Tuesday, June 14, 2011

On Circumcision, Authority and the Perpetuation of Abuse

By JONATHAN FRIEDMAN

The practice of circumcision is something I've been aware of from a very young age. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and my family is Orthodox. I've witnessed many brisim. The blood-curdling screams. The actual blood. The pacifier dipped in wine to calm the baby. I never picked up on metzizah b'peh because I never got close enough to watch. A crowd of men always blocked the view of the circumcision from the rest of the congregants. I remember a few times when uncles, who were upfront watching, bolted for the door.

I've also been very much aware of my own circumcision from a young age. The unsightly scar around the shaft of my penis, halfway along its length. The discolored flesh above the scar which used to be the inside of my foreskin. The scar tissue where my frenulum used to attach to my glans.




When I reached puberty, my erections were tight and painful. When I started masturbating, I didn't understand that I needed to use lubrication, and as a consequence I seriously damaged my penis. The skin was bleeding, chaffed and flaking off. I was in pain. At this point I realized that the skin should be gliding back and forth over the shaft, but this was very difficult to do because my circumcision was so tight. I could only move the skin up towards my glans, pulling more hair-baring skin from my groin up onto my shaft. I couldn't move my shaft skin downward at all. When I became sexually active, I realized I had virtually no touch-sensitivity. I felt devastated. Not much has changed since.
I also frequently experience lymphedema, where the top of my penis above my circumcision scar fills up with fluid and swells. This happens spontaneously and during arousal. Recently I experienced a lymphedema episode where my penis didn't return to its normal size for over twelve hours. Due to all my issues with pain and swelling, I can only masturbate once or twice per month. Even with copious lubrication, my shaft skin becomes chaffed and bleeds. If I had the choice, I would not be circumcised.

The fact that circumcision has become a defining symbol of male Jewishness, as well as a medicalized procedure in the USA regardless of one’s religion, puts me in solidarity with millions of men who are suffering from this trauma. Although it requires real scrutiny to weed out the bogus medical literature on the subject, the evidence that circumcision is harmful is overwhelming. Talking with non-Jewish laypersons, it takes me mere minutes to deconstruct the myths surrounding circumcision. However, when it comes to discussing the matter with my Jewish friends and family, no discussion is tolerated.

Regardless of how and why one thinks brit milah came into existence, it’s performed with the intention of causing bodily harm and minimizing sexual pleasure while still allowing for reproduction. The 12th Century Jewish physician and scholar Moses 
Maimonides states this explicitly in his book Guide for the Perplexed. One need only look at the timeline of the history of non-religious, “medical” circumcision in the United States to realize that it came into favor for the same reason as brit milah: as a tool for sexual repression. The fact that circumcision started in America among non-Jews, and continues to be practiced by non-Jews, astounds me. The claims of protection against sexually transmitted disease, penile cancer, and urinary tract infection are dubious at best and do not outweigh the harms. Now millions of African men are being put under the knife to perpetuate the practice around the globe.


What most of the public doesn’t realize is that scientists usually have biases that affect the outcome of their studies. These biases are often financial in nature. Studies that don’t produce the sought-after outcome are discontinued prematurely and never published. It has become an almost daily occurrence that a new study makes the news with great fanfare only to be refuted weeks or even years later by another study that “proves” the complete opposite. Despite this, the public continues to accept, without question, the integrity and authority of researchers.
Blind trust in authority is one reason the Holocaust was permitted to occur. When dissidents in 1930s Germany, including many religious and opposition groups, were persecuted, the remainder of the population was able to fall under Adolph Hitler’s spell. The Stanley Milgram Obedience Experiment of the 1962 which was designed to understand the Holocaust, as well as the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971, laid bare the workings of human psychology and demonstrated how even the most-upstanding citizens amongst us--even you and I--can do evil things under the spell of authority.

I believe this is what has happened to all Jewish males, as well as the majority of non-Jewish males in the USA: we’ve been hijacked by abusive authority figures of the past. Whether it's the Victorian-era doctors, bent on perpetuating their own sexual repression, or during the Maccabean Period where the Jewish priestly ruling class instituted the more severe form of brit milah that is practiced today, which includes brit peri'ah (complete foreskin ablation), we are made to suffer and cause our children to suffer in an endless cycle of trauma. It's high time we stop. (1) 



(1) The Maccabean Period is also known as the era of Greco-Roman rule. Before this time, it is believed that only the tip of the foreskin was removed. However, Jewish religious authorities changed the ritual to the more severe form of cutting that is employed today. The given reason for this change was to prevent Jewish men from stretching their foreskins to conceal their circumcisions, which was not an uncommon practice. However, my personal view is that the Jewish religious authorities, who were themselves being oppressed by the Greeks and Romans, perpetuated their abuse onto their fellow Jews. 


Jonathan Friedman attended yeshiva through high school. He went on to attend The Cooper Union, graduating with honors in engineering in 2009. Thereafter he spent a year studying mathematics before pursing a career in activism. Jonathan is currently a Projects Coordinator at Foregen, a nonprofit founded to provide therapies for foreskin regeneration using regenerative medicine. He is also founder of IntactNews, a news organization for the intactivist movement.

20 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing your story, Jonathan....I hope it saves millions of babies!!! But if it saves only one, it is still worth it!

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  2. Really great article. Love the connection you've made on circumcision and blindly trusting authority.

    Thank you for sharing your own personal experience to save future generations. Looking forward to Intact News.

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  3. roger desmoulinsJune 15, 2011 at 3:50 AM

    Mr Friedman, I salute your presence here, and your different voice: scientifically educated, orthodox origins, and most of all, male. You are a truly new and original voice in our movement.

    I am a gentile from the factory cities of the midwest. I grew up surrounded by cut boys and men, and am the only intact male in my family of origin. The talk of my boyhood was rude and lewd, but circ was never mentioned until college. I never heard of the ring scar until I was 23, and have yet to see one in the flesh. To my eye, the circed penis looks completely normal.

    I was astounded to discover, at age 13, that I was what nature intended, and that all the boys and men around me had undergone minor surgery at birth. It took me 25-30 more years for me to discover how circumcision can harm some of the men who go through it. A book by a secular New York Jew, Edward Wallerstein, one I read in my 30s, that began my journey to intactivism.

    Leaving not enough skin behind to accommodate puberty and the resulting erections is one of the complications of circ we intactivists harp on. It is sad to read that you are one of the victims. Believe it or not, I was so convinced that circumcision does not impair normal sexual behavior, that I masturbated for some years by pulling the skin back and rubbing the corona, just like a cut dude. I was fully adult when it finally dawned on me that the glans was supposed to cover and uncover. This aspect of normal masturbation was never mentioned in the lewd talk of my teen years, and in the erotica I read.

    You are not the only man I have met who has revealed that his circumcised penis is seriously desensitized. I have never heard of lymphedema before, and wonder what American urologists can tell you about it. Most American doctors are radically ignorant of the natural penis.

    The belief that a Jew must be circumcised or else be seen as a traitor to his people, is stronger in North America than elsewhere. The notion had fair traction in Israel until the arrival of 1 million intact men from the former USSR. A fair number of them have had a bris as adults, but most have not. It is possible that the circ rate in some American cities is higher than in Israel.

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  4. roger desmoulinsJune 15, 2011 at 3:52 AM

    Continuation of the preceding comment.


    Gentile men can be quite resistant to the notion that circumcision diminishes them sexually, especially after age 40. Maimonides may have been honest about the true intent of bris, but no present day rabbi dares speak that way.

    I am not confident that we understand why doctors and upper crust mothers in gaslight New York and London came to believe that it was better for a man's penis to be bald. It is true that in those days, male sexual desire was seen as the root cause of many social evils, including prostitution, excessive childbearing, poverty, marriages made unhappy by horny and philandering husbands, births out of wedlock, and more. If circumcision was seen as taking the edge off of male lust, that was seen as a major benefit.

    If circumcision encourages young American men to behave better, that fact sure escaped my notice! That's why I resisted for years the possibility that circumcision can have major adverse effects on sexual pleasure and functionality.

    Personally, I suspect that circumcision became fashionable because it enabled a mother and nanny to raise a boy without having to think about whether he was clean under his foreskin. Having to inspect a foreskin and talk about it was seen as beneath the dignity of a respectable woman. My grandmother, born in the hills of West Virginia in 1894, was convinced that the intact penis was hopelessly unsanitary, despite having been married 20 years to my presumably intact grandfather.

    "The fact that circumcision started in America among non-Jews, and continues to be practiced by non-Jews, astounds me." George Wald of Harvard University came to the same conclusion 35 years ago!

    The vast majority of problems that circumcision allegedly attenuates require gravely irresponsible behaviour on the part of the man connected to the penis. If he uses condoms or remains a virgin until marriage, all is well. If he doesn't, he can catch an STD regardless of his circumcision status.

    The African clinical trials, the would-be scientific justification for Operation Abraham, are a major scientific scandal that will explode one day, and put the WHO and the CDC in a very bad light. The accusation of racism and of circumfetishism will fly.

    The men who designed and supervised the African clinical trials were white middle class Americans, all circumcised, and totally convinced that the intact penis is unsanitary and sexually repelling. The result was another bias -- some intactivists have applied the phrase "conflict of interest" to this situation. Suffice it to say that no non-American medical organisation has been deeply impressed with the African clinical trials.

    I for one, do NOT "accept, without question, the integrity and authority of researchers." I find it very striking that you have connected the urge to circumcise with Stanley Milgram's classic experiments on the authoritarian personality and our tendency to defer to it.

    American circumcision began out of prudishness. Then it became a cattle brand signifying that one had been born into the urban upper middle class. Then it meant that one had been born in a hospital. Hospitals did it to make money, with health insurance happily picking up the tab. Then parents insisted that it be done, thinking to spare a boy humiliation in the locker room and when he began his sex life. The most pathetic reason I have heard for routine circumcision is that no woman will perform oral sex on an intact man!

    Note that bris is not done in private with only a few family members attending, but is a catered event to which many friends of the family are invited. This custom puts immense social pressure on families to cut their boys, because if they don't, everyone will know they didn't because there no reception was held a week after the birth was announced! This is a manipulative practice.

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  5. It's nice to see more men speaking out about this barbaric trauma. Thanks.

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  6. Nice site, I'm always very happy to see traditionally pro-religious exemption groups speaking out.

    I would make one small point; that not all 'scientists' (counting myself amongst them) are driven by profit; profit-motivated healthcare is a peculiarity of the United States at the moment, and even then just because many physicians might go with the flow on issues such as this, does not make them evil.

    That kind of logic leads people to be dangerously anti- other things that are in fact beneficial (sadly the anti-circ movement tends to overlap rather a lot with anti-vaccination, for example; we're now beginning to see the consequences of that, of course).

    Male genital mutilation is such an odd case, the cultural motivations and personal delusions that accompany its support are deep and difficult to shift. The blame cannot be placed solely on the medical establishment.

    I hope the movement continues in the right direction and support from groups such as Jews against circumcision and the bris is absolutely vital, so thanks again for writing this.

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  7. Well-written and very much appreciated. I totally agree with you about the questionable validity of certain kinds of medical "research." Physicians that participate in "research" about circumcision are motivated not only by their funding sources but also by their own desire to justify what was done to them, to find a way to resolve the subconscious angst they harbor due to having part of their penis removed against their will or perhaps due to perpetrating this violence on others, even their own children.

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  8. Thank you for writing your story Jonathan. The personal details of dealing with having had far too much skin removed and the resultant chaffing and bleeding during sexual activity, are aspects of circumcision I relate to.

    After the first time I masturbated (age 14) a very strange raised ring of swelling rose up around my shaft, above the circumcision scar. Reading your article I now (43 years after the event) have a name for it, lymphedema. At that time I had no way of knowing if it would go away or get worse, and I certainly could't ask my parents about it. Fortunately it subsided on its own in a day, and I never had that happen again, but it scared me. Until reading this article I hadn't ever hadn't associated it with the circumcision.

    The very frank account you have written here comes at a very good time. While this issue has recently been propelled world-wide in the media, many are still in complete denial about the regular harm of circumcision. It is particularly good to read your perspective as a man of Jewish origin.

    I imagine this article will go far and contribute significantly to further decline of this horrible sexual assault on children and the adults they become.

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  9. Authority should always be questioned by those affected by it. If that person is unable to question it, and is to be affected throughout their life, authority SHOULD NOT ACT!

    If that authority still acts and harm others, then it is tyranny..and if it results in irreparable harm to the very body of someone else, this is the worst form of tyranny!

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  10. Thank you Jonathan. Your experience saddens me. I'm sure that there are others just like you, that suffer in silence. I hope they will use this forum to find their voices. Genital cutting needs to be left in the distant past, where it belongs.

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  11. Thank you Jonathan. This is an eloquent, personal, and accurate indictment of a barbarous practice.

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  12. There is a female mohel in our area that is knowen for doing a very tight cut. When my friend asked her about taking so much skin,she replied that no loose skin should be left. I suspect several boys that she done are left with problems. I dont know why but she seems to be very busy doing these.

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  13. roger desmoulinsJune 24, 2011 at 4:40 PM

    Jewish tradition involves detaching the foreskin from the glans, then pulling the foreskin forward through the slit of a U-shaped shield, then cutting the foreskin with a swift down stroke guided by the shield. This procedure, which resembles what is done in African tribes and among many traditional Moslems, leaves a fair bit of loose skin behind the corona. This loose skin accommodates the growth spurt at puberty, and makes intercourse and masturbation more comfortable. Islam requires that the glans must be completely exposed; I know of no such requirement in Judaism or of a requirement that there be no wrinkled skin behind the corona. In fact, I have known of a Jewish man who, when American medical circ was explained to him, exclaimed "That's barbaric!". And yes, there are American men who have uncomfortable erections and sex lives because too much was cut off in infancy.

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  14. I think you need to review the history of circumcision. Originally it was only the overhanging tip that was amputated, This was changed in the Hellenic period to prevent Jewish men from restoring..

    By even pulling the separated foreskin forward before cutting results in the same amount of skin removed as in every other modern method..

    Your "difference" is purely imaginary--and not a rational justification for circumcision.

    Whether or not Jewish men believe otherwise does not make JEWISH circumcision non-barbaric... it IS barbaric!

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  15. Forced, non-therapeutic Genital cutting is sexual assault.
    Jews are equals.
    Equals caught sexually assaulting children should be jailed.
    Simple as that.

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  16. Jonathan, what a brave and insightful post. As a female WASP, I always believed circumcision was the right way to go because of Judeo-Christian teaching. Now understanding the difference between what God intended and what is being done today, I am so saddened and appalled. I was raised with such ignorance! Thankfully, my husband is not American therefore is not circumcised - and we will NOT be circumcising our children. I do hope that more and more people will speak out against this practice which, the way it is carried out today, must be a source of great sadness for the Lord, and surely for His people.

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  17. Excellent, rational argument. Thank you. More people need to speak up about this gross abuse.

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  18. consult4, while my facts and history may be mistaken, rest assured that I am as opposed to circumcision as you are.

    Coming to terms with circumcision has been a lifelong journey for me, one that is surely not over. The obsessive desire to remove the most sensitive parts of the penis, a desire that characterises two major monotheistic religions and dozens of traditional cultures as well as the American mind, is perhaps the most curious ethnographic fact bearing on human sexuality.

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  19. One of my brothers was very sick after his bris. He had severe infection and started having grand mal fits which led to brain damage. Doctors say he may already have had some brain damage before the bris, but that the complications and fits afterwards definately led to severe damage.He has been dependent on others for all of his 49 years,and the effect of lack of support and money meant our family suffered even greater distress and poverty than we already had. The impact of this barbaric practice involves all the family. It should be made illegal and religions should not be allowed to force children and babies into membership. To have any dignity or integrity religion must be freely chosen out of love, not enforced by the knife and lies.

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