Experts have been unable to understand the origin of the practice of routine male circumcision. Most of the literature shows no awareness of phimosis - its frequency - or the sexual and erectile problems which can be cured by circumcision. If routine circumcision had been introduced for this most obvious reason of eliminating difficult foreskins; then the importance of an alternative modern method, suitable to our culture's attitudes in this day and age, would be clear.

ARC letters: Feb 1999

Bob's letters edited together in two parts: Dorsal Slit and "skinning it back"
(please note the term "autocircumcision" does not mean "self circumcision")


Because of well-remembered problems I had as a child, I became something of an authority on foreskins and the various ways of managing them before I entered the US Army, which subsequently afforded me the opportunity of observing thousands of penises of all sizes and conditions. One method of treating the foreskin often utilized in North America between the wars and before near-universal circumcision became established, was simply to keep the foreskin pushed back or rolled up behind the glans, so this stayed exposed at all times. ...

The common method of keeping the foreskin "skinned-back", was to pull the foreskin back as far as it would go, then fold it inward upon itself and roll it forward until it formed a sleeve of skin behind the glans that left this permanently exposed. Without question literally millions of American men born between 1900 and 1930 would have appeared to the casual observer to be circumcised, but they were not. ... I once heard one man in a theater line (all male) at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, tell a companion, 'Mine looks circumcised but it's not; it just stays skinned-back all the time." Then I heard one GI tell another, "I'm not skinned-back like him.!"

A doctor from Saginaw, Michigan writing in 1951 coined the term "autocircumcision" to name the condition of a penis that appeared circumcised but had no history of surgery. He estimated at the time he was writing that probably 1/3 of the males living in his area of practice were circumcised, with a greater proportion of the population among younger men and boys. He estimated that of men born in 1900, 5 percent were circumcised, 15 percent were autocircumcised, and the remaining 80 percent remained as God had made them. He assumed that most of the autocircumcised were that way through their own choice; nobody else had made them alter their penises. Nowadays, almost 50 years after the time he wrote, the estimate is that some 85 percent of males living in the Midwestern USA are circumcised, so very few boys were left with a foreskin to modify for themselves, as many of their grandfathers had done. Most of the autocircumcised men you'll find in North America today are 70 years of age and older.

Historically, one group of Native Americans at least, the Lakotah branch of the Sioux, also practiced autocircumcision commonly. According to Ruth Beebe Hill (in Hanto Yo, Doubleday, Garden City, New York, 1979) their word for the adult penis translates literally as "foreskin pushed back." I submit that these men practiced autocircumcision for other than aesthetic reasons. The value of anyh practice that eliminated non-venereal penile infections would be high in a population of nomads whose survival depended upon the ability to move swiftly, on horseback, at a moment's notice.

Non-surgical penile modifications are reported occasionally in European literature but would seem to be less common there than in the USA: one of Moll Flanders' customers had a penis that was "half-capt." Also, Charles Darwin reported a lady from Chelsea who was astonished to find that her 2 sons (age not given) appeared to be circumcised although she was not Jewish and had not had them "done." Apparently they had been experimenting with their penises and had left them permanently "skinned-back."

Also, near the beginning of the 3-hour 1977 Italian movie "1900," the boy who plays Robert DiNiro as a kid wanders into some tall grass with a friend (evidently one of the children of a peasant tenant on the family estate), where they are apparently relieving themselves, and tells the friend, "See, mine looks like yours now; I yanked it back!" So, wherever there are boys with uncut penises, there is likely to be experimentation. ...

... Auto-circumcision appears to have been fairly common in 19th-Century North America (excluding Quebec), judging from woodcut illustrations of medical textbooks of the period, plus references to keeping the prepuce 'withdrawn' behind the glans. This is based on a surgery textbook printed in Philadelphia in 1868 that belonged to my grandfather, a physician who died in 1920. ....

There are some recorded reports of circumcision ceremonies observed among natural groups, such as (not yet Sir) Alexander MacKenzie's observation of the Sioux's neighbors the Ojibwa (or Chippewas) in what's now Canada in the 1700's, and Basedow's graphic description of circumcision and subincision as practiced by the Arundta (sometimes spelled Aranta) in Australia in the 1930's. (Incidentally, did you hear that when an anthropologist asked some Australian aborigines why they circumcised, they said, "We don't know, we just always have!" Not too different from 20th C. Anglophone North Americans, right?) Also, the Chimu/Mochica of coastal Peru, whose genitalia are carefully depicted on many ceramic pieces of high quality in the Larco-Hoyle Museum in Lima, pretty definitely were circumcised, judging from the available evidence.

Best wishes to all, Bob.