Ritual mutilation and discovering "normal"

I was born in New York to Reform Jewish parents. I was circumcised at eight days in a traditional Jewish ritual circumcision. This means that my parent’s family and friends were all there to witness and celebrate the occasion of my public genital mutilation. I am told that a lovely brunch was prepared for everyone attending.

On the advice of her friends and family, my mother chose to leave the room where the ritual was taking place before the actual cutting of my genitals, and only returned after I was done screaming. Not one Jewish parent I have spoken to finds this remotely hypocritical, a fact that amazes me. The one time I asked my mother about it she said she just couldn’t stand to see me in that kind of pain. Couldn’t see it, but had no problems arranging for it and absolving herself of her clear guilt by simply not being present during it. I love my mother, and I understand that her person faith prevented her from even considered not having me cut, but the fact that she would not witness what she was cheerfully helping to prepare brunch for, makes me hate her just a little bit.

Because my genital cutting was a traditional Jewish ritual, it was done freehand with only a guide plate to prevent damage to the glans (well damage right then, circumcision could be said to “damage” the glans in the form of desensitization). It would be many years before I realized how dramatic the damage to my penis was.

Growing up Jewish, a religion I should disclose that I no longer belong to, I had no idea that circumcision was anything but the norm. I was a sexually interested child (and gay) from a young age and over the course of many sleepovers I saw many of my non-Jewish friends’ penises as well and, this being the early ‘80 they were all altered in the same way as mine.

I still remember the first time I ever saw an intact penis. I was eight years old and attending a Jewish sleep-away camp for the first time. The boys section of the camp had group showers for the different age groups, but the grounds keeping crew used the same shower rooms and they were mostly European college students who would come to America to work for two months and then spend another months touring the US before class resumed. Most of them were not Jewish, and being European, not circumcised. The first time I saw an intact penis I had no idea what I was looking at. The only conclusion I could come to was that the man’s penis was diseased or malformed in some way. It would be until I was a teenager, taking sex ed, and more importantly looking at gay porn that I would realize that his penis was the “normal” one.

Looking back now, I can clearly see that my adolescent sexual development was strongly shaped by the nature of my circumcision. Because so much skin had been removed, having an erection was often painful. As strange as it sounds to others, I had no idea that this was not normal. The only penis I had experience with from the inside was mine and this was how it worked. I also did not find the skin tearing or even bleeding a bit during erections or masturbation to be strange. Since I had always grown up with the idea of a circumcised penis as being the norm, surely I couldn’t be having problems connected to having been cut.

Right before I left for college, I learned about foreskin restoration on the internet. My interest at this time had nothing to do with being unsatisfied with the function of my penis. Rather as I became more and more involved in Neo-paganism and spirituality, I felt that something about my body was just wrong. Then, in several meditations I found that when I tried to visualize my body, I kept feeling that that something had to do with my genitals. Finally when I mediated with the intent of finding out the origin of this feeling I found my body being pictured as having a foreskin and the feeling of wrongness being gone. This was a strange idea for me, that having a foreskin could be more “normal” or “natural” than not.

After getting to college and becoming sexually active I would, of course discover that pain and bleeding are NOT normal parts of having an erection. This strengthened my interest in restoration. The first several months of trying restoration were discouraging to me as I did not seem to have any change in the tightness of my skin or the discomfort of erection. This was until my partner at the time noticed that I was gaining penile length. I would “gain” over and inch and a half of penile length, allowed for by the loosening skin freeing shaft tissue previously pushed back into the body, before any skin mobility would begin to show.

Years later, I am finally getting closer to being finished with restoration and some of the feelings of unhappiness with my genitals have eased. It has taken me years and years longer to restore than most people in part because I choose to go very carefully to minimize the impact of the radical and irregular nature of the mutilation itself. Also, I have at times given up for months at a time because of the knowledge that my restored foreskin will still not be the one that was taken from me (re-desensitization of the inner skin and glans always gets me going again). My partner of five years is intact from birth and the difference in our status caused issues early on in our relationship as I struggled with feelings of jealousy and inadequacy.

The question I find I ask myself regarding the circumstances of my own mutilation is this: how did my mother bath me and change my diaper for the seven days before the ritual and not find herself satisfied that I was perfect the way I was. How did she look at my body and think to herself “He’ll be even better after we cut some of him off.”

My mother considers my anti-circumcision activism to be a personal attack on her. This is fair, since I consider her endorsement and arranging for, my involuntary genital mutilation to have been a personal attack on me.

8 thoughts on “Ritual mutilation and discovering "normal"

  1. >speaking as someone who did not grow up with cutting kids as a given in my life, but more of a side note, and who is now violently against it…I often have a very hard time understanding how this practice is continually justified by the medical community. It baffles me how they always have a new thing that it cures just when the old one is dis-proven…

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  5. Brit milah is a public ceremony in order to make it more embarrassing for Jewish parents to quietly reject the practice. This is, of course, a violation of dignity and privacy.

    When Reform began in Germany 150 years ago, brit milah was intensely debated. The compromise that was reached was to keep it for birth Jews, but make it optional for adult converts. In my opinion, the main reason why Reform kept brit milah for birth Jews was to strengthen the argument, aimed at Orthodox Jews, that Reform Jews were still Jews after all. For all Jews before last century, and for the vast majority of American Jews, “uncircumcised Jew” is an oxymoron. This is not the case in Europe and Latin America, where many secular Jewish families gave up bris sometime in the past 4-5 generations. Many Jewish families circumcise their boys for the same reason that millions of American gentile families circumcise their boys: both think that the natural penis looks weird and is disgusting.

    I have read that it is very common for a Jewish mother to be out of the room when her infant son is getting cut. Recall that the moral obligation to circumcise a newborn boy rests on his father, and that the mother plays no role in the ceremonial surrounding brit milah.

    “Couldn’t see it, but had no problems arranging for it and absolving herself of her clear guilt by simply not being present during it.”
    ME. Thus the dilemma of millions of Jewish mothers over the past 3000 years…

    Tens of millions of American gentiles are in denial about the possibility that circumcision damages the sexual capabilities of the penis to varying degrees, and in ways that often are not manifest until middle age.

    Last century, nearly all baby boys born in American hospitals to urban middle class white parents, were circumcised at birth. This fact helps explain why most American Jews feel no ambiguity about growing up and living in the USA, the land where the Jewish penis is not an odd penis. In Europe, Jewish boys confront their Jewish identity every time they use a locker room. Young Jewish women confront their identity every time they date a gentile man.

    For you, as for nearly all Americans your age and mine, it was the intact penis that was the Other, the Alien. In the midwest 50 years ago, almost every boy was cut, but almost no parent ever said anything to their sons about it. The boys I grew up had very dirty minds, but I never heard a single remark indicating that they knew that they did not have the genitalia they were born with. I never heard raunchy comments about circ until I was in college.

    “The only conclusion I could come to was that the man’s penis was diseased or malformed in some way.” You were not alone in reaching that conclusion. I am confident that there are many straight Americans of my generation who have no clear idea what nature intended. Before the internet, it was impossible to view an image of the penis outside of gay porn. I have no recollection of seeing a closeup of the human penis on the printed page until I read a flatmate’s copy of Hustler when I was 25.

    What you wrote about restoration and penile length is tragic evidence that your bris cut too much off, so that erection was problematic. In my experience (which my wife confirms from her dating experience before meeting me), most American circumcisions result in wrinkled skin behind the sulcus. This skin helps keep erections comfortable. The boys I grew up whose penises looked like sausage casings worried me; where was the skin to accommodate erection? Turns out my concern was well placed…

    “This was a strange idea for me, that having a foreskin could be more “normal” or “natural” than not.” Tens of thousands of American gentiles have made this mental journey in recent decades. Not many Jewish men have revealed that they too have walked down that road. There surely must have been Jewish men who have been involved with European and Japanese women capable of enlightening them about the natural penis. I have never read of a Jewish man saying that he felt sadder and wiser after a fling with a sophisticated gentile woman. Or it this too embarrassing to write about. I gather that Philip Roth’s circumcision interfered with his relationship with Claire Bloom.

    “My partner of five years is intact from birth and the difference in our status caused issues early on in our relationship as I struggled with feelings of jealousy and inadequacy.” There is a well established pattern of circumcised gay men seeking to enjoy foreskin vicariously via an intact partner.

    “how did my mother bath me and change my diaper for the seven days before the ritual and not find herself satisfied that I was perfect the way I was?”
    Easy. Every baby boy whose diaper she changed while growing up was circumcised. Her brothers were circumcised. Every man she dated was circumcised. Given these life experiences, your newborn penis was Alien. And unkosher of course! When someone posts on the internet that “I am a young sexually active woman who is proud of my Jewish heritage, yet I prefer intact men as sexual partners” that is defiantly radical. A menopausal Jewish kink mistress who is foreskin friendly is Gloria Brame. I have read in Jewcy a woman describe herself as an observant Jew who will sleep with intact men.

    “My mother considers my anti-circumcision activism to be a personal attack on her.”
    This is a risk of being a Jewish male intactivist. I bet your mother, like most Reform Jews, is too politically correct to say out loud that she is disappointed that you are gay. To me, it is incredible that many North American Jews view intactivism as a more radical assault on Jewish identity than homosexuality.

    I am a social and moral conservative living in a Commonwealth country. Hence I belong to my neighbourhood’s Anglican congregation. At the end of the day, I remain loyal to middle eastern monotheism, and to our being spiritual descendants of Abraham. That said, I have no difficulty with neopagans like yourself as long as they abstain from barbaric rituals. Sadly, Judaism cannot yet rise above barbaric rituals that strike at the very core of the human sexual experience. Brit milah, almost always performed without lidocaine, is a form of sexual assault done to a minor.

    The African research claiming that circumcised men are less likely to catch AIDS from infected women, is scientifically dishonest. The link is to a recent scholarly article that lays out some of the reasons why this is so.

    • Thank you for your detailed comment. This essay was written quite a long time ago, and I’m gratified that it continues to resonate. You may be interested in my recent essay “A Religious Evolution Towards Wholeness” where I drew attention to the growing movement within modern reform and reconstructionist Judaism away from genital mutilation. There is certainly a rapidly growing body of evidence of the ineffectiveness of circumcision in preventing the spread of HIV, and I detailed some of that evidence in “POTD 1/12/12 Same Old Story

  6. I am an American baby boomer. I grew up in the midwest, the Empire of the Bald Penis. I am white and upper middle class. My parents were highly educated. My father and brother were cut. And I am intact, solely thanks to my mother, who ended all talk of altering my penis by threatening to divorce my father. For decades, I was deeply ashamed of my Weird Dick, a shame that began in my first week of school. So much so that I did not lose my virginity until I was 37. I assumed that Anteaters revolted midwestern women.

    When the woman I later married first saw me naked, she carefully examined the tender moving bits that set me apart from nearly all men of my place and time. She used her fingers to shape those bits into a small rose. Now and then she would tell me “I am feeling your foreskin move inside me and it’s awesome.” Her example completely gave the lie to the notion that foreskin discourages oral sex. When Cold and Taylor (1996) came out and I explained its conclusions to her, she replied saying that she had learned much of that from her first intact lover more than 20 year previous. My wife knew about the ridged band as a sophomore in college. She learned in college far more about the sexual properties of the intact penis than I did. She has also told me that she had been with quite a few premature ejaculators, and that they were all cut. Even though she is now well past menopause, she still climaxes in under 10 minutes. I like to think that my foreskin has something to do with that. I am astounded by what some women have written in Facebook, presumably using their real names, about the virtues of the intact penis.

    A woman once messaged me as follows. While volunteering in a hospital as a high school student, she inadvertently witnessed a routine infant circumcision which devastated her. When she began her sex life in college, she was completely unable to enjoy it in any way. In her junior year, she began a 3 month fling with her first intact partner, with whom she orgasmed every time. The penny dropped: she was not a lesbian in denial, but simply a woman who needed a natural man. She also began to understanding that her inability to climax with a cut partner was due to the emotional trauma of having witnessed a RIC. But then her sex life crossed over into a sort of Twilight Zone. She spent decades dating men, only to break up with them when she discovered they were cut. Every warm Saturday in summer, she would go to the same nude beach and eye the goods on display. Every time, she would go home heartbroken after not seeing a single foreskin. She is now a menopausal spinster, who has not had sex in decades. Her anger at American culture runs very deep. Can’t blame her, really.

    Yes, I am an American with an unAmerican dick that has all the factory installed moving parts. And that is a very great stroke of good fortune.

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