Circumcision

July 15th, 2009 by Pelle Billing

Circumcision (male and female) is a controversial subject in many places around the world. Female circumcision is generally considered to be a barbaric practice in the West, and it is often referred to as female genital mutilation. Personally I feel that this is a great label to put on the practice of female circumcision, since it emphasizes that it is an irreversible change to the female genitals, one that often is performed on young girls who have no say in the matter.

So what exactly takes place at a female circumcision; what pieces of tissues are cut off? As you can see here, there are at least three different ways of circumcising a girl/woman. Type I removes either the clitoral hood or (part of) the clitoris itself, whereas at the other range of the spectrum, type III removes most of the external sexual organs. All three types of female circumcision are considered to be wrong and illegal in many different Western countries.

So far so good. So what’s the deal with male circumcision? Male circumcision is the removal of some or all of the foreskin of the penis. As such, it is similar to type I female circumcision, described above. However, male circumcision is not illegal, nor is it generally regarded to be barbaric in the West. There are two main reasons for this:

  1. Male circumcision is an integral part of the culture in some Western countries, most notably the US where 75 percent of the boys are circumcised
  2. Male circumcision never reaches the level of mutilation that type II and III of female circumcision do

Even though male circumcision is never as brutal as the most invasive procedures performed on girls, there is a logical inconsistency at play here. We do not accept any removal of genital tissue in girls, while we accept and condone it in boys. Can this be related to the general tendency of society (and humans) to protect women while considering men to be more expendable?

There is much controversy about whether circumcision leads to an increase in sexual dysfunction in men. More research is needed to conclusively prove or disprove this thesis, however, what we do know is that circumcision removes tissue that contributes significantly to sexual pleasure in males. Here is a quote from a research report:

The amount of tissue loss estimated in the present study is more than most parents envisage from pre-operative counselling. Circumcision also ablates junctional mucosa that appears to be an important component of the overall sensory mechanism of the human penis.

As far as I’m concerned, this information alone is enough to question whether parents should have the right to remove part of their child’s penis. I believe that every child, boy or girl, should be protected until they reach adulthood, and then they will be free to decide for themselves whether they want to have surgery on their genitals – for personal or cultural reasons.

Opposing female genital mutilation is an honorable stance. The question that remains is: when will we start protecting our boys?

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26 Responses to “Circumcision”

  1. Danny Says:

    I’d like to point out the argument to support circumcising boys that has been coming up a bit lately. Apparently some are justifiying the act with claims that it decreases the likelyhood of infections and diseases like HIV/AIDS. First off teaching proper genital hygiene would alleviate a lot of that risk and second of all can you think of any other body part, male or female, that is removed at birth as prevetitive maintenance?

  2. Pelle Billing Says:

    I agree Danny. We don’t remove people’s tonsils at birth, even though the tonsils can easily become infected and demand an antibiotic treatment. We only remove the tonsils if someone gets recurrent infections.

    The same logic can be applied to the foreskin: if there is a medical issue (such as phimosis), a circumcision is warranted. If not, then why not leave it intact and let the boy decide for himself once he turns 18?

  3. Jim Says:

    “I’d like to point out the argument to support circumcising boys that has been coming up a bit lately. …”

    There was another one, that male circumcision reduced the incidence of cervical cancer in women. I guess enough people pointed out the blatant stupidity of trying to use that as a justification and it finally died away. I don’t see it much any more.

  4. Jane McGillivray Says:

    For what it is worth, I consider it just as barbaric, and have refused to do the procedure…..and have discouraged anyone any time it has come up…. most of my medical colleagues are with me on this, and have been for years.

    Yet for what it is worth, there has been a recent study showing that there are less STD’s with circumcision….

    still, ouch! what a horrible thing to do to a little baby!

  5. Gilesy Says:

    Hi Jane,

    Do you have a link to that study because I’d love to give it the once over the methodology, and also see who funded it / carried it out.

    I’m not shocked per se that theres a correlate between the 2, however its when people start saying its the CAUSE (and sometimes therefore implemented), thats when my skepticism hits the roof. Mainly this is due to co-correlates, such as religiousity in the family and subsequent anti-promiscuity / homophobic attitudes, religion also seems to be correlated with lower population areas = less chance for stds. If the procedure costs money then socioeconomic factors and education flood into the mix.

    This is before any correlation of sexual dysfunction and circumcision / noncircumcision is considered…

    I’m sure there are loads more confounders, but whats the medical theoretical justification for circumcision? Std related viruses etc trapped behind the foreskin?

  6. Danny Says:

    Jim:
    There was another one, that male circumcision reduced the incidence of cervical cancer in women.
    Yes because men just don’t do enough for women as it is…

    Question (from this article:
    What is the difference between
    For a week after the surgery, Jones would wake up in pain from a morning erection pulling at the dissolvable stitches. But after 2 weeks, his wife was more than ready to test out his newly shorn package. The sensation? “This is better than before,” says Jones, now 7 years post-op. “The skin under the foreskin used to be very sensitive — sometimes too sensitive. Now that it’s aired out, it’s a nonissue.”

    “My wife and I joke that she’s the only one who’s had the new penis,” says Jones. “It’s like I was a virgin again.”
    and a woman that has surgery done to restore her hymen or get her vagina tightened?

  7. Jim Says:

    “Do you have a link to that study because I’d love to give it the once over the methodology, and also see who funded it / carried it out. ”

    There are several studies and several papers on them. They get brought up every time the subject comes up, defended and then shredded. One study was done in Africa and used a very small smaple and had other methodological problems. Other studies have been shown to have ben done by people with ideological biases.

    “most of my medical colleagues are with me on this, and have been for years.”

    That seems to be the consensus among medical people.

    Then one exception I make is for Jews. It is an inconsistency, but I just balk at messing with them on this point, for other reasons.

  8. unomi Says:

    Then one exception I make is for Jews.

    Of course you do Jim. You’re an American.

  9. Jim Says:

    “Of course you do Jim. You’re an American.”

    Whereas you Europeans make another kind of exception for Jews………………..

  10. Chris Marshall Says:

    I think the American medical establishment is in a pickle on this issue.

    If they move away from the “some benefits, some risks” non-position toward “it’s clearly harmful unless there is a present infection or other clear medical issue requiring it, so it should not be routinely done”, I think it would clearly lead to an avalanche of lawsuits from all the men that were unjustly circumcised, and would destroy a lot of doctors and hospitals.

    So we keep getting studies trying to establish possible justifications and attempts to seriously look at the issue of what is lost when a man is circumcised in terms of sensation and the enjoyment of intercourse are often dismissed and rarely funded.

    Circumcision in the U.S. has always been a solution in search of a problem.

    It will be curious to see how this issue plays out. The circumcision rate has been in decline for some time now in the U.S. If it continues to decline, and an awareness of the harm it does to men is driving that decline, won’t the medical community eventually face a huge number of lawsuits?

    If the awareness of harm is not what is driving the decline, then what is?

    Regarding the issue of the enjoyment of sex, I don’t think you need to establish that rigorously to connect this to human rights. Any attempt to do so could be easily dismissed as subjective. All you need to establish is that a non-trivial number of intact men actively enjoy the manipulation of their foreskin during sex or foreplay. Circumcising an infant is then depriving them of the chance to discover for themselves what aspects of sex are important to them as adults.

    p.s. I wonder if such a survey has been done? I think it would be an awfully easy one to do.

  11. Pelle Billing Says:

    Interesting comment Chris.

    Circumcision and lawsuits alike are far more common in the US than in Europe, and perhaps this is an unfortunate combination. If doctors didn’t have to fear lawsuits, then perhaps the rate of change would be faster.

  12. Jim Says:

    “The circumcision rate has been in decline for some time now in the U.S.”If it

    It will continue the decline as the blood-suckers in the insurnace comapnies look for ways to cut costs. Whatever works.

    “….continues to decline, and an awareness of the harm it does to men is driving that decline, won’t the medical community eventually face a huge number of lawsuits?”

    Maybe. Maybe not. Most people can’t be bothered at this point. Rather than face legal exposure, doctors could offer restorative surgery – not really good enough, but better than nothing – in lieue of cash settlements.

  13. Danny Says:

    It will be curious to see how this issue plays out. The circumcision rate has been in decline for some time now in the U.S. If it continues to decline, and an awareness of the harm it does to men is driving that decline, won’t the medical community eventually face a huge number of lawsuits?
    And the only reason it is declining, and more than likely why we are getting hit by all these studies all of a sudden, is because insurance companies are starting to drop the procedure from their coverage supporters of the proccess need all the help they can get in order to keep the routine alive. I recall hearing some people, all women of course, at my job who sounded like they were complaining about the fact that insurance companies were dropping it from their coverage, talking about what companies still covered it, and mentioning that it is important to get it done as soon as possible. And like an idiot I tried to get them to ask why was it so important that they get cut and the best I could get was (paraphrasing) “Well, that’s what you’re supposed to do to them.” (because heaven forbid that a male in this “patriarchal” society actually have the bodily integrity to be able to manage his own body) Its amazing what people are willing to have done when its free…

    Jim:
    Rather than face legal exposure, doctors could offer restorative surgery…
    As you say that is really not good enough. Yeah the skin itself could be restored but those nerves are gone forever…

  14. unomi Says:

    @Jim

    Yes, let’s bring up the Holocaust. Again. Because it obviously works every time American Jews want more money for killing Palestinian babies, so has to be a great argument! …if you’re talking to an American, which I’m not.

  15. Chris Marshall Says:

    >“Well, that’s what you’re supposed to do to them.”
    I think there is a lot of fascinating unconscious stuff going on behind that oft-heard sentiment.

    I suspect that that unconscious/unexamined stuff is well worth studying. The justifications for circumcision are so weak, yet the impulse for people in a circumcising culture to continue the practice is so strong.

    Very close to the conscious surface, this presents as the thought,”this is simply what’s done around here, and I’ll be damned if I fail to do what everyone else it doing.”

    Further down, though, is where I think it must get very interesting. If you can get a whole society to start circumcising its infants (which is what happened in the early 20th century in the U.S.), you can get them do to anything. If the processes that make such shifts in opinion possible were possible to repeat for wider propositions, can you imagine what that might lead to?

  16. Danny Says:

    I think there is a lot of fascinating unconscious stuff going on behind that oft-heard sentiment.

    Indeed there is. What is it that allows parents to have such an invasive and potentially damaging process done without a second thought? I’ve mentioned before that a baby boy’s foreskin is the only body between both sexes that is removed as soon as possible after birth. I wonder how parents would react if doctors started to propose the removal of the tonsils, appendix, and other body parts in the name of future maintenance?

    There has to be more to it than the relative safetiness of the procedure and sanitation of the operating room (or whereever its done) or else people would just be demanding that FGM be performed under safer and cleaner conditions instead of calling for it to end.

    There has to be more to it that cultural/religious tradition unless the vast majority of the A LOT of people have embraced one of those religions/cultures that practices this procedure.

    Why are people so adamant about getting it done or so indifferent about such a major change to their baby boys?

  17. Jim Says:

    “Yes, let’s bring up the Holocaust. Again. Because it obviously works every time American Jews want more money for killing Palestinian babies, ”

    The Jews don’t need to kill Palestinian babies; the Palestinians are the masters at that. When’s the last time the Mossad strapped a suicide belt onto a Palestinian child? Or maybe the real baby-killers are the soft-headed Europeans who fall for that kind of passive-agggressive manipulation and make it pay off.

    No, it’s supposed to shut up smug and clueless Europeans, and a deflectionary (and racistly stereoytping) snipe about money-grubbing Jews is not going to work. We are talking about a cultural exemption for a disgusting and backward custom practised not only by Jews but equally disgustingly by Muslims in your own country without any interference whatsoever. And my point was simply that interference in this custom brings a lot of baggage, specifically and especially in the European context.

    Because at the end of the day, the Third Reich was not really that much of an aberration for you people. And comments like yours just prove my point.

  18. Pelle Billing Says:

    Ok, enough of the stereotyping of Europeans and Americans vis-a-vis Jews. The descriptions you offer (Unomi and Jim), tell us more about you guys than about Americans and Europeans. Let’s talk about circumcision instead, which is the theme of this thread :)

  19. unomi Says:

    @Pelle

    The American-Jewish lobby’s stranglehold on US public discourse is highly relevant to this discussion. They are the single biggest reason why circumcision will never be openly and rationally discussed in that country.

    @Jim

    Here we go again. Someone points out the clear link behind a powerful Jewish lobby and the massive sums in foreign aid that go to Israel, and they get accused of calling someone “a money grubbing Jew”. Did you ever try watching newscasts that are not about water-skiing kittens (i.e. non-American ones)?

    equally disgustingly by Muslims in your own country without any interference whatsoever. And my point was simply that interference in this custom brings a lot of baggage, specifically and especially in the European context.

    You care about Muslims? Why the “single” exceptions for Jews then? And what type of baggage are you talking about, exactly?

  20. Jim Says:

    With regard to both groups we come to a dilemma – who are we to care about their children more than they, the parents of the children do? There are alwasy going to eb cases where parents do hideous things to thier kids – OK, obviously we intervene. Does this fit that description? When it’s FGM, society says yes and outlaws it. When it’s MGM, society says the exact opposite.

    Turn the question around – if we are not to interfere in this example of what we consider child abuse, hwen do we satrt? Is it OK isf parents do it, but not if others do it? To what extent can these parents expect us to care at all about what happnes to their children?

    Oh, and unomi,

    “Did you ever try watching newscasts that are not about water-skiing kittens (i.e. non-American ones)?”

    Can you please try to come up with soem less laughable stereotypes? And you are a little less than fully informed about non-American newscasts. Apparently you don’t watch Mexican or Chinese newscasts. They love that shit.

    “The American-Jewish lobby’s stranglehold on US public discourse is highly relevant to this discussion. They are the single biggest reason why circumcision will never be openly and rationally discussed in that country.”

    And can you please try to educate yourself on the simplest basics of this country that you insist on pontificating on? The biggest pro-Israel lobby is the Anglo-Saxon and Scotch-Irish fundamentalists and Pentacostals (Germans, Scandinavians and AAs almost never join these churches). They and their loopy self-identifcation with ancient Israel, which goes right back to the Roundhead filth (some of my ancestors) who founded Massachussetts, and formed the basis for Manifest Destiny, is the cultural basis for the acceptance of circumcision in the first place. They just love, love, love the State of Israel, for all the wrong reasons from a Jewish perpsective.

    But you’re probably never going to get to any real understanding because your bigotry will prevent you. Well, if you are interested in learning, you can start with this bit – we know you, we know all about you, because we used to be you.

  21. unomi Says:

    Nope, no Jewish names here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_AIPAC_officers

    Trust me, I have seen more US newscasts than I would have liked. And yes, cable companies in most countries outside the US now offer English language channels from China, Russia, France and Qatar, to name but a few.

    You know all about us? Would that be the fanny pack wearing brigade who come to London to look at “Lei-cess-ter Square” and “all those quaint houses”?

  22. Pelle Billing Says:

    Jim and Unomi,
    I know you guys love each other, and yes – your exchanges are sometimes good entertainment – but please, let’s stay on track.

  23. unomi Says:

    @Pelle

    I’m sorry for not mentioning feminism in the last 5 minutes, but sometimes other things, such as that tiny little thing called religion, does affect how men and women are treated.

  24. Jim Says:

    “I’m sorry for not mentioning feminism in the last 5 minutes, but sometimes other things, such as that tiny little thing called religion, does affect how men and women are treated.”

    He’s so right, and there a thousand posts you could dig out of this one subject.

    “And yes, cable companies in most countries outside the US now offer English language channels from China, Russia, France and Qatar, to name but a few.”

    I wasn’t talking about English-language broadcasts, but the Spanish and Chinese broadcasts on the local cable package. They tend to focus on the sort of people who emigrate rather than work as expats, so their tastes area little more down-market. Kitsch is universal.

    “Would that be the fanny pack wearing brigade who come to London to look at “Lei-cess-ter Square” and “all those quaint houses”?

    I wasn’t talking about Japanese tourists. I was talking about the briagde that passed through Ellis Island.

  25. Chris Marshall Says:

    Danny wrote:
    >Why are people so adamant about getting it done or so indifferent about such a major change to their baby boys?

    I sometimes wonder if this is not a demonstration of the disposibility of men. In order to maintain the ability to sacrifice men in large numbers when the need arises (the next natural disaster or war) society needs to demonstrate to itself that it still has that ability, by hurting boys and men in some obvious way and being able to silence the critics.

    The circumcision of infant males fits that role perfectly. It’s obviously painful and damaging, there is no good reason for doing it, and the analogous procedure for women is considered a completely different proposition in the public’s mind.

    If you can convince parents to circumcise their sons, you can convince them to do anything.

    Have you ever noticed how the debate over marijuana is so much louder than the debate over harder drugs? The drug warriors want as much control as they can get, so they pick a harmless drug and spend all their effort establishing their right to ban it, going so far as to criminalize/harassing people suffering from diseases that benefit from medical use of the drug. Their thought is that if they can ban marijuana, they will have the power to control a much wider range of substances than if they only had the right to ban, say, harder drugs like cocaine.

  26. Pelle Billing Says:

    I sometimes wonder if this is not a demonstration of the disposibility of men. In order to maintain the ability to sacrifice men in large numbers when the need arises (the next natural disaster or war) society needs to demonstrate to itself that it still has that ability, by hurting boys and men in some obvious way and being able to silence the critics.

    The circumcision of infant males fits that role perfectly. It’s obviously painful and damaging, there is no good reason for doing it, and the analogous procedure for women is considered a completely different proposition in the public’s mind.

    If you can convince parents to circumcise their sons, you can convince them to do anything.

    Well said Chris, I think this is an important factor.


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