Health

Circumcised? You Can Probably Thank or Blame Graham Crackers.

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You've probably only thought of graham crackers as a convenient vessel for carrying melted chocolate and fire-roasted marshmallows. But long before they were a standard summertime camping treat, graham crackers were a method of reducing your sexual libido. Seriously!

Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham thought that eating bland foods (like his original crackers, which had less sugar than the contemporary version) would help reduce sexual urges in young men, which, in turn, would help prevent them from committing acts of “self-abuse” -- aka masturbation.

How could something so innocent have such an unsettling origin? And what does this have to do with foreskin?

Suppression of all irregular desires

Graham wasn’t alone in his beliefs. He was buddy-buddy with John Harvey Kellogg, whose corn flakes were supposed to have the same effect as graham crackers on the impure thoughts of America’s youth.

Since bland foods were no guarantee that teenage boys of the 19th century would rid themselves of onanism, Graham advocated for the removal of foreskins to help prevent young men from sinking into a life of sexual depravity. He wrote, “Chastity is that duty which was mystically intended by God in the law of circumcision. It is the circumcision of the heart, the cutting off all superfluity of naughtiness, and a suppression of all irregular desires in the matter of a sensual or carnal pleasure.”

Not to be outdone, Kellogg suggested in his pamphlet, Plain Facts for Old and Young, “A remedy which is almost always successful in small boys is circumcision... The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment... The soreness which continues for several weeks interrupts the practice.” Great, thanks Kellogg, not only should men get a surgical procedure, but it should also hurt. Not cool.

Oddly enough, despite how crazy these ideas sound now, at the time they resonated with everyday Americans and spread like wildfire. With that, the circumcision craze really took off -- along with corn flakes and graham crackers.

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Circumcision becomes as American as apple pie and baseball

Today, circumcision is still one of the most common surgeries in the United States. In 2010, approximately 58% of American newborn males were circumcised -- if you slice up the data more, you'll find that there’s a difference between the East and West Coast rates (with 65% and 40% circumcised, respectively).

So if parents don’t know the real reasons why their children are being circumcised, why are they having it done? A survey from the late '80s asked both mothers and fathers why they wanted their child circumcised, and found that the most important reasons were, “It will make him easier to keep clean,” “I don’t want him to look different,” and, “The baby’s father is circumcised.” In short, most people don't base their decision to circumcise or not on medical grounds. Nothing like a fear of a little locker room bullying to really scare the foreskin off of you, right?
 

Wait, but doesn't circumcision help prevent STIs?

With the exception of circumcision reducing the risk of HIV transmission in high-risk populations like sub-Saharan Africa, there are no solid studies that suggest circumcision helps prevent STIs.  

Look at the rates of infection in the highly turtlenecked countries of Europe (the incidence of circumcision across the Atlantic is significantly lower than in America, at around 7%), and you’ll find the incidences of gonorrhea and chlamydia are strikingly lower as well. This may have more to do with the efficacy of European safe-sex campaigns and condom use than it does with circumcision, but obviously snipping foreskin isn’t significantly changing anything.
 

So Americans get circumcised because of graham crackers?

Well, kind of! Penises are sensitive things, in more ways than one, and the Puritanical habits of the United States die slow deaths. Almost no one thinks that circumcision prevents masturbation or premarital sex, which was Graham's reason for supporting the practice, but parents tend not to consider the historical context of their choices when it comes to their newborn children. Often even the most serious medical decisions are based more on habit than on the latest scientific evidence.

I’m sorry if I’ve instigated a fight about your foreskin at your next family gathering. Don’t worry, though: if you really wish you had your foreskin back, we have ways -- or should I say "weights" -- to help you out. Google "foreskin restoration." You’ll thank (or hate) me later.

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Dr. Cameron Hill is a urologist who lives in Washington, DC. He's a big fan of s'mores.