Is It All in My Head?

Does circumcision visually hyper-sexualize the penis?

(Photo by This Guy on Unsplash)

It’s August, 2020.

We are currently living in the Age of the Mask.

This means that [fully abled] people are increasingly being compelled to explore how we can communicate simple nonverbal expressions and acknowledgements without being able to visually use our mouths. I pass a stranger on the sidewalk. We make eye contact. Do they know I’m smiling beneath my mask to convey my friendly, neighborly, harmless intentions, and to express solidarity and appreciation for our mutual respect of public safety pandemic protocols? Or are they secretly horrified by the fact that my mask pattern is the “facehugger” xenomorph from Alien? It’s so hard to tell!

Sure, some folks have wonderfully expressive eyes (or delightfully demonstrative eyebrows, or those perfect laugh-line crows’ feet that only appear when they smile, or the ability to tilt their head to one side at just the right moment to make me think of an ’80s slasher surveying his next victim… never mind).

But no matter how much we can do with our non-labial body language, it’s still not the same as George H.W. Bush declaring simply: “Read my lips.”

What we see is what we’ve been trained to get.

And when it comes to penises, that fundamental guideline still ought to apply: the more you can see, the more you might be able to get.

With the exceptions of the [already exceptional] platypus and echidna, every other penis-owning mammal on Earth is born with a foreskin that keeps their member more or less hidden until arousal occurs. In other words, if all you can see is the foreskin (or, to be scientifically precise, the prepuce) concealing whatever lies beneath, then sex probably isn’t on the table [yet].

By the same visual standard, if the head [glans] of a penis is exposed in your average mammal (human included) via retraction of the foreskin, it’s almost certainly due to penile erection and (hopefully, at least if the erection is occurring after puberty and in the presence of others) arousal building toward an invitation for sex. Sure, you might argue that the erection itself ought to be an [ahem] bigger cue of the penis owner’s intentions, but still, the exposure of the glans itself is an equally powerful evolutionary symbol. Just think of a dog and a tube of red lipstick. (Now go wash out your brain.)

What this means is that, at a very primal level, the visual trigger of an exposed cockhead ought to automatically suggest erotic implications. A flaccid (non-aroused) penis will keep its glans covered with a foreskin; an erect (aroused) penis will, if not prohibited by a condition like phimosis, naturally reveal its glans as a declaration of desire and readiness.

Unless the penis has been circumcised, of course.

Without the foreskin to conceal the flaccid glans (as well as providing a myriad of other important functions for health and arousal), a circumcised penis is visually shouting “Hey sexy, I’m ready!” to anyone who’s looking, 24/7. Sure, it might not be erect, but the “big reveal” has already happened in terms of subliminal symbolism. The head is exposed. The mask is off. There might as well be a little rear-view mirror statement: “If you can see this, we’re getting close.”

My thesis, therefore, is that it seems logical and natural to assume that a circumcised penis could be visually perceived as being radically more sexualized than an intact one. Someone made it rain, and the mushroom emerged.

Granted, we’re talking about very primal and subliminal triggers here — I sincerely doubt that “four out of five dentists would agree” that circumcision actively creates a superior sexual aesthetic. Also, alas, I am not a trained sexologist or researcher statistician, so I can’t provide you with fresh and convincing studies to support this supposition.

And yet…

Beyond the more critical debates about health benefits, religious traditions, genital mutilation, and body autonomy, the average American (since the United States is the only industrialized nation on Earth to practice routine infant circumcision for non-religious reasons at such an inordinately high rate) might simply say: “Eh, it looks better without the funny snout.” Indeed, millions of people think of circumcision primarily as a cosmetic choice, an aesthetic preference: the harmless production of a prettier penis.

But what makes a foreskin-free penis inherently “prettier”? Is it the removal of potentially wrinkly skin, because we’ve been brainwashed to associate wrinkles with age, decay, and thus undesirability? Is it because we abhor bodily “excess” of any kind (unless it’s muscle, money, or strategically enhanced endowments)? Or could it [also] be because at our deepest levels, in our most mammalian brains, we are responding to a recognition that a “revealed” penis is a sexual penis, and a sexual penis means it wants us — which means we must be worthy? Is circumcision thus the ultimate form of artificial flattery?

I know I’m pushing this exceedingly thin argument way too far — so let’s step back from the whole potential “hyper-sexualizing” aspect of circumcision, and merely talk about that general “aesthetic appeal” element again.

Every good parent wants the best for their child; this goes without saying. But — and let’s be very candid here, no matter how squeamish it might suddenly make some folks feel — what parent would admit to caring so intensely about how “stylish and attractive” their newborn child’s genitals will look to future sexual partners that they would deliberately permit — or even demand — a doctor to hack at those tiny bits of skin, to permanently and irretrievably remove a fundamental element of the helpless child’s reproductive organs?

In other words, why would a parent be sexualizing their child’s penis to the extent that they cared about how the child’s future potential mates perceived it? Let’s be clear: a parent shouldn’t care if their child has a “pretty” or aesthetically pleasing penis. The child’s penis will [or at least should] never be the parent’s domain, apart from teaching basic hygiene and sex-ed. No parent should be attracted to their child’s genitals, and therefore no parent should be altering those genitals to fit their own kinks. Just as a parent wouldn’t be allowed to demand penis enlargement surgery for their teenager because they (the parent) liked bigger dicks, neither should they be allowed to cosmetically alter the penis of their newborn to adhere to their own personal preferences for what looks sexy or svelte.

Because ultimately, see, that’s what all of this means: either an exposed penile glans is fundamentally more sexualized (in which case we all ought to be arguing against routine infant circumcision, because America is already a wreck of hyper-sexualization, toxic masculinity, and unpunished assault), or it’s a subjective cosmetic choice (in which case we all ought to be arguing against routine infant circumcision, because parents should not be determining the erotic adult aesthetics of their brand-new offspring’s bodies).

Then again, maybe I’m just obsessing too much. All I know is, every time I see my own penis in a nonsexual context, the mask is off, and it wasn’t my choice.

© Kent Clark, 2020

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If you would like to explore more about the experiences and issues of non-consensual routine infant circumcision, please check out my other essays:

Mild-mannered reports from below the belt and beyond. Cisgender/pansexual/medium-aged/Left Coast of North America.