stop circumcising babies and that boys and men are allowed to reach adulthood with their full complement of genitalia," argues Chapin, saying that if men then decide to get cut, that can be their choice. "We want people to understand that foreskin is fine. It's good. That's why it's there."
* Name has been changed