Sexual Intelligence

Sex—and culture, politics, psychology—and sex

Criminalizing Circumcision: Self-Hatred As Public Policy

The ballot box shouldn't be used to work out self-loathing.

Full disclosure: I'm circumcised.

Too much information? Tell that to the people--well-meaning or otherwise--who have actually created a ballot measure to criminalize circumcision in San Francisco. Yes, this fall, San Franciscans will vote on whether or not babies (and all minors) can be circumcised. In the wake of the ban's (unlikely) passage, one can imagine the surgical equivalent of speakeasies or underground abortion clinics to which families bring little Joshua, Omer, or Justin. In the law's hostility to Judaism, one recalls the 1492 Expulsion ordered by Spain's Ferdinand & Isabella.

But hostility to religion is only one impetus for the bill; the psychological anguish of a small number of activists is the other. The main source of information about their emotional torment is contained in the bill's language:

"It is unlawful to circumcise, excise, cut, or mutilate the whole or any part of the foreskin, testicles, or penis of another person who has not attained the age of 18 years."

See All Stories In

Anger—It's All the Rage!

Anger is possibly the most misunderstood emotion. And it's on the rise in American life.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Equating the removal of an infant's foreskin with the "mutilation" of the testicles or penis is ignorance, willful distortion, or delusion. No one in the city has been accused of touching anyone's testicles or penis (Catholic priests notwithstanding). But lumping these together with the routine, nearly painless removal of foreskin--which has no impact on later physical function--shows just how theatrical the bill's sponsors are. They are acting out their own odd sense of bereavement with a grand display of concern for future generations.

As a sex therapist for 31 years, I have talked with more men about their penises than you can shake a stick at. We've discussed concerns about size, shape, color, and the angle of the dangle. We've talked about the ability to give and receive pleasure. We've talked about the amount, color, taste, smell, and consistency of semen. We've talked about what women (and other men) supposedly like. And a small number of men have talked about how they feel about being circumcised or not circumcised. Invariably, anyone who talks about the issue is convinced that they'd be better off different than they are-the cut guys want to be uncut, and uncut guys want to be cut.

Most of these thousands of patients were sane enough people who were over-concerned about their penises. Others were a bit less sane. And a few were intensely involved with their feelings to the point of ignoring science, logic, and the sworn statements of one or more lovers.

That group includes the people behind the San Francisco proposal to ban circumcision. In 31 years of talking with men about circumcision, I have never met a man who felt damaged, mutilated, or emasculated by his circumcision who did not have other emotional problems. The pain they claim to remember from the brief procedure is impossible; the rejection from "all women" a childish overgeneralization; the sense of being incomplete a neurotic problem that has other sources.

The United Nations recognizes the health benefits of circumcision; the World Health Organization is now promoting a huge circumcision campaign in southern Africa. Ironically, it's world-famous San Francisco urologist Ira Sharlip who's been asked to advise the project. Halfway around the world, the Phillipines recently offered free circumcisions for poor people, who lined up enthusiastically.

Indeed, studies around the world show that circumcision reduces urinary and other infections, has no negative sexual effects, and is rarely dangerous when done using simple public health guidelines. There is absolutely no evidence that the sexual experiences of circumcised and uncircumcised men are different for them or their partners (outside of partners' simple personal taste, of course).

As a therapist, I am sworn to empathize with the pain of every man, woman, and child in my office. I am also devoted to reducing suffering--by helping people understand the meaning behind their pain, the better to resolve and escape from it.

As a citizen, my sworn concern is to keep emotion out of public policy, the better to enshrine science and enhance everyone's well-being. So I urge anyone feeling damaged by their circumcision to get as much therapy as necessary, as much good sex as possible--and to keep their self-admittedly damaged psyches away from public policy. Guys, pleasure and intimacy await--as soon as you make friends with your penis. The ballot box is not the place to work out your self-loathing.

Marty Klein is a certified sex therapist and licensed psychotherapist. He has written five books and 200 articles about sex; his TV appearances include 20/20 andNightline. more...

Subscribe to Sexual Intelligence

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?