Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Unkindest Cut


In the Navy I knew a man who, at the age of twenty, chose to get himself circumcised. A guy I worked with - let's call him Dave - wondered why. "I thought only Jews got circumcised," he said.

"Anybody can get one," the man told him. He then explained what he believed were the advantages of being circumcised. So Dave made an appointment for a circumcision. But when the nurse saw Dave's penis and found that he was already circumcised, he is reported to have asked if Dave wanted some skin taken "off the sides". The theory going around the office was that, because he was a devout Christian, Dave had possibly never looked at his own penis and didn't know that he was already circumcised. Or else he simply wanted to show his penis to a total stranger.

The practice of male circumcision is a widespread medical procedure in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Here in the Philippines, medical missions visit the poorer and more remote provinces to perform the procedure on boys whose parents couldn't otherwise afford it. It is purely voluntary, requiring the consent of the boys' parents. Medical professionals convince them of its presumed benefits. A few days ago, in a suburb of Manila called Marikina, there was a marathon circumcision drive, trying to break the world record for the most circumcisions carried out at a single location in a day. When it was shown on TV, the boys were paraded by the camera holding the front of their shorts away from their bodies.

This is an obviously unnecessary practice, little more than a medical nuisance, when you discover how few countries around the world practice circumcision on the general public. There are probably billions of men who live in ignorance of its alleged benefits. Some of the arguments in favor of the continuation of the practice resort to hysterically graphic and disgusting falsehoods in their description of all the nasty things that are supposed to happen to uncircumcised penises. The arguments are just as uninformed as those against the consumption of pork - because a pig is "unclean", its meat shouldn't be eaten.

Male circumcision is not nearly as invasive or as barbaric as female circumcision, the sole purpose of which is to eliminate all sensations in women's genitals. It is rather like a sexual lobotomy. But the intention of male circumcision, though often given questionable justification, is exactly the same - to minimize genital sensation.

Currently, there are medical reports that suggest - without proving - that male circumcision can prevent the contraction of HIV during heterosexual sex. There are also a wide variety of anecdotal claims about its hygienic advantages, particularly in hot climates. The simple fact is that the foreskin, like every other specialized part of the human body, evolved into its current, untampered-with state. Dr. Benjamin Spock, America's "Baby Doctor", repudiated his earlier advocacy of circumcision in a widely-read 1989 article published in Redbook. The title of the essay was "Circumcision - It's Not Necessary." He that stated that "My own preference, if I had the good fortune to have another son, would be to leave his little penis alone." Dr. Spock even commented on how much more ill-advised was the circumcision of boys past infancy - such as the ones being circumcised wholesale, it seems, here in the Philippines: "when an older boy is circumcised, even though the body of the penis remains, the circumcision suggests to the child that an attempt has been made to cut his penis off and, in fact, the attempt has been partially successful. It is understandable, then, that a young boy would become deeply upset by the operation."(1)

It is clear that, like every other cultural and religious justification for the practice (sacrifice to a god, a boy's rite of passage, distinguishing ethnic difference, symbolic castration, discouraging masturbation), the latest medical arguments are just as insupportable and irrational. The disadvantages of circumcision are nothing compared to its incomprehensible fetishistic prolongation. Hiding behind hygiene, it is an abuse of children, both in the momentary pain it causes its victims and the shame and stigma it casts on boys whose foreskins are intact.


(1) Benjamin Spock, Redbook, April 1989.

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