(This contains sexual subjecr matter, anyone squeamish about that stuff should probably not read this)
Imagine you are not from earth. You are an extraterrestrial being, viewing the earthlings and observing their behavior since prehistoric times. If you observe the beginning of an individual life, you would notice some of these curious creatures are very insistent about surgically removing a piece of the reproductive organ of their newborn male infants. Why is this? Is the organ inherently defective and needs to be fixed immediately after birth for the sake of the child’s health? No, the health of the child is normally unaffected when the organ is kept intact. As with the other humans you have been observing for hundreds of thousands of years, the organ functions as the organ is evolutionarily supposed to without the operation being performed. So the infant is not being operated on for any sort of immediate medical reason. To you, this action is beginning to look more and more bizarre and morbid. What reasons do the humans give for this kind of mutilating behaviour? The proponents of this infant surgery will give some preventative medical reasons for its practice. But the medical reasons for it never stand alone. The major reasons for the macabre mutilation of infants are almost always religious traditions and social conformity. Herein resides the ultimate reason for circumcision. Social norms and ancient traditions trump logic and medical science as so often the case in the complicated world of humanity. Why does this archaic ritual still remain in common practice in the 21st century?
Many of think of circumcision as the prototypical Jewish tradition and it very well is. The reasons for the removal of the foreskin of the penis are given as a supposed covenant between the biblical patriarch, Abraham and God. The Hebrew bible gives several references for the divine commandment of circumcision as an order to be followed for all of those believed to be Abraham’s descendants. Muslims, who follow the Hebrew texts as official cannon, also perform this birth rite.
Here we have the clear use of body modifications to indicate insiders and outsiders to Judaism and Islam. But the particular religion of Judaism is not believed to be originator of the practice. In some more primitive tribal societies, circumcision is also an apparent phenomenon. The Agikuyu people of Kenya use both male and female genital mutilation as a rite of passage from childhood into adulthood. As a consequence, the practice of circumcision creates a social norm of the image of the ideal adult for that particular tribe. It creates a closer sense of community and commonality among the Agikuyu people. The surrounding tribes likely don’t follow the same rites of passage as the others, so this creates a sense of xenophobia to people who don’t look as you do. The Jewish tradition also has the same effect, with a more authoritative reason. In more primitive groups, the line between religious traditions and practiced social norms are almost non-existent. So in tribal societies, traditions like circumcision are most likely practiced without much authority behind them with any more than the traditional practices and the teachings of the elder members. In societies with the use of written language at their disposal, reasons for traditional practice become more concrete and appear to have better authority to back them up. So when the more sedentary agricultural societies of the Middle East began to write down their stories, beliefs and traditions, the concept of foreskin removal began to appear in writing as a commandment from a deity. This concept of written script gave the social norm a much more strong foundation to lay its roots. The idea no longer has to fester in people’s plastic memories, only to be transmitted orally. This is easily susceptible to be forgotten or misinterpreted in a very short period of time. Script allowed ideas and traditions to be copied and performed accurately and reliably for a relatively long time.
I’m fascinated with the concept of “memes”, and the way my analysis of the prevalence of circumcision is breaking down, is beginning to look like its influence is starting to seep into my writing. Oxford biologist and (in)famed atheist Richard Dawkins coined the idea of a “meme” in his book the selfish gene and expanded upon it as a possible reason for religious beliefs in The God Delusion. A meme is the idea that human created concepts can be passed from person to person, very similar to the way genes behave in evolutionary biology. The idea of memes is also explained very well in Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking The Spell. Although Dennett concedes that; “...no one should anticipate that a new science of memetics would overturn or replace all existing models and explanations of cultural phenomena developed by the social sciences”. Nevertheless, the idea is very fun to play with as a tool to analyze the appearance of irrational practices in society
The Jewish and Muslim tradition is not the only way that circumcision has been carried on by a religious notion. The practice as it exists today in North America has more to do with the dogmas of Christianity than of Judaism or Islam. In the days of Victorian England, urbanization was a novel concept and the once rural populations poured into newly developing cities. The fast expanding cities had no infrastructure to deal with sewage or waste. The cities soon became dirty and disease ridden places. Medical science was still largely unaware of viruses or bacteria, and practiced misguided techniques to deal with illnesses. Unsurprisingly the main culprit for ailments was just general filth. Daily bathing was not a common hygienic practice in those days so parts of the body susceptible to harboring “filth” were considered very unclean. The foreskin of the penis is a place where filth can accumulate without regular cleaning. Thus, medical science began considering removal of the foreskin as an option for better hygiene. Couple the consequences of living in a dirty, urban area with a Christian hysteria over masturbation and you have the perfect “host” for the meme of circumcision to thrive.
So rampant was the fear of masturbation, that many diseases were attributed to its practice. Robert Darby points out in A Surgical Temptation that in Britain, diseases were literally invented and attributed to people masturbating. Spermarorrhea was one such invented illness which caused men to ejaculate “too much” and the cure for this disease was to practice chastity and abstain from masturbation. Unsubstantiated claims of blindness and other sicknesses being caused by masturbation spread for generations. Even when I was growing up, rumors on the playground were that masturbation caused hairy palms.
It is demonstrably much easier for an uncircumcised male to masturbate whenever he wants than one who does not have a foreskin. The foreskin is naturally in its place to have the penis ready for intercourse or manual stimulation at a moment’s notice. The foreskin is also the home of a huge percentage of sexual stimulation nerve endings. The removal of it causes a decrease in sexual pleasure for both men and women.(A circumcised penis has less skin and less surface area to interact with a woman’s vagina than an intact penis.) With the emergence of circumcision as a practice no longer that was just a ritual of Judaism or Islam, it was soon looked upon as a possible solution to deterring boys of Christian parents from masturbating. In the mid-late 1800s, a man named John Harvey Kellogg was one of the major influences on the current practices of circumcision in North America (If the name Kellogg looks familiar to you, it’s probably because it is. You might have eaten a bowl of his flakey, corn based invention for breakfast this morning.) He was a promoter of circumcision as a measure to deter masturbation as well as to discourage pre-marital sex. He wasn’t a fan of sexuality in general because he also encouraged the application of acid to a woman’s clitoris to decrease her sexual pleasure.
As history rolled on into the 20th century, science made great leaps and bounds towards better medical practices, but circumcision remained as a common practice in America. The virus/meme of circumcision had piggybacked from oral transmission to written texts to religious dogma’s and now to medical science. Anti-septic technology and safe anesthesia decimated the need for necessary amputation other body parts in medical practice. We now have excellent hygiene practices like daily (perhaps ritualistic?) bathing and showering. It eliminates any concern of foreskin being something unclean. Only in rare cases of serious infection is circumcision administered as a necessary surgery. Still, circumcision persists as something some doctors recommend for newborn baby boys. The only modern rhetoric for medically based circumcision is for the decreased chance of contracting STIs later in sexually mature life. It is even being promoted as a tool to cut the spread of AIDS in Africa. This may have a worse effect on health than it helps it. Most AIDS ridden places in Africa already have very poor medical facilities and would have a greater chance of botching the circumcision or the child contracting an infection afterwards.
But the data used for supporting this recommendation is barely even statistically significant, in fact the 1999 statement of circumcision policy by the American Academy of Pediatrics say “these data are not sufficient to recommend routine neonatal circumcision.” Even though in the USA, numbers of circumcised newborns have fallen to record low rates (54.5% in 2009), the numbers are still shockingly high for the scant amount of science backing up the procedure. Plus, the amputation of a part of the body for the sake of slightly higher rates of disease prevention would be a ludicrous idea if it were any other part of the body. Would anyone recommend removing woman’s perfectly healthy breasts in order to decrease her chances of breast cancer? The obvious fact of the matter is that a circumcision is not a replacement for a condom for stopping AIDS and other STIs.
As far as the current religious practice of circumcision, there are political battles in some places in the US to ban even its religious practice for health reasons. This resulting partially from the consequences of the traditional procedure of Jewish circumcision (A rabbi will suck the blood off of a freshly cut penis with his mouth). Incidents have occurred where the rabbi infected the infants with herpes and caused their deaths.
The fact that sexuality is such as huge part of people’s lives is probably why circumcision still remains as a cultural norm in the western world. Any other discredited medical idea are usually discarded and replaced without any controversy. But men are very emotionally sensitive about the looks and size of their penises. A social trend that has every other man with a different looking penis would be very hard to buck. I know personally that as a kid I was in the visible minority in school gym change rooms and I really did feel like a freak for many years. Rumors of what a female’s preferences are only worsened that feeling. But we know that parents always want what is best for their children, and wanting their sons to feel accepted with their peers and their sexual partners later in life is a major factor. As well as fathers wanting their son’s penises to resemble their own. This social trend of sexual identity is self-re-enforced, generation after generation. Well- meaning and non-religious parents will circumcise their baby boys strictly for social reasons.