This installment of my childhood recollections deals with the foreskin. In France, contrary to the United States, baby boys are not routinely circumcised — circumcision sometimes occurs later, either for medical reasons, either for religious reasons (Jews and Muslims). It seems very rare to have boys circumcised for mere hygienic reasons, as done in the United States, though I read that there was a fashion for it in the 1970s. In this blog entry, I am going to discuss medical circumcision due to phimosis.
(A little bit of warning now: most of what follows happened a long time ago when I was about 6 or 7. I understood some of the events only later, following discussions and reading; and it would be very awkward for me to ask questions now. I thus apologize for any lack of clarity.)
In uncut baby boys, the foreskin covers the glans. Gradually, as the boy ages, the foreskin loosens and it becomes possible to retract it. The thing is, this depends on the boy, and in some adult men it is impossible to retract the foreskin, a situation known as phimosis. Phimosis may make intercourse difficult (it is said that king Louis XVI of France had to undergo surgery in order to beget children) and may also result in balanitis and other infections (smegma accumulates under the foreskin and bacteria may settle in). This is why it is a concern for physicians and parents.
When I was growing up, 40 years ago, French physicians thought that action should be taken if phimosis was not resolved before the age of, say, 6 (though I heard that often they would take action earlier, at 3 or so). Many mothers were, and still are, anxious about “décalottage”, that is, the uncovering of the glans.
My mother, however, was not anxious, neither was her older sister. My aunt was thus very surprised when, I think following some school medical, she was informed that her son had phimosis and she should show him to their doctor. The doctor confirmed the diagnosis, and after an unsuccessful attempt at retracting the foreskin she (I think my aunt mentioned it was a female doctor) told my aunt to try retracting it every evening when washing.
I read that nowadays, such forced retractions by physicians are no longer considered good medical practice: they are painful, and in some cases create scar tissue, which may worsen phimosis and preclude any natural resolution — though some old-fashioned physicians still do them. Also, nowadays some kind of anesthetic and softening creams (perhaps cortisone) are used, but I do not think it was the case for my cousin.
In any case, my cousin cried and tried to run away from my aunt, due to the pain. My aunt gave up, and went to see their physician again, who suggested surgery — circumcision. An appointment was made with a nearby hospital.
Here, a little explanation. Circumcision is a traditional treatment for phimosis — obviously if you remove the foreskin completely, there are no more retraction problems, nor there is the possibility of smegma accumulating and bacteria settling in. It is not, however, the only possible surgery: it is possible to enlarge the foreskin while retaining it (preputioplasty). This possibility is much less well known and was not proposed to my aunt. Perhaps also this alternate surgery is more difficult to perform? Also, my cousin had had no problem in this area, no infections whatsoever, thus surgery was decided purely as a protective measure. My aunt’s physician apparently also told her that less skin would be removed than for a religious circumcision, though my cousin thinks this is bullshit and was said only to make surgery more palatable.
In any case, my aunt had become persuaded that without circumcision my cousin would get terrible infections. When she announced the upcoming surgery to my mother, my mother also became concerned. Both of them were obsessed about cleanliness, the dangers of “microbes” and the need for “disinfection”...
One day that auntie was home, I was told to disrobe in front of the both of them. I was surprised at this request, but complied. Mommy and auntie examined my penis up close, mom tried pulling on the foreskin, and auntie commented, mysteriously, “it is not as bad as his cousin”. I did not understand what they were talking about, it was just a bit embarrassing and a bit scary.
I was then shown to our physician. I do not recall that visit, except that she must have been more reassuring than my aunt’s: I do not think I underwent forced retractions, neither was surgery advised. Instead, my mother, from then on, insisted that I should wash my penis at least every evening over the bidet (plus during morning showers, on days when I took them) and completely pull the foreskin for that. I think she did it herself in the beginning, but I have little remembrance of it — obviously she used less force than my aunt. Later, she just examined me once in a while to check that everything was going alright — either pulling on the skin herself or asking me to do so. This went on until I was 12 or so, and by that age these examinations had become a bit embarrassing.
My cousin was circumcised. Apparently, he had not been quite explained what the surgery really entailed. He told me about his surprise when the bandages were removed (he had never seen his glans, and there it was, pink and surrounded by stiches), and the shock when he understood that a whole bit had been cut off.
I know that this may seem uncouth, but my mother was quite curious about the outcome — she was from a Catholic family and had never seen a circumcised penis (recall that this was long before the Internet made American porn available in every home). So one day my aunt asked my cousin to disrobe before my mother, and mom looked carefully how she demonstrated how easily the little tidbit of remaining skin could be withdrawn, much to the embarrassment of my cousin (he had been railroaded into surgery, being used as a demonstration subject for his aunt was a bit much!). She later remarked in front of me (perhaps when she checked on my penis, I don’t recall) that “It looks SO MUCH CLEANER!”.
As I said, my mother was obsessed about cleanliness and infection risks so for some time I feared she would have me done as well. In retrospect, I think she would not have decided on any surgery unless advised by a physician, but would probably not have hesitated much if she had been advised to, after seeing that pleasant result.
My cousin and myself compared wee-wees when we were young. I was impressed by the naked glans… Much later, in our 20s, we discussed circumcision again — he was drunk. Notably, the complained that the pink corona behind the glans, where the circumcision scar laid, was very fragile in some areas and could easily chafe during masturbation, especially if done by a girl, and also during intercourse. He was still bitter about the whole thing.
My mother periodically reminded me to pull on the skin and wash under it every evening. In addition, since I was a bit tight, she continued inspecting the issue herself until I was nearing puberty (perhaps 12 year old): several times a year, she would ask me to show her my penis and would either pull on the foreskin herself either ask me to do it. She looked at the amount of retraction and whether it looked clean underneath.
In any case, these events nurtured in me a certain fascination for circumcision and male genital examinations.