Male Circumcision as a Feminist Issue
by Rosemary Romberg
With so many volatile issues surrounding women’s health, why should women be involved in the growing concern against routine circumcision of males? Invectives have been hurled in every direction. “Males have a responsibility to sacrifice their foreskins to preserve women’s future health!”* Trivialization: “Why should men worry about a simple little procedure removing a little bit of skin, when atrocities such as clitoridectomy and infibulation take place in third world countries?”** And, most astonishingly, in 1965 a doctor writing in an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association accused:
“Perhaps not the least of the reasons why American mothers seem to endorse the operation with such enthusiasm is the fact that it is one way an intensely matriarchal society can permanently influence the physical characteristics of its males.” (1.)
Meanwhile, amidst overpowering labor contractions, the birthing mother arrives at the hospital. Facing excitement, confusion, and perhaps fear and pain, she signs admission forms and permissions slips. “Circumcision? Why now, when we don’t know if the baby is a boy or girl?” But her attention is quickly distracted by pelvic exams, the bleeping monitor screen, and a flurry of other hospital rituals.
The baby is born, perhaps through panting and focusing, fervently recalling her Lamaze instructions. Or she may be woozy or numb from medication, or even out cold. Later, in recovery the baby is brought to her — a bundled up cocoon. Her room fills with cards, gifts, and excited relatives. The first days pass in a blur, sore episiotomy or Cesarean incision, adjustments to breastfeeding or preparing formula and bottles, physical exhaustion, sleep caught however furtively – cut short by infant wails. The baby – strange little creature, skinny arms and legs on a round belly and head. Brown umbilical cord stump shriveling and drying up. And, if a boy, the end of his penis red and raw, or tied with a plastic clamp. All new and strange, the experience is all somehow sore, raw-edged, linked together in pain, warmth, and upheaval. We survive together.
What “matriarchal society?” What conscious decision of any kind?
Before men, as a collective voice, spoke out against male circumcision, it took a birth experience at home (my own), with a lay midwife in attendance, stripped free of all other questionable medical ritual, to convey infant circumcision in all its glaring absurdity. It took a mother unusually knowledgeable as a childbirth educator, to recognize this horrendous “blind spot” in our awareness. It took maternal protective instinct, cruelly violated to the core, mixed with writer’s inspiration and a researcher’s determination to give birth to the movement.
Added to this was Marilyn Milos’ behind the scenes view as a nursing student, of the infant writhing in fear and pain on the Circumstraint board, her horror as a mother — “Was this done to my babies years ago!?” — to give the movement its shape and momentum.
The History of Circumcision
The ancient origins of genital mutilation go back to prehistoric times. No definite answers can be given for the true reasons or motivations. Speculations and conjecture abounds.
Symbolic castration, a mark of tribal identity, a means of diminishing or enhancing sexuality, a means of enhancing fertility, a mark of subjugation, and a means of deliberate torture as a test of endurance in adolescent tribal initiation rites have all been proffered as possible motivations for the act.
One possible, intriguing motivation for male genital mutilation (both foreskin amputation and subincision – the ritual slashing of the underside of the penis) – is menstrual envy. Females have a natural process of bleeding from their genitals which begins during adolescence, marks the end of childhood and initiation into womanhood, and is directly linked to fertility.
The subincision operation of splitting the male urethra was apparently an attempt to make the penis look like a vulva. (2.)
Peoples who have practiced this rite, primarily tribes in New Guinea and Australia, use parallel names for menstrual bleeding and bleeding from the subincision wound. Then the penis is periodically incised, the term for the operation translates as “men’s menstruation.” (3.)
Through the ages male genital mutilation has abounded in societies that became increasingly patriarchal, in which women had little or no voice in such matters. Virtually all male circumcisions have been performed by men. Relatively rarely has circumcision been performed on adults. Almost never has it been the personal choice of the individual. Usually circumcision was performed as part of an adolescent initiation rite on young boys between the ages of 11 and 17. Many tribes, especially in Africa, have observed what anthropologists call “bush time” in which the young boys are taken away from their homes and village for a number of months and undergo rigorous training to be hunters and warriors.
Historically, circumcision of infants has been rare, and is considered a fairly late adaptation of the ritual, most commonly noted among the ancient Hebrews and as a relatively recent medical fad during the 20th century in the United States, and to a lesser extent throughout some parts of the Western world. There are many similarities in the highly patriarchal attitudes of both cultures in their attitudes toward women and infants.
While prehistoric man may have been in awe and envy of the female menstrual and childbearing processes, among the ancient Hebrews this translated to attitudes of hatred and taboos surrounding menstrual and postpartum blood. In Leviticus, laws that concerned blood taboos surrounding menstruation and postpartum bleeding are clearly written out. Anything that is touched by a woman who is menstruating, recently delivered, or otherwise bleeding vaginally is considered unclean. Anything that she lies on or sits on is contaminated. Anyone who touches her bed or anything that she has sat on must wash his clothes and bathe himself. If a man has sex with her during this time he is considered unclean for seven days. After the woman has finished bleeding she is still unclean for seven days. “Nidah” is the name given to this traditional Jewish practice (today largely abandoned) by which women abstain from sexual relations during menstruation and for seven days thereafter. The period of abstinence is followed by a ritual, purifying bath called “mikvah” before she and her husband can resume marital relations. (4.)
Leviticus, Ch: 12:2 – Speak unto the children of Israel saying, if a woman have conceived seed, and borne a man child, then she shall be unclean seven days: according to the days of the separation for her infirmity shall she be unclean.
3 – and in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.
4 – And she shall then continue in the blood of her purifying three and thirty days: she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying be fulfilled. (5.)
The infant boy, of necessity, had to be in contact with his mother following birth. Some authors have interpreted the above passage in Leviticus to mean that the newborn infant boy was considered “unclean” due to contact with this mother who was bleeding, and the blood of his circumcision was an “atonement” for this impurity … a protection against evil forces.
This is, however, at best only a partial explanation for Hebraic circumcision of infants since most historians believe that the practice was preceded by adolescent circumcision rites. The phenomenon of menstrual/postpartum blood taboos illustrates the mystical irrationality surrounding circumcision as well as the inferior status of women in that culture.
The vast majority of circumcisions throughout ancient history were performed on older individuals, usually adolescents during initiation rites, or captured slaves and enemies. Circumcision of infants and small children has been a relatively recent innovation. Many historians believe that at one time among the ancient Hebrews, or their predecessors, circumcision was an initiation rite through which the youth became marriageable. (6.)
“It is no wonder that the marriageable youth, considering the fear circumcision must have exercised, resisted the establishment of the new custom. It can be determined almost exactly, even among the Jews, how long it took for the custom of circumcision to become firmly established. The young people generally offered opposition to it and had to be coerced by means of whippings, threats of death, and torture.” (7.)
Apparently somewhere in prehistory the ancient Hebrews switched to circumcising infants because it was easier. The infant could not put up any resistance or express his needs except by crying. The “babies have no feelings” platitude appears to be an ancient one. Granted, in an era lacking in modern anesthesia, antisepsis, or suturing techniques, circumcision of older individuals was more painful and risky than it is today. However, in an increasingly patriarchal society the needs and wishes of women and children were given virtually no recognition. Infants underwent circumcision because older males were considered too high of status to have their genitals cut – an attitude still intensely prevalent in today’s society.
A Jewish woman who left her own son intact offered the following comments:
“In 1970 when I was pregnant with my son I gave the matter (of circumcision) much thought. My husband is Jewish and I am too. … By tuning in to my deepest maternal feelings I knew that I would not violate my boy and my own maternity by inflicting willful pain on him and me. My mother-in-law was hurt by my rejection of the ancient practice. I myself was not pleased that my son would differ from his father in his masculinity, but I decided that this is an age of change and it was time to end a bad practice. My husband supported me and my mother-in-law finally accepted my decision also.
Recently a pregnant Jewish friend and I talked about circumcising newborn infants. … She told me that her husband really wanted it done, in the traditional way, by a mohel, as a means of upholding the symbolism of a united Jewish family. I thought that a worthy goal, but suggested that if he was indeed so insistent on the tradition, that he take his child by the hand, after 7 years of age, and lead him to the surgery himself. It occurred to me that the main reason the rite is performed at birth is that at birth the mother is the main recipient of the pain — that in this paternalistic society it is better for the mother to be violated than for the father to take on the pain of a practice he upholds.
The story has a happy ending. When my friend’s husband saw his son born he decided that God had made him to perfection — nothing need be added or subtracted. (8.)
Concerns For Today’s Parents
Not uncommonly new parents, especially fathers, will decide that their infant son should be circumcised because they knew of someone who underwent circumcision at an older age. The attitude is “get it over with now.” (One which demands rebuttal, since research indicates that true medical need for circumcision is indeed rare at any age. Virtually all foreskin conditions can be resolved non-interventively, despite the surgery ready attitudes of many doctors.)
This is classically illustrated in the writings of Dr. Robert Bradley, M.D., a popular pioneer of the natural childbirth movement who has advised parents: “Newborn babies pay little attention…” (to being circumcised,) (9.) and tells husbands “…do not let your wife build up a mighty issue over these simple little cuts” (episiotomies) (10.), but that “…swelling and pain is terrific…” (9.) when grown men have circumcisions.
Men commonly express much fear and horror at any possibility of the male genitalia undergoing surgery. Witness the countless married couples wishing permanent sterilization, in which the wife undergoes tubal ligation because the husband refuses to undergo a vasectomy despite the latter being far simpler surgery.
Paradoxically, most males take a gender related pride in being unfazed by pain. Males commonly undergo great pain in sporting activities, fighting, or vigorous physical work. Males do not seem to be unusually reluctant to undergo other types of surgery or medical procedures. Therefore, the unusual male anxiety over genital surgery must be castration related — not unfounded since one of the original motivations proffered for circumcision was of symbolic castration.
Commonly males regard the infancy period — both their own and that of their sons — with a certain amount of denial, scorn, and trivialization. While mothers experience much delight, fascination and protectiveness towards their infants, to fathers this stage is often somewhat of a “netherworld.” Events at this age are rarely consciously remembered, so must be unimportant, as if they never happened.
As we as women grow in our awareness, we will again be in touch with our inner protective instincts towards our infants and demand our rights that our children not be damaged by ill-defined male attitudes. As women we undergo continual genital trauma throughout our childbearing processes. We bleed from our genitals every month. We undergo pelvic exams, Pap smears, episiotomies, D & C’s, and often Cesareans and hysterectomies. Much of this is definitely questionable, deserving of much attention in their own right. Yet we accept these procedures as part of our lives. In regarding men’s genital surgery fears, should we be enraged or amused?
Of course much of our own victimization has been a product of the male dominated medical establishment which has tragically taken birth and our own body processes out of the hands of women. Suzanne Arms has expounded on this:
“It was man who moved in on normal birth to baptize the baby and mother that he himself may have damaged; man who spread disease, man who cured disease, man who institutionalized birth in the hospital. Man placed woman on her back in labor, then devised metal tools to pull her baby out, then knocked her senseless with anesthesia. And it was man who, throughout history, did it all in the name of ‘saving’ woman from her own body, from the curse of her gender, from the ‘pain’ of her travail, and from her own ignorance. Today the male obstetrician with his kindly paternalism comforts woman by advising her to leave everything to him, to simply place herself in his hands and abide by the procedures of his institution, the hospital. And woman, that docile, ignorant, cursed, weak, and dependent victim of deception, willingly agrees.” (11.)
Today’s mother does not make an intelligent decision to have her son’s foreskin amputated any more than she makes an intelligent, rational decision to have her own pubic hair shaved, an I.V. stuck in her arm, a fetal heart monitor wired to her body, or to be confined to a labor bed, to deliver on a delivery table, or to have her baby separated from her after birth. Circumcision is but one more routine, questionable hospital procedure to which she passively, unthinkingly agrees.
Any mother in touch with herself and the needs of her infant could only be aghast at any idea that genital surgery is “so horrible that a grown man cannot take it — therefore inflict it on a tiny, helpless newborn baby instead.” Grow up, guys!
At least as women, with little to prove or lose, we have been able to acknowledge our own woundedness, from the multitude of childbearing or women’s health related traumas most of us have undergone. Circumcised males, especially those circumcised in infancy, have often had tremendous difficulty acknowledging and healing from their own state of woundedness. “I never had a foreskin.” “I don’t remember it, therefore nothing ever happened to me.” Therefore, to circumcise his own infant son is to repeat the same event that “never happened.” The fantasy is that they both were “born that way.” There is much denial here of the reality, rights, and feelings of the infant himself. For the father, there is overwhelming denial that any damage or deprivation was ever done to him. “I’m better this way.” “It was the best thing for my son.” For a circumcised father to allow his son to grow up intact, he must accept that his son has something that he himself lacks and that something was indeed done to him. But only through acknowledging of one’s woundedness can anyone be able to heal.
As an Alaskan, and former Washington state resident, I have enjoyed wonderful experiences camping and hiking in the panoramic mountains in both states. Wilderness backpacking and mountain climbing are popular activities. But one nemesis that people occasionally encounter are bears. Real bears are dangerous, menacing animals — a far cry from the cuddly teddy bears of popular literature. Every camper knows that the absolutely most dangerous situation to ever be in with a bear is to get between a mother bear and her cub. If she gets the idea that the intruder is going to harm her cub, she will not hesitate to rip the offender to shreds.
The term “bitch” is commonly used to describe a woman who is particularly mean or crabby. Bitch is actually the technical term for a female dog. The slang expression has come about because a mother dog with new puppies is likely to tear the leg off of anyone who threatens her pups.
Maternal protective instincts, obviously deeply programmed into the beings of all higher mammals to insure survival of the species, has got to be one of the most powerful forces in nature. But for humans this has become dangerously undermined by an untold number of cultural interventions. Every mother has both the right and responsibility to protect her young. Dangerous consequences for the human race abound if she shirks that responsibility or if someone else undermines that right.
Today, it is often the more passive, compliant mother who will allow her son to be circumcised, acquiescing to the demands of medical professionals, husband, family or other outside sources — probably against her better judgment. The more self-determined, confident mother is more likely to insist that her son remain intact, since she has the strength to withstand the outside pressures of a circumcision oriented society. ***
Therefore, as mothers the time is long overdue for us to stand up and demand — “We’re not going to take this any more! We won’t have our newborn, parturient days ripped asunder by our infants’ screams. We are through allowing our infants to be torn from our arms, strapped down, genitals slaughtered, returned to us intensely traumatized or comatose, our own feelings of violation belittled, both of us victimized by a male denial, ‘it never happened’ myth”.
Much has been expounded on feminism. Men’s rights are also gaining in recognition. But the time has come to grow beyond that. In an arena with one gender pitted against the other, no battles will ever be won. Instead we must recognize that we are all humans together on this planet. We must strive for human liberation in this. Allowing wholeness and completeness for our own children’s bodies, and acknowledging and healing from our own wounds is but one step along the way.
1. Morgan, W.K.C.
“The Rape of the Phallus”
JAMA, July 19, 1965, Vol. 193, No. 3.
2. Bettelheim, Bruno
Reader in Comparative Religion
Lessa, William A., & Vogt, Evon Z., editors.
Harper & Row, New York, 2nd Ed., c© 1965, p. 231.
3. Ibid., p. 238.
4. Leviticus, Ch. 15: 19-28.
5. Ibid., Ch. 12: 2-4.
6. Bryk, Felix
Sex & Circumcision: A Study of Phallic Worship and Mutilation in Men and Women
Brandon House, North Hollywood, CA., © 1967, p. 36.
7. Ibid., p. 217.
8. Fein, Stella
Boulder Creek, CA.
(excerpted from Circumcision: The Painful Dilemma, © 1985,
Bergin & Garvey, S. Hadley, MA., p. 85. “A Letter from a Jewish Mother”)
9. Bradley, Robert A., M.D.
“If We Have a Boy, Should He Be Circumcised?”
Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., N.Y., © 1965, p. 159.
(To his credit, Dr. Bradley has omitted the section on circumcision from later
editions of his book.)
10. Ibid., Ch. 8. “Does My Wife Have To Be Cut?” p. 142.
11. Arms, Suzanne
Houghton Mifflin Co., San Francisco, ©1975, p. 22.
*Any data linking circumcision status to cervical cancer or other health issues in women have been found unsubstantiated.
**Activists opposing male circumcision do recognize and address female genital mutilation as a grave social wrong, and acknowledge that these procedures can be more dangerous than male foreskin amputation since a more vascular tissue area is cut. However, this is not to be viewed as a “one gender versus the other issue.” All genital mutilation has sprung from the same destructive mentality which demands healing. Only cultural blindness has prevented much of the Western world from seeing both acts in the same light.
***In my own experience as a writer, activist and pioneer in the growing concern against infant circumcision, I have heard from thousands of people. Of these I can only recall 2 or 3 instances in which women have been strongly in favor of circumcision of infants. I adamantly believe that virtually most mothers, if given adequate information, will wish to leave their sons whole and complete. I have encountered countless expectant couples who represent the classic scenario – she says no, he says yes to circumcising the baby. The baby is circumcised because “he wins.” The baby is left intact because “she wins.” Or they have a girl and breathe a sigh of relief!
13020 Sues Way.
Anchorage, AK 99516
Author of Circumcision: The Painful Dilemma,© 1985, Bergin & Garvey, S. Hadley, MA. (Some passages in the above article have been taken directly from the text of Circumcision: The Painful Dilemma.)
(Revised – 2012)