One Man, Both Ways

Pre... and Post. Photo: (L-R) Courtesy of Schwyzer; Reuben Cox for New York Magazine

Hugo Schwyzer is a history and gender studies professor at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, CA. He was circumcised in 2005 at age 37.

I wasn’t circumcised because my father felt it wasn’t medically necessary. He was born in Europe and wasn’t circumcised, and I think fathers have an almost primal urge for their sons to look like them. I was teased about my penis as a kid, but by high school it had mostly stopped. The bigger problems started when I become sexually active. Sometimes when I would have sex, the foreskin would tear. I had to go to the hospital once in my twenties, and the doctor recommended circumcision. I was horrified. It seemed like the classic example of the remedy being worse than the problem. And by that point I was proud of my uncircumcised penis. A few women thought it was weird, but in general I got positive feedback. I decided it was one of those defining features that no one should want to get rid of, like Cindy Crawford’s mole.

My mind started to change for a number of reasons. For one, the foreskin tearing didn’t get better, and I started to develop scar tissue. But the bigger issue was that I was in a relationship with the woman (at that time, she was my fiancée) who would go on to become my wife. Before her, I’d had something of a promiscuous past. I wanted to feel as if I was starting over sexually. No matter how many people I’d been with, she would be the only woman to see me like this.

Of course I was apprehensive about the surgery. I read some horror stories about surgical mistakes, that there would be a loss of sensation, the sex wouldn’t be as good, the healing process could be agonizing. But then I contacted a couple guys who had been circumcised as adults, largely because they were converting to Judaism, and I heard good things from them. The hardest part was the anesthesia: They take a needle and make a circle all around the base of the penis. That hurt. And then there is a tiny pinprick right around the head of the penis, but after that, the surgery is painless. It is an outpatient procedure: I was in and out of there in less than two hours. The first night was very painful, but 800 milligrams of ibuprofen got me through it, and after that I didn’t take anything. It was just sore.

Obviously the No. 1 question is, what’s sex like? One thing that’s different is that I always used to beg out of oral sex. Even from women who were very good at it. It was too much sensation, too intense. After the circumcision, oral sex became a whole lot easier; the pain was gone but the pleasure remained. Plus there are other little things that I used to take for granted. I’d been sexually active for twenty years—from when I was 17 until I was circumcised at 37—which is a long time to acclimate yourself: This is how I do it, this is how my body works. I hadn’t realized how many compromises I’d made, just little shifts of flesh, to feel comfortable. The things that I can do now are totally different. When I’m with my wife, I don’t have to have that moment of, Uh oh, is this going to hurt? That is an enormous relief. There haven’t been any complications either. You hear stories about men who turn into premature ejaculators or have difficulty ejaculating. Neither of those things turned out to be true. My wife says she doesn’t notice any difference.

If I were to have a son, I don’t see why I wouldn’t have him circumcised, given the potential benefits, in terms of cleanliness and what we’re finding about HIV and STDs. As I see it, there really are very few negatives. After my procedure I did feel a twinge of loss when I thought about my father—that I was different from him now. He died in 2006, but he knew about the surgery, and was a little perplexed by it. He gave me that look of Why on Earth would you want to do that? But my dad was a good liberal dad—do what you want to do. For me, circumcision made sense on every level: medically, sexually, and emotionally. I have never regretted it for a single day.

As told to Molly Bennet

One Man, Both Ways