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Get consent

Martin Robbins has some blunt things to say about genital mutilation.

Infant circumcision involves performing surgery without consent to permanently alter an individual’s genitals. In many cases this is done without good medical justification, for example to force the infant to conform to the expectations of a particular religion. Just as we call sex without consent ‘rape’, circumcision without consent or reasonable justification should be called ‘mutilation’.

Yes but religion. Respect. Tradition.

Physical merits and demerits aside, infant circumcision has had a profound psychological impact on many men.  “I can’t get it out of my mind how I have been mutilated against my will,” reads one testimony on the website of the charity Norm UK

I spoke to several circumcised men in the course of writing this article, who were kind enough to allow me to share their experiences with you. I’ll be posting more of their testimony (and that of others) in a follow up to this post, but for now a couple of quotes are worth highlighting.

Philip, from London, told me how he felt when he first became aware of his status as a small child:

“I wanted it covered up.  I felt mutilated.  I also felt that my parents had abandoned me; why had they let someone do that to me? I had such a feeling of helplessness and abuse due to my circumcision.”

His advice to parents considering it now?

“DON’T.  Even if you think it may be necessary later, wait until later to see if it really does become necessary.”

Which, surely, is only fair. Just wait. Let your kid decide.

Comments

  1. Jean says

    Yes please let you kid decide.

    When I was 3 (I’m now 49), I not only was circumcised but also had my penis shortened. I have no idea if this is a common thing or not because I haven’t been able to find much of anything on the subject on the internet.

    Anyway, the only thing I remember about this is that I had a doctor compare me to a 6 year old so in retrospect I can assume that this was a comparison about the average penis size. What I, as a 3-year, heard was that I was in some way like a 6-year old which was taken as a great compliment in my young mind (not the penis size because I didn’t even know that that was the subject).

    I have no idea what kind of psychological and physiological impact this actually had on me because I don’t remember much about what happened right after but I can imagine that it could have felt like a punishment for being above normal. I definitely know that I don’t have a lot of self confidence and don’t take compliments very well.

    I should add that I also just realized a few years ago that this had happened. I knew I was circumcised (obviously) and it was even in my baby book that I had had a penis shortening but I had always blocked that part and only saw the circumcision part. I don’t remember exactly how that happened but I only actually realized a few years ago that there was more to it that I had made myself believe.

    So I will never know how much my problems with self-confidence, relationships and sexual relations have anything to do with this ‘operation’ and I’ll never know if what sexual feelings and pleasure I get is normal or greatly diminished. And I never had a choice in the matter.

    By the way, this has nothing to do with religion (being from a catholic background) but purely from some ‘medical expertise’. I can’t help but think that a doctor had seen this ‘cool’ type of operation and wanted to perform one and I fit the profile. The rationale was likely to prevent potential painful intercourse for my partner but I still feel like a guinea pig.

    And to come back to the first quote above, I do feel violated. I have repressed memories to deal with this and I have no idea how much it has affected me in the last 46 years. I just know that this is the first time I’ve actually talked about it because I feel ashamed and diminished by it.

    I’m sorry for the long disorganized post but I thought this might be pertinent here. And I needed to get that out…

  2. left0ver1under says

    Yes but religion. Respect. Tradition.

    To which I respond with two sayings I’ve heard:

    Respect is earned, not demanded. Those who demand it don’t deserve it.

    Tradition is the old corrupting the young to please the dead.

    The proponents of mutilation have the arrogance to assume that they know better than evolution. The skin on both males and females evolved that way for a reason, and cutting it off is destrimental to a child’s health. Those who do it should be charged with child abuse.

  3. says

    The proponents of mutilation have the arrogance to assume that they know better than evolution

    I know what you’re getting at, but just to make it clear: Evolution is a very poor guide to ethics or indeed to anything but bare-bones, species-wide survival. Evolution is also the reason we have immune systems that occasionally go haywire and attack our own cells, as well as why we have these brains that are so prone to making mistakes. Evolution doesn’t do “good”. It does “good enough”.

    The problem these people run up against is not evolution, it’s reality. It’s a fact that in the majority of cases, there’s simply no medical reason for performing a circumcision. It’s purely aesthetics and tradition, which, by any reasonable standard, is a piss-poor justification for permanently altering the bodies of other people without their consent.

    How would any of them feel about being placed in that situation? Having some random person (kids don’t chose their parents, remember) pick a body part of yours to be removed. Even if it won’t be crippling or life-threatening, it’s still quite a creepy concept.
    And that’s just standard circumcision. Don’t even get me started on the stone-age barbarism of FGM.

  4. Didaktylos says

    left0ver1under: I’d express it as “Traditionalism is the old corrupting the young to please the dead”.

  5. sheila says

    @Jean, that’s awful! Can you talk to your parents about this at all?
    I know I’ve made some bad mistakes as a mother, but I really, really hope I never get it that horrendously wrong.

  6. johnthedrunkard says

    It is amazing how, even among enlightened ‘western’ progressives, routine infant circumcision of boys is treated as trivial.

    Like slavery, the evil is fundamental. Boys strapped to a board in a sterile operating room at 1-5 days old, or 10 year old girls held down while a crone uses a rusty razor blade. Beneath the trappings the same blatant evil is at work.

    Relatizing male circumcision is like saying ‘but we treat our negroes just like family.’

  7. opposablethumbs says

    routine infant circumcision of boys is treated as trivial

    It’s a religious minority practice everywhere in the West with the sole exception of the US.

    Obviously it shouldn’t be even that. Both circumcision and the physiologically more extreme FGM should be illegal.

  8. sailor1031 says

    Is it just me that thinks doG’s preoccupation with childrens’ genitalia is the worst kind of pedophilia? Although it may explain the predilections of so many of his priests – they’re just trying to be doGlike.

  9. Jean says

    @Jean, that’s awful! Can you talk to your parents about this at all?
    I know I’ve made some bad mistakes as a mother, but I really, really hope I never get it that horrendously wrong.

    Sheila, I’m not sure that talking to my mother (my father is dead) would do anything positive for either her or me. And that’s assuming I could actually talk to her about it.

    I don’t want to blame her (even if I do at some level) because she was very likely only following the doctor’s recommendations. Remember that this was the 1960’s so it was not that easy then to get more information and doctors had a high social position and were not likely to be questioned.

    The worse part is not knowing how much this has actually affected me physically and mentally; did it have a negligible impact or was this defining. I will never know.

  10. left0ver1under says

    When I said “people think they know better than evolution”, I didn’t say evolution was perfect (re: appendixes and wisdom teeth). I was thinking in terms of what the skin does on both men and women, protecting parts to make intercourse easier and quicker. (I’m not an expert, so I don’t claim to know all the details.)

    Humans and some other animals like to make sex a long drawn out event of enjoyment. But with a foreskin and normal labia, humans can copulate in a very short time, as little as five minutes. In many two-gendered animals (mammals, reptiles, birds, etc.), sex happens very fast, sometimes in seconds. I’d wager it’s an evolved survival mechanism to avoid being killed and eaten, and outer genital skin plays a role in it. Coitus is a very vulnerable position for many animals.

    Compare the attitude toward genitals to attitudes toward left handedness. Today, there are few places where people try to force children to change hands, but it does happen. What if a culture in history had amputated the hands of left handed children (or all children) to prevent the “evil” of the left hand, in the same way that genital cutting is done? They’d call it “normal” or “traditional”. and we’d call it barbaric just as civilized people now call genital cutting barbaric.

    (It’s not that farfetched to say amputations could have happened. People used to call left handedness “satanic”, and there were witch trials. “Corporal punishment” (read: physical abuse) has long been a common way of forcing kids to change hands.)

    And to Didaktylos, they weren’t my words. I saw them once and thought they were à propos.

  11. sheila says

    @Jean: Now that you mention it, I remember on old boyfriend telling me about the night his father had a heart attack. His mother agonised over whether to phone the doctor, even when they were all pretty sure what it was.
    And you know, I have heard of men having difficult love lives because they were too big. It’s possible you’d have had to have it done sooner or later.

    I can see how the not knowing would get to you. I hoped talking about it helped a little.

    Hugs.

  12. John Horstman says

    The push-back one receives from even otherwise-liberal-minded people when speaking out against (implicitly non-consensual) circumcision of infants assigned male at birth is really pretty shocking to me (decrying FGM isn’t met with nearly as much resistance from that group, though one always gets some people trying to justify it because cultural relativism) and darkly ironic coming from people who insist on the “personhood” of fetuses while denying a right to bodily integrity to all infants (granted, a lot of them don’t think of female-bodied people as deserving of bodily agency, but that’ still pretty inconsistent with respect to male-bodied infants). Slicing bits off of infants because Tradition or God is simply not okay.

    Looking on the bright side, as least I get to hold myself up as an example of someone whose penile prepuce was removed as an infant and considers it mutilation when I’m inevitably challenged on the idea that such people exist. I’m not as upset about it as those in the pulled quote, but it does displease me. Don’t circumcise your children (or allow anyone else to do so): they can choose whatever body modifications they want once they are capable of exercising agency.

  13. John Horstman says

    Also, this always makes me think of the stereotypical “fight” between older children or teens and parents over whether the minor is ‘allowed’ to get a piercing or tattoo. Seriously, WTF makes parents think they have a right to dictate the embodiments of their offspring? This same denial of bodily agency also manifests as things like insisting children hug or kiss relatives when they don’t wish to do so. I’ve seen this posited as a facet of rape culture (here, for example; I’m also pretty sure I read an article at Scarleteen that was basically making the same case, but now I can’t find it) along the lines that parents socialize children – and especially girl children – away from concepts of bodily autonomy. Circumcision is an extreme case, and I view it as a symptom of a larger problem wherein many parents think of and treat their children more like possessions than people.

    [Note: there’s something goofy going on with the formatting of the hyperlink in the preview; hopefully it won’t carry over to the post. If it does, the CSS may need to be tweaked.]

  14. says

    Humans and some other animals like to make sex a long drawn out event of enjoyment. But with a foreskin and normal labia, humans can copulate in a very short time, as little as five minutes. In many two-gendered animals (mammals, reptiles, birds, etc.), sex happens very fast, sometimes in seconds. I’d wager it’s an evolved survival mechanism to avoid being killed and eaten, and outer genital skin plays a role in it. Coitus is a very vulnerable position for many animals.

    But what relevance does that have for modern human society? How does this in any way influence whether or not circumcision is a good idea?

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