My doctor was explaining, with some awkwardness, the procedure I was soon to undergo. “The skin around your … well … when I was at school we would have said ‘bell-end’.”
I was in my mid-20s, and about to have an elective adult circumcision. After experiencing some problems with bleeding and tearing, I had been diagnosed with phimosis, a condition in which the foreskin retracts with difficulty or not at all. It had taken me a while to get to the GP about something that felt somehow shameful – but, after diagnosis, everything progressed quite quickly.
Before the operation, the relevant area was isolated by cutting a circle in the cloth I was lying under on the operating table. A team was gathered around me: a surgeon, an anaesthetist, nurses and perhaps an orderly or two. The administration of the anaesthetic involved – to put it bluntly – being stabbed in the penis with a large needle. The experience was, at times, demeaning, comical and extremely painful – but in the months after the operation, as a semblance of normality returned, I mostly felt relief.
It’s hard to obtain exact figures for medical circumcision in adults. In most men seeking treatment, the operation is to correct phimosis, which becomes apparent when they become sexually active. Insertive sexual intercourse, in particular, can cause the foreskin to retract, which may lead to tearing – although it is not known by doctors exactly what constitutes phimosis, and what is merely commonplace tightness that can be aided with stretching exercises.
Terry Brazier, 70, recently made headlines after going to Leicester Royal Infirmary for a bladder procedure and being mistakenly circumcised instead. Brazier was awarded £20,000 in compensation. In my view, having gone through the same procedure with my consent, that is about the right amount of cash for going through it unnecessarily.
I wasn’t especially well prepared for my recovery following surgery. Doctors gave me cursory instructions on how to deal with pain, how long to wait before having sexual contact again, and when to remove the bandages – but there was nothing in terms of psychological support in adjusting to life with a completely different penis.
To give me some idea of the days and weeks that lay ahead, I would liked to have been told: “Picture H G Wells’s Invisible Man in his bandage mask.” A friend was circumcised at 19 and remembers his own first impression: “The peen of Frankenstein.”
Beyond the unsettling visuals, nobody warned me of the terrible pain of the sudden strain on my dissolvable stitches, caused by involuntary erections. This eventually passed, and I was able to adjust to my altered circumstances.
My recovery was relatively painless, but, at its worst, the procedure can be agonising and traumatic. This year, a 21-year-old man named Curtis told the BBC that he developed post-traumatic stress disorder after his wound became infected following a partial circumcision at seven and a half years old.
It seems clear that there is not enough psychological preparation or follow-up. Unlike in the US where, it is estimated, 71% of biological males are circumcised, the procedure is relatively uncommon in Britain. For this reason, circumcision is shrouded in stigma and secrecy, although society is gradually becoming more open to sharing and less inclined to instil shame about body issues.
And the predominantly positive feedback I have received in the years since the operation lets me know I made the right decision.