MenWeb logoMenWeb   


Do men "remember" the trauma of circumcision?

Therapist Tom Golden was shocked and amazed to find out that many do.

Copyright © 1999 by Tom Golden
(Tom is also an international expert on men and grief, and featured expert on MenWeb's Men and Grief section.)


Help us help men
Every $20 helps!

Tom Golden is an international expert on men and grief. He's the featured expert in MenWeb's Men and Grief section. He also has a general therapy practice, where he works with a lot of men. When discussion on the Voices of Men e-mail list turned to circumcision, he offered the thoughts below. They are unedited and unpolished ... but to me, they make his statement all the more powerful.

Tom Golden
Tom Golden on CNN

Swallowed by a Snake book

A part of my work as a psychotherapist involves helping people move into old painful memories. Using techniques like breathwork or emdr people are moved into the old pain and thereby have the opportunity to re-experience the painful memories and events and be relieved of the old trauma. (Many men prefer this sort of therapy over traditional talk therapy because they don't have to "sit and talk about it" to get to the raw emotion. Actually, painful events that occur prior to the acquisition of language can't be retreived through "words" in can talk till you are blue in the face and you will never get there....)

When I started doing this type of work a number of years ago I noticed that the painful memories were often someone re-experienced one old trauma they would often spontaneously experience others that were related in some way. I began to see that one of the experiences that was not uncommon for men to "re-experience" within a cluster of old trauma was the pain and trauma related to being circumcised. When I first noticed this I was amazed and shocked...I hadn't thought of the experience of circumcision as being anything but a routine medical procedure. The men who re-lived things were usually just as startled. They were usually expecting other issues to surface and were surprised to see circumcision as one of them. We were both shocked at the intensity of the related pain. I started looking into the medical aspects and was completely blown away to find that doctors didn't use any anesthetic...the assumption being that babies don't feel pain. Now there is a mind blower!

I checked with other therapists doing this sort of work and folks who had written about this and found that it was not an uncommon experience.

I am convinced that the practice of circumcision can create trauma in boys. I can't imagine anyone allowing little girls to be cut in their genital area shortly after birth. You would see an avalanche of protest! These boys get through the gauntlet of the birth canal only to find one of their very first experiences with other humans is being cut in one of their most sensitive parts. Not a good start. To me routine circumcision seems senseless. If someone has religious reasons that's their call....but routine procedures...hell no. Why create more pain??

As usual the nurses are on the forefront of is an excerpt from a document where nurses were "conscientious-objectors" refusing to participate in circumcisions.

"Our medical position was that neonatal circumcision was unjustifiable. Our ethical position was that it violated a newborn's right to a whole, intact body. As patient advocates and nurse-educators working in maternal-child health, we believed that we had a professional duty to dispel myths and offer parents factual information about circumcision, and that we had a duty not to participate in a procedure that surgically altered the normal genitalia of unconsenting minors."

Thank you nurses for taking a stand for boys!

You can read the entire document here:

more info here:

Tom Golden
Someone asked:
None of us who have been circumcised can remember that on a conscious level, so why attempt to dredge it up? Of what use is that?
Tom replied:

Good question. I am certainly not recommending you dredge it up. What I was trying to say is that it was one of the memories that surfaced for some men when they were re-experiencing other very powerful trauma.

Why bring it up?

Short answer...only if you have to.

Long answer...Well, old trauma tends to reside in our unconscious memory. Usually it lays dormant and has little impact on our daily consciousness. Most people have adequate defenses to contain it easily or don't have enough old trauma to become bothersome. Trauma seems to accumulate...the more old painful memories we have that are not dealt with the bigger our cesspool of unfinished trauma...and the more defenses we need to contain it.... So with good defenses and only a bit of unfinished trauma most of us will never have to deal with the kinds of dreadful symptoms of the men we mentioned. However a number of variables can wake the dragon....things like the occurrence of a similar trauma, the additive effect of multiple trauma, or the crumbling of our usual psychological defenses. If any of these (or many other possibilities) happens then the trauma can be brought into consciousness and completely disrupt ones daily functioning. An easy rule to gauge this disruption is related to a persons ability to live in the "here and now." Can the person experience life in the present moment? Can they work and love? If they can then all is fine...but with the eruptions we are talking about here there is so much chaos that the person can't function....disabling anxiety, panic, continual and unrelenting images of a trauma, sleeplessness, suicidal urges and other unwelcome crap. Often these symptoms are related to the original trauma. An example might be a man who saw his wife murdered and has repetitive memories of the event. In some ways it seems the psyche is making an attempt to re-experience things..the images keep coming to his mind...but he fights it for all he is worth and runs! Most of us would run like hell! The simplest way to describe this is that the therapy is geared to not run from this stuff but to sit in it for a while. By facing it squarely and allowing ourselves to not run but experience it at its fullest we begin to de-sensitize ourselves to the troubling material. This is the hard part. It takes a great deal of courage to stand next to this sort of powerful material. Therapists have found that by standing in the tension the symptoms begin to recede. I don't think anyone is absolutely certain about the mechanisms that are at work here...but it is apparent that it helps to relieve the symptoms by re-experiencing things.

Hope that long winded response answers your question. I have included a Nootka story that is related to this discussion. Hope you like it.

You are walking by the ocean. As you walk you notice the cliff behind you, the trees and rocks jutting out from the side of the cliff. The trees are twisted and gnarled as if they were attempting to escape the ground in which they grow. That, in fact, is what they are doing, for they have seen Sisiutl. Sisiutl is the monster from the sea, a hideous-looking creature with two heads. When anyone sees Sisiutl there is only one response: total fear. The urge to run is uncontrollable, it is blinding, the only thing one can think of is to run as fast and far as possible, and not to look back. This is the way it is when one sees Sisiutl.

Suddenly, out in the ocean, you see Sisiutl. Your entire body reacts automatically and wants to run, but you stand firm. You know if you run you will never stop running, you will be like the twisted trees on the cliff attempting to leave the ground in which you stand, so you stand firm. Sisiutl comes in closer, you can see his two heads waving above the surface of the ocean. Now he is close enough for you to smell his foul stench and you utter prayers of protection as he moves in. With one more wave he will be upon you. He lets out a screeching sound, both heads approaching you from either side. It's too late to run; fear washes over you. Just as the heads are inches away from your own head, they stop. Both of Sisiutl's heads stare into the other's eyes. He stops and stares.

Sisiutl searches far and wide for anyone who will stand firm so he can glimpse his other side. When his other side is seen, truth is given to the one who stands firm in that tension. Whenever you stand firm like this, you will be visited by the vision people, and they will show you truth.



Read American Academy of Pediatrics statement that circumcision is medically unnecessary

Read Circumcision: An International Perspective, A wide-ranging, fact-filled overview that dispels a lot of myths.

The Right to Our Own Bodies, The History of Male Circumcision in the U.S, by Frederick Hodges and Jerry W. Warner, Ph.D.

Return to Circumcision page

Help us help men
Every $20 helps!

Press the "Back" button on your browser to return