The practice of male genital mutilation, commonly known as circumcision in the United States, predates recorded history. Although often associated with the Book of Genesis, the performance of genital alterations has been around much longer. Its roots appear to stem from eastern Africa (DeMeo, 1989), while in the U.S., routine infant male circumcision did not became widely accepted until the 20th century. It has been established that there is no therapeutic or prophylactic benefit to circumcision (Gairdner, 1949; Preston, 1970). Preston states that circumcision creates, “undesirable psychological, sexual, and medico-legal difficulties.” Further research has shown that circumcision, “performed around the phallic stage is perceived by the child as an act of aggression and castration,” (Cansever, 1965). In 1971, The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a statement that “there are no valid medical indications for circumcision in the neonatal period” (1971). Studies have also found that American adolescents are more aggressive toward their peers than their [intact] French counter-parts (Field, 1999). Despite compelling evidence and the AAP statements, over half of all males born in the U.S. were still victim of routine infant male genital mutilation in 2005 (Merrill, Nagamine, & Steiner, 2008).
Several theories exist to explain the widespread acceptance of routine infant male circumcision. One theory proposes that genital mutilation began as a way of “purifying” individuals and society by reducing sexual pleasure. Some see human sexuality as impure and by physically removing the pleasure-producing body parts one could be purified. Research has shown (Warren & Bigelow, 1994; Taylor, Lockwood, & Taylor, 1996) that the male foreskin is the primary site of erogenous sensation in the male, and by removing the foreskin, erogenous sensation is considerably reduced. Considering this, circumcision could be seen as a surrendering of immoral physical pleasures and as a way of seeking spiritual glory (Warren & Bigelow, 1994).
The germ theory of disease created an image of the body as transportation for contamination. As a result, many people became fearful of dirt and bodily secretions. Because of its function, the penis began to be thought of as “dirty.” The basis for male genital mutilation was instituted as preventative medicine to reduce the perceived “dirtiness” of the penis (Gollaher, 1994). Around the turn of the 20th century, masturbation went from being viewed casually to being viewed as intensely wrong, improper, and potentially harmful. Practitioners in the late 1800s and early 1900s viewed circumcision to be a method of treating and preventing masturbation among boys and men.
Many may assume that religious groups caused male genital mutilation to gain in popularity in the U.S., but in fact, a combination of the germ theory of disease and a negative view of masturbation were the biggest factors in creating and maintaining this American perversion of routine infant male genital mutilation. Around the turn of the 20th century, Americans commonly heard that male circumcision could “protect against syphilis phimosis, paraphimosis, balanitis, and 'excessive venery' (which was believed to produce paralysis)” (Hutchinson, 1855).
Victims of routine infant male genital mutilation have very mixed reactions when it comes to the subject. There are many who whole-heartedly embrace the detrimental alteration that has occurred to them. They accept their culture's view of the practice and their personal state of being sexually altered. To them, “it is normal” and they do not regard it as a negative experience. In fact, many American males view the removal of the foreskin as a positive thing. “Women like it” or “it’s cleaner” are common responses from misinformed or uninformed men when the subject is brought about. When infant circumcision is mentioned men occasionally state they want their children to “look like them.” One might assume that if they are the child’s father, the child should look like them either way. One might also wonder how often a father will be exposing his penis to his son...
Attempts to inform those who do not wish to admit that they have been weakened sexually, that they were deprived of their full male sensuality and sexuality, are often met with hostility. Men cut as infants are introduced to this world with the immediate experience of pain, and are nurtured throughout childhood to believe that “boys don’t cry" - men are tough. To be vulnerable, weak, and sensitive, to feel any emotion other than occasional anger, is the job of women. As men, these emotions should not be felt - especially when it pertains to their penis. Parents often discourage the expression of emotion-filled behavior, and it carries over into our discussion of circumcision.
There is another reaction common among sexually altered men. This is the deep feeling of loss. It may be expressed as intense depression. Some men feel hopeless, helpless, and empty. There are tales of suicide (Bigelow, The Joy of Uncircumcising!, 1994). There are those who feel anger - anger toward the doctors, their parents, and society as a whole. These are the persons and institutions men assume are in place to help them, and instead they are the very ones who stole things from them. There are those who suppress this feeling. They pretend everything is okay. These men often drown feelings with alcohol, bury them under food, and lose them in their work. There are men who seek revenge, men who seek justice, and men who just want this perversion to end. Many decide to attempt to restore their foreskins to regain some of what was stolen from them. (Bigelow, Uncircumcising: Undoing the Effects of an Ancient Practice in a Modern World, 1994; Bigelow, The Joy of Uncircumcising!, 1994).
Those who decide to restore their foreskins embark on an interesting journey. Along the way they will experience pain, pleasure, possibly a few awkward moments while on the way to a sense of completeness. Many know they will never be exactly as nature designed them; still, they will do anything in their power to regain some feeling of “wholeness.” I wrote about my own feelings of woundedness and attempting to feel whole again. I kept a blog on a website that has since been closed down because of lack of funding. (Mitchell, 2008) In it, I wrote:
My mother and father never discussed circumcision. Neither of them ever thought that there was a reason to. My mother hated the very idea of altering her son in a way that was completely unnecessary. Her logic was that God created humans and that man should not alter the body. My father never gave it too much thought. He had been circumcised shortly after his birth and assumed that his sons would also be circumcised. Shortly after my birth, with my mother heavily sedated, my father signed a consent form and my natural sexual function was removed. Once my mother came to and discovered what had been done to her child, she was furious. After a heated discussion with my father, it was decided that any future children would be left intact. And when my brother was born, that promise was kept. He left the hospital with a natural penis.
This story is unique. The fact is, a large portion of parents still opt to alter their sons' genitals (United States Circumcision Incidence, 2008). Many do not question the ethical implications. There is a strange gendered double standard that exists around this subject today. It is only recently that female genital mutilation has been so heavily looked down on. Even in the 20th century, American physicians were recommending female circumcision. W.G. Rathmann, M.D., recommended that “[i]f the husband is unusually awkward or difficult to educate, one should at times make the clitoris easier to find,” (Rathmann, 1959). Today, we value female genitalia at least enough to allow the individual to grow up with the genitals they were born with. Women have the right to chose whether or not they will change how their genitals look and feel. It is true that vaginal alterations are becoming increasingly popular (Blatt, 2009). But these procedures are seen as elective, and the decision to undergo them is made entirely by the adult whose body is being altered.
Other female body alterations like mastectomy and hysterectomy continue and support groups for women who have experienced these physical losses exist as well. Americans view these losses as emotionally traumatizing and realize the need for support systems. The female breasts and the internal female reproductive system are all seen as valuable in American culture and their removal is acknowledged as being traumatic for the person enduring it. Feminism can be thanked for these advances in the appropriate treatment of women who are victims of various forms of experienced trauma. Unfortunately, feminism has not helped men in the same way, and masculism doesn't seem to be gaining much ground anytime soon (Bax, 1913).
It is nearly impossible to remove religion from culture, however just because a religious precedent exists, this does not mean such a belief will be adhered to if the culture is providing conflicting information. As American culture slowly begins to embrace the rest of the world’s intact point of view, religious beliefs are being questioned as well. As Michael Kimmel writes when deciding whether to leave his son, Zachary, intact,
We heard a lot of arguments, for and against. To be sure, there is no shortage of arguments in favor of circumcision. Some are aesthetic, and offer a psychological theory based on that aesthetic. Without circumcision, we heard, our son will look different from his father, and thus develop shame about his body. Our son will look different from other Jewish boys, especially in our heavily Jewish neighborhood, thus be subject to ridicule and teasing, and develop a sense that he does not belong...
Other arguments are medical. After all, male circumcision is the most common surgical procedure in the United States and medical insurance carriers routinely cover hospital circumcision (which raises the incentives of medical practitioners to advocate the procedure). Our son's risks of penile infection, STD, and penile cancer, we were told, would be lower if he were to be circumcised. The likelihood of uterine cancer in his female sexual partners would be higher if he were not.While Kimmel’s decision isn’t the decision all parents make, his story shows that conflict can arise between two parts of an individual's life. It seems as though some are far too willing to go with what the dominant group has deemed acceptable. Yet, the best thing a person can do is to become informed. Kimmel concluded,
In addition, there were conflicting reports on the effects of circumcision on sexual functioning. There is some evidence from sex surveys that circumcised men are more sexually active and more sexually adventurous, especially as regards oral and anal sex. Circumcised men masturbate more often. And because circumcised men have less sexual sensitivity--after all, the foreskin contains about 1,000 nerve endings, fully one-third of the organ's pleasure receptors--there is some evidence that circumcision delays ejaculation somewhat.
And, of course, the weight of family, history, and culture do not rest lightly on the shoulders of the new parent. As Jews we knew full well the several-thousand-year-old tradition of following one of the most fundamental of God's commandments to Abraham--that "every male among you shall be circumcised...and that shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you."
In the end, none of the arguments in favor of circumcision was fully persuasive. Taken together, however, they raised issues that spoke to the core of our identities as a man and a woman, as parents, as feminists, and as Jews. Each of the points of contention seems worth discussing in a bit more detail. (Kimmel, 2001).
We welcomed Zachary into our family on that morning without a circumcision. We decided that we want him to live in a world without violence, so we welcomed him without violence. We decided that we want him to live in a world in which he is free to experience the fullness of the pleasures of his body, so we welcomed him with all his fleshy nerves intact. And we decided that we want him to live in a world in which male entitlement is a waning memory, and in which women and men are seen--in both ritual and in reality--as full equals and partners. So we welcomed him equally, his mother and I, in the time-honored way that desert cultures have always welcomed strangers to their tents: We washed his feet.America was built on the rights of the individual. To take away a person’s choice when it comes to their own body would be like reinstating anti-sodomy laws which were repealed in 1998; or to once again allow the nonconsensual alterations of female genitals which was outlawed in 1996. It has been demonstrated that male genital mutilation is harmful and, while the rate is dropping (reported by the CDC to be 32% in 2009), it is still widely practiced in the U.S. with no support for any reputable health care organization, and very little potential benefit. The sad part is, we’ve known this for decades and yet still it continues. American society refuses to admit it has a problem. To paraphrase AboveTheInfluence.com: There are many reasons someone may deny they have a problem. This denial may have to do with embarrassment or concealment due to real or perceived consequences, or we are embarrassed that we have a problem. There is also a lot of stigma associated with just having a problem (2009). America would benefit greatly if it realized it has a problem and start doing something to fix it rather than trying to justify this practice. Until we do, male genital mutilation will continue to be a 'cure' in search of an ailment.
AboveTheInfluence.com. (n.d.). Why do some people refuse to admit that they have a problem? Retrieved December 17, 2009, from Above The Influence: http://www.abovetheinfluence.com/help/ask-the-doc/refuse-to-admit-problem.aspx
Aggleton, P. (2007). Roundtable: “Just a Snip”?: A Social History of Male Circumcision. Reproductive Health Matters, 15-21.
American Academy of Pediatrics. (1971). Standards and Recommendation for Hospital Care of Newborn infants. 5th ed. Committee on Fetus and Newborn (p. 110). Evanston, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics.
Bax, E. (1913). The Fraud of Feminism. London: Grant Richards Ltd.
Bigelow, J. (1994). The Joy of Uncircumcising! Hourglass Book Publishing Company.
Bigelow, J. (1994). Uncircumcising: Undoing the Effects of an Ancient Practice in a Modern World. Mothering, 56-61.
Blatt, R. (2009). Retrieved December 8, 2009, from Center For Vaginal Surgery: http://www.centerforvaginalsurgery.com/
Cansever, G. (1965). Psychological Effects of Circumcision. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 321-331.
DeMeo, J. (1989). The Geography of Genital Mutilations. The Truth Seeker, 9-13.
Field, T. (1999). American Adolecents Touch Each Other Less and are More Aggressive Toward Their Peers As Compared With Frence Adolecents. Adolescence.
Gairdner, D. (1949). The Fate of the Foreskin. British Medical Journal, 1433-1437.
Gollaher, D. (1994). From Ritual to Science: The Medical Transformation of Circumcision in America. Journal of Social History, 5-36.
Hutchinson, J. (1855). On the Influence of Circumcision in Preventing Syphilis. Medical Times and Gazette NS, Vol II, 542-543.
Kimmel, M. (2001). The Kindest Un-Cut: Feminism, Judaism, and My Son's Foreskin. Tikkun, 16 (3).
Merrill, C., Nagamine, M., & Steiner, C. (2008). Circumcisions Performed in U.S. Community Hospitals, 2005. Rockville, MD: Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project (HCUP).
Mitchell, K. (2008, May 1). Retrieved May 1, 2008, from RestoreForeskin.org: http://www.restoreforeskin.org
Preston, E. (1970). Whither the Foreskin? A Consideration of Routine Neonatal Circumcision. The Journal of the American Medical Association, 1853-1858.
Rathmann, W. (1959). Female Circumcision: Indications and a New Technique. GP, Vol. XX, no. 3 , 115-120.
Taylor, J., Lockwood, A., & Taylor, A. (1996). The Prepuce: Specialized Mucosa of the Penis and its Loss to Circumcision. British Journal of Urology International, 291-295.
United States Circumcision Incidence. (2008, May 25). Retrieved December 6, 2009, from Circumcision Information and Resourse Pages: http://www.cirp.org/library/statistics/USA/
Warren, J., & Bigelow, J. (1994). The Case Against Circumcision. British Journal of Sexual Medicine, 6-8.
Zoske, J. (1998). Male Circumcision: A Gender Perspective. Journal of Men's Studies, 189.
Keith D. Mitchell serves in New York City as a mentor at the I Have a Dream Program and is the NYC coordinator of NORM (The National Organization of Restoring Men). He currently studies at Eugene Lang College, The New School for Liberal Arts, where he strives to promote the humanistic principles of wellbeing for everyone, regardless of age, sex, gender, race, nationality, orientation, size, ability, etc. Mitchell's scholastic endeavors especially focus on the safety, security, education, and development of children.
Additional resources and information on the prepuce organ, intact care and circumcision at: Are You Fully Informed?