Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 10/16/2020
Circumcision is a touchy topic. And we get it. It combines two things men often feel strongly about — their religion and their penis. Ultimately, how you feel about circumcision — whether for yourself or your children — is personal. We’re just here to lay out some facts.
First things first: This article will not declare either hooded or unhooded penises as “best”. We’d be begging for criticism if we did. As it stands, merely laying out the science and some of the arguments for and against the surgery will likely garner strong feedback. Again, we get it. It’s a touchy topic. So we’re going to try to stick to the science and let you make the final determination.
Circumcision involves removing part of the foreskin, revealing the head of the penis.
Male circumcision has been around for thousands of years, as a religious rite, a coming-of-age tradition, and more recently as a way to prevent disease and promote hygiene.
There is strong scientific evidence that circumcision can reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections, urinary tract infections, and certain types of cancer — both in men and their sexual partners.
In recent years, circumcision rates in the United States have fallen and some insurance companies have stopped covering the procedure on infants.
Circumcision is seen as a relatively safe procedure and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) notes the benefits outweigh the risks.
Arguments against circumcision equate the surgery with genital mutilation and cast doubt on the science behind the procedure.
Circumcision is the removal of the foreskin covering the head of the penis.
The skin is removed surgically and in most of the western world is typically performed on newborn infant boys. For some people, the decision to have a son circumcised is a religious choice (more on that below). But for others, it’s a matter of tradition, hygiene, personal preference in appearance, or disease prevention (more on that later, too).
In the 1970s and 1980s, as many as 79 percent of U.S. baby boys were circumcised. More recently, however, that rate has dropped to around 55 percent. In Europe, an even lower percentage of males are circumcised.
The American Academy of Pediatrics stops short of recommending circumcision, with the understanding that for many, it’s a decision driven by religious, cultural, or ethical considerations. But they do point out the many benefits of the surgery.
The practice of circumcision is roughly 5,000 years old. A Egyptian wall painting dated around 2300 B.C. shows ritual circumcision being done on adult males, their arms held while someone kneels in front of them removing their foreskin. It’s believed Egyptians adopted the practice from men in the Sudan and Ethiopia. It spread throughout Northern Africa and what is now known as the Middle East before being temporarily outlawed in 169 BC.
Greeks, Romans, Celts, and Gauls (“western” civilizations) never adopted the practice. But it’s believed Polynesian and Australian Aborigines practiced circumcision as an initiation rite into manhood. For both Jewish and Muslim men, circumcision is a religious rite that has been around since the early years of these religions.
Circumcision experienced a boon in popularity in the West early in the 19th century. This is believed to be due in part to the then-unproven thought that the procedure could prevent some cancers, but also the unfounded belief it could discourage masterbation. To be abundantly clear — circumcision does not discourage masturbation.
When it comes to any medical topic, but especially one that is even slightly controversial, the best place to look for answers is in the science. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says the benefits outweigh the risks of circumcision, and their statement is backed with scientific evidence.
Urinary tract infections. Uncircumcised males are at a greater risk of urinary tract infections. One of the largest analysis on this topic reviewed 22 scientificstudies and found that a lack of circumcision increases the lifetime UTI risk by 23.3 percent. The researchers noted, “this greatly exceeds the prevalence of circumcision complications (1.5 percent).”
Sexually transmitted infections. Numerous studies have linked circumcision to decreased risk of sexually transmitted infections and diseases. Within the past 20 years, three randomized trials demonstrated circumcision reduces HIV contraction by 53 percent to 60 percent, herpes type 2 by 28 percent to 34 percent and human papillomavirus by 32 percent to 35 percent. Further, risk reductions were passed on to female partners of circumcised men — the incidence of bacterial vaginosis was reduced by 40 percent in these women and trichomonas vaginalis was reduced by 48 percent.
Cancer. The cancer protective benefits of circumcision extend to both men and women. Circumcised men have a lower risk of penile cancer and women whose partners are circumcised have a lower risk of cervical cancer. It’s believed this decreased risk may be connected to improved hygiene in circumcised men, as it’s easier to keep the penis free from bacteria when the foreskin is retracted.
Circumcision rates have been falling over the past several decades, and that’s largely due to a debate on the benefits vs. risks of the optional surgery. Some critics equate male circumcision with female genital mutilation and see the discussion as a human rights rather than medical issue. However, there are no medical benefits to female genital cutting and the risks are high, compared with male circumcision where benefits are scientifically-backed and risks are low.
More than a decade before they said the “benefits outweigh the risks,” in 1999 the American Academy of Pediatrics deemed that circumcision may not be medically necessary.This statement aided in declining circumcision rates as insurance companies and even state-funded Medicaid programs stopped covering the surgery.
Ironically, a study in Florida found that state-funded circumcision costs rose, as more non-infant boys required the surgery (due to infections and other complications), and circumcision for older boys costs far more than it does for babies.
In 2012, when they revised their position, the Academy said they didn’t realize how dramatic the fall out of their 1999 statement would be.
One argument made by anti-circumcision groups is that babies can’t make the decision for themselves, and parents should wait and allow their children to make the choice to circumcise or not once they reach adulthood. However, in addition to increased costs, the risk of complications also increases with age.
For some, circumcision is a matter of aesthetics. And some men, cut or not, likely wonder what their partners (or potential partners) think of how their penis looks.
One analysis looked at research in 29 different publications and concluded women favor circumcised penises for hygiene, lower risk of infection and sexual activity. So, for women, it isn’t just about looks, but safety.
Scientific evidence strongly suggests early circumcision can reduce the risk of certain health problems including potentially deadly diseases.
However, as the American Academy of Pediatrics points out, whether or not to circumcise a baby (or adult later in life) is an extremely personal decision.
The best solution as you’re perusing the vast expanses of the Internet on this topic: look at the research and ask a professional.
The links in this story will send you to reputable scientific literature, but you’ll ultimately be deciding your stance on the issue yourself. Talk to your healthcare provider about any of your remaining concerns and questions.
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