The case against circumcision

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Alan Dershowitz’s flippant, dismissive remarks about male genital mutilation (aka circumcision) are infuriating, but an apropos Freudian slip. From where I sit, military Zionism shares a lot in common with this barbaric practice. Both involve inflicting violence against an oppressed victim without regard to his/their wishes, rendering the oppressed a voiceless object, an ‘It’ as opposed to a ‘Thou.’

I’m 37, and have been sitting on a mountain of grief and rage for 17 years, since I discovered what was stolen from me while reading a critique of circumcision in a hip, underground, alternative Jewish newspaper I found at a campus Hillel, of all places.

Most circumcision advocates don’t know the first thing about what a foreskin is and what its purpose is in human sexuality. Did you know that a foreskin increases pleasure for both a man and his partner? Did you know that a foreskin contains tens of thousands of fine touch nerve receptors found nowhere else in the male genitalia, covers and protects the head (glans) of the penis, and creates a pleasure-inducing gliding mechanism? Did you know that circumcision removes the most sensitive and pleasurable parts of the male penis?

Most adult circumcised men I’ve spoken to are reluctant to discuss this topic and get highly defensive about it, saying, “Hey, my penis is perfectly fine. My sex life is great.” If you don’t have a foreskin, you don’t know what you’re missing, Tricking yourself into thinking your sex life is all it could be (when it’s not) is a very bad reason to continue inflicting this cruelty on future generations.

Think of it this way: if there was a ritual surgery performed at birth that removed a child’s ability to see in color, the world would still be beautiful in black-and-white. But why should your son’s ability to see in color be taken away just because yours was? Sex in black-and-white is good, but sex in color is much better.

It’s well documented that one of the primary drives for circumcision, in both Jewish and gentile communities, was to dampen sexual pleasure. Moses Maimonides, the famed medieval Jewish rabbi, physician and philosopher, wrote,  ”One of the reasons for circumcision is to bring about a decrease in sexual intercourse and a weakening of the organ in question.” Shouldn’t that choice be left to the man whose body it is, not inflicted upon him when he’s a defenseless baby?

Much like military Zionism, circumcision is promoted on the back of a load of bald faced lies. Consider “a land without a people for a people without a land.” Its analogs are “circumcision makes the penis cleaner,” “circumcision reduces your chance of catching an STD,” and the shopworn “God commands us to do this” (just like God allegedly promised us this land exclusively, and ordered us to ethnically cleanse it of non-Jews.) None of these statements are true, and I shudder at the necessity of debunking them, but debunk them I must, as I can only assume many readers of this blog have been brainwashed about circumcision as I was as a child, and are perhaps reading a rebuttal of the myths for the first time.

“Circumcision makes the penis cleaner” – Let’s apply some common sense here. Virtually no European men are circumcised. Is there rampant gangrene in Europe? No. Intact male genitals are as easy to clean as a female’s.

“Circumcision reduces your chance of catching an STD” – Again, Europe and common sense are our allies. Why is it that in uncut Europe, STD rates are lower than in circumcised America? Regardless, are infants at risk of catching STDs? Shouldn’t decisions about how to practice safe sex be left to grown men? Condoms and responsible sexual choices prevent STDs, not genital mutilation.

“God commands us to perform circumcision” – In the Torah, God also commands us to stone people to death, burn animal sacrifices, and take slaves from neighboring nations. Jews have given up those unholy practices, why shouldn’t we give this one up too? The majority of Swedish Jews are intact, and guess what? They’re still Jewish! Judaism, whether a cultural, ethnic, or religious identity, does not require circumcision. Jewishness is solely defined by parental lineage or conversion, not by genital cutting. Today, there are Jewish baby welcoming ceremonies for all genders free from genital cutting.

In addition to significantly reducing a grown man’s capacity for sexual pleasure, circumcision is a highly risky, unnecessary surgery that results in over 100 infant fatalities every year in the U.S., and leaves countless others with highly disfigured genitals in so-called “botched” circumcisions. In one famous case, David Reimer committed suicide because of his grief over his lack of a penis, the result of a botched circumcision.

My entire argument boils down to one thing: It should have been my choice, and it should be the choice of every man/boy whose body it is — not the parents. I have no objection to a man who’s reached the age of consent choosing circumcision or any other permanent body modification for himself. But that choice must be preserved, not stolen.

Parents who defend circumcision by saying “It’s a personal choice” – I encounter that argument all the time in my work as an intactivist – are quite delusional to think they should have the right to choose to amputate healthy tissue from a non-consenting minor. They wouldn’t do that to their daughters, why should they have the right to inflict such a human rights violation on their sons?

I stand against sexual abuse, child abuse, genital mutilation, and torture, all of which are accurate – and I meant that logically, according to the precise dictionary definitions of those terms – descriptors of the anachronistic practice euphemestically called ‘circumcision.’ The very fact that our culture is so proud of judging African tribes as barbaric for practicing ‘female genital mutilation,’ while the mainstream media never uses the term ‘male genital mutilation’ to describe what routinely happens here, says a lot. Hint: In Europe, they think we’re as twisted and barbaric as we think the tribes in Africa are. Fortunately, circumcision rates are falling in the U.S., from a peak of higher than 80% in the 1970s to around 33% today.

According to a 1996 U.S. federal law, it is illegal to perform any act of genital cutting on a non-consenting minor female, even variants of circumcision that are far less invasive and damaging than the typical male circumcision. It’s illegal in this country to even prick a clitoral hood and draw a tiny drop of blood from a baby girl for religious purposes, or for any purpsose! I want to see the same legal protections extended to baby boys. In San Francisco, efforts are underway to ban circumcision within city limits, although unfortunately a judge struck it from the ballot – I hope that an appeal will be successful. I see the anti-circumcision movement as being where the gay rights movement was 40 years ago, and I hope it doesn’t take that long to catch up. The organized Jewish community presents a significant barrier to this effort, just as they do in the quest for Palestinian rights.

Back to Mr. Dershowitz. He said:

And the first thing you have to do is have all these guys who are circumcized demand it back, go to the hospital, and have it sewn back on. That’ll make them complete pricks, instead of the pricks that they are, O.K.?

If I could sue the doctor who cut me (unfortunately I’m past the statute of limitations), or wave a magic wand and regenerate what I lost, believe me I would. But since I can’t do either of those things, I’m restoring. It doesn’t give me back everything that your allies in the penis mutilation industry stole from me, and it doesn’t provide justice for the crime, but it does make a big difference.

And I’ll tell you what Mr. Dershowitz, circumcision has something in common with military, apartheid Zionism: both belong in the dustbin of history. Someday – someday! – Palestinians and Israelis will live together as equals, and someday baby boys will enjoy the same human rights baby girls already do in this country, namely, freedom from non-consensual genital cutting. I wonder if your fear that we’ll ask for our foreskins back is an analogue to your fear of ethnically cleansed Palestinians demanding their right of return.

(An aside: The fact that circumcision is widely practiced by Muslims, American gentiles, and others doesn’t let Dershowitz and his pro-mutilation allies off the hook. Worldwide, 75% of men are intact, putting the circumcision camp in a dwindling minority.)

For more info, check out my resources page.

P.S. – Mr. Dershowitz, if you’re reading this, I challenge you to a public debate about circumcision. I’ll win. All I need is one legal, constitutional argument: it’s called Equal Protection. Thus, if this law were ever challenged at the Supreme Court level, it would have to be amended to outlaw male genital mutilation, too. Maybe you’d get used to Brit Shaloms instead, I hear they’re quite enjoyable for everyone involved – especially the baby.

About Matthew Taylor

Matthew A. Taylor is co-founder of PeacePower magazine, and author of "The Road to Nonviolent Coexistence in Palestine/Israel," a chapter in the book Nonviolent Coexistence.

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190 Responses

  1. cosmopolite
    December 10, 2011, 11:54 pm

    I am well aware of Matthew Taylor’s writings on this tender topic. I am an intactivist who takes a close interest in Jewish intactivism, even though I am not Jewish. I believe that intactivism cannot win in the USA until American doctors and medical school profs firmly discourage routine circumcision. I believe that American medicine will not cross this bridge until liberal and secular Jews fully accept that brit milah can be a free adult choice. Jews will not cross that bridge unless and until
    Jewish intactivists convince a fair fraction of Canadian and American Jews. Hence I see helping and supporting American Jewish intactivists as a moral imperative.

    The large North American Jewish community will have to come to terms with the fact that many Jews outside of Israel and North America have quietly abandoned brit milah sometime in the last 150 years. “Uncircumcised Jew” is NOT an oxymoron!

    Let me reiterate that intactivism is NOT about forbidding circumcision. It is NOT about forcing devout Jewish women to marry intact spouses. Intactivism only wishes that circumcision take place after the 18th or 21st birthday, so that the owner can fully consent to it, after being informed of the potential sexual drawbacks. Delaying circumcision until the owner had attained his majority would also greatly enhance the ability of the circumcised penis to serve as a bodily sign of faith, commitment and loyalty. To circumcise at 8 days of age only attests to the faith etc. of the father, a much lesser thing. If it proves very difficult to convince young Jewish men to have a bris of their own free will, that would be telling evidence that circumcision indeed does have sexual drawbacks.

    Finally, there are Jewish men who are angry about the fact that the faith of their ancestors required that the most sexual part of their bodies undergo a minor operation. And the number of Jewish men who feel this way will rise over time, because of the availability and quality of intactivist prose on the internet. Most of all, given present-day mores, it is easy for a young unmarried nonorthodox Jewish woman to experience intercourse with an intact man. More than a few Jewish young women are hedonists and blog about it. The result will be more and more Jewish mothers who will refuse to let their infant sons go through brit milah.

  2. cosmopolite
    December 12, 2011, 7:36 pm

    The link below is to an article that powerfully refutes the claim that the randomised clinical trials support mass circumcision in Africa as an AIDS-fighting strategy:

    It also is a raw fact that HIV and other STDs are more common in the USA (where adult men are heavily circumcised) than in continental Europe and Japan (where only Moslems are circumcised).

    The claim is only that if a man is circumcised and doesn’t use condoms, he is less likely to catch HIV from an infected woman on any given sexual act. What if circumcised men interpret that as a licence to have unsafe sex? It is also quite possible that all circumcision accomplishes is delaying the inevitable. We cannot determine that from the extant evidence, because the trials were cut short after only 6 months. They should have been run for 5, better yet 10, years.

    Every village commissary in Africa should stock free condoms, paid for by Bill and Melinda Gates. That might save lives. Pruning willies will not.

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