Friday, August 17, 2012

Invisible Violence

When I was a kid, I was around a lot of animals. We had dogs, cats, rabbits, a turtle....And these animals were often my first source of information about all things related to sex. For example, I learned about genetics by watching two sister cats give birth to kittens that looked not like the mothers, but like their aunts.

I learned about penises when I noticed our dog, Swift, had something pink poking out from around his belly as he sat down for a rest after an invigorating walk. I thought this was really cool: some hidden body part! What was going on here? When I asked my mom, she said it was his 'thing', and that it meant he was excited, or horny. I knew what horny meant because of puppies I had encountered who liked to hump people's legs.

At this time, I had not seen many naked boys. Probably only my young cousins, escaping my aunt between diapers or a change of clothes. But I had seen enough to wonder, why do boys 'things' hang out all the time? Why don't they stay hidden inside unless they are excited? It seemed humans were the exception to the rule in nature, for I knew that cats' 'things' only came out occasionally too. Maybe it had something to do with our lack of fur? But no, it seemed the cats and dogs actually had an extra compartment that humans did not.

As I grew up, I forgot about this question for many years. The third person I ever had sex with commented on being 'uncircumcised', and it was then that I realized my previous partner had been as well. The first had not. I still didn't know exactly what that meant, as I was too shy to really examine or question the distinction.

Over the next few years, my awareness about foreskin slowly grew. I learned about female genital mutilation and its opponents, and eventually heard of the western version of this, called 'intactivism' - activism to promote keeping baby boys' genitalia intact. My mom told me that my uncle had been intact, and he had told her that he was grateful because he thought sex was better for it.

I do not know exactly when I first really considered the cutting of a baby's penis skin at birth, although it disturbs me greatly now. But I have always trusted in nature, and if the penis is supposed to grow a certain way, that seemed obviously the best way to leave it. So I decided that being intact was a positive quality in any potential partner.

Meanwhile, though, I was dealing with a unique and isolating problem - pain during intercourse. For year the doctors could not tell me why it was happening, and looking back I am pretty pissed about it. Because finally, when I met my current partner and told him the issue, and we set out to heal me together, I found information on the internet about vaginismus, an extreme form of dyspareunia, which is pain during intercourse. That my gynaecologists did not know and inform me about this confounds me.

Vaginismus is a condition in which the vagina contracts tightly and involuntarily any time that intercourse is attempted, making it virtually impossible to have pleasurable or even neutral feeling sex. It can have physical or psychological causes. I dealt with this for years, through multiple other relationships, and for over the first year of my current one. We tried EFT tapping, we tried Tantric healing rituals, we tried role plays where I stood up to the boys who'd pressured me into sexual activities as a teenager instead of letting them touch me.

What helped the most was just being encouraged to find my voice, to speak up during sex if it was uncomfortable. I had learned to be silent when a previous partner told me, after an exam at the doctor's where they told me nothing was wrong with me, that "It shouldn't hurt if nothing is wrong." I think he actually said that out of general frustration, probably more with the doctors than me, but I internalized it as shame of my condition. I developed a habit of suffering through painful sex. Now my current partner supported me in unwinding this habit, with a lot of patience and willingness to explore other avenues of sexual expression than intercourse.

So what does all this have to do with circumcision? Well as it turns out, my preference for the natural form of male genitalia was not an arbitrary value judgement, but sound science! There are many, many reasons why foreskin makes sex better for men and women (among other valuable purposes it serves) - and just as foreskin can make sex better, the lack of it can make it worse. Dyspareunia occurs in only 3% of women with intact partners, but 12% of women with circumcised partners. This means that if your partner is circumcised, you are FOUR times as likely to experience pain during an act that is supposed to be about pure pleasure. (Frisch M, Lindholm M, Grønbæk M. (2011). "Male circumcision and sexual function in men and women: a survey-based, cross-sectional study in Denmark". Int J Epidemiol.)

I know there were multiple factors that created vagisnismus in me - but I wonder how much the fact that my first ever sexual partner was circumcised contributed. I remember sex being uncomfortable with him, not just the first time but much of the time after that. Other circumcised partners I recall were often too rough or had a lack of communication about sex. My current - intact - partner has supported me in really healing - now I experience sex more as I had always thought it was meant to be, and mourn for the time I spent feeling so left out of one of life's beautiful offerings.

Many women, uneducated about foreskin anatomy and steeped in a culture of body-hate, are uncomfortable with the natural penis. To these women, I say, you do not know what you are missing! This website contains detailed information about the benefits foreskin has for you:
Although it may be presented in clinical terms, in the bedroom it is a whole other story!

To parents to be, I say, please do your research before irrevocably amputating your child's body parts. The benefits of circumcision are extremely overblown compared to the damage it does - it is really a matter of the hospitals making money off of an outdated tradition at this point. Check out

To men who have been circumcised, I say two things: one, if you are young enough, you can sue the doctor who circumcised you! Your parents consent form is probably not enough to protect them. Cases have already been won. A good place to start is Attorneys for the Rights of the Child - Secondly, you can non-surgically restore your foreskin, making sex more pleasurable for you and your partner. See the National Organization of Restoring Men for more information:

To close, let's do a little math. According to an article by Michael Castlemen on Psychology Today, 20% of American women experience painful sex. (NOTE: This section was previously calculated wrong, and it is now fixed. Surprisingly, the numbers are very similar to what I came up with when I did the math incorrectly!) According to the study mentioned above, for every 1 women who experiences painful sex with an intact partner, there are 4 women who experience it with a circumcised partner. That means that roughly 4% of American women who are hurting during sex are with intact men, and 16% are with circumcised. If the second group of women were with intact partners, only a fourth of them (see above) would have pain - 4%. Add that to the original 4, and you get 8%. In other words, if we stop circumcising in America, the rate of painful sex for women would be more than cut in half. 

In terms of real human beings, that's a drop from over 62 million women hurting during intercourse to about 25 million. I sincerely hope we can untangle this thread in the tapestry of violence done to our bodies - not just for 'boys and the men they become', as one flyer says, but for millions of women like me.

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