Archive for sexuality

Shit Gets Real

I went to see my doctor
He said I’ve got some bad news
You’re gonna be singing them
No fuckin’ fuckin’ cancer blues.

A couple of weeks back my doctor informed me that my PSA level was high.  I had never heard of PSA levels, but was about to get an education.  PSA stands for Prostate Specific Antigens, and a high PSA level can be caused by many things, one of which is cancer.  My doctor ordered a second blood test.  The result was an even higher PSA level.  So my doctor ordered a biopsy. That isn’t something I’d do for kicks on a Saturday night, but not too painful.  The doctor and ultrasound technician were wonderfully professional about it.


Last week I got the results of the biopsy.  Cancer.  High risk cancer.


Well, okay, calm down.  Prostate cancer is one of the most treatable forms of cancer.  I have friends who went through treatment years ago and are doing fine now.  Most people with prostate cancer will die of something else.

I asked the urologist what would happen if I do nothing.  He said I will die, but they can’t say when.  Maybe in a year.  Maybe in five.  And the death gets painful when the cancer goes into the bones or lymph nodes.  Treatment is obviously a good idea.

Treatment?  Well, first they are going to shut down my libido completely.  Reduce my testosterone level to zero.  So that’s it for sex. Whimper.

Then they will send me for radiation treatment – five days a week for seven weeks, in a city two and a half hours away by car.  The treatment only takes fifteen minutes.  Travel time would be five or six hours a day.  Or I could stay at the cancer lodge at forty bucks a night.  Or I can move into my sister’s condo in another city and be closer to treatment but away from the homestead.

Before the treatment starts, they want more tests – a bone scan and an MRI – to see whether the cancer is confined to my prostate.  I’m not sure what it means if it isn’t.  Maybe I’m toast.

Last week the medical imaging department at the hospital injected me with radioactive isotopes.  After a brief delay to let them circulate, they scanned me from head to toe.  I’ll get the results in a couple of days.

Through all this I remain oddly calm. I’m symptom free. And happy. I’m either living in the moment, or I’m in heavy denial.  Every once in a while the reality that my sex life is coming to an end hits me.  Hard.  I have always loved sex.  I’ve never been able to figure out whether I’ve been any good at it, but if appreciation has any value for my partners there should have been some shared pleasure involved.  At least I can’t recall any complaints – aside from one former lover who told me she didn’t like the way I kiss.  That was hard to take.  But I’ve also been told that I’m a lesbian in a man’s body, which I took to be the crowning compliment of my sexual career.

I suppose this is the way Olympic level athletes feel when they realize they are too old to compete.  It’s still possible to enjoy the sport as a bystander and coach. But damn, I’m going to miss it.

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The Penny Drops

Some years ago I was on a tour in China, sitting beside a Mormon woman from America.  She told me the horrifying story of a young good looking Mormon boy who confessed to a series of murders of young women.  He told the authorities that he had been lead to this by his addiction to pornography, she said.

I expressed some surprise, and explained that Denmark, a country that had legalized pornography had seen a drop in the number of sex crimes in all categories.*  Perhaps it’s possible that one Mormon boy could become a serial killer because of pornography, but it certainly looks more like an exception than the rule.


So that was years ago.  Very recently I read an article entitled “Ted Bundy’s Success is a Feminist Issue”.  I’ve never paid much attention to serial killers, and didn’t know a lot about Bundy.  So the article prompted a Google search that brought up the Wikipedia entry in which I find these paragraphs:

########################### begin quote from Wikipedia ################################

On the afternoon before he was executed Bundy granted an interview to James Dobson, a psychologist and founder of the Christian evangelical organization Focus on the Family.[317] He used the opportunity to make new statements about violence in the media and the pornographic “roots” of his crimes. “It happened in stages, gradually,” he said. “My experience with … pornography that deals on a violent level with sexuality, is once you become addicted to it … I would keep looking for more potent, more explicit, more graphic kinds of material. Until you reach a point where the pornography only goes so far … where you begin to wonder if maybe actually doing it would give that which is beyond just reading it or looking at it.”[318] Violence in the media, he said, “particularly sexualized violence,” sent boys “down the road to being Ted Bundys.”[319] The FBI, he suggested, should stake out adult movie houses and follow patrons as they leave.[6] “You are going to kill me,” he said, “and that will protect society from me. But out there are many, many more people who are addicted to pornography, and you are doing nothing about that.”[319]


Multiple biographers,[320][321][322] researchers,[323] and other observers[324] have concluded that Bundy’s sudden condemnation of pornography was one last manipulative attempt to shift blame by catering to Dobson’s agenda as a longtime anti-pornography advocate, telling him precisely what he wanted to hear.[325] While he asserted in the Dobson interview that detective magazines and other reading material had “corrupted” him and “fueled [his] fantasies … to the point of becoming a serial killer”, in a 1977 letter to Ann Rule he wrote, “Who in the world reads these publications? … I have never purchased such a magazine, and [on only] two or three occasions have I ever picked one up.”[326] He told Michaud and Aynsworth in 1980, and Hagmaier the night before he spoke to Dobson, that pornography played a negligible role in his development as a serial killer.[327] “The problem wasn’t pornography,” wrote Dekle. “The problem was Bundy.”[328]

################################# end quote from Wikipedia ############################

So this is the source of my Mormon bus rider’s information.  A questionable source indeed.  Bundy was not raised a Mormon, and it’s stretch to characterized him as a clean cut Mormon boy.  It seems he was just telling an anti-porn crusader what he wanted to hear.

Reading about Bundy was the intellectual equivalent of swimming in sewage with my mouth open.  I’m left with the thought that the evil that was Ted Bundy continues after his death, spreading misinformation to the gullible anti-sex crusaders and contributing to repressive sexual attitudes.  Fucker.  Although I don’t support the death penalty, I’m sure glad he’s dead.

*turns out I may have been wrong about this, but it was current information at the time.  It now appears that violent sex crimes have in fact increased in countries that have legalized porn.  Whether correlation is causation in this case remains to be settled and is open to debate.  I haven’t taken the time to follow the links offered and investigate the validity of this post.  I’ll get to it.


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What is it about nose hair?

We need a good evo-psych theory to explain this.  (So that PZ Myers can rightfully scoff at it as a “Just So Story” ) I love head hair.  Long, shiny, or clipped very short, it doesn’t matter.  It’s all sensual.  Beautiful.  Body hair in moderation is also okay, sort of, and what Alan Ginsberg called “fuzzy fucky blondes” are a major turn on.  But nose hair?  Repulsive.  Why?  It’s just hair, and has as much functionality as any other hair we sport, serving as a first line of defence against dangerous dust and asbestos particles.  Yet it turns the stomach.

Hair that we are not accustomed to can have the same effect.  I well remember my first German class at university.  It was lead by a jolly overweight woman who didn’t shave her armpits.  I had a very visceral reaction to those clumps of black hair.  Leg hair on a woman gets the same reaction from most men, but I’m convinced that this is just a cultural thing, like finding a circumcised (read mutilated) penis more attractive than an intact one.  I no longer react to armpit hair or body hair on a woman.  Somehow I seem to have accepted that it as natural, and I prefer natural.  But nose hair is different.

 Sir Tim Hunt doesn't care about his nose hairs.

Sir Tim Hunt doesn’t care about his nose hairs.

Does anybody find nose hair attractive?  Is there a group of nose hair fetishists out there someplace?  Probably, but they are being very quiet about it.

I remember my grandfather showing up at our home when I was a child.  He was nearly blind, and could be forgiven for wearing nose hair walrus tusks that looked to me to be two inches long.  My father took him to our bathroom and trimmed him to a respectable state.  No doubt the day will come when I also lose control of my nasal foliage, but right now I’m embarrassed if so much as a single hair shows itself outside of my nostril, which they all seem to want to do.

In “The Black Knight” there’s a scene in which Martin Lawrence plucks his nose hairs and dances around in pain after each pluck.  It’s supposed to be funny.  I used to cut my nose hairs.  Now I pluck them on the, apparently unsubstantiated, theory that they will be slower to grow back.  The pain is not that bad.

In the first episode of “Six Feet Under” there’s a scene where the ghost of the father, played by Richard Jenkins, is watching his own funeral from a lawn chair at the edge of the cemetery.  The sunlight is sparkling on a nose hair that must extend at least an inch under his his nose.  Either the director and cameraman felt this added to the realism of their show, or they missed it.  My bet is, they missed it.  My bet is there was gnashing of teeth in the screening room that night.

Few people, if any, like nose hairs.  Please tell me why.

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The Difficulty Changing a Mind

Some months ago I attended an Imagine No Religion conference in Richmond, B.C., Canada, where, amid a stellar list of speakers that included Amanda Marcotte, Richard Dawkins, and Lawrence  Krauss, one of the speakers was Doctor Harriet Hall.  Dr. Hall spoke about the dangers of religious beliefs interfering with health issues, a very interesting but horrifying  talk during which we learned about parents trying to cure their child’s cancer with prayer.  From the audience I asked if she had evaluated the evidence put forward by advocates of circumcision, fully expecting her to scoff at the shoddy methodology and obvious flaws in the research.  What a shock and surprise.  It turned out that Dr. Hall is not against infant male circumcision.  She considers it trivial, with some possible heath benefits.


In a subsequent email exchange, I set out to change her mind.  Not a lot.  I just wanted to change her position from “It’s up to the parents.” to “It should be up to the owner of the penis.”  Apparently I failed.  But the discussion was very interesting.  Here it is in full:

Dear Dr. Hall

I very much enjoyed your talk at Imagine No Religion 5 this morning, if one can be said to enjoy receiving such information.  Perhaps “appreciated” is a better word.

I was, however, as I’m sure you gathered, quite shocked by your stated position regarding infant male circumcision, as were the other men at my table and several others I talked to.

You told me about a patient of yours who requested circumcision, not knowing that he had already been circumcised.  Well, believe me I know I was circumcised.  I am missing the frenulum, the ridge band, and of course the foreskin. From what I have read, admittedly by anti-circumcision campaigners, these are actually the most sensitive parts of the penis, with far more nerve endings and sensitivity than the glans. Given that the main aim of circumcision historically was to reduce sexual pleasure and “cure” masturbation, I find it hard to believe that my sexual function was not affected.
I just reviewed your post on the subject, and see that you have already dismissed the arguments I might make regarding the various studies and scientific evaluations.  So it almost seems that there is no point in pestering you further on this subject.

Never the less, I feel compelled to ask you to change your mind.  As a man who was a victim of this mutilation (and I feel fully justified in using both these words) I feel it is my duty to stop this practice from being done to others.  Having an authority of your stature condoning the procedure is unacceptable.

Some of the facts you quote are simply wrong, and I’m sure you will realize that they are wrong if you give them a bit more critical thought.  For example, you state that 10% of uncircumcised infants will require circumcision later in life.  I just spent nine years living in China, where circumcision is very rare.  If this were true, there would be long lineups outside doctors offices of men requiring circumcision.  I asked a Chinese doctor about this and he laughed at the very idea.  He told me that they treat infections with drugs and that any other problem with the foreskin can be solved very simply with stretching or very limited surgery.

I suspect that this figure of 10% comes about because doctors in the past have assumed that the foreskin is a like the appendix, just a trouble maker, and the first answer they suggest if there is any problem at all, no matter how minor, is circumcision.  My uncle Bill was circumcised at the age of twelve to cure a bed wetting problem.

The ignorance of doctors about the foreskin and how it should be treated is absolutely shocking.  For example, my first born son was of course not circumcised.  Not having a foreskin myself,  I assumed that the foreskin should be pulled back before the child urinated.  This is incorrect.  The foreskin is normally adhered to the glans until puberty.  But when I could not retract my son’s foreskin, I called our doctor who paid us the courtesy of a house call and retracted the foreskin by force.  This is the wrong thing to do. It is painful and dangerous, as well as unnecessary.  I’m just lucky that no damage was done.

I can’t think of any diplomatic way to suggest that you might also be ignorant on this subject, but I hope you will admit that this is a possibility. You may have seen this already, but if not please watch this video.  And please forgive me if it gives you no new information, but it accurately describes my experience of intercourse and the problems I am having as I grow older.

It is of course possible for people of good will to receive the same information and come to different conclusions.  But please consider revising your position that this is a decision that should be left up to parents.  There is only one person who should make this decision, and that is the owner of the penis.

Yours sincerely
Dear Mr. Harmless,
“I was, however, as I’m sure you gathered, quite shocked by your stated position regarding infant male circumcision, as were the other men at my table and several others I talked to.”
Others in the audience were not only not shocked, but came up afterwards to tell me they agreed with me. One woman told me her son had had to be circumcised as a teenager for a medical reason and he complained loudly to her that he wished she’d had him circumcised as an infant so he wouldn’t have even remembered the procedure and would not have had to go through the suffering he did. Here is the position of the American Urological Association are the experts and they have access to all the published evidence and have considered all the anti-circumcision arguments.
“I find it hard to believe that my sexual function was not affected.”
I find it hard to believe that it was. You have no way of knowing for certain. Most men who are circumcised later in life report no diminution of sexual pleasure or function. I understand that you feel you have been deprived, but in my entire lifetime experience I have only run across two men who regretted being circumcised as infants. Most men think it is no big deal and are happy that it was done if only because it makes hygiene simpler.
“there is no point in pestering you further on this subject.Never the less, I feel compelled to ask you to change your mind”
This is somewhat disrespectful, since it assumes that I didn’t research the subject adequately and didn’t consider all aspects before I formed an opinion. I am not going to ask you to change your mind, but I will ask you to recognize that your opinion is based on emotional and ethical factors and personal experience and on one-sided information from anti-circucision activists rather than on a fair and dispassionate evaluation of the medical risk/benefit facts alone.
You dispute the 10% figure, but you have not presented any real evidence to make me question it. Instead of providing a reference that quantifies the rarity of circumcision in China, all you have told me is that one doctor laughed at the idea. You accepted hearsay and you didn’t ask a Chinese urologist. I imagine you could find doctors here that laugh at the idea because they haven’t personally seen cases, but I’m sure you would find that the vast majority of urologists wouldn’t laugh at all. The 10% figure may not be accurate, but I assure you there are solid medical indications for performing circumcisions after the neonatal period, and there is no solid evidence that drugs or stretching are effective alternatives to surgery. And even if they were equally effective, they might result in less patient satisfaction overall. Without scientific studies, we have no way of knowing.
“My uncle Bill was circumcised at the age of twelve to cure a bed wetting problem.”
I don’t know of any doctor who recommends circumcision for bed wetting. One anecdote of an incompetent doctor does nothing to support your argument. See
“The ignorance of doctors about the foreskin and how it should be treated is absolutely shocking”
Again, you provide a single anecdote. In my experience, doctors are not at all ignorant about foreskin hygiene. Here’s an example of standard medical advice:
The YouTube video you cite is by a woman who is not a physician or a scientist but a nurse and an anti-circumcision activist; she is clearly biased, and she offers only speculation based on reasoning from basic science, not supporting evidence from clinically relevant controlled studies. There are studies like this that make me question her opinions. Anyway, videos are not an acceptable source of scientific information; I rely on the primary sources in the published literature and on expert consensus.
To make my position clear: my assessment of the evidence is that there is a small health benefit to circumcision that outweighs the slight risk. The medical benefit is not large enough for doctors to recommend the procedure, but it is sufficient to justify doing the procedure when informed parents request it. The ethical issue is separate from the medical issue. I have ethical reservations about performing any elective procedure on a child too young to give informed consent, but that would include even things like ear piercing in baby girls which was standard practice in Spain when I lived there. There is a spectrum: ear piercing is trivial, so I can’t get too upset about it; and I can’t get too upset about circumcising males, but I do get very upset about female genital mutilation.
There is a difference between pain and suffering. Infants experience pain, but they don’t experience the kind of suffering from pain that adults do because they don’t have the psychological component. I used to do circumcisions without anesthesia, which was the standard practice at the time (1970s). We did assembly line procedures where we would strap several infants down to a restraining board. They would cry because they were restrained, but by the time the last one was strapped down and we got back to the first one to start the procedure, often they would have fallen asleep. Even the ones that continued to fuss did not fuss any more during the actual cutting, which was rendered painless by the way the procedure was done. Newborns cry bitterly for various reasons: when hungry, when wet,  when blood is drawn, and sometimes even when their clothes are changed. I seriously question the studies that purport to show long-term effects, because if circumcision had those effects I would expect to see the same effects from every infant who had a heel-stick to get a blood sample for PKU testing, or from any infant who required hospital treatment for an illness or who had IV’s inserted, often after multiple attempts in various body parts including the sensitive scalp.
I retired in 1989, and the last circumcision I was called on to do was in 1983. I have reconsidered somewhat. If I were asked to do one today, I would sit down with the parents and make sure they fully understood the issues. If they gave truly informed consent and were set on having it done, I wouldn’t refuse to do it because they would just find another doctor to do it, and I was confident that I was very skilled and likely to do a better job than most doctors would.
I respect your opinion and I am not trying to change your mind. I am only hoping that you will respect my opinion and not think it is uninformed or that I arrived at it lightly.
Harriet Hall, MD

Dear Dr. Hall:

First of all, let me say how much I appreciate getting such a thoughtful and comprehensive response from you.  It was unexpected, and I’m sure most people in your position would have simply ignored my letter, if they read it at all.

With all respect, and with apologies for the implied disrespect of my previous letter, I still think you are wrong about a number of your points.  But I’m not asking you to change your mind either.  I do understand and respect your position.  It echoes the position of many of my family member who consider me a bit of a kook for even being concerned about this subject.

I’m sure you know the theory of cognitive dissonance, which states that a person is most likely to reject evidence against a belief when they are heavily invested in that belief.  This is one reason a religious person will cling to a belief in the power of faith, even after causing the death of their child,  which surely is a very heavy investment indeed.  I’m impressed by the investment, and resulting cognitive dissonance, around this practice.  We are asking parents to recognize that they have done damage to their children, asking doctors to recognize that they have done harm to patients, and asking “victims” to recognize that their sexual function may have been compromised.  No wonder this is an uphill battle to change social attitudes.

Still, social attitudes do change, if not exactly with the speed I would prefer.  When I was a child, infant male circumcision was unquestioned and often automatic.  Now at least it is considered a valid question.  I anticipate the day when somebody requesting the circumcision of their child will be greeted with looks of horror and disgust.

Waris Dirie, author of “Desert Flower” and one of the earliest campaigners against FGM, nevertheless supported the circumcision of her son and justified it with the same rational used by her culture to justify FGM, i.e. hygiene and aesthetics.  She praised the “proud and clean” appearance of her son’s penis.  Such irony. To those of us who do not believe that the foreskin was one of God’s mistakes, a circumcised penis evokes the same reaction that one might have to a vagina with excised labia.  You may feel this is irrational.  Perhaps it is.  But for someone who has swung over to my side of the issue, it’s an undeniable feeling and not one that can be argued away.

I have been asked to give a talk at a summer service of the  local Unitarian church.  Although I am heartily sick of this subject, and feel that I have paid and continue to pay a price for voicing my opinion on it, you have inspired me to make infant male circumcision the subject of my talk.  You are quite correct in stating that almost all circumcised adults have no concerns about what was done to them.  But it is also true that they do not know the anatomy of the foreskin and associated structures.  I regret that I will be the one to educate some of them.  Just as campaigning against infant male circumcision can have no benefit for me, since it won’t change the past, there seems to be little value in generating resentment and anger in adult men.  But while the rate of circumcision in Canada has dropped from 50% in 1998 to about 20% in the year 2000, this means that there are still a lot of infants treated to a questionable intervention.  If there is justification for the procedure, I think it’s worth debating.

Thank you again for your considered and thoughtful response to my letter.  And let me add that the work you do in educating people about the dangers of faith based medical decisions and pseudoscience is incredibly important.  Despite our disagreement on this one subject, I’m sure we have many more opinions in common.

I hope you will consider me a new friend and supporter.

Warmest Regards

Just remember, nothing you can say about the anatomy of the foreskin and associated structures constitutes proof that there is statistically significant harm from circumcision or that it makes a clinically significant difference. It’s entirely possible, and you may be convinced that it is very probable, but it has not been established to the satisfaction of rigorous science. I will stay tuned to see if better evidence emerges.
Peace. Live long and prosper.

Dear Dr. Hall:

Thank you again for taking the time to give me your thoughts.

As a result of our discussion I have determined to try to stop speaking with such certainty on this issue.

Embedded in one of the links you sent me was a link to a very balanced article by Jessica Wapner which included the following:

“How can experts who have undergone similar training evaluate the same studies and come to opposing conclusions? I’ve spent months scrutinizing the medical literature in an attempt to decide which side is right. The task turned out to be nearly impossible. That’s partly because there is so much confused thinking around the risks and benefits of circumcision, even among trained practitioners. But it’s also because, after reading enough studies, I realized that the debate doesn’t have a scientific conclusion. It is impossible to get to the bottom of this issue because there is no bottom.”

You have helped me to realize that there is little point in arguing the science.  Our largest sexual organ is our brain.  I have certainly enjoyed sex, and I confess to making an art form of masturbation.  So I am reconsidering my decision to speak on the topic at the Unitarian Fellowship.  What is the point of getting a group of, mostly quite elderly, men to feel about their penises the way I feel about mine?

I would like to correct one misapprehension I left with you.  The Chinese doctor I spoke to was in fact a practising urologist.  He is as resident at a hospital in Wuxi where my wife and I were asked to help the staff with their English.  I also mischaracterized his response as “laughing at the idea”.  He is not the kind of person to laugh.  But he did tell me that he has seen few problems with foreskins in his practice, and that any problems he did encounter were solved simply, without circumcision.

Also, I mentioned my uncle not as a statistical argument but simply to illustrate that circumcision has been done for strange and trivial reasons in the recent past.  I believe it is often still done today when better, less permanent and drastic, alternatives are available.
I’m impressed by the fact that the thoughtful and balanced article by Jessica Wapner did not include her own conclusions, which were described as “lengthy” and left off because she is not herself a medical authority.  They did include a link to her original article and, what a surprise, her rather brief conclusion is the same one I have reached. It seems to me that evaluation of the merits of circumcision has been left in the hands of medical authorities for far too long, given the history of their conclusions.  I mean no disrespect to your profession, but really: Masturbation does not cause insanity, epilepsy, poor vision, or curvature of the spine, all of which have been claimed by medical professionals in the past.   Circumcision does not cure masturbation nor does it protect me from diseases I am at no risk of ever catching.  There are big questions about whether it will help stem the epidemic of HIV in Africa, given that a man who has repeated exposure is not protected at all.  Perhaps it is time we listened to intelligent people who have examined the subject without a vested interest or the cognitive dissonance I mentioned in my last letter.
When I brought up this issue at the Imagine conference, I fully expected to hear from you that you had looked at the various studies supporting infant male circumcision and concluded that they have all the validity of studies supporting the efficacy of prayer.  Proof once again that one should not ask questions unless prepared to accept the answer.  But you have given me a much more nuanced view of this issue, and for this I sincerely thank you.
Again, thank you for taking the time to write.  Your thoughts have been very valuable to me.
Warmest regards
I had been thinking about your concerns about the pain neonates experience with circumcision and its long-lasting effects, and I e-mailed a pediatric expert to ask him about it. I wanted to share with you what he said:
“The issue of pain in neonate is a good one. A lot is problematic because it’s animal data. What we know in humans is that neonates who experience an acute bout of significant pain have increased response to vaccine shots but it normalizes after a few months. Neonates who have chronic pain, such as when micropremies ride vents for weeks or have numerous procedures, have blunted pain response to shots later but again it normalizes by a year I think. I’ll have to review the literature.
I did about 300 circs while at TCH and probably less than ten didn’t sleep through it. Heelsticks are routine with screening and jaundice testing and absolutely cause pain and crying too. There is no evidence I’m aware of to suggest that properly done uncomplicated circumcision causes meaningful issues regarding pain perception down the road. There is even evidence showing that babies post-circ likely feel no meaningful discomfort after the lidocaine wears off.”
Perhaps knowing that most babies sleep through the procedure will make you reconsider what you have heard from the anti-circumcision activists. Perhaps not. Anyway, I wanted to share.

Dear Harriet:

Thank you for sharing this.

I recognize that many of the claims made by opponents of circumcision, grasping for any argument they think might support their position, may be wishful thinking.  And I do not think that a modicum of pain is really a problem anyway, if it’s in a good cause.  It’s almost beside the point.  My son had to endure quite a few extremely painful IV sessions as a child, but this in no way prevented me from delivering him to the hospital emergency department.

I also recognize that my objections to circumcision may have more to do with my sense of having been violated than with any actual harm done, though I found your certainty that sexual function is not affected difficult to understand.  When a protective covering is removed, resulting in thickening and keretinization of the formerly protected skin, I find it hard to believe that sensitivity is not affected. (There I go with the argument from personal incredulity again.)  That without even considering the possible value of the nerves and cells in the ridged band and frenulum.  Perhaps one of the reasons i feel this way is because, though I have fathered three children, I have always had a hard time achieving ejaculation and wearing a condom reduces sensations to the point where I might as well have a wooden penis.  As I age this problem is becoming much worse. But sexuality is so dependent on the brain that I can’t be certain this has any connection to my circumcision.  Perhaps i just need to find the right therapist.

As the article you linked to stated so well, there can be no scientific answer to this issue.  There are too many competing studies and conflicting claims to ever sort it out.  We all have a problem deciding what to believe, and what to reject.  I could match your statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics with any number of statements from other medical associations.  B.C. Medical (our healthcare plan here) says it isn’t necessary and refuses to pay for it.

For me it comes down to some simple principles:  Is it medically necessary?  (Even proponents only claim slight and speculative benefits. It’s a stretch to claim that it’s necessary, given that so many men do just fine without it.)  If it is considered necessary, can it be delayed until the individual can give informed consent? (Yes, it will be more painful later in life.  But certainly not nearly as painful as my recent total knee replacement.  An adult can chose to put up with some pain if they believe in the value of the operation.)  Is there a potential harm?  (This question is not settled, but I think you will admit that there is potential harm involved, that it is possible that those who believe sexual function is compromised are correct. And if causing anger and resentment constitutes harm, I’m a case in point.)

I think the question any doctor should ask is this: Is infant male circumcision ethical?  Does it violate the injunction to do no harm?

If a doctor concludes that it is not ethical, then it is not a decision that should be left to the parents or to anybody other than the owner of the penis.  And it is not an operation that should be performed by an ethical doctor, even if, as you said “because they would just find another doctor to do it, and I was confident that I was very skilled and likely to do a better job than most doctors would.”

Again, thank you for sharing.  Please note, I have conceded the point that pain caused to the infant is not relevant to the discussion.

Warmest regards


How refreshing to have someone concede a point. That happens so rarely! Of course, as you say, it is a very minor point.
You say you find it hard to believe that sensitivity is not affected. How do you reconcile that with adults who get circumcised and report that it makes no difference in their sexual satisfaction?
As for circumcision being “medically necessary,” no-one is saying that. All we say is that there is a small medical benefit that outweighs the medical harms, but that is too small in magnitude for doctors to recommend the procedure. I share your concerns about the ethical considerations, but not enough to regret having done circumcisions. Although in retrospect I probably should have had longer discussions with parents for better informed consent before doing the procedure. “Do no harm” doesn’t mean avoiding anything that might cause harm, it means not doing things that are likely to cause more harm than good. Appendectomies cause harm: they violate body integrity, cause pain, and leave a scar. But they save lives and clearly are ethical because the good they do outweighs the harm.
I have truly enjoyed our discussion: it’s a pleasure to exchange ideas with a true critical thinker instead of a true believer.
Best wishes,

Dear Harriet:

I too have greatly enjoyed our conversation.  I seldom get the chance to discuss this with anybody who has the depth of knowledge and experience that you have, so conversations tend to become very polarized and rife with unsupported opinions, wild speculation, and assumptions taken as gospel.

This last question you asked gave me pause:  “You say you find it hard to believe that sensitivity is not affected. How do you reconcile that with adults who get circumcised and report that it makes no difference in their sexual satisfaction?”

This actually gives me little difficulty.  Sexual pleasure and satisfaction is a very complex and subjective experience.  It is influenced to a great extent by expectations and attitudes.  In my own case, it took me some time to learn to let go and experience an orgasm, which involves the whole body and is very different from a simple ejaculation.  I have met men who have never experienced an orgasm and claim to get as much pleasure from sex as they might get from a hearty sneeze.  Guilt and repression figure prominently into sexual responses.

I have never met or talked to a man who was circumcised as an adult.  In China I was told by the late middle aged wife of a late middle aged man that her husband “had to be circumcised” late in life because of a problem of some kind.  But I never had the opportunity to talk to the man himself.  They are Mormons, obviously very sexually repressed, and this same woman told me about a young Mormon man who had killed several women and, when confessing, blamed his actions on an addiction to pornography.  She absolutely believed that this was the cause of his murderous rampage.  I’m more inclined to believe it was the teachings of his religion.  In any event, I would not trust the testimony of her husband when he gives an assessment of his sexual satisfaction.

The only other adult I know of who was circumcised as an adult is the husband of a very dear Chinese friend of mine.  I was called in as a counsellor when they had a crisis in their marriage, caused by his work forcing him to entertain clients with prostitutes and his confession that he had used their services.  In response to a hysterical phone call from my young friend, I took a “black taxi” from Wuxi to Shanghai, a trip of several hours, specifically to spend time with both of them and help them calm down.  It was a breach of trust that almost destroyed their marriage, and a terrible thing to observe.

That was close to the time when we left China.  Since then I have learned, through emails from the wife, that her husband had himself circumcised in the hopes that it would help her get pregnant.  Go figure, eh.  We are hoping to have a trip back to China next year.  If that happens, I hope to have an opportunity to ask him about his sexual satisfaction.  It won’t surprise me if he reports no difference.  The reason, again, is the cognitive dissonance I keep harping on.  He has made a huge investment in his decision to be circumcised.  For him to realize that it has had negative results will require accepting evidence he will not want to accept.

Finally, my reason for not being persuaded by men who were circumcised as adults and report no difference in their sexual enjoyment is that they are not the only voices.  There are legions of men who report the opposite.  Of course these reports are coming from the anti-circumcision contingent, and are subject to the same influences that affect the opposing opinion.  So again, there is no way to have confidence in their assessment and no way to finally resolve the question.  Sigh.

I have not read the original studies cited in these links.    I’m sure it would do little to settle the issue for me.
My own opinion simply relies on what seems to me to be common sense.  The skin of the glans of the penis is supposed to be a thin mucous membrane, similar to the skin on the inside of the cheek.  After circumcision it hardens, thickens, and resembles a dried up lake bed.  To claim that this makes no difference to sensations is difficult to accept.

I also buy the argument that we have different types of cells and nerve endings, and that different parts of the body are more sensitive than other parts.  As a teenager, I chopped the end off my right thumb while splitting kindling.  Our family doctor took skin from the inside of my forearm and transplanted it to the end of my thumb to cover the wound.  That skin is still there.  It has a very different sensitivity to touch than my other thumb has.  I have since read that if the doctor had simply dressed the wound, but kept it open, the skin of my thumb would have grown over to cover it.  Apparently a very young child will actually regenerate a finger, providing the wound is not closed with stitches.  But of course surgeons want to do what they were trained to do, which is to perform surgery.  Our family doctor was an excellent surgeon.  The transplant from my forearm took.  I’m only left with the question of whether it needed to be done in the first place, and I don’t think it did.  I have been tempted to have that transplanted skin removed and give my thumb a few months to repair itself, just to see what the truth might be.  But though it bothers me, it doesn’t bother me enough to want to subject myself to that inconvenience in the interests of knowledge.

Anyway, I digress. Tests of sensitivity of the penis were initially done with the assumption that the foreskin was nothing special.  Just skin.  I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that much of the testing and evaluation was done by doctors who had been circumcised as infants., and much of the testing was done on circumcised men. More recent testing of intact men seems to indicate a huge number of nerve endings and receptors in the foreskin, the frenulum, and primarily the ridge band.  It seems unlikely to me that removal of this healthy tissue could be an improvement, and far more likely that it degrades the sexual experience, which, after all, was the original goal of the operation as expressed so eloquently by Maimonedes, the Jewish mystic ( This link is amusing, but again it is from an anti-circumcision site so not to be completely trusted.) and championed by more “modern” authorities like Dr. Harvey Kellogg, who believed that all sexual activity should be discouraged except when required for procreation and that circumcision should be done as painfully as possible so that the boy will forever associate pain with his genitals and refrain from “bodily self pollution”.

Oh dear, Harriet.  It seems you got me on my hobby horse again and I have spent my morning writing this letter instead of digging out our basement, which is our huge project these days.  In closing, let me say that I do not want you to regret having performed circumcisions.  Regret is pointless. I do hope for a tiny change in your position, away from saying that it is a decision that should be left to parents and the cultural forces of tradition and religion.  I hope you will see that this is a decision that should rest rest with only one person, the owner of the penis.

Warmest regards and all the best


Several months went by with no further correspondence, but I grew increasingly curious about whether my words had any affect  at all.  So I had to ask.  Sadly, the answer was disappointing.

Dear Harriet:

I hope this finds you well and happy.

Some time has passed since our extended conversation about infant male circumcision.  Every now and then I think about the things we discussed, and I can say that your point of view has caused me to temper my opinion.   I wonder whether my expressed point of view had any impact at all on you.  The only person who can answer this question, of course, is you.

My final point in our discussion was this one:  “I do hope for a tiny change in your position, away from saying that it is a decision that should be left to parents and the cultural forces of tradition and religion.  I hope you will see that this is a decision that should rest rest with only one person, the owner of the penis.”

If you could give me your thoughts on this, I would really appreciate it.

And now I have another request:  I would like your permission to post our discussion on my blog.  If you would like, I will remove your name and any reference that might identify you.  But my preference would be to leave your name and a brief biography on your words, because you express a legitimate position and speak with authority and experience.

Engaging with me as fully as you did was a kindness I didn’t expect and very much appreciate.  I hope you will agree to let me share our discussion with the world.

Warmest regards

Darwin Harmless

Dear Darwin ,
I agree that as a general principle any elective surgery should require the patient’s permission. But in practice I bow to cultural and ideological realities, and I see infant circumcision as too trivial to object to, especially since as a doctor who has evaluated the evidence I agree with the American Academy of Pediatrics that there is a small health benefit that exceeds the risks. I see this as a spectrum.  Ear piercing in infant girls has no health benefits and a small risk, but I don’t object to it. I don’t object to infant circumcision for informed parents who feel the benefits are worth the risks. Parents who refuse to vaccinate concern me far more than those who choose circumcision. I DO object strongly to female circumcision for obvious reasons: risk, no health benefit, and serious consequences for quality of life.
I have not seen any convincing evidence that circumcision impairs sexual pleasure or performance. I think you would have been much better off if you had never read any of the anti-circumcision propaganda. I think that has done you much more harm than the surgery.
You have my permission to post our discussion and name me.


Thank you for the quick response.

I appreciate your position, though I profoundly disagree with it.

Warmest regards


But then, of course, I couldn’t leave it at that.  I had to fire off one final email, pointing out my rejection of advice that amounts to “live in blissful ignorance.”


Please believe that I am smiling while I type this but: “I think you would have been much better off if you had never read any of the anti-circumcision propaganda. I think that has done you much more harm than the surgery.” is an interesting statement.

Are you suggesting that ignorance is better than knowledge, and that exploration of reality is a bad thing if it causes discomfort?

If so, then again we disagree.  I have had moments of anger and regret during this investigation, but I would much rather know what was done to me and explore the issue than remain in childish ignorance that it had ever been done.  You must admit that the early justifications for circumcision – religious convictions, anti-sexual attitudes, paranoia about masturbation – approach and pass the point of absurdity.  To not know about this history would be a shame.

We had a dog once that had only three legs.  It got along fine, and could run and keep up with the other dogs.   I suppose if all the other dogs had also been missing a leg, then that situation would be perfectly normal and it would be cruel to explain to them that the legs were missing because of a mixture of superstition and medical ignorance.

For me, I prefer to know why things are the way they are.  Even when that knowledge causes a little distress.  It holds the hope that things can be different in the future, as indeed they seem to be.  The world seems to be slowly swinging around to my point of view, given that fewer and fewer circumcisions of infants are happening now.


Darwin Hamless

P.S. i recently acquired a new friend, an intact man.  We have discussed this issue. He is as happy about having a foreskin as I am unhappy about not having one.  Damn. Unhappy is not the right word.  I am a very happy person.  I can accept reality.  This is not an issue for me at all, personally.  It’s an exploration of social customs and a very interesting study of how attitudes form and change.   Please believe that I don’t spend my time moping around wishing I had a foreskin.  But on the other hand, I refuse to accept that this violation of my person was trivial, and that I should shut up about it while it continues to be done to other infant boys.

You mentioned Female Genital Mutilation, and put it in a completely different category. I fail to see the difference.  Sunat, as practised in Indonesia, is the ritual nicking of the clitoral hood.  It is far less destructive than infant male circumcision, yet it is banned in America.  And not just because nobody has thought up a medical justification for it, but because it is from another culture that we don’t accept as valid.  Sunat is the trivial end of FGM, which ranges all the way from that symbolic gesture to excising the labia, equivalent to infant male circumcision, and excising the labia and clitoris, equivalent to cutting the glans off the penis.  But it is all the same thing.  It is genital mutilation to varying degrees, with justification based on tradition, religion, and, yes, medical opinion that it is cleaner and more hygienic.

And there I go again, off on the hobby horse.  What I will say about everything you have written is: You may be right.

But then again… you may be wrong.  🙂

Addendum:  I thought I had published this months ago, but apparently it was caught up in my drafts folder.  So here it is.

In the months since this was written, I have often thought of Dr. Hall.  In general, I like her.  But I also see her as a great example cognitive dissonance in action.  She accepts the anecdotal evidence from some – those circumcised late in life who say that it had no affect on their sexual enjoyment – while rejecting the testimony of those who said that it had a profound affect on their sexual enjoyment. She falls back on the authority of one medical group, while totally dismissing the authority of many other equally qualified groups.  It seems that evidence presented by those against circumcision is not to be trusted, while those who see it as acceptable, and possibly beneficial, are to be trusted. While she sees those opposed to circumcision as “true believers”, she fails to see that she herself is also a true believer.

Where I find her arrogance particularly galling is in the assumption that my feelings are not valid, and have only been generated by information from the intactivist lobby.  I have been angry about being circumcised since I first learned about it, at the age of seven, long before I knew that anybody else in the world thought it a barbaric and harmful practice.  Invalidating my perceptions and feelings is not an effective argument for her opinion.  In this she is profoundly wrong.


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Vote Early Vote Often (once a day for the next fourteen days)

The web series, QUILTBAGS, is trying to get ten grand out of Telus so they can buy some decent equipment and take their productions up a notch.

Please click on this link, find QUILTBAGS “Don’t Bug Me”, and vote.  This shouldn’t take much of your time, but it could really help a worthy creative endeavour.  Please.

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I have this little hose…

I have this little hose attached to my body a few inches below my belly button.  It’s very convenient because sometimes i need to void waste water and the little hose makes this easy.  I can void waste water standing up.  I can write my name in the snow.


Apparently roughly half of the human population has a hose something like mine.  Some are much bigger, and some are smaller.  But they all have the same function – a little tube through which waste water can be directed.

Oh yes, of course, the little hoses have another function as well.  Under some circumstances they will become stiff and inflexible.  Then they can be used to insert reproductive material into the body of another human, one of the ones who doesn’t have a little hose attached to their body but have, instead, a hole for the little hose to go into.  This is essential for he continuation of our species.  It’s also very pleasurable, probably because if it wasn’t pleasurable it wouldn’t happen enough to keep our species from going extinct.

Now here is the strange part.  Nobody is allowed to see my little hose.  If I take it out in public, I will be arrested and charged with a crime.  Only doctors are allowed to see my little hose.  Well, doctors and select people who don’t have a little hose.  Or even select people who themselves have a little hose but like to play with the little hoses on other people.  The point is, showing your little hose is not a casual thing.  It’s accompanied by elaborate negotiation and rituals.

The way human beings reproduce seems very strange indeed.  Genetic material is passed through the little hose into the body of another human, one has a hole, where it joins with some genetic material from that person, eventually growing into a tiny human and being expelled from the host body.  This is a difficult, painful, and dangerous way for our species to reproduce, but that’s how it’s done.

Then things get really strange.  The people who don’t have little hoses have bumps on their chests.  After they expel a tiny human from their body, these bumps produce a liquid that is very nourishing.  The new tiny human gets to live on this liquid for several months, sometimes several years, until they grow teeth and have the ability to eat normal food.

In general, people are not allowed to see these bumps either.  They can see part of the bumps, but the spot where the liquid comes out is never supposed to be seen.

So some people have little hoses that they can’t let other people see.  And some people have bumps on their chests that they can’t let people see.  Oh, I forgot to mention.  they’re not supposed to let people see the entrance to their holes either.

The people who don’t have bumps on their chests still have spots on their chests very similar to the places where liquid comes out of the bumps on other peoples’ chests.  But nobody cares if people are allowed to see those spots.

If you have any questions about this, please feel free to write to me and I’ll do my best to answer.  Just keep in mind that the answers might not be very satisfying, because a lot of this doesn’t make much sense.

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QUILTBAGS the Web Series

quiltbags cast

Here’s something worth supporting.  Check out the new web series, QUILTBAGS and help spread it around.

The acronym is not original to this series.  It stands for  Questioning/Queer, Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Trans, Bi, Asexual, Gay.  It’s gaining currency because it’s easier to remember and more inclusive than LGBTQ.   The series has added  the S, for Straight, so it includes everybody.

The series mission is to promote sex positive attitudes, tolerance and acceptance through dramatized comedy scenes.  The first two episodes are now on line.

Here’s QUILTBAGS episode 1  (You’ll  find episode 2 if you scroll down on that linked page)

Don’t forget to subscribe, so you get a notification of each new episode, then leave a comment on the site.  Give these people some guidance and encouragement.

(Full disclosure:  Yes, I’m involved.  I wrote the theme song and play one of the characters.)

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You’ve Got a Good Family, My Trans Nephew.

Over the holidays I learned that one of my many nieces is no longer a niece, but is now a nephew.  This came on the heels of the horribly sad story of (Leelah) Josh Alcorn, the young trans woman who killed herself after years of psychological torture by her Christian parents.

Naturally my first thought was for the mental and physical health of my nephew.  He’s a female to male transgender, which I understand is far more difficult surgically than the other way around.  I learned about this from my sister, a Christian,  the boy’s grandmother.  After she told me the news,  I told her about the tragedy of Leelah Alcorn and sent her this message.

Dear S___:

Here’s a link to the article I told you about.

This is such a sad story, S____.  We’d better all make sure L___  gets the support he needs.


Darwin Harmless  (Not the name I use in actual correspondence)

Her reply really warmed my heart:

You’re right that this is a terribly tragic story.  But saying all Christians believe this crap is a bit like saying all Muslims are terrorists.  As far as I know L___  has not met with this kind of cruelty from any member of our family and as far as I know you are the only non believer but this is off the topic.

I do not know how anyone can harbour that kind of ignorance in this day and age but sadly I know they do.  L___ had the courage to come with his Mom to tell me how he felt, we had gone through the I am gay stage and I think that is because he did not know what the real issue was. I can not imagine the confusion these kids must feel.  We humans are very visual in our perception.  What we see in the wrapping is what it is to us.

When L____ told me his greatest fear was that the family would push him aside we all assured him that even if we did not understand all the issues he would face no one in the family would withdraw our support or love.  Your cousin, K____,  is probably the most educated and understanding.   The rest of us will try to relate and support him anyway we can.  I have asked L____ to also understand that the older the family member or friend is the harder it will be to understand how difficult the transition will be for him. I have asked him to take shock or ignorant questions as a lack of knowledge not rejection of him,  that whether people understand or not he will always be loved and can come to us if he needs to hear that.

So far everyone has supported L____ –  a few raised eyebrows but no one is inclined to be cruel.  I think L_____ is very lucky.  My heart bleeds for the ones whose family think punishment is going to cure someone of who they are. Aside from that, K____ and I have had many discussions about this issue.  I really want to be sure that this is who L____ is because from an early age his parents, both wanting to make sure he was raised without gender identification, made it seem that identifying as a girl was a negative thing.  I have seen his father ridicule anything girly. K____ feels that even with that kind of programing it would not be possible to change your natural instinct.  Hope she is right.

L____  has gone through about three years of counselling and seems to be very happy with what he is doing.  I guess the proof is in the pudding. As a girl he was a most annoying child, nasty in fact.  Since he told everyone what he is doing he seems to be much happier and has become quite pleasant to be around.  My only wish is that he finds his place in life and can cope with the issues that will arise.  Whether we like it or not the human race is the nastiest beast on earth.  We are capable of extreme cruelty and I doubt that will ever change.You can be sure that L____  has the support he needs.  We do not need to completely understand what he is going through to stand behind him and up for him.  Anyone being mean to L____  will deal with a whole wall of angry people.   I am not surprised but very glad that you and R____ will stand with us.

Love S____

To which I replied:

I have never been prouder of you than I am at this moment.

You are just a fine human being and I’m so happy that you are my sister.

If you have an email address or facebook contact for L_____, I wouldn’t mind lending my note of support.

Much love

Darwin Harmless  (and R____)

P.S. I am sorry for the anti-Christian bias of the article I sent you.  The fact is, the intolerance that drove this girl to suicide seems to be more associated with devout religious belief than otherwise, and in this case religious belief was a direct cause of the girl’s suffering.  But I’m aware that most Christians would find that behaviour misguided and wrong.  Some of my best friends and most, if not all, family members identify as Christians.  I love them all.  I just can’t connect with the belief system.  It just doesn’t make any sense to me, as if they are talking another language when the dogma is explained.  That may well be my failing.  It’s been described to me like somebody who has absolutely no appreciation for music.  Trying to explain music to such a person would be a waste of time.

And a final note from my sister:

Hi Darwin Harmless:
I do not have a media contact for L____.  He decided sites that Grandparents and old people use are just to tacky for him, but I will certainly pass on your support the next time we speak.
I am so glad that he has such support from family I can not imagine the pain of rejection that so many people suffer.  I still have great fear of suicide in this case because even with all the support the world is a cruel place and I fear he will not have an easy life. Family support may not be enough.  I hope that love and support at home will give him the strength, courage and self confidence to thumb his nose at discrimination.  I hope that in the future he will find someone with the dedication and love to withstand the discrimination they will suffer as a couple.  There are so many issues ahead of him that have not yet been breached.  I try not to look too far forward.  The world is changing so fast and there are far more people coming forward with transgender issues.  Maybe at this time and in the future he will find more acceptance than in the past.  Can you imagine what he would have suffered when we where teens.  I did not even hear of transgender until I was a much older adult.  Being a teenager is such a difficult time.

Love you both


And as always, I’m giving myself the last word:

Hi S____:

There is hope.  We have a friend, actually an old friend of R____’s, who is a male to female transgendered.  The funny thing is she’s still attracted to women, so she’s a lesbian.  Go figure, eh.  Anyway, she has a beautiful girlfriend and the two are just crazy about each other.  She’s also surrounded by very supportive friends, mostly slightly older people who are all misfits to some extent themselves.

Like you said, the world is changing.  Happiness is possible, even for those who have the hardest path to walk.

Much love

Darwin Harmless

And there you have it.  It feels so good that my family stands in such stark contrast to the loving Christian family that couldn’t accept Leelah Alcorn.  And perhaps my family is more the norm, even among Christians.  We can hope.

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It’s all About Communication

spinach caught in teeth

Shelley Berman did a comedy routine back in the sixties in which he described being on a date and every time you go to kiss the girl she turns her head.  Then when you get home you look in the mirror and find a big piece of spinach RIGHT  HERE.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if such a scenario were impossible.  In my perfect world it would be, because people would talk to each other.  Like this: “You know, I’d really like to kiss you but you have a big chunk of spinach in your teeth and it’s grossing me out.  How about we get rid of that and try again?”

Is that really so hard?  Why don’t I live in that world, instead of a world in which people identify with and laugh at Shelley Berman’s story?

And given that my perfect world doesn’t exist, can we do anything about this?


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A Believer Being Right for a Change

Neil at Australian LutheranThere is so much annoying nonsense coming from religious believers, it’s tempting to dismiss them all as unreasonable idiots.  But it’s important to give them some credit when credit is due.

Neil writes at a blog titled Lutheran Church of Australia: In My Opinion. He is trying to single handedly reform the leadership of his church when it comes to LGBTQ issues.  He’s good.  He’s worth reading.  He’s entirely too intelligent and reasonable to be a Christian, but he insists that’s what he is.

The leadership of the Christian Church in Australia including the leadership of my own church enjoy a position of real power and influence in this country. They have, for decades, in a coordinated and well-funded manner spoken against our LGBT brothers and sisters labelling them as sinful, disordered and diseased.

But things have changed. Others have voiced their support for LGBT rights and equality and have begun to publicly question the Church. Some have even gone so far as to call the church*s views bigoted and homophobic.

The churches response? Rather than entering into genuine dialogue with those who have been hurt by their teachings,  the Church have pulled up the drawbridge, manned the ramparts, dug deeply into their persecution complex storehouse and cried *Discrimination.*

You’d almost think PZ Myers was his ghost writer.  His latest post is one of his best.

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