The C Word

There are no lists of "Uncircumcised World Leaders" like there are "World Leaders who are Left-Handed." It's simply not talked about. But I think it should be.
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Circumcision has been in the news lately. When Johns Hopkins comes out with a new study, it tends to attract attention. It got me thinking about my position on circumcision. As the mother of three boys, you can bet I have one. My husband and I arrived at a decision on what we would do regarding circumcision while I was pregnant with our first baby. It was all hypothetical, of course -- we didn't know it was a boy until he finally emerged. But we'd made up our minds ahead of time, just in case.

We took a lot of things into consideration. I researched what the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended at the time (almost 14 years ago). I was surprised that they did not -- and still do not -- recommend "routine neonatal circumcision." I was surprised because everything I was hearing from other moms and parenting magazines was that there was a medical need for it -- that it kept things cleaner. I'm all for clean. So I jumped back into my academic training as an anthropologist and was only able to track down studies done in remote areas of the world where access to clean water, and therefore personal hygiene, was an issue. My potential son would have no lack of safe water. Or soap.

So with the AAP recommendation and the cleanliness issue debunked, I turned to the next argument almost every soon-to-be-mother of a son will hear: "It's just easier if he looks like his father." This assumes the father is in the majority -- an ever declining majority, mind you -- and is circumcised himself. This argument carries weight among guilt-ridden mothers. Why would you deliberately want your child to be different from everyone else, including his father? Ah. What a mean mom. So I did what any self-respecting, overwhelmed pregnant woman would do: punted the issue to my husband. "You're the one with the equipment. YOU decide."

Except my husband and I usually make big decisions together. And, because I'm a total Type A personality, he usually relies on me to do the research so that decision can be an informed one. It ended up right back on me. He did say that he could care less if his penis looked different from his son's, especially if it meant a useless procedure was becoming extinct. Then he asked a really good question: "What about the whole masturbation thing that's attached to it? You know... the story that circumcision was about discouraging 'sinful' masturbation? If that's what it's about, then we're definitely not doing it."

I researched some of the history of circumcision that was available online at the time (Google had just been founded. Imagine!) and confirmed that it did indeed have ties to some religious doctrine that proclaimed masturbation a sinful act and promoted the use of circumcision to discourage it. I wanted no part of that, either.

I also looked into the numbers and found that in a few decades, the percentage of American males circumcised declined from around 80% (during my upbringing) to about 55% (the era in which my own children would be raised). That eased my mind a bit to think that my child might be in good company. At least the odds were 50/50 that he'd have friends that were also uncircumcised, if we decided to go that route. And this thought kept cropping up in my brain: If we don't ever stop doing something -- even when we know better -- how will we ever see true change? Not that I wanted my kid to have to be the trailblazer in the proud, intact penis debate. But still.

There are no trailblazers when it comes to foregoing circumcision. There are no lists of "Uncircumcised World Leaders" like there are "World Leaders who are Left-Handed" or "Highly Successful People who are also Dyslexic." People magazine isn't publicizing a "Top 10 Uncut Actors of the Millenium!" spread. It is simply not talked about in what may be considered polite company. But I think it should be. Let's bring this topic out of the dark ages and away from this implication that you're somehow dirty or unclean unless you're circumcised. Because I can tell you from experience that it is simply not true. If there was any chance that uncircumcised males were somehow "dirtier," then I'd have three boys with constantly raging penis infections. Cause I can hardly get them to take a shower without threatening to take away their Xbox.

So yes, my husband and I decided not to circumcise our first child, who turned out to be a boy. Nor did we circumcise his brothers -- twins -- who came 18 months later.

But when this stuff pops up in the news, as it periodically does, it always makes me pause and think about our decision to not circumcise our sons. Recently, an NPR segment discussed an initiative by the Kenyan government to circumcise teenage and adult males in an effort to reduce the spread of HIV. I heard it in the car while I was running errands with my 13-year-old sitting next to me in the passenger seat. Awkward, right? As they talked of the potential of circumcision to reduce the rate of HIV in Kenya, I wondered aloud, "Why aren't they just encouraging the use of condoms? That would do more than performing a pointless surgery." My son said nothing. But he listened to my diatribe against the government of this country promoting an ineffective, painful and costly procedure because of arguments I'd come to believe were outdated and questionable. I felt it was my duty. Rather than address the issues associated with unprotected sex, this country was encouraging the alteration of its male population. But then again, the recent Johns Hopkins study is based on the same studies that circumcision effectively reduces STD and HIV rates. So do condoms, people.

And that brings me to the last argument I have heard in favor of circumcision: "An uncircumcised penis just looks weird." Wow. That's an actual reason for performing a procedure on your newborn? That's how it's supposed to look. You cannot tell me that every baby boy is born with a defect that needs to be corrected. Evolutionarily, that makes no sense whatsoever. It is not adaptive for the human race. An uncircumcised penis may be something we're not as used to seeing as the circumcised penis, I'll give you that. But we've come a long way in what we're used to seeing, haven't we? Breastfeeding moms in public. Interracial couples. Gay marriage. There are always people that will say, "It looks weird." It's not reason enough to get rid of it. Not reason enough to condemn it. And this argument makes it seem as if circumcision is nothing more than elective plastic surgery on newborn baby boys. But maybe it is.

Except that I know it's never simple, these decisions we make as parents. I've talked to moms who chose not to circumcise and their baby ended up with medical reasons that necessitated it being done later. And who am I to argue with that? I just don't believe that it should be done by default.

Perhaps our oldest summed up my philosophy on the issue best when he was a wee toddler being potty trained. He watched his dad going to the bathroom (no better way to increase the likelihood a little boy will want to use the potty as well) and commented on the obligatory "shake" that is performed by men at the conclusion of this bodily function.

"Be nice to your penis, Daddy!" he said.

I have no better advice than that.

Kate Ryan Williams writes about raising three boys with her marine biologist husband. Her training as an anthropologist helps her navigate this life among the primates. She is at work on a memoir. Read her essays and articles at