A Violent Ritual in Search of a Rationale
By J. Steven Svoboda
The fact that infant circumcision still happens today
is astounding. (This article is principally concerned with non-religious
circumcision.) If we are male, when we are just hours or days old, doctors
cut off one of the most sensitive parts of our body. The operation is
violent, usually performed without anesthetic, and unspeakably painful
to the infant. The screams, the shaking, the frantic attempt by the
newborn to escape this unexpected and unbearable pain can be truly horrible
to watchlet alone experience.
Concrete medical evidence demonstrates that relative to an adult, the
circumcision experience is significantly more traumatizing to an infant,
who has not yet developed methods to cope with pain and whose neurological
pathways are not yet fully developed. The pain permanently and irreversibly
alters portions of the developing brain responsible for pain perception
and memory. Researchers found that boys who had been circumcised, four
to six months after their circumcisions, displayed heightened physiological
pain responses to inoculative shots as compared to girls and boys who
had not had the experience of circumcision. In some, the procedure also
causes a broad range of documented traumas including learned helplessness,
disruption of maternal-infant bonding, suppression of empathy, and damage
to self-esteem and body image. Societies tend to be blind to the horrors
they create themselves. And so are we regarding male circumcision.
American beliefs that circumcision destroys only a small amount tissue,
and that the tissue lost is of no particular value, are not confirmed
by medical research. Medical researchers recently documented that the
average circumcision removes over half of the surface tissue on the
shaft of the penis and many specialized nerve endings, substantially
curtailing sexual sensitivity. Somewhat remarkably, given their constituencies
(the health industry and doctors who perform circumcision), even the
American Medical Association and the American Academies of Pediatrics
have admitted that there is no justification for routine circumcision.
Circumcision as a medical (as opposed to religious) procedure was born
in this country in the 19th century as a technique aimed at stopping
young boys from masturbating by reducing their ability to feel genital
pleasure. The pain of the procedure was explicitly cited by doctors
as a positive by-product of the operation. John Harvey Kellogg,
M.D., creator of Kelloggs Corn Flakes, said of circumcision, The
operation should be performed without anesthetic, as the pain attending
the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially
if it be connected with the idea of punishment. Many doctors also
recommended circumcision of girls for similar reasons.
By reducing masturbation, male circumcision would supposedly cure a
range of conditions including epilepsy, hip trouble, imbecility,
asthma, paralysis, and alcoholism. As time went on, whenever any new
disease would become a subject of social concern, circumcision would
be proposed as a panacea. Examples of problems which circumcision was
later claimed to cure include sexually transmitted diseases (with blacks
being particularly scapegoated for circumcision), penile cancer, prostate
cancer, cervical cancer in women, and urinary tract infections.
Today, we should instead be guided by the sort of abhorrence we would
have to a suggestion that, for example, a newborn baby girls breast
tissue be removed to guard against the high incidence of breast cancer
in adults. Under standard medical practice, amputation is a treatment
of last resort.
Circumcision, like any medical procedure, has complications. These occur
at a rate of two to ten percentdepending on the definition of
complicationand include a number of deaths each year.
At least dozens of baby boys die in the U.S. every year from this needless
Circumcision destroys a males capacity for certain sexual sensations
and dulls other sensations. The triple whammy of lost sexual
sensitivity resulting from circumcision includes: loss of the foreskin
nerves, damage to and exposure of the glands, and loss of skin mobility.
Men circumcised in adulthood have summed up the overall difference in
sensation as similar to the contrast between seeing in color and in
black and white. There is reason to think that the loss may be even
greater for men circumcised as infants, as most men are. Sexual pleasure
continues to be reduced as circumcised men age until, in many cases,
we are left with relatively little sensation. Like many circumcised
men in their late 30s or early 40s, I have noticed a dramatic
loss of sensitivity in recent years, due to the continuing buildup of
layers of keratin over the mucous membrane which remains exposed on
our penises after the foreskin is removed.
Some men who understand themselves to be harmed by their circumcisions
report being depressed to the point of feeling suicidal or feeling deep
rage at their parents and/or physicians. Men experiencing these profound
feelings of loss and anger generally have little social support. Some
men, upon revealing their distress at having lost a body part they value,
have received cruel responses from their counselors.
Male and societal denial regarding harm does not negate the harm. There
are at least two reasons we have not heard a great deal from men angry
about or physically damaged by their circumcision. First, the millions
of circumcised men who hate what was done to them do not speak out for
fear of ridicule. The second reason is that most men are unaware of
what they lost. It is important to remember that not only the male victims,
but society as a whole is denying the existence of harm.
J. Steven Svoboda is a performance artist, a former astrophysicist,
and a human rights lawyer, who is Executive Director of Attorneys for
the Rights of the Child, which he founded in 1997. To learn more about
activist campaigns against circumcision, contact NOCIRC (www.nocirc.org)
or Attorneys for the Rights of the Child (www.arclaw.org).