What mother hasn't, in the halcyon days after the birth of a son, felt her ferocious she-wolf instincts kick in when it comes time for her boy to be circumcised? Having perhaps suffered violence to her genitals during the birth, the physical ache to all that is vulnerable in her world can seem unbearable. And then it is done, and life goes on.
Anti-circumcision activists would have us believe that life does not in fact go on, that boys grow into men whose sexual pleasure (and that of the women they love) is compromised by this act of "genital mutilation." While increasing numbers are swayed by both argument and sentiment, I'm stupefied by the controversy.
Male sexual pleasure is not my highest priority, having rarely witnessed a lack thereof. Nor is my own, if in fact I'm speaking out of my ignorance of the delight foreskin can deliver. What I am concerned about is sky-rocketing rates of sexually transmitted diseases, and the gender inequality evident in these rates.
A 2008 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study estimates that 25 percent of American women ages 14-19 are infected with at least one of the four most common STDs. Eighteen percent of them have human papilloma virus (HPV), which can cause genital warts and cervical cancer. Four percent have chlamydia, which, if left untreated, can lead to Pelvic inflammatory disease and sterility. Chlamydia can also be passed from mother to baby during vaginal birth, and is reported to occur in women at three times the rate it occurs in men. Furthermore, nearly half (48 percent) of African American women in this age group were infected with an STD, compared with 20 percent of white women.
Based on multiple studies suggesting that male circumcision reduces the risk of STDs, U.S. health officials are encouraging routine circumcision for male babies at a time when circumcision rates are declining. In a BloggingHeads.tv discussion with colleague Emily Bazelon, DoubleX editor Hanna Rosin surmised that the recommendation is ultimately about confronting a decline in Medicaid funding of the $300 procedure in at-risk communities.
Even if STD prevention benefits are as overblown as critics suggest, the risks are far less dubious than those related to prevention measures like the HPV vaccine Gardasil, which young women are coerced by their governments into receiving. Last year Andrew Jones, also known as Tall Skinny Kiwi, reported that his 13-year-old daughter had been "jabbed" with the vaccine in her British school after she and her parents had opposed it in writing. Earlier this year, the FDA agreed to investigate possible risks for deadly Lou Gehrig's disease-like symptoms after at least three young women developed such symptoms soon after being vaccinated.
Meanwhile, Intact America, an anti-circumcision group, says that boys can be taught the good hygiene necessary to ensure that their foreskins don't harbor disease. As the mother of boys, I wouldn't entrust my sexual health to the grooming habits of young men.
And why should women?
We bear the brunt of the communal sexual and reproductive health load in our bodies. We take birth control pills and fertility drugs laden with side effects. We have unnecessary C sections and hysterectomies. We are surgically sterilized at five times the rate of men. We have elective surgery, both cosmetic and bariatric, to attract them. We diet obsessively.
Opponents would argue that we have choice in these matters, while baby boys don't. To which I say, "Hooey!" Absent the enthusiasm of a male OB-GYN and the cultural ascendancy of second-wave feminism in my formative years, I doubt I would have had an irreversible tubal ligation at age 23 or taken birth control pills at 16.
Call me ignorant if you want, but in this debate, I'll side with women—women like Marjan Hezareh, scientific director of the Los Angeles-based AIDS Research Alliances. In 2007, she concluded, "The health benefits for women of having a circumcised partner have been sufficiently proven, and the medical benefits should outweigh any stigma against both adult and infant circumcision."