I don’t remember exactly when I became interested, indeed passionate, about male genital mutilation (or circumcision), but at some point during my 20s I came across an article about the normal function of the human foreskin, how it was richly packed with nerve endings, how it served to protect the glans of the penis, how it served a basic sexual function, and something I had never before considered came to the forefront of my thinking. As a circumcised male, my penis had been mutilated, and since I was never able to make that choice for myself, my most basic rights as a human being, the right to make my own decision with regard to my body, had been violated. All of the sudden, what I had never been on my cognitive radar was now a source of anguish and outrage.
I asked my parents why they had me circumcised, and the only thing they could say was, they just did. They never really thought about it. Circumcising sons was just the norm; practically everyone does it. And for a while, I resented my parents for so mindlessly bowing to the norm, for not giving one single thought to the fact that they were having me mutilated. How could they not even think about it? How could they have not seen that they were violating my human rights? How could they care so little for their son that they would allow me to begin my life in excruciating pain?
And while I don’t carry around hot resentment for them anymore, I wish they had been more intelligent in making their decision to mutilate me. But the truth is, neither of my parents has a high level of education. Expecting them to do research, to inform themselves (though, I’m sure they would have done even a little research if they had been buying a new car) is just out of character for them, an unreasonable expectation. Circumcision was just what you did, and given what they knew, they felt they were doing what was best for me. It would have taken a high propensity for critical thinking to gain the insight that would allow them to buck the barbaric and cruel tradition. If you’ll pardon a bad pun, I had to cut them some slack.
But today in the United States, even though the rates of male genital mutilation are coming down as more and more parents become informed about it, there is still extraordinary social/cultural pressure to circumcise male babies.
Circumcision is Unnecessary, Unethical, and Reprehensible
That we in this country continue to routinely mutilate the penises of infants, infants who cannot consent to such a procedure, is very difficult for me to understand. It feels like an episode of the Twilight Zone. Circumcision violates the physician’s primary directive to do no harm. By destroying the penis’ foreskin, the natural function of the penis is impaired. The foreskin, in addition to protecting the sensitive glans, or head, of the penis much like, in females, the clitoral hood protects the clitoris, also has an important sexual function, allowing the penis to enter the vagina with less friction, which obviously enhances intercourse.
Recent studies about the efficacy of circumcision to reduce HIV and STD infections are routinely trotted out as a justication for circumcision, but seldom is it mentioned that the so-called benefits of circumcision are debatable at best, and even more seldom is it mentioned that condom use, circumsized or not, gives the best protection from those diseases. This reasoning is also fallacious in that, any body part, once removed, is not going to get an infection. Should we pluck out eyes to protect infants from pink eye? If we go ahead and remove the boy’s prostate, he will never get prostate cancer, a most pernicious and deadly disease. And on and on I could go, but perhaps you get the point. That reason cannot stand up to even modest crticism.
But more than that, the corollary of female circumcision is almost universally abhorred in the West. Yet, with regard to men, it is seen by many as no big deal. In fact, the American Association of Pediatrics takes a decidedly middling approach to male circumcision, stating that it should be left to the mother and father to make a decision, that religious and cultural reasons should be accounted for:
Existing scientific evidence demonstrates potential medical benefits of newborn male circumcision; however, these data arenot sufficient to recommend routine neonatal circumcision. Inthe case of circumcision, in which there are potential benefitsand risks, yet the procedure is not essential to the child's currentwell-being, parents should determine what is in the best interestof the child. To make an informed choice, parents of all maleinfants should be given accurate and unbiased information andbe provided the opportunity to discuss this decision. It is legitimatefor parents to take into account cultural, religious, and ethnictraditions, in addition to the medical factors, when making thisdecision. Analgesia is safe and effective in reducing the proceduralpain associated with circumcision; therefore, if a decision forcircumcision is made, procedural analgesia should be provided.If circumcision is performed in the newborn period, it shouldonly be done on infants who are stable and healthy.
But, with regard to its position on female mutilation, the difference is striking:
- Opposes all forms of female genital mutilation (FGM).
- Recommends that its members actively seek to dissuade families from carrying out FGM.
- Recommends that its members provide patients and their parents with compassionate education about the physical harms and psychologicalrisks of FGM.
- Recommends that its members decline to perform any medically unnecessary procedure that alters the genitalia of female infants,girls, and adolescents.
Why the difference? While I agree that female genital mutilation if particularly abhorrent, it, like male circumcision, is often done for religious, cultural, and ethnic reasons, yet the AAP is quiet about those reasons in its recommendations. When it comes to males, doctors should pander to the backwardness and prescientific thinking characteristic of most religions and old cultural traditions. In a profession that is, ostensibly at least, based on science, that the AAP actually recommends that religion should be considered when deciding whether or not to mutilate a male infant is the height of ridiculous. Perhaps male circumcision doesn’t, generally speaking, do as much damage as female mutilation, (but there are plenty of documented cases of botched circumcisions, some resulting in sexual reassignment, some resulting in death) it is, nonetheless, genital mutilation. It is damaging. It makes an unnecessary, irreversible change to the male anatomy. It is wrong. Religious, cultural, ethnic considerations be damned.
Gender and Genital Mutilation
I thought about the glaring discrepancy in the AAP’s recommendations for quite a while, and I realized, those recommendations reflect deeply ingrained ideas about gender in Western culture, that men should be tough, and women should be dainty and sweet and passive, ideas that, I believe, potentially harm both genders, but in this case, particularly harms men.
In the West, a man’s body is not the paragon of beauty, but instead seen as utilitarian, as a workhorse instead of a butterfly. That is reflected in the some of the slang names we give the penis, referring to is as “my junk”, or a “tool”. Our culture demands that men be tough, and the process of toughing them up begins as soon as they are born. Male babies, studies show, and nurtured less, spoken to less, than female babies. The gendering, or toughening, of male babies begins at birth. And what could be more telling about that tendency that the universal outrage in the West about female mutilation, but in the case of male babies, traumatic surgery is acceptable only days after their birth, so boys enter the world in excruciating pain, and for those parents who chose to do that to their boys, that pain is scarcely a concern. It is just the way of things, something the little guy just has to overcome.
I also see this cultural gender difference echoed on Salon.com, in reports by Broadsheet writers Tracy Clark-Flory like this, and most recently in this article by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, in which the author, obviously an educated woman, knows that circumcision is wrong, yet she bows to antiquated and barbaric religious practice. The editors at Salon give backwardness a stage. Yet, with regard to female genital mutlation, Tracy Clark-Flory is outraged and passionate, politically active, determined to spare girls the horror of FGM. When it happens to women, it is a horror, but when little boys are mutilated, it is really not that big of a deal. Feminists at Salon, it seems, have all the ethical sense of a bag of hammers.
Circumcision: Whose Choice?
Baby boys deserve care and nurture. Their humanity should be respected, and their most basic rights to their own bodies should be enforced. Some parents may believe that it is their preogative to make the decision for thier boys, but that male genital mutilation is seen by our culture as a valid choice is an example of just how far we have to go to achieve a truly just society.
I have never met an uncircumsized man who would willingly give up his foreskin. I, myself, wish I was whole. I’m sure there are plenty of men out there like me, if given the choice, would have chosen to remain whole, too.
All of us, men and women, deserve be whole, beautiful, intact, as nature intended.