In 1834, Sylvester Graham—inventor of the cracker that continues to bear his name—published a book called A Lecture to Young Men, in which he warned that masturbation would transform a boy who practiced it regularly into:
a wretched transgressor [who] sinks into a miserable fatuity, and finally becomes a confirmed and degraded idiot, whose deeply sunken and vacant, glossy eye, and livid shrivelled [sic] countenance, and ulcerous, toothless gums, and fetid breath, and feeble broken voice, and emaciated and dwarfish and crooked body, and almost hairless head—covered perhaps with suppurating blisters and running sores—denote a premature old age, a blighted body—and a ruined soul! (Quoted in Kimmel)
Graham, who was one of the most popular and successful of the non-medical writers on this subject, believed the male body was simply not equipped to handle “the convulsive paroxysms attending venereal indulgence”—read: ejaculation—and so even married men, whose sexual activity with their wives was certainly beyond the moral reproach usually associated with masturbation, had to be very careful not to overindulge–which for Graham meant more than once a month. Otherwise, they risked
Languor, lassitude, muscular relaxation, general debility and heaviness, depression of spirits, loss of appetite, indigestion, faintness and sinking at the pit of the stomach, increased susceptibilities of the skin and lungs to all the atmospheric changes, feebleness of circulation, chilliness, head-ache, melancholy, hypochondria, hysterics, feebleness of all the senses, impaired vision, loss of sight, weakness of the lungs, nervous cough, pulmonary consumption, disorders of the liver and kidneys, urinary difficulties, disorders of the genital organs, weakness of the brain, loss of memory, epilepsy, insanity, apoplexy—and extreme feebleness and early death of offspring.… (Quoted in Kimmel)
Graham recommended dietary measures, specifically his crackers, to combat men’s temptation to pleasure. J. H. Kellogg, whose flakes were also originally developed and marketed as an anaphrodisiac, didn’t stop with food. In Plain Facts for Old and Young, published in 1888, Kellogg recommended a series of home remedies for masturbation, including bandaging a boy’s penis, covering it with a cage and tying the boy’s hands at night when he went to sleep. For particularly difficult cases, Kellogg recommended circumcision “without administering an anaesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if connected with the idea of punishment” (Quoted in Kimmel). Nor was Kellogg the only expert to suggest that pain was the best countermeasure to male masturbation. Other writers seemed to compete with each other to see who could come up with the cruelest form of intervention. Recommendations included applying leeches, punching a hole in the foreskin and inserting a metal ring, cutting the foreskin with jagged-edge scissors and applying a hot iron to a boy’s genitals.
Clearly male sexual pleasure for its own sake was threatening to nineteenth century US culture. In Manhood in America, from which I have pulled the above quotes from Graham and Kellogg, Michael Kimmel locates this threat in the crisis of masculine identity caused by the rapid industrialization of American society.
[T]o middle-class American men the mid-nineteenth century world often felt like it was spinning out of control, rushing headlong towards an industrial future. For a young man seeking his fortune in such a free and mobile society, identity was no longer fixed, and there was no firm patriarchal lineage to ground a secure sense of himself as a man.… “Sons [here Kimmel is quoting Charles Sellers’ book The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846] had to compete for elusive manhood in the market rather than grow into secure manhood by replicating fathers. Where many could never attain the self-made manhood of success, middle class masculinity pushed egotism to extremes of aggression, calculation, self-control and unremitting effort.”
Sexual pleasure undermined a man’s ability to compete in this marketplace of manhood in two ways: First, as Graham, Kellogg and others made clear, such pleasure constituted unadulterated self-indulgence, a characteristic precisely antithetical to the kind of man a self-made man was supposed to be. Second, the expenditure of sperm—and the thinkers of the nineteenth century saw ejaculation quite explicitly as a form of spending—was a waste of energy that a man could have, and should have, been putting to more productive uses elsewhere.
This view of male sexual pleasure as dangerous and pathological was formally medicalized in 1870 when Dr. Lewis Sayre, the nation’s leading orthopedic surgeon, and a future president of the American Medical Association, was called in to consult in the case of a boy who was “unable to walk without assistance or stand erect, his knees being flexed at about an angle of 45 degrees” (Gollaher). Sayre had been asked to perform a tenotomy, an operation which would sever the child’s hamstring tendons, but, after examining the boy, Sayre concluded that the patient’s legs were paralyzed, not contracted, and so a different form of treatment was called for. Because he could not immediately discern the cause of the paralysis, Sayre decided to test the boy’s reflexes using electrical current as a way of helping him refine his diagnosis. When the boy’s nurse warned him not to apply the current too close to her ward’s genitals, which were very sore, Sayre discovered that the child was suffering from a severe case of phimosis, an overly tight foreskin. When the nurse explained that the condition often caused the boy to have painful erections, Sayre had a flash of insight:
As excessive venery is a fruitful source of physical prostration and nervous exhaustion, sometimes producing paralysis, I was disposed to look upon this case in the same light, and recommended circumcision as a means of relieving the irritated and imprisoned penis. (Quoted in Gollaher)
The operation was performed; the boy experienced a nearly miraculous recovery; and the industry of male circumcision in the United States was born. In the decades that followed, circumcision was touted—at first by Sayre, but then, with the exception of a few dissenters, by the medical profession as a whole—as a cure for everything from asthma to epilepsy, but what is most remarkable about this procedure is that even though every proposed medical justification for it turned out to be either profoundly questionable or completely false, removal of the male foreskin developed nonetheless into the preventive medicine it is still used as today in the routine medical circumcision of infant boys.
What it is precisely that circumcision is supposed to prevent has changed over time. In 1896, a book called All About Baby recommended the procedure for baby boys to prevent masturbation and the medical and moral problems associated with that practice. Other authorities advocated circumcision as a hedge against the possibility of impotence later in life (Gollaher). More properly medical rationales have included the prevention of urinary tract infections, cancer of the penis, cancer of the cervix in women and the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV–this last one is, for now, supported by solid scientific evidence, but no one that I am aware of seriously promotes the procedure as routine preventive health care for all infant boys. Perhaps more to the point, while there are certainly solid medical reasons for performing male circumcisions on adult men, few if any of those reasons apply to newborn boys, meaning that, as David L. Gollaher puts it in his book Circumcision, “the questions about circumcision are about the future: Does it yield longer life, less disease or disability? Does it improve function? Does it alleviate fear or anxiety?And if it does confer benefit, does the benefit outweigh the harm?” The practice of circumcising infant boys, in other words, is more about the kind of body the medical profession believes men ought to have than it is about a direct and immediate threat to the life or well-being of the boys who will grow up to be those men.
Indeed, the routine circumcision of infant males became enshrined in the United States less because there was persuasive evidence of the procedure’s benefits than because powerful voices within the medical profession managed to convince their colleagues and the public at large that the foreskin itself was pathological. Chief among these voices in the late nineteenth century was Peter Charles Remondino’s. A widely published and influential physician and public health official, Remondino published in 1891 a book called History of Circumcision from the Earliest Times to the Present: Moral and Physical Reasons for Its Performance. In it he wrote:
The prepuce seems to exercise a malign influence in the most distant and apparently unconnected manner; where, like some of the evil genii or sprites in the Arabian tales, it can reach from afar the object of its malignity, striking him down unawares in the most unaccountable manner; making him a victim to all manner of ills, sufferings, and tribulations; unfitting him for marriage or the cares of business, making him miserable and an object of continual scolding and punishment in childhood, through its worriments and nocturnal enuresis [involuntary urination]; later on, beginning to affect him with all kinds of physical distortions and ailments, nocturnal pollutions, and other conditions calculated to weaken him physically, mentally, and morally; to land him, perchance, in jail or even in a lunatic asylum. Man’s whole life is subject to the capricious dispensations and whims of this Job’s-comforts-dispensing enemy of man. (Quoted in Gollaher)
Note the shift in focus. While people like Graham and Kellogg had seen circumcision as a kind of punishment for masturbation, a view in which the masturbator and not his foreskin was the problem, Remondino saw the foreskin itself as pathological, as if the male body were born diseased; and while no one seriously believes anymore that the foreskin is the root of all evil in men, it’s hard not to see Remondino’s rhetoric as one root of the idea that a healthy foreskin, a normal part of the body with which a boy is born, is not merely disposable, removable, like the flip top on a can, but also so potentially harmful that doctors are willing to perform an operation to save boys from its perceived dangers that would otherwise seem to violate a central tenet of the medical profession: not to do surgery on an otherwise healthy patient. Were the foreskin understood as the organ of sexual sensation that it is, however–not unlike the clitoris, in that, while it may not be necessary for sexual intercourse, it is certainly more than simply desirable for the pleasures it provides–one wonders if we would so easily see its removal as no big deal and celebrate instead the marginal and doubtful health benefits that ostensibly result from its absence. (Please note: I am not suggesting that the foreskin and the clitoris have some kind of one-to-one correspondence, either sexually or physiologically, just that there may be a similarity in function.)
The foreskin of an adult human male represents 50% to 80% of the penile skin. (Details about the foreskin in this and the following paragraphs are taken from “The Prepuce,” by C. J. Cold and J. R. Taylor and “A Preliminary Poll of Men Circumcised in Infancy of Childhood,” by Tim Hammond.) Unfolded, it would measure between twenty and thirty square inches. The glans penis of an intact man is only a few cell layers thick. The skin is smooth, red, and glistening, just like the inside of the mouth. The glans of a circumcised penis, on the other hand, is up to ten times thicker than its uncircumcised counterpart, the result of a process called keratinization. Keratin, a tough, insoluble protein which the body produces in response to friction or pressure, is the primary material in hair, nails, and the outermost layer of skin. Its formation on the head of a circumcised penis, while necessary to compensate for the loss of the foreskin’s protective covering—imagine what your tongue would feel like if you didn’t have cheeks or your eyes without eyelids—significantly dulls what a man will be able to feel through the head of his penis. In addition, circumcision excises the tremendous sexual sensitivity that is located in the foreskin itself, including:
- The frenar band, a ridge of skin between the inner and outer foreskin, which is the primary erogenous zone on the intact male body
- The frenulum, the highly sensitive piece of skin that anchors the foreskin to the underside of the glans
- Fine touch receptors called Meissner’s corpuscles, of which there are thousands
- Branches of the dorsal nerve
- 10,000 to 20,000 specialized erotogenic nerve endings
All of this and more is lost to a man whose foreskin has been amputated, leaving him only with whatever sensory capacity is left in his circumcision scar—and for some the scar has no such capacity, while for others it becomes a site of pain—and with what he can feel through the nerves in the head of his penis, covered as they are by the layers of keratin mentioned above. These nerves are mostly “protopathic,” meaning they can sense only sensations that are poorly localized, like pressure, pain, certain kinds of physical contact and temperature, and so what one author has called “the subtle pleasures of genital foreplay” exist outside the realm of experience to which a circumcised man has access. Indeed, the only part of the body with less protopathic sensitivity than the glans penis is the heel of the foot. This reduction in sensitivity does not mean that circumcised men have no choice but to lead less satisfying sex lives than uncircumcised men—sexual satisfaction, after all, is a product of far more than physical sensation; and circumcised men are still capable of orgasm and all other kinds of sexual sensation and play—but it does mean that, whatever else it represents as a medical procedure or cultural ritual, the routine circumcision of infant boys, the most common form of surgery performed in the United States, is by definition an expression of indifference at best, if not downright hostility, to male sexual pleasure, rooting the procedure firmly in the nineteenth century beliefs and attitudes of Sylvester Graham and those who thought like him.
Drawing, or at least exploring the possibility of, a connection between the contemporary medical practice of routine infant male circumcision and the fears about male sexual pleasure that concerned people in 19th century United States is not to suggest that we are somehow still mired in obsolete ideas about masturbation or some such thing. Rather it is to ask a question about the relationships between and among the male body, our cultural definition(s) of and prescriptions for a healthy (specifically sexually healthy) male body and how those definitions and prescriptions structure what it means for a man to have sexual pleasure. Take, for example, the terms western medicine uses to define the four stages of erection: latent, tumescent, full erection, and rigid erection. The hierarchical progression from one stage to the next suggests that the process of male sexual arousal is primarily the process of building an erection or, perhaps more accurately, of how an erection builds itself; more, the hierarchy embedded in those terms devalues the experience of earlier stages, latency for example, in comparison to later stages, like full or rigid erection. Thinking about male sexual arousal in these hierarchical terms also carries the implication that something is wrong if one does not reach the final stage, rigid erection, and such thinking fits very neatly with the idea that the final and only true evidence and experience of fully realized male sexual pleasure is ejaculation, a value expressed most nakedly (so to speak) in pornography’s cum shot. Finally, since you don’t need a foreskin to ejaculate, this hierarchical, goal-based model of male sexual pleasure makes it very easy to see the foreskin as expendable, which in turn makes it easy to reason that the expendability of the foreskin is the natural state of the male body, despite the fact that the male body in its natural state possesses a foreskin.
Yet latency, tumescence, full-erection and rigid-erection are not the only ways in which male sexual arousal can be described.The Taoists, for example, as Mantak Chia and Douglas Arava explain in The Multi-Orgasmic Man, talked about four levels of “attainment:” firmness, swelling, hardness and heat, terms that are not only not inherently hierarchical, but that also, at least for me, describe the interior experience of sexual arousal much more accurately. I know what firmness feels like, for example, while I can’t say the same for latency; and the qualitative difference between hardness and heat is much truer to what I feel than the quantitative difference between a full and a rigid erection. Moreover, along with these different terms of description comes a very different idea about the nature of male sexual pleasure. Firmness, swelling, hardness and heat are sensations that can be experienced in their own right, and, as stages of male arousal, each one brings with it its own, very specific pleasures, if you are willing to take the time to pay attention and cultivate them. Indeed, for the Taoists, the goal of male sexual pleasure is not ejaculation per se, but rather the cultivation and harnessing of these pleasures, and the recycling of sexual energy throughout the body, leading to a series of whole-body, non-ejaculatory orgasms, an idea which seems at first–at least it did so to me–not merely counterintuitive, but physiologically impossible.
Yet male orgasm and ejaculation are separable phenomena, as Alfred Kinsey showed in the 1940s and as William Hartmann and Marilyn Fithian confirmed in their book, Any Man Can: The Multiple Orgasmic Technique for Every Loving Man. Hartmann and Fithian reported on a study they conducted of thirty three men who claimed they could have two or more orgasms without losing an erection. The men were monitored for pelvic contractions and increased heart rate—two clear indicators of orgasm—and the results showed the average number of orgasms among the men was four. The maximum was sixteen! More to the point, the arousal charts for these men were identical to those of multi-orgasmic women, suggesting that the traditional Western model of male arousal—which builds to the single peak of ejaculation and then falls off into a stage when another erection is impossible—has at least as much to do with how men are socialized to experience sexual pleasure as with the capacity or predisposition of our bodies for a given kind of sensation.
The techniques that make multiple male orgasm possible are based on an understanding of male sexual response that incorporates into a system the erotic possibilities of male physiology that are usually treated as “pleasant detours” along the road to the “main event” and not as either significant sources of pleasure in their own right or necessary contributing factors to a man’s capacity for multiple orgasm. Through these techniques, a man’s nipples, anus, perineum, testicles, scrotal sac, even his breathing all become in their own way as important as his penis in his ability fully to experience his body’s capacity for orgasm. These methods will work for both circumcised and uncircumcised men, and so I am not trying to argue that we ought to stop circumcising boys just so that they can experience multiple orgasms when they become men (though I do think we ought to stop routinely circumcising infant boys); rather, I would like to suggest that a view of male pleasure that does not focus so exclusively on ejaculation, that values all of the erotic possibilities of a man’s body, including those of the foreskin, will make the logic by which we now so blithely amputate the foreskins of healthy infant boys far less compelling than it now can be. Or, to put it another way, when you change someone’s definition, experience and expectations of sexual pleasure and satisfaction, you change, or at least potentially change, the politics of sexuality as well, and when it comes to male sexuality that is a possibility worth exploring further.