Almost nine years ago, I sat in my hospital bed googling “mohels.” I was a few hours postpartum, and though an anatomy scan at 20 weeks had given me a pretty good idea of what was to come, I hadn’t really done anything to prepare for the bris I was going to be hosting in eight short days.
To be honest, my lack of planning was partly due to vacillating between some pretty typical pushes and pulls; things like not seeing the need for a medically unnecessary procedure done on a newborn with no say in the matter on one hand, versus wanting to maintain key Jewish traditions on the other.
The pull of tradition ultimately won out. What really swayed me was the fact that my partner wasn’t Jewish, and though we had agreed I would raise the kids Jewish, I worried that if I didn’t establish this right away, it would somehow be harder to do so later on.
Nevertheless, while that was the decision I made for my family, I also understand why it isn’t the right one for plenty of other folks.
And whatever choice your family makes, your children are likely to wonder about the procedure, how it works, and why people do it or don’t.
So here are six of the most common circumcision questions that kids (and probably more than a few adults) have, and tips how to answer them straightforwardly.
1) Just what is circumcision?
When a baby is born, the penis has a retractable piece of skin covering the glans (or head) called the foreskin. Circumcision is when you do a small operation to remove this skin.
Though the number of Americans who are circumcised at birth has dropped since its peak in the 1950s, the procedure is still much more common in the United States than it is in a lot of other places.
As a result, whether a penis has foreskin or doesn’t, it’s going to be in pretty good company with plenty of others!
2) Why do people circumcise?
There are a lot of reasons people circumcise. Some families do so for religious reasons. For example, Muslims often see circumcision as an introduction to the Islamic faith, and for Jews the religious explanation for circumcision is that it represents a “covenant,” or agreement, with God.
But plenty of Jews aren’t focused on this aspect of the ritual, and see the ceremony mainly as one of the most important ways to connect to Judaism. That’s why a lot of Jews are circumcised even if they don’t follow other Jewish practices.
Though many people do circumcisions in a hospital shortly after birth, Jews often have someone called a mohel do so as part of a religious ceremony known as a bris or brit milah on the eighth day after a baby is born. This may be done at home or at a synagogue.
It’s also true that many Jews (both in the United States and abroad) aren’t circumcised. And not everyone who circumcises does it for reasons of faith. People may circumcise because it is part of a family tradition, or because they view circumcision as having health or hygiene benefits.
3) So is it actually healthier to be circumcised?
For most people, it’s not. Though there are some health protections offered by circumcision, most of those are pretty small. For example, while circumcision has been linked to lower rates of penile cancer, it is estimated that more than a quarter of a million babies would need to be circumcised to prevent one case of an already very rare disease.
Similarly, while circumcision is related to fewer incidents of HIV transmission, for most sexually active folks in the United States, getting tested and using condoms can make the benefits conferred by circumcision moot.
And as to hygiene, for the average kid, both circumcised penises and penises with foreskin are pretty straightforward to care for with regular bathing.
So really, you can be perfectly healthy if you have foreskin and you can be perfectly healthy if you don’t.
4) Does it hurt the baby?
Back in the day some people believed that newborns didn’t feel pain! Now we know better, and according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, it is likely that circumcision without any pain medicine does hurt a baby. That isn’t all that surprising, when you think about what the procedure entails!
To address this, the AAP recommends that providers use an analgesic painkiller, which is a drug that can lessen pain without loss of consciousness. Prescription analgesics are used by medical professionals and by many mohels.
5) Shouldn’t the baby get to decide?
A lot of people believe in bodily autonomy for kids and think that kids should get to make decisions about their bodies. But even parents who subscribe to this view often feel that it is their job to do things like monitor what their kids eat, determine what medications they can and can’t take, and oversee things like bathing and hygiene.
Still, as a surgical procedure that is more cultural than medical, circumcision is different. So some folks think a person should get to decide if they want to be circumcised or not– something that a baby can’t do. However, others worry that this idea is tricky in practice since circumcision is often more complicated, more painful, and riskier when someone is older.
Ultimately, circumcision is something that every family will have to figure out themselves. Each family has figure it out it in relation to what they think will be best for their kids in the context of their lives, their communities, and their beliefs.
6) What about sex later on?
A lot of people worry that sex won’t be as satisfying or pleasurable for people without foreskin. Critics of circumcision are concerned that the foreskin contains nerve endings that will be lost with the procedure, and that since the foreskin protects the head of the penis, without it, the penis might become less sensitive over time.
Studies have looked at the issue of penile sensitivity and most don’t find a big difference between penises that have foreskin and those that don’t. Of course, as with many studies, some people think these findings are due to small sample size or a the result of a limited scope.
But whether or not those specific critiques are valid, there is also the fact that in a culture which places a lot of sexual emphasis on a man’s penis alone, we can easily forget that there is more to sexual pleasure and satisfaction than just physical sensation in one part of the body.
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A lot of the Jewish parents I know have struggled with the circumcision question and landed in different places. Many of us did it, some opted for a non-surgical brit shalom ceremony, some just did it in the hospital, and others skipped it altogether.
But whether circumcision is something your family has experienced personally or not, it is pretty likely that if your kids are Jewish, they will have questions about the procedure at some point. So hopefully having a bit of background information to discuss it will make a potentially confusing conversation go a little more smoothly.