Does Adult Circumcision Hurt?

Men the world over are pondering their foreskins with a renewed sense of purpose due to a recently published clinical study in Africa that claims circumcised men are significantly less susceptible to HIV. Those curious about the gritty details of … Read More

By / December 18, 2006

Men the world over are pondering their foreskins with a renewed sense of purpose due to a recently published clinical study in Africa that claims circumcised men are significantly less susceptible to HIV. Those curious about the gritty details of the operation can consult Slate’s Explainer column, which is so full of information that I understand a pop-up book based on the column is already in production. Even if you’d rather not consider the snipping options, though, you have to wonder: How much does it hurt?

Studies indicate that three in 1,000 uncircumcised American men end up going under the knife annually, for aesthetic, religious, and medical reasons. A number of these are Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet bloc; under Communism, hospitals refused to perform circumcisions, and mohels ran the risk of arrest. It’s important to note that while circumcision halves the odds of HIV/AIDS in the African study, that does not equate in the US. The spread of AIDS in Africa is largely through heterosexual sex, whereas in the US the prime vectors are intravenous drug use and anal sex.

Then there’s Abraham. He was 99 years old when he performed a circumcision on himself, presumably without even a topical. One could argue that at 99 there is even less feeling down there than at one week, but these days, Abraham would be encouraged to see a qualified doctor, who would inject a local anesthetic into his penis. That stings a bit, but it prevents pain during the next step, when the foreskin is snipped away. After the anesthetic wears off, however, the area will be sore and tender, often for several weeks. The recovery hurts; the procedure doesn’t.

In Africa, researchers are also looking into the ever popular “bloodless” method of circumcision, which entails the following: Gather up your foreskin in a tight clamp; hold it in place for approximately one week while the bloodless flesh slowly rots off like a co-star in an all-penis remake of Night of the Living Dead. Bloodless? Perhaps. Painless? Uh, fuck no.

The difference for adults and babies is largely one of anesthesia and time. Whether the procedure is done in a hospital or by a mohel, babies get very little in the way of pain relief. In a hospital, they may get a dab of lidocaine, but because of the potential neurological dangers of using anesthesia on newborns, doctors shy away from the pharmacological options. During a brit mila, the mohel gives the baby a small amount of wine, which helps during the procedure, but very little after. Fortunately, for babies, the entire process takes just a few minutes, the healing time is about a week, and they don’t remember any of it.

Adults get the painkillers, but they also have to endure a more complex bit of surgery. It used to be that men could have the operation performed under a general anesthesia, allowing them to simply wake up missing their foreskins. Now, however, most adult circumcisions are done as an outpatient procedure via a local anesthesia (which, while supposedly pain-free, sounds terribly unappealing, though, of course, I need a general anesthesia when my dog gets her teeth cleaned). Healing time is typically four to six weeks, during which time the patient must abstain from sex. Erections in general are best avoided; let me tell you, from experience, I endorse this advice wholeheartedly. And, unlike babies, adult patients remember all of it.

Take it from me. While I was circumcised shortly after birth and thus don’t remember the experience, I do have good reason to conclude that circumcision as an adult (or child, or teenager, or frat boy) hurts quite a bit.

The Zipper Incident (circa 1979): On a frigid winter day at Castle Rock Elementary school, I got it in my mind that I’d like to pee behind the tree by the bike racks. After quickly ensuring that neither Renee Sandoval nor Margaret Cashion could see me, I unzipped and let flow a torrent of juice-box-fueled urine. I remember thinking that it was a tremendous relief until I saw über-bully Brian Camp approaching. Surely Brian would tell the girls. Surely I’d be humiliated, not to mention suspended. I shoved all of my machinery back into place and yanked my zipper up, slicing a fair portion of skin off the bottom side of my penis. Pain factor, on a scale of one to ten: ten.

The Friction Incident (circa 1987): Five Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers. A thick pair of Guess? jeans. One 16-year-old girl named Michelle wearing equally thick Guess? jeans and a shirt by Genera that glowed in the dark. Two hours of friction, soundtrack provided by The Cure, lubrication provided by denim. Pain factor (during incident): 0, wine coolers presumably having dulled the sensation. Pain factor (after incident): ten.

The Shaving Incident (circa 1995): Given a pair of electric hair clippers, some men make the decision to look less like themselves and more like porn stars. My own adventure in pubic topiary started swimmingly. Places I hadn’t seen since 1979 were suddenly visible. The air seemed cooler. The sky seemed brighter. I thought about buying a Speedo. And then I cut a chunk of flesh from my penis with the clippers. Pain factor: ten.

What these incidents have in common is that they were done outside of a hospital, largely without anesthesia (save for the wine coolers), and long after I’d actually been circumcised. So while I didn’t have a memory of the original process, my nerve endings likely did, and what they communicated to me was that keeping sharp objects away from my penis should become my life’s work.

I'm glad our most barbaric tribal ritual is finally getting some rational justification beyond "Abraham did it, and you'll do it to your own kid." Just take it slow–and let's get some Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers over to Africa pronto.

Goldberg, P.I. would like to thank Dr. Doug P. Lyle.

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