Male Genital Mutilation
by Jeremy Campbell
Each year, hundreds of thousands of newborns are unwittingly made a part of one of our nation’s most distinct tragicomedies. Though the procedure is carried out at too young an age for it to be recalled later, the pain of culturally-accepted male genital mutilation (commonly referred to by its less insidious name, circumcision) is undeniable, and the effects of the operation on the growing boy and man irrefutable. Yet parents continue to consent to the excision of functional flesh from their baby boys, and are even proud to have it done. Despite recent studies detailing the uselessness (and possible harm) of circumcision, despite evidence that intact penile intercourse is more pleasing to man and woman, and despite appeals to human rights and the integrity of the body, our boys are still being violated. Why?
In spite of its ancient roots as a religious and cultural practice of rite and identity, mutilation came to the fore in the West at the end of the 19th Century, primarily as a means to combat masturbation. This may seem contrary in light of what we are compelled to believe, i.e., that the foreskin is a dirty, smegma-ridden flap which, if not ripped off the infant’s body, would come to infest it with buboes and cysts. Not only is this myth inaccurate, it is also anachronistic, and as such was never the major justification for mutilation. As the Victorian spin on morality faded in the post-war days, much of Western Europe turned away from genital mutilation. Today, most European males (along with nearly all Asians and Central and South Americans) are intact, while the United States remains the only Western industrial power unable to shake the practice of mutilation. Males the world over who are not morally or ideologically bound to a tradition of mutilation (a separate issue altogether in regards to Judaism and Islam, though there is no mention of circumcision in Muslim law) have come to realize that the biomedical arguments for mutilation, as a cure for masturbation, a strategy against genital cancer, and an element of hygiene, are altogether spurious. The first argument bears no further discussion here, there is no observed connection between penile cancer and the efficacy of mutilation, and as for the third argument, all you have to do is clean it. Just like a mutilated penis. Soap and water.
The physics involved in the excision of the male foreskin is harrowing to describe, and even more disturbing to observe, yet physicians routinely perform the outmoded, ineffective, and altogether dangerous procedure for no (good) reason beyond that of custom. The sheer setting of the mutilation-strapping down the infant into a medieval-looking device called a circumstraint amidst a whitewashed hospital operating room filled with pincers and shiny garden tools-speaks of its barbarity. Though the least invasive mutilations only remove a piece of skin the size of a quarter, infection, hemorrhage, shock, gangrene, scarring, pitting, urethral fissure, ulcers, penile occlusion, and meatitis may result from the operation, immediately affecting the infant’s health. As the child grows, he may experience brush-like growths around the mutilation scars, painful erections, a loss of sensitivity, or even impotence. That piece of skin which was once the size of a quarter (which contained more than three million cells, 12 feet of nerves, 100 sweat glands, 50 nerve endings, and almost three feet of blood vessels), by the time a man reaches maturation, accounts for an added 1-1.5" of flaccid penile girth and erogenous skin amounting to the size of an index card.
There are obvious issues of sexual identity, completeness, and pleasure here: it is not going too far to say that the mutilated man has no idea what it feels like to copulate in the way prescribed by 4.5 million years of hominid evolution. The foreskin serves as a natural lubricant in coition, has been scientifically associated with longer staying power, and is so packed with nerve endings that the erogenous zone of intact men is greatly enlarged. Both intact men and women have testified to having longer, more enjoyable sex;perhaps sex that is not ultimately mediated by speed and performance with their unmutilated bodies. A few scholars have even theorized that genital mutilation lends itself to a male sexual frustration that appears in the latent psychology of serial rapists, pederasts, and other social misfits.
Many men, however, have begun to fight back. Approximately 20,000 males world wide are self-proclaimed "restorers," and are consciously seeking the regeneration of viable foreskin tissue through the painless stretching and coaxing of theremaining skin of their mutilated penes. As they add flair to the political and ethical nature of the issue (especially via the world wide web), more men and women are stopping to consider their own assumptions and preconceptions on genital mutilation. Still a minority, and still grappling with the fact that to many people mutilation and the sanctity of the human body are non-issues, these activists are beginning to gain a following in the medical, legal, and political forums of discourse.
Though this issue has been kept under the wraps (and bandages) of the Puritan ethic of cleanliness and purity in this country for over a century, justifications for the continued practice of male genital mutilation include such one-liners as, "It’s cleaner," "His daddy’s circumcised," "They’ll tease him in the locker-room," "It’s just a flap of skin," and even, "Jesus was circumcised." Mutilation becomes a question of aesthetics, custom, and historical legitimization; we continue to propagate a potentially lethal practice because of insecurity, the status quo, and ineptitude. Our infant males become trapped before they can understand (let alone consent) in a culture that leaves well enough alone at the expense of their sexual, personal, and ethical liberties.
Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, "Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person." It is followed roundly by Article 5, which states that, "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment." Mutilation is surely a medical, cultural, and political question, and a tough one that garners different answers depending on who, and how, you ask. But it is, at its most basic level, a question of ethics, of the undeniable right of self-determination and the undeniable evil of inflicting bodily harm on the innocent. It is incumbent upon the next generation of parents, no matter their religious, moral, or aesthetic background, to duly consider the issues at hand when their baby’s physician hands them a release form that serves as metonymy for a culture of neglect. It is incumbent upon us all to consider whether or not we would wish to live incompletely, mutilated, devoid of the whole, because of someone else’s pride or superstition.