This post was written by N.O.R.M. North Houston coordinator Eric Smith (known to this blog as The Designated Dad). We both receive questions from parents who regretfully had their sons circumcised and want to know if they can or should attempt to restore his foreskin. The following information addresses this question.
Should You Restore Your Son’s Foreskin?
“I made a big mistake. I have regret, and I think he will too. I heard about foreskin restoration though. How can I restore my son’s foreskin?”
Has this question been on your mind lately? The short answer to it is: you can’t. The easier to swallow answer is: there are other ways you can help.
You may have discovered the unsavory truth of circumcision after your child had already been cut or, despite knowing and doing all you could, your baby boy was still subdued under the mercy of genital cutting tools. You want to restore your young boy’s foreskin and you’re a responsible, caring, loving parent. You want what’s best for him. You want what he was always meant to have: his birthright to his whole body and all the physical and emotional experiences that come with it.
You may now find yourself scouring the internet hoping for any shred of good news. And you don’t have to dive too deeply before you stumble upon the phrase “foreskin restoration” and suddenly it seems like your prayers have been answered.
For full disclosure, I’m an adult man who was circumcised as a newborn. As far as I know, no one asked me whether I wanted the surgery and if they did, I most certainly did not respond with a “Yes please.” Now I regularly host support group meetings for adult men who are embarking upon the long, committed, very personal journey of “un-circumcising” — that is, foreskin restoration.
So, with both personal experience under my belt and an emotional investment to protect future boys who are dealing with circumcision complications or are at risk of undergoing circumcision surgery, I would like to share the advice I give when this question comes up.
Though you mean well, I ask that you please leave his penis alone.
It is not your body.
It is not your penis.
It should not be your decision to restore his foreskin; it should be his decision.
What Restoration Involves
I’m sure it sounds fascinating, both as a fringe movement and as a medical marvel of sorts. A process of varying approaches developed ‘underground,’ by laymen as they say — working hard to undo the aftermath of the most prevalent surgery in the United States.
Yet I don’t think most parents understand the enormity of what they wish to sign up for when they (either casually or desperately) propose the idea of restoring their son. Though restoration can offer tremendous healing for a circumcised man, it is not a Band-Aid or magic pill.
Regrowth of sufficient tissue to passably replicate the original excised organ may (and most likely will) involve:
- Investment in an array of devices
- Daily tugging, stretching, and manipulation of penile skin
- Regularly referring to restoration resources
- Lack of understanding/approval from health care providers
- Dedication and commitment
- Emotional and physical discomfort
- A degree of guesswork and faith
- Strong feelings, both negative and positive
- Measurement / analyzation of progress
- The patience of a Saint
The Risks of Restoring a Child
Because your nervous system is not connected to your son’s penis, you run the terrible risk of tugging too hard or in a way that injures him. Complications can run the full gamut from the cosmetic (like stretch marks) to impediments upon normal functioning (like urinary issues or erectile dysfunction). Nerves provide a feedback loop to the brain, informing how intensely an individual can tug without hurting himself. A personal connection to this feedback is critical to restoration, and restoring another person who cannot accurately communicate how much stretching is too much is dangerous. The odds are not in your favor.
Beyond that, the practice of restoration is amazingly under-documented on any official basis. Hardly enough solid information exists to collaborate with a successful adult experience; I’ve yet to see any research or anecdotes surface in regard to a developing child’s, and for good reason.
It may very well be the case that any restored foreskin gained in childhood or early adolescence will be completely lost when the genitals grow and settle into their full adult size. It’s impossible to predict how much — and where — skin will be needed to accomodate comfortable day-to-day living and (eventual) pleasurable sexual function. There is also no evidence to dispute the possibility of consequential damage to his psychological health — especially if he’s a minor who cannot offer informed consent.
Though there’s still a lot we don’t know, when it comes to manipulation of another’s genitals there is no gray area; the black and white of it is that a child’s genitals should not be touched by anyone but himself (except in cases of medical necessity or hygiene purposes in an infant).
In fact, this very concept is the foundation of the genital autonomy movement.
Human Rights & Bodily Autonomy
If your son has undergone circumcision, understand that his right to genital autonomy has already been taken away. The first cut was the initial violation of his human rights, and if the first restorative tug is by anyone but himself it will be the next imposition upon them.
For this reason, foreskin restoration absolutely must be chosen and undertaken only by the restorer himself.
As your child’s caretaker and number one supporter, you have an excellent position for teaching about consent, respect for personal boundaries, and other valuable lessons here — not in any explicit way except by giving him space to live within and get to know his own body as it is.
Has your son already expressed interest in foreskin restoration? It is never too late to start restoring, however in my opinion I would think the ideal age to start would be around 16-18 — but only if he has chosen to do so and feels ready. His maturity and physical development are unique factors that are also important to consider, so beginning younger could potentially work well. Either way it isn’t a decision in which a parent will be involved.
If you suspect your son is already attempting to restore his foreskin but hasn’t mentioned it to you, I implore you to resist asking. It really isn’t your business. If you have held open conversations about his decision to restore, don’t discourage him in any way — even if you feel it is an inappropriate time for him to begin the process.
What You Can Do Instead
The good news: there are effective alternatives to foster healing for your son! And there are plenty of ways you can be supportive without crossing any lines.
It is not your place or responsibility to restore your son’s foreskin, but you can:
– Compassionately, sensitively, and truthfully, explain to your son what happened to him, in age-appropriate ways over the course of multiple discussions. Please keep in mind that these conversations are not for you, they’re for him, and to burden your son with any guilt you may have about doing this to him would be completely unfair. He may be terribly upset, he may not care at all, he may not think a thing of it for 20 years and then have a lot of questions. Go at his pace.
– Encourage body positivity. Explain how there are limitless different body types, including all sizes, shapes, colors, levels of able-bodiedness, and modified versus nature-grown. Using terms “intact” or “natural” and “circumcised” are fine, but be careful not to plant the seed in his head that he can’t be a version of “normal” in his own skin as it is.
– Welcome open dialogue about emotions and body issues throughout his developmental stages.
– Provide access to intact-friendly health providers (such as pediatricians and urologists) who recognize and treat circumcision complications. Allow him private time to speak with these providers at appointments.
– Don’t tear or push back any adhesions in childhood. They are likely to separate during puberty thanks to shifting hormones; if they don’t, the scar tissue can be loosened with steroid cream and stretching exercises.
– Say no to circumcision revision surgeries. Every attempt possible should be made to preserve the skin he has left.
– Learn about restoration so you can direct him to the best resources if and when he reaches out for advice.
– Don’t tell him about restoration (most likely). I know it seems like a strange request, but hear me out. When I or my wife (who directs Intact Texas) tell regret parents about the possibility of foreskin restoration for their boy, we don’t suggest they bring it up to him. We share this information mainly to help them see that all hope is not lost, should he end up feeling hopeless. It’s an attempt to kickstart their own journeys toward healing.
Younger generations today are growing up with an abundance of information at their fingertips; if a boy feels invested enough in the idea of regaining foreskin, the internet will easily confirm that, yes, it’s already a thing.
In fact I believe there is only one scenario in which parents should bring up restoration and that’s if the boy 1) approaches his parent asking for a solution to his circumcision related problems, and 2) tells them he wishes he could have foreskin again.
– If you have the means, cover the cost of his restoration aids. Don’t force him to spend his allowance to fix something he never wanted in the first place.
– Donate to Foregen, a company that intends to surgically restore foreskin using stem cells. Maybe, hopefully, by the time your son is old enough they will be ready for willing clients.
– Consider suing the health care providers who facilitated the circumcision for failing to give you/your partner the power of informed consent.
– Ask how you can help — but only if he expresses grief about the fact that he is circumcised. Avoid operating under the assumption that he’s suffering in his body. He may prefer not to view himself as a victim who needs healing, and that’s more than okay.
If you do all of this, you’ll be pretty close to doing everything you can to lessen his burden. Last but not least, please spread awareness about genital autonomy.
The sacrifice of your son’s chance for a naturally whole body will not be in vain if you save one, two, dozens or hundreds more from the same fate. Sometimes actions really do speak louder than words and this can help set an example for your son to learn that all humans make mistakes, but when we know better, we can do better.
That said, there are some special considerations I think you should keep in mind. Take care to advocate in a gentle, educational manner. Protect his personal story. What I mean by this is, ensure his face and name and backstory are not spotlighted or exploited for the sole purpose of helping you (or someone else) sleep better at night. Do not let your own guilt become a heavy cloud that follows him. Indeed, he may very well one day strongly identify as a leader of the movement and wish to take on a posterchild role, but don’t impose this on him in your advocacy.
Instead, I recommend advocating in a way that humbly demonstrates your regret, and possibly brings him a sense of relief without risking humiliation. Go carding, speak up in the midst of pregnant strangers, join a team of well-regarded genital autonomy educators, donate toward non-profit activism… There are many options to include in your positive baby-saving action plan!
N.O.R.M. North Houston Coordinator