Originally published by SPOOK Magazine
We sat on a roof and talked about our dicks—me, Lukas, Artur, and Johnson (an American, a Slovakian, a Pole, and a Papua New Guinean). We were drunk and it was apropos of something. Which is to say that earlier, in class, our teacher, Ibu Dewi—soft-eyed, smooth-skinned, in a white headscarf—had brought up the Islamic tradition of sunat.
More specifically, we had been talking about sunat as it manifests in Makassar, South Sulawesi, where the four of us have come to study the Indonesian language and those who speak it. ‘It is when we are taking the boys,’ she said, ‘usually when they are ten to twelve years old, and we are—how you are saying this? When you are cutting the penis?’
On Circumcision and Health
On the roof we pretty much repeated the same conversation we’d had in class but with more alcohol and less Ibu Dewi. ‘Why?’ Lukas asked. ‘Why you are cutting the skin off a perfectly good penis? It makes no sense.’
The tally was two and two—the Europeans had foreskins whereas the American and Papua New Guinean were foreskin free. “Because,” I said, “in America, we think it’s cleaner.”
“It actually is,” said Artur. “Because under the foreskin there is bacteria.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I read online that in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa the W.H.O. is recommending circumcision because it’s an easy way to reduce instances of HIV—like, studies have proven there’s a higher prevalence with those who are uncircumcised.”
“Just wear a condom,” said Lukas.
“True,” I said, “and the whole ‘it’s cleaner’ argument is obsolete when you apply it to America and Europe. I mean, Artur, how many times a day do you shower? At least once, right? So is my dick really that much more hygienic than yours?”
“People are saying that it’s very healthy for the boys to be cutting the skin,” said Johnson. “So I cut myself. And then, there was one guy…”
“You cut yourself, or you go to the doctor?” asked Lukas.
“You cannot trust me,” said Johnson, “but trust me. I cut myself with the rubba.”
“With the what?”
“With the rubba. You can see some rubba’s on the hair.”
“Like a rubber band?” I asked. “You put a rubber band over your foreskin?”
Johnson tilted his head to the side, as he often does, in a way that neither confirms nor denies the question. “I just take the rubba and then put the rubba on my penis skin. So, I have to put maybe one weeks or two weeks so that the skin can, you know…”
“Yes,” he said. “Then I am cutting.”
“No,” said Lukas.
“Because,” said Johnson, “I don’t want to take that matter to the doctors, and they don’t want to see my penis. You see?”
Lukas was holding his crotch, as if the thought alone caused him pain. “You did it by yourself?”
“Yes,” said Johnson.
“I will never do this to my penis.”
“How old were you?” asked Artur.
“I am twenty-six,” said Johnson.
“Not now,” said Lukas. “When you cut it. How old were you?”
“I am maybe seventeen. Because doctors told me that it’s very good. Because, they say, there’s a sickness from the girls. They explain like this: ‘When you have sex with some girls, you will see some white things on your penis. And then, these things will make your penis become big.’”
“Don’t you want a big penis?” asked Lukas.
“No no no, it will grow your penis with the tumor.”
“I read about that too,” I said. “Circumcision reduces the risk of HPV, which therefore reduces the risk of penile cancer.”
“Yes,” said Johnson. “Cancer of the penis.”
“But you can still have sicknesses,” said Lukas.
“No,” said Johnson.
“Yes,” said Lukas. “You can still have H.I.V. if you are cutted.”
“Using a condom,” said Artur, “is much easier than cutting your dick, really.”
“No,” said Johnson. “Getting the diseases from the ladies is permanent. When you are cutting your penis, only this is hurting for the one or two weeks.”
On Circumcision and Ethics
A few weeks later I bought a flight back to Los Angeles for my grandmother’s funeral, and the boys threw me a going-away party on the roof. “I’m writing an article,” I told them, “about circumcision. I’m thinking of including the conversation we had the other day—the one about how Johnson cut his own foreskin off. Is that alright with you guys? Johnson? Do you mind if I use you in a piece I’m writing? I can change your name if you want.”
“If you want to be using my real name then it doesn’t matter.”
“It’s okay?” I asked. ‘‘Cause I’ll share my own story. I’ll tell about how I was six days old when they cut my dick. And I’ll tell Lukas’s story, too—his dick is not cut, he thinks circumcision is strange. It’s okay to tell your story?”
“Yes, please. Just remember what it is like for the people living in the rural areas.”
“Can you imagine he is doing this by himself?” asked Lukas.
“No,” I said. “I was two days old.”
“So you didn’t choose it,” said Lukas. “He chooses it. Like, the boys in Makassar they are choosing because they are Muslim. And he choose it.”
“Yes,” said Johnson. “I don't want to show my penis to the nurses or whatever. I do it myself. My penis is for my property. And this is belong to the ladies—if I marry someone, this is belongs to her.”
“I agree,” I said. “I mean, I was talking to my mum the other day on the phone, before Grandma died, and I was telling her how I’m writing this article about circumcision, and she was in the car with her new boyfriend. ‘That’s just what everyone did back then,’ he said. ‘And it’s still what doctor’s are recommending.’ Which seemed weird to me. I mean, I always think, my dick is my dick. It’s just the way it is. It’s what I’ve always grown up with. Which is true. But at the same time it wasn’t my decision—like, my dick is my dick but it’s the way it is because my parents decided to have it that way.”
“It’s like a tattoo,” said Artur. “Imagine if your parents wanted to tattoo your penis as an infant.”
“This is why it is better in Makassar,” said Lukas. “The boys, they are twelve years old when they are doing this. They choose it.”
“Not really,” said Artur. “Or they do, maybe. But they are also told from a very young age that to be a good Muslim you must have this procedure. So is it really their choice, or is it still the choice of the parents?”
“Still,” I said. “They have more choice than I did.”
“Johnson had the most choice,” said Lukas. “He does this himself.”
On Circumcision and Aesthetics
Later, as we swerved on foot toward our respective homes, I said, “You know, on another subject that’s basically the same, I read lots of testimonials from women about what feels better. Because this is a subject that interests me. And many women said, ‘Oh, with uncircumcised it’s so much better.’”
“Un-circumcised?” asked Lukas.
“Yeah,” I said. “I don’t know what to call it—natural. Let’s call it natural—but yeah, they said it’s better because, well, some of them said it’s a little bit thicker, which is apparently more pleasant.”
“No,” said Lukas. “It's thicker?”
“That’s what they said. And they said that uncircumcised men seemed to derive more pleasure, which was apparently a major turn-on.”
“Makes sense,” said Lukas. “Usually when she is coming, I am coming.”
“True,” said Artur.
“But,” I said, “other women said it’s fucking disgusting, it smells, it’s gross. Like, there were all sorts of testimonials and what I could gather was that it was pretty much a 50-50 split between American perspectives and European perspectives. The girls from Europe, or the girls who were a little bit more open-minded from America, were like, ‘I had a South American lover and he didn't have a circumcised penis and he was so sensitive and it was so beautiful.’ And the Americans were like, ‘Ewwww, I had an uncircumcised penis and it smelled like poop.’”
“No,” said Lukas.
“It’s true,” I said, “and I’ve heard that before from a good friend whose husband is circumcised. Like, she says she loves him, and that sex with him is great because they’re in love and all that. But she would never want to circumcise their son, if they had a son, because she says uncircumcised is way better for women.”
“Yeah—what do you think?” asked Artur. “If you have a son, will you circumcise him?”
“See, that’s the thing.”
On Circumcision and Tradition
“I’m from the US, right? But my fiancée is from Europe. So she thinks circumcision is barbaric. But I’m circumcised. And the thing that fucks with my head the most—like, the most interesting aspect of the whole circumcision debate—is whether or not to hand down that tradition to my own kid. Like, I have this image in my head, right? I’m older. I’m a dad. And my kid is standing next to me, peeing, and he asks, ‘Dad, why is my dick different from yours?’”
“You just pull back the skin,” said Lukas. “Pull back the skin and they’re basically the same.”
“I know. But would you want your son to have an uncircumcised penis?”
“Of course not. I want my son’s penis to look like my penis.”
“But why? I mean, that’s the thing that bothers me. I want my kid to be better than I am—more healthy, more pleased—and to not have to hand down some shitty traditions that shouldn’t be handed down at all. But I’m just not certain if this is one of those traditions, or if circumcision is the better choice.”
“Just let him chose when he’s older,” said Lukas. “Like the boys in Makassar, or like Johnson.”
“I’m considering it,” I said. “But with neonatal circumcisions there are way fewer complications. Plus, if I’m being perfectly honest, some part of me thinks that this decision should be more mine than hers. Which is fucked. Like, it’s backward of me to think that way. But still, it’s the truth.”
“No,” said Lukas. “You are the one with the penis. It is more your decision than hers.”
“It should be a mutual decision,” said Artur.
“Right,” I said. “But that’s the thing I keep running into—what do I actually believe is the best choice? Which is better? Which is the dick of the future?”
“Natural,” said Lukas.
“I don’t know,” said Artur.
“Me neither,” I said. “And I’m not sure I’ll know until that little infant penis is staring me in the face.”
“Just get drunk with her,” said Lukas. “Get drunk and talk about everything. Then go with the decision you think is best.”
“I am thinking it is better if you are cutting the penis,” said Johnson.
“No,” they said.
“Maybe,” I said. “But that’s the point—there’s no right answer. Like, it’s not a clear-cut decision or whatever.”
“Clear-cut,” said Lukas. “Nice one.”
We laughed. Lukas and Artur went to their house and Johnson and I went our separate ways. The following morning I woke up for my flight, and showered, and stood in the steam staring at my dick. What if what they say is true? I asked. What if all this time you could have been feeling even more pleasure than you’ve already felt, and what if you could be giving more pleasure than you’ve ever given? I gripped it and pushed the tip inside itself as if packing a pipe. The skin flapped over. Then the tip popped out again and I was left staring at the light domed-cap and its darker stalk.
“What would you choose?” I asked. “More pleasure or more health?”
“Pleasure,” it said. “I’m a dick—the answer is always pleasure.”