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1 May 2006
The Long And Painful History Of Circumcision
by Paul A.

If you're reading this there is a 50 percent probability that your genitals have been mutilated. If you were reading this twenty years ago that figure would be over 80 percent. Between 1950 and 1980, almost ninety percent of newborn babies in the English speaking world were circumcised within days of their birth. Times have changed and this once ubiquitous practice is now generally discouraged in most Western countries (the United States, as usual, being the exception).

Jews circumcise their male infants shortly after birth and Muslim boys are circumcised in adolescence, for spiritual reasons; although how hacking off part of someone's dick contributes to their spirituality is not really explained. Melanesians, Polynesians and indigenous Australians circumcised their young men as an adolescent rite of passage; something like a ritualized form of hazing.

The Spanish conquistadors put an end to circumcision in Aztec rituals, believing any attention paid to the genitals to be sinful. But so many disparate cultures practice or have practiced circumcision, that one is driven to wonder if there isn't some inborn human proclivity to hack off chunks of our dicks. Where does the idea come from? Were a bunch of Neanderthals hanging around the campfire feeling bored and looking for something new to do? Did some bright young spark jump up and shout "I know, let's mutilate our dicks!"?

We all know that guys are obsessed with their dicks, but is it possible that the same bizarre idea would occur independently to scores of isolated tribes and cultures scattered around the globe? Maybe yes, maybe no. There are competing theories and seeing as there is no real evidence to support these views, we can safely throw aside academic caution and speculate freely.

The apparent universality of circumcision has led some to conclude that the practice predates the original exodus of Homo Sapiens out of Africa. There is considerable genetic and archaeological evidence that the entire human race is descended from one tribe that crossed from the horn of Africa to the Arabian Peninsula about 125,000 years ago. If these early humans practiced circumcision, then it's not surprising to find so many isolated cultures continuing the practice. After all, if intelligent, educated, modern men can subject their infant sons to genital mutilation for the singular reason that "he should look like me", then it's not absurd to think that such a strange practice would be passed on through the generations in more primitive cultures. The fact that circumcision is widely practiced in East Africa has been offered in support of this hypothesis.

But there's also good reason to think the concept of hacking off one's foreskin may have arisen independently amongst different cultures for different reasons. The first and most obvious is as a token of sacrifice. There seems to be a universal tendency among humans to offer sacrifices to the gods. The concept of reciprocity is deeply ingrained in our psyches. If the gods have total power over us and provide for us, then what can we offer them in return? A couple of primo sheep might do in good times, but what do you do after a couple of years of drought? It's obvious the Gods are pissed off, but how to appease them? They've been offered boffo sheep, cattle, maybe a virgin or two; and it still hasn't rained. What's left? Well... how about some blood, pain and the permanent loss of pleasure? That should do the trick! When you think about it in this context, the idea of circumcision becomes less absurd. The foreskin is probably the only part of our anatomy that we can lose without incurring serious hardship. The book of Genesis makes frequent references to sacrifice. God wanted Abraham to sacrifice his son but relents and requires Abraham instead to make a sacrifice of his foreskin. Seems like a good trade-off to me. And hey, Abraham was in his nineties at the time and probably past his prime; what did he care?

Another rationale is as an initiation rite. Nothing bonds brothers quite like blood and pain. This happens in battle of course but battles are costly; carving out chunks of your own flesh, less so. Many tribes that practice circumcision also practice a particularly toe-curling ritual called subincision. Subincision involves slicing open the underside of the penis (sub, as well as, circum). Who came up with this idea we'll never know but it's easy to see how such an idea would arise. G. Gordon Liddy used to hold his hand over an open flame to test himself. Teenagers get the most sensitive parts of their bodies pierced. It's a display of machismo. If you want to be part of the club you must prove yourself. That's why hazing rituals and other acts of monumental stupidity are enshrined and defended as bonding rites. Although in our culture, I suspect if some guy suggested subincision as a bonding ritual he'd be voted out of the club. There's also the idea of circumcision as an act of purification. This fits in with the Arabic/Semitic equating of sexual pleasure with evil. One must rid oneself of excessive pleasure and the foreskin is a good place to start! The same logic lies behind female circumcision, which involves the removal of not just the female foreskin (clitoral hood), but the clitoris as well. It's not surprising that some cultures which practice male circumcision as a purification ritual (Arabic and East African mostly), also practice female circumcision. There's no reference to circumcision in the Qur'an but there is in the Sunnah (the second source of Islamic law after the Qur'an) which details the customs of Mohammed and the culture in which he was raised. It's interesting to note that while purity is offered as the rational for Islamic circumcision, the practice of it is steeped in the ethos of male bonding. This is something that goes back a long way.

There are no doubt other reasons why primitive cultures embraced circumcision. One of them could have been health. The rationale behind twentieth century circumcision was health related and there are a number of problems - usually infections - that can arise in the uncircumcised penis. From a purely pragmatic viewpoint, we may be better off without our dear foreskins, and it's not inconceivable that some tribes may have come to circumcision by this route.

However it got started, the practice of circumcision seems destined to remain with us. Cultures have their rationales - even if they're not rational. I think it's a good thing that the practice of universal prophylactic circumcision is on the wane. I was part of a generation that had their foreskin removed as a matter of medical expediency and I'm sorry it happened. That said, I'd prefer that to having it sawed off with a stone knife in some initiation ritual; and I'm doubly glad I never had to submit to a subincision.

And I'd wouldn't let some aging biker chick with a mullet and an AC-DC tattoo push a burning needle through my knob either. Some expressions of machismo just ain't worth it.

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