Love and Sex: The Double Standard of Male Circumcision

posted in: Love & Sex, Student Life | 12

Male circumcision has been in practice for thousands of years and is a spiritual ritual found in cultures around the world, and was once thought to be beneficial for health. In 1989, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) concluded that neonatal circumcision offered potential medical benefits and advantages as well as disadvantages and risks. In 1999, the AAP updated its policy statement, which emphasized that the procedure be conducted under local anesthesia —meaning for 10 years it was routine to perform neonate circumcisions without any pain management. Today, applying local anesthesia is common, but not a medical standard. In 2012, the AAP redacted its previous statement that circumcision has significant health benefits- the reduced risk of sexually transmitted diseases and urinary tract infections and instead stated that the potential benefits of circumcision were, “sufficient to justify access to this procedure for families choosing it,” but did not stand by it being a routine practice for all newborn males. Today, 1 in 3 people who are assigned male at birth are circumcised globally. 

Circumcision is recommended in the first six weeks of life, as this is when the procedure, which involves the partial or complete removal of the foreskin, has shown to have the least complications. Complications include (but are not limited to) infection, irritation causing painful urination, cysts, urinary retention, skin bridges, penile necrosis, and death. It should be noted that the rate of neonate circumcision complications (during and post-procedure) is 2-6 in 1000, which includes mild side-effects such as bleeding, as well as severe complications. 

Nowadays, we have more parents choosing to skip circumcision-today the rate of neonate circumcision is 50% in the U.S compared to between 60-90% (depending on region) 30 years ago. Activist groups like the Bloodstained Men and Intact America are raising concern over the ethics of performing medically unnecessary procedures on unconsenting babies. Medical ethics aside, opponents of circumcision also point out that in other industrialized nations, circumcision is far less common, and medical agencies aren’t advocating for it like they do in the U.S. This often begs the question of whether or not circumcision is purely medical for many parents; in 1988, 90% of surveyed women said circumcised penises look better, and in the past 15 years, numerous studies have backed the idea that North American women prefer circumcised penises. This has led to a social stigma associated with uncut men, usually residing around the aesthetics or the presumed hygiene of uncircumcised penises, which doctors are claiming is why young adults are seeking circumcision at concerning rates.

It’s upsetting to realize we live in a society where someone can be so harshly judged based on how the most private area of their body looks that they feel the need to go through a painful surgical procedure in order to fit in. What’s more upsetting is that we as adults get to influence how other people’s bodies will look, and manipulate them in such invasive and irreversible ways. Female circumcision is now known as female genital mutilation and is recognized as a violation of human rights by the World Health Organization, and the United Nations among others. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that the procedure for FGM is extremely different, has no medical benefits, and is an extremely barbaric form of violence. Women are not afforded the luxury of circumcisions in sterile hospitals under the care of health professionals, and many are well into childhood when it is performed. But just because male circumcision is widely accepted and routinely performed, doesn’t negate the ethical considerations and the social implications that come with it. — Haley Berger

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Major: Public Health

Hometown: Portland, Oregon

Hobbies: I love to garden during summer but once the weather turns you’ll find me inside with my cat, crocheting or rewatching my favorite comfort movies; Pride and Prejudice and Twilight

12 Responses

  1. Hans Castorp

    Wherever female genital cutting is performed, so is male cutting. And under similar conditions of hygiene, or lack of hygiene.

    The same proverbial rusty razor blade used on girls is used on boys as well.

    “Septic shock causes many fatalities. The problem is most severe in the Eastern Cape province, where nearly 500 young men have died in circumcision rituals since 2006, including 83 last year, according to the provincial health department.”, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/in-south-africa-circumcision-ritual-becomes-health-crisis/

  2. Dan Bollinger

    Thanks for writing about this topic. I’ve been involved in stopping male genital cutting, aka circumcision, for a long time. To me, it doesn’t matter if the child is female, male, or intersex, surgically altering their sex organs is abhorrent and must be stopped.

    • Byron Robinson

      I agree Dan. Children who are unable to protect themselves deserve to be protected. I commend you for standing up for children’s rights.

  3. Ronald Goldman, PhD

    Circumcision causes physical, sexual, and psychological harms. It removes a natural, healthy, functioning body part that contributes significantly to sexual pleasure to the future man and his partner. No national medical organization in the world recommends elective non-therapeutic circumcision. A dozen such organizations oppose it. Male circumcision continues because it is a trauma. Psychologist know and research confirms that traumatized people have a compulsion to repeat their traumas on their children. This is why, for example, adults that were abused as children are more likely to abuse their children. Traumas inflicted two thousand years ago and today are similarly traumatic. Health claims are excuses to defend traumas. Aside from American, Muslims, and Jews, less than 5% of the world circumcises males. For more information see circumcision dot org.

    • Byron Robinson

      Rav, there are many inaccuracies in the articles which you have provided links to in your comment. You also accuse those who are opposed to or who question male circumcision as being biased, but you seem to fail to realize that you yourself are so biased that you are providing information that in some cases is highly debatable and in many cases is inaccurate. You are just as biased as some who oppose circumcision, and in some cases even more so. You state in more than one of your articles that FGM is the polar opposite of male circumcision. This is not an accurate statement. There are many different types of FGM and there have been many different reasons for doing it during history and not always to control or sexually repress a woman. Male circumcision has also been done for many different reasons over history and has also been performed in various ways with also varying degrees of damage to the genitals just as there’s varying degrees of damage possible with FGM. There are forms of FGM that do less damage to the female genitals than male circumcison causes to male genitals. Abraham supposedly circumcised himself with a piece of flint. The amount of foreskin that he would have been able to remove would be nowhere near to what is being removed nowadays with the aid of devices such as the Gomco or Mogen clamps. You need to research circumcision to understand who thought that it was necessary to remove the entire foreskin instead of just a small amount at the tip as would have been done years ago. I have also noticed that people who perform circumcision like to try to justify it by claiming that there are medical benefits, including people who do it for religious reasons. These so called medical benefits are debatable, often negligible and sometimes completely false. It seems like a last ditch attempt to try to justify something that most people don’t agree with. There have been many religious practices which have changed or become obsolete over time. Circumcision is just another one of these.

  4. Byron R

    Hayley, I would like to compliment you on your article. Even though it is rather short, you do a good job of pointing out that circumcision of male children is indeed a double standard. Most people circumcise and mutilate their child’s genitals, both male and female for reasons other than possible medical benefits. It is mostly done for religious and cultural reasons and also for aesthetic reasons. Many parents have no clue how to properly clean their child’s intact genitals and neither do many doctors and health care persons who provide parents with incorrect information. Many think a boy has phimosis and needs a circumcision at a young age when this is not actually true.
    There’s tons of information about both male and female genital modification. Some of it is true, some of it is false and some of it is debatable.
    One of the things in your article which you could correct however is your statement that you say that you understand that FGM is completely different, has no medical benefits and is an extremely barbaric form of violence. Your statement is not necessarily true, especially in some regards. Firstly, there are several types of FGM. Some types actually do LESS genital damage than male circumcision. Genital cutting of males and females is not always completely different and is actually often very similar and also done for similar reasons. There have been studies done, papers and articles written and doctors and health care professionals that have said that there are medical benefits to some forms of female genital modification. Some forms of FGM were allowed in the USA up until 1996. A judge in the USA stated in the past few years that the US Congress did not have the right to make FGM a criminal federal offence. It was an interesting case and worth looking up. Most USA states have since made their own laws which makes it illegal. As for being barbaric, I think if any caring person watches a genital modification procedure of a child, they have to admit that it resembles some type of torture procedure. Just reading about the procedure and the equipment and devices used such as clamps is enough to make you feel uncomfortable.
    Another statement you made deserves correction as well. Females have and are sometimes afforded the luxury of having genital surgery done in sterile hospital settings with health care professionals. However, not all male circumcisions are done in sterile hospital settings either. Parts of Africa do circumcisions in terrible conditions. Places like the Philippines do public circumcision events even.
    Genital modification of a non- consenting person, even a child is a form of abuse. If you read the definition of mutilation, you have to conclude that it is genital mutilation. Unfortunately, people have become so complacent, inconsiderate and ill informed that many think it is perfectly fine to cut off and throw away perfectly healthy and functional body parts of children who have no idea what is being done to them or why and who don’t get any say about the function and appearance of their own body. It truly is a travesty of justice.
    Thank you for highlighting the double standard and showing compassion. And yes, I am a male.

  5. Chris Nichols

    Circumcision is particularly harmful during the first six weeks of life, a crucial stage of infant development. Apart from direct impacts on the developing brain and limbic system, the surgery disrupts the process of mother-infant bonding (eye contact and breastfeeding both negatively impacted, as studies have shown). Neonatal circumcision has been routinely performed without anaesthesia for far longer than 10 years — try: 150 years, in Anglophone medical contexts. Complication rates cited in this article are also vastly underestimated. Inherently harmful, the amputation of healthy, functional tissue constitutes a gross breach of biomedical ethics and children’s rights.

  6. Georganne Chapin

    Excellent essay. A couple of points: 1. Cultures that practice FGC (female genital cutting) claim the same kinds of medical and social benefits as Americans cite to justify MGC (male genital cutting). 2. Men in countries where circumcision rates are negligible (under 10 percent) are no “cleaner” or healthier than American men despite the fact that an estimated 70-80% of American males overall have undergone removal of their normal and functional foreskins, in what can also (like FGC) be described as an “extremely barbaric form of violence” — no matter that the person wielding the knife is wearing a white coat. 3. Parental consent is not valid, because it can only be invoked for procedures necessary to treat a life- or health-threatening pathology. Cutting the healthy genitals of any child violates all principles of accepted medical ethics.

  7. Johannes Busch

    A good consideration of the ethical problem, although relativizing tendencies are recognizable. Accordingly, two assertions are incorrect or not precise in their generalized form:

    Female genital mutilation is not per se more serious than male genital mutilation. In fact, there are dozens of rites and practices in both sexes, ranging from “rusty blade in the bush” to medicalized practices in the clinic, and with effects ranging from “harmless” to deadly. And what we still euphemistically call male “circumcision” is far from the most harmless practice on the male side. Tens of thousands of children die from it every year, even in the hygienically impeccable settings of (American) clinics and outpatient ambulances.

    A second objection: It is not true that females do not have access to medicalized procedures. A common form of forced female circumcision is the Muslim Khatna (Khitna, Khafz, Sunat), in which the prepuce (clitoral hood) is removed. It is often practiced in the clinic immediately after birth or in early childhood. More than 100 million affected women and girls make it by far the most widespread form of female genital mutilation worldwide.

    Fortunately, particularly brutal forms of forced female genital cutting such as infibulation (Pharaonic Cut) and comparable atrocities have been pushed back quite successfully. They make up “only” less than 5 percent (WHO: less than 10 percent) of all events today. However, to compare it with the comparatively “harmless” practice of male foreskin amputation or even to derive an absolute incomparability of FGM and MGM from this can only be described as dubious and as an attempt to justify male “circumcision”.

    This means, It can never be about starting a “suffering competition” of ANY kind here. ALL surgical interventions on the genitals that are not medically absolutely necessary should be rejected, especially when they are performed on children’s genitals that are not yet developed.

    Another problem arises: We will not be able to protect one sex in the long term as long as we leave the other sex unprotected. “FGM and MGM walk through the same door” is not a saying without reason. They fuel each other. They justify each other. This means concerning forced genital cutting: If we don’t leave the path of the double standard, the battle could be completely lost for ALL those affected in the long run. And nobody who cares about the well-being of children will seriously want that.

  8. A.W. Strouse, Ph.D.

    The two procedures are really not comparable. And the equation is sexist.

    There simply is no equivalence between female circumcision (which is totally cruel, and designed to oppress) and male circumcision (which is benign in comparison, and not entirely without a scientific rationale).

    The conflation of male and female circumcision is like the genital version of saying that “all lives matter.” The comparison obfuscates how clearly more harm is being done to a relatively more oppressed group of people.

    A.W. Strouse, author of Form and Foreskin (https://www.fordhampress.com/9780823294756/form-and-foreskin/).

  9. Eric

    What I find really disturbing is that there are studies to try to find a medical benefit for cutting males, but I have yet to see a study trying to find a medical benefit for cutting females. Cutting either is wrong, but society accepts one enough that they have tried their hardest to justify it. I’m not sure why the author says there are no medical benefits to female genital cutting since she doesn’t link to any studies showing it. Also, many males have circumcisions performed well into childhood as well.

    Finally, it’s misleading in that final paragraph to say that fgm is different without going into the details of what makes it different. Fgm can be more or less of an invasive procedure depending on the type. The type of Fgm the AAP wanted to legalize in order to placate , the pin prick, is much less invasive yet many people still see it as worse than Mgm and their brains shut down to the logic behind those feelings. The gender barriers are so strongly built that knocking them down has been an extremely difficult task.

    Fortunately, Foregen is on its way to developing a regenerative treatment to give mgm survivors a completely regrown foreskin. The knowledge of an available therapy for people affected by mgm will help people take a deeper look at the harm that was done to them.

    It is a challenge now to accept this loss because it can cause severe mental trauma in men, which is why many have no choice but to deny that anything is wrong. This is because they don’t know any different and have no way yet to regain what they have lost. I believe this is the same for women who vehemently deny any loss because they have to stay mentally calloused as to not fall apart.

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