What’s So Often Missing from Debates about Routine Infant Penile Circumcision

Over at Feministe, Jill has written a post called “How Intactivists Are Ruining the Debate on Circumcision” in which she complains, quite reasonably, that “Every time female genital cutting is mentioned on Feministe — every time — someone from the ‘intactivist’ community shows up to derail the conversation and make it all about the alleged horrors of male circumcision.” This is, of course, not a new phenomenon, nor is it limited to the issue of circumcision; there are men who show up in conversations about rape and other forms of sexual violence against women whose sole purpose is to turn the conversation into a discussion of rape and sexual violence when it is committed against men; and of course rape and sexual violence are committed against men–I am myself a survivor, as anyone who’s been reading me for a while knows–and of course that phenomenon needs to be discussed, analyzed, and understood not just on its own terms, but also in terms that explore its relationship in a broader context to sexual violence against women. However, just as the very real differences between the social, cultural, and political practices and beliefs informing these two instances of sexual violence make it necessary for any conversation about how they are related to be extremely nuanced, so, too, the profound social, cultural, and political differences between the genital cutting of people born with vaginas and the genital cutting of those born with penises mean that any discussion of them as comparable practices needs to account for those differences in ways that do justice to the full complexity of the issue.

Sadly, as is evident from the now-closed Feministe thread, that kind of nuance is rarely present. People on both sides of the debate end up feeling (too often not unreasonably) denied and trivialized, and what might have been a useful discussion inevitably devolves into accusation and name-calling. In my experience, this devolution has almost always been precisely as Jill describes it, the fault of men who are militantly opposed to penile circumcision, whose anger (often over their own circumcisions), whose conviction that they are standing up for the human rights of all people born with penises, and (at least when then they are men) whose sense of male entitlement, lead to them believe that they have the authority to run roughshod over anything anyone else has to say. Yet it’s not that people on the other side, the ones who tend to see these two kinds of genital cutting as more or less distinct phenomenon and who want therefore to keep discussion of them pretty much separate, don’t have blind spots of their own. These people, who quite rightly understand the genital cutting of people born with vaginas as part of the practice of women’s oppression, as connected therefore to beliefs about gender and sexuality that are larger than the act of cutting itself, nonetheless reduce routine infant penile circumcision to the facts of its status as a medical procedure, as if medical practice were not itself both shaped by and shaping of our ideas of gender and sexuality.1

In 2010, I wrote a series of posts about penile circumcision, both medical and Jewish. (Here, here, here, and here.) I was, at the time, for reasons that I talk about in the pieces, quite angry about my own circumcision, and so some of the language I used then is more strident than I would use now, and there is new medical research that I would need to take into account were I writing about this now, but writing those posts convinced me that trying to talk about routine infant penile circumcision–medical or religious–without also talking about how they are connected to our ideas about what it means to be a man and to have male sexuality is to overlook perhaps the most significant aspect of the practice. I’m not going to recap everything I wrote in those pieces, but I thought I would excerpt some of it, and if people wanted to go back and read the original posts, they could do so. Also, I am only going to excerpt from the pieces that deal with medical penile circumcision, because one thing I have come to understand is that trying to talk about medical and religious circumcision at the same time, without first having done the work to deal with them separately, leads to more confusion than anything else. So here are a few excerpts. Citations are in the original posts.

This is from Fragments of Evolving Manhood: Do You Like Your Body 3 (Preliminary Notes On the Expendability of the Foreskin):

A widely pub­lished and influ­en­tial physi­cian and pub­lic health offi­cial, [Peter Charles] Remondino pub­lished in 1891 a book called His­tory of Cir­cum­ci­sion from the Ear­li­est Times to the Present: Moral and Phys­i­cal Rea­sons for Its Per­for­mance. In it he wrote:

The pre­puce seems to exer­cise a malign influ­ence in the most dis­tant and appar­ently uncon­nected man­ner; where, like some of the evil genii or sprites in the Ara­bian tales, it can reach from afar the object of its malig­nity, strik­ing him down unawares in the most unac­count­able man­ner; mak­ing him a vic­tim to all man­ner of ills, suf­fer­ings, and tribu­la­tions; unfit­ting him for mar­riage or the cares of busi­ness, mak­ing him mis­er­able and an object of con­tin­ual scold­ing and pun­ish­ment in child­hood, through its wor­ri­ments and noc­tur­nal enure­sis [invol­un­tary uri­na­tion]; later on, begin­ning to affect him with all kinds of phys­i­cal dis­tor­tions and ail­ments, noc­tur­nal pol­lu­tions, and other con­di­tions cal­cu­lated to weaken him phys­i­cally, men­tally, and morally; to land him, per­chance, in jail or even in a lunatic asy­lum. Man’s whole life is sub­ject to the capri­cious dis­pen­sa­tions and whims of this Job’s-comforts-dispensing enemy of man.

Note [that while people had previously] seen cir­cum­ci­sion as a kind of pun­ish­ment for mas­tur­ba­tion, a view in which the mas­tur­ba­tor and not his fore­skin was the prob­lem, Remondino saw the fore­skin itself as patho­log­i­cal, as if the male body were born dis­eased; and while no one seri­ously believes any­more that the fore­skin is the root of all evil in men, it’s hard not to see Remondino’s rhetoric as one root of the idea that a healthy fore­skin, a nor­mal part of the body with which a boy is born, is not merely dis­pos­able, remov­able, like the flip top on a can, but also so poten­tially harm­ful that doc­tors are will­ing to per­form an oper­a­tion to save boys from its per­ceived dan­gers that would oth­er­wise seem to vio­late a cen­tral tenet of the med­ical pro­fes­sion: not to do surgery on an oth­er­wise healthy patient.

And here is some more from the same post:

The fore­skin of an adult human male rep­re­sents 50% to 80% of the penile skin. (Details about the fore­skin in this and the fol­low­ing para­graphs are taken from “The Pre­puce,” by C. J. Cold and J. R. Tay­lor and “A Pre­lim­i­nary Poll of Men Cir­cum­cised in Infancy of Child­hood,” by Tim Ham­mond.) Unfolded, it would mea­sure between twenty and thirty square inches. The glans penis of an intact man is only a few cell lay­ers thick. The skin is smooth, red, and glis­ten­ing, just like the inside of the mouth. The glans of a cir­cum­cised penis, on the other hand, is up to ten times thicker than its uncir­cum­cised coun­ter­part, the result of a process called ker­a­tiniza­tion. Ker­atin, a tough, insol­u­ble pro­tein which the body pro­duces in response to fric­tion or pres­sure, is the pri­mary mate­r­ial in hair, nails, and the out­er­most layer of skin. Its for­ma­tion on the head of a cir­cum­cised penis, while nec­es­sary to com­pen­sate for the loss of the foreskin’s pro­tec­tive cov­er­ing — imag­ine what your tongue would feel like if you didn’t have cheeks or your eyes with­out eye­lids — sig­nif­i­cantly dulls what a man will be able to feel through the head of his penis. In addi­tion, cir­cum­ci­sion excises the tremen­dous sex­ual sen­si­tiv­ity that is located in the fore­skin itself, including:

  • The fre­nar band, a ridge of skin between the inner and outer fore­skin, which is the pri­mary eroge­nous zone on the intact male body
  • The frenu­lum, the highly sen­si­tive piece of skin that anchors the fore­skin to the under­side of the glans
  • Fine touch recep­tors called Meissner’s cor­pus­cles, of which there are thousands
  • Branches of the dor­sal nerve
  • 10,000 to 20,000 spe­cial­ized ero­to­genic nerve endings

All of this and more is lost to a man whose fore­skin has been ampu­tated, leav­ing him only with what­ever sen­sory capac­ity is left in his cir­cum­ci­sion scar — and for some the scar has no such capac­ity, while for oth­ers it becomes a site of pain — and with what he can feel through the nerves in the head of his penis, cov­ered as they are by the lay­ers of ker­atin men­tioned above. These nerves are mostly “pro­to­pathic,” mean­ing they can sense only sen­sa­tions that are poorly local­ized, like pres­sure, pain, cer­tain kinds of phys­i­cal con­tact and tem­per­a­ture, and so what one author has called “the sub­tle plea­sures of gen­i­tal fore­play” exist out­side the realm of expe­ri­ence to which a cir­cum­cised man has access. Indeed, the only part of the body with less pro­to­pathic sen­si­tiv­ity than the glans penis is the heel of the foot. This reduc­tion in sen­si­tiv­ity does not mean that cir­cum­cised men have no choice but to lead less sat­is­fy­ing sex lives than uncir­cum­cised men — sex­ual sat­is­fac­tion, after all, is a prod­uct of far more than phys­i­cal sen­sa­tion; and cir­cum­cised men are still capa­ble of orgasm and all other kinds of sex­ual sen­sa­tion and play — but it does mean that, what­ever else it rep­re­sents as a med­ical pro­ce­dure or cul­tural rit­ual, the rou­tine cir­cum­ci­sion of infant boys, the most com­mon form of surgery per­formed in the United States, is by def­i­n­i­tion an expres­sion of indif­fer­ence at best, if not down­right hos­til­ity, to male sex­ual plea­sure, root­ing the pro­ce­dure firmly in the nine­teenth cen­tury beliefs and atti­tudes of Sylvester Gra­ham and those who thought like him.

Draw­ing, or at least explor­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of, a con­nec­tion between the con­tem­po­rary med­ical prac­tice of rou­tine infant male cir­cum­ci­sion and the fears about male sex­ual plea­sure that con­cerned peo­ple in 19th cen­tury United States [You need to read the original post to get the quotes from people like Sylvester Graham about the harms of male (especially self) sexual pleasure.] is not to sug­gest that we are some­how still mired in obso­lete ideas about mas­tur­ba­tion or some such thing. Rather it is to ask a ques­tion about the rela­tion­ships between and among the male body, our cul­tural definition(s) of and pre­scrip­tions for a healthy (specif­i­cally sex­u­ally healthy) male body and how those def­i­n­i­tions and pre­scrip­tions struc­ture what it means for a man to have sex­ual plea­sure.

This is from Fragments of Evolving Manhood: Do You Like Your Body 4 (More on the Expendability of the Foreskin):

[I]n cul­tures that prac­tice cir­cum­ci­sion as an ado­les­cent rite of pas­sage, remov­ing the fore­skin is often equated with remov­ing the last ves­tige of mater­nal, mean­ing fem­i­nine, influ­ence. Not to have it removed, even to flinch while it is being removed — sig­ni­fy­ing fear and the inabil­ity to with­stand pain — is to reveal one­self as cling­ing to the fem­i­nine, unwill­ing to sep­a­rate from one’s mother, and there­fore unwor­thy of man­hood. Since we in the United States cir­cum­cise our boys as infants – and I am talk­ing here about rou­tine med­ical cir­cum­ci­sions, not the Jew­ish rit­ual of brit milah, which needs to be dis­cussed in a dif­fer­ent con­text – ques­tions of fear and the inabil­ity to with­stand pain are irrel­e­vant, but I think that the image of a cov­ered glans as less than mas­cu­line is nonethe­less very present in our cul­tural imag­i­na­tion. Or, to put it more pre­cisely, I think that the rou­tine med­ical cir­cum­ci­sion of infant boys makes their bod­ies con­gru­ent with our culture’s ideal of mas­culin­ity as clean, hard, always ready for action, and always, implic­itly if not explic­itly, on the offensive.

To start, cir­cum­ci­sion quite lit­er­ally turns a boy’s penis inside out, mak­ing what is essen­tially an inter­nal part of his body, the glans, an exter­nal one, and since the exposed glans is what first enters a woman dur­ing vagi­nal inter­course, it is hard not to read the cir­cum­cised penis as a penis always pre­pared, if not com­pletely ready at any given moment in time, to pen­e­trate – rep­re­sent­ing in the flesh the patri­ar­chal het­ero­sex­ual norm that val­ues a man’s “get­ting it in her” over almost every other aspect of sex. More­over, the cleaner and dryer penis that cir­cum­ci­sion cre­ates has nei­ther the odor nor the taste asso­ci­ated with the lubri­cat­ing dis­charges of both its uncir­cum­cised coun­ter­part and women’s gen­i­talia. Just like the ado­les­cent rite-of-passage cir­cum­ci­sions that I men­tioned above, in other words, the rou­tine med­ical cir­cum­ci­sion per­formed on boys here in the US removes from an infant’s penis that which makes it sim­i­lar to a vagina – except that, because we cir­cum­cise our boys when they are infants, a cut penis will feel to those boys as they grow up as if it were the penis with which they were born, pro­vid­ing the illu­sion of a bio­log­i­cal proof that patriarchy’s gen­der dichotomies – embod­ied in the dry, clean and there­fore “civ­i­lized” penis ver­sus the wet, messy and there­fore “sav­age” vagina – are indeed “nat­ural,” inher­ing in male and female bod­ies and not con­structed through the processes of cul­tural production.

[Indeed], the idea that a cir­cum­cised penis is the nor­mal, nat­ural and there­fore healthy penis, is given the weight of med­ical author­ity not only through doctor’s pro­mot­ing the procedure’s osten­si­ble health benefits…but also through the med­ical images that shape our under­stand­ing of what our bod­ies ought to look like. In many of those images, at least here in the United States, the fore­skin is either entirely absent or, if it is present, not labeled. Here are two online examples:

  • Shands Health­Care is a pri­vate, not-for-profit orga­ni­za­tion affil­i­ated with the Uni­ver­sity of Florida. The A.D.A.M. Mul­ti­me­dia Health Ency­clo­pe­dia on its web­site includes this image of the male repro­duc­tive sys­tem in which the glans is exposed and in which the fore­skin is not even labeled. (To my eye, it’s ambigu­ous whether the bunched skin at the base of the glans is sup­posed to be the fore­skin or not.)
  • Vis­i­ble Pro­duc­tions, a Colorado-based mul­ti­me­dia com­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pany, which boasts, accord­ing to its web­site, the “world’s most exten­sive library of 3D dig­i­tal mod­els [of the human body]” based on data from the Vis­i­ble Human Project. Do a key­word search on “penis” and you get nine results, only one of which shows an intact penis. Searches on “fore­skin” and “pre­puce” return no results.

In Five Bod­ies, John O’Neill writes that the “oper­a­tion of polit­i­cal and eco­nomic power does not aim sim­ply to con­trol pas­sive bod­ies or to restrain the body politic, but to pro­duce docile bodies,” bodies which accept the truths of power as self-evident and not in need of exam­i­na­tion, moti­vat­ing the peo­ple inhab­it­ing those bod­ies to gov­ern them­selves in con­gru­ence with those truths. Rou­tine infant male cir­cum­ci­sion is a per­fect exam­ple. By per­form­ing the oper­a­tion on infants whose gen­der iden­ti­ties have not yet formed, med­i­cine recre­ates as phys­i­cally embod­ied med­ical facts a set of male dom­i­nant cul­tural beliefs about mas­culin­ity — always ready for sex, dry, clean, civ­i­lized — and then teaches us that these are the bench­marks against which we need to mea­sure men’s gen­i­tal and sex­ual health. To argue this, how­ever, is not to argue that cir­cum­ci­sion causes male dom­i­nant sex­ual behav­ior in men; nor is it to pre­dict that cul­tures which med­ically cir­cum­cise will be inher­ently more male dom­i­nant than those which don’t. Rather, it is to sug­gest that those cul­tures which do med­ically cir­cum­cise infant boys have cho­sen that pro­ce­dure as one of the ways they give men bod­ies in which patri­ar­chal mas­culin­ity and male dom­i­nant behav­ior feel natural.

Clearly, then, end­ing the rou­tine cir­cum­ci­sion of infant boys will not bring patri­archy to its knees, but pulling at the threads by which the pro­ce­dure is woven into our cul­tural fab­ric as nec­es­sary, or at least desir­able, does reveal some of the more insid­i­ous ways in which patri­archy itself is woven into men’s bod­ies as the nat­ural state of things; and once that weave is revealed as pre­cisely not nat­ural, we can start to imag­ine not just a dif­fer­ent kind of pat­tern, but even a dif­fer­ent way to use the loom on which the fab­ric is woven. Think objec­tively for a moment. Leave aside, if you can, the med­ical jus­ti­fi­ca­tions and ratio­nal­iza­tions, the myth­i­cal con­tent and his­tor­i­cal imper­a­tives we are taught to impose on the prac­tice of med­ical cir­cum­ci­sion, and think sim­ply in terms of actual events. A boy is born. Some­time between his entrance into the world and his first two weeks of life, he is taken away from his mother, strapped down with full phys­i­cal restraint in a room full of strangers, and his fore­skin, a sen­si­tive, func­tional and still devel­op­ing part of his body is pulled away from the head of his penis and ampu­tated – some­times with and some­times with­out anes­the­sia. He has given no con­sent, has no aware­ness of the med­ical and/or cul­tural con­sid­er­a­tions that moti­vate the pro­ce­dure, and he has lit­tle or no recourse, once the surgery has been per­formed, to change what has been done to him. There is no way to pre­dict what effect his cir­cum­ci­sion will have on him, but that is not the ques­tion we ought to be ask­ing our­selves. Rather, we ought to be ask­ing why we as a cul­ture so despise the body with which he was born that we need so rad­i­cally and so painfully to alter it, and then we need to be ask­ing if that is the kind of soci­ety we really want to be.

Cross posted.

  1. I am limiting what I have to say here to a discussion of routine infant penile circumcision for two reasons. First, because this is almost always the kind of penile circumcision that is at stake in the discussions that Jill is talking about in her post; and, second, because there is no question that adolescent rites of passage that include penile circumcision are, by definition, about gender and sexuality. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a broader discussion to be had, or that important parallels can’t be found between adolescent penile circumcision and the genital cutting of people born with vaginas–see this comment and subsequent replies in Jill’s thread–it’s just that I’m not prepared to have that kind of discussion here. []
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11 Responses to What’s So Often Missing from Debates about Routine Infant Penile Circumcision

  1. 1
    alex says:

    Jill has written a post called “How Intactivists Are Ruining the Debate on Circumcision” in which she complains, quite reasonably, that “Every time female genital cutting is mentioned on Feministe — every time — someone from the ‘intactivist’ community shows up to derail the conversation and make it all about the alleged horrors of male circumcision.”

    Do you really it’s reasonable to talk about “alleged” horrors?

    “Intactivists” are doing an enormous amount of good. Circumcisions rates in the US are plummeting. Largely because while people previously wouldn’t have thought about it or would never have expressed an opinion face to face out of politeness, now if you google it you come across a complete train wreck of a thread like the feministe one and that shakes people up.

    It does get in the way of nuanced debates on the sociocultural construction of masculinity, and it does get in the way of discussing FMG. But so what? What good is Jill’s opinion on FMG actually going to do? There can’t be many people browsing feministe who think it’s a good idea. Wrecking those threads in the service of a higher cause is absolutely admirable.

  2. Alex,

    I wonder how much evidence there is that intactivists, as opposed to others who oppose circumcision, are the ones responsible for changes in US circumcision practices. Even if they are, however, that does not excuse the behavior Jill was critiquing. Ends justify the means arguments just don’t hold much weight with me. There are other ways to talk about penile circumcision without hijacking conversations surrounding FGM.

    ETA: I forgot to add that I too find the word “alleged” to be a problem. That was not the focus of my post, though.

  3. 3
    alex says:

    I appreciate that wasn’t the focus of your post. That’s why I’m criticising you. You asked “What’s So Often Missing from Debates about Routine Infant Penile Circumcision” and kinda missed any recognition of actual horror on the part of the blogger you approvingly cited, but instead zoned an appreciation of the social, cultural, and political practices and beliefs informing instances of sexual violence on behalf of those unbraiding her. Maybe once we’re all on the same page about the actual physical brutality, we can discuss the semiotics. I appreciate that wasn’t the focus of your post.

  4. Actually Alex, if you read more carefully, I was criticizing Jill’s position, just not for the reasons you think I should have, and if you go read the posts I wrote, you’ll see I am very aware of the physical and other consequences of circumcision.

  5. 5
    Hugh7 says:

    Very often, opponents of female genital cutting minimise the harm and human rights abuse of male genital cutting in passing, or even vigorously defend it. It is this that brings out the Intactivists. And even when they don’t, female cutting happens in remote countries where our writing can have very little effect, while male cutting happens under our noses. Motes and beams spring to mind.

  6. 6
    Hugh says:

    Jill has stated in comments to that post that she is anti circumcision. I want to take her word for this, but it makes it very hard to understand what her post was intended to say.

  7. 7
    Jeremy Redlien says:

    Hugh said

    And even when they don’t, female cutting happens in remote countries where our writing can have very little effect, while male cutting happens under our noses. Motes and beams spring to mind.

    Several years ago I read an article on ritual female circumcision being done in India, in which the reporter described a process that they had observed personally being done on young teenagers and the process struck me as being very similar to male circumcision in terms of damage done to the genitals. The article also talked about activist groups who were trying to end the practice and I really do remember thinking about this in terms of this being another example of Western culture patronizing a non-western culture for a practice very similar custom to one of ours.

    Not that both male and female circumcision are damaging it’s just there does feel like there’s a small level of hypocrisy/colonization that can take place sometimes in certain contexts.

  8. 8
    KellyK says:

    It does get in the way of nuanced debates on the sociocultural construction of masculinity, and it does get in the way of discussing FMG. But so what? What good is Jill’s opinion on FMG actually going to do? There can’t be many people browsing feministe who think it’s a good idea. Wrecking those threads in the service of a higher cause is absolutely admirable.

    In other words, people are having a conversation somewhere that’s not about men and the issues that affect men. Therefore, it’s an irrelevant and trivial conversation that will do no one any good. A man had better step in and direct those silly women to a conversation about something important. And if something a woman has created gets wrecked in the process, oh, well. It’s not like she, or her ideas, mattered.

  9. 9
    KellyK says:

    Incidentally, I’m deeply against male circumcision. For that matter, I’m in favor of body autonomy for infants–as much as that’s possible–to the extent that I find piercing a baby’s *ears* to be morally questionable. But that doesn’t mean that no one should ever be allowed to talk about FGM without instantly sidetracking the discussion to male circumcision. (Or like Richard pointed out, that no one should ever be able to talk about any issue that predominantly affects women.)

  10. 10
    nm says:

    Thank you, KellyK.

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