The Unkindest Cut

4 03 2008

Ok, this is going to seem like rather an odd topic to be blogging about but here goes. What is it with the American assumption that males have to be circumcised. Yes, I’ve done it, I’ve brought up circumcision on the blog, the tone is going right down the drain. So much for trying to be “family-friendly”.

Having decimated our PG-13 rating, I might as well carry on with this discussion. Why do American girls find it so strange that not all men are circumcised? They do realise we’re not born that way, right? Where I come from circumcision except for those for whom it’s prescribed by religion, namely Jews and Muslims, is rather odd.

Of course the Americans also have some strange idea that the English are just an unhygienic heathen lot so that in itself might seem like we’re the weird ones. However from what I can gather European culture likewise suggests that if a European man who is neither Muslim or Jewish is circumcised he would be considered a bit of a freak.

None of my non-Jewish non-Muslim friends is circumcised. At least, so they say, I haven’t exactly asked to look. On this side of the Atlantic to get a circumcision for health or cleanliness reasons would be considered incredibly strange and yet on the other side, it’s completely the opposite. Several of my American female friends have said they’ve never slept with an uncircumcised man, and probably never would.

From what I can gather the medical evidence is somewhat ambiguous. Although for a long time it was believed that circumcision is healthier, more recent studies have suggested it can cause problems in later life. For me, given that background, it makes far more sense not to circumcise children. Although it is more painful, it is possible to be circumcised as an adult, whereas you can’t grow a foreskin back.

It would suck for all those circumcised folk if later it was conclusively shown that not only is circumcision not healthier, but it’s actually less healthy in later life. I once saw the strangest documentary about this topic where some men were actually trying to force a foreskin to grow by putting weights down there to pull on the leftover bits of skin.

Which not only sounds incredibly gross but sounds far more painful than adult circumcision could possibly be! I just don’t understand the American obsession with it.



9 responses

4 03 2008
Mark Lyndon

A list of countries where male circumcision is usual:

Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Madagascar, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Nigeria, Niger, Pakistan, Philippines, Qatar, Republic of the Congo, Samoa, Tonga, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, “Somaliland”, South Africa, South Korea, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Togo, Tunisia, Turkey, “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus”, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, the United States of America, Uzbekistan, Vanuatu and Yemen.

Notice anything odd about the list?
1) Hardly any developed countries.
2) Hardly any Christian countries (the US and the Philippines are the only countries where Christians usually circumcise).
3) Most of these countries also practise female genital cutting.

Canada, the UK, and Australia all used to circumcise, but it’s now unusual there. The circ rate in Australia has gone down from 90% in 1950 to 12.6% now. Hardly anyone in the UK gets circumcised unless they’re Jewish or Muslim. Most European and South American countries have never circumcised.

From the summary statement of the paediatric policy on circumcision of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians:
“After extensive review of the literature the RACP reaffirms that there is no medical indication for routine neonatal circumcision.” (those last 9 words in bold on their website).

Most of the people responsible for this statement will be circumcised themselves or married to circumcised men, since the circ rate in Australia was 90% in 1950 (down to 12.6% now). Now why would a bunch of circumcised doctors say that routine circumcision was unnecessary?

Routine circumcision is now *banned* in public hospitals in all Australian states except one. The children’s commissioner in Tasmania wants to ban it there altogether.

If my son wants to be circumcised when he’s 18, I’ll pay for it, and help him find the best surgeon. Until then it’s *his* body, and no-one’s going near his genitals with a knife. If he wants to have it done later, then it will be less dangerous, it will hurt *less*, and the results will be cosmetically better than having it done as a baby.

4 03 2008
Mr President

Thank you for adding some statistics and findings to back up what I was saying, it’s always good to know that I’m right! Hardly anyone here in the UK gets circumcised, unless it’s for religious reasons.

I didn’t actually know that adult circumcision was less painful, I always heard it was more. Probably a myth circulated to justify neonatal circumcision. You learn something new every day.

Personally I just see the whole thing as incredibly cruel. Most parents foist things onto their children, be it political beliefs or religion, but those are things people can change when they get to adulthood very easily. By contrast circumcision isn’t, once it’s done it’s done, and like you said, it’s THEIR body, THEIR genitals, surely THEY should decide?

5 03 2008
Stella Devine

The other interesting thing is the high rate of HIV in most of those countries. Obviously, circumcision is not protective against that, despite what its proponents say.

5 03 2008

Watch it. This topic always brings on heated debates from those on both sides of the issue.
I’m an American nurse. From what I’ve seen and read (and what little was taught in nursing school), circumcision is not necessary for health or hygienic reasons, but something Americans have been “brainwashed” if you will, into believing.
I personally do not believe in it. I also do not think it is more painful for an adult to have the procedure than for an infant, only that an infant can not verbalize the excruciating amount of pain he is in so we just assume it is more painful for the talkative adult.
You’ll have some fanatics who go on and on about how circumcision is a parental choice or how it should always be performed because of hygiene. Those people typically either have issues with trust (their parents betrayed theirs as infants and their subconsciously ticked off) or they typically think the human body is dirty and disgusting.
You’ll have some come out against circumcision for any reason whatsoever and say parents who circumcise are child abusers. Some men have said they feel “mutilated” by their parents and harbor resentment. But it seems most people, American’s anyway, have strong feelings one way or the other.
My wish would be that all non-religious circumcisions would halt, and those parents performing circumcision for religious reasons would really do their research and then allow the child to make that decision when he’s old enough.
But mainly I just wanted to chime in and say not all American women think the English or anyone else with a foreskin is dirty or weird. It seems like a caring American parent would choose to allow their son to keep a normal body part he was born with. Afterall, they don’t go around lopping off toes or ears, and those things can get dirty too. But that idea may be too logical for most American parents to wrap around their brain.
I say, long live the foreskin!!!

5 03 2008

The history of medical circumcision is curious and well documented in “A Surgical Temptation” by Robert Darby. It was begun to “cure”, prevent or at least delay masturbation, when that was thought to be responsible for serious illness (and result in expulsion from English “public” schools, meaning loss of class and career – serious consequences indeed), and when that reason failed but most men were circumcised and wanted to justify their condition, other diseases were wheeled up to keep it going, and the pleasures of a complete organ with its uniquely moving part were forgotten.

Foreskin restoration is quite straightforward when you understand that tension causes new skin to grow (a method used by surgeons to cover amputations stumps and other scars). It is no more bizarre than women who’ve had mastectomies or people who’ve had amputations using prostheses. What’s bizarre is that it should be necessary, and that the circumcisers are taking so long to get the clear message it sends. If it’s painful, you’re pulling too hard.

5 03 2008
Mr President

Wow, I’m so pleased with the response this post has gotten! I was fully expecting to get lots of irate criticism actually, mainly from my American readers, coupled with a few comments about how I was bringing the tone down (I simply think it’s an interesting topic).

Thanks everyone for your input, I’ve actually learnt a thing or two.

Stella: Clearly that’s just another myth peddled by those who would have us believe that being uncircumcised is the work of the devil.

I love heated debates and encourage them on Textual Relations. The good news is that so far it’s all been handled pretty well (of course I could be biased because so far you’re all agreeing with me!)

Let me say that my remarks regarding adult circumcision being more painful were based on what I’d been told, probably a result of that “brainwashing” you mention. Clearly I was misinformed. Now I think about it, it makes no sense for it to be more painful for adults, but just that we can express it, whereas a child can only cry and since children cry for so many reasons it can be passed off as one of those instead.

I happen to agree with you, even though, as Hugh points out, foreskin restoration is straightforward, I think neonatal circumcision should be banned (I’d go further and ban the religious ones too) but adults should be free to make the choice (and thus those that wish to do so for religious reasons can, but as adults). It’s a big decision.

Thank you for letting me know that not all American women find uncircumcised men strange. I don’t mind admitting I’ve had comments from American girls regarding it, including an ex-girlfriend who said I was the first uncircumcised man she’d slept with.

Of course she also asked the rather silly question of whether I cleaned myself properly (like just because I have a foreskin I’ve suddenly forgotten to wash). I didn’t find it particularly offensive at the time but with hindsight that’s not a particularly complimentary thing to say.

Love the analogy to toes or ears. What about feet, those get REALLY dirty? We don’t amputate someone’s foot because they might get fungal infections, so why lop off someone’s foreskin? Hopefully that logic can be spread a little more and American parents leave the foreskin alone.

Right on Natalie, vive la foreskin!

Hugh: Unfortunately your first link didn’t work, I was really curious to read more about the history of the matter. I’m well aware of the purpose of the foreskin and glad I’ve still got most of mine left.

You see I’m in the slightly unique position of having a foot in both camps, I’m neither technically uncircumcised or fully circumcised. I had an accident as a child that required a little sliver of the foreskin be removed to allow it to heal properly and avoid infection in the wound.

They offered my parents the choice to circumcise me but my parents declined, asking that they do only the minimum necessary to repair the damage done in the accident. I’m so glad they did, I like my foreskin.

To be fair I didn’t watch the documentary on foreskin restoration at all closely, and I suspect that the idea that it was painful was something I projected onto it, rather than something in the documentary itself.

Thinking about it now I can understand why it wouldn’t be painful at all, although it does gross me out a bit. The foreskin seems to be quite malleable, so it ought to be able to grow one back with tension.

Like you, though, I don’t see why it’s necessary. Wouldn’t it make more sense to allow adults to decide to be circumcised or not?

5 03 2008

This links to Robert Darby’s book at Amazon. Or this links to his excellent History of Circumcision website.

5 03 2008
Andy D

I was circumcised as a kid. I don’t think it has given me any feelings of resentment or betrayal. From what I can see, there is no real significant reason to do one or the other. It hasn’t caused me any harm. I guess I am one of the few who doesn’t feel passionate one way or another about this.

6 03 2008
Mr President

Thanks Hugh. I’d highly recommend anyone check out the second link there if they want more information and I may just buy the book. Yes, I know that makes me weird but it seems like a fascinating topic.

It’s good that you don’t have hard feelings Andy, but I think Natalie’s still right that many people do have. I think in your case it’s because you’re a well-adjusted person who realises that your parents did what they thought was best for you (we can debate whether it was or not all day but that’s besides the point). Many do harbour resentment, though.

To be fair, I’d have agreed with you entirely based on anecdotal evidence but when I did a little more research I think there are a lot of reasons not to do it. Granted there are some reasons to do it but I think it’s important that when people make the decision to do it they have all the facts, and that’s why I think it should be a decision we make for ourselves as adults, but at the very least parents should know the facts.

You may find these two links interesting. The first lists the functions of the foreskin. Whilst the “other” uses are tongue-in-cheek (ooer) the protective uses seem like things I’d be loathe to lose.

Likewise the list of reasons not to circumcise has some comedic ones but retains some really important ones. You’re a religious man, does the “God put it there for a reason” argument hold weight for you?

Although the evidence is purely circumstantial, looking back at Stella’s comment, one might easily draw the inference that far from reducing the risk of HIV and AIDS, circumcision increases it. I know it’s on the list as a “debatable” reason but that’s why we need more research.

Much like our favourite topic, global warming, I simply think the research doesn’t support a conclusive answer either way, and my default position in that scenario is don’t do anything. Until the evidence is utterly conclusive I generally favour doing nothing.

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