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Healthy Living

Circumcision: Facts and Myths

The penis of an uncircumcised man has a loose fold of flesh called the “prepuce or foreskin” which covers the end of the organ in its normal state. During erection this skin folds back, exposing the glans penis (head of penis). Circumcision consists of pulling this loose fold of flesh as far forward from the end of the penis as it will go and then cutting it away. After the cut has healed, the head of the penis remains permanently exposed giving it a characteristic appearance.

Societies, which for centuries have practised circumcision for religious and ritual reasons now cite another cause for carrying out the operation, that is, hygiene. On the inner layer of the foreskin there are a number of glands, which secrete a substance called “smegma”. Excessive accumulation of smegma can cause irritation and a strong odour. To cleanse this area properly, the foreskin has to be pulled back and washed. If this is not done, irritation in the area results.

Circumcision was popularised in the mid-sixties by research into the incidence of cancer of the penis and the cervix of the uterus. It was found that in India, the Hindus, who do not circumcise ritually, suffer a significantly higher rate of cancer of the penis than Muslims who practice ritual circumcision. Further research produced statistics, which showed that the rate of incidence of cancer of the penis and the cervix are low among the Jews. So the question, could the smegma be cancer-causing agent, arose

It was several years before it could be shown that the theory was not scientifically correct as was first believed to be. Subsequent research showed that the incidence of cancer of the penis in circumcised but unorthodox Jews was roughly the same as the uncircumcised population. Hence a factor, other than circumcision, appeared to be involved although it is as yet unknown. The British experts on circumcision, Dr. Douglas Gairdner says, “The smegma cancer case remains unproved. The evidence is neither black nor white and what has so far been presented is enormously complicated.”

Are there any arguments that can still be advanced in favour of circumcision? Yes, some proponents argue that the exposed head of the penis in a circumcised male becomes rough and, is therefore less sensitive during intercourse, thus, endowing its owner with the much-envied sexual staying power. But this argument has also been disproved by the pioneering research work of Masters and Johnson. Masters and Johnson’s studies showed that the incidence of premature ejaculation is more or less the same in both cases - the circumcised and uncircumcised. The myth of sexual staying power, therefore, refused to stay on.

But does all this mean that circumcision is absolutely unnecessary? No, it becomes necessary occasionally. Sometimes, due to infection or due to lack of hygiene, the foreskin sticks to the head of the penis. And some children are born with very tight foreskin. In these conditions, it becomes difficult to pull the foreskin back. It affects the smooth sexual functioning in an adult and also the urinary passage. It is only these conditions that warrant the surgical removal of the foreskin. In other words, the reasons for circumcision should be individual (medical) rather than ritual.


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