Circumcision in America, Part 2

Despite medical and religious debunking, long-standing cultural biases keep the practice of circumcision alive.

Published October 27, 1998 7:35PM (EST)

Why is the most "advanced" nation in the
industrialized world alone in practicing a disturbing archaism from less
enlightened times? In "The Saharasia Connection," Dr. James DeMeo, who calls circumcision "an ancient blood ritual ... that has absolutely
nothing whatsoever to do with medicine, health, or science in practically
all cases," puts forth this hypothesis: "The fact that so many circumcised
American men, and mothers, nurses, and obstetricians are ready to defend
the practice in the face of contrary epidemiological evidence is a certain
giveaway to hidden, unconscious motives and disturbed emotional feelings
about the penis and sexual matters in general."

It remains to be seen to what extent "unconscious motives" are
responsible for the perpetuation of circumcision today. However, "emotional
feelings about the penis" may very well be knit into the fabric of certain
long-standing myths that persist in the United States despite logical or empirical
evidence to the contrary. After much verbal intercourse with friends over
the years about near misses and close calls with the intact penis, it seems
evident that three persistent myths or biases dominate.

The mother of all myths, now locker-room gospel, is
that a circumcised penis is more hygienic than an intact one. This comes as
no surprise in a culture where the art of sterilization is so pervasive
that certain foods have a half-life that probably exceeds that of plutonium. Still, doctors discredited hygiene as an advantage of circumcision years
ago. When I asked our pediatrician what I needed to clean my son's intact
penis, he replied: "Common sense." The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) put it another way: "Good
personal hygiene would offer all the advantages of routine circumcision
without the attendant surgical risk." (This, of course, is the case for
both sexes: Leave any body part unattended for too long and things get,
well, unpleasant.) Yet another doctor posited in "Circumcision: A Medical
or Human Rights Issue?" that removing the foreskin for hygiene's sake is like
removing one's eyelid for a cleaner eyeball.

Another popular and profoundly baffling myth is that circumcision
is painless. Studies indicate that those babies who appear to sleep
through a circumcision have most likely slipped into a semicomatose state,
and a slew of recent studies on newborns, traumatic experience and
sensory perception support this hypothesis.

Equally strange is the
cultural bias for the aesthetics of a circumcised penis. In moments of
free-associative candor, girlfriends have compared the looks of an intact
penis to everything from an elephant trunk to a dachshund. The queerness of
it was reinforced by the unsettling feeling that it required at best a
refresher course on basic anatomy, at worst a whole new sex education, as
if an intact man were some sort of Minotaur. To the extent that the
circumcised penis is endorsed largely through culturally determined views
about hygiene and aesthetics, one wonders if it's not in some odd way a
metaphor for America itself: sleek and streamlined, the way we like our
cars and buildings, connoting speed and unimpeded verticality; but also
surgical and sanitized, and thus thoroughly modern. By contrast, the intact
penis is a little too unruly, too Paleolithic, a little too, well, animal.
(If penises could walk and talk, the circumcised penis would be a suit and
tie, a clean shave and a shoulder-high salute. The intact penis would be a
rumpled shirt, a five o'clock shadow and a finger flipping you the bird.)

Either way, passing judgment on an intact penis in America is like passing
judgment on a real nose in a country where rhinoplasty is imposed at birth.
Quite simply, most Americans have forgotten that an intact penis is
actually the norm, and that for thousands of years the only people who were
circumcised were Jews and Muslims.

- - - - - - - - - -

Which leads me to a word about Jews and the penis. When I mentioned
to certain relatives that my son would remain as nature intended him, the
conversation, once the shock wore off, went something like this:

"But honey, what about the, er, Covenant of Abraham?"

"What exactly is the connection between the Covenant of Abraham
and my son's penis?"

"Well, I'm not sure. Let me put Sam on the phone."

Sam wasn't sure about the God-penis-Covenant connection either.
Neither was Ruth. Nor Morley. Nor were any of my Jewish friends or relatives.

In fact, the Covenant was a pact between God and Abraham, an
expression of both faith and tribal belonging that set the "chosen people"
apart, and which has been passed on to all Jews. Jewish identity, however,
is not determined by circumcision nor is it passed through the penis. As
most Jews know, Jewish identity is passed through the mother, hence the
traditional and immemorial Jewish concern about assimilation through
intermarriage. The "Encyclopedia Judaica" reaffirms this: "Any
child born of a Jewish mother is a Jew, whether circumcised or not." I'm
reminded of a Jewish friend who insisted that his son be circumcised
despite the fact that his wife was Catholic. "Circumcision," his rabbi
reminded him, "will not make your son Jewish." (His wife's conversion to
Judaism, however, would.)

Despite all this, the issue of Jewish identity, in which
circumcision is inextricably bound up, remains one of the most complex,
thorny and eternally debated subjects around. Volumes have been written on
the subject, and everything is up for personal interpretation. With this in
mind, and given that a vast number of Jews do not know what the Covenant really
is -- their sons are circumcised in hospitals without a bris; they
are not Orthodox, and do not keep kosher -- one can only surmise that circumcision is
not an act of religious conviction but rather one of deeply entrenched
cultural conformity rooted in the deep past. In fact, a cruel irony lingers
here: Originally, biblical circumcision involved cutting only the tip of
the foreskin (called brith milah), which still left enough foreskin for
certain Jewish men to stretch it forward and pass as gentiles. This gave rise
to a rabbinical movement called Brith Periah. Much more radical in nature,
Brith Periah essentially removed the entire foreskin, making it impossible
for Jews to emulate gentiles. Modern circumcision is based on this much
more radical procedure of Brith Periah -- a strange medical twist that has
leveled the playing fields of the penis among Jews and gentiles alike.

Jew or gentile, to the extent that "God" is behind circumcision and
the oft-cited Covenant, one can only wonder: Why ordain the removal of such
a fundamental part of the penis? And why the penis? Here the views of Moses Maimonides, a medieval Jewish philosopher, rabbi and figure in the
codification of Jewish law, are enlightening in a more universal context.
In "Guide to the Perplexed," Maimonides wrote that the commandment to
circumcise "has not been prescribed with a view to perfecting what is
defective congenitally, but to perfecting what is defective morally."
Celebrated for his chastity by the sages, Maimonides elaborates: "With
regard to circumcision one of the reasons for it is, in my opinion, the
wish to bring about a decrease in sexual intercourse and a weakening of the
organ in question, so that this activity be diminished and the organ be in
as quiet a state as possible ... The fact that circumcision weakens the
faculty of sexual excitement and sometimes perhaps diminishes the pleasure
is indubitable. For if at birth this member has been made to bleed and has
had its covering taken away from it, it must indubitably be weakened."

Maimonides' views evoke not only the Victorians, the doctrines that
underlie female circumcision and the "unconscious motives" Dr.
DeMeo wrote about: They also hark back to the forbidden fruits of sex and religion that
have festered in the gardens of earthly delight ever since Adam and Eve
discovered the apple.

Considering the troubling history of circumcision in light of my
own son's corpulent little penis, I'm reminded that it is the choice -- and
in some cases, the courage -- of American parents that will determine whether
the next generation of American men reclaims what is rightfully theirs
to begin with. In this regard it might be the late Dr. Benjamin Spock who stands for conventional wisdom at its best. When asked about circumcision in an
interview with Redbook in 1989, he said quite simply, "My own preference,
if I had the good fortune to have another son, would be to leave his little
penis alone."

By Debra S. Ollivier

MORE FROM Debra S. Ollivier

Related Topics ------------------------------------------