The easy answer, of course, is: don’t.
We shouldn’t not care, I mean. But we should prioritize our care. Create hierarchies of care. Make a strictly-once-a-week grocery list of care. Focus our energy on the things that matter most right now: safety, shelter, sustenance, social distancing, supporting those with greater needs, and sanity. In other words, survival. Nothing else matters if no one stays around to make it matter!
But, as someone privileged enough to be sheltering in place with a [relatively] steady paycheck and an [adequately] stable home, I keep finding myself thinking — in between counting toilet paper squares, gnashing at the news, and lighting candles against the cloudy shroud of existential oblivion — about this other niche issue: the nonconsensual, culturally routine cosmetic genital surgery of infants and minors for [primarily] nonreligious and medically nonmandatory reasons. This stupidly American, toxically masculine problem of loss.
First off, I think I’m thinking about circumcision these days because it’s something I always think about — sadly — and thus the act of continuing to [obsessively] dwell on it helps me to maintain a comforting illusion of normalcy in this otherwise traumatizingly chaotic cultural moment. Persisting in our usual routines is, like laughter, strong mental medicine during troubled times.
So I’m staying in my lane, sticking to what I know. Fussing about foreskins and why we should keep them.
I’ve also been feeling the increased need, since the pandemic began, for physical and emotional security blankets: wearing thicker socks and hoodies more often, drinking more cocoa [and also more rum], taking longer hot showers, revisiting Looney Tunes and Calvin and Hobbes. Feeling protected, in other words, sheltered, held, by the wraparound blanket-forts of nostalgia and warmth and touch.
Except, of course, for my penis, which remains, as always, helplessly exposed to the slings and arrows, whips and scorns of outrageous [mis]fortune… or, at least, to the constant chafing of my underwear and the daily dryness of the air. Ugh.
Don’t worry, I’m not delusional — I sincerely doubt having a foreskin would help me feel demonstrably happier under the global circumstances. But why shouldn’t my penis also be sheltered and protected? Why shouldn’t it also be allowed to retreat within a turtleneck burrow and hide from the big, bad, terrifying world? Why shouldn’t it be allowed to be cared for, or to care?
Because circumcision is, of course, tied into this more urgent and timely issue of care: how do we determine the ethical treatment of ourselves and others? Who gets to choose what happens to our bodies, our safety, our survival? Whose ability to continue existing matters the most?
I’ve spent my life in a country that has devoted its whole history to chronically valuing or devaluing the tangible worth of persons based on their embodied physicalities: gender, race, ability, age, weight, strength, health, and so on. It’s no surprise, then, that this would be the country currently promoting an ethic of “parts of us are expendable” and “stop crying and deal with it; the pain will all be over soon.” After all, those were two of the very first lessons I learned in this world, when a doctor took my infant penis and, without consent or medical necessity, skinned it and threw the severed flesh away.
Unfortunately, even when I don’t want to think about circumcision, my own or anyone else’s, it finds me. Thanks to the escapist rabbithole of the internet, yesterday I stumbled across and watched award-winning director Lulu Wang’s searing short film, Touch, a fifteen-minute masterpiece from 2015:
Based on a heartbreaking true story of trauma, cultural misunderstanding, and the deep complexities of assault and shame, Touch examines the experience of an elderly first-generation Taiwanese-American man who has spent his life suffering from the humiliation of a botched childhood circumcision. The film quickly twists into fraught legal-ethics territory when the man encounters a young boy in a public bathroom who displays a “perfectly” circumcised penis. I won’t spoil any more of the story than that; I’m sure you’ve already quickly decided whether or not it sounds like “your kind” of film.
Exquisite cinematic artistry aside, however, Touch reminded me of how primal a sensation it is to know that your body isn’t “right,” isn’t how it should be, and to crave the sensation (without resorting to pedophilia or assault, of course!) of understanding what it’s like to live in someone else’s skin.
Finally, I’ve been thinking more these days about foreskin restoration, the fact-or-fantasy holy grail for victims of this particularly intimate body-autonomy loss. After all, I’m stuck at home for — according to the most recent news report — at least another month. Just as the vasectomy rates stereotypically skyrocket during March Madness season, this national lockdown should be the perfect time to begin a labor-intensive restoration routine, right?
And I know such efforts work, at least for others — I’ve chatted online over the years with several circumcised penis-owners who have attempted restoration by various methods, and who have succeeded in regaining significant, and occasionally impressively complete, coverage of loose skin over their glans as well as enjoying reduced dryness, less chafing during sex, and generally increased emotional satisfaction and feelings of wholeness. Shouldn’t this clearly be the answer for me?
These same people, who proudly and justly advocate their accomplishments, will also often be the first to caution that the early stages of restoration are the most difficult, with the greatest physical discomfort being initially matched to the least visible gain. Do I honestly want to increase my already uncomfortable levels of stress during this pandemic by tying, taping, or clamping weights, cups, or tubes to my penis for hours each day? Do I want to sit through a movie that isn’t about circumcision and still be distracted by the reminder that part of my body is missing?
Besides, this would just be the “starter” month — full restoration takes years, sometimes decades, of patient commitment, if it’s even possible to achieve at all. Since I was cut “high and tight,” at the most extreme end of the skin-removal spectrum, and thus have the least amount of loose skin left on my shaft to begin stretching, it’s not even certain that I’d ever be able to create an acceptable foreskin simulacrum (and no disrespect to intrepid restorers, but that’s ultimately all it is — a tugged imitation, baggy elastic, not the true, original thing).
Sixteen Square Inches of Missing Skin
A friend recently had her newborn son circumcised. When she told me and I winced, she retorted, “What’s the big deal…
I’m certainly not arguing against anybody attempting restoration, mind you. I’d love to hear how it goes, if you do. I simply feel personally frustrated and intimidated enough by life as it is right now — medically ominous, structurally uncertain, and ethically compromised — and thus hesitate to actively add more reasons for distress.
I’d rather reach outward with advocacy and awareness to future parents and their allies, to prevent the unnecessary loss of any more foreskins, to protect the integrity of each new baby’s body, to give the next generation a chance to focus on the stuff that really matters.
Like toilet paper, eggs, and milk.
© Kent Clark, 2020