the continuing oddity of the circumcision debate

The continuing debate on circumcision and HIV infection is very strange.

Circumcision is tangential to the politics that interest me. While I’m convinced of my position on circumcision for medical gain, and particularly the relative effectiveness of such a procedure in sub-Saharan Africa compare to other parts of the world, the issue just isn’t of great interest or importance to me. It’s not the kind of issue that ordinarily animates me. And yet I find myself increasingly pushed towards emphasizing this issue by the bizarre certitude of people unable to articulate an argument for routine circumcision and by the strange disrespect that many people have towards people who hold my opinion.

I read on and comment on a lot of blogs, and I say with great confidence that the debate about circumcision occurs in a very different way from many other arguments in blog comboxes. We diagree with each other online about many contentious issues, from the trivial (Mac vs. PC) to the deadly serious (Israel and Palestine). Obviously, there are many trolls and disingenuous people who don’t bother to form real arguments or to engage on a substantive level. But more or less, people know to at least try to engage their opponents’ arguments and to keep their objections on a relevant level. They equally tend to understand that beginning from a position of obvious disrespect towards your opponent is not productive and not in keeping with good discourse.

Yet on the issue of circumcision, that is precisely how the conversation proceeds. I have had the weird experience of weighing in on this issue in several different fora, presenting what I see as the statistical and epidemiological case against routine circumcision for medical reasons, and having people both fail to come up with any sound medical reason for supporting circumcision, and yet continuing to insist that everyone should be circumcised. Frequently I receive no rebuttal to my reading of the data and the literature at all, and yet people insist that I am mistaken. I haven’t yet heard a meaningful challenge to my reading of the demographics of the HIV virus in this country, to the limits of circumcision’s potential to slow the spread of HIV, and the vanishingly small odds of American males receiving a meaningful medical benefit to the procedure; and yet despite that paucity of a response, I continue to hear that “everyone knows” that we should be circumcising all of our infant boys. You would be amazed at how many people think that “I don’t see what they big deal is” represents some sort of logically rigorous rebuttal to my position.

I think that some of the louder elements of the anti-circumcision movement argue in a way that does not best represent their position, and to their detriment. I disagree with many of them about funding circumcision procedures and education in sub-Saharan Africa, where this procedure really could have great medical value. And I disagree strongly with a small sliver of them who oppose parent’s rights to circumcise their children as part of religious observation. And yet I find myself increasingly sympathetic to them, and I understand why they radicalize, as they are greeted with such an odd and unfortunate combination of antipathy and a lack of logical rigor from counter argument.

Look, think about it this way.

Say, for the sake of argument, that circumcision is a purely aesthetic change. I don’t think that’s true, and while I find some of the claims about sexual pleasure likely inflated, I also think that such concerns are dismissed with a speed that is embarrassing for the people so dismissing. But let’s say for the sake of argument that a circumcision merely changes the physical look of the penis and nothing else. Let’s further set aside the oddity of preventative surgery, and further let’s leave aside the medical benefit, dubious or no.

Here’s my question: how many of the people intent on ridiculing opponents of routine circumcision would recoil at the idea of a parent tattooing their child? I think very many would. Tattooing an infant just seems wrong, to most of us. Should a parent be allowed to do it? I have to say yes. That doesn’t mean that I give up the right to argue that they shouldn’t. Part of being a responsible parent is preparing children for their adulthood, and in part that means preserving for them the choices that they will make as an adult. That’s why we recoil at arranged marriages for children, after all. So even if a circumcision involves only an aesthetic change, I must ask, how is that materially different from tattooing your child? Both are permanent changes to a child’s body, and both are undertaken without their consent at a time when they are too young to understand what is happening to them. A permanent choice is being made about their body.

And that’s the point; it’s their body. As I said above, it’s incredible the number of people who seem to think that saying “what’s the big deal” constitutes some sort of a meaningful rebuttal. It doesn’t matter if you think it’s a big deal or not. It’s not even a matter of you ever becoming convinced that it’s a big deal. It’s a matter of recognizing and respecting that at some point, the child will become an adult, and that it may be a big dealt to them. It is their body, after all, and as much as I think parents have the right to determine medical treatment for their children I equally think that parents should respect boundaries to that authority in the interest of self-determination for their children, who will eventually become adults.

I find this debate to resemble nothing more than the abortion debate, where many on the pro-life side can’t understand why women who want abortions can’t just have the baby and give it up for adoption. And there, too, you often here people wonder “what’s the big deal” with carrying a baby to term. What pro-choice people like myself have said is that whether or not it is a big deal to an individual or any number of people is immaterial in the face of the fact that it is the pregnant woman’s body, and it is her right to make decisions about her own body. This is similar to the argument about circumcision, where whether or not any great number of us see what the big deal is about circumcision is immaterial to the question of whether we respect the autonomy of a person to make up his own mind about the value of the procedure. It’s his body, and this debate takes place in the context of a medical benefit which even many of those who support routine circumcision admit is dubious for the average American man. People like to say that if men got pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament. I think if women had penises, circumcision would be anathema.

What I have asked, and continue to ask, is why parents who don’t have religious convictions pushing them to circumcise their sons don’t wait until those sons are adults and let them choose for themselves. Or, if they prefer, wait until adolescence, when a 12 or 14 or 16 year old boy can hear about the benefits and drawbacks from supportive parents and make a decision about his own body. I have not heard anything approaching a coherent objection to this. Yet people persist in opposing it. Why? Why do people feel so strongly in favor of a medical procedure of dubious medical value, performed on infants who cannot yet understand what is happening to them? The only reason I can think of is the only one that really matters to most people: in the United States, circumcision is the norm. And people, despite all of their liberal, tolerant self-identification, like enforcing norms. They just don’t like admitting that this is what they’re doing. So they dress it up in this slight medical justification, and they use ridicule and exclusion to do their arguing for them.

Whenever people feel strongly about an issue without being able to articulate why, it usually tells us more about them than about the issue. I think there are a lot of primal emotions about what is “weird” and what is normal going on under the scenes with this issue. By all means, let’s have a debate, but let’s please have one with less marginalization of one side and less assertion about what is and isn’t a big deal.

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57 thoughts on “the continuing oddity of the circumcision debate

  1. Pingback: A Sensitive Subject… A Very Sensitive Subject « Around The Sphere

  2. I see baby girls with pierced ears all the time.

    I see babies with Eddie Bauer car seats.

    These seem to scream “this child is an accessory” to my ears.

    At least with circumcision, you (I) can see the argument “I was circumcized, my dad was circumcized, and my boy will be circumcized”. It’s tradition, of a sort. There is no (or, my goodness, I hope there is no!) signalling involved. It’s very much the decision of the parents and it’s going to be a private issue for, let’s hope, at least a decade and a half (maybe closer to two).

    It doesn’t scream anything to observers. It doesn’t signal.

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      • Indeed you can.

        Moreover, I am pretty sure that the girls raised in households where ear piercings happen at 3 months or whatever will be exposed to cultural ideas that will result in such things as “having babies that, if female, will then have their own ears pierced”.

        And, indeed, you take the earrings out, the holes will seal back up.

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  3. Tangential, but the fervor of this debate reminds me a bit of the one that arises when communities consider smoking bans. The medical risks of SHS certainly seem exaggerated, particularly among people who would rather dive off a bridge than stand within 100 feet of someone smoking a cigarette. On the other end are people who insist that the idea that smoking is a health hazard is a commie plot akin to the flouridated water scourge.

    Basically, people have preconceived ideas about the issue and seize on powerful rhetorical devices, often provided by powerful interest groups, to support what they already think. In the case of smoking, powerful questions of class and control raise the stakes immensely. But the stakes in the circumcision debate are even higher, inflected as they are through the lenses of religion and the fact that babies are involved.

    What worries me are the connections here, particularly the relationship to “public health.” It seems that people are becoming extremely comfortable with the idea of outlawing behavior in order to protect people from themselves. Remember, the justification for smoking bans is not the protection of patrons, but of workers. That is, even if I WANT to work around smokers (say I am one, or that I believe they tip better) the law often says I cannot. THe Ohio smoking ban actually made it illegal for truck drivers, who work alone, to smoke in their trucks. Because the truck is a workplace.

    This, in turn, adds urgency to issues like the circumcision debate. It’s not all THAT far-fetched to think that someday, someone might ban (or mandate) circumcisions. I don’t think people would be nearly as worked up if they had the sense that their “denialism” on either side of the issue would be respected.

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  4. Well a couple of issues the difference in sexual function is real & not exaggerrated, if you don’t have the gliding mechanism of the foreskin and its guiding sensations you don’t have sex as nature intended, like it or not deny it if you will, its the simple truth. And basically as the author says who’s body is it? The individuals’? The Parents? The family’s? The community? The country? My ethics say its the individuals body, let him decide!!

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            • I’ve seen plenty of people use the “as nature intended” argument before.

              AIDS was given as an example of what can happen when you work against “what nature intended”. More recently, I’ve seen it used to argue against gay marriage.

              “What nature intended” is not my favorite argument for or against a particular thing. It strikes me as projection on the part of the arguer.

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                • I dunno. “Nature’s Intentions” strike me as something less than laudable. I try not to use them for anything but something to think about when I’ve got the shyness at a urinal.

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                  • From my experience with this debate “as nature intended” is:

                    1) A reference to evolution, which very rarely leaves totally pointless organs hanging around. According to many owners of the prepuce it is an erogenous zone, thus provision of pleasure would be such a function.

                    2) Something to make the “crunchy” types swoon. “AP”ers are a pretty big of the anti-circumcision movement (especially after one of their largest organs, Mothering magazine started to devote a lot of inches to condmening the practice, as well as establishing a very popular forum on their web-board named “The Case Against Circumcision”) & while I don’t really see eye to eye with those neo-hippies (personally I think that human beings & all their progeny from sulphuric acid to skyscrapers are natural) they’re a devoted bunch of activists & always good fun. Frankly, I’m happy that they spearheaded this issue: it ran the risk of associating leaving American children intact with being a non-bathing flower person, but it was better than nobody doing it.

                    Personally I think that there are far better reasons to leave your child’s genitals the hell alone than some misconception of humanity as unnatural, but then again I don’t really care why parents make a decision with a positive outcome. As long as the kid doesn’t end up sliced apart they could be inspired by white nationalism for all I care. Baby is safe, decision was good. There’s the old school utiliatarian in me emerging again, I guess.

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                    • Really? You haven’t heard the argument used against homosexuality?

                      And then, again, when it turns out that two same-sex penguins adopt an egg?

                      You didn’t hear the argument in the 80’s that AIDS was a backlash against an abomination and keeping intercourse in the boundaries “where nature intended” would keep society from such things as STD (we called them STDs back then) outbreaks?

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                    • I wasn’t alive in the ’80s, Jaybird.

                      I have heard the whole “Adam & Steven” thing, but O’Hara (the woman who seemingly coined the whole SANI meme with relation to this topic when she titled her book that) has stated explicitly that she has nothing against gays (or lesbians) & that the coincidence is pure misfortune. I have no reason not to believe her.

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                    • Oh, well then.

                      I’m sure that the insights that you have work pretty well for you and I’m willing to bet that you probably won’t find much use in anything I have to add.

                      Sorry to waste your time.

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                    • No man, that’s fine. I do accept your point, in a way it is sort of awkwardly reminiscent. But it seems that the hippies have taken that phrase back well & truly: there’s a whole chain of shops here in Britain called “As Nature Intended”. Believe it or not they don’t sell homophobia, instead they’re basically our even more purist version of Whole Foods.

                      Like I said, deeming humans or their output somehow “unnatural” isn’t something I agree with, & strikes me as a hang-over from Christianity’s dominance of our culture, when we were seen sa to some degree supernatural. But a lot of people seem to dig it.

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  5. Point 1 Circumcised females get less HIV/STI’s does that convince any westerner that female circimcision is OK?
    Point 2 Virtually all medical benefits of circumcision can be gained by simple daily hygeine & Condom use
    Point 3 as an Intact male myself, the greatest pleasure comes from the foreskin, the glans is dull by comparison, My circumcised brothers are denied this and for me all men should have the right to decide for themselves.

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  6. Just found this on Twitter:
    CURRENT COLLEGE POSITION ON CIRCUMCISION

    The Paediatrics & Child Health Division, The Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) has prepared this statement on routine circumcision of newborn and infant boys for doctors who are asked to advise on or undertake the procedure and to assist parents who are considering having this procedure undertaken on their male children.

    Circumcision of males has been undertaken for religious and cultural reasons for many thousands of years and it remains an important ritual in some religious and cultural groups. In Australia and New Zealand, the circumcision rate has fallen considerably in recent years and it is estimated that currently around 10-15% of newborn male infants are routinely circumcised.

    Circumcision is now generally performed with local or general anaesthesia, and when the procedure is undertaken for a medical indication this is usually outside of the neonatal period.

    When considering routine infant circumcision, ethical concerns have focused on recognition of the functional role of the foreskin, the non-therapeutic nature of the operation, and the psychological distress felt by some adult males circumcised as infants. The possibility that routine circumcision contravenes human rights has been raised because circumcision is performed on a minor for non-clinical reasons, and is potentially without net clinical benefit for the child.

    Recently there has been renewed debate regarding both the possible health benefits and the ethical concerns relating to routine male circumcision. The most important conditions where some benefit may result from circumcision are urinary tract infections, and in adults HIV infection and cancer of the penis. The frequency of these conditions, the level of protection offered by circumcision and complication rate of circumcision do not warrant a recommendation of universal circumcision for newborn and infant males in an Australian and New Zealand context.

    After extensive review of the literature the RACP does not recommend that routine circumcision in infancy be performed, but accepts that parents should be able to make this decision with their doctors. One reasonable option is for routine circumcision to be delayed until males are old enough to make an informed choice. In all cases where parents request a circumcision for their child the medical attendant is obliged to provide accurate information on the risks and benefits of the procedure. Up-to-date, unbiased written material summarising the evidence should be widely available to parents. In the absence of evidence of substantial harm, parental choice should be respected.

    If the operation is to be performed, the medical attendant should ensure this is done by a competent surgeon, using appropriate anaesthesia and in a safe child-friendly environment.

    27 August 2009

    N.B. The full RACP Circumcision policy will be made available on the RACP website once the current review has been completed.

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  7. The reasons circumcision still happens in the USA is because of the shame and anxiety to go against the culturtal norm, and the enormous psychological invested parents and the medical profession has in circumcision. To hear a leading American Paediatrician say the reason the baby was crying during his circumcision was because it was strapped down says a lot about a culture of investment and denial. Some would also argue the trauma of the circumcision creates a need in all generations to inflict the trauma on the next generation.

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  8. Yu Americans ar so civilized in many ways but when it comes to this practice of circizione you are barbaric and primitive, this part of yor culture is offensiff to mia culture!!!!!!!

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  9. Twitter is buteiful Americans invent this no? But how it continues this babric practizione is confusing to mi. I dont read well this reserch in English, In Italy doctors refuse to make this operation for immigrants.

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  10. How do you tell an entire country that what they have been doing for the past 100 years is wrong? The emperor has no clothes. I think when people finally understand and “get it” about circumcision it is like waking up from being brainwashed. The reaction is horror. How did we as a society ever allow this? Once you learn about it there is no going back. If you have any moral fiber you condemn it. I think once people get passed the denial and hurt this “procedure” will be legislated out of existence as it should be. What kind of society allows this to be done to the most vulnerable among it?

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  11. I think the bit in the second to last paragraph about enforcing (or at least legitimizing) norms is dead on. The best demonstration of this is to watch people recoil in horror at the idea of removing the labia minora to confer resistance to some hypothetical disease. This seems obvious and usually ends the conversations I’ve had about it in person, so I don’t understand why people don’t make this point more often.

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  12. ”And yet I find myself increasingly sympathetic to them, and I understand why they radicalize, as they are greeted with such an odd and unfortunate combination of antipathy and a lack of logical rigor from counter argument.”

    & so it begins…

    You see, Freddie, there ?s NOTHING that dr?ves a rat?onal person to harden the?r ant?-c?rcumc?s?on stance than the absolute vap?d?ty of the arguments ?n favour. Not a th?ng.

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  13. I too have been struck by the lack of attention paid to the relevance of the data from the African circumcision trials to HIV transmission in the US (I have a post addressing this point at http://www.hhropenforum.org/). It really does seem that people are pushing for infant male circumcision as an HIV-prevention strategy because doing so validates cultural norms.

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  14. > The only reason I can think of is the only one that really matters to most
    > people: in the United States, circumcision is the norm. And people,
    > despite all of their liberal, tolerant self-identification, like enforcing norms.

    I think it’s a bit more basic than even that. There are examples of generations tossing aside cultural norms, but even lots of draft-card-burning, free love, ex-hippies had their children circumcised (not all, of course, as I can attest). Breaking that particular cultural norm is not quite like most of the other cultural norms.

    Normally I’m a bit less blunt, but on this particular topic let’s not bandy about the bush. It’s all about your dick. Men are so habitually reinforced to regard their penis as an extension of their actual Platonic-ideal Manhood that asking a man to acknowledge that *there is something missing from that organ* is akin to asking them to admit that they’re less of a man.

    Ergo, men who are circumcised must circumcise their male children, because to do otherwise is to either admit there is something wrong with their dick, or to condemn their child to having something wrong with *his* dick.

    “He might be teased!” (because something is wrong with his dick!)
    “I was circumcised!” (and there’s nothing wrong with MY dick!)

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    • There’s ream upon ream of anecdotal evidence suggesting that the mother expressing reluctance about the need to circumcise & the father being eager/just assuming it will happen is the norm. Obviously that’s not a rule, often it works out some other way like anti father, pro mother, lone mother, or even grandparent intervention in one direction or another, but it seems to be what’s typical.

      Unfortunately a common outcome is that the mother decides to leave it to the father as “He’s the one with the penis”. He, of course, is usually even less preputially endowed than she is & generally bearing the attitudes you mention. Most people just don’t like to think of themselves as defective.

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  15. Great blog. Bottom line is that this is his body and his decision.

    I think the functions of the foreskin are greatly under-appreciated. In fact you will be hard pressed to find any Americans who have read studies about sensitivity tests. Nor will you find many who have read studies that exhibit the medical value of foreskin. You have to ask yourself why? Why do we only hear one thing. We see the potential medical benefits in about every major newspaper, even highly subjective studies such as the Uganda one manage to make big news. Never once will you see any question about the methodology of these studies. They are blindly accepted as accurate. Another thing we don’t see is anything about the risks and the guaranteed consequences of genital reduction surgery to men/boys. If you were to do a write up on female genital reduction surgery, it would not be without a detailed analysis of the risks and consequences of the operation. I read an article just the other day that discussed the protective and sensory consequences of this form of surgery on women. With such an imbalance in reporting it is no wonder parents are confused to believe circumcision is in the best interest of their child. Never underestimate the power of cultural brainwashing.

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  16. A good sum-up of the illogical position of arguing for circumcision.

    Important to note that while MGM (prefer to call it that, because that’s what it is, no beating-around-the-bush, as you said) may reduce RISK of transmission of HIV from an infected woman to a man by UP TO 60% (that’s at least 40% risk that he will still catch it, of course), it has been noted that practically no protection is offered to women who sleep with an infected and circumcised man. So, the women of Africa are essentially being ignored with this ridiculous drive.

    The other massively important point which few people have mentioned is that BABIES DO NOT HAVE SEX – so, why are babies’ penises being irreversibly surgically damaged because of this fear of the HIV virus? In developed countires, AIDS is no longer a death sentence. That does not mean we shouldn’t be fighting it of coures, but hysterical knee-jerk reactions resulting in the permanent sexual suppression of generations of men is NOT the answer.

    Women suffer from circumcision, too. Women who have experienced both natural and circumcised men can list the issues, which I will not go into here.

    Seriously, does anyone thing that such a painful, traumatising experience performed on a young child will not have long-lasting effects?

    It is easier to champion something wrong that was done to you than to admit you are a victim; it is the same problem we see with FGM, which is mainly the domain of women, not men at all – it is a rite of passage into adulthood. These women endure pain beyond imagining, such trauma – yet will do the same to their own flesh and blood. It is simply preferable for us to be positive about something, repress the negative, champion a cause which is wrong – rather than admit fault and feel violated.

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  17. It seems to me the new AIDS Denialism is the mantra that “circumcision prevents infection with HIV.” Most people understand that “prevents” means to keep something from happening, but for those pushing circumcision, it seems to mean “potentially lessen the risks to some extent.” It’s biologically plausible, as much as male circumcision, that removal of the clitoral hood and inner labia might reduce transmission of HIV to men. I suppose the studies are just around the corner.

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    • Actually the studies are already here, they’re just being ignored by the pro-male circumcision movement as it would be a total buzz kill for folks in the states who are, rightly, horrified by female circumcision. Also, it would be the other way around: the removal of the labia and clitoral hood would remove most of a woman’s Langerhans cells and therefore reduce her ability to catch HIV, but only when truly overwhelmed by virus. This is my understanding from reading the literature. Here’s a study done in Tanzania showing the expected lessening of HIV infection among circumcised women.
      The Langerhans theory for why male circumcision works is on the CDC website here. I’m so happy to read this reasonable blog against male circumcision and all the reasonable discussion after. My blogs on the subject are here and here and here.

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      • Interesting abstract. They don’t seem to have adjusted for religion as a confounding factor, and they suggest there may be further anthropological factors they need to consider. Assuming the result reflects a medical prophylactic effect on HIV transmission, though, the remaining questions would be: how significantly does the procedure reduce female sexual pleasure? Is it culturally acceptable in populations that don’t currently practice female circumcision? Are there other medical reasons not to practice this form of female circumcision? And: at what age can or should the operation be carried out, and who needs to request it and assent to it? These are all the same questions that would need to be asked with regard to recommending male circumcision for prevention of HIV transmission.

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        • Just to make my position clear, I’m against all kinds of genital modification, whether on men or on women. I talk about female genital modification (FGM) not to advocate it as an HIV reduction strategy but to point out the inconsistency in advertising male genital modification as a salutary medical procedure while FGM is condemned as a horrible sexist mutilation.
          To address your question about the change in sexual function, there’s an interesting study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, 2007; 4: 1666-1678. The findings are rather startling. Women with all grades of FGM can have orgasm. In one study, 69% of FGM women immigrated to Italy reported orgasm with every act of penetrative vaginal sex. This is significantly higher than orgasm rates reported in studies of non-FGM women in penetrative vaginal sex, which range from 7% to 30%, depending on what study you read.
          Here’s how I interpret this seemingly bizarre result. The experience of sexual pleasure is very rugged and strongly selected for, evolutionarily speaking. So yes, we can carve up our genitals in a variety of oddball and even extreme ways and the system still works to deliver pleasure. I don’t believe this ruggedness leads logically to the conclusion that we should feel free to carve up people’s genitals.
          I certainly agree with the last point you make: that the same questions need to be asked regarding female and male genital modification.

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        • See, the thing is Matt, I didn’t see you addressing any of those points at all in the post Freddie objected to. Indeed, you went so far as to assume that the foreskin was worthless (or at least it would seem so, given your second, quite obvious, assumption was that removing it does not constitute harm).

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  18. The reason those who advocate for routine male genital cutting don’t want to talk about allowing males to decide for themselves when they grow up is that the idea of cutting a mature male is really horrifying. There is no way of doing it under local anesthesia without involving needles and pain, and the after effects in a mature male, walking around bandaged up, with stitches, fearing having an erection in a public place causing bleeding, and other gruesome results, reinforce the idea that it is surgery, nothing less. When done to an infant, without anesthesia or stitches, in a hospital setting where the parents are not present, it enables parents to remain in denial; this is a routine “procedure,” not surgery, not cutting.
    Allowing mature free choice is off the table because everyone knows most males in their teens and later are completely bonded to their penises, and would never consent to having it altered in any way.

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  19. Great overview of the problems with advocating universal male circumcision. The stubbornness of pro-male circumcision in the US does have a lot to do with social norms and shows how difficult it is to root out a genital modification once it gets entrenched in a society, whether that society is some supposedly backwards village in Somalia or the supposedly most advanced civilization in the world.
    Regarding the discussion about the “as nature intended” argument, I don’t think that it’s automatically faulty when applied to organs and processes of the body. That argument becomes dangerous when pushed into the social sphere as in, “homosexuals are unnatural” or “women thinking with their brains is unnatural,” but I do think that it’s a sound argument to leave the body to function as originally built, absent real danger or disease, whether you think the construction was done by god or nature. The penis does function differently with vs without a foreskin, so how can we be so glib about changing that? Why do we think we know better? In case after case (for just one example, the 1950s era campaign against breastfeeding being reversed once science discovered how much good stuff was in mothers milk), medical science is almost always better off respecting the way the body is built to function. I don’t say this from some hippie dippie POV but from the POV of a medical industry insider. I’m a biomedical engineer who worked in pharmaceutical manufacturing for many years.
    Anyhow, terrific post. I’ve blogged extensively against circumcision here, here, here and here.

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  20. I’ve responded to your more vociferous attacks on me elsewhere; I think you’ve strongly misunderstood what I wrote on this topic. Parents should indeed be allowed to do what they want on this subject. You seem to conflate opposition to the more extreme rights-based argument that parents have no business circumcising their child, with the demand that everyone should circumcise their children. I find this bizarre. It is also the mistake that Hannah Rosin made in her initial piece on this subject, when she (I’m sure inadvertently) referred to the CDC “requiring” circumcision rather than “recommending” it.

    You say that if the disputed epidemiological value is held aside, the only reason why people who don’t have a religious affiliation requiring circumcision would insist on circumcising is that “in the United States, circumcision is the norm. And people, despite all of their liberal, tolerant self-identification, like enforcing norms.” Yeah. And what, all other things being equal, is wrong with that? What you’re saying is that there are a lot of non-Jewish, non-Muslim Americans who prefer to circumcise their kids because they’re circumcised too. This isn’t surprising, and it’s probably the way the practice took hold among Jews and Muslims too. Look, I had the experience of wanting to get my son circumcised in Europe, where it was really hard to do, and there were Muslim families flying from Vienna to a special clinic in Amsterdam in order to get it done safely. What that taught me is that it is genuinely emotionally important for people to feel that their kids’ sexual equipment looks like their own, and doesn’t exclude their kids from a group they belong to. That is a rights-based parental concern: I want my son to look Jewish. And some circumcised non-Jewish American fathers apparently want their sons’ penises to look like their own, too. Even if that’s a purely cosmetic concern, I weigh in on the side of letting the parents decide.

    This leaves any argument over the epidemiological merits to the side; I also think those are not so trivial as to merit the disdain in which you seem to hold the CDC just for considering a voluntary recommendation to circumcise.

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    • Look, I had the experience of wanting to get my son circumcised in Europe, where it was really hard to do, and there were Muslim families flying from Vienna to a special clinic in Amsterdam in order to get it done safely. What that taught me is that it is genuinely emotionally important for people to feel that their kids’ sexual equipment looks like their own, and doesn’t exclude their kids from a group they belong to.

      Why should I care more about the parents feelings that the impact upon the child? According to a sensitivity study & the reams of anecdotal data (including my own experience) what they are globe-trotting to have removed is, or at very least has a high likelihood of being, an enormously erogenous zone.

      Two, in fact (inner foreskin + frenulum).

      Now if people decide for themselves that pleasure is outweighed by other factors, or is not present, then that is entirely acceptable. No objections: you may do with yourself as you please. But to inflict your prejudices onto others bodies? Entirely reprehensible & totally unacceptable.

      You are simply too ignorant to offer proper consent on somebody else’s behalf over this matter.

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  21. Matt

    > Parents should indeed be allowed to do what they want on this subject.

    While I’m certain that the converse is not true, I’m not certain this is, either. You make a fair point about religious norms, but there’s a major difference between “I want my son to look Jewish”, and “some circumcised non-Jewish American fathers apparently want their sons’ penises to look like their own, too.”

    I am leery of the use of the word “should”; everything being equal, well informed self aware thoughtful people should be allowed to do what they want to do on most subjects. In this country, in particular, religious freedoms are very highly regarded, and infringing upon those freedoms is usually fraught with a number of worse unintended consequences.

    However, in practice among people I’ve heard describing their (non religious, purely cosmetic desire) support for circumcision, I don’t hear many well informed, self aware, or well thought out assessments. What I hear is “I want Junior to look like me.”

    That’s not responsible parenting, that’s just narcissism. While I don’t think it is a good idea to try and legislate against narcissism in any way shape or form, I don’t think it’s a particularly attractive human trait and just accepting it as “their right” seems to be a disservice at least to the person who is being cosmetically altered without any say in the matter, and certainly to society at large.

    Regardless of your socioeconomic, ethnic, racial, or religious background, you have a bunch of cultural norms in your subgroup, inside the greater context of the country… which in our particular case also has its own set of cultural norms which are only loosely coupled to the source of the tradition. Challenging cultural norms isn’t necessarily bad any more than supporting them is; but blindly doing either doesn’t sound like such a great idea to me.

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    • It’s true that the person in question is being cosmetically altered without any say in the matter. That happens all the time as part of the normal process of parenting. Babies don’t get to pick their parents, and their parents are going to be making all sorts of decisions for them. Whether you regard circumcision as a uniquely invasive decision depends on whether circumcision seems “normal” to you, or not. If West African societies were the richest ones on earth, we’d be having this same debate over scarification, and I would similarly feel that it’s basically up to the parents. The example Freddie presents, for instance, of a parent who wants his child tattooed in infancy, doesn’t repulse me at all; it depends partly on the significance and obtrusiveness of the tattoo, and whether it limits the kid’s options in society. I’d admit that for me, part of the reason circumcision for cultural reasons seems like a minor issue is that you don’t have to see it all the time — it’s not like you’re being forced to walk around with a yellow star.

      But to be honest, I think much of the difference in perspective between Jews and some gentiles on this question goes back to a basic difference in our experiences of identity formation. Jews are mostly comfortable with the idea of being marked as different from birth. We are different. We are different in the way we are raised. We are a people apart. We are that way because of the way our parents shaped us. We don’t get to make the choice ourselves. One might phrase this in a hostile fashion — one might say our parents have done this “to” us. But that would be silly. Rather, we are brought up to feel that we are part of a group identity to which we have a responsibility. The ways we are shaped are the people we become. And to deny the markers of Jewishness, to renounce that identity, is seen as an act of betrayal and self-hatred. Obviously, there are different levels here, and loyalty to your identity isn’t the only ethic around; I’m married to a non-Jew because I fell in love with her, and so forth. But for most Jews, to not circumcise your son, especially in a society where circumcision is widespread and easy to do, would be an act of gratuitous denial of one’s identity. It is an act of “passing”. And in every minority culture with a history of discrimination, passing is betrayal.

      Obviously a bodily modification is something very different from just going to Hebrew school or whatever. But still, when I look at the miscomprehension I see in the comment thread here, I think some of it stems from the fact that perhaps the ethnic majority don’t experience ethnic identity formation in early childhood in quite the same way. Basically, to me, the idea that parents shape their kids in ways the kids don’t have a say in just sounds like, well, life. I understand why many fathers want their sons’ penises to look like their own. I’m not going to say it’s okay for me to want that because I’m Jewish, but not for some Lutheran guy because he just wants it that way.

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      • Well that shows me why it matters to you, but this is a subjective decision. You are not the subject. You have no idea if your son would value Jewishness or lost pleasure more, there’s no way you could know that. Accordingly you are not fit to make the decision, indeed in perceiving it as yours to make you are making an error (cue: argumentum ad baculem).

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      • The more I consider this comment the more it rings untrue to me. Firstly you say ”that happens all the time as part of the normal process of parenting”. Quite simply…It does not. Parents do not permanantly physically alter their children all that often. They dress them up, sure, but they don’t irrevocably alter their appearance much. Even ear piercing of infants/toddlers doesn’t constitute that. Circumcision is one of the very few examples of cosmetic surgery being performed upon healthy children who are physiologically normal. & it’s an unacceptable one.

        Secondly, your attempt to cast the objection as some ignorant goy just doesn’t work. Believe it or not Jews aren’t the sole group who deem themselves something special. You know which other ethnic group thinks that they’re really something special? All of them.I was raised a Catholic, who think they’re so special they only consider less than ten from tens of thousands of competition Christian outfit as churches. I’m in Turkey right now, & you’d better believe that everyone here thinks of themselves as something special. There’s an excellent post on this very website about American Exceptionalism, the view that America is really something pretty fucking special. My home country thinks of itself as something special because it’s not quite in Europe, every European country thinks that they are something special because they aren’t their next door neighbour. It’s a lovely viewpoint: you’re something amazing & you didn’t even have to try! It’s nonsense, but in a million & one forms it’s practically universal.

        Do you know what you call someone who thinks that their people is something special? Normal.

        So I struggle to be impressed by all that ”People apart” stuff. I think that the problem isn’t that we don’t know what it feels like for a Jew, it’s that you haven’t worked out that gentiles all do exactly the same. I get that your upbringing, like mine, made you feel that you were something special & had according responsibilities (believe me, singing in Midnight Mass is a pain), it’s just we disagree over where the line should be drawn. I say slicing up an infant’s is on the wrong side of it, you disagree (most probably because you don’t think that removing a certain bodypart constitutes ”harm”, which I have to say I find both understandable & very misinformed). That’s the difference, not that I lacked a childhood which tried to mold me as a member of an ancient traditionalist counter-culture.

        Indeed in upbringing terms we aren’t at all alien, just from separate traditions. Hell, with this assimilationist spiel I’m probably holding myself well apart from those foolish ethnic collectivists, who I chide for…Holding themselves apart from each other. But so be it. Belonging to a people who are something really remarkable & different to the rest & etc etc is nothing remarkable at all. What’s remarkable is getting the fuck over yourself, disregarding the ethnic hagiography you’ve been spoonfed from day one, ignoring all that ”allegiance” bullshit (be it a white nationalist calling you a ”race traitor” or some murderous morons all primed for some honour killing, they’re just variations on a theme) &…Getting on with it. Not taking a knife to your son’s genitals in the name of an argument to tradition isn’t a bad start, in this instance. In fact a good line to draw would be cutting your healthy child at all once the umbilical’s gone.

        Because we all have to work out who we are for ourselves at some point. Nobody can tell us, least of all via the medium of scar tissue.

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        • Absolutely, people from every ethnicity feel like a people apart, and I don’t actually know what it’s like to grow up Catholic, which is why I put a lot of “perhapses” in that comment. I’m not trying to “impress” you, and I recognize that many people feel like they belong to a people apart. I would go further: people who don’t consciously feel like an ethnic-minority “people apart” are suffering from false consciousness. They are, in fact, members of a people apart, and they owe their identity to their upbringing; they just don’t recognize it. What is important to my point here is that it is pointless and misguided to retrospectively resent the things your parents did that made you who you are. And I don’t think that the borderline of “permanent alteration of the body” is sacrosanct, depending on how severe and unusual the alteration is, and how much it affects the kid’s prospective life. I’ve lived in West Africa and had friends and coworkers who had their cheeks slashed in tribal scarification. I don’t think their parents had committed some kind of civil rights violation against them, even though slashes on your cheek commit you much more obviously and permanently to a particular tribal identification than a circumcised penis does. Some American parents give their child growth hormone if they and their doctor agree that the child is threatened with “abnormally” small size. Others do the opposite to prevent “abnormally” large size. I wouldn’t do either one unless it was really an extreme problem, but I’m not going to say these parents have violated their kids’ rights. And I haven’t seen an adequate response explaining why it’s okay for parents to amputate their kids’ sixth fingers or toes in order to make them “normal” according to current American conceptions of normality, but not okay for parents to have their kids circumcised to make them “normal” according to other conceptions of normality.

          I don’t accept the rights-based argument here. Conceptions of what constitutes a “normal” body are socially constructed. It doesn’t make sense to talk about the infant having a “right” to have his body look one way or the other. In pre-Christian Polynesian society a 12-year-old would have a right to be tattooed just like his peers so as to avoid social exclusion; in modern American society tattooing that 12-year-old would be a crime. What we have here are different social constructs. The choice between social constructs should be left up to the parents, within reason.

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          • Because you are comparing a rare birth defect with something which nearly 100% of males are born with. It’s hugely uncommon for somebody to be born sans foreskin, it’s hugely uncommon for people to be born with six toes.

            Additionally, there’s the matter of pleasure. I know that some people dig on toe stimulation, but they still have five left in that instance. I think it is an error of yours to try & separate the rights argument from the benefits from foreskin argument, they are entirely & inextricably intertwined. If foreskin truly was devoid of worth & function I doubt that anyone would really have a problem. That’s not the case.

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            • As for the ethnicity thing, I think that when anyone uses the phrase “false consciousness” it’s generally a good sign that they’re losing ground. My establishment of shoddy normatives aside you raise an interesting point, but I think it would be somewhat distracting (not to mention time consuming!) to address it right now. I’ll mull it over & hopefully things can get discussed elsewhere, would be nice.

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  22. Pingback: Matt Steinglass responds | The League of Ordinary Gentlemen

  23. Yesterday, at my son’s bath time, I was instructing him how to pull back the foreskin and clean his penis (he’s five). We got into a discussion of circumcision, a practice he was not aware of before. He was curious about his friends and family and I gave him a run down of who was and wasn’t snipped to the best of my knowledge. I told him that most of his friends had the skin part at the tip of their penis cut off right after they were born. His head snapped up and he checked my expression to see if I was kidding. Then he asked, “The daddies cut off part of the penis?” Me: “Yeah, but I don’t really see the point. But if you’d like I can cut off part of your penis now.” This got me the ‘daddy stop being silly’ look and a “No way!”

    I bring this up because I think his naive reaction of ‘you gotta be kidding me’ is just about right. A father immediately shrinking their son’s penis via surgery is pretty random when you consider it in isolation. Really, I’m not sure if my son really believes circumcision exists even now.

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