Using letters and emails received over the last 20 years David Smith presents testimony from men sent to the charity NORM-UK now known as 15 Square. His presentation concentrates on the psychological aspects of the harm caused by the non-therapeutic circumcision of male children.
Presentation given to the Intaktiv – Genital Autonomy conference. Frankfurt 9th May 2015.
Dear Mum and Dad,
You must have thought that it all went terribly well the day that I asked the question “Why is mine different from Dad’s”? You told me that I’d had “a little operation to avoid trouble later on”. I also think you said something about “social reasons”. You were I think quite pleased that Dr M praised you for the job you had done changing the dressing. I think my reaction was quite neutral at the time, I was far too young to understand what had been stolen from me, so that was OK with you.
Boarding school was an eye opener and about half of my contemporaries were “Cavaliers” (natural) and oh how I wanted to be a Cavalier but that was a choice you had taken from me. I hated being a “Roundhead” (circumcised). That others shared my fate never made me feel any better. How on earth had this happened to me? What had I done? Why? It is questions like these that have been spinning around in my head ever since, what a waste of a mind. I was soon brought up to speed on the pros and cons as seen through the eyes of young boys. The clincher to me was “you were born with one you must be meant to have one”.
The reason for an amputation is usually “If we don’t cut it off he’s going to die” somehow you didn’t apply this rather sensible rule to my genitals. Why do you wince when my kids suggest pierced ears, tattoos and other piercings? You did not flinch at Dr M’s suggestion. Where was your “if it isn’t broken don’t fix it” attitude? What would you have said to me if “the little operation” had gone wrong? It does you know. All surgery has risks and casualties not always physical. Which of the myths did you believe? I do hope you didn’t believe “He’ll never miss it”. I remember you saying “it” was “best done on the eighth day” did you just think it would be rather nice if I was like Jesus?
Why did you Dad not defend me did you think you were doing me a favour? Did you not even care? I also wonder how you had the nerve to tell me the jokes like the one about the Jewish man discovered eating a pork chop who defends himself with the retort “It’s OK it was a circumcised pig” and the one about the tailor who boasted he could “make a pair of trousers so tight that people can tell your religion” It is one of my horrors in life to be identified as circumcised, I am OK with balding, I am OK with having very little sense of smell. I will admit to many failings. But the state of my genitals is one thing I keep very private. It is this feeling of wanting to hide that would have saved my son, if I’d had one, from the knife. I could not have let him be circumcised as it would have been a clear indication of the state of my genitals. Not a very noble reason but I don’t think he would have cared.
Teenage years brought masturbation which was possible with care. Female partners could easily be too rough as I had no loose skin for them to grip. That little operation removes what would grow into about 15 sq. inches of highly sensitive tissue, that is about the same area as a £5 note. Full sex was a joy but I know now that a full set of private parts is a greater joy. There have been too many men unnecessarily circumcised as adults who have reported on the deleterious consequences even though there is an emotional incentive to make the best of a decision to undergo elective surgery.
Ever since school days I have felt fundamentally flawed. Which has led me to thoughts like why should I give up smoking, I’ll never be perfect. It is very hard to view ones body as a temple when you can see that someone has been in and smashed one of the windows for some fresh air instead of just opening it. You must have acted in my best interests. I have tried to make the best of it. I do hope you had no idea of what was involved. The fifteen minutes of excruciating pain with Dr M and his instruments. How long did they take me away from you for, was it an hour or more? I remember you said I didn’t take to breast feeding. There is some evidence that the trauma involved with the ‘little operation” interferes with the establishment of breast feeding. I also wonder if my rather defensive posture is not an echo of those fifteen minutes. What a great start in life. Any regrets?
Regret is one thing I know very well. I can say that there is not a day that passes when I don’t curse my misfortune in this regard. I live with intense feelings of violation. Every time I look down I see the scar, which shows me just how I have been abused. The sight of that hated scar drove me as a young adult in London to seek the help of a cosmetic surgeon. That was a phone conversation that did not go well. My humiliation was total. Some years later in therapy I mentioned my negative feelings about circumcision and had to change my therapist. Ones real pain is not recognised. Some people still think this is not child abuse, how that can be I do not know. Genital mutilation has been the cruellest thing ever done to me. You may say well if that is as bad as it gets I got off lightly. But I would say that you should spend a day inside my mind and then see how you feel. You would want to see Dr M struck off at the very least.
What I do not want is anyone reading this to be in any doubt that circumcision is cruel, it still hurts more than fifty years on. Once when the subject of circumcision came up my sister said “Well Dr M got you”. She had put it very well you definitely feel that you have been got, you feel like a victim. Many people would say that no crime has been committed and technically that is correct, but here I am a victim of no crime, a victim of no perpetrator, with clear physical evidence of a serious sexual assault. Is it any wonder that I sound a little hysterical.
I really used to believe it was my fault that I could not accept my fate. You got the benefit of thinking I was protected against “trouble later on”. You left me angry, confused and ashamed about the state of my genitals and that is quite a load to carry through life. I think I am an average man in almost everything and have no reason to suppose that my reactions to my missing foreskin are anything other than average. The thing about me that is not average is that I have written this down as honestly as I can. Many men have to deny their pain or remain mute just to get through the day but if enough men tell their stories then perhaps society will stamp out this dreadful abusive practice.
If you sometimes find me rather distant, not as affectionate as I might be remember it is not my fault. It was you who put the distance between us with Dr M’s knife. Just one year ago I could not have written this letter but with the support of Norm UK and my wife I am coming to terms with the pain behind the content. I now also know that I am not mad and not alone.
So Mum and Dad what you can do for me now is every chance you get write to the papers phone up that radio programme and try to stop anyone else repeating your mistake. I think I understand how easy it was for you to say “If you think it is for the best Dr M” But about half of my peers parents didn’t make your mistake and for that I can’t forgive you not yet anyway.
I forgot about circumcision for many years and it was not until my late twenties and having found myself unemployed with lots of free time that I began researching this issue.
I am a British born Muslim who was circumcised as a child and I believe I was about 8 years old when it happened although I cannot be sure of the exact age. I remember going to the hospital with my father and elder brother and being given an injection in my buttocks and waking up to find ice cream on the side table.
I only began researching circumcision after a hunch around the age of 17 when studying for my A-levels at college. I came across Mothers against Circumcision and then found NORM-UK and realised I was not alone in my thoughts.
I forgot about circumcision for many years and it was not until my late twenties and having found myself unemployed with lots of free time that I began researching this issue. Soon enough I came across Intact America and Doctors Opposing Circumcision and many Facebook pages as well as YouTube videos. I then discovered that the skin tag on my penis was a result of my circumcision and that this was very much highlighted as one of the harmful complications of circumcision on the website Circumstitions.
I then began printing Intact America factsheets and sending text messages to friends. I began speaking to fathers and anyone who was expecting a baby boy and making visits to see the fathers, funding much of the work from my own pocket. I made visits to a couple of my siblings who were expected to circumcise their boys but sadly their circumcisions went ahead without me knowing and after I had given them the factsheets. I now do a lot of work online targeting parents and keeping a tab locally on who is having children and boys in particular.
On 7th September 2014 I joined the Bloodstained men at a demo outside the Gherkin and met Richard Duncker and Patrick Smyth for the first time although I had had online conversations with Richard previously.
My concerns are about America as well as globally and being here in the UK my focus is on the Muslim/Jewish community. My work continues and I will do as much as I can to educate and stop parents from circumcising their baby boys and I truly believe circumcision needs to be abolished.
The photograph above was taken as part of a project for Intact America, the brief was to “find a photo of yourself as a baby and photograph yourself with the picture next to your face so that both can be seen”.
I asked my Mum if there were any pictures of me as a baby that had survived; to my surprise she said that there were pictures of me taken approximately eight days after my birth on the 6th of November 1949. My mother’s interview, below, indicates that I was circumcised the day before the picture was taken which would have been Sunday 13th November 1949.
1949 was also the year in which a landmark paper was published in the British Medical Journal on the 24th of December. The first paragraph of “The fate of the foreskin” by Douglas Gairdner contains this statement.
“It is a curious fact that one of the operations most commonly performed in this country is also accorded the least critical consideration. In order to decide whether a child’s foreskin should be ablated the normal anatomy and function of the structure at different ages should be understood; the danger of conserving the foreskin must then be weighed against the hazards of the operation, the mortality and after-effects of which must be known. Though tens of thousands of infants are circumcised each year in this country, nowhere are these essential data assembled. The intention of this paper is to marshal the facts required by those concerned with deciding the fate of the child’s foreskin.”
That is laudable aim. Sadly as the years have passed any evidence that brings the ancient practice of male circumcision into disrepute has been sidelined and ignored by the media, medical establishment, community leaders and politicians. A look at what Gairdner hoped would be studied and evaluated reveals a sorry picture.
Anatomy and function.
The anatomy of the foreskin is taught in medical schools in the U.K. however the function of the foreskin and it’s role in the sex act is almost completely ignored. Sex educators in U.K. secondary schools ignore the anatomy of the foreskin completely and never mention the foreskin’s role in the sex act; it would take a brave teacher to raise the subject.
Danger of conserving the foreskin.
The British Medical Association in their guidelines on male circumcision says:
“In the past, circumcision of boys has been considered to be either medically or socially beneficial or, at least, neutral. The general perception has been that no significant harm was caused to the child and therefore with appropriate consent it could be carried out. The medical benefits previously claimed, however, have not been convincingly proven, and it is now widely accepted, including by the B.M.A, that this surgical procedure has medical and psychological risks.”
This quote indicates that the B.M.A. believes there are no benefits. The section also fails to point to a single danger of conserving the foreskin, there is no cohort of men suffering from an intact foreskin.
There are deaths as the recent case in Manchester illustrates. Death is one end of a spectrum of harm that is glossed over by the authorities. The moment that a doctor, or anyone else for that matter, takes a scalpel and cuts a child who has no disease there is harm being done. The basic principle of medical ethics “do no harm” is ignored every time a doctor performs a non-therapeutic circumcision on a person who cannot consent.
After effects – psychological risks.
I have no conscious memory of my circumcision, though I feel there is a legacy left in my brain. I am not subject to fears or phobias yet I have an absolutely visceral dislike or dread of buttons and it’s most intense manifestation is white buttons on a bright white background. Is this a lingering image of the buttons on the nurse’s uniform as she restrained me during the procedure?
Far fetched? Perhaps not; observations of premature infants in neonatal units who are subjected to several heel pricks for the purpose of obtaining blood samples are seen to be more susceptible to experiencing subsequent pain. If so, that would imply the functioning of memory at a very early age.
Work with babies by Dr Bruce Perry has shown that babies can recognise their mother’s face within a day of a full term birth. This could mean that I might have been able to form an image at the distance between my face and a uniform.
Taddio et al in their paper “Effect Of Neonatal Circumcision on Pain Response
During Subsequent Routine Vaccination”  report that:
“This study showed that neonatal circumcision in male infants is associated with increased pain response in vaccination 4-6 months after surgery. The results support our previous finding of a higher pain response in circumcised than uncircumcised male infants during routine vaccination.”
The researchers then went on to say,
“It is, therefore, possible that the greater vaccination response in the infants circumcised without anaesthesia may represent an infant analogue of a post-traumatic stress disorder triggered by a traumatic and painful event and re-experienced under similar circumstances of pain during vaccination.”
This could point to post traumatic stress disorder as the source of my morbid fear. In the
” Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” the factors that would indicate a diagnosis of PTSD make interesting reading;
1. Exposure to a traumatic event.
As circumcision is used as a model for the study of pain in infants it is fair to say circumcision is a traumatic event.
2. Persistent re-experiencing.
Dreams, flash backs or “intense negative psychological or physiological response to any objective or subjective reminder of the traumatic event.”
3. Persistent avoidance and emotional numbing.
Many circumcised men avoid talking about the subject of circumcision. No one knows how many men feel about their circumcision status though there is some evidence that at least 15% of men circumcised without their consent are unhappy with their status .
4. Persistent symptoms of increased arousal not present before.
These might be sleep difficulties, anger, inability to concentrate, hyper vigilance and an increased startle response.
5. Duration of symptoms for more than 1 month.
6. Significant impairment.
The degree to which men’s abilities to function emotionally are affected by circumcision without their consent is unknown. Anecdotally this site and others report a significant number of men whose emotional lives have been adversely affected by circumcision.
I can fit aspects of my behaviour and experience into the categories outlined above. Whether or not I am affected by an “infant analogue of post traumatic stress disorder” is open to question, however there is clearly an area of the “after-effects” that Gairdner said should be known before ablating the child’s foreskin that needs further study.
After effects – physical and functional.
With the work that has been done in neurology, physiology and anatomy it is quite easy to justify the statement that, a man circumcised before puberty will never know what the sex act should feel like. Sadly someone such as myself does not have the necessary nerves, blood vessels and skin for the complete experience.
At a population level there is work that has been done that shows there are physical and functional after effects from circumcision.
Tim Hammond’s (pictured right) survey of circumcision harm is an excellent starting point for anyone who thinks circumcision is just a little snip with a minimal downside. I warn you that the images on Tim’s site are likely to shock and educate.
The study “Male circumcision in Denmark – implications for sexual function in men and women” Morten Frisch (a reference to this will follow) shows a marked increase in orgasm difficulties in both partners where the man is circumcised.
It is important to bear in mind that if a man grows up with a foreskin that does not develop normally and is uncomfortable or painful during sex or masturbation then he may well be better off with a circumcision but it should be his informed choice having been offered all the options for conservative treatment.
Human rights was in it’s infancy when Gairdner’s paper was published, though, were he writing today, I feel he would have not been blind to the issues that the non-therapeutic circumcision of children raises. Medical ethics have been around for a long time and should be adhered to, “do no harm”.
The victims of circumcision without consent are ignored and ridiculed for wanting to see an end to the practice. I have been told to move on, get over it, pull my socks up and a variety of other such phrases. So here I am sixty three years later a victim turned activist; the path to activism is my way of getting something positive out of a very complex emotional situation. I think that the baby I am looking at in the picture has already forgotten the physical pain, and apart from urinating onto an open wound which must be distressing looks relatively happy. It is the man that the baby has become who will never forget, or be able to ignore the events surrounding his birth. Men should demand that future generations are protected from what is evidently a harmful practice.