A Boy Without a Penis

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What happens when a circumcision is botched, and the baby's penis is damaged beyond repair? This sad article provides what has been happening, although it does not question the practice of routine circumcision in U. S. hospitals.

The case involved a baby whose parents sought expert advice at Johns Hopkins Medical School in the early 1960s after his "circumcision went awry." Doctors there told the parents the baby's best chance for a normal life would come from undergoing a series of operations to turn him into an "anatomically correct woman." Accordingly, he was castrated, and surgeons fashioned a kind of vagina using the remaining tissue. When he grew older, he was to be given hormone treatments.

Because this particular case was so much written about, the child was considered "living proof of the prevailing theory of the 1960s and early 1970s that sexual identity exists in a kind of continuum and that nurture is more important than nature in determining sex roles." Experts told the public that babies are born gender neutral, and a lot of people seem to have believed this. Pediatricians found references in their texts to this case and advised other parents "facing similar circumstances to rear their wounded boys as girls."

Now comes the publication of a study in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, authored by Milton Diamond and Dr. Keith Sigmundson, that has turned that notion upside down. The child, now a man, has spoken up, and he told the authors of the new study that he never really adjusted to his assigned gender. His mother put him in frilly dresses, which, even as a toddler, he tried to rip off. He preferred to play with stereotypical boys' toys and even preferred to pee standing up -- which made enough of a mess in junior high bathrooms that the girls refused to let him in anymore. (They had not been told about the surgical history or gender change).

"I thought I was a freak or something," "John" told the authors of the study. No matter what he-she told his-her doctors or psychiatrists, they kept up the pressure that he should act more feminine.

"You can't argue with a bunch of doctors in white coats," John reports. "You're just a little kid, and their minds are already made up. They didn't want to listen."

John decided at the age of 14 that he had only two options: suicide or to live life as a male. At this point, his father told him the true story of what had happened.

"All of a sudden everything clicked," John remembers. "For the first time things made sense, and I understood who and what I was."

Once a new set of doctors was found, he underwent a pair of operations to reconstruct a penis. These doctors advised the parents to move to another town and start over, but they rejected the advice. John was eventually better accepted as a male than he had been as a female by peers in school.

Besides John and his family's pain about the poor advice and treatment they received, Diamond and Sigmundson point to the additional pain probably caused by the case, since it was so well publicized in the medical literature. Because of it, dozens of other boys may have been needlessly castrated. Johns Hopkins, in its defense, "says it wasn't able to conduct a follow-up because the family stopped coming to see its doctors." Apparently, though, Johns Hopkins didn't try to locate the family. Anyway, John, although wishing to remain anonymous, decided to speak out so that other boys with similar damage would not undergo the series of medical and surgical mistakes committed upon him.

John is reported to be happily married and the father of three adopted children.

May Gaskin.

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