After 27 years on this planet, I learned that I am not only a victim of mutilation, but also an amputee; I just hadn't known it. Like millions of other men, I was, as a baby, circumcised. I never really thought anything of it until my editors directed me to a Yahoo! Group — yes, they still exist — that serves as the online home of the New York City chapter of NORM, the National Organization of Restoring Men.
Since the early '80s, men who have been unsatisfied by their "cuts" have banded together for the cause and formed acronym-heavy groups with varying degrees of wit: Brothers United for Future Foreskins (BUFF), UNCircumcising Information and Resources Centers (UNCIRC), and Recover A Penis (RECAP), among many others. The spectrum is wide, yet the mission remains relatively stable: These dudes want their foreskins back, and they want them now. Plus, they don't want any more unsuspecting babies to get snipped.
NORM is the restoration organization that reigns supreme today, with dozens of chapters in seven countries around the world. To complement the techno-prowess of the aforementioned Yahoo! Group, there is also, I kid you not, a Foreskin Restoration WebRing. (For those of you who haven't heard the term since the late '90s, a WebRing is a collection of websites that are all linked to each other, forming a chain of sites around a central topic, in this case foreskin restoration.)
Though I'd never previously thought about my amputee status/victimhood, while perusing these online forums I discovered there are people who think about their circumcisions every single day — particularly those in the midst of the painful restoration process, which oftentimes means having a mechanical clamp attached to one's penis for hours at a time over a period of months or even years
Intrigued, I embarked on my Foreskin Restoration Information Deep Gathering Expedition (FRIDGE). If they can do acronyms en masse, so can I. Step one was to attend the monthly meeting of the New York City chapter of NORM, described on its Yahoo! Group as a "community of men seeking to restore our foreskins, an important part of the male sexual anatomy that most of us were wrongfully deprived of at birth."
While the origins of circumcision are murky, in terms of both the reasons why cutting began, as well as where and when it first occurred, the practice most certainly dates back several millennia. Of course, circumcision has long been practiced by Jews, Muslims, and other groups around the world. As fifth century BC historian Herodotus wrote in his still-widely regarded work, The Histories, the Egyptians "practice circumcision for the sake of cleanliness, considering it better to be cleanly than comely.
Records show that other groups from Before the Common Era, including many cultures from across the African continent, circumcised their young. In some cases this is thought to have signified an ascent into manhood (when the act was performed in the pubescent stage) or to discourage masturbation (we all know how well that works...).
In recent years, the ancient practice has found considerable scientific validation from medical professionals, with studies showing that circumcised men may be less likely to acquire sexually transmitted diseases than their intact counterparts — as well as some highly debatable stats that circumcision may reduce risks of penile and prostate cancer.
The New York Times reported in 2012 that the American Academy of Pediatrics had "shifted its stance on infant male circumcision," announcing that new research, "including studies in Africa suggesting that the procedure may protect heterosexual men against H.I.V., indicated that the health benefits outweighed the risks."
Despite these studies, the fast-growing anti-circumcision movement traces its routes back several millennia as well. "Foreskin restoration also has a history stretching back to the Hellenistic world," says Daniel O'Neill, a 42-year-old graphic designer who lives in the Inwood section of Manhattan and is the coordinator of NYC-NORM. "Jewish athletes would stretch their foreskin, as circumcision was a much less radical procedure in those days, to fit in. Athletes competed in the nude, and exposing the glans was considered obscene in the Greek world."
Records of circumcised and uncircumcised men in ancient Greece are of particular interest to the restoration community. A clothing accessory from that era, the kynodesme, has been taken up by the NORM folks as historical evidence of the ills associated with the exposure of the glans, or as it is better known, the penis head. Non-Jewish Greeks weren't circumcised, but it was considered, um, un-Kosher for the glans to be exposed during athletic competitions. Thus, the kynodesme, a leather strap of sorts, was worn by male athletes who lacked sufficient foreskin to cover the entirety of their glans.
The contemporary restoration activists, who call themselves intactivists, stand by this ancient belief that the glans should not be exposed, and therefore circumcision is nothing less than mutilation.
Despite spending years as a kid at Jew-ish summer camp (approximately 97.5 percent of the attendees were Jewish by my unscientific count) where circumcised penises abounded in the bunks, as a straight man and germaphobe who avoids locker rooms in favor of outdoor exercise I have only seen a handful of my intact brethren. And, truth be told, I'd never wondered much about whether I was missing out on anything by being cut. I suspect this is the case for the vast majority of cut men.
Until embarking on my research for this piece, I had little idea that the penis in its natural, uncut state, is quite similar to the vagina, whereby it is a moist organ that has some pretty sophisticated and highly sensitive nerve endings. Sounds like something that could be useful. If I weren't circumcised, I would have my very own built-in Manhattan Mini Storage, a place where my glans would be protected from things like touching the interior of my pants, or from that small scrape I gave myself in high school when I accidentally zipped my fly over the glans. As the kind of person who uses a huge shatter-proof case to protect his iPhone, always wears a seatbelt when in a car, and a helmet when on a bike, given the choice I'd like to keep my one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable organ covered, too. Of course, I didn't get to make that choice myself. My parents and a knife-wielding mohel, made that decision for me.
Narratively is an online magazine devoted to original, in-depth and untold stories. Each week, Narratively explores a different theme and publishes just one story a day. It was one of TIME's 50 Best Websites of 2013.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- The 10 best networking tips for people who hate networking
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- Scottish independence is another financial crisis waiting to happen
- Why the West should let Russia have eastern Ukraine
- 10 things you need to know today: September 1, 2014
- Your literary playlist: A guide to the music of Haruki Murakami
- 11 scientific studies that will restore your faith in humanity
- Fall movie guide: All the films you should see in September
- The elusive 'It factor' in presidential politics
Subscribe to the Week