Ah the foreskin….Has there ever been a body part more fraught with controversy? I think not! Since the beginning of time, doctors, clerics, and rabbis have been surgically altering male baby’s and young boy’s appendages. Some cultures see this as religious right, others a disease prevention strategy, while still others view it as a way of altering the phallus to something…more presentable, shall we say.
History of Circumcision
The act of removing the redundant skin that covers the glans of the penis dates back at least to the year 4000 BCE. Bodies from this period exhumed in Egypt reveal evidence of circumcision. We know the Torah mentions circumcision as a practice mandated to the Jewish people by God himself as a way keeping a covenant with God and distinguishing them among other people. In the Islamic faith, circumcision or Khitan, is not specifically mentioned in the Koran, but has been a religious custom since the beginning of the faith.
So why so much hatred toward this tiny piece of real estate on the male body? As it turns out there may be some health benefit to ridding yourself of this reviled appendage. There have been multiple studies looking at the risk versus benefit of circumcision in disease prevention. Studies in Africa indicate that, in heterosexual men, circumcision could reduce the rate of HIV transmission by about half. The exact mechanism by which circumcision protects against HIV isn’t completely understood, but it is hypothesized that the Langerhans cells in the foreskin, which are actually a part of the immune system, are a route for the virus to enter the body. However, there is no real evidence that circumcision decreases the rate of HIV transmission among men who have sex with men. Other studies show decreased rates of urinary tract infection among intact male infants and sexually transmitted infection transmission among circumcised men.
Ethics of Circumcision
So from an epidemiological standpoint, perhaps circumcision makes sense. You see- let’s say we circumcise 5000 male babies, we may prevent 50 babies from getting a urinary tract infection and 1 male adult from getting HIV. But isn’t this a bit like taking out an infant’s appendix to prevent them from getting appendicitis? I mean, at least where I live, we have pretty good access to antibiotics to treat urinary tract infections in infants. HIV is still predominantly a disease among men who have sex with men with the most common transmission being unprotected “receptive” gay sex. So perhaps there are more effective ways mitigate risk than surgically altering the penis. A few years ago in Germany, a physician was taken to court for a botched circumcision on a four-year-old boy. The court found that this procedure “permanently and irreparably” changes a boy’s body, and for a short time was illegal in the country. This ruling has since been overturned but certainly raises a question about the ethics of what is in effect, plastic surgery of the infant penis. Call me crazy, but perhaps we could allow those boys to decide the fate of their foreskin when they are, hmmm…I don’t know, OLD ENOUGH TO EXPRESS AN OPINION??
Care of the Uncircumcised Penis
For those of you whose man parts remain intact, the way the good lord intended (or perhaps not, depending on your religion.) Here are a few simple “dick-tums” to keep your helmeted Harry happy.
- KEEP YOUR PENIS CLEAN. Your partner thanks you for this. Pull back the skin, wash with mild soap and water and dry thoroughly every day.
- Do not use talcum powder or deodorants on your penis. The powder can get under your foreskin and cause irritation.
- Make sure to milk the urine out of your penis after you urinate. Use a tissue to dry the end of the penis when you are done.
- Don’t ever forcefully retract your foreskin. If your foreskin does not easily retract and reduce, use lubricant when you masturbate or have sex.
- Uncircumcised men are slightly more at risk of skin infections of the glans (head) of the penis. This condition called balanitis is often fungal but can be caused by certain bacteria. It can sometimes lead to phimosis, which is inflammation of the foreskin resulting difficulty with retraction. If you develop these symptoms, you need to see your medical provider.
- Rarely, the swollen foreskin can get stuck behind the glans (head) of your penis. This condition, paraphimosis, is a medical emergency, as blood flow can be compromised to the end of the penis resulting in gangrene. If this occurs, go to the emergency room. Don’t be that guy with gangrene of the penis.
- Dead skin cells and oil from your skin can make a white substance in the skin fold called smegma. (Seriously, I didn’t make it up. Google it.) Its normal but it’s really gross, so take a shower and wash your penis. (I’m serious. Go take a shower and wash your penis…like now….really.)
So, your penis is pretty important, right? Take care of it and it will take care of you. Keep it away from zippers, pocket knives, and other sharp objects and make sure you see your medical provider if something doesn’t look or feel right.