Circumcision: Religion, Disease and Culture

Posted by on March 11, 2012 in Featured, Thoughts | 6 comments

Today I saw an article stating that a child had died after contracting herpes (.pdf link) during a circumcision method called metzitzah b’peh, whereby the blood from a newly circumcised child is sucked orally from the penis by the practitioner of the ritual. Yes this is a real thing, and it’s part of the ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jewish religion. It is not very common but is still practiced by some Jewish people who wish to follow, to the letter, the writings in the Torah. This practice is shunned by most Hasidic Jews, but is still allowed by some accommodationists by use of a glass tube to do the sucking of the blood. While I find myself astonished that this practice ever existed, and still exists ( thought it was a parody site before I did some digging), it highlights a huge issue about circumcision, its ritualistic and practical origins, and the continuation of this practice right up to the modern day.

There are three main reasons given for male circumcision, ritual, medical and social.

Ritual Circumcision

The ritual reasons come from the Jewish tradition in the Tanakh, which states in Genesis 17:10-14:

This is My covenant, which ye shall keep, between Me and you and thy seed after thee: every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 And ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of a covenant betwixt Me and you. 12 And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any foreigner, that is not of thy seed. 13 He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised; and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. 14 And the uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken My covenant.

So it acts as a perceived connection between man and God, and without he penis having the tip “cut off” the child will be “cut off” from his people. It is also done on the 8th day of the child’s life, so well before the child has a say in the matter.

Why the penis and not the little toe or something like that? Well, the penis is needed in reproduction which is the main need of any animal, so to cut there means (through some logic) that man and God are linked through the reproductive organs.  A quaint notion to be sure, but one that permeates more of culture than just those in the Jewish faith. In Christianity, and even in the secular world, the ritual removal of the foreskin is practiced in many hospitals as part of the process of being born.

To add fuel to the religious fervour, there are some who say that Mohammed was in fact born circumcised, and therefore all men after him should be the same.

Medical Circumcision

Some of the reasons given for the standard practice of circumcision are for the control of sexually transmitted diseases. A paper from the titled “Neonatal Genital Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 Infection After Jewish Ritual Circumcision: Modern Medicine and Religious Tradition” American Journal of Pediatrics states:

Virtually all sexually transmitted diseases, including human immunodeficiency virus infection are reported to be more common in uncircumcised men.

It has been suggested that circumcision is effective in the reduction of HIV transmission in African countries, so should therefore be standard for all people. Now know that this comes from a peer-reviewed source, so it’s more than just anecdotal evidence. It states:

The association between circumcision and reduced risk for HIV acquisition is biologically plausible: the foreskin contains high concentrations of superficial Langerhans cells, CD4+ T cells, and macrophages – all target cells for HIV infection, some of which may also be close to the skin surface. In addition, the preputial sac may serve as a reservoir for HIV-containing secretions, resulting in prolonged contact time after exposure to secretions, and the foreskin may present less of a physical barrier to HIV entry than the more heavily keratinized skin of the shaft of the penis , and may have more frequent epithelial disruption. There are also potential indirect mechanisms of association between lack of circumcision and HIV risk; for example, lack of circumcision is associated with increased risk of genital ulcer diseases, which in turn are associated with increased risk of HIV transmission and acquisition.

Interesting, but indeed, but I wonder if it’s actually an effective way to stop HIV transmission, or whether it’s an apologetic approach to the results to justify the tradition.

There is also evidence to suggest that the foreskin was originally cut off to stop infection caused by dust and dirt being trapped unfer the foreskin, when the desert tribes lived in the dusty middle-east. This makes some sense, but you and I now know that if we wash out genitals properly, these conditions can be avoided.

Cultural Circumcision

In 1972, I was born and then circumcised. I come from a largely secular family with Protestant leanings, so it was definitely not a religious thing. Nor was HIV even heard of in the 70s, so it wasn’t to stop the spread of disease. No, I was circumcised because it was “what was done” back then. The reasons are a bit mysterious, but I have a feeling that it comes from the “like father, like son” idea. If it was good enough for my dad, his dad and grandfather before him, then so be it, it’s damn well good enough for me.

Other cultural references state that standardisation of circumcision was brought in as a cure for masturbation, which as we all know from the Bible is bad. Of course this doesn’t work, except of course while the penis is healing.

So, snip or not?

I am opposed to the ritualised circumcision of children. Any form of genital mutilation is abhorrent in my eyes, and this is clearly a case of this mutilation. The bronze-age fascination with genitals in all major religion has passed its time, if it ever really had one. As for the disease prevention of circumcision, it seems a little extreme with the prevention rates being around 60%, when the church itself bans a method of prevention that is almost 100% effective.

If someone wants to be circumcised, then go for it, but not until that person is old enough to make that decision for themselves. If it goes against religious tradition to do so, then that says more about the tradition than it does about the ritual.

I am circumcised. I had no choice, but I do not blame my parents for this. I’ll never know what it’s like to not be circumcised, and I don’t miss my foreskin. But let us not impose this on children, they have no say in what we do to them at eight days old.

Further reading:
A history of circumcision
Circumcision Info
Group Backs Ritual ‘Nick’ as Female Circumcision Option

Other blogs on this topic:
Intact By Default
Intactivist Blog

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  1. Personally I enjoy the fact that I’m snipped. The women I’ve had sex with have joked about seeing some weird windsocks before.

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    • Ah, but given a certain setting and enough bragging from an un-snipped partner, how many of those same women have also joked about seeing some weird, sheathless wonders?

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  2. This is a great post & the main reason cutting persists is the psychological compulsion of circumcised parents to then cut their children. This is quite evident in cultures that cut their girls as part of tradition.

    In response to the gentleman HH who is glad he is snipped might be surprised the same words come out of women’s mouths in female cutting cultures. The fable of the fox without a tail may be a good read for such people, or the fable of the fox and the grapes. Cognitive dissonance is one of the many ways circumcised people cope with their non consensual mutilation. I for one, have never met a single person, male or female, who wasn’t circumcised who wished to be or was scheduling their own circumcision.

    If circumcision isn’t something an intact person would choose for him or herself, then forced mutilation on a child is a violation of autonomy and self determination.

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  3. “If it was good enough for my dad, his dad and grandfather before him, then so be it, it’s damn well good enough for me.”

    Your grandfather? Are you sure? As far as I remember (having read that somewhere sometime) circumcision was introduced in the US on a broad scale in the 1920s.

    Not a “religious thing”? Well, but at least a protestant thing. What were the reasons that circumcision became the normality and rule in the US (but was not and is not in the European countries)? Reading a bit history will tell you: It was a big campaign against masturbation. It was said back then, that circumcising the boys will prevent them from masturbation when they are small kids and therefore keep them from building up that habit, so that they won’t be masturbating as teenagers and adults.
    Then, when at a later time masturbation wasn’t seen as so horrible anymore and it wasn’t believed anymore that circumcising would prevent masturbation: The medical reasons given for circumcision were shifted from anti-masturbation to “more hygiene” and “less-illness” (and nowadays, as we can see: to anti-STD). So in the US the practice of circumcision (which came up not before the 20th century) is kept alive, while actually there is no real good reason for that.

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    • Thanks for clarifying that, it only adds to my annoyance at circumcision. :)

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      • Actually, the biggest push for circumcision came during either WWI or WWII (I believe it was the later), as a way to cut down on the spread of syphilis. Uncircumcised men were routinely cut when they entered the service, and they continued the tradition with their children. My dad (born 1929)was circumcised, but his dad( born 1899), like most men of his age, was not.

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