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.
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.
[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.
- 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. [↩]