As far as Alex Hardy’s mother knew, he was a typical 23-year-old, a Brit living in Canada, where he’d chosen to attend university. He was smart, with no history of mental illness, regarded by his friends as friendly and intelligent. But in late November 2017, he took his own life, and the suicide letter he’d sent his family via email shocked them all: Alex blamed his fatal decision on a circumcision gone wrong, a procedure his family had no idea he’d even undergone and which they weren’t particularly familiar with.
Alex had timed his email suicide note to reach his family 12 hours after he took his own life. In that email Alex told his story, blaming a circumcision gone wrong at the hands of a Canadian doctor and calling the procedure itself an act of “male genital mutilation.” While he was alive, Alex had suffered in secret, not discussing with his family any issues with his penis nor the procedure he’d undergone.
Alex wrote in his final email, “I had issues with a tight foreskin, but from my late teens it created issues in the bedroom as it meant my foreskin would not retract over the glans as intended which caused some awkward moments.”
He’s describing a problem called phimosis, in which the foreskin is so tight that it’s unable to pull back from the glans (head) of the penis. While it’s a typical issue in many uncircumcised young boys, typically it resolves itself by adulthood. Adults with phimosis can experience trouble urinating and painful sex. Even then, circumcision is considered (by the UK’s NHS, anyway) to be a last resort.
He decided to consult a Canadian doctor about the issue, who Alex claims gave him a steroid cream to stretch his foreskin; the idea was the treatment would hopefully work and more serious measures wouldn’t be necessary. But Alex didn’t feel the treatment was working and was referred to a urologist, who Alex says “immediately suggested circumcision.”
“I asked about stretching and he completely lied to my face and said it would not work for me,” Alex said in his letter. “I was mostly trusting as I felt he was the expert who knew best in this regard so with a pinch of salt I accepted it.”
Alex felt he wasn’t fully able to research circumcision, because it was “too much of a taboo” to discuss with his friends, and he didn’t feel comfortable researching it in a public place while his laptop was broken.
So in 2015, when Alex was 21 years old, he underwent a circumcision.
Alex’s email to family told them all about the pain he suffered following this circumcision gone wrong, from the constant stimulation on the head of his penis — no longer protected by his foreskin, which he called “torture” — to the constant pain he experienced while doing his favorite activities like skiing and snowboarding. “Imagine what would happen to an eyeball if the eyelid was amputated?” he wrote.
Alex also claimed he experienced erectile dysfunction and burning, itching sensations from a scar where his frenulum (the piece of tissue attaching the foreskin to the underside of the penis) was removed. He was also experiencing cramps that extended into his abdomen.
The BBC spoke to a consultant urological surgeon named Trevor Dorkin, who corroborated that post-circumcision the head of the penis is often more sensitive, though it’s typically a sensation that subsides. “I always say to guys ‘it’s going to feel more sensitive to start with’ because all of a sudden you haven’t got this protection over the head of the penis and it will feel different,” says Dorkin, who has carried out more than 1,000 circumcisions himself. The patient is typically able to adjust to the sensation.
Alex felt the “most erogenously sensitive area of the penis and male body overall” had been taken from him, comparing it to the removal of a woman’s clitoris.
“Where I once had a sexual organ I have now been left with a numb, botched stick,” Alex wrote in his email. “My sexuality has been left in tatters. … Nature knows best — how can chopping off a section of healthy tissue improve nature’s evolved design?”
He continued, “If I were a female [in Western nations] this would have been illegal, the surgeon would be a criminal and this would never have been considered as an option by doctors. I do not believe in championing one gender over another but I feel strongly that gender equality should be achieved for all.”
Circumcision — which is a procedure much more common in certain parts of the world than others (in the United Kingdom, for instance, only 8.5% of men are circumcised) — is vigorously protested by organizations claiming that when done to children the act compromises their “genital autonomy.” Babies naturally cannot give consent, and it’s a procedure that — as Alex’s case shows — can have major physical effects, particularly when undergone during adulthood.
There are also many men who undergo circumcision and prefer their post-procedure penis. As the BBC says, some men prefer sex after being circumcised, and others say there’s no real change. Others, like Alex, regret having the procedure.
Alex reportedly sought medical help following his circumcision gone wrong, and he underwent psychological help as well, despite not discussing his predicament with his family. “I think we all know that men don’t particularly tend to talk about their problems in the same way that girls do but I think circumcision is very much a taboo subject,” Alex’s mother, Lesley, says. “Alex was reserved. He certainly wouldn’t have said ‘I’ve got a tight foreskin and it really hurts’. And he didn’t. And I didn’t know.”
Lesley says a friend of her son came to her and revealed he, too, underwent circumcision as an adult and “was in constant daily pain.” Still, she doesn’t believe circumcision is always bad nor that it’s always an unwarranted procedure. But citing her own son’s circumcision gone wrong, she advocates for more research being done, and believes those men undergoing the procedure should be educated on the risks and what can go wrong.
“Alex said he was not made aware of all the risks,” Lesley says. “If he had, I feel sure he would not have had the surgery.”
In the aftermath of her son’s death, Lesley has filed a request for investigation into the urologist who performed the circumcision gone wrong. A pile of online reviews reportedly accuses the doctor of incompetence, misdiagnoses, botched surgeries and ruined lives.
Alex’s death hadn’t been reported on until now, as Lesley has said it was Alex’s dying wish to have his story shared. “If the following information can benefit anybody then it has served its purpose,” Alex wrote. “I did not feel comfortable raising the issue when I had a choice, so if my story can raise awareness to break this taboo within society regarding men’s health then I am happy for release of my words.”