Posted by: Allyson | August 20, 2008

Thoughts on Circumcision

Two recent blog posts have inspired me to write about circumcision: Angela Castellano’s “Colombia Confronts Female Genital Mutilation” and Le Loup-garou’s “Part II of children are not just tiny adults: newborn pain.”  I’m going to put it right out on the table: I am opposed to all forms of circumcision for all children, male or female (I don’t care if adults get circumcised or not).  It is the biggest point of philosophical contention with my Jewish partner, who opposed FGM but believes in male circumcision.  And I’m fascinated as to why my position on male circumcision is so unpopular – why I’m criticized for disrespecting Jewish cultural beliefs (my partner has never said this to me, for the record), but speaking out against FGM makes me a feminist.  I’m interested in the discrepancy of acceptance between female and male circumcision. 

On the one hand, I understand why there is a greater outcry against female circumcision: it’s more invasive, more likely to lead to illness or permanent damage, and, whether intention or not, has a negative effect on female sexuality by making sex painful.  Male circumcision, on the other hand, experiences a significantly greater degree of tolerance.  And I can see why: it’s not particularly invasive, we rarely see reports of infections due to circumcision, and it does not pose a major threat to a male’s sexuality.  

There are two major sides to the circumcision debate for both males and females.  There are those who argue that circumcision is wrong, and the practice should be abolished.  The other side notes that cultures who practice circumcision should be left alone, because we need to respect their beliefs.  In the case of female circumcision, there seems to be more opposition than support.  In the case of male circumcision, the opposition is in the minority.

I’m not suggesting that male circumcision is equal to or worse than female circumcision.  Between the two, female circumcision is far more dangerous, as well as far more controlling of sexuality.  But there are a few common features of both female and male circumcision that I want to point out:

  1. The procedure is commonly done on babies, who are not able to consent to the procedure.  I know that in some cultures, FGM is performed on teenagers.  While it’s still problematic, I don’t consider it quite as bad as circumcising infants who do not have any idea what is going on, do not understand the cultural/religious symbolism of the procedure, and do not have any beliefs of their own because they lack reflective awareness.
  2. Circumcision hurts.  Le Loup-garou’s post reminds us that infants feel pain.  It frustrates me that any culture thinks it’s okay to put an infant through a painful procedure that is not necessary.  My partner said that circumcising infants is okay because they don’t remember the pain.  Well, Le Loup-garou’s post indicates otherwise.  And furthermore, why is it okay to put an infants through pain just because they won’t remember?
  3. The supposed benefits of male circumcision are negligible.  While some research demonstrates that circumcision prevents HIV, there are plenty of other things that prevent HIV, like using condoms, having access to comprehensive sexual education, etc.  If grown men want to get circumcised to reduce their risk of HIV, I’m fine with that.  But I think we need to work on bringing comprehensive protection to countries with high instances of HIV rather than advocating circumcision as some sort of silver bullet.  Furthermore, the research that demonstrates the circumcision/HIV connection  may be flawed.  Further, hygenic arguments for circumcision are tenuous as well.  While a circumcised penis may be easier to care for, if you actually teach your male child how to wash his foreskin and keep himself clean, he’s not going to run into any problems.  (I realize that I’m writing this from the perspective of someone who lives in a first-world nation where I could teach my hypothetical son how to keep himself clean.  But then I think the answer to the problem is making sure that people around the world have access to proper sanitation, rather than circumcising.)  And, from what I can tell, there are no benefits to female circumcision.  Unless you consider pain or control over sexuality a benefit.  Which I sure don’t.

My view is that adults who want to be circumcised should have that right.  But we should not circumcise any children, regardless whether the procedure is non-invasive or has low risk for infection.  It’s a painful, unnecessary procedure that the child cannot give consent for.  My partner one argued (we argue about this pretty often): “If we made boys wait until they were old enough to consent, they wouldn’t want to do it, and then nobody would get circumcised.”  So . . . adult males would not want to get circumcised, presumably due to pain or the fact that they just wouldn’t want their foreskin removed.  At the age of consent, they might not want to give consent.  But it’s okay to perform such a procedure on infants?  It’s okay to do something to a child who is incapable of giving consent, becuase when they reached an appropriate age they would not want to be circumcised? 

While I by and large attempt to respect the rights of different cultures, circumcision is one of the areas where I draw the line.  I believe that all forms of circumcision, whether dangerous or not, are unfair to children.  I don’t think adults should be allowed to circumcise their children; that’s something that the individual should decide when they are old enough to do so.



  1. I’m with you 100%, here. Although I don’t think male circumcision is anywhere close to female genital cutting as far as being a global human rights emergency, I do think it us unnecessary, invasive, and an unfair violation of infant bodies. It really amazes me that the practice is so widespread that opposition to it is seen as silly.

    It bothers me that parents consent to the circumcision of their boys without giving it much thought simply because it’s common or because they think it will make their child more socially acceptable. It also bothers me that my partner was initially so shy and self-conscious when he revealed to me (and probably every one of his sexual partners before me) that he was not circumcised. He seemed relieved that I wasn’t bothered by the sight of his uncut penis, and he really surprised when I told him that while it wouldn’t change the way I felt about him, I actually liked that his body was in its more natural state. It seems ludicrous to me that we have so embraced this cultural practice of mutilating the body that it is considered abnormal when someone doesn’t have it done. Why don’t more people question this?

  2. I call it genital mutilation whether it happens to girls or boys. If I ever have sons, they can make the choice to have that procedure done when they can consent.

    I am moved to tears by children who have scrapes and diaper rashes, because they are in pain and do not understand why. I could not image cutting a part off of my child while he screams.

  3. Truthfully, circumcision isn’t as big of a problem as the problems women face in general. The real problem with circumcision is the reasoning for it can be harmful if the research is flawed, and can spread HIV even more. However, the arguments against it aren’t as conclusive as they seem. The countries being compared in the one post aren’t that conclusive as circumcision isn’t the only difference between the countries.

  4. Tracey –

    I agree that female circumcision is way worse, both in terms of dangers related to the procedure and to the kind of control it places over a woman’s body. It definitely deserves more attention than male circumcision. It just boggles my mind that people are so uncritical of male circumcision. And for the life of me, I can’t come up with a good reason why.

  5. Kara-

    It’s a good idea my partner and I are not having children. Because if we did, and we had a boy, we would probably split up over the circumcision issue (he’s Jewish and wholeheartedly believes in the spiritual symbolism of the practice). Okay, maybe we wouldn’t split up, but there would be some really nasty fights – I’m glad it’s not going to be an issue.

  6. It’s his body – let him decide when he’s old enough if he wants to alter penis.

  7. I find it so odd to hear that male circumcision is still common in America. It just makes no sense to cut a piece of skin off, especially off such a sensitive area. *shudder* Medical communities have declared it to be unnecessary decades ago. From what I’ve read male circumcision has gone down greatly in the last decade or two in Ontario. I really never hear people talking about it. I pretty much assume people won’t do it.

  8. Lalo –


  9. Absolutely!

  10. I never thought much about male circumcision until I discovered I was going to have a boy. My first issue with it was the pain, but then at the time, I had never seen an uncut penis, so my issue with him not being cut was how would other people react to it, including his future sexual partners. After a lot of reading, I realised that the whole aesthetic and HIV argument were not concrete enough for me to put my son though it. So many men in Europe are uncut and yet their HIV stats are not as high as in most African countries.
    He is uncut and if he wants to do it later, it’s his choice.
    For some people, they get their boys cut so they would “look like their fathers”. Do those people also plant hairs in their boys’ nether regions? If not, how do they explain the lack of pubic hair? I think that’s the silliest reason of them all. I mean, how much effort does it really take to explain to their sons why daddy looks different?
    The whole hygiene argument is also a mute point with me. If girls can wash themselves, why can we not expect the same of the boys? So what if they have to spend a few seconds extra pulling the skin back and washing?
    On the other hand, I do believe that people who do it for religious or cultural reasons should have the choice to do this. I figure if the choices are between pain and going to hell, or whatever the punishment of not being cut would be, then to those people, “going to hell” would be far worse that putting their children through pain. I glad that I don’t have any cultural or religious beliefs/customs that require me to get my son cut, because I know I would have a lot of problems with it.
    I guess I am a bigot though, because when it comes to female circumcision, there is no reason that would make it OK for me.

  11. How refreshing to find a piece written in the spirit of feminocracy that doesn’t use FGM as a defense for cutting off sexual tissue from non-consenting boys. I’m sick of reading “feminist” posts that say, in effect, that FGM is so horrible that it actually justifies male circumcision. Do the math: if the statistics given by circumcisers are believable, there are many thousands of men in the U.S. whose penises could only be described as genitally mutilated, and boys die every year.

    My penis was cut – horribly – for religious reasons. When I look at the mishmash of scar tissue, inner skin, and outer skin, I recoil in horror. I try not to look.

  12. Brava! You’ve pretty much said it all. Genital cutting is a human rights issue.

    Actually, FGC isn’t invariably more invasive. Both operations have a spectrum of severity, and they overlap. The FGC of Indonesia and Malaysia is (usually) much milder and more hygienic than that of Africa, and can be quite tokenistic, but opponents focus on the extreme case of clitoridectomy, and on an idealised version of MGC unlike sirius’ case.

    Now some articulate circumcised Sierra Leonean women have harnessed western tolerance of MGC in defence of their own practice on their daughters. It would simplify the argument to consistently oppose all non-consensual non-medically-indicated genital cutting.

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