The Emotional Consequences of Circumcision


The American Academy of Pediatrics announced in 2012 a change in its policy regarding infant male circumcision. Whereas previously they held “the procedure is not essential to the childʼs current well-being,” now in their carefully worded statement they say “the benefits outweigh the risks.” This reversal comes at a time when circumcision rates are at their lowest point in years in the USA, and when many people around the world are taking a stand against the procedure.

The benefits cited by the AAP are to prevent the potential for physical illness or disease, the evidence of which is questionable at best. There is no reference by the AAP to even the possibility of emotional harm resulting from such a traumatic experience so early in life.

There are countless animal studies showing that traumatic experiences soon after birth cause crippling long term effects. Such studies on human infants, while fewer, also show the damaging effects of early childhood trauma. Apparently, in the eyes of the AAP, such evidence is not considered important.  

The earlier an infant is subjected to shocks to their delicate system, the greater the damage. The first days of life are the most critical, as the newborn has not yet developed any defensive mechanisms to deal with pain or separation from the mother. These two traumatic experiences, separation from mother and pain, are harmful and the consequences lifelong.

Just because there remains no conscious memory of events before speech develops doesnʼt mean they are “forgotten.” I can understand the general public may still believe that what cannot be remembered canʼt cause lasting damage. But that a medical organization, representing 60,000 primary care pediatricians, has chosen not to consider longterm emotional damage is nothing less than criminal.

Additionally, the AAP gave no consideration to the emotional pain suffered by some men who are circumcised. These men are now coming forward in great numbers, outraged they were subjected to a procedure that violated their rights as an individual and, more importantly, compromised their sex lives. There can be no question that circumcision negatively impacts the sexual experience. Just this week, media outlets are widely reporting on a new medical study out of Belgium on this very subject.

As a psychiatrist I know that past traumatic events are not forgotten, even when they occur in infancy. They live on, out of conscious awareness, and exert their effects throughout life. During the course of the therapy that I practice, patients often re-experience feelings and emotions buried since infancy. The therapy is called psychiatric orgone therapy, and I encourage people to read and learn more about it. During sessions, I have seen men relive their circumcisions. This doesn’t happen routinely, but it does happen. After the experience the men describe, as best they can with words, the suffering they went through, and some have even reported seeing the face of the person doing the cutting.

When past traumatic events arise in the course of this method of treatment, they come about spontaneously. They are not hallucinations or induced “false memories” and no one witnessing them could think otherwise.

The cause of a great deal of human suffering eludes our understanding and therefore canʼt be prevented, but such is not the case with circumcision. Parents concerned with the emotional welfare of their child, and not just with the possible prevention of medical conditions that seldom occur, will not allow their newborns to be scarred by an unnecessary procedure.

When I am asked by parents about circumcision, I advise them to educate themselves in every way they can. This includes watching videos of the surgery and the effect on the babies. They might also wish to think about how their adult son might feel about having been circumcised.

Richard Schwartzman, D.O. is board-certified in psychiatry. He maintains a private practice in Solebury, PA and is host of the blog Wilhelm Reich Today.


  1. I wonder if there is a way to welcome baby boys and baby girls into the covenant equally.

    When I reflect on Halacha, I have faith that the intention is more important than the rule. I sense the intention of circumcision is to devote ourselves and our families to God. I am hopeful that we can fulfill this intention by doing as Moses instructed by circumcising the foreskins of our hearts. It seems possible to me that Moses had whole sexual anatomy and never made the choice to have part of it cut off, and yet he chose to circumcise his heart and open it fully to God. I am inspired that the instructions given by Moses can be followed in choice by both men and women equally.

    I want to be very clear that I am not against the mitzvot of circumcision. We can מוּל by cutting the foreskins of our hearts in spirit, so I wonder if we can מוּל by cutting the foreskin of a penis in spirit as well. The covenant does not specify how to circumcise.

    I would like the circumcision of children to be performed in a way that keeps their sexual anatomy whole. I wonder if the covenant could be fulfilled by sliding a metal ring onto a child's penis to imprint a mark in the flesh of the foreskin for the ceremony. I also wonder if the convenant could be fulfilled by the mother touching blood to the child's genitals as Zipporah did to Moses's genitals on the way to Egypt. After that, the Lord let him alone. This circumcision would celebrate a mother's role as protector.

    If an adult wants to have his or her own foreskin cut off, I support that freedom of choice.

  2. There was no money to circumcise my brother during the great depression. It wasn't done until he was 7 years old. Mom took him to town and had the end of his penis cut off with no explanation except it was to "make him like the other boys". That answer worked until he was in high school. PE classes showed that to be a lie. He hated my mother, and most other women too. He left home at 15 and didn't marry until in his 60s, to a woman he bought in China.

    1. This anecdote is consistent with my claim that before WWII, circumcision was mostly limited to the urban middle class. However, all doctors educated in medical schools that passed muster with Flexner were trained to circumcise newborns. During WWII, most jobs added health insurance as a benefit, which always paid for routine infant circumcision without question. Most American maternity wards began urging mothers to permit the circumcision of their sons. In many cases, circumcision became the default. Boys were not circumcised only if the mother raised the subject and objected. Few did, because of the awe surrounding doctors in those days.

      Thus the vast majority of white baby boomers like myself, born into families that were not impoverished, were circumcised within 48 hours of birth. This fact was not mentioned or joked about. The only reason given for this slaughter of the American foreskin was that the natural penis was seriously unsanitary. Many working class boys had intact fathers; this too went unmentioned.

      The vast majority of boys my age grew up having never seen foreskin, and not even hearing the word mentioned. Growing up, I spent a lot of time in locker rooms and summer camps. Rest rooms in those days often had zero privacy. Boys were less embarrassed to be naked with each other than they are now. I recall seeing all of 5-6 intact dudes in school and college. I am confident that the vast majority of women of my generation have never been intimate with an intact man. Hence I am not at all surprised that it has proved very very difficult to lower the American RIC rate. For millions of American adults, the natural penis is disgustingly weird. I agree with those who say that the worst consequence of circumcision is that circumcised boys grow up to tbe fathers obsessed with having their own sons circumcised. Many anecdotes related by anguished mothers on the internet bear this out.

      The founder of this blog, its primary admin, and most contributors to this blog, are all women. It is evident to me that it is easier for women to break free of the American circumcision juggernaut.

  3. One would get the impression, reading some of the Jewish press, and many angry posts and comments, that we intactivists want to force Jewish men to live out their lives with their foreskins. This is not true. I have no objection if a Jewish male, at any time between his 18th birthday and his wedding day, has a bris of his own volition. It is normal if a Jewish man falls in love with a woman more frum than he is, and gets himself circumcised in order to please her.

    Recuperating from adult circumcision takes more time. Adult circumcision is more awkward, because an adult has sexual feelings, and because an adult has better things to do with his time than sit at home quietly, wearing loose clothes, waiting for his penis to heal. But adult circumcision has vastly more religious, cultural and existential value than circumcision performed on an uncomprehending infant. A Jewish man circumcised as an infant has no grounds for being proud of it; one circumcised as an adult does.

    The author of the above post is a rare contemporary disciple of Wilhelm Reich, a man I deem a hopeless intellectual eccentric. But Reich's thoughts about (Jewish) circumcision strike me as more commonsensical. Reich was one of Freud's many central European disciples, and Freud came to believe that circumcision fueled European antisemitism. I am disappointed that Freud did not write more about circumcision. Perhaps that was because, lacking foreskin himself, he did not feel competent to talk about it.

    In the latter half of the 19th century, all cities built public high schools, and Jewish families were keen to send their kids to them. Thus in the loo and locker room, Jewish and gentile boys came to see each other, and the experience must have been very unsettling to more than one Jewish boy. Compulsory military service only reenforced the problem. Did this genital self-consciousness contribute to the rise of Zionism? To the horrors of the Third Reich? It certainly contributed to the decline of bris among assimilated continental Jewish families.

    I am agnostic about claims that circumcision in the first week of life is psychologically or neurologically damaging. But if it is damaging, competent anesthesia can mitigate that. I am astounded that lidocaine is not a standard part of all RICs in the USA today.

    There is nothing in the Bible that mandates that Jewish circumcision must be painful. Only two things stand in the way of making lidocaine a standard part of brit milah: only a doctor can access lidocaine and many mohels are not doctors, and tradition.

    More interesting to me is the possibility that, at least in some cases, infant circumcision can damage adult sexual pleasure and functionality. I find it appalling that we know so little about the possible connection between circumcision and PE/ED/vaginismus, boring sex for men, unpleasant sex for women. A definitive study would require interviewing and examining about 20,000 American and Canadian men, half cut and half not, along with a careful interview of their spouses or domestic partners.

  4. Circumcision was added to the old testament decades to centuries after it was written. God did not ordain this nor condone it. It is a stone age ritual that takes the place of human sacrifice. It is long overdue to eliminate superstitious harmful rituals from our modern lives. No parent should be allowed the right to ask for a procedure to be done that scars or tattoos a child for any reason unless there is a life-threatening medical problem. Thank you for posting this article that clearly states infants and children are harmed by this barbaric act.

  5. The inner prepuce is the most sensitive area of the human penis. What I wouldn't give to go back in time and have a say in the matter.

    Youtube; Function of Foreskin

  6. thank you for the article, it enlightens my hope that things do change and people do care. and even if i cannot go back and erase the emotional scar that was created in me 53 years ago without being tormented , hope is that more and more infants may have a better start in their life.
    i am sure that the system(religion of fear/disbelief in the human potential- especially) will not be willing to change so quickly since it is fearful to admit that thousands of years had been mispracticed....on vulnerable beings such as infants...
    since i had been raped by a stranger as a child , in my abducted state, where fear and confusion ruled i wouldnt as a teenager boy even admit to MYSELF that i had been raped and should have talked to my caregivers/anyone asap about it...and not dismiss the rape as "nothing" ....i can compare this (personal)state to the general state of a nation/people who is fearful to admit to itself the painful facts about circumcision...(stockholm syndrome?).

    i believe that since i had been circumcised as an infant and had basically very low self worth, having been raped as a preadolescent boy was another proof to the unworthiness i basically felt subconsciously from infancy, which led to my false forgiveness to the perpetrator.

    my self esteem and feeling of self worth have fallen down the abyss, obviously since i started having emotional flashbacks related to the circumcision .
    i also believe that my basic negative feeling/thoughts/self talk which shows belief of inadeuecy/of being unworthy as a (hu)man acctualy as i said originated in circumcision,(and i may be talking about the intergenerational legacy too). of course it is not the only factor , but it is preverbal as was mentioned in the article and that what i believe is the reason it is SO MISLEADING the man who is struggling with unworthiness and self subotage.

    at times it looks as if the reptilian brain overrules my verbal panick attacks and a feeling of even being mind controled.

    in those flashbacks it feels like being existentially threatened/even of being abducted mentally/psychologically ... to the point of verbal self abuse/humiliation (verbal panick attacks that feel like being a "Robot") and all of this while simultaneously having the feeling of being "actually" circumcised ,

    i believe that even wars can happen because of such basic emotional disregulation that circumcised men have.
    there should be a more profound research done concerning war states and circumcision.