When a good friend of mine who is not Jewish found out that her first child was going to be a boy, I asked her if she intended to have him circumcised.
“Yup,” she answered, smiling.
“Do you know how unnecessary and painful the operation is?”
Same smile, same answer, “Yup.”
“Then why do it?”
“Because I will not have my son looking like a freak! I’ve been with guys who weren’t circumcised, and they were, well, disgusting.” She shook her head and wrinkled her nose at the memory. “They told me stories about what it was like to be different in the locker room. I just don’t want my son to have to go through that.”
“What if the knife slips?”
Back to the original smile, “It won’t. It almost never does.”
I asked her if she’d ever actually seen a circumcision. She said no, and so I asked if she planned to be present when her son was cut. Given how strongly she felt, I suggested, it seemed to be only right that she should be, if only so she could answer any questions her son might have when he got older. She closed her eyes and raised her palms between us to ward off the image I’d just conjured, “I, I, I couldn’t. There’s no way I’d be able to let them do it.”
“But then why have it done at all?”
“Look, my son will be circumcised!” Her tone made it clear the conversation was over. “He will have a normal penis and a normal sex life, and I will thank you in the future to mind your own business.”
I remember how shocked I was–I was a college freshman–when my friend Pierre turned around in the locker room after a basketball game and displayed an organ hanging between his legs that looked more to me like an elephant’s trunk than a man’s sexual apparatus. I’d never seen an uncircumcised penis before. Well, no, strictly speaking, that’s not true. I know now that at least some of the men in the heterosexual pornography I’d watched were uncircumcised, but since I only ever saw those penises when they were erect, the skin the women on the screen would occasionally pull up and down over the glans of those organs appeared to me in my ignorance to be skin no different than what I had left over after my circumcision (which was almost non-existent); I just assumed that, for whatever reason, those men had more of it. So I guess the accurate thing to say is that I’d never seen an uncircumcised penis that was not erect, and my first response to seeing Pierre’s was that it looked feminine, effeminate. Or maybe emasculated is a more precise term. Either way, what I felt was a mixture of pity and disgust.
I went back to my room and thought hard about my reaction. Pierre was a good friend and it troubled me that I should be repulsed by his body. It took a while, but I finally realized that what made Pierre’s penis seem so alien to me was not merely the covering his foreskin provided; it was that his foreskin made it impossible for me to picture Pierre’s penis erect. Not that I thought he didn’t have erections; I knew he had a girlfriend with whom he was having sex. Rather, I couldn’t imagine what Pierre’s erect penis looked like, couldn’t fathom the mechanism by which the foreskin moved out of the way, making it possible for him to enter a woman’s vagina and experience the pleasures of sex, including orgasm and ejaculation, that depend upon an exposed glans. It was this inability to envision Pierre penetrating a woman or ejaculating that made his penis seem to me somehow less than masculine than mine–because, of course, I assumed that my penis, cut as it was, was the way a penis was supposed to be.
Ironically, in cultures that practice circumcision as an adolescent rite of passage, removing the foreskin is often equated with removing the last vestige of maternal, meaning feminine, influence. Not to have it removed, even to flinch while it is being removed—signifying fear and the inability to withstand pain—is to reveal oneself as clinging to the feminine, unwilling to separate from one’s mother, and therefore unworthy of manhood. Since we in the United States circumcise our boys as infants–and I am talking here about routine medical circumcisions, not the Jewish ritual of brit milah, which needs to be discussed in a different context–questions of fear and the inability to withstand pain are irrelevant, but I think that the image of a covered glans as less than masculine is nonetheless very present in our cultural imagination. Or, to put it more precisely, I think that the routine medical circumcision of infant boys makes their bodies congruent with our culture’s ideal of masculinity as clean, hard, always ready for action, and always, implicitly if not explicitly, on the offensive.
To start, circumcision quite literally turns a boy’s penis inside out, making what is essentially an internal part of his body, the glans, an external one, and since the exposed glans is what first enters a woman during vaginal intercourse, it is hard not to read the circumcised penis as a penis always prepared, if not completely ready at any given moment in time, to penetrate–representing in the flesh the patriarchal heterosexual norm that values a man’s “getting it in her” over almost every other aspect of sex. Moreover, the cleaner and dryer penis that circumcision creates has neither the odor nor the taste associated with the lubricating discharges of both its uncircumcised counterpart and women’s genitalia. Just like the adolescent rite-of-passage circumcisions that I mentioned above, in other words, the routine medical circumcision performed on boys here in the US removes from an infant’s penis that which makes it similar to a vagina–except that, because we circumcise our boys when they are infants, a cut penis will feel to those boys as they grow up as if it were the penis with which they were born, providing the illusion of a biological proof that patriarchy’s gender dichotomies–embodied in the dry, clean and therefore “civilized” penis versus the wet, messy and therefore “savage” vagina–are indeed “natural,” inhering in male and female bodies and not constructed through the processes of cultural production.
Once these boys understand that they were circumcised, of course, the cat–so to speak–ought to be out of the bag, but the idea that a circumcised penis is the normal, natural and therefore healthy penis, is given the weight of medical authority not only through doctor’s promoting the procedure’s ostensible health benefits (which I will discuss in more detail elsewhere), but also through the medical images that shape our understanding of what our bodies ought to look like. In many of those images, at least here in the United States, the foreskin is either entirely absent or, if it is present, not labeled. Here are two online examples:
- Shands HealthCare is a private, not-for-profit organization affiliated with the University of Florida. The A.D.A.M. Multimedia Health Encyclopedia on its website includes this image of the male reproductive system in which the glans is exposed and in which the foreskin is not even labeled. (To my eye, it’s ambiguous whether the bunched skin at the base of the glans is supposed to be the foreskin or not.)
- Visible Productions, a Colorado-based multimedia communications company, which boasts, according to its website, the “world’s most extensive library of 3D digital models [of the human body]” based on data from the Visible Human Project. Do a keyword search on “penis” and you get nine results, none of which show an intact penis. Searches on “foreskin” and “prepuce” return no results.
In Five Bodies, John O’Neill writes that the “operation of political and economic power does not aim simply to control passive bodies or to restrain the body politic, but to produce docile bodies” (italics in original), bodies which accept the truths of power as self-evident and not in need of examination, motivating the people inhabiting those bodies to govern themselves in congruence with those truths. Routine infant male circumcision is a perfect example. By performing the operation on infants whose gender identities have not yet formed, medicine recreates as physically embodied medical facts a set of male dominant cultural beliefs about masculinity—always ready for sex, dry, clean, civilized—and then teaches us that these are the benchmarks against which we need to measure men’s genital and sexual health. To argue this, however, is not to argue that circumcision causes male dominant sexual behavior in men; nor is it to predict that cultures which medically circumcise will be inherently more male dominant than those which don’t. Rather, it is to suggest that those cultures which do medically circumcise infant boys have chosen that procedure as one of the ways they give men bodies in which patriarchal masculinity and male dominant behavior feel natural.
Clearly, then, ending the routine circumcision of infant boys will not bring patriarchy to its knees, but pulling at the threads by which the procedure is woven into our cultural fabric as necessary, or at least desirable, does reveal some of the more insidious ways in which patriarchy itself is woven into men’s bodies as the natural state of things; and once that weave is revealed as precisely not natural, we can start to imagine not just a different kind of pattern, but even a different way to use the loom on which the fabric is woven. Think objectively for a moment. Leave aside, if you can, the medical justifications and rationalizations, the mythical content and historical imperatives we are taught to impose on the practice of medical circumcision, and think simply in terms of actual events. A boy is born. Sometime between his entrance into the world and his first two weeks of life, he is taken away from his mother, strapped down with full physical restraint in a room full of strangers, and his foreskin, a sensitive, functional and still developing part of his body is pulled away from the head of his penis and amputated–sometimes with and sometimes without anesthesia. He has given no consent, has no awareness of the medical and/or cultural considerations that motivate the procedure, and he has little or no recourse, once the surgery has been performed, to change what has been done to him. There is no way to predict what effect his circumcision will have on him, but that is not the question we ought to be asking ourselves. Rather, we ought to be asking why we as a culture so despise the body with which he was born that we need so radically and so painfully to alter it, and then we need to be asking if that is the kind of society we really want to be.
O’Neill, John. Five Bodies: The Human Shape of Modern Society. Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1985 (The link takes you to the revised edition.)
Cross-posted on It’s All Connected.
- Fragments of Evolving Manhood: Do You Like Your Body 3 (Preliminary Notes On the Expendability of the Foreskin)
- Fragments of Evolving Manhood: Do You Like Your Body? – 2
- Fragments of Evolving Manhood: Do You Like Your Body? Two Stories from my Teens and Early Twenties
- Fragments from Evolving Manhood: A Full-Throated Protest Against Existence and the World
- Two Common Arguments I Hate Regarding Male Circumcision