Cognitive Dissonance and the Truth About Circumcision – By Maria Bangs
A Guest Post by Maria Bangs
Martin S Pribble
The reason circumcision is so controversial, and the fiery emotions that flare on both sides lie ultimately, in the psyche. When we begin to understand the very complex psychological factors that contribute to male genital cutting in the developed world, we see why it persists. Which is why women are sometimes a clear, rational voice in the debate; because we have intact genitals. For my generation especially, as one that has benefited greatly from the sexual revolution and culturally sanctioned extramarital sex and serial monogamy with multiple partners, many of us, for the first time in generations, have had sex with intact partners.
I was once naive, inexperienced with the penis, and incredibly ignorant on male sexuality. That is greatly thanks to a system of education that presented the penis sans foreskin. Don’t blame your doctor for not knowing what to do with the natural penis, dear Americans, they were only taught how to cut if off in med school.
This is not a joke.
Once upon a time, about 150 years ago, the only people who cut baby penises were Jews. Nearly every non-Jew was intact. Then some guy named Kellogg (you might know him from the famous genetically modified cereal brand), who was a staunch 7th Day Adventist, came up with the idea to cut the foreskin off adolescent boys to prevent them from masturbating. This was during that amazing time in American history when everyone thought sex was from the devil, and masturbating was a manifestation of the demons in you and led to insanity.
However, it was soon discovered that adolescent boys were difficult to restrain, so the better idea was to do it when they were babies. This didn’t catch on for awhile in mainstream American culture because only wealthy good Christians could afford it.
Enter World War II, post Industrial Revolution and the great medicalisation (and institutionalisation) of everything, where two things happened. The first was the shaming of men in the barracks . Officers would march in and do strip downs, and any man who wasn’t circumcised was ridiculed and humiliated before being ordered off to have his foreskin cut off. The foreskin was blamed for venereal disease  since it usually showed up on the exterior (foreskin), and men of colour were especially targeted. [3.]
This was an intense and emotionally damaging moment in male history where the natural penis was shamed in such a way that no father would ever do his son the disservice of not cutting his penis ever again. This is where the old favourite locker room argument originates. It comes from a painful scarring that has been psychologically passed down from father to son, and perpetuated in myths about the foreskin being dirty.
The second thing that happened was birth moved into hospitals, and there was a great movement of high-intervention medicalisation of birth where women birthed in twilight sleep, fathers were sentenced to waiting rooms, babies were kept in nurseries, breastfeeding was abandoned in favour of bottled formula, and baby boys were circumcised routinely. Often without the parents’ knowledge or consent, and sometimes before they were even out of the womb.
It was literally a cutting off of the natural process, and a total disregard for our biology. Biology became pathology. The foreskin became dirty, filthy, infection prone, and there was a systematic demonising of the natural male genitals.
And here we thought sexual repression and body shaming was only for women.
It’s important that we understand the history of medicalised circumcision so that we can adequately understand the baseless and erroneous medical justifications for amputation of a healthy sexual organ in contemporary terms.
In case you were unaware, our current list of maladies circumcision prevents against is penile cancer, prostate cancer, STD’s, HIV, and urinary tract infections. However, amputation of healthy body parts of children cannot be justified when we have less invasive ways of treating and preventing disease.
Many STD’s and urinary tract infections can just as easily be treated with antibiotics, and they work well. Further, amputation to prevent a disease largely dependent on behaviour and lifestyle decades down the road cannot be justified since these diseases present themselves well after the age one can make choices regarding one’s own sexuality. There is no imminent risk to having intact genitals, and the public health isn’t at risk if too many people have their whole penises or vulvas. This is underscored in the policy statements of medical authorities around the world.
Given our current understanding of medical ethics, self-determination, bodily autonomy, and humanism, permanent body modification of the genitals when not immediately medically indicated of non-consenting, otherwise healthy children is profoundly unacceptable.
Which is why the psychological compulsion of circumcised people to repeat the ritual, as well as cognitive dissonance and cultural psychology is the only reason genital cutting of children continues among otherwise civilised people.
It is a very uncomfortable psychological state to accept one’s own circumcision while simultaneously recognising the inherent and unethical nature of the surgery when forced on children. A man has to rationalise in his brain, ‘I’m circumcised and it’s okay, I like my penis, but circumcising children is not okay.’
The other part of cognitive dissonance is from parents who have circumcised their children. Parents do not maliciously cut their son’s genitals. It is done to fulfill the cultural mandate, because the men in our country underwent such a psychologically damaging moment in their sexual history. Parents circumcise to protect their children from real or imagined social ‘otherness.’ It is psychologically uncomfortable or near impossible for a parent to accept, ‘I love my children and would never harm them, but I am able to see that circumcision is unethical and ultimately harmful.’
Coupled with the inability to hold conflicting psychological states of mind is cultural psychology and ethnocentrism. Americans have been socialised with misinformation about male anatomy and the function of the foreskin, and have been culturally conditioned to believe that having a foreskin will have negative social implications. This has been so integrated into our cultural psychology, and passed down through formal and informal sex education, that many intelligent, critical thinking individuals will actually cringe in disgust at the thought of the natural body. Some American scientific publications will go so far as to say the foreskin is an unnecessary leftover from biological evolution. This is, of course, not true, nor is it a reason to remove it from a child.
The foreskin is healthy, erogenous tissue with bands of specialised nerve cells, and the glans (head) of the penis is designed to be an internal organ. Think of the foreskin as the sheath that protects the most sensitive part of the male body. Humans are a promiscuous species, and have evolved with a foreskin so that coitus can be enjoyed throughout the lifespan. All circumcised men experience keratinization, or a leathering of the glans, from being unnaturally exposed to the elements, and the naked glans gradually loses sensation over a lifetime. As a result, men circumcised in infancy are five times more likely to suffer from erectile dysfunction.
In the end, there is really no debate. Once Americans as individuals and a culture can come to terms with the bioethical problems with altering the healthy genitals of children, and cope with their own cognitive dissonance and denial, we will see this practise completely disappear. This ending of child genital cutting can only be seen as necessary and positive social, cultural, and medical progress.
1. M.L. Gerber, Some practical aspects of circumcision, United States Navy Medical Bulletin 42, 1944, 1147
2. L.L. Heimoff, Veneral disease control program, Bulletin of the US Army Medical Department 3, 1945, 93
3. E.A. Hand, Circumcision and venereal disease, Archives of Dermatology and Syphilology 60, 1949, 341