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Illustration by Ed Appleby
Illustration by Ed Appleby

The history of male circumcision, its current state, and now-wavering future

By Jacey Gibb, Assistant Editor

Cut versus uncut, turtleneck versus sweater, anteater versus mushroom head. There’s no shortage of terms used to identify whether or not a male is circumcised, but behind the creative nicknames and endless argument over which is “better,” there exists an agglomeration of history on the practice of circumcision, the motives behind it, and what emerging information tells us about the procedure’s future.

Fleshing out the history of male circumcision

It may seem rudimentary for some, but let’s start with what I mean when I say circumcision. Males are born with a layer of stretchable skin over their penis called the foreskin. Male circumcision is the act of removing said foreskin so that the glans penis (usually referred to as the head) is exposed. The actual procedure can take anywhere from 30 seconds to half an hour (depending on the patient’s age) and can take up to a few weeks to fully heal.

Like most traditions, there’s no clear-cut date on when male circumcision first came onto the scene; while some reports show the practice having been around since 2400 BC, the first documented case of male circumcision came in the 23rd-century BC. For nearly 4,000 years, wherever there have been dicks, there have been male circumcisions.

So why is it that people have their sons circumcised or that men undergo the surgery later in life?

Religion is by the far the most common reason behind male circumcision, with purpose varying between what faith they belong to. In the case of Judaism, circumcision is required of all newborn boys (usually eight days after the child is born) during a ceremony known as the brit milah. As described in the Hebrew Bible, God commanded to Abraham that all males be circumcised as a sign of the covenant of God. This is why almost all practicing Jews are circumcised.

Other religions aren’t as stern with male circumcision as Judaism is. The practice is mentioned in the New Testament, but Christianity does not make it a requirement. Islam is another religion that debates the necessity of male circumcision; it is recommended that Muslim boys are circumcised before they reach puberty, but others insist that because it is not mentioned in the Qur’an, it is not mandatory.

For older males, a common reason to undergo circumcision is because of phimosis, which is when the foreskin is too tight and unable to pull back over the glans penis. Besides being uncomfortable, phimosis can pose as a serious health issue if the penis becomes swollen or develops a rash.

The other argument in favour of circumcision comes from its reported health benefits. Particularly during the infant years, male circumcision can help reduce the risk of developing a urinary tract infection—though the chances of one are marginal, even before the risk reduction. Penile cancer is also more likely to occur in uncircumcised men, but like urinary tract infections, this is uncommon for both.

The one area in which male circumcision proves a notable benefit is in helping to reduce the risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections, especially against the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). In fact, the Global Advocacy for HIV Prevention declared last summer that “Voluntary medical male circumcision is one of the most effective HIV prevention tools available today.” In countries where HIV is more prevalent, such as South Africa, Nigeria, and India, male circumcision is becoming more common.

Cut it out, you guys

While some countries are embracing male circumcision like never before, the number of circumcisions performed annually is on a decline, globally.

Though a direct correlation is hard to show, the simultaneous decline in religion and reduced circumcision rates is impossible to ignore. In the United States, 20 per cent of the population now identify as having “no religious affiliation,” the highest percentage ever reported on the subject. At the same time, only half of male infants being born are undergoing circumcisions, down significantly from the 1970s, when 79 per cent of newborns underwent the procedure. A drop in religious self-identification means a drop in religious practices means a decline in things like male circumcision.

Another factor behind circumcision’s decreased popularity is a shift in public perception. Advocates against male circumcision are more vocal than ever, calling the practice barbaric or harmful towards the infant. The controversy has even rippled governments, with a court in Germany banning the practice in the city of Cologne, after an infant experienced heavy bleeding post-circumcision.

Anti-circumcision activists claim a variety of reasons why the surgery should not be practiced. Aside from arguing that the operation is painful for the infant, the possibility of “botched” circumcisions can have severe consequences. The most infamous example would be that of David Reimer, who underwent sexual reassignment after a failed circumcision rendered his penis unusable. Reimer’s parents then approved of a sexual reassignment procedure, gave him the name “Brenda,” and proceeded to raise him as a girl. After a lifetime of sexual confusion and bullying, which eventually led to Reimer’s parents telling him the truth about his initial sex, Reimer underwent another reassignment. He would later commit suicide, with depression being seen as a major factor. Reimer’s highly documented case of sexual reassignment as the result of a failed circumcision has often made him a martyr for anti-circumcision advocates.

While cases like Reimer’s are rare, the risks involved with male circumcision mean that fewer people are willing to pursue the entirely optional procedure. When I mentioned to a co-worker, newly a father himself, that I was writing an article on male circumcision, he told me of his own experience with the perspectives of modern parents. In a prenatal class he had taken prior, only one set of parents had entertained the idea of circumcision, and it was only because the father was pushing for it. None of the other parents were even considering the procedure. While certainly a small sample to look at, my co-worker’s story further established the belief that male circumcision is no longer as prominent as it once was.

Headed towards a consensus?

For every country that begins advocating male circumcision, another begins to experience a decline. While the motivations behind the procedure have shifted in the last few decades, it’s not likely that male circumcision will be disappearing anytime soon. Groups like Jews Against Circumcision and Mothers Against Circumcisions continue to put pressure on the procedure’s legality and practice, but it’s doubtful either side will prevail.

My own stance in this debate doesn’t lack bias: I myself fall under the category of uncut, a decision my parents made for me when I was younger—and none of us have really looked back since.

“Did you put much thought into why you didn’t have me circumcised?” I asked my mom during one of the weirdest four-minute phone conversations we’d ever had.

“Well, I thought about it a little bit and I thought ‘Are we supposed to do that?’” she replied, recalling the question many mothers go through when dealing with a newborn. “But I also thought ‘What’s the point?’”

Unaware of both the benefits and risks to the procedure, my parents’ decision was completely untouched from external influences. And because my family is relatively unreligious, there was no pressure to have the operation performed for religious purposes.

“In Judaism, the book of Genesis says that God told Abraham that every boy should be circumcised.” I tell her.

“But didn’t God also tell Abraham to sacrifice his son?”