Full disclosure: I'm circumcised.
Too much information? Tell that to the people--well-meaning or otherwise--who have actually created a ballot measure to criminalize circumcision in San Francisco. Yes, this fall, San Franciscans will vote on whether or not babies (and all minors) can be circumcised. In the wake of the ban's (unlikely) passage, one can imagine the surgical equivalent of speakeasies or underground abortion clinics to which families bring little Joshua, Omer, or Justin. In the law's hostility to Judaism, one recalls the 1492 Expulsion ordered by Spain's Ferdinand & Isabella.
But hostility to religion is only one impetus for the bill; the psychological anguish of a small number of activists is the other. The main source of information about their emotional torment is contained in the bill's language:
"It is unlawful to circumcise, excise, cut, or mutilate the whole or any part of the foreskin, testicles, or penis of another person who has not attained the age of 18 years."
Equating the removal of an infant's foreskin with the "mutilation" of the testicles or penis is ignorance, willful distortion, or delusion. No one in the city has been accused of touching anyone's testicles or penis (Catholic priests notwithstanding). But lumping these together with the routine, nearly painless removal of foreskin--which has no impact on later physical function--shows just how theatrical the bill's sponsors are. They are acting out their own odd sense of bereavement with a grand display of concern for future generations.
As a sex therapist for 31 years, I have talked with more men about their penises than you can shake a stick at. We've discussed concerns about size, shape, color, and the angle of the dangle. We've talked about the ability to give and receive pleasure. We've talked about the amount, color, taste, smell, and consistency of semen. We've talked about what women (and other men) supposedly like. And a small number of men have talked about how they feel about being circumcised or not circumcised. Invariably, anyone who talks about the issue is convinced that they'd be better off different than they are--the cut guys want to be uncut, and uncut guys want to be cut.
Some of these thousands of patients were perfectly sane people who were over-concerned about their penises. Others were a bit less sane. And a few were intensely involved with their feelings to the point of ignoring science, logic, and the sworn statements of one or more lovers.
That group includes the people behind the San Francisco proposal to ban circumcision. In 31 years of talking with men about circumcision, I have never met a man who felt damaged, mutilated, or emasculated by his circumcision who did not have other emotional problems. The pain they claim to remember from the brief procedure is impossible; the rejection from "all women" a childish overgeneralization; the sense of being incomplete a neurotic problem that has other sources.
The United Nations recognizes the health benefits of circumcision; the World Health Organization is now promoting a huge circumcision campaign in southern Africa. Ironically, it’s world-famous San Francisco urologist Ira Sharlip who’s been asked to advise the project. Halfway around the world, the Phillipines recently offered free circumcisions for poor people, who lined up enthusiastically.
Indeed, studies around the world show that circumcision reduces urinary and other infections, has no negative sexual effects, and is rarely dangerous when done using simple public health guidelines. There is absolutely no evidence that the sexual experiences of circumcised and uncircumcised men are different for them or their partners (outside of partners’ simple personal taste, of course).
As a therapist, I am sworn to empathize with the pain of every man, woman, and child in my office. I am also devoted to reducing suffering--by helping people understand the meaning behind their pain, the better to resolve and escape from it.
As a citizen, my sworn concern is to keep emotion out of public policy, the better to enshrine science and enhance everyone's well-being. So I urge anyone feeling damaged by their circumcision to get as much therapy as necessary, as much good sex as possible--and to keep their self-admittedly damaged psyches away from public policy. Guys, pleasure and intimacy await--as soon as you make friends with your penis. The ballot box is not the place to work out your self-loathing.
June is Men's Health Month. So let's talk about what sexual conditions don't need treatment.
* Juan has no interest in sex most of April
Wrong diagnosis: "inhibited desire"
Juan is an accountant, and so April 15 is the toughest day of the year for him. Actually, April 14 is the toughest day for him, and the two weeks before that are tough, too: he's flooded with email and phone calls from anxious clients, angry clients, scared clients, and clueless clients. He works 18-hour days in April, and as the 15th draws closer, he knows what's coming. Every year it takes him a week or more to recover.
Some men turn to sex when they feel overloaded. But many others simply can't focus on sex when they're under a lot of stress. When a man feels anxious, angry, guilty, or afraid of a partner's judgments, these emotions can override the brain's messages that would otherwise create desire.
* Henry climaxes before his wife almost every time
Wrong diagnosis: "premature ejaculation"
There is, of course, a frustrating condition wherein a man ejaculates soon after getting erect, or soon after getting inside his partner. But measuring "rapid ejaculation" primarily by whether he lasts long enough to make his partner climax is a mistake. Most women, after all, don't climax from intercourse without a hand or vibrator on their clitoris. And women who can climax from intercourse alone may require 10 or 15 minutes of thrusting. Most men won't last this long, especially if they're enjoying the sex and are emotionally engaged.
There are ways men can learn to last longer--primarily by learning how to relax during sex, and by both partners reducing the pressure through emphasizing non-intercourse sex. But for many reasons, it's crucial that "woman-coming-during-intercourse" NOT be the gold standard of sex. When it is, both men and women tend to feel like failures.
* Harold doesn't want to kiss as much as he used to
Wrong diagnosis: "fear of intimacy"
Passionate kissing is the most intimate of all erotic activities. If you doubt this, consider: have you ever had intercourse when you were annoyed with someone? Most of us have. Have you ever passionately kissed someone when you were upset with them? Eyeeeeew---gross!
People withdraw from kissing for a number of reasons--psychological, relational, physical. Before we interpret why someone loses interest in kissing, we should ask: do you enjoy it? If not, why not? Sometimes there are problems in the relationship that people don't feel comfortable discussing. Sometimes it's simpler--they don't like the way their partner kisses, and they don't feel comfortable discussing that. And sometimes it's even simpler--they're taking a medication that makes their mouth taste funny, or their partner is, or their partner has changed their brand of toothpaste (or has stopped using toothpaste).
Assuming our partner's behavior is always about us is a mistake that can lead to chronic conflict, undermining a relationship.
* Rex can't "have sex" twice in an evening
Wrong diagnosis: "erectile dysfunction"
Every man's sexual biology demands a "refractory period"--the mandatory reloading time between ejaculating and when he can get another erection. As a teenager, this refractory period is quite brief, often just a few minutes. But as men age, this mandatory resting period gets longer and longer. In middle age it may be several hours; in old age it could be an entire day.
When a man is used to his youthful 3-erections-a day rhythm, getting older can bring many surprises. If he and his partner are sexual, say, before dinner, have a big meal, and then expect to make love soon after, his penis may simply not be ready. hat's not a "dysfunction." That's just the natural evolution of his functioning, the same way our vision or sleep patterns change as we get older.
Note that there is NO refractory period for cuddling, sweet talk, and getting your partner a glass of water. A man can do these whether his body is ready for another erection or not.
* * *
The range of common human sexual functioning is tremendously broad. And different people need different conditions for their bodies and their minds to participate fully in sexual activities.
Before we go assuming that we--or a partner--have a dysfunction, addiction, or emotional problem involving sex, we should be realistic, compassionate, and informed about the circumstances. Sometimes the main difficulty in a sexual situation is that someone is disappointed that their body (or their partner's body) doesn't do what they want it to do, when they want it.
That's an easy problem to fix: change your expectations, and open your mind to different ways of experiencing sexuality.
Think of it this way: if a man is in the middle of making love, and the woman suddenly says "Omigod, I think I hear my husband coming up the stairs," and he loses his erection, would you say he has a "dysfunction?"
Last night I spent $100 on a theatre ticket in New York. I saw "Sleep No More" off-Broadway, a site-specific, avant-garde show. Just for the record, I didn't love it. But its use of sexuality and nudity did make me think about the artist's responsibility to the audience, which is primarily to tell the truth.
Well, some truth. For in every story, there are many truths. When Macbeth kills King Duncan, is he being selfish, a weakling caving in to an ambitious wife, or simply playing out the destiny that a witch has foretold? When Oedipus kills his father and sleeps with his mother, is he being impulsive, irresponsible, honor-bound, or just playing out his foretold destiny? Cleopatra: shrewd or lovesick? Hamlet: shrewd or heartsick?
Every story has many truths.
One of the truths in stories since the beginning of time is sexuality. People who want to exclude sex from stories--or demand that artists justify their use of it--demand that artists lie. That's terrible for art and artists. It's dangerous for society as well, because knowingly or not, we're all counting on artists to tell us about ourselves in ways we can't--or won't--see. In a sense, artists are society's nervous system.
* * *
So I go to this show, which is sort of a mashup of Shakespeare and Alfred Hitchcock. I wish it were better executed, but give the production "A" for creativity, risk-taking, and sheer theatricality. Oh, did I mention the pretty girls and pretty boys? The nudity, semi-nudity, and kissing in various configurations? It was hot, all the hotter because it was set in a vaguely late-1930s, androgynous design: slick-haired men in fitted tuxedos, slender women in backless dresses. And hotter still because it was sinister: who was passionate, who manipulative, who a sucker doomed to a glamorous death?
Much of the sexuality was integral to the show, and I appreciated the show's commitment to it: various penises, vulvas, and nipples appeared unapologetically. Because they lingered on stage, we didn't have to rush our gaze, so we really got to see them. We even had the time to consider our own voyeurism. Frankly, that was even more interesting than checking out Lord or Lady Macbeth's tush.
As I enjoyed the nuts and nipples, as the sexy women languorously kissed, I felt grateful to see a production portray sexuality on its own terms. In the New York of just a few decades ago--and much of the U.S. right now--such a production would be raided, threatened, cancelled. Just for a little truth.
* * *
Sure enough, some of the show's sexual material seemed unnecessary--sometimes substituting for smart writing, other times used to grab our interest. Nothing says "pay attention!" like a bare scrotum a couple of feet away.
So what of artists who use sex gratuitously--that is, serving something besides truth? Perhaps they lack vision or skill. That isn't limited to sex--artists constantly reveal their laziness or poor craft by overreliance on violence, stereotypes, or cheap humor.
That said, perhaps it's OK for artists to use sex gratuitously. After all, they use other devices to get our attention, like comic relief and sentimentality. We don't condemn Shakespeare or Gray's Anatomy for using humor to ease the audience's tension. So why condemn an artist for using sex to work us? Various audiences have simply learned to avoid the Three Stooges or Cosmopolitan or Andy Warhol. The same personal strategy could work just fine with Hair or Catcher In The Rye or Butt Busters III.
What's important is not that an artist never use sex gratuitously. It's that he or she gives us enough truth enough of the time to earn our gaze.
Whether artists are using sexuality to serve truth, manipulate an audience, or for commercial ends, the desire to prevent them from doing so says everything about the censor's relationship to sexuality, and nothing about the artist's relationship to it. And that's the problem with censorship--it isn't about artists or audiences. It's about the feelings and thoughts that some government, and some complicit citizens, want the rest of us to not feel or think.
If the artist has a political agenda--like Brecht or Shaw--let them express it. If the art is honest enough and skillful enough, audiences will go along and consume the message. But in the marketplace of ideas, art whose primary goal is to be "safe," "socially productive," or "clean" almost always loses. Because it isn't honest.
There's a contract between artist and audience, a sacred contract that should be loyal to nothing but the artist's vision. Government cannot possibly tread lightly on that contract. It treads not at all or it treads heavily.
It's always stunning how people who want the government out of their business demand that the government interfere with the business of others--such as artists and audiences. A play about ambition, greed, power, and loyalty that doesn't address sexuality? Why, that's like a day without sunshine. And sexuality without bodies? That's simply not the truth. Not the whole truth, anyway.
And adults who can't tolerate the truth--for themselves or their fellow citizens--oh dear, are they in trouble. And thus are we all.
If Germany can teach courses on the Holocaust, and Egypt can learn to love democracy, and China can realize that capitalism is necessary to grow their economy, can't the U.S. actually tolerate the teaching of human sexuality?
The latest American institution to answer "no" is Northwestern University in Chicago. Generally an excellent, almost progressive institution, they've abruptly canceled one of the most popular courses on the entire campus, Professor Michael Bailey's class on Human Sexuality.
The cancellation is the climax of what started as a small, harmless--and unusual--lapse in Bailey's judgment. Because it involved sexuality, of course it was transformed into an enormous controversy.
In one of the optional, after-school, late-evening sessions that made the course so comprehensive, an outside speaker recently discussed sex toys. She then offered to demonstrate one, the surprised Bailey agreed, and the speaker did, in fact demonstrate.
Let's note that everyone there was over 18, everyone was there voluntarily, and students were told in advance the material might be challenging to some. About 25% of the 600 students chose to attend. Most importantly, no one in the class complained. But someone outside the course decided to impose their values on adult students and a highly-honored professor, sending ripples through the system.
The story then unfolded with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy: the administration over-reacted, and went into damage-control mode. Northwestern University President Morton Shapiro said he was "troubled and disappointed" by the sex-toy demonstration, and called for an investigation (he didn't bother talking to Bailey).
Without even waiting a decent interval, the President took what he believed to be the "safest course"--canceling sex. You decide if there's an issue of academic freedom: Psychology Department chair Dan McAdams said that the decision to cancel the course "was made higher up than me at the central administration level," which is almost unheard of.
It's a familiar story: a few noisy people get frightened or angry, and a gutless institution cancels sex research, or sex teaching, or sex publishing, or sex peer counseling. The only thing that Northwestern couldn't cancel is the fact that most of its students are having sex--regardless of the quality of their education.
It's disgusting: the idea that canceling sex will soothe more people than it will anger.
Of course, this is no isolated incident; it's simply the American way.
In 1948 and again in 1953, Alfred Kinsey's career at Indiana University was repeatedly threatened because he researched and published world-changing studies of human sexuality. In 1998, top researchers from Temple, Michigan, and Penn were actually condemned on the floor of Congress for their ground-breaking, peer-reviewed research on adult-child sexual contact. Ten years later, the University of Minnesota Press was "externally assessed" and forced to cancel the contract of one of its books when the state legislature and national media ferociously attacked Judith Levine's book as endorsing pedophilia.
(Fun fact: One of the loudest to demand the book's cancellation was then-state assemblyman Tim Pawlenty, who later admitted he had not read the book. Think his mob brutality will come up in the Presidential debates?)
After 20 years, there are tens of thousands of students who have taken one of Bailey's sexuality classes. In fact, there are a quarter of a million living alumni of Northwestern. Which of them (which of you?) will write to President Shapiro and challenge his assumption that getting rid of sex is the safest response to ignorance and fear?
Well, not exactly.
But we did get the 500th twitter follower this weekend (we're now up to 502). In addition to getting notices of my blog posts, followers also get links to breaking news stories and high-quality blogs--always about sexuality, media, politics, and culture. And get this--only 1 tweet per day, maximum! (Sometimes I miss a day.)
So follow me on twitter, at DrMartyKlein.
Become follower number 503!