There was a vigorous and emotional argument about circumcision on Twitter tonight.

I didn’t realise this was an ongoing issue, but apparently it is.

And the consensus is, if I may paraphrase the men involved, “whatever way my penis looks is the best way”.

As for the medical evidence – I think it’s fairly clear that it’s inconclusive either way, that it’s clear there are some benefits (although how extensive is highly debatable) and some risks (because all surgery carries risks – although how extensive is highly debatable) and whether the pros outweigh the cons is, well, highly debatable.

But if you compare it with female genital mutilation (which is designed to actually harm a woman’s sexual function), you’re being seriously offensive to both the recipients of the former and the victims of the latter.

PS Certain people are not allowed to comment on this thread. They’ll notice by virtue of their comments not being approved. Because totalitarianism.

34 responses to “CIRCUMCISION DEBATE 2012

  1. My member rules in a similar fashion (totalitarian).

    There is room for dull wit right?

  2. You mention surgical risk for cons; but surely the opposition is mostly founded in the pain it causes, and possible psychological consequences thereof?

    Also, who is disallowed from commenting?

    And I will assume the following won’t get ME disallowed from commenting:

    1) I’ve seen not entirely unconvincing arguments that circumcision does impair male sexual function, although obviously not on anything like the same level as female genital mutilation

    2) I’ve seen rather convincing points made that in practice, people in Western countries can do a lot more toward ending circumcision than FGM, even if the former is less objectionable; but that people focus on the latter primarily due to an essentially xenophobic bias that normalises mutilation of male infant genitals simply because it is an historically acceptable cultural practice in Western countries

    3) I’m not personally in the circumcision is so bad it needs to be outlawed tomorrow camp (after all I’m supposed to subscribe to whacky near eastern religious rituals :P). But your claims the two can’t even be compared are…. well, seemingly, evidence of the bias people complain about in 2.

    Put it this way. If you found people took to infant’s arm in a serious way with a razor blade, un-anesthetized, wouldn’t you find that pretty awful? Wouldn’t you argue the practice was morally unacceptable, even if the “only” lasting damage would be the changed physical appearance of the skin and any consequences from the trauma of the operation? Wouldn’t you say that was comparable to other practices you objected to performed on children without their consent, even if not equivalent to those that also carry other serious permanent consequences like loss of sexual function?

    Picture it. I cut a pattern in to my infant’s arm with a razor. It is a cultural practice widely held to be important.

    Is my infant merely a “recipient” of this act, and not a victim? If not, why is cutting skin off a penis so much less significant than what I have described?

  3. Great topic Jeremy.

    While I agree with you that ‘traditional’ FGM is indefensible on multiple grounds – most notably because of its intent – I would argue that not all FGM should be lumped into the one category.

    A couple of years ago there was an outcry when a medical society (I think) issued guidelines to doctors in certain communities stating that a “ritual nick” of the labia would be acceptable as a medical procedure if used to satisfy the religious/cultural beliefs of the parents. In other words, if a set of parents was intent on some level of female circumcision (for whatever reason) then it would be acceptable for the doctor to perform a purely cosmetic procedure that did not impair sexual function but which satisfied the parent’s need to mutilate their child.

    The idea was that if doctors were prevented from offering this relatively benign cosmetic option the parents would often seek ‘full’ female circumcision elsewhere.

    Suffice to say that the Right-o-sphere went absolutely fucking mental – they saw this as pandering to Islam and as such completely unacceptable. But it always struck me that the ‘ritual nick’ suggestion was not that different to circumcision, and I think it’s valid to question whether we apply a double standard in our acceptance of genital mutilation as a religious practice.

  4. Splatterbottom

    At my boarding school in the early 70s about 80% of the boys were circumcised. I presume this was for health reasons, as there was no other reason I can think of as to why protestant parents would have this procedure performed on their children.

    I think there are enough evident health benefits to leave this matter to the parents.

  5. None of the health benefts would be lost by waiting until the boy was old enough to consent.

    Rastrick, great points. Jeremy, don’t shut down the debate that you’re inviting by pre-emptively calling someone ‘seriously offensive’ for seeking to bring in the obvious comparison.

  6. Of course it’s not an obvious or reasonable comparison.

    FGM is mutilation that is intended to harm women’s sexual function.

    Circumcision IS NOT. Clearly. Men function perfectly well when circumcised.

    We can argue about how to evaluate the pros and the cons, but it’s clearly a fundamentally different proposal to FGM, and comparing it as if the “suffering” of circumcised men is in any way similar to the suffering of the victims of FGM is silly.

  7. lauriebraith

    Thus spake the Bishop of Joppa –
    I would think circumcision improper
    If the organ is small,
    But would not mind at all,
    Taking a slice off a whopper.

  8. FGM is mutilation that is intended to harm women’s sexual function.

    What about the ‘ritual nick’ scenario I’ve outlined above – i.e. cosmetic mutilation carried out for religious/cultural reasons? Here is one article on the topic:

    How is that any different to circumcision?

  9. I don’t agree with any of these procedures being imposed on a child for religious/cultural reasons.

    Only medical ones.

  10. So you oppose the Jewish tradition of circumcision?

  11. Splatterbottom

    “How is that any different to circumcision?”

    What are the health benefits of a ritual nick?

  12. So you oppose the Jewish tradition of circumcision?

    I oppose it if the health benefits don’t outweigh the risks.

  13. And let’s not get into the MANNER of circumcision practised by certain Hasidic Jews … yeeurgh …!

  14. Splatterbottom

    Obviously not to your taste, RM?

  15. narcoticmusing

    The WHO define FGM as: “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs whether for cultural or other non-therapeutic reasons”.

    In other words, ritual nicks are out as they serve a cultural or non-therapeutic reason. For the record, I am opposed to any surgical or like procedure being performed on a person without consent without a significant therapeutic rationale. I believe the current rationale for male circumcision to be flakey at best – it is at the least insufficient to negate consent. So yes Mondo, I do oppose the Jewish tradition of circumcision.

    Current medical practice requires any surgical procedure only be performed where there is a demonstrated medical problem or the life is at stake. This is particularly the case where the condition would not particularly worsen with time – ie it could wait until the child was old enough to consent.
    It is the ONLY surgical procedure that can be performed without some significant therapeutic requirement on the consent only of parents.

    Consider that sterilisation of a severely handicapped person requires a court order as it is felt that parents are not best placed to make this decision, despite (and conversely because of) the massive implications this has for carers and for the disabled person.

    All that being said, in terms of what is more ‘urgent’ regarding the harm done, FGM is easily a more urgent cause. Stating that does not mean that I endorse male circumcision, it means that I see a greater harm designed purely to dominate and harm.

  16. I honestly don’t know why this is up for debate – you wouldn’t give a child another kind of scar they couldn’t consent to (say, a ritualistic symbol), so why do we have to have a ‘risks and benefits’ discussion about circumcision? It’s just wrong.

  17. I honestly don’t know why this is up for debate

    Because if the benefits outweigh the risks, then it would be an advisable medical procedure.

    The debate is on how extensive the benefits and risks are.

  18. Touche, SB.

  19. So yes Mondo, I do oppose the Jewish tradition of circumcision.

    Good on you Narc – I also oppose the Jewish tradition of circumcision. Like you, I understand that it is fundamentally not based on “health benefits” but on religious/cultural tradition.

    Anyone can claim that their particular religion-mandated practice has health benefits – I’m sure that practitioners of FGM honestly believe that the practice is in the best interests of their child and would passionately argue their view – but we all know that in reality the health benefits play second-fiddle to the religious/cultural obligation.

    If a “ritual nick” performed for reaons of religious/cultural belief is unacceptable then circumcision performed for exactly the same reasons should be equally unacceptable. And vice-versa.


  20. For the record the errant “because” at the end of my post above is an error – it’s not a childish attempt to finish the argument in the following fashion:

    Question: “Why is circumcision wrong?”

    Mondo: “BECAUSE!”

    Just wanted to clarify . . . .

  21. Splatterbottom

    In general agree with Mondo (that if there is no upside then don’t nick or cut) but … how far should the law go in interfering in this? What about ear-piercing for 5 year olds or tats for 12 year olds?

  22. Like the abortion debate SB, I think there’s a continuum at play here.

    A five year old understands pain and communicate about it, at close to the same level as an adult. Ditto earrings. As ear piercing involves only some pain and no permanent effects, I would thus say five year olds (most of them, anyway) can consent to it. I wouldn’t say a five year old can consent to a tattoo.

    Indeed I wonder about the twelve year old. Not only is the procedure more painful than most things a twelve year old is likely to have experienced, tattoos are close to permanent things that can seriously effect matters like your job prospects, which I doubt twelve year olds really understand at an adult level. So I think its harder to make a call, but personally I think 18 (which i believe is the current law?) is a reasonable age-of-consent-for-tattoos.

    As far as the law goes, its very hard for it to be highly nuanced on these matters – where everything is codified, anyway. Common law with the benefit of a judge’s brain considering the individual case

  23. Those are good questions SB.

    At least in those cases the child will be able to participate in the decision, although as Jordan says their capacity to meaningfully consent is very questionable.

    So should permanent forms of body mutilation (and I would include circumcision in that category) be restricted to people who are ‘of age’?

    Food for thought . . . .

  24. narcoticmusing

    Considering the arugment for FGM and ear piercing/tattoos is similar (cultural / aesthetic / etc – ie not therapeutic) then there should be considerations as to age restrictions. I would, however, agree that there is a sliding scale relating to the permanance of such a ‘mutilation’.

    Certainly, people that get tattoos at 18yo have no clue on the impacts that will have and how career limiting they are.

  25. I have no opinion either way in this argument.

    The only thing I have to say is that my p@nis looks much, much better than everyone else’s here.

  26. Splatterbottom

    RM: “The only thing I have to say is that my p@nis looks much, much better than everyone else’s here.”

    If anyone believes that they are very gullible – i.e. they will swallow anything.

  27. Touche encore!

  28. Yeah, I’ll pay that.

  29. What about ear-piercing for 5 year olds or tats for 12 year olds?

    A rather large difference being that neither ear-piercings nor tattoos have any lifelong physical impacts.

    An ear piercing usually heals up on its own if not kept open by earrings. A tattoo is finally just a picture, even if it hurts going on.

    Circumcision permanently removes a fairly non-trivial chunk of one of the most sensitive parts of the body, permanently reducing physical sensations, and in some cases resulting in sexual impairment (impotence, pain during intercourse, etc).

  30. To draw a comparison between female genital mutilation and male genital mutilation is not only obvious but quite reasonable.

    The comparison can also be made between those practices and the castration of boys for social or artistic reasons as well as the scarification, cicatrisation and tattooing of children for adornment and status.

    Also included in the comparison are examples of foot binding among Chinese and North American Indian communities, ear piercing of infant girls in Spain, neck elongation in Africa and Asia, earlobe and lower lip stretching, tooth ablation and many, many other practices.

    All of these practices are comparable to any reasonable minded person.
    From an anthropological point of view, they are all examples of ritual behavior, each with it’s own cultural meaning and weighting.

    Like all cultural practices, some metastasize into an abhorrent practice, some evolve into benign fashions, some cross cultural lines and take on new meaning and some fade away into history.

    It’s worthwhile to have a discussion about the conflict between ancient and modern values and what steps can be taken to exorcise those parts of ritual which are deemed universally repugnant.
    However, the only people who get upset at comparisons between male circumcision and female circumcision are cultural chauvinists, barrow-pushers and people with zero understanding of the origins and meanings behind these, and all other such, practices.


  31. narcoticmusing

    However, the only people who get upset at comparisons between male circumcision and female circumcision are cultural chauvinists, barrow-pushers and people with zero understanding of the origins and meanings behind these, and all other such, practices.

    Ever been to the Royal Women’s Hospital and spoken to some of the staff there? I have. Do you actually understand the degree of harm being done here? IT IS NOTE EVEN REMOTELY COMPARABLE TO MALE CIRCUMCISION. Some principles may be (which is why I oppose both male and female circumcision), but the harm and actual rationale for the harm is not similar.

    Battery, rape and murder all operate under the same principles that the body is inviolate but no one would suggest that the three should be treated identically or that a comparison is immediately obvious and that anyone offended at a comparison between battery and rape is merely ignorant of the principles.

    I disagree with both male and female circumcision but have also seen the impact of both and would argue it is similar to comparing battery and rape – yes, you’ll offend a LOT of people by saying battery and rape are the same. Similarly, considering the harm and intention of harm of FGM, it is in many ways not comparable to circumcision which is not done for the purpose of harm/domination – it is not done by some archaic idea that a woman must be a virgin or she is worthless.


    It is directly comparable to male circumcision!
    In fact, it is the flip side of the same coin.
    There is not one single anthropologist who would disagree with me on this point.

    Do you actually understand the degree of harm being done here?

    Indeed, I do.
    In fact, when I mentioned how some traditions “metastasize into an abhorrent practice”, I was thinking of female circumcision.

    I think what you and others are angry about is how, once again, ancient rituals always favour the blokes and come down like a tonne of bricks on the women.
    I agree that we should be angry about that.
    But I don’t agree that we should give one ritual a free pass just because it’s not as repugnant as another.

    Similarly, considering the harm and intention of harm of FGM

    I think you need to be very careful here!
    You seem not to have any idea of the cultural imperatives driving this behaviour.
    To think that it’s all based on mothers and fathers wanting to cause their daughters harm is a perfect example of stupid cultural chauvinism.

    To think that all North Africans hate their daughters so much that they have devised this method of punishing them from birth shows that you need to educate yourself on the topic.

    Go and do that.
    When you’re ready to discuss this very difficult topic with a bit more understanding and a bit less outrage, I’ll be here.


  33. Are the results of not circumcising ever this dramatic?

    Do people die from not being circumcised? Because they do from being circumcised (the last one in Australia was in 1993, but as reported here, it is up to 100 per year in the United States: )

    Should the experiences of the men speaking at the bottom of this page be ignored?

    Do a search on it, and you will find hundreds of accounts from men whose sexual function has been impaired due to an unnecessary procedure that has been inflicted upon them without their consent. Just because yours still works ok Jeremy does not mean that everyone’s does. There are not good records, as many of these complications do not occur until puberty, and many men think that the way their penis is is normal, even if it is tight and painful when they get an erection. For those who don’t know, normal penises are not painful when they’re erect.

    This man tried to commit suicide because of the effects of his circumcision, again, he thought he was deformed until the age of 18 or so when he finally realised it was because of his circumcision:

    Regardless of these stories, this is a very simple human rights issue. Children are not property, and parents do not have the right to inflict permanent, irreversible surgery on them without a very good medical reason.

    Preventing issues that have not even occurred yet, and will not occur for the vast majority of people is not a ‘very good medical reason’. Perhaps we should excise baby girls’ breast tissue upon birth, in case they get breast cancer later in life, or maybe just the ones at high genetic risk?

    For someone who is so passionate about human rights Jeremy, I’m very surprised at how blase you seem to be about people having parts of their body removed without their consent.

  34. I believe circumcision is a low-risk surgical operation. However, just like all procedures, may it be for treating an injury or a cosmetic surgery, the success lies on the recovery period.

    Also, even if it is primarily a cultural thing, what can their followers do against it? It is the status quo. The followers have it backed up with some scientific or for some other purpose making it hard to go against the flow. If there is some culture or religion that prioritizes this procedure, it is then very difficult to go against them. But for most religions and cultures hold circumcision as a minor thing, it is no big deal therefore everyone follows it, since there’s no big fuss about it (in this case, there was).

    The number one thing must do is research about it. Understanding the bearing of this procedure, may it be for medical or cultural purposes, is key. Understanding the cultures that undergo this is also crucial. Just because they are different or do things differently from us doesn’t mean they are wrong.

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