Sexplanations: Consent is Key in the Question of Circumcision

Content warning: Mentions of surgery and bodily harm. Please practice self care when proceeding. Reader discretion is advised.

I try to stay curious about the world. My New Year’s resolution this year was to question the status quo more. If I catch myself thinking, “that’s just the way things are,’’ I reflect on this and examine if it should be this way, or if it has simply been unquestioned for too long for anyone to notice. 

Circumcision of the penis is something I question. I think behaving consensually is one of the most important things you can do in life. 

It helps to create safe, comfortable, and respectful atmospheres and communities. 

And, therefore, I think questioning non-consensual practices such as infant circumcision is important. 

Circumcision is a surgical procedure in which the foreskin—the covering of skin over the head of the penis—is removed. Decades ago, the majority of infant penises in Canada were circumcised. 

It is a painful procedure; it takes 7-10 days to heal and it is recommended the infant take pain medication to feel more comfortable. 

Today, according to the Canadian Paediatric Society, the rate of infant circumcision has declined to 32 per cent. This decline may be in part because in 1996 the Canadian Paediatric Society put out a statement saying circumcision was not recommended because the benefits did not outweigh the risks; the American Academy of Pediatrics put out a similar statement in 1999. Circumcision is now elective surgery that costs hundreds of dollars. 

There are some benefits to circumcising the penis. The risk of acquiring HIV, herpes, HPV and syphilis as an adult is reduced because the underside of the foreskin is a mucous membrane, like the inside of the mouth or vagina, and, once it is removed, it is more difficult for an STI to invade the body. 

However, the urethra and the anal canal are still both mucous membranes and, of course, condoms are still readily available. 

There is also a slightly lower risk of urinary tract infections in infancy, and it alleviates the possibility of circumcision in adulthood for medical reasons such as phimosis—an inability to retract or difficulty with retracting the foreskin. We don’t, however, preemptively remove other body parts in case they cause concern later in life. 

I still have my appendix and tonsils, for example.

I have also heard many people citing “hygienic” purposes for circumcision. Quite literally, they are saying they do not want to clean, or teach a child to clean, the penis properly. Smegma—a whitish, smelly, cheese-like build-up of skin cells, oil, and bacteria—can accumulate under the foreskin, but it can also accumulate under the clitoral hood, the foreskin equivalent, and it’s illegal in Canada to cut that body part off. 

There are also risks to the procedure—bleeding, infection, problems with urination, improper healing or cutting the foreskin too short or too long. Not to mention the fact that the circumcised infant could grow up wishing they still had a foreskin.

Throughout my years as a sex educator, the argument I have heard most often for circumcising infants is that the father is circumcised and therefore the child should be as well to ensure they look the same. 

What is important to know is that all penises look different, just like all vulvas look different. 

There could be differences in length, width, shape or colour, and the foreskin could be present or mysteriously missing. 

If your child sees you naked—this is healthy, not harmful—and they have questions about the foreskin, this is fantastic! 

This is a perfect opportunity to educate about genitals and their uniqueness, as well as about circumcision. 

Later in life, it could also be an opportunity to educate about the bodies commonly seen in porn, as porn contains an insufficient representation of genitalia, with circumcised penises and surgically reduced labias being the norm. This does not mean all bodies should look this way or that this way is better—this narrow beauty standard is one variation. 

If someone grows up and decides to be circumcised, that’s great: they have made that decision for themselves. What I disagree with is adults making decisions to alter an infant’s body when they clearly cannot consent. 

I wrote this in hopes of encouraging others to question this practice and educate—although unapologetically in an outwardly biased manner—those with little knowledge about circumcision. 

There are both benefits and risks to the procedure; however, for me, the most important factor is consent, and infants cannot consent. Hopefully, I have given you something to think about, and maybe even saved a foreskin or two!