Discussions on female genital mutilation are quite common. People are generally in agreement on the issue. The term “female genital mutilation” isn’t considered confrontational or controversial. It is a practice that clearly doesn’t merely have no medical benefit to women, it is obviously harmful, and is blatantly justified by its practitioners as a means to steal sexual pleasure and enjoyment from women and consequently serves a purpose as an attempted deterrent against recreational sexual activity.
Something that never comes into question is the male parallel to this practice. The practitioners don’t say “female genital mutilation”. They call it “female circumcision”. No one seems to be asking questions about male circumcision. Why is male circumcision performed? We know it is a Jewish religious practice, so why do non-Jews get circumcised, too? What purpose is circumcision supposed to serve for men? Evidently, the reasoning behind circumcision is not so dissimilar between men and women.
Before getting into history, an explanation is in order for women. Men’s and women’s sexual organs are essentially the same. For the first six-to-eight weeks of embryonic development, all human beings develop as females. It is only after six-to-eight weeks that the Y chromosome kicks in and tells male embryos to start developing as males. By this point, there is already a basic outline of the reproductive system. There are the ovaries, which become the testes. There is a clitoris, a phallic structure which grows into the penis. The vaginal opening closes back up to create the scrotum. The urethra routes itself through the phallis. The foreskin is the clitoral hood. So, if a woman wants to think of male circumcision in a way that relates to her, then think of the procedure of circumcision as the surgical removal of the clitoral hood.
The foreskin, and hood, serve the purpose of making the phallus a semi-internal organ. The foreskin keeps the glans, or head, of the penis soft, and sensitive. Most of the nerve endings are in the glans (though I have read statements from medical papers suggesting that the foreskin actually contains more nerve endings) of the penis. What happens when the foreskin is removed is that the glans is forced to harden, creating a sort of skin shield. This reduces exposure of the nerve endings in the glans of the penis.
That description should give the women readers an idea of how to relate to male circumcision. Now, history.
The Hellenistic Jewish Biblical philosopher Philo Judaeus (alternately known as Philo of Alexandria, Yedidia, and Philo the Jew) defended circumcision in the 1st century Greco-Roman world, which perceived circumcision as a barbaric practice that mutilated a perfectly shaped organ. Philo claimed that circumcision had benefits to health, cleanliness, and fertility. He insisted that foreskin blocked semen. More interestingly, Philo also held that circumcision would be an effective method of reducing sexual pleasure, stating, “The legislators thought good to dock the organ which ministers to such intercourse thus making circumcision the symbol of excision of excessive and superfluous pleasure” (Gollaher, David L, 2000, “Circumcision: A history of the world’s most controversial surgery”).
The great 12th century Jewish philosopher Maimonides (otherwise known as Moses ben-Maimon or Rambam) followed suit. In “The Guide for the Perplexed”, Maimonides wrote:
The bodily pain caused to that member is the real purpose of circumcision. None of the activities necessary for the preservation of the individual is harmed thereby, nor is procreation rendered impossible, but violent concupiscence and lust that goes beyond what is needed are diminished. The fact that circumcision weakens the faculty of sexual excitement and sometimes perhaps diminishes the pleasure is indubitable. For if at birth this member has been made to bleed and has had its covering taken away from it, it must indubitably be weakened. The Sages, may their memory be blessed, have explicitly stated: It is hard for a woman with whom an uncircumcised man has had sexual intercourse to separate from him. In my opinion this is the strongest of the reasons for circumcision (Maimonides, “The Guide for the Perplexed”, Volume III, Chapter 49, Page 609).
In other words, it is the undisputed fact that circumcision reduces sexual pleasure and enjoyment that circumcision is performed. Not only for men, either. The circumcision of men was expected to even diminish the pleasures of sex for women. Maimonides suggests that if a woman were to have sexual intercourse with an uncircumcised man, then she may not be able to restrain herself from having sex non-stop.
Isaac ben Yediah, a 13th century French disciple of Maimonides echoes this point, adding:
(S)he feels pleasure and reaches an orgasm first. When an uncircumcised man sleeps with her and then resolves to return to his home, she brazenly grasps him, holding onto his genitals and says to him, “come back, make love to me.” This is because of the pleasure that she finds in intercourse with him, from the sinews of his testicles—sinew of iron—and from his ejaculation—that of a horse—which he shoots like an arrow into her womb (Gollaher, 2000).
Other than that highly erotic imagery, Yediah agreed with the notion that circumcising a man would open up his schedule for more Torah study. Yediah said that, without circumcision, a husband “will not empty his brain because of his wife (and) his heart will be strong to seek out God” (Davis, Dena S, 2001, “Male and Female Genital Alteration: A Collision Course with the Law?”, Health Matrix: Journal of Law-Medicine, Vol 11: pages 487-570).
Those would be the Jewish explanations for the practice. How did circumcision catch on? Evidently, non-Jews did not latch onto the idea until the late 19th century, mostly in English-speaking countries. An article titled “The Ritual of Circumcision” authored by Karen Ericksen Paige (Human Nature, page 40-48, May 1978) explains the growing trend:
In the United States, the current medical rationale for circumcision developed after the operation was in wide practice. The original reason for the surgical removal of the foreskin, or prepuce, was to control “masturbatory insanity” – the range of mental disorders that people believed were caused by the “polluting” practice of “self-abuse.”
“Self-abuse” was a 19th century euphemism for masturbation. People in the time period were especially concerned about masturbation, especially in infants. At the time, it was popular opinion that masturbation was not only sinful, but also at fault for many physical and mental health issues, from epilespy to hysteria to chronic indigestion. Many doctors felt that circumcision would curb masturbation habits. This wasn’t restricted to boys, either.
Girls were spared neither parental worry about masturbation nor similar medical solutions. Female circumcision – removal of the clitoral hood, analogous to the foreskin of the penis, began to be recommended at this time, but other forms of genital surgery were attempted as well, including the removal of the entire clitoris, or clitoridectomy.
Apparently the first clitoridectomy performed in the West occurred in 1858, in England. Isaac Baker Brown published a book describing his success at treating female masturbators with genital operations, after which he was roundly criticised and expelled from the London Obstetrical Society. Most evidence indicates that clitoridectomy, but not female circumcision, was thereafter abandoned in England. No such credit for good sense can be applied to American physicians.
By the 1890s an “Orificial Surgery Society” had been formed in the United States, whose function it was to promote genital operations on women and men. Its official journal advocated that any deviation from a “normal” clitoris “requires attention.” If the hood covered the clitoris completely, the clitoris should be amputated. If the hood was too tight, it should be slit open along one side and the wound stitched with catgut.
Female circumcision slowed down after the Orificial Surgery Society disbanded in 1925 and as fewer and fewer doctors recommended the practice into the 1930’s.
It wasn’t until the 1930’s when the justification for circumcision changed from diminishing sexual pleasure in an attempt to limit sexual compulsion to the explanations heard today regarding hygiene and STD transmission. However, those studies on STD transmission and hygiene are highly disputed. Results are skewed by politicization of the topic.
Thus, what is left is a ritual that has gained support through its purported ability to halt sinful behavior, a ritual that serves no apparent medical purpose and can only be proven to do harm.
Also, the American Academy of Family Physicians has much to say on studies regarding circumcision, with the inclusion of such statistics as a conservative 0.1% probability of complications involving the procedure and a one in 500,000 mortality risk. Yes, there are deaths associated with circumcision.