Flawed Circumcision Defense: Dr. Ruth Westheimer

At the risk of being impolite to Dr. Ruth Westheimer on her birthday, here’s a reminder of how lacking her position on male child circumcision is. From an advice column from 1995:

Dear Dr. Ruth: There is a good deal of anti-circumcision opinion in circulation these days and I would like to get your opinion. One of the claims is that circumcision results in a reduction of sexual pleasure. The argument, which sounds logical, is that exposing the glans reduces its sensitivity and that therefore the uncircumcised penis affords more sexual pleasure than the circumcised one. Sounds plausible, but is it true?

I think that many of today’s young parents, Jewish and others, who like to do what is “politically correct” might well forgo circumcision of their sons if that condition would mean someday depriving them of a measure of sexual pleasure.

Can you suggest any kind of evidence which either supports or challenges this claim?

Dear Reader: While it is true that one of the long-term effects of circumcision is some loss of sensitivity in the glans, or head of the penis, what you must realize is that sex really takes place in the brain, and so long as the man is in a loving relationship, there will be many compensating sensations taking place in his brain to replace those he might have lost in his penis.

She answers the question correctly (with an answer contrary to the mistaken opinion many hold today, almost 17 years later). While I understand what she’s doing, using the bulk of her answer to disregard the implication of her initial statement is inexcusable. The question involved children, not how to comfort a circumcised adult sexual partner. This disregard is still all too familiar today. “It affects his sexual pleasure, but…” There is no valid defense of that “but” for non-therapeutic circumcision on a child.

On her website, she answered another circumcision question. It’s undated. I assume it’s (considerably) more recent than 1995. It doesn’t matter. (emphasis added)

[Reader:] My wife and I are expecting, and we are not finding out the sex. However, if we have a boy, she is adamant that we not circumcise him, and I am adamant that we do. I have researched article after article about the hard medical facts of circumcision and how it lowers the transmission rates of STD’s such as HIV. It also helps with penile carcinoma, UTI’s, and ulcerative STD’s.

My intelligent wife believes that we should offer our son a choice of whether he wants it or not, and is afraid our son will feel the pain if he has it.

I am circumcised, and want my son to ‘look’ like daddy, as well as not have to explain to him at a younger age as to why he is so much different than daddy.

I’m interrupting here to highlight what is obvious. The father talks about all of the benefits he has researched. Yet, his statement makes it clear that his real reasons are that he wants his son to look like him and to avoid the need to parent his child with an explanation for why his son is “different” (i.e. normal). This is even though a son won’t ‘look’ like daddy for at least a decade after circumcision, which he will still have to explain if it comes up. Better to act like a parent and explain his normal, healthy body to him than to pretend that his dad’s insecurities justify surgery. (These insecurities will appear again.)

Furthermore, if the procedure is done later, our son will be in pain for six weeks, and I just don’t want him to have to endure that torture. [ed. note: so it’s acceptable to force him to endure that as an infant?]

As circumcision requires both parents consent, this matter will not resolve itself. I feel that my wife should consent as I have more experience in this matter than she does. [ed. note: This is stupid. Would he abdicate his responsibility as a parent if his wife wanted their daughter cut?] I would also feel inferior when our son asks, ” Daddy, why did you cave in to mom’s demands?” later in life. [ed. note: Protecting your children from harm is the “manliest” thing a father can do. Don’t pretend this is about proving your power and ego.]

We are at an impass. We are both passionate about our beliefs (she would consent to having our son circumcised if I were Jewish). What can I do? Should I let this battle go?

Before getting to Dr. Ruth’s answer, I didn’t interject into this man’s question to mock him. I only seek to indicate how obvious the rebuttals are that a good advice columnist would offer about this parenting question. His approach is quite common, so it shouldn’t be unfamiliar to Dr. Ruth. She didn’t go that route, of course.

[Dr. Ruth:] While it’s OK to have differences of opinions, I would hope that you don’t have to have actual battles over these issues. Perhaps because you’re both acting so stubborn, neither one of you is willing to listen to reason. And at this point, you don’t even know if it’s going to be a boy or a girl!

While you raise good points regarding the health concerns, those risks are greatly reduced if it is a boy and you teach him to clean his penis thoroughly. [ed. note: Indeed.] I know not every young male does a good job at that, but if this is important to you, then you’d just have to make it your duty to make sure he does. [ed. note: Parenting… What a useful answer.]

Your wife’s point that the decision should be his does not sound very intelligent. It is much worse to have this procedure when you are older, so the decision must be yours when he is quite young. If that’s her only concern, then perhaps your argument that you want his penis to look like his dad’s has more weight. But in the end, this is not such an important issue and rather than fight over it, you should have some reasonable discussions, if the baby turns out to be a boy, and see what happens. But better to lose this particular debate than fight with your wife.

Dr. Ruth’s last paragraph is a complete mess devoid of ethics. The wife’s point is the only intelligent opinion uttered throughout. As Dr. Ruth answered in another question (about an adult), “[i]t’s his penis …”. Yes. In that other question, if the argument that it’s his penis weren’t the correct answer, Dr. Ruth should’ve told the woman asking that question to demand that her boyfriend get circumcised. She didn’t. Self-ownership exists from birth. It is not negated simply because a boy’s parents fear a possible future outcome.

That gets to Dr. Ruth’s next failing here. She omits the critical point. What is the risk he will need to be circumcised later? It’s quite low, of course. In addition to the more important fact that there is no decision to be made now, there will likely never be a decision that needs to be made. Whether or not he might deem the prospects of adult circumcision to be worse is irrelevant. It does not mean the decision must be his parents’. Dr. Ruth’s opinion is not intelligent. Justifying cosmetic surgery on a son to appease his father’s ego is not intelligent, either.

(Her last sentence is an accidental correct answer. She found her way to a good suggestion premised on an awful reason.)

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