Cut babies and the horror of sex
Evolving almost in parallel with the "problem of homosexuality"
through the last 150 years or so, has been an equally intense and
misinformed debate about circumcision. And like the "problem of
homosexuality", the battlefields have been mostly the Anglo-saxon
As a matter of fact,
these two "issues" share the same roots -- a crisis of sexuality
that came with industrialisation, urbanisation and a breakdown of agrarian
(thus limited mobility) highly-patriarchal social systems.
A scene from the film
Kinsey captured brilliantly the tortured self-denial prevalent during the
height of the crisis. The teenaged Alfred Kinsey was out camping with his
younger brother, who raised the subject of nocturnal ejaculation. The only
response permitted by the climate of the times was to refer to some text
about how the loss of semen would weaken the male body and lead to
physical and mental disease such as acne, sleeplessness, epilepsy and
insanity, not to mention going to hell. And the only remedy was to pray.
At about this point, you'd notice that I have lumped together quite different things: circumcision, masturbation and nocturnal ejaculation (more euphemistically termed nocturnal emission in earlier texts). But that's how it started, a very confused horror of our natural bodies and urges.
Hysteria over "masturbatory
Up until the 18th century, medical textbooks hardly mentioned masturbation at all. But around that time, a popular science book appeared in England, titled "Onania, or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution and all its frightful consequences in both sexes, considered."
Onania, or onanism was
the archaic term for masturbation, and it was believed to be
"self-polluting" because one polluted oneself with sin by doing
so. The "frightful consequences" were elaborated on by Samuel
Tissot, a Swiss physician, who in 1758 published a medical treatise claiming that
masturbation was the primary cause of mental illness. Even then, there
were rebuttals aplenty, but somehow, Tissot's ideas became very
widespread. Probably, the social conditions were such that people wanted
to believe them.
By the standards of the
time, Kellogg was humane. Others were inventing and patenting various chastity belts for
children and young men. Some had spikes facing inwards such that if the
penis became erect, it would feel pain.
And thus the great cutting began. The earlier the better, and soon it became standard to have all neonates circumcised before they even left the maternity hospital. Very often, it was done without anaesthesia. Amazingly, people held the belief that babies couldn't feel the pain, despite the loud crying that anyone should have noticed, or if the adults conceded that perhaps it did hurt, then they might have echoed Kellogg's heartless rationalisation, "Brief pain has a salutary effect upon the mind."
The horrors that religious fanatics would commit in pursuit of their sin-free world!
At its peak
By the middle of the
20th century, circumcision was almost universal among newborn males in the
US. In other English-speaking countries -- Australia, Canada and New
Zealand, it reached over 90%. In the UK, it rose substantially (e.g.
estimated to be about 35% of male infants by the 1930s) but didn't become
as universal as in America.
Yet, by the 1930s the
religious argument had lost much of its force. The mental illness argument
was also receding, having not been supported by any data at all. In their
place, came the medicalisation of the circumcision argument
-- that smegma would cause penile and cervical cancer, and that
prepuces had a tendency to be inflamed and fine sand might accumulate
under the foreskin, thus irritating the glans. The latter had especial
force during the desert campaigns of the 2nd World War.
It didn't take long for
these claims to be debunked, starting with a few cases of penile cancer
seen among Jewish men who had been circumcised since birth. As for the
chance of the foreskin being inflamed, someone asked, why then don't we
routinely order appendectomies on newborns, in order to forestall the
chance that one day in adult life, they might get appendicitis?
Many of the infection, inflammation and grit-accumulation arguments simply assumed that people couldn't or didn't wash under their foreskins. In a way, that was true, because the same religious state of mind also got hysterical about touching oneself, and so boys were never taught to pull back the skin to wash. The very pulling back was too erotic to be recommended. By itself, it led halfway to hell.
heads prevailed in the professional bodies. The lack of credible medical
grounds for neonatal, non-therapeutic circumcision was gradually accepted
as convincing. Weighed against that was an irreducible danger of
accidents and infection. The risks seemed greater than the speculative
In 1950, the UK
National Health Service (NHS) dropped non-therapeutic circumcisions from
its list of covered procedures. Since, in the UK, most people expected the
NHS to pay their medical bills, once it was dropped, circumcision rates
fell rapidly. By the late 1990s, it was estimated at only about 3.8% of
young British males would be circumcised by the time they reached age 15.
The national statistics for 2000 found that just 15.8% of British males
aged 16 – 44 were circumcised.
New Zealand, probably
the most British of the dominions, followed in similar fashion. From 95%
of babies circumcised in the 1940s, the incidence fell to 0.35% of babies
born in public hospitals in 1995.
Bigger countries like
Australia and Canada have less uniformity. Rates varied from one side of
the country to the other, but even so, by Feb 2004, the average for
Australia was only 12.7% of babies (under 6 months) circumcised. In
Canada, 1996/1997, it was reported that less than 17% of male neonates
In the US, the American
Academy of Paediatrics finally acted in 1971. That year, they declared
that there were "no valid medical indications for circumcision in the
neonatal period," and the incidence of this procedure began a slow
In America, medical
care is, generally speaking, privately paid for, so the fall-off of
circumcision was not as abrupt as in the UK where people relied more on
the NHS. Nevertheless below are the figures for neonatal circumcisions by
US regions, 1999:
The majority of newborns in the US are still circumcised.
The coda to this story may well be right here in Asia. Outside of the Muslim areas, non-therapeutic circumcision is rare, with two big exceptions: South Korea and the Philippines. Interestingly, these two are the most Christian nations in Asia, but Christian in quite different ways. The Philippines is majority Catholic and has been so for generations. Korean Christianity is much more recent, less than 100 years old, and tends to be of the fervent Protestant variety.
In Korea, circumcision
was virtually unknown before 1950. Then, with the Korean War, the American
influence grew strong, and it became socially desirable to be circumcised.
The same arguments about preventing penile and cervical cancer were
propagated, but before that, perhaps the same subliminal desire to
suppress sex (Christianity, remember?) provided fertile ground for these
medical rationalisations to take root.
Interestingly, the more
recent "advantages", touted by newspaper articles no less, point
in quite the opposite direction: that of enhancing sexual performance!
Demand really took off in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1971,only 5% of the military service intake were circumcised, but by 2000, over 80% of those born after 1950 are cut.
At first, young Korean
men chose it for themselves, then high school boys had it done, through
clinical and social pressure, and now neonatal circumcisions are on the
South Korea seems to be where America was about 30 or 40 years ago, where it is nearly universal and where parents do it to their babies as a matter of course.
In the Philippines,
while circumcision rates are over 90%, there is a gathering movement to
debunk its non-therapeutic use. However, the practice is of much longer
standing than in Korea, and didn't depend on religious fanaticism or even
medical rationalisation to flourish, so it's not going to be easy for
clinicians to reverse it.
Centuries ago, Islam
had already taken root in the archipelago before the arrival of the
Spanish, and circumcision was already practised. Moreover, it is
speculated that, being related to the culture of the Pacific Islands, the
indigenous Filipinos had it in their cultural practices even before Islam.
Whatever the Spanish
thought through their three centuries of rule (and Catholicism in Europe
didn't approve of circumcision), they had little effect on popular
practice, rooted as it was in local village traditions. Then the Americans
came and made the cut cock the symbol of modernity.
Today, the social pressures are huge. Filipino boys who have been through the rite of passage tease those who haven't. No boy wants to be called "supot".
© Yawning Bread