Interview with Paul Festa about circumcision

[Editor’s note: Again, apologies if this blog isn’t in optimal format. I’m working on fixing it, but any advice would be much appreciated, as I’m new to WordPress. Also, yes, some pieces like Paul’s are online, but I’m not linking to those essays because I really want you to read them in Best Sex Writing 2008. It’s worth it, trust me.]

Paul Festa, contributor to Best Sex Writing 2008

Paul Festa’s sex essays appear in Nerve, Salon, Best Sex Writing 2005 and Best Sex Writing 2006. His movie Apparition of the Eternal Church, about the music of Olivier Messiaen, was named Best North American Independent Feature Film at the 2006 Indianapolis International Film Festival. He is currently revising a novel and can be found online at

What inspired your essay “How Insensitive?”

I was making a routine visit to San Francisco’s community STD-testing and education space called Magnet, a great facility right in the heart of the gay neighborhood (the Castro) where you can get a syphilis-test, a shoulder massage, check your email, cruise, or all of the above. They always have a bunch of fliers advertising various drug tests or medical studies and “Penile Sensitivity Touch-Test” caught my eye for two reasons. One is that, despite being half Jewish and having ultra-orthodox Jewish family, I’ve always harbored the feeling that circumcision was barbaric and was curious to know more about this study and to help if I could. The second is that I like to have my penis touched and have had some very hot, probably inappropriate if not illegal encounters in medical offices.

Can you tell us more about what happened during your Penile Sensitivity Touch-Test Evaluation Study?

Weighed against my erotic expectations, not much! As I write in the essay, having an elderly urologist poke your equipment with varying gauges of monofilament is hardly the stuff of most-watched X-tube videos. I asked them what they did if someone got a boner–they said they waited for it to pass. I thought this was strange, from a methodological perspective, because when the rubber hits the road, so to speak, what matters is what the penis feels while erect. They said they had foreseen problems getting the study funded and published unless the subjects were flaccid (in this, at least, I was able to cooperate).

What kinds of reactions did you get to the essay? Do you find that the reactions were divided along any certain lines, like male vs. female, Jewish vs. non-Jewish, or circumcised vs. uncircumcised men?

Apart from the really obvious predictors–like adherence to Jewish orthodoxy–I have found no reliable demographic dividing lines of where people fall on the circumcision debate. The medical establishment is all over the place on this issue. So are men and women. So are at least secular Jews. I tend to think younger parents are more inclined to leave foreskins alone, but that’s a general impression based on sporadic attention to the subject over the last few years.

I found it interesting that the group NOCIRC was founded by a woman, and a 67-year-old grandmother at that. Based on your research, are most of the anti-circumcision activists men? What is the main argument they make against circumcision?

The fundamental argument is that circumcision of male babies removes, before he is able to give consent, a major locus of erotic sensation and for reasons that are scientifically controversial and that have shifted suspiciously over the years. Based on my *limited* research, I’d say most of the people on both sides of this issue are men. That’s one of the things that makes Marilyn Milos’s involvement in spearheading this research and fomenting so much anticircumcision activity so interesting. Her epiphany on behalf of the foreskin came during her nursing education when she watched an infant screaming his new lungs out in pain as his foreskin was amputated, with the visibly chagrined doctor-professor muttering that there was no medical justification for doing it. From my conversations and emails with her, her eloquent personal testimony on the issue, and the shit-kicking organizational skills that led to the publication of this study, I have to count her as a hero of mine.

You write, “Apart from bypassing a few Craigslist ads stating a preference for intact dick, I’ve never been aware of being discriminated against for lacking one.” When was the first time you considered being circumsized possibly something that was disadvantageous?

I suppose it was when I started hearing murmurings–at that point unsupported by scientific evidence–that the foreskin wasn’t just some extra piece of useless flesh like the post-partum umbilical cord, but the source of a great deal of erogenous pleasure. As I went to bed with more men I became envious of their ability to get off without pouring tubes and bottles of sticky, expensive, possibly unhealthful lubricants on their dicks. I also started having one of those reorienting conversations with myself about what my circumcision represented. It’s one thing to think of it as a hygiene-justified medical procedure (although the research supporting the hygiene issue is controversial, as a follow-up story I did for Nerve emphasized). It’s quite another to consider that part of my genitals were amputated for dubious medical reasons and before I could give my consent. It’s not at all clear to me why parents–*even religious parents*–have the right to decide this for their children in a society that respects a separation of church and state. Do we let parents authorize clitoridectomies? If someone came forth with a compelling medical or religious justification for lopping off that or any other sexual organ, would we say go ahead, sharpen your scalpel?

Along the same lines, in the sexual marketplace, do you think being circumsized makes men more attractive or less attractive, and are there certain communities or types of men who are more into one or the other?

A quick perusal of personals ads shows that some people prefer one or the other, or advertise themselves one way or another. The sexual marketplace is so robust, at least in my neck of the woods, that circumcision or lack thereof is not keeping anyone home alone on a Saturday night. If you bring home a cut guy, you just might have to work a little harder.

You say that you’re part of the “silent and ambivalent circumcised majority.” Do you think it’s threatening for circumsized men to consider what they might be missing out on? Have you spoken to other men about their feelings about being circumsized or not?

Yeah, I have conversations about this all the time, and while we foreskin amputees can all work up a certain amount of outrage at the practice if we think hard enough about it, the lingering message from the medical establishment that we’re at least somewhat less likely to contract and spread STDs, and the fact that we’ve all actually managed to have some pretty hot sex along the way since our disfigurement, and the proliferation of outrages that characterize the society in which we live (absence of universal health care, the waging of fraudulently sold war in our name, the government’s hands-off approach to catastrophic climate change) makes it extremely daunting to organize a rally in front of AMA headquarters demanding an end to the practice. Part of that ambivalence is a recognition, amid these larger concerns, that if a bunch of men in an extremely wealthy Western nation take to the streets on the issue of what we’re missing in our orgasms, we’re going to sound like a bunch of whining wankers, which, on some level, is right on the mark.

Since writing the essay, have you come across any more findings on the topic of circumcision?

Yes! As I mentioned earlier, I wrote a follow-up about the controversy surrounding studies long relied upon to link foreskins to STD-transmission. That essay, also on Nerve, is called Foresight and was published 8/20/2007.

If you had a son, do you think you would choose to circumsize him?

No fucking way.

Rereading the piece now, do you still feel the same way?


What are you working on now?

Right now I’m working on the book version of my movie, Apparition of the Eternal Church, which is about nonbelievers’ responses to the music of Olivier Messiaen, the great Catholic visionary composer whose centenary is in 2008. The movie has a great cast–Harold Bloom, John Cameron Mitchell, Justin Bond as “Kiki,” Ana Matronic from the Scissor Sisters–and won a bunch of film festival prizes and press kudos (New Yorker critic Alex Ross called it “mesmerizing” and Kraftwerk founder Karl Bartos said it was “one of the best music films I’ve ever seen.”) The book has images and the transcript of the film with a director’s commentary running underneath. The film has 16 screenings on the calendar between now and the spring, including a February tour of the U.S. South, Feb. 27th at St. Bart’s Church in New York and April 18 at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. I’m also halfway through the third draft of a novel about medical marijuana farmers in northern California, and every couple of weeks I update my blog.

I’m really looking forward to seeing the anthology!

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21 Responses to “Interview with Paul Festa about circumcision”

  1. pornlibrarian Says:

    Very interesting…Forwarded this to a lesbian couple who are expecting their first son and have no idea what to do about circumcision. They asked me and my only input was that if he wants to be a gay porn star, having his foreskin would be a plus…

  2. Rood Andersson Says:

    Congratulations to Paul Festa for involving himself in foreskin research and education. Nevertheless, if a bunch of fellows in a wealthy western country take to the streets to protest the genital mutilation of infants, based on an educated hunch that genital mutilation is precisely that: genital mutilation, I would presume their protest to be based on feelings of solicitude and empathy toward the needless suffering of others, not on self-indulgent whining.

    All a child can do to protest, when a scalpel slices into his penis, is to scream in pain and agony. It is entirely possible that some men might have the audacity to express deep concerns for the welfare of another person, though that other be only a helpless infant. After all, there’s not too much that can be done, after the deed is done.

    I say Festa’s whining is off the mark, and I challenge him to do more than document his own sensations.

    Rood Andersson

  3. Curvaceous Dee Says:

    That was a fascinating interview – and while I love my men both uncircumcised and circumcised, it’s something I would never do to a child (not that I intend to breed, but still, one ponders these topics in the early hours). Thank you for sharing it.

    xx Dee

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  17. tom paine Says:

    Well, it was a very long time ago in the East (the Far East) and I don’t know what good it does to think about it now, but I appreciate the insight, though being cut hasn’t affected much more than my erotic imagination. With all the things in the world to get upset about, this one doesn’t ring high on my list. But thanks for sharing it, as always you have good and interesting things to say.

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