The Unkindest Cut? Gay Men vs. Male Circumcision
In what will be a first for the nation, San Francisco voters will consider a controversial ballot measure to ban circumcision for males under the age of 18 in the November election.
Each violation would result in a $1,000 fine and there's no religious exemption.
If voters approve, a ban would certainly face court challenges from the city's large and politically powerful (Diane Feinstein, e.g.) Jewish community, not to mention Muslims. Both religions trace the practice to the biblical injunction God gave Abraham in the Book of Genesis and have been practicing infant circumcision as a religious rite for thousands of years.
Groups opposing the ban are already lining up against it, but supporters passionately assert that circumcision is medically unnecessary and nothing more than genital mutilation.
One only has to visit websites whenever the subject is discussed to see how many readers ardently condemn the practice. They have been doing so for years.
For most, the controversy has been under the radar until widespread news coverage of the San Francisco ballot measure. Santa Monica voters may consider a similar referendum in November 2012.
Because California is often the trendsetter in American culture, there may be similar moves to ban circumcision elsewhere, unless such efforts are quashed by court rulings that it's unconstitutional.
'Intactivists' State Their Case
"Intactivists," as those opposing circumcision call themselves, offer a litany of reasons why it's wrong.
They are men and women, gay and straight, who have formed organizations with members in all 50 states and some foreign countries. For several years, intactivist contingents have marched in gay pride parades in San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Vancouver, Canada.
Intactivists say circumcision traumatizes infants, sometimes results in their deaths, suppresses feelings in the penis and interferes with sexual pleasure and performance. They also point out that the vast majority (perhaps 85 percent) of males in other countries are uncut.
They dismiss out of hand contentions by the medical community that circumcision helps prevent STDs, as well as HIV.
An AIDS Preventative?
Medical experts beg to differ, however.
Studies in Africa, where most men are uncut and HIV is transmitted mostly through heterosexual sex, showed a 60 percent decrease in infection if they were circumcised. No similar research has been done among men who have sex with men.
Dr. Kenneth Mayer, medical research director at the Fenway Institute in Boston and professor of medicine and community health at Brown University, is an internationally known researcher who has studied HIV/AIDS since the early days of the epidemic. He believes that the foreskin can harbor cells containing HIV, which can then be transmitted to the urethra where microbes can cause infection.
"It is reasonable to assume that men who are exclusively tops and are uncircumcised have an increased risk of becoming infected through insertive anal intercourse," he explained in referring to gay sex. "If someone is a bottom, it does not seem relevant."
"I don't understand people wanting to ban circumcision when there are clearly health benefits," Mayer added. "It doesn't make sense and seems to be a little misguided," particularly in San Francisco, which has had so much experience with HIV/AIDS.
A Cultural Anachronism?
The intactivists argue forcibly against such health reasons. For many of them, the matter is personal. For many of them, it's as much a human-rights issue as female genital mutilation as practiced in many African nations.
Lloyd Schofield spearheaded the successful petition drive to get the circumcision ban on the San Francisco ballot. "No one is speaking up for men's rights," he contended. "That's why we are doing this."
He pointed out that no medical society in the world maintains a policy of recommending circumcision for health reasons. "In 1971 the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement that there's no medically valid reason for it," Schofield reported.
The U.S. "is really the odd man out," he continued. "In Europe, virtually no men are circumcised and no one has a problem with it. Even in Israel it is being questioned."
Schofield cited the book "Marked in Your Flesh" by cultural anthropologist Leonard Glick. It traces the practice of removing the foreskin to Greco-Roman times when Jews wanted to set themselves apart from other cultures. Glick is among those advocating an end to circumcision.
Cutting off the foreskin not only mutilates the penis, it also endangers the life of infants, Schofield maintained. Between 150 and 200 baby boys die each year in the U.S. from undergoing the surgery, but people are unaware because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn't have a proper reporting structure, he contended.
"What is reported is hemorrhage or shock," he explained. "It's never directly linked to circumcision on the death certificate. Parents sue and it's settled with secrecy agreements. It's horribly distressing for them."
Next: Desensitizing the Penis