Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The foreskin: Why is it such a secret in North America?

Note: Never have I gotten so many comments and emails in response to a blog post, much less rumors that I'm a man. I'll keep that in mind.
` And for the record, it wasn't until 2014 that I had the opportunity to put a man's intact penis in my very much female vagina -- that is, after I regained sensation in it. Long story. This frictionless appendage made me realize that sex doesn't have to be painful or cause hazardous inflammation. And with that image in your mind...

I was nineteen or twenty years old when a male friend of mine, we'll call him Bill, let me in on a most shocking fact: He was missing part of his penis, and so were almost all boys and men that I had ever seen in my entire life, as well as all the anatomical diagrams that I had ever seen. Ever.

Sure, I had heard of circumcision as a Jewish religious practice, but thought myself unlikely to ever see its results. Little did I know, all the male genitalia I had seen both in real life and as depicted in American anatomy books, had been edited in exactly the same way.
` The shock from this revelation overwhelmed me for weeks, especially since I considered myself to be fairly knowledgeable about anatomy. (My interests included biology and drawing biological structures.)

Why would anyone selectively remove foreskins, not just from real people but from scientific anatomical texts, which I had thought were meant to represent the natural human form?
` And why did no one ever tell me about this? It was as though a basic feature that males (of all mammals) are normally born with was not to be understood or even acknowledged.

I spent the next few weeks at the local library, immersing myself in primary and secondary source materials on the relevant anatomy, medicine and history, before I was satisfied that I had an accurate understanding of what was going on. To summarize what I had found:
` The foreskin (or prepuce) is a man's most sensitive erogenous zone, more well-developed in humans than in other species of mammal. It has unique sexual functions (more on that later), which circumcision effectively destroys -- and this is intentional:
` Although foreskin-chopping was once a purely religious or cultural practice, it was introduced to American medicine in the late 1800s, as a 'cure-all', thanks to the trend of pathologizing (treating as illness) normal human sexuality and healthy genitalia.

At the time, many doctors believed that sexual stimulation and ejaculation literally drained men of their vitality and caused all manner of illnesses and mental problems. Semen was thought to take a lot of blood to make, and losing one ounce was considered the equivalent of losing a quart of blood.
` Painfully severing the man or boy's most erogenous zone was recommended, and in orphanages, it was more common to sever the penile nerve as well. This was meant to traumatize and discourage him from masturbating, lest his health deteriorate from excessive ejaculations (which was diagnosed as "spermatorrhea").
` Yes, really.
` There were many quack remedies in the 1800s to improve men's virility and erections, and to keep them from losing semen via masturbating and nocturnal emissions. This was not considered a contradiction because a man's purpose was thought to be saving his sperm for making babies.

This may be a shock to some, although my readers may be more familiar with the ancient belief that women suffered from a vague illness called "hysteria", some of whose symptoms are sexual desire and vaginal lubrication.
` Typically, this was a "disorder" of women who didn't have husbands, or whose husbands left them wanting in bed, and it was thought that the buildup of sexual fluids such as "female sperm" (ejaculate) were poisoning them.
` In order to relieve "hysteria" symptoms, the two-thousand year old wisdom of treating it involved "massage" techniques of the "womb" (vulva), in order to induce a "hysterical paroxysm" (orgasm).
` For doctors in the 1800s, this was hard work, so often they recommended a midwife to do this, and later on invented a number of vibrators and water jets that were much more effective.
` The fact that vibrators were the fifth household appliance to become electrified is a testament to the pathologization of women's sexuality, not to their sexual freedom, as is popularly imagined. (That part happened later.)

Importantly, this treatment was not openly considered to be sexual because it did not involve penetration, thanks to the male-centered view of sex.
` This is how masturbation (that is, without a medically-sanctioned device) could be thought of as causing illness in females.
` However, there was another, less popular "treatment" to discourage "irritation" and "over-stimulation" in females -- excision of the external clitoris. In other words, medicalized 'female circumcision'.
` Various forms of this practice appeared sporadically until the 1970s, and were even funded by Medicaid and promoted for the same reasons as male circumcision (appearance, reduction of 'dirty' smegma, health, etc).

It may come as a shock to find that in the U.S., many widespread popular beliefs about the penis today are actually based on the same Victorian Era quackery rather than today's medical science.
` Indeed, the non-therapeutic circumcision of infant boys has continued to be medicalized in the U.S., and to a lesser extent in Canada, due to such persistent beliefs.
` Thanks to Lewis Sayre, notable surgeon and pro-circumcision quack of the 1870's, one example is the pathologization of completely normal infant foreskins:
` This continues today in hospitals, thanks to continued ignorance about penile gross anatomy: Attempts to 'fix' the child's normal foreskin normally result in severe injury and pain. More about this shortly.

Non-therapeutic circumcision of boys by medical professionals did spread to a few other countries -- most of which have long rejected it on the grounds that it is extremely harmful, with no significant medical benefit.
` As for the few cultures that continue to give routine infant penis-reductions a veil of medical validation, the justifications for it depend on the culture and era. In other words, it is based on local beliefs, not science.
` The scientific literature reveals the physical, neurological, and psychological harms of this tradition, but these are creatively ignored or glossed-over in much of the U.S. medical community.

Yes, that's me with the weird hair.
This past April 28th, the Seattle Atheists invited John Geisheker to correct some of these myths. He is Executive Director and General Counsel for Doctors Opposing Circumcision (DOC), an organization which opposes the unnecessary genital surgery of any child.

His presentation was video-recorded and uploaded on YouTube, so if you're interested, you can open the link in a new tab before reading on:
Circumcision: At the intersection of Religion, Medicine, and Human Rights
` Either way, I have handily rehashed most of what he says in the rest of my article. This is partly thanks to the notes I took -- which you can see me doing in the center of the frame.

So, how did an anti-sexuality practice of the Victorian Era ever become normalized and progressive? And, what was missing from all those anatomy books, anyway?
` Even anatomy books I've seen that include the foreskin do not have a detailed visual representation of it, nor do they have much description beyond saying that's skin that 'covers the tip of the penis'.
` But it isn't:

An anatomy lesson that a medical professional should not need:

The male prepuce, or foreskin, is a highly mobile and extraordinarily sensitive double fold of tissue that is the end of the penis. During an erection, it rolls back and inside-out, unfolding until it covers much of the penile shaft.
` Typically, the swelling glans (head of the penis) extends "through" the foreskin until it is mostly or completely exposed. (Sometimes, the foreskin is so long that the glans is unable make it across -- a feature which was prized by the Ancient Greeks.)
` When there is nothing holding the foreskin back, so to speak, specialized mechanisms cause it to spring back into place over the delicate mucus membrane of the glans. In this position, it serves as a protective function similar to one's eyelid.
` Even in its 'neutral' position, it can be retracted simply by pulling the skin of the shaft toward the body:

While Europeans, Chinese, Japanese, and most other people may wonder why anyone would need to explain this most mundane fact, the truth is that the foreskin is not well-understood in U.S. culture and medicine:
` One of Geisheker's jobs is tracking cases of American doctors who are so outrageously ignorant of intact penile anatomy that they cause serious pain and injury, usually to infants.
` They don't even know the following basic facts, so read carefully:

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Warping backwards through BlogTimeSpace...

Once again, I'm importing my earliest blog posts over to the Mad Science Writer blog, but this time I am presenting them here in reverse-chronological order, for optimum mental stimulation. Keep in mind, they date back to April 2005, before I had dared to take my life into my own hands.
` Back then, I was a real homebody and so had plenty of time to check my email. My last post in this sequence (which I'm presenting first), starts with an email from an editor mentor of mine, concerning exploding toads -- presumably for my subsequent investigation, and investigate I did! (Took me two tries to get to the bottom of it, though, thanks to another email a little while later.)

Great Exploding Toads, Batman!

I didn't edit this article much when I transferred it over to the Mad Science Writer blog, except for the portrayal of my translating the German into English -- originally, I had divided most of the sentences up into bits, like so:
Die Erdkröte (The toads) atmet nur noch schwach (weakly draw a deep breath), ihr Körper bläht sich auf wie ein Ballon (their bodies blow themselves up like a balloon) bis ihr Magen schließlich herausquillt (until their stomachs finally pop out).
In reading this over, I realized that this arrangement might infuriate a lot of readers, so I changed it from parts of a sentence alternating in German and English to entire sentences.
` As for the whole 'exploding toad' phenomenon, it reminds me of 'cattle mutilations' and the like, which are caused by flies and scavenger birds eating all the softest tissues, and blamed on strange phenomena such as satanic cults or aliens.

The next post in reverse order is somewhat disconcerting -- a very 'flat' trip to a very three-dimensional Whidbey Island. Not only were my descriptions a reflection of my own dismay at this, but there are no photos, as I did not have a digital camera. Nevertheless, it's an interesting head-trip:

Landslide-Sliding - How we celebrated Dirt Day.

Next in sequence is a post that illustrates the type of defensive thinking that sparked in my mind after something really bizarre and upsetting would happen. I found out later, however, that the fault of this incident was probably more in the psycho Neo-Nazi than in me and my sleep-starved brain:

Does Insomnia Ruin Your Life?

Not surprisingly, for this stage in my life, I was focusing on times when I was not allowed to sleep, yet it appears that I was not yet even aware of feeling an intense fear of lying down. That's just one amazing example of what one can live with every day and not even know -- and then recognize and get rid of.

And now for some laughs, and more emails -- you see why I put this one last? I used to subscribe to a certain Yahoo group for a 'demented' band called Barnes & Barnes, which I had decided to share on my blog, just for the surreality of it all:

What did one Barnes say to the other? (And who are these weirdos, anyway?)

According to Wikipedia, 2005 was also the year that Barnes & Barnes were inducted into the Comedy Music Hall of Fame -- along with Dr. Demento, I see!
` As for Joey Migeed (a.k.a. The Swill Man), I've sort of fallen out of touch with him, but apparently, his voice has dropped considerably, and, well, he's gotten... weird.

I was just in the act of formulating a comedic ending to this post when someone asked me if I wanted to see "the excitement" going on downstairs. This quickly ended in me watching him asphyxiate a small bird while absorbed in a hockey game on TV, yelling "Score!" as the life went out in the bird's eyes.
` Yes, really.
` It really sort of ties in nicely with the exploding toads, there. If anyone wants me, I'll be at the beach, fantasizing about scenes from The Birds. That is all.