01.28.09

The Penis Debate

When my wife insisted we circumcise our son, I wondered why the little guy couldn’t just look like me. Then I began to re-evaluate our entire relationship with half the self-esteem and twice the paranoia.

I am an uncircumcised man.

This has never bothered my wife, Nicole. Or so I thought. “It’s like your penis is wearing a turtleneck,” she’d sometimes say, seemingly benignly.

As such, there was never any doubt in my mind that, should my wife and I ever produce a miniature me, he would also go uncircumcised. We would leave his little thing alone. No snip-snip, just like daddy.

I’m well aware of this uniquely American repulsion. But my wife? I’d just assumed she was a freak for the foreskin.

Until, that is, the late-September day when we brought our newborn son home from the hospital. It was chilly, and the tightly wrapped baked potato of a boy felt warm in the crook of my arm.

“We’re getting Dalton circumcised,” my wife said as she fastened the potato into his car seat.

“What?” I said. “Since when does he need that?”

“Ever since uncircumcised penises are weird.”

She paused before adding, a little backpedally, “Except yours, of course. Yours is OK.”

This is how I learned my wife’s true feelings about the type of penis I have—by comparing it to our infant son’s. She thinks—has always thought—“OK.” I knew what “OK” meant, of course. “OK” meant weird, just like she’d said.

She’s not the first person to feel iffy about foreskin. Just look to the message boards, where uncut penises are routinely denounced as “gross.” “I honestly saw one and almost passed out,” reads one poster’s typical response. On Seinfeld, Elaine once bemoaned the uncircumcised penis’ lack of “personality.” I’m well aware of this uniquely American repulsion. But my wife? I’d just assumed she was a freak for the foreskin. Turns out I’m the freak, and she’d just learned to live with it.

Confronted with this bombshell, I began to obsessively review the entire history of our relationship with half the self-esteem and twice the paranoia. Our wooing period, our first sexual encounter, our wedding day—behind those smiling, devoted eyes, she was picturing my uncircumcised penis and thinking, “My God, that thing’s strange. Am I really going to spend the rest of my life with this bizarre dick?” Suddenly my genitalia—to my mind, a cornerstone of our relationship—was not a resplendent totem to celebrate, but a deformity to grin and bear.

“There were plenty of girls before you that voiced no complaints,” I cried, a bit desperately.

“Not to your face,” my wife responded. Touché! “Besides, people are going to make fun of Dalton. Boys in the locker room will tease him.”

Nicole’s dad backed up this theory.

“Oh yeah, we’d give a guy like that hell,” Rick told us at dinner a few nights later. I always treasure opportunities to discuss my penis with my father-in-law. Rick’s assertion didn’t jibe with my own experience. I never had a guy in the locker room say to me, “Dude, I’ve been staring at you for a while and just wanted you to know: You disgust me.”

But were they thinking it, and thanking God that their own parents had the good sense to slice and dice theirs at birth? And do the guys at my current gym steer around me in wide arcs, fearing my elongated foreskin is contagious? And what about the girlfriends? Did all the girls who permitted me to get past second base titter together later, sharing horror stories about the first time they saw that thing in the moveable sheath?

Yes, Nicole eventually learned to accept my extra bit of skin. That’s what love is all about: accepting your partner’s hunched back, wooden leg, or uncircumcised penis. And weird looking or not, my foreskin belonged to me. My foreskin is me. That’s when I realized my quest to keep my son uncircumcised was at least partially ego-borne. I wanted him to resemble me—and I don’t mean I just wanted strangers to tell me he had my eyes.

The decision of whether to circumcise our son became, therefore, a referendum on my own foreskin. All my anti-circumcision arguments—the barbarity of the procedure, the theory that it lessens sexual sensitivity—withered in the face of one multiply confirmed assertion: Foreskin is weird. Women think so. Men think so. The majority of circumcised America—itself is a majority—thinks so. I was hopelessly outnumbered.

A parent’s most important duty is to ensure the next generation improves upon the last. I decided I couldn’t saddle my son with a future filled with recoiling sexual partners. Because as a teen, when you’re not frenziedly masturbating in the closet, you’re trying to figure out why no one thinks you’re sexy. I didn’t want my son to always wonder if he wasn’t getting any because of an extra half-inch of skin that his parents weren’t considerate enough to excise.

And so, after several days of rather conflicted contemplation, I acquiesced.

“You know, this means you owe me. I get to make a real big decision down the road,” I said to Nicole, scraping for dignity like a kid digging through the trash for his retainer.

“Absolutely,” she said. “A day will come when you’ll get to override one of my decisions.” This, of course, we both knew was a lie.

“So!” shouted our extremely enthusiastic pediatrician. “Everybody ready to do this thing?” I couldn’t help but feel a little better about the procedure—Dr. Thompson’s contagious can-do attitude is perfectly calibrated for parents offering up their child’s genitalia to a scalpel.

Except that Dr. Thompson wielded not a scalpel, but a bell-shaped chunk of plastic, a length of string and a sugar packet. “The anesthesia,” he said, referring to the sugar. He positioned himself over Dalton, blocking my view, and went to work. With an end of string in either hand, Thompson wrapped the thread around my son’s groin area as though flossing Dalton’s junk. Dalton made nary a peep. After only a few minutes, the doctor stepped aside with a flourish to reveal his magic trick.

Much to my surprise, there was Dalton’s foreskin, essentially intact. I was incredibly relieved to see that modern circumcision no longer involves circumcising.

“So what I’ve done here,” the doctor announced, “is I have tied Dalton’s foreskin off. In about five to ten days it will turn black and fall off.”

I lost consciousness before I hit the floor. A week later, Dalton’s tip mummified, and the shriveled ring unceremoniously discarded itself. Dalton had traded in his turtleneck for a crewneck.

In time, I formed a peace with Nicole and our decision. It was, after all, literally a small matter. The real issue, however, resided in our making a major decision for Dalton without his consent—I never wanted to be that kind of father. I hope I can raise Dalton to make his own decisions. I want him to have the freedom to come to his own conclusions about life’s major issues like religion, politics, and his own body. The reality, however, is until he can speak for himself, Nicole and I are calling the shots. Mistakes will be made. This is a parent’s burden. I can only hope he will learn to forgive us.

Cole Gamble has written about the crimes of Willy Wonka, man-eating beds and tales from his cringe-worthy life for the parenting web magazine Babble and the humor site Cracked. He is working on a book entitled, Our Wretched Universe: Werewolves, Witchcraft, Canadians and Everything Else You Know Nothing About .