The 23rd of December 1947 is a day I’ll never forget. That is when I first learned, to my horror, what a circumcision was.
I was raised Roman Catholic and attended 12 years of parochial school. That day marked the last class before Christmas break, and the teacher (a nun) explained why January 1 was a holy day of obligation. (It’s the Feast of the Circumcision.)
In that moment, I understood immediately what had been done to my body. I understood why I was never comfortable there and why my clothes were always irritating me. I realized then that the head of my penis was meant to be covered. It was this unnatural exposure that was causing me to experience an almost constant state of semi-arousal. It’s not normal to be exposed that way. Being sexually aware and acting on that awareness are two, very different, things. I was an introvert, and thus a shy child, and there was no one with whom I could speak. I never broached the subject with my parents because I knew they would dismiss it, hoping I’d forget about it.
This is not considered a “normal” preoccupation, but then, having a scar encircling one’s penis isn’t “normal” either in most of the world, no matter how much our American culture insists that it is.
As a gay man who had wished since childhood for a foreskin to soothe the constant discomfort, I always found the circumcised penis ugly and to be a turn-off. It’s difficult to explain the trauma of being unable to discreetly identify intact gay men with whom to engage in sex, especially as an introvert.
This act that was done to me without my consent makes me very angry. I’ve channeled that anger into researching circumcision and the arguments for and against it for more than 75 years now. I still don’t understand why someone would amputate a normal body part simply because they have accepted without question the notion that it’s not clean.
For some reason in American culture, we don’t talk about the penis in a matter-of-fact way, and we definitely don’t talk about its foreskin—except to say that it’s dirty. What this is referring to is smegma, a word normally heard only in the context of jokes. Smegma is a natural lubricant the body produces to prevent the foreskin lining from adhering to the glans. It’s made of body oils, skin cells and moisture. Every body produces smegma—it’s between our toes and behind our ears, anywhere skin folds against itself. We just give it a quick wash and get on with our day.
The idea that a foreskin is dirty is a uniquely American notion. We’ve been cutting it off for six generations. We’re the only advanced nation where cutting off the foreskin of a male infant is routine practice, and we don’t even know why. The medical community makes all sorts of excuses that don’t hold up to science—while the rest of the advanced nations think we’re crazy. It’s sexual violence on an infant. It’s just insane.
But it’s so normalized. At a recent medical appointment, the doctor asked me to list every surgery I had ever had. I included circumcision on that list, but when I reviewed notes from the appointment, I realized she had left that one off. It has become so ubiquitous that she didn’t even mention it.
I’m 82 years old, and I’ve become more outspoken about this. I have repeatedly sent email letters to my congressmen and women and my senators, and their response is, “There, there. Don’t worry about it. We’re taking care of you.” They don’t see the harm that’s been done. I really feel that most American men have the attitude that it was done to them and there’s nothing they can do about it now. But it’s a human rights issue. And no one wants to listen.
— Wallace Muenzenberger
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Georganne Chapin, MPhil, JD
March 17, 2019
The state of Washington has a pending child protection bill before its legislature. While we share legislators’ condemnation of the activity this bill seeks to regulate, we also wish to point out the fact that the bill violates the Constitution of the State of Washington.
Senate Bill 5257, introduced January 15, 2019, would prohibit the practice of “female genital mutilation” or FGM – i.e., the culturally-based practice of pricking, incising, or cutting a minor girl’s genitals. The bill arose, in part, as a response to the November 2018 dismissal by a federal court in Michigan of a case against a physician prosecuted under a similar federal law (18 U.S. Code § 116, also known as the Federal Prohibition Against Female Genital Mutilation Act of 1996) for operating on the genitals of three young girls. In dismissing that case, the judge said that despite the heinous actions of the physician (a woman from an Indian sect that practices female genital cutting), the federal law under which she was charged was unconstitutional because the behavior it proscribed falls under the rubric of “local criminal activity,” which is properly regulated by states.
So, what is wrong with this Washington State bill prohibiting medically unnecessary genital surgery on girls? In three words: it is unconstitutional!
Washington’s Constitution contains a “equal protection” clause which states: “No law shall be passed granting to any citizen, class of citizens, or corporation other than municipal, privileges or immunities which upon the same terms shall not equally belong to all citizens, or corporations.” In other words, Washington’s laws should never favor, protect, or privilege one group over another. While the anti-genital-mutilation law summarized above rightfully protects girls from medically unnecessary surgery on their genitalia, whether carried out in a “cultural” or medical context, it denies through omission such protection to boys.
Should not all children be protected from the medically unnecessary surgical modification of their genitals? Are boys not entitled to the same rights to bodily integrity, autonomy, and self-determination as girls?
“Routine” infant male circumcision – like “female genital mutilation” – entails the removal of a normal, natural part of a boy’s genitals in the absence of any medical necessity. Sometimes – as with female genital mutilation – male circumcision is performed for “cultural” reasons (I purposely draw no distinction between “culture” and “religion,” as there is simply no justification to favor the practices of groups who can point to a written text over those with a long oral tradition). And sometimes – just as with intersex surgery – male circumcision is performed simply as a social or cosmetic procedure, justified as in the child’s best interest, helping him to “fit in,” “be normal,” or “avoid problems in the future.”
It is not known how many girls are subjected to FGM in the United States, but the number is certainly less than one percent. By contrast, more than half of U.S.-born boys – more than one million babies each year – are subjected to the brutal removal of their their healthy, normal foreskins within a few hours of days of their birth.
Until the mid-19th century, surgical amputation of the foreskin was practiced only by Jewish and Muslim people, and by some tribal cultures. Victorian doctors introduced the practice in the United States and other Anglophone countries to stop boys from masturbating. By the mid-20th century, “routine” circumcision had become embedded in American medicine, and still today, the United States is the only non-Jewish, non-Muslim country in the world where doctors routinely remove baby boys’ foreskins (South Korea and the Philippines also have high circumcision rates because of the influence of U.S. military hospitals.) In the United States, the incidence of routine infant circumcision varies widely by region. At approximately 10 percent for in-hospital circumcisions, Washington’s current circumcision rate is well below the national average.
American men of all ages are expressing indignation about having undergone the removal of their normal, functional foreskins when they were too young to either consent or resist.
Legislators from Washington and every other state seeking to redress the ethically and medically unjustifiable practices of genital surgery performed on girls must take notice, to ensure that any new laws be consistent with the “equal protection” clauses of their constitutions, and to protect all children.
I can’t count the times I’ve heard people say that female genital mutilation (FGM) is “much worse” than routine infant male circumcision. And frankly, I’m tired of it. Cutting the genitals of children – female or male – is a gross violation of their basic human rights. Period.
Which is why a recent New York Times article, “Genital Cutting Found in Decline in Many Nations,” really galled me. While it’s indeed encouraging that the incidence of FGM is declining in some African countries, the article failed to note that in the United States, more than a million newborn boys are subjected to circumcision each year.
As Americans self-righteously decry FGM, the American government and funders such as the Gates and Clinton foundations are pushing male circumcision on misinformed and disadvantaged adult men and, increasingly, on male infants who cannot consent. Removing normal genitalia is not a legitimate public health intervention, yet they continue to relentlessly promote it. Whole ranks of international health specialists are building their academic and foundation careers on this worthless, unethical surgery carried out on third-world men, and American doctors continue to rake in the cash for inflicting it on American baby boys. And all of them are willfully, conveniently ignoring any discussion of the ethical disconnects and cultural biases that prevent honest comparison of FGM and MGM.
Complete excision of penile skin as a complication to newborn male circumcision. (DMJ)
A recent study published in the Danish Medical Journal documents significant complications from circumcision in more than 5% of boys. The photo at right – which accompanies the report – generated disgust even among intactivists when we posted it on our Facebook page. Many asked us to remove it. We didn’t, because this photo of an infant’s mutilated, forcibly stimulated penis speaks volumes about our culture’s refusal to see circumcision for what it is: the unnecessary and unethical damaging of a perfectly healthy part of the body resulting in a spectrum of outcomes that no one has the right to dismiss. Why can’t we call that male genital mutilation? Will the DMJ report be picked up by American mainstream media? Of course not.
The hypocrisy and cultural blindness are mind-boggling.