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Circumcision

A Barbaric Practice, A Human Rights Violation

Copyright © 1997 by J. Steven Svoboda

 
 

I'm going to raise an issue a lot of women and men would rather not think about. Circumcision (also known as male genital mutilation, or "MGM"). I think there are several reasons it's difficult to talk about. First of all, it involves male genitals, which we don't usually like to discuss in polite society. Secondly, it involves a very painful operation done to children, and we would probably rather not think too much about that. Finally, I think many of us aren't quite sure why we do it, and feel the easier option is just not to discuss it. But I think it's important to look at because in many ways it's revealing about the differences between how we view women and men in this culture, differences which in varying ways harm and limit all of us. Male circumcision is closely connected with is closely connected with other forms of male oppression and has much to teach us about our condition. The simple fact that circumcision can happen in this country is astounding. When we are days old, doctors cut off the most sensitive part of our body without anesthesia. The operation is very violent, performed without anesthesia, and unspeakably painful to the infant. The screams, shaking, and frantic attempt by the newborn to escape this unexpected and unbearable pain can be truly horrible to watch, let 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. Researchers found that circumcised boys exhibited, 4-6 months after their circumcisions, heightened physiological pain responses to inoculation shots as compared to girls and boys who had not had the experience of circumcision. The procedure also can cause a broad range of traumas including serious harm to infant neurological development and memory capability, learned helplessness, weakening of the ego, disturbance of sexual identification, disruption of maternal bonding, distrust, suppression of pain and empathy, damage caused by memories of the procedure, and later damage to self-esteem and body image as well as post-traumatic stress disorders. While societies tend to be blind to the horrors they create themselves, anyone must concede that this is brutal and an act of mutilation. This pain in turn causes permanent and irreversible changes in the developing brain, altering portions of the brain responsible for perceiving pain. Developmental neuro-psychologist James Prescott found that domestic levels of violent crime, particularly violent sex-related crimes such as rape, grew in direct proportion to the rise in the number of sexually active circumcised males in American society.

It is worth remembering that the two developed countries in which circumcision is most widely practiced, Israel and the United States, have what many consider to be two of the most violent governments in the world. On a criminal level, we are probably the most violent developed country. Research has suggested that these facts are connected and not simple coincidence. Psychobiological studies support this theory. Circumcision dates from an age when babies were believed not to feel pain. We now know that this is utter nonsense. 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 harm circumcision causes to babies by the severe levels of pain has been repeatedly documented. As developmental neuro-psychologist James Prescott has documented, the rise in violence in our country, particular sex-related violence such as rape, has occurred in proportion to the increase in the number of sexually active circumcised males in American society. As discussed below, the brutality of the early circumcision strongly appears to be one of many factors affecting men who grow up and eventually give this violence back to society. Research also suggests that circumcision causes behavioral changes and that some reported gender differences may actually be a result of circumcision. As is clear from statements by doctors from that period, circumcision of non-Jews started in this country around 100 years ago as a technique to stop young boys from masturbating by reducing our ability to feel. The pain of the operation was explicitly cited by doctors as one "positive" byproduct of the operation. John Harvey Kellogg, creator of Kellogg's Corn Flakes, originally developed as another measure to stop masturbation (!), 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." By Reducing masturbation, circumcision would supposedly cure a range of diseases including seizures, hip trouble, imbecility, paralysis, epilepsy, etc. As time went on, whenever any new disease would become a subject of social concern, circumcision would be proposed as a cure. Penile cancer, urinary tract infections, venereal disease, AIDS, even uterine cancer in women having sexual relations with men--there was no limit to what this procedure could supposedly cure. Under standard medical practice, amputation is of course the treatment of last resort, only appropriate when other, more conservative measures have failed to correct an actual disease which threatens survival of the organ or the patient. We should be guided by the sort of abhorrence we would have to a suggestion that, for example, a woman's breasts be lopped off due to the high incidence of breast cancer. The foreskin should not receive any less protection under this principle than is enjoyed by every other organ and tissue of our bodies. In order to examine our society's form of childhood genital cutting, we must know what it is that circumcision actually does. American beliefs that circumcision destroys little 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 the genital tissue and many specialized nerve endings, thereby substantially curtailing sexual sensitivity. We should not forget that circumcision, like any medical procedure, also has complications. These occur at a rate of 2-10% depending on the definition of "complication." At least dozens of baby boys needlessly die in the United States every year due to this procedure. This number cannot be precisely determined due to the medical community's practice of attributing circumcision-caused deaths to other reasons such as "hemorrhage."

Circumcision thus causes harm and carries risks. However, unlike other medical procedures, it does not offer any genuine health benefits. All suggested justifications for routine circumcision throughout its 100-year history in the US have failed, including prevention of alcoholism, epilepsy, plague, paralysis, rheumatism, polio, lunacy, tuberculosis, syphilis, cancer, urinary tract infections, and AIDS. The British Medical Association, Canadian Paediatric Society, Australian College of Paediatrics, and even the American Academy of Pediatrics have stated that there is no justification for routine circumcision. Science has thus begun to turn its attention to male circumcision and has corrected many prior misconceptions which are holdovers from the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. The procedure causes serious harm and lacks medical justification; it should not be tolerated in any civilized society. But it is a money-making operation here and continues despite many doctors' personal disapproval of the procedure. As medical student Franc Garcia has discussed, male circumcision destroys a male's capacity for certain sexual sensations and dulls other sensations. Doctors and medical students have documented the "triple whammy" of lost sexual sensitivity resulting from circumcision. 1. Loss of the foreskin nerves. The inner foreskin possesses a greater density of nerve endings and is probably more erogenous than even the glans. This tremendous amount of sensitivity is lost completely when the foreskin is amputated. Also, the most sensitive part of the penis, the frenulum of the foreskin, is removed in most infant circumcisions. The frenulum is the continuation of the inner foreskin which attaches to the underside of the glans. Thus, circumcision robs us of a large percentage, if not the majority, of erogenous nerve endings to the penis. 2. Damage to the glans. The erogenous sensitivity that remains after circumcision is primarily in the glans. This is further reduced by the removal of the protective foreskin which leaves the glans permanently exposed. The penis head developed over millions of years of evolution as an internal organ, meant to be safely enclosed by the prepuce. The skin covering of the glans IS the foreskin. The glans becomes artificially keratinized (dry, hardened, discolored, and wrinkled) as a result of permanent exposure, and thus significantly less sensitive. 3. Loss of skin mobility. The nerve endings in the glans are best stimulated by a rolling massage action. Direct friction tends to fire off pain receptors causing irritation and also causes further keratinization of the glans. With the skin system of the penis significantly reduced by circumcision, the mobility is essentially gone and now the penis is a static mass with no dynamic self stimulation mechanism. Direct friction is now the primary form of stimulation. So circumcision further reduces erogenous sensitivity in the penis by reducing skin mobility and thus the ability to use the foreskin to massage the glans. Men circumcised in adulthood have summed up the overall difference in sensation as similar to the contrast between seeing in color and seeing in black and white. There is reason to think the loss may be even greater for men circumcised as infants, as most of us were. Sexual pleasure continues to be reduced as circumcised men age until, in many cases, we are left with relatively little sensation. Like many men in their late thirties or early forties, every day I rediscover firsthand the horror of this procedure. I have noticed a dramatic and heartbreaking loss of sensitivity over the last couple of years. This is due to the continual buildup of layers of keratin over the mucous membrane which remains on our penises after the foreskin is removed. Such damage to the penis as described above has a profound impact on a man's well-being and sense of self. Some men who feel mutilated by their circumcisions have reported feeling depressed to the point of suicidality. Some men who understand themselves to be harmed by their circumcisions report deep rage at their parents and/or physicians. Men experiencing these profound feelings of loss and anger generally have little social support, since circumcision is viewed as benign by most American. Some men, upon revealing their distress at having lost a body part they value, have received cruel responses from 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, a problem which does not, for example, face incest victims. While there is no intent to compare the incest trauma with the trauma of circumcision, at least as a society we have come to recognize the horror of the former. In societies that cut girls' genitals, there are very few women who object to the cutting. Widespread ignorance of the value and function of the destroyed genital parts, combined with culturally conditioned abhorrence of natural genitalia, perpetuate women's silence. Parallel psychosocial dynamics keep men silent in our culture. Circumcision is one more form of institutionalized violence against men. It is, of course, a myth that violence against women is tolerated while violence against men is opposed by society. If anything, the opposite is true; our legislature has passed the astoundingly sexist Violence Against Women Act. When is the last time you heard a politician proposing legislation to stop violence against men? When did you last hear anyone in power even acknowledge that most violence happens to men? Domestic violence occurs roughly equally between the sexes, and yet the disparities in available support are shocking. When you raise these issues, as I have done in my performance pieces, many people rush to "justify" them since men supposedly commit most of the violence. Such blaming of the victim would scarcely be tolerated in a discussion of violence among blacks or poor people, for example. Why is such victim-blaming more acceptable when its target is men? Astoundingly, talk show hosts like Oprah Winfrey can decry female circumcision while somehow believing that male circumcision is all right. I recently lunched with a well-known human rights attorney and law professor in her fifties who had never considered the fact that male circumcision might also be a human rights violation. The denial of male pain and male feelings cuts that deep. Any violation of a woman's genital integrity is recognized as unconscionable violence. How can it possibly be defended as any less reprehensible when carried out against a man? While feminists rightly ask for our support and cooperation in their struggles to stop female circumcision and other abuses, they should correspondingly make common cause with us here to stop mutilation of our bodies. We should demand this minimal support. Many laws against female genital mutilation (FGM) exist around the world, while no law anywhere forbids MGM. Statutes forbidding FGM have become law in California, Delaware, Minnesota, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Egypt (by decree), Kenya, New Zealand, the Sudan, Sweden, the United Kingdom, New South Wales, Quebec, and Ontario. Recently both this country and Canada passed national legislation criminalizing FGM. These laws are clearly unconstitutional under principles of equal protection enshrined in international human rights law as well as the national law of the United States. Our state and federal laws against female genital mutilation, and the discriminatory failure to outlaw and vilify male genital mutilation, violate equal protection under both international human rights law and the American Constitution. The double-think at play here is breathtaking. Human rights treaties forbid FGM and MGM alike based on such important principles as the rights of the child, the right to freedom of religion, the right to the highest attainable standard of health, and the right to protection against torture. Activists who oppose the horrors of FGM are correct when they introduce absolutist, human rights principles that any violation of genital integrity is a crime and morally indefensible. Human rights principles are indeed absolute ones not subject to a balancing in the scales of international justice relative to other violations. And yet somehow it is still permissible when we do it to boys. The real reason for this double standard lies deep in our different socializations and genetic heritages from thousands of years ago. Men and women are hard-wired to serve different functions. Men have greater upper-body strength and endurance to enable us to serve as hunters and protectors of our people, while women have more connections between the spheres of the brain to link their emotional and thinking sides and facilitate their caring for the young, protecting the hearth and gathering food. Evolution is not destiny, but we are still influenced by this genetic legacy even though in modern society, it no longer serves us well. In addition, certain forms of violence against men are tolerated and even structurally incorporated into our society. Men around the world are systematically compelled to give our bodies and our lives in armed conflict. We are also economically compelled to give our bodies and our lives in the workplace; 94% of all American workplace deaths occur to men. The numbness in our penises resulting from circumcision here in the US parallels the emotional numbness which those in power need for us to have so we will continue to fulfill our roles as producers. If we all get in touch with our feelings and discover our own strength and desires, we may not want to keep working at our often unsatisfying, low-paying and hazardous jobs to produce more profits for those at the top. Circumcision is one of many societal factors helping to keep us disempowered and out of touch with our sexuality and our own great potential. I believe a complementarity of men's and women's oppressions exists, both sides of the same coin impeding us from becoming full beings. As men, we are encouraged to be emotionally and physically numb. We must make war, must not cry or express feelings at work, and are not supposed to be househusbands or even custodial fathers.

We are so accustomed to men being the disposable sex that it has become an invisible cultural assumption. "Women and children first." Women's pain is simply viewed as more important than men's pain, and so we can tolerate a cultural practice of cutting baby boy's genitals. Or of drafting men and not women for war. It is no accident that the same gender which must fight the wars is the one which suffers a childhood slash to the genitals. Historians have documented that in primitive societies circumcision served the explicit goal of preparing young boys to grow up and sacrifice their bodies in battle. In some cultures, boys are forced to cut their penis themselves and must not even grimace as the knife slices through the flesh. Cross-cultural studies demonstrate that the earlier and more violently the circumcision ritual occurs, the more violent is the society. Cultural blindness frequently colors perceptions of human rights issues. Throughout history a broad range of body mutilation practices have been accepted, including footbinding, placing growing children in vases so their bones would be bent to the shape of the vase, and many other forms of genital mutilation of both sexes. As with infant male circumcision, all these practices were carried out without the victim's consent. Circumcision may be facilitated by our culture's myths about men and masculinity. Like women, men grow up in a culture which holds a set of degrading myths about them. We may uncover embedded in American beliefs about circumcision these "original myths" about males: 1) Males are inherently pathological, requiring correction at birth. 2) Male genitalia are not worthy of preservation. 3) Natural male genitalia are a health hazard. 4) Natural male genitalia are inherently unclean. 5) Males do not experience pain; they require no anesthesia.

6) It is better to cut away part of a boy's penis than to give a parent the task of cleaning it. 7) A male's body does not belong to him, but to some social group (religion or medicine) which acts "for his own good." 8) Restraining a male and cutting his genitals is good for him. Feminists have uncovered and worked to correct damaging mythology regarding women's bodies. They also have gathered together libraries of evidence and information regarding women's unique needs from clinicians based on their gender needs and their needs as survivors of female-specific traumas. This feminist work has deeply impacted society at large and clinical practice particularly, resulting in women receiving much more respectful and appropriate therapy. Men suffer a dramatically less recognized, but no less insidious and damaging set of denigrations and false beliefs regarding their bodies and their roles in society. If we listen carefully and heartfully to men's stories, we may discover the destructive impact on male mental health of circumcision and other myths which degrade men. As societal and personal denial about circumcision fades, men may evoke a more compassionate response from their brothers and sisters. Some of us are working to stop this act of violence against our male children. Four organizations in the Bay Area are concerned with circumcision. NOHARMM is a men's awareness and activism organization (PO Box 460795, San Francisco, CA 94146). NORM works to support men who are seeking to restore their foreskin nonsurgically (3205 Northwood Drive #109, Concord, CA 94520, 510- 827-4077). A nurse who was fired years ago for refusing to perform the operation has started a very successful informational and organizing organization, NOCIRC (PO Box 2512, San Anselmo, CA 94979, 415-488-9883). The author recently founded Attorneys for the Rights of the Child (2961 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94705, 510-848-4437) to coordinate attorneys around the world in developing legal approaches to stopping circumcision and all other forms of childhood genital mutilation. Other organizations exist around the country. Others of us are using slow skin stretching techniques to "restore" our foreskins. Actually this process only partially heals one of the three harmful effects of circumcision discussed above, namely the loss of covering of the glans. Nevertheless, successful restoring men report significantly improved sensitivity of their glans. Jim Bigelow's excellent book "The Joy of Uncircumcising" (available at bookstores) discusses foreskin restoration techniques and also documents the problems caused by this barbaric practice, as do other books such as Ronald Goldman's ("Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma, $21.95 postpaid from Vanguard Publications, 888-445- 5199), Billy Ray Boyd's ("Circumcision: What it Does," $6.95 plus postage to C. Olson, Box 5100-CB, Santa Cruz, CA 95063-5100) and a poll conducted by the activist organization NOHARMM (Awakenings: A Preliminary Poll of Circumcised Men"; $25 to NOHARMM, PO Box 460795, San Francisco, CA 94146).

Steven Svoboda is a 38-year-old attorney who has reorganized his work life to devote the majority of his time to men's work. He is founder and director of Attorneys for the Rights of the Child, an organization devoted to developing legal approaches to stopping circumcision. He cofounded and serves as Secretary/Treasurer of the Northern California Chapter of the Coalition of Free Men, as well as Archivist and Board Member for the national parent organization. He is writing a book as well as regular articles and letters about men's issues, writing and performing solo theater pieces illustrating men's issues, and doing legal and human rights work on behalf of men.

J. Steven Svoboda is a 36-year-old attorney who has reorganized his work life to allow him to devote the majority of his time to doing men's work. He is writing a book as well as regular articles and letters about men's issues, writing and performing solo theater pieces regarding men's issues, doing legal and human rights work on behalf of men, and helping to organize the work of the new Northern California chapter of the National Coalition of Free Men.


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