Opening the paper recently, I noted that the circumcision is being recommended as a preventative strategy for Africa by the United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS.
That is appalling.
For one thing, it’s absurd for a UN organization to seriously advocate male circumcision as a viable way to reduce HIV-infection rates, considering that it would inevitably do little to slow the spread of the virus across the continent. If anything, it would probably increase the spread as many of the men who had the operation would suddenly think themselves invulnerable and have more unprotected sex.
But my reaction goes beyond that to the sheer nonchalance with which they make the proposal.
Western culture has a double standard in its approach to circumcision. When it comes to the practice of so-called “female circumcision,” or as it is more properly known, female genital cutting, people are adamant about the need for abolition. It is a cruel and barbaric practice designed to repress female sexuality. But why is male circumcision not treated the same way?
If anything, Western culture condones male circumcision to such an extent that it advocates the procedure in many secular circles. I have heard people who, in the same breath as condemning female genital cutting, go on to say they were glad that their boyfriend was circumcised. It doesn’t even occur to them that male circumcision is still genital mutilation – but one that is a tragically socially acceptable variety.
Of course, when I point it out, some people are quick to retort that “it’s not the same thing.” And to an extent they’re right — female genital cutting often destroys a woman’s ability to enjoy sex, depending on the type of cutting involved (and there are at least four different varieties practiced by different cultures).
But let’s be honest here. You can’t claim that male circumcision doesn’t affect a man’s ability to enjoy sex.
People dismiss male circumcision as “just a little snip” and that it’s “just a piece of skin.” It’s a nice lie they tell themselves to continue to condone the practice, when it truth, it’s more than just a piece of skin. When an infant is circumcised, he is robbed of about 51 percent of his penile skin — between sixty and ninety square centimetres of sensitive tissue. That much skin anywhere else on a person’s body would contain some 2.1 metres of nerves and have about 50 nerve-endings. But the foreskin is much more sensitive, containing some 73 metres of nerves and 1,000 nerve endings.
Cutting it robs that part of his body of protection, hardens the remaining tissue, and destroys any number of hormone triggers. This is not just “a piece of skin.” It’s an important part of his genitals, and one cannot real-istically argue that taking away all those nerve endings and the lubrication provided by the foreskin doesn’t affect his ability to enjoy sex.
But in our culture, we refuse to see it as mutilation (perhaps like other cultures are slow to recognize the dark truth of female circumcision). In our culture, we create new ways of justifying the practice, from hygiene to health concerns, never mind that most of those reasons have been disproved, especially as many are holdovers from the 19th century when the practice came back into common use because it was thought to discourage masturbation (which was considered dirty and evil).
And then there are the ethics of neonatal circumcision. Even if we brushed aside the issue of consent, there is the whole question of causing extreme pain. According to a 1998 study, anaesthesia was used in only 45 percent of infant circumcisions, because doctors convinced themselves that an infant wouldn’t remember the pain — even after studies involving vaccinations later disproved this myth as well. Still, we cling to the practice.
Fortunately in Canada, the rates of infant circumcision have been dropping steadily over the past couple decades after most provinces delisted the practice as “medically unnecessary.” But in the US the practice is still widespread, and I still see many doctors telling people that it’s a good thing to have done, despite the evidence to the contrary. And we still don’t see enough people condemning the practice as mutilation.
I believe there is silence about this because it affects the sex lives of men, and most men don’t talk about their sex lives unless it is to put on a front of false bravado. The visceral discomfort with the topic makes sure that nobody questions the status quo, and mutilation continues.
Ideally, no one should have to face the pain of this kind of mutilation, but the only way to stop it is through education. And if we are starting to educate the world about the dangers of female genital cutting, then we should also speak up for the other half of the population, who cannot speak for themselves as this is inflicted upon them at birth. Mutilation is still mutilation, no matter the gender having it imposed on them.