|Cavalier among the roundheads|
Growing up in the 1940s and 50s
The following correspondence is from a reader of this site who grew up in Victoria in the late 1940s and 1950s. In these letters, he gives a vivid picture of the discrimination against cavaliers – as uncircumcised penises were often known in those days – at the hands of the dominant and frequently intolerant roundheads. As he reports, circumcision was the norm in those days, and commonly done automatically in the hospital or soon after, without even the formality of seeking permission from the parents.
The name of the author has been changed to protect privacy
David Priestly to RD
I have recently come across your site and articles regarding circumcision which I have found most interesting and informative.
As one of the very few Australian born males born in the 1940s to have escaped circumcision, I was particularly interested in your sections about circumcision in Australia. Being one of a very small minority of boys (my estimate for 1944, the year of my birth, being 5%) who had foreskins and were thus significantly different in appearance from all the others, I not surprisingly became interested in circumcision and why I was not circumcised.
I daresay you are contacted by many people interested in circumcision, in one way or another and probably suffer from information overload on the topic. However, I wonder if I might correspond with you on this matter regarding my experiences and views on it?
RD to DP
Thanks for your message. I’d be very interested in hearing more about your own views and experiences, particularly as you were one of the few Australian boys born in the 1940s who were not circed - though I find it hard to believe that the proportion nationally was as low as 5 per cent. I do receive some correspondence on the topic, but I find that most cut men don’t want to talk about the issue at all, and that most uncut men can’t see that there is an issue to discuss. It’s only a small minority of the former whose resentment is strong enough to drive them to any sort of action, and only an even smaller minority of the latter who have sufficient sympathy with their deprived peers to do more than count their own blessings. I do have a fair bit of testimony from circed men who resented it (and I understand that a paper of mine analysing their feelings will be published in a collection of essays later this year), but I have not seen much from uncut men who grew up in a cut world - at least, not in Australia, though there is a fair bit available in the USA. I would thus, as I mentioned, be most interested in your recollections and reflections of growing up in Australia.
DP to RD
Thank you for your email and for allowing me to correspond with you. Given the puritanical strictures which in my view encompass almost all experience in Australian life, this is something from which I’ve felt inhibited from doing hitherto.
Perhaps I should begin at the beginning, as they say, with my birth. But first, re 5%, I don’t know that I mean nationally, but in my experience.
I was born in Geelong in 1944 and lived in several places in Victoria - the Mildura area (Sunraysia), Melbourne, a fishing port on the Victorian coast, and the Wimmera - until I left home at 16 to go to university in Melbourne. In both Melbourne and the Wimmera almost no-one had even seen a foreskin, and I was regarded as some sort of anthropological specimen, whilst in the rural areas around Mildura and at the fishing port, perhaps 20% of boys were uncircumcised. Given the respective populations involved, I think that this would average out to about 5%. In the Wimmera, it was well known and remarked on that I was one of only about half a dozen Australian-born boys in the local high school (none of whom was locally born) out of about 200, who were uncircumcised. There were perhaps another half dozen uncircumcised boys who had been born in Europe.
Later I lived in at a university college in Melbourne, where there were boys for all over Victoria and beyond and it became apparent that I was the only boy in my year to have a foreskin. Still later, when I was about 25 years old, I was working in the Public Service, and in our area there was a Jewish man, who one day announced that he was uncircumcised. I replied that he could not be a Jew and to look at his Old Testament. After a fairly testy exchange, he asked what I would know about such things; to which I replied that I also was uncircumcised. He answered that therefore I was not an Australian, as he had lived here most of his life and had been to state schools and Melbourne High School and had never seen an Australian who was uncircumcised. (This being “Not Australian” was an issue for me).
However, back to the beginning! I am 5th generation Australian and was born in Geelong whilst my father was away during the war. My mother’s family had settled in the area from Tasmania in 1840, and my mother and elder brother were living there with my grandparents whilst he was away on active service.
As I mentioned in my first email, one of the things which most intrigues me is how boys like me escaped the knife. I know in only three cases, including my own. (Basically I have been too shy to raise the matter.)
I knew that it was medical dogma when I was born that boys should circumcised and that my brothers and all other males in our extended family, except my maternal grandfather who was born in 1881, had been done. Why wasn’t I? Around the time of my marriage, I decided to ask my mother. She told me that I was born in a small maternity hospital, in a house near where we lived. I was delivered by a midwife and just not circumcised there. However, before she left a few days later, our doctor made an appointment for her to bring me to his surgery at a fortnight old to be circumcised. This she did, and I was prepared by his nurse for circumcising, with my mother holding me. (Gruesome!).
When the doctor came he first checked my foreskin and found it, although ample, completely retractile. He told my mother that I did not need circumcising and declined to do it. He did, however, in spite of its looseness, further stretch the foreskin, which apparently caused me to hit the roof, so I can imagine the pain which circumcised boys must have felt. He also told her that the foreskin had to be drawn back, the head washed and the foreskin replaced every day. The same procedure took place during drying. This continued daily until I was six, when I was allowed to bath myself; since I disliked the feeling of my foreskin being pulled back, and even more the wiping of the glans, I then ceased the practice, to no apparent disadvantage.
For a couple of years upon my father’s return from the war we lived with a great uncle, who had a housemaid. She also had oversight of my elder brother and myself, sometimes including bathing. If I misbehaved she made sure that the attention she paid to my penis was unpleasant, thus ensuring good behaviour on my part!
In the other two cases in which I know why boys were not circumcised, one was born prematurely and unable to be circumcised at birth and was just overlooked later on, while the other was born with jaundice and again could not be circumcised at birth. Both of these boys were circumcised as adults One told me that he hated being uncircumcised and was circumcised by his own choice. The other had severe tightness of the foreskin, never having been able to retract it. Both stated that they were very happy to have been circumcised.
I also know a couple of other boys who were circumcised as children. The elder a close friend was circumcised at age 7 (This was before I knew him, and it was he who first told me about circumcision.) because he had a very long and unretractile foreskin and infections. He was happy having been circumcised, but not so his brother. He was 6 when the elder was circumcised, and apparently the doctor asked the parents if they had any other uncircumcised sons, and he’d do them too. They replied yes, one. So even though my friend said his brother had a completely loose and short foreskin, he was circumcised against his wishes, “Just in case”. He told me that he envied me still having mine, whilst his elder brother used tell me how awful mine was and that I should get it cut off.
Once or twice boys previously uncircumcised re-appeared after school holidays, without their foreskin, but I have no idea why.
RD to DP
Thanks David, that’s most interesting. I have a few questions and comments.
What were your own feelings about not being circed?
What about your father? You don’t specifically mention whether he was circed or where he was born. From what you say he was away at the war when you were born (1944?), so where did the decision to get you circed come from? Was it the Dr giving instructions to your mother? Was this your usual family Dr? Do you happen to remember who he was?
Your social situation: if you had a maid, you were presumably in an upper-ish socio-economic situation. Do you think circumcision was more common as you went up the social scale? Was it wealth or respectability that counted most? What did you study at university?
What were the circumstances in which you got to check out the condition of the other boys’ cocks? Showers at school after sport? Boarding school? Games of “I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours”? How was it that in the various places you mention you were regarded as an anthropological curiosity: why would the condition of your cock be such common knowledge? Or do you just mean that it was viewed in this way by the few people who saw it - but if so, what were the circumstances? Or did you talk about it?
You insist that only a very small proportion of your contemporaries were not circed (5 per cent), but I am wondering just how comprehensive your sample could have been. Were you really able to check out the cocks of all the boys at your schools and at your university college? Surely you were not all showering together when you got to university? I can accept that only about 5 per cent of the boys you saw were not circed, but I should think that the uncirced boys might well be shy at that time and would go to great trouble to hide themselves.
It’s interesting that you confirm that the fundamental reason for circumcision in those days was the myth of congenital phimosis. Although I analysed the error in some detail in my book, I am still astonished that as late as the 1940s medical authorities were insisting that mothers go through that ridiculous and harmful routine of pulling the foreskin back every day and washing underneath. The myth really was deeply ingrained.
Also interesting about the boy with the tight foreskin who complained of “infections”. There is no way that a normal foreskin, no matter how tight, can get infections, so one wonders what the problem was. Two possible explanations: first, that he was producing a lot of sub-preputial moisture, which does resemble pus if it is allowed to accumulate as smegma and ooze out; second, that he was continually suffering cuts and abrasions from the efforts to pull his foreskin back and that these were getting infected, or at least inflamed from the injury. Even to this day, premature retraction of the foreskin is a major cause of penis problems. (You were lucky and unusual in having a foreskin that was detached and retractable at birth.)
DP to RD
Perhaps if I answer your questions, firstly, by saying that I am profoundly glad that I was “lucky and unusual in having a foreskin that was detached and retractable at birth”! I have, however, not always felt that way, as it is not easy being a small and derided minority as a child, or I suppose at any other time.
Secondly, if I explain how I came to be aware that I was different and my deep and abiding shock in learning why – that is, what circumcision is. This may clarify some of your queries, although I will individually address them as best I am able.
Apart from being aware as a young boy of what a penis was, what it did, both sexually (I did live on a farm) and as an excretory organ, I had absolutely no interest in them, and I was blissfully unaware that all my brothers were different from me in that respect, even though I often bathed with them. I was therefore amazed when, during a game of hide and seek at a children’s party when I was about 8 or 9, I was whisked away by two older boys (about 12 or14) to hide with them in the shedding (it was on another farm) and was asked to show them my cock. I wondered why anyone would want to look at such a thing and said, “No, who’d want to look at one of those”. This only led to further requests, threats and offers, such as “You can look at ours etc”. So eventually I said, if they’d show me theirs, I’d show them mine. They did, and I’d never seen anything like them! They looked like strange pink and white mushrooms and, to my idea, very ugly. I was dumbfounded, but had to show mine. They were likewise amazed and commented on how strange and ugly my penis looked and that they’d never seen anything like it before. I was frightened and “lost”. Then the elder said, “Oh yes, I’ve seen something like that before, it’s the same underneath”, and he yanked back my foreskin to reveal the head well decked with cheese. (I’d stopped washing it, as I said in the last letter, and probably hadn’t pulled my foreskin back for 2 or 3 years). They thought that I was disgusting, and I thought they looked like something from outer space. I was also shocked by the smegma, as I’d never seen it before and wondered if I had something wrong with me.
When I next bathed with my brothers, I noticed that they all had pink and white mushrooms too, and, as, I observed during or after swimming (we often swam naked in the water channels), so did most other boys, with just a few like me. No one ever commented on this, so I assumed that boys were born with either of two types of penis, those like mine and the others.
A year or two later the boy who I mentioned in my previous letter, who had been circumcised at around 7 years, had become a friend. He was some 2 or 3 years older than me. At some stage he saw my penis (pissing, swimming or after sport - I can’t remember) and spoke to me about it in a very derogatory way. Eventually he asked me why I thought I looked as I did. I said I thought I’d been born that way. He then asked me why I thought he looked the way he did, and I replied likewise. He then said that his foreskin had been cut off. I was aghast and refused to believe him, saying, “No one would do that to their children”. We argued for some time, as I could not believe it. Eventually he said, ”Ask your Mother.”
Although our family life was, even by today’s standards, very open and encompassed friends and relations whose personal preferences and lives were perhaps not quite of the mainstream, I thought long and hard about this. Eventually I plucked up the courage to ask my mother what I though to be a totally insane question: Why did I have a long piece of skin hanging down from the end of my penis? She was cross and straight away asked if I and my friends had been playing with each other. I said no, but that I wanted to know why I was different from most other boys. She asked what I thought, and I gave my opinion and the views of my friend, saying that I thought his view was mad, as no-one would do such a thing to their children! She replied that he was right, and asked if I’d like it done. Upon my vehement “No”, she said “Well, you’d better be careful, or you will be circumcised whether you like it or not.”
My mother also told me that I was in no circumstances to talk about this to my brothers, though she realized later that it would be difficult for a boy to be telling his brothers that their parents had cut off part of their penis. Later, around the time of my marriage, when I asked her about my non-circumcision, she asked me what I thought about not being cut. I replied that I was very happy the way I was, though I had not been so as a child, because I had been different from most of the other boys and had been derided by some of them. This led to a lot of self-doubt. My mother added that if she had insisted the doctor would have cut me, and that she regretted that she had not insisted.
Still later, when my first child was due, my mother told me that it was important to let doctors know well in advance of anything that I wanted them to do or not to do with young children. I asked her if she was referring to circumcision. She said yes, partially, since she assumed that if the baby was a boy I would not want him circumcised. But she said it was important to tell this to the doctor in advance, as my two younger brothers had been circumcised just like that, without any discussion or permission at all.
To go back to your questions:
What were your own feeling at not being circed? I have answered above. I would not be writing to you if I were not glad of this!
What about my father? He was born in 1916 in Maryborough or Bendigo (Vic), where his family had been mine-owners. He told me much later that he’d been circumcised during the war (i.e. WW2). I later came to realise that he was very pro-circumcision and had been to an Aboriginal initiation in the Kimberleys. He was away when I was born and I believe, from what my mother has told me, that all decisions were made by our usual family doctor, whose name, I believe, was Dr Beck, and who was, I believe, an older man. I’m told he died some few years after I was born. I am forever grateful that he spared my foreskin, no matter on what wrongheaded basis.
Your social situation? When I was born and we initially lived with my grandparents, who were very well off. We were comfortably off and employed “help” at times. Our upbringing was very different from that of today. By descent I am on one side Cornish/German on the other Cornish/Irish. I don’t think that circumcision was a “class” thing. I think that it was brought in by the medical profession and applied as they found possible - in some areas from top down, so to speak, and in others, from bottom up. In my view, working class and lower middle class people are the ones most likely to follow the custom of circumcising. Certainly, a couple of families of our family friends had 2 or 3 boys, none of whom was cut. I presume it was family choice.
What did you study at Uni? Arts. Within our family higher education, as it is now called, was widespread, with people going to the University of Melbourne from the 1890s onwards. Whether they were successful or not, was another matter.
What were the circumstances where you were able to check out other boys cocks? Often I thought that I was the “Checkee” rather than the “Checker”! Usually it was in the showers after sport, as I played cricket (which I hated), football and swimming etc. In those days, one often seemed to be naked!
Why were you regarded as an anthropological specimen? Because to be uncut was so rare. Often people thought you were deformed or that something else was wrong. When I went to school in Melbourne I boarded with a family. One night I’d had first bath, and their elder son had second. As I was drying my towel fell off. He looked at my penis and said, “What’s that?” I said, “My cock”. He then asked, “Are you a girl?”
Incidentally, in the case of the boy who got circumcised as an adult because he hated it, his feelings came from having being tormented at school (not my school).
Why would the condition of your penis be such common knowledge? In schools where lots of sport was played, we were often seen naked, dressing, undressing or showering. If you looked like me, people seemed to say something like “That boy has a funny cock.” I never spoke of my own cock, but I never tried to hide it. That’s a part of what I am, or a part of what is me.
University college life? In those days university colleges were like extensions of boarding schools, and strictly single-sex. The older buildings had cubicles for baths, but the showers were open, and it was quicker and simpler to take a shower. Even there I sometimes got comments to my face about not being circumcised – but I always ignored such talk.
I have a nephew, now adult, who is uncircumcised. (One of the good things I’ve perhaps passed on in life, probably by osmosis, is that my brothers, after having to put up with a freak who had a foreskin, did not circumcise their own boys). He knows of my state, having stayed with us often when he was younger, and he told me that a few years back, in the football club of which he was a member, he was regularly pointed out to all and sundry as the only uncut in the team!
You insist that I could have seen only a small proportion of my contemporaries. My sample was simply what I saw after sport etc, or sometimes on remarks passed. It may well be wrong and was certainly not scientifically based, but I suspect it is fairly close to the mark. I simply seldom saw anyone looking like myself. Being uncircumcised was then a pretty solitary calling!
I’ve read medical journals etc, and felt vindicated on first reading Gardiner’s comments re circumcision in 1949. At one stage at about age 13, when things were very difficult, I remember thinking, “But I’m normal”. By this I meant that all boys are born with foreskins; therefore it can’t be normal or right to cut them off.
I was looking at your website this morning and came across the BMJ 1935 Correspondence. What a horrific record of barbaric sadism! The urge to mutilate, deform or otherwise desensitise boys' penises is scarcely credible.
One of the reasons why I am so grateful that I am not circumcised is that I did not have to endure the public humiliation and torture that is involved in the operation. Some of the alternatives described in the BMJ, though, sound even worse -- the one where the foreskin is firmly detached, then both layers stretched and forcibly retained behind the glans is enough to make one weep. Even if it were ever able to be brought forwards afterward, it would be useless.
When my mother told me even what had happened to me -- which on the scale of these things was very mild -- I was angry and hurt to think of my own mother being willing to hold me whilst my foreskin was tortured.
You can also take it from me, that unlike the view of the man who thought that having one's glans wiped and cleaned was like masturbation, it most certainly was not in the least bit pleasant to have the head of one's infant cock rubbed. Even gently, with a towel, it was not pleasurable. Once, after swimming at the beach, whoever was drying me got me to stand up on the seat and, after wiping around my buttocks, pulled back my foreskin and proceeded to wipe the head of my penis with a sandy towel. I screamed and started yelling, to his great surprise. He said, "Sorry, I was only wiping the sand off." Of course there wasn't any sand there!
Clearly even when a foreskin like mine was perfectly loose and mobile some adults had the urge to interfere with it and somehow desensitise it and reduce it to the same condition as the skinless model. It doesn't differ greatly in degree from the verbal abuse dished out for simply being the way one was. I have spoken to other men who, as boys, were reduced to tears by such torment.