The Right to Our Own Bodies

The History of Male Circumcision in the U.S.

by Frederick Hodges and Jerry W. Warner

[This article appeared in the November 1995 issue of M.E.N. Magazine]men-logo


The subject of male circumcision is highly taboo in America. Most men—and this includes doctors—would prefer not to think about circumcision, and can become defensive when the subject is brought up. Most American men have never even seen an intact human penis.

Circumcision is not a benign surgery. Besides destroying a significant segment of the male's sexual equipment, it has a significant complication rate. According to an important medical study, one serious complication-severe hemorrhage, infection, loss of entire penis, or death-occurs in every 500 circumcisions (approximately 3,700 in 1993).1 According to another study, "Death as a complication from newborn circumcision has been estimated to occur in from 1 in 24,000 to 1 in approximately 500,000 [cases]. Some investigators have actively sought out complications by interview and have recorded rates of 55%."2 These figures suggest that, with 1.2 million circumcisions performed in this country each year, at least 3 boys die each year, and for no other reason than that they were born in the United States. Prospective parents are not given these facts.

The U.S. is the only Western nation that surgically alters its males in this manner. In Europe and in most of the world, [non-religious] circumcision is unknown, and intact males do not suffer from any of the diseases and discomforts claimed by American proponents of circumcision. Genitally-intact Europeans are often very amused to hear the notions circumcised Americans have about the normal human penis. Notions about improved hygiene after circumcision appear ludicrous to intact men. The European medical community condemns the U.S. for a practice they call a barbaric violation of human rights.3 Europeans believe that males have a basic human right to an intact penis, a right to keep the body they were born with, and a right to body ownership and autonomy. For them it is a question of respect and dignity.

Men's Bodies

The foreskin is one of the most erotically sensitive parts of the penis. It represents 50% to 80% of the skin system of the penis, depending on the length of the penile shaft. It is a unique and highly complex organ. The average foreskin has over three feet of veins, arteries, and capillaries, 240 feet of nerve fibers, and over 1,000 nerve endings. If unfolded, the adult foreskin would measure 20 to 30 square inches.

The foreskin plays a large role in sexual function. When sexually aroused, its lips expand and unroll over the glans. The glans stimulates the foreskin, and the foreskin stimulates the glans. The foreskin functions much like the eyelid. The inside of the foreskin and the glans of the normal penis are glistening and red, just like the inside of the mouth. The foreskin has glands that produce a natural moisturizer and lubricant called smegma. Smegma serves the same purpose as tears do in the eye: it keeps everything moist, clean, and lubricated.

Men's History

In the U.S. there is a myth that the natural human penis is a self-destructing time-bomb, ready to go off at any time in an explosion of disease, filth, and horrible stenches, an inevitable disaster which only immediate surgery at birth can prevent. Can this be true? Why and how did this practice of routine infant circumcision begin in the United States?

Non-religious circumcision was introduced into this country on a very small scale in the 1860s for a single purpose-to stop masturbation. Circumcision was used as a deliberate surgical intervention to debilitate and desensitize the penis.

During the Victorian era, physicians began to believe that all sexual activity was dangerous to physical and emotional health. Masturbation was viewed as the most dangerous form of sexuality and was named as the cause of every known disease, from blindness to nervousness, insanity, venereal disease, tuberculosis, and death. With every credible American doctor and medical association issuing dire warnings about masturbation, any step taken towards its eradication and prevention was deemed justified.

In cases of masturbation we must, I believe, break the habit by inducing such a condition of the parts as will cause too much local suffering to allow the practice being continued. For this purpose, if the prepuce is long, we may circumcise the male patient with present and probably with future advantages; the operation, too, should not be performed under chloroform, so that the pain experienced may be associated with the habit we wish to eradicate.4

A remedy for masturbation which is almost always successful in small boys is circumcision. The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anaesthetic as the pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment.5

Clarence B. was addicted to the secret vice practiced among boys. I performed … circumcision. He needed the rightful punishment of cutting pains after his illicit pleasures.6

By the turn of the century, circumcision had become a panacea. Amputation of the foreskin was "scientifically proven" to cure and prevent diseases ranging from insanity to epilepsy, malnutrition, hip-joint disease, paralysis, eczema, tuberculosis, headache, hysteria, alcoholism, criminality, and heart disease.

In 1928, the American Medical Association published an editorial in its journal calling for the routine circumcision of all male infants at birth. The primary justification for routine circumcision was the prevention of masturbation.7

I suggest all male children be circumcised. I am convinced that masturbation is much less common in the circumcised.8

During World Wars I and II, many soldiers were forcibly circumcised by military doctors under threat of court martial. Returning WWII veterans were now conditioned to believe that circumcision was the correct thing to do. They were told it was hygienic, that it prevented disease, and that conformity was necessary. Young parents did not object when their newborn boys were automatically circumcised after being delivered in hospitals, though in reality they had no choice. Hospitals did not require anyone's consent to perform this surgery.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, this abusive situation was reformed. Hospitals and doctors were required to obtain informed consent from patients for any medical or surgical procedure. Circumcision now required consent before a doctor was legally allowed to amputate, but since a baby is unable to give his consent, parents were assumed to have the power to give consent on behalf of the baby.

By the early 1970s, over 90% of newborn boys were automatically circumcised. In 1971, the American Academy of Pediatrics reviewed the medical literature on circumcision and determined that circumcision, after all, was not medically valid. The circumcision rate began to fall dramatically. New medical excuses continue to be invented for the surgery, but all have been disproved by European studies.

Men's Awakening

In the 1980s, an awakening began in the psyches of American men. Many began to realize that they had been alienated from their bodies. Many began to question the myths which told them that their genitals were inherently "dirty" and in need of surgical reduction. Today, American men in increasing numbers are becoming aware that they had a right to all of their reproductive organs and that no one had the right to remove part of their body. Men are now demanding the right to control their own sexual organs.

Marilyn Fayre Milos, a registered California nurse, founded the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers (NOCIRC) in 1986. NOCIRC is now the nation's leading human rights organization for body ownership rights. The National Organization to Halt the Abuse and Routine Mutilation of Males (NOHARMM) was founded by Tim Hammond in 1992 in San Francisco, and has awakened millions of men to this men's movement issue. One recent NOHARMM survey of hundreds of victims of circumcision proves the lifelong negative consequences of this sexual alteration.

Founded respectively by Wayne Griffiths and Dr. James Bigelow, the National Organization for Restoring Men (NORM) and the UNCircumcising Information and Resources Center (UNCIRC) have given hope to thousands of American victims of circumcision wishing to restore their foreskin. Dr. Bigelow's revolutionary book, The Joy of Uncircumcising!, shows men how they can gently stretch their remaining penile shaft skin to cover their glans. Restoration cannot give back the erotogenic nerves amputated at birth, but can create a more natural-looking penis. The restored foreskin functions as the original might have; it enables the glans to heal, soften, and return to a much higher and normal level of sensitivity. Restoration has been very therapeutic for men. It improves body image, improves self-esteem, dispels feelings of victimization, and empowers men to make choices about their own sexuality.

Men's Destiny

American men are beginning to realize the truth that nature knows more about designing the penis than do American doctors. Parents do not have the right to force circumcision on their sons. The only person who has the right to consent to the amputation of a normal, healthy, functioning body part is the person who must live with the consequences. Many circumcised American males unnecessarily feel uneasy and threatened by the men's pro-choice movement. The movement against infant circumcision is no threat to circumcised men. The men's pro-choice movement is fighting for the freedom of American males to keep the sexual organs nature intended them to have. Parents have nothing to lose and everything to gain by leaving their sons intact. Permitting their offspring the dignity of an intact body and protecting the basic human right to self-autonomy is both good and noble. Everyone has the right to an intact body.

In the spirit of brotherhood, American men are now empowering themselves to fight the taboos which for decades have prevented them from speaking out against the violation of their basic human right to control their own reproductive organs. The men's pro-choice movement empowers men to fight to protect the rights of future generations. By saying "no" to circumcision, American men are saying "yes" to men's rights. We are wrenching the stainless-steel scalpels from the hands of the circumcisers and beating them into silver spoons for our sons. History will forever thank us if we act now.

  1. Gee, WF. and Ansell JS., "Neonatal Circumcision: A Ten-Year Overview." Pediatrics. (1976) pp. 824-827.)

  2. Enzenauer, RW. Smith AG., "Circumcision: Needless Risks, No Medical Benefits." RN. (1983) 4:99-100.

  3. Fleiss, P., "Circumcision." British Medical Journal. (1995) 245:927.

  4. Athol, A.W. Johnson, "On an Injurious Habit Occasionally Met with in Infancy and Early Childhood," The Lancet, vol. 2 (April 7, 1860): pp. 344-374.

  5. John Harvey Kellogg, M.D., "Treatment for Self-Abuse and Its Effects," Plain Facts for Old and Young. Burlington, Iowa: F. Segner & Co. (1888). p. 295. [Full Text (PDF)]

  6. N. Bergman, M.D., "Report of a Few Cases of Circumcision." Journal of Orificial Surgery, vol. 7, no. 6 (December 1898) pp. 249-51.

  7. Editor, "Routine Circumcision at Birth?" Journal of the American Medical Association, vol. 91, no. 3 (July 21, 1928): p. 201.

  8. R.W. Cockshut, "Circumcision." British Medical Journal, vol. 2 (October 19, 1935) p. 764.

Suggested Reading:

Say No to Circumcision by Thomas J. Ritter, M.D.

The Joy of Uncircumcising! by Jim Bigelow, Ph.D.

Both published by Hourglass Book Publishers, P.O. Box 171, Aptos, CA 95001


NOCIRC P.O. Box 2512, San Anselmo, CA 94979-2512. Tel: 415-488-9883

NOHARMM P.O. Box 460795, San Francisco, CA 94146-0795. Tel: 415-826-9351

NORM 3205 Northwood Drive, Suite 209, Concord, CA 94520-4506. Tel: 510-827-4077

UNCIRC P.O. Box 52138, Pacific Grove, CA 93950. Tel: 408-375-4326

Jerry W. Warner holds a B.S. degree in business administration, is a registered securities broker and insurance agent. He represents NOCIRC and NOHARMM in Louisiana and presents seminars on the issue of routine infant circumcision.

Frederick Hodges is a medical historian and author. He is a recognized authority and consultant on issues of anatomy, human rights, and medical ethics.


(File revised 4 November 2006)