Imagine if there were no such thing as circumcision — or, if you prefer, as I do, “genital mutilation” — either female or male. No history of it anywhere among any ethnic or religious group. And then one day someone reported finding a group deep in the highlands of Papua New Guinea or the wilds of Utah practicing it on their young children and newborns.
We would, most of us, be outraged, just as most of us are now outraged by the practice of the cutting of female genitalia whether it is performed in Africa by an old woman with a rusty knife or by a top-flight surgeon in a fancy Western hospital. And, yet, a lot of intelligent, even well-educated people who approve of female circumcision in both those places do so on grounds that it is a revered and time-honored tradition. Most of us find their attitude appalling, given the frequent consequences of female circumcision — sexual dysfunction (which, we are told, is ultimately its purpose, i.e. the reduction of female sexual desire) and the incontinence that is its unintended but not infrequent consequence.
Less criticized, in fact more frequently defended and even, in the case of HIV/AIDS, promoted, is the practice of male genital cutting. It is, of course, a less radical procedure than what is practiced on young women, though female circumcision from what I understand varies from the removal of part or all of the labia major to complete excision of the clitoris. Male circumcision means removal of the foreskin, the tissue that covers the sensitive area just behind the crown or tip of the organ. That area in an uncircumcised penis becomes exposed during an erection and contributes greatly to sexual pleasure during intercourse.
Or, so I am told. I wouldn’t know because I was circumcised at birth, not for religious reasons but because it was until very recently standard medical practice for newborn boys. Why?
There seem to be many answers to that question. The usual medical — really pseudo-medical — one is hygiene: an uncircumcised penis is more prone to infection. Odd, that we should not only have survived as an organism for so many millions of years without evolution correcting for this defect in the male anatomy if it has been serious enough to cause modern doctors to do so with such regularity. You would think the males whose penises got infected during the course of that evolution would have died out at such a high rate that nature would have selected for a penis without foreskin, though the opposite seems to be the case, and not just among humans, as any pet owner or visitor to a zoo can attest.
I suspect the main reason for widespread secular male circumcision in the 19th and 20th centuries was moral: male, like the more drastic female circumcision, decreases sexual pleasure and therefore, the reasoning goes, reduces the incidence of masturbation, which was considered a serious physical and mental danger to human health once modern methods of surveillance in boarding schools, prisons and other mass-residential institutions was introduced. About 1800 “an epidemic of masturbation,” to use Michel Foucault’s phrase, seems to have broken out all over Europe, thanks to that surveillance.
Medical texts in the 19th century depict side-by-side portraits of the Masturbator — thin, stooped, slovenly, wild-eyed, a physical and mental wreck — and the non-Masturbator: upright, clear-eyed, healthy. Not just men were under suspicion. Girls had their fingernails inspected for the tell-tale erosion caused by pubic fluids, and even in the late 19th century clitorectomies were performed on middle class women for the purpose of curbing their sex drive while during the same period physicians treated high-strung, “hysterical” women — the word means something like “womb crazy” — with something they called therapeutic “manipulation.” Sigmund Freud, otherwise fairly original, is said to have inspected the trousers of boys brought to him for traces of dried semen. And, in the mid-20th century the high school catechism in use at Jesuit (also considered otherwise progressive) high schools listed the effects of masturbation, among which were “insanity and even death.”
Just in case you think male circumcision is a more or less benign procedure, ask a nurse who has assisted at one. They describe babies howling in pain. Some of these professionals say they refuse to participate in circumcisions after experiencing what they are really like.
Nor do we hear much about what happens when a circumcision is botched in a hospital, though recently there has been coverage of the more frequent injuries done by the mohel, the man who does the cutting at a Jewish circumcision ceremony (Muslim male circumcision is usually done medically). I have no idea what the incidence of fistulas is, but I can tell you from personal witness a fistula can result in the loss of the entire crown of the penis, ending virtually all sexual feeling in the organ.
I don’t know what the doctor who cut my penis or the doctors who cut my sons’ penises a generation later were told in medical school was the reason for this procedure. I discussed the matter beforehand with the man who performed it on my younger son (the idea of doing so never occurred to me nine years earlier, such was the degree of acceptance for the procedure). Sensing my misgivings, he smiled and suggested he do a “partial,” whatever that meant. But doctors have notoriously recommended procedures and practices in other matters — breast milk bad, formula good (1930s); women with radiation sickness living near atomic-bomb proving grounds diagnosed as neurotics (1950s) — on the grounds of good medical science only to have their theories later exposed as politically, racially or morally motivated. Think of the Eugenics movement in the early part of the 20th century, endorsed by many of the people we regard today as secular saints, from Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger to Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt, H. G. Wells, John Maynard Keynes…and, of course, Adolph Hitler. Thousands of Americans were sterilized, and millions of would-be immigrants were denied entry into the US after 1925 — a large part of whom could have been spared the Nazi slaughter — as a result of an act passed by Congress after testimony before appropriate committees by well-credentialed members of the scientific community.
Circumcision has been around for a very long time (it’s dated to at least 15,000 BCE), at least in the form practiced by what we drolly refer to as homo sapiens. Australian aborigines, who separated from the rest of us about 40,000 years ago, circumcised themselves in their adolescence, sometimes vying with each other for who could cut more off. Circumcision was already common in ancient Egypt and the area of the world we now call the Middle East at the time the ancient Israelites adopted it. What possessed the man or woman who first got the idea that it would be a neat thing to cut off some of their own or their child’s sex organ is beyond me, just as it is beyond me why there is still so much tolerance for the practice today in the United States. But, then, we put up with a great deal in the name of either religious freedom or science (which is frequently anything but), even when that involves violating the right of a minor to her or his bodily integrity. The BBC recently ran a piece about a young woman, a British Muslim opposed to female circumcision, who went out onto the High Street and asked non-Muslim pedestrians to sign a petition in support of female circumcision. She approached nineteen people, as I recall, and only one failed to sign the petition, some of them saying they don’t approve of the practice but, since it is “your tradition,” Muslims should be allowed to go on with it.
But there are push-backs current as well. Not all Muslims feel obliged to have their sons, never mind their daughters, circumcised, and there is a group called Jews Against Circumcision numbering in the thousands in the US. And, of course, there is a worldwide campaign being waged against female circumcision/genital mutilation, which is still widespread in both the more remote and most cosmopolitan parts of the world.
But I don’t think it’s wise to separate the horrendous practice of FGM without addressing its male counterpart (leaving aside for the moment the question of AIDS prevention, which can perhaps be argued on medical grounds and on a temporary, voluntary basis in places where AIDS is epidemic; the argument for circumcising males in order to reduce the incidence of cervical cancer may also be worth addressing but not as a way of simply ending the discussion). In both cases mutilation is taking place for no good reasons that outweigh the risks, according to a growing number of medical professionals, some of whose numbers were of this opinion even at the height of the practice of male circumcision in American hospitals. And, unless you subscribe to the notion that sexual pleasure is not a serious reason for anything or believe that males have enough of it anyway without demanding what nature provides for when left alone, there don’t seem to be any reasons left for the practice except religious ones. We already hold parents accountable for withholding medical attention for religious reasons from a seriously ill child. Why would we not hold them accountable for mutilating their child’s sexual organ?
15,000 years seems long enough to be held captive to this cruel, gruesome practice. No one I know would support FGM, but male circumcision, though far less drastic and usually less horrific in its consequences, is mutilation nonetheless. To allow one while condemning the other is not only illogical, it’s counterproductive because when you make exceptions for one group of victims and not another the result can be bad news for both. If we want the maximum support of men for the abolition of female genital mutilation, we should not pretend their own experience of genital mutilation is not worth addressing just because it’s not as extreme as FGM or because by addressing it we will step on the toes of one group or another. Circumcision is genital mutilation in both cases. Pretending otherwise is like denouncing racist or anti-religious murders when they are perpetrated against one group or religion while remaining silent about lesser violence against another.
It just makes no sense.