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January 06, 2005



Interesting overview, and you hit on the major point that is a matter of frustration between those who would consider male circumcision as bad, if not worse, than female circumcision. Leaving the VASTLY different amounts of pain and suffering, the basic motivations behind each are different. Male circumcision is an honor and female circumcision is just a punishment for being female.

That being said, non-Jewish Americans who follow the practice tend to offer two reasons for it. 1) It's cleaner and 2) It's nicer-looking. I have serious problems with both. I think that the first bespeaks of a general willingness from Americans to think of sex as dirty in and of itself and all genitals as needing some kind of human intervention. That the intervention causes problems that wouldn't happen if you just left it alone doesn't seem to matter. Circumcision, therefore, is sort of the male version of douching.

And the second is so silly it's not worth commenting on. Capped or uncapped, they look pretty much the same.

Fred Vincy

In the West, circumcision is generally done to infants or, rarely, to adults under anesthesia. I doubt that it reduces male sexual pleasure, though I have heard men who had the procedure as adults claim that it does (caveat: I think I heard it on Oprah), and (as someone who had the procedure as an infant) I can't see it as equivalent to FGM.

I understand that, in some cultures, circumcision is practiced on teenagers or adults without anesthesia. Without getting into a greater than/equal to debate, that seems to me a lot more comparable to FMG. Certainly, if you proposed to do that to me, I think my fear of the procedure would entirely outweigh the question of whether sometime later I could enjoy sex.


Oh dear Hugo, I think you may have opened the metaphorical can of worms here, if the MRAs get a load of this. It's exactly the same point I was trying to make (but couldn't express so succintly) a couple of weeks ago, that I can say male circumcision is not equivalent to FGM without dismissing the fact it has its own controversies attached.


I don't see the third view as valid b/c the man himself didn't make the decision to circumcise as a spiritual act. I see it as a poorly justified Judeo-diffused cultural habit that involves body-altering, medically unnecessary surgery without consent of the patient. Why would God make boys with a body part that needs to be immediately cut off? I'd rather honor God's creative work in the womb by leaving the body intact after birth. Alter it later (tattoos, ear piercing, circumcision) if you choose to as an adult.

Hugo Schwyzer

I hear you, Jenell. On the other hand, do you think there are any parallels to infant baptism? Both infant baptism and circumcision involve a spiritual (and in some sense for the former, definitely for the latter, a physical) imposition on a child. I'm conflicted about infant baptism too, of course... ;-)


I see infant baptism as being a way of affirming the community's role in raising the child -- the congregation accepts the child as part of its membership and takes responsibility for it. It formalizes what's going to happen in some form anyway, since a child isn't able to make fully autonomous decisions about its religious environment. Dripping water on the baby's head in private wouldn't cut it. So circumcision -- which is typically done in a private medical setting -- wouldn't be a parallel situation.

Your second way of thinking about circumcision is similar to how the practice is treated in many societies (for example, some Aboriginal Australian groups), but my impression is that the Judeo-Christian tradition has leaned strongly toward the first explanation you offer.

Hugo Schwyzer

Of course, Stentor, many infant baptisms are rushed and private -- in hospitals, for example, with dangerously ill newborns -- infant baptism has a long and complex history...

La Lubu

My mother baptized me, with Oklahoma well water no less, and it was ruled valid by the Church. My father had a falling-out with the Church, you could say....and was dead-set against my baptism. They lost their first child due to prematurity, and he died unbaptized. My mother was not going to have that happen again (some priest with a gross lack of compassion told her that her son would not be in Heaven, because he died unbaptized. This added to my father's feelings for the Church). She had received instruction on proper emergency infant baptism, as she was a nurse....so she did one on me.

Unorthodox as it may be, I've got official papers! ;-)


I understand that Hugo's Mennonite background is part of the question he is raising about infant baptism. Mennonites generally hold commitment ceremonies for infants in which the parents dedicated themselves in front of the community/congregation to caring for the child and raising it according to Christian traditions. Mennonite youth, or young adults choose to join the church at the age they see fit, IF they see fit. It is their decision to be baptized that usually accompanies official membership in the church. I believe that the theology indicates that salvation or entry into heaven is not dependent on baptism (as seems to be the case in Catholicism) but on personal belief in Christ, so baptism for infants is not a necessary sacrament.

I think the comparison Hugo was making between infant baptism and circumcision holds some water (differences in the procedure aside). There is a difference between being marked physically by a community before you choose to commit yourself to it, and the marks we take on by choice. Community always makes a claim on the individual but inscribing it on their flesh before they are born, or making some other commitment mandatory for entry into an afterlife (should one believe in an afterlife) is horrifying.


The affirmation of community investment in a child seems to be a big deal to me, but I grew up in a church that has infant baptism. Also, I think on the part of "Tess of the D'urbervilles" where she baptizes her dying baby that the rest of the community rejects and I am moved. Hardy's point, of course, being that every person is a real human being whether we like it or not. Infant baptism works on that level, as well.


I really liked the quote under circumcision honoring women; "we too will sacrifice,we too will bleed, we will honor your pain by wounding ourselves in solidarity with you". But,isn't this a little unrealistic, what are the odds the a man will really do this?
Childbirth does indeed lead to new life, but few women/men are prepared for the 'real' pain, rearing the children. Childbirth is a fairly simple process, the pain stems from the contractions which are like violent muscle spasm which literally cause the hips and cervix to open up.__The real pain begins after the birth; insomnia, fatigue, stress, and the pressure that the process will ultimately bring on the entire family, this is all about family, the timing must be right! This is not a step that can be taken lightly, it must be well planned.__ Both sexes must ultimately sacrifice together, but in the final analysis it is about who can take the most pain, the man, or the woman.


"Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts." --1Corinthians 7:19


"For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love." --Galatians 5:6


Glen's quotes are those of apostle Paul extending the message beyond ethnic Jews to the gentiles. You can also find similar scriptural comments about the food prohibitions - my favorite is the dream of a giant tarpaulin being lowered from Heaven. On the tarp. are various clean (kosher/kashrut) and unclean animals. Voice, presumably of God, commands, Eat. Apostle says, but, but these are UNCLEAN animals. Voice says the equivalent of "so what?"


"So, you're telling us all those laws you handed down to Moses on Sinai are kaput?"

I've read articles claiming that circumcision among Jews, as originally practiced, did not remove the entire foreskin, only part, and that practice changed later in the Hellenic period. (Apparently some people found they could 'pass.') I have no idea if this is historically accurate.

Sarah Dylan Breuer

I have to ask as a historian (and a former Western Civ teacher!):

What evidence do you have from ancient sources that these three points were considered by ancient peoples who practiced male circumcision?

I think that all three are interesting and perhaps helpful ways of rereading these ancient practices, but as a historian, I'm not aware of any evidence that ancient Hebrews read male circumcision in any of these ways. Would it were that I could say otherwise! As someone committed to monogamy and sexual esclusivity, I especially I wish that I could say that ancient Hebrew culture and scriptures upheld monogamy and sexual exclusivity, but it's fairly clear to me that they don't.

I do think that people who practice male circumcision today are at liberty to reread the practice in a way that is appropriate within their culture, though I share your apprehension about recommending surgery that's not medically necessary for people too young to consent to it.



Hugo Schwyzer

From biblical sources, none. I'm using more recent cultural anthropology sources. I am careful never to tell my students that we know how the Hebrews initially considered circumcision, only that these are various recent theories that may -- or may not -- have some appplicability.


Seems like an all wise Creator woudn't make something for the human body in order for humans to remove it to make it "better".
Whether male or female, circumcision removes the most sensitive flesh on the human body and makes us LESS SENSITIVE and maybe a little less human. By the way keep the nose and ears!

James d

Regarding circumcision vs. baptism: While I don't think religious decisions should be made by anyone but the person in question, baptism services don't harm the child. It might mean something to the parents and eventually to the child, but the kid can also make the decision to not partake in that religion, baptism or otherwise. Circumcision, however, is a permanent procedure to alter the child's body. Can't even be compared with ear piercings--which I don't agree with, when it's not up to the kid--because they can close up. Your foreskin won't grow back. You're stuck with your parents choice forever.

And I believe I read that something like 60% of American men are circumcised. Now I know that 60% of American men are not Jews--so we are looking at a huge number of people mutilating their son's body for cultural myths about hygeine and aesthetics.

Circumcision is not right on par with FGM, which is much worse for several reasons you already know. It is a concern, though, and I think circumcision (of non-Jewish males) would be easy enough (comparitvely) to stop. All it takes is education. Stopping FGM would require the reworking of entire cultures and religions that are centered around women being inferior whores who can only be stopped by altering their sexual organs.


I'm interested to know why you exempt Jews (and, presumably, Muslims, who also circumcise their sons) from efforts to stop circumcision, James. Even ancient religions can change their practices; just because something's been done for 5000 years doesn't mean it has to continue.


Actually, another way to phrase that question of zuzu's is "why did many Christians abandon that part of the Abrahamic covenant and why did the other two Abrahamic religions keep it?". Don't ask me, I am not a religious scholar. Also, why do American Christians commonly circumcise, but very few European Christians do so? That might be an interesting question for a historian of medicine, since I suspect the answer lies more in cultural and medical norms than in theologies, which simply weren't that different for Americans and Europeans.


The American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends that parents not circumcise their sons unless they have specific cultural or religious reasons to do so.

One of the reasons given for standard circumcision was that it was for medical purposes, to reduce the chance of urinary tract infection and penile cancer, as well as infections of the foreskin. Uncircumcised boys are slightly more likely to get a UTI before their first birthday; after that, it's not a problem. The penile cancer myth has been debunked. And foreskin infections can be prevented with proper hygeine. If you want to keep your foreskin, you're going to have to retract and wash every day. Seems like a fair trade-off to keep your natural lubrication and several thousand nerve endings.

I don't think it's going to be very easy to convince the vast majority of Americans to stop circumcising their sons. One of the reasons is psychological, and it's not the sons' but the fathers' psyche at play. These fathers are allegedly afraid that their sons will feel awkward because they don't look like their father or the other boys in the locker room. (I think it's the fathers who can't handle the idea that their sons might look different from them, personally.) So they opt to circumcise their sons, even though they know that there is no medical reason to do so. They choose to mutilate their sons genitalia for aesthetic reasons.

Sorry, but that's sick.


From the sexual standpoint on male circumcision, the foreskin is supposed to be the most sensitive part of the penis, so there's a common misconception that if the foreskin is removed from a man then they will feel less pleasure during sex. The heightened sensitivity can very often be too much to bear... I'm an uncut man who's having surgery in a couple weeks to remove my foreskin. The reason why I'm doing it is because I want to have a chance at leading a normal sex life. In my experience during sex and when my penis is erect for long periods of time, it keeps the foreskin stretched and when it's over, that stretching causes my whole penis to be sore for the next couple of days. The pain is bearable enough if I don't have sex again for another couple of days, but I think most people in relationships would agree that such behavior really isn't normal. Somebody should be able to have sex for two days in a row being in pain. So, looking at it from that standpoint, I have no problems with male infants being circumcisized because it's better for their health.


Good post, but I think it bears saying that male circumcision -- like FGC -- isn't just *one* thing. Even if the physical operation is exactly the same, thepractice can be imbued with different meanings and importance from culture to culture, and even from person to person within a community. Father may assign different meanings to the act than mother, and both may differ from son's (whose may differ from his brothers', as well). A group of people may very well agree that, say, circumcision reiterates the pain and bleeding of women's childbirth, as per #2 above -- and yet not a single member of the community may really feel this to be the case (how could we -- who remembers the pain and bleeding of infant circumcision? Our only knowledge of the act is when we look down, and then -- no pain, no bleeding).

Personally, I think #3 comes closest to being general enough to be useful as a guide to what circumcision means across cultures -- #1 and #2 may well be true in some cultural contexts, but #3 is sort of a step up to a wider frame of reference. Plus, it's not hampered by the need for the circumcisee to share the meaning -- like most of the rituals of childhood, circumcision has little to do with "choice" or "consent" and more to do with the imposition of cultural norms on developing identities.

James d

zuzu: I wasn't meaning to do that. Religious reasons for any action are much harder to tackle because they are harder to disprove. A couple studies will prove that the foreskin doesn't make a man more likely to get infections or cancer or any of that; studies cannot, however, disprove that "God wants you to do it." I don't think anyone should circumcise their sons. But I think you have to start where you can win--with scientific reasons. Once the general, non-religious public stops circumcising, the religious groups might start considering that it's not such a great idea after all.

Anonymous: no, that's not normal, but it's not because your foreskin exists, either. It sounds like a _problem_ with your foreskin which can probably be corrected. From your post, it seems that you are implying that all uncircumcised men have this problem, and that's simply not true. I hope you've researched and really considered what you're doing, because it's not exactly reversible.

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