A brief history of the foreskin and circumcision

These photos are from Peaceful Parenting's excellent site.

by Lillian Dell’Aquila Cannon

Virtually all mammals have foreskins.  They have been around for about 65 million years.  The fact that the foreskin has stuck around for so long shows that it is not just some extra skin, and it is not harmful to the man.  Genitals are vital to the continuation to the species, and any part of the genitals that is ubiquitous in an entire class of animals has to have an important purpose.  Conversely, any part of the genitals that was prone to disease would quickly be selected against as it would prevent reproduction.  In primates, the point of sex is for the male to get in and ejaculate quickly, and so apes have special fine-touch nerves in the head of their penises that make them ejaculate quickly.  About 7 million years ago, when humans started to evolve away from other primates, the penis and foreskin in humans evolved, too: the penis got bigger and the foreskin got more sensitive as the glans got less sensitive.   This allowed the sex act to last longer than what was necessary for reproduction: sex became important in its own right, a way to bond socially and create families.

About 4,000 years ago, some Egyptian priests got the idea to circumcise themselves to mark themselves as special and different.  A common human urge is to fit in and to emulate the leaders of the pack.  For this reason, fads of the upper class are usually adopted by the middle and lower classes in an aspirational manner.  In Egypt, circumcision spread to the upper class and some of the middle class, and was picked up by the Jews during their time in Egypt, who continued it as a religious requirement that replaced human sacrifice.

Jews and Muslims were main groups to practice circumcision for the next 1400-2000 years, but only the Jews have it in their holy book (and it wasn’t even in the oldest text) – it is not in the Koran at all.  Because of a brief fad among the first Christians to be circumcised like Jesus (who was Jewish), the apostles in New Testament had to specifically say that being circumcised was not necessary to be Christian.  Being circumcised was a religious sacrifice, and was never thought to make one’s penis better.  Maimonides, a famous rabbi who lived in the 14th century, said that the point of circumcision was to weaken the penis and make sex less fun for men and their wives, so that people would keep their minds on heaven.  They weren’t doing it because it looked better.  In fact, they placed such religious significance on it that there is actual Jewish law that if a couple’s first three sons bled to death from circumcision (likely because they were hemophiliacs), they didn’t have to circumcise the fourth.  Only three babies had to die.

Fast forward to the late 1800s: as you may have heard, in Victorian times, people were a bit obsessed with sex, in a negative way.  They thought sex was so bad that they even covered piano legs with frilly fabric, because to leave them exposed would cause men to have immodest and prurient thoughts.  They also thought that masturbation caused blindness, insanity, and epilepsy, among other diseases.  Dr. Kellogg, whose brother invented Corn Flakes, had a great idea:  “A remedy for masturbation which is almost always successful in small boys is circumcision… The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering anaesthetic, as the pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment.”

That’s right: the point was to circumcise a young boy while he was awake and feeling everything, right in the middle of his prime masturbation years, so that he would forever associate touching his penis with pain.  They also circumcised girls, and this continued until 1976.  Because Dr. Kellogg and virtually all men alive then had foreskins, they knew that the foreskin was the best part.  Remember that the foreskin has the most of the best type of nerve.  It also is 15 square inches of skin that is part of the penis’s sheath.  If you’ve never seen one in real life, look here:  http://www.drmomma.org/2011/08/intact-or-circumcised-significant.html  It’s not just a flap on the end, like some sort of skin tag.  One of the things the foreskin does is allow the penis to move inside its own skin, so that those special awesome nerves are touching each other over and over, even if the man is going it solo.  You know the American meme of boys needing lotion to masturbate?  Well, if they had a foreskin, they wouldn’t need it.  That jerky motion that a circumcised man has to make to masturbate was exactly what those sex-negative Victorian doctors wanted.  Contrast that with an intact man, who can make smooth, gliding motions over the length of his penis and the head without the need for any lube, and with absolutely no chafing.

In the early 20th century, only rich people could afford to pay a doctor to cut off part of their penis (just like today, only rich people can pay for high colonics, or Botox, or vaginoplasty, or whatever other pseudo-medical procedure is in vogue.)  Rich people do it + sex is bad = hurry up and get your baby circumcised so he won’t be sinful or low-class!  For these reasons, by the late 1930s, circumcision was really taking off in America.  It had a brief fad in England, Canada and Australia, but it never caught on in other countries, probably because they missed the big “sex is bad” craze.

By the 40s and 50s, because so many men were circumcised and because the fad had spread down from the upper class, to not be circumcised became a marker for being poor and uneducated.  As you may have heard, in the post-war period, the American middle class became obsessed with fitting in, being normal, being a man, etc.  We had 60 years of being told that having a foreskin prevented blindness, epilepsy, and plain old sin.  We had a generation of men who were circumcised themselves.  Conformity pressure + sex negativity  = cultural obsession with circumcision.  During the peak of the fad, nearly all babies were automatically circumcised without their parents being asked.  Some doctors even circumcised babies as soon as they emerged from the womb.

Circumcision peaked in the 1980s as the men born in the 50s and 60s had their own children, whom they naturally wanted circumcised since clearly it was so necessary.  Over the last 25 years, the circumcision rate has been dropping.  As sex negativity faded away in our culture, and people began to have more contact with non-circumcising cultures, more and more people began to see the arbitrary nature of circumcision and decide against it for their own sons.  In 2009, only 32% of babies born in the US were circumcised.

At this point, it’s important to talk about anthropology and psychology.  Culture is transmitted from person to person, and very few people ever question their culture.  Because we are always immersed in it, we see it as inevitable, natural and right.  It is not unless we have the opportunity to visit or live in another culture where we see that people do things very differently, that we can begin to understand that our own culture is actually kind of arbitrary and often due to historical accident, rather than natural or inevitable.  Circumcision in the United States is just one of those arbitrary mistakes.  Not all “western” or “modern” cultures decided that sex and especially masturbation were bad, and that we had to remove the foreskin to curb it.  The French never had this fad, the Russians didn’t, the Chinese didn’t, the Argentinians didn’t, etc.  It was not inevitable in all cultures, but it did happen in our culture, probably because sex negativity found fertile ground in our Puritan roots.  The thing about sexual rituals is that they have tremendous psychological and cultural power because of the very fact that they have to do with sex, which always retains its primacy in the human psyche.  Because of the pleasure they provide and the biological drive to reproduce, people generally have a powerful attachment to their genitals, and so these rituals root deep in the cultural mind.

The psychology of the circumcision fad is sad and not often discussed, but can pretty easily be explained by the fable of the fox and the sour grapes.  In this fable, a fox sees some grapes on a vine.  He wants them very badly, but no matter what he does, he cannot reach them.  He then irrationally decides that they must be sour anyways.  You can read more here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fox_and_the_Grapes  As the Roman version says. “People who speak disparagingly of things that they cannot attain would do well to apply this story to themselves.”  It illustrates the psychological principle of cognitive dissonance: It is uncomfortable to hold two conflicting ideas in the mind, and people are driven to reduce this dissonance by changing what they believe.  This is what is going on in the fox’s mind:

I want those grapes.
I can’t get them.
It feels bad to want something I can’t have.
I don’t like feeling bad.
I’ll convince myself that it wasn’t that great anyway so I don’t feel bad about not having it. 

Sadly, this is exactly what is going on deep in the minds of many circumcised men when they are forced to think about circumcision.  Their whole lives, they have been told by other circumcised men, and believed, that the foreskin is bad, unnecessary, diseased, just a flap of skin, only what yucky people have.  Circumcised men cannot ever know what a foreskin would really feel like or be like.  (Yes, men can restore their foreskins themselves, but although it is apparently pretty darned awesome, it is not quite the same as the real foreskin.)  So let’s really lay it bare:

I love my penis because it feels good.
Some men have even more parts to their penises.
I don’t have that part.
I can never know what that part is like.
That sucks and makes me feel bad because anything to do with my penis is awesome.
I hate feeling bad about my penis.
I’m just going to decide that that part isn’t really that good so I can stop feeling bad.

Now, I get why this form of psychological resolution of cognitive dissonance is so tempting.  Who would want to be in such pain?  The thing is, it doesn’t stop just there.  When circumcised men have sons of their own, they tend to want to circumcise them.  If they are aware of circumcision at all, they have subconsciously convinced themselves that having less penis is, in fact, better, despite the logical truth they’ve worked hard to bury along with their pain.  It can be intolerably painful for a circumcised man to have a son and not circumcise him.  What if as his son grows, he has no problems with his foreskin?  What if, as an adult, his son values his foreskin, and would never choose to have it cut off?  Wouldn’t that be living proof, in his face every day, that being circumcised actually wasn’t so great?  The wounded part of the man’s psyche that he has tried to bury sees this new cognitive dissonance coming down the line, and he does whatever he can to avert it: he insists that his own son be circumcised.

Often the mother is the only parent to challenge circumcision.  This is easier for her, as she doesn’t have to contend with the pain of having had her own body be altered without her consent, as her husband does.  The way this usually happens is that the mother starts to learn about circumcision, and she tells her husband that she doesn’t want to do it to their child, and the father gets very angry, and they fight about it.  The man feels threatened that his wife thinks that his penis is less than awesome.  The woman does not want to hurt her child.  Often the “mama bear” instinct takes over and the woman doesn’t allow it to happen, correctly sensing that her husband’s insistence on circumcision comes from a place of irrationality and pain.  Some women, though, give into their husbands, prioritizing their spouse’s avoidance of emotional pain over their child’s experience of physical pain.  What they don’t see, however, is that by going along with their husband’s irrationality, they are actually condemning their son to suffer the same psychic wounds.  They are also causing themselves cognitive dissonance:

I know circumcision is wrong.
I have to protect my baby.
My husband wants to do it.
I love my husband and don’t want him to be mad at me or think that I don’t like his penis.
I’m going to let him circumcise my baby to avoid this fight.
I’m going to convince myself that circumcision is actually good.

In the case of the woman who had a first son circumcised out of ignorance, when she is confronted with new information about circumcision, she is also faced with the painful emotions of the circumcised man:

I love my baby.
I allowed him to be circumcised because I thought it was good.
But what if it’s not good? Then I hurt my baby.
I would never hurt my baby.
It must actually be good.

Again, I can see why this form of emotional and intellectual self-deception is so tempting: it avoids some very real pain.  But if it allows a mother to continue to circumcise future sons to avoid dealing with her own emotional pain, it is not okay.  Who would rationally prioritize their own emotional comfort over their child’s physical well-being?  Someone who is in a lot of pain, and too afraid to deal with it the mature way, but she or he doesn’t have to do this.  My mother-in-law had five boys, all circumcised.  When she learned about circumcision 30 years later, she grieved for what she had done out of ignorance, and admitted to her sons that if she had known, she would not have had them circumcised.  It was just a sad mistake born out of ignorance, and one she would not make again.  She was incredibly brave to admit this, and it was painful for her, but as any psychologist will tell you, pain only passes when you allow yourself to feel it.

So what’s the only ethical and honest way out of all this cognitive dissonance?  Realize and admit that:

You (or your husband) was circumcised without any thought because your dad was circumcised because everyone else was circumcised because 140 years ago, some perverted doctors wanted to stop boys from masturbating.

That’s all.  That’s it.  There’s no other reason for circumcision.  All of the fighting you see today online about UTIs or STDs are after-the-fact justifications for circumcision concocted by men who desperately need to think that what was done to them without their consent was beneficial and important.  Remember that 100 years ago, circumcision prevented epilepsy and blindness.  60 years ago it prevented you from being teased.  30 years ago it prevented UTIs.  Today, in only three countries in Africa, it is claimed that it prevents HIV.  Never mind that in the rest of the world and for the rest of human history, it did none of these things.  The only adult men lining up to be circumcised are some Africans who are being convinced that if they get circumcised, they won’t get AIDS and they won’t have to wear a condom, either.  These are the same men who think that you can cure yourself of AIDS by raping a virgin.

Realize and admit that:

The 80% of the world’s men who have foreskins almost never choose to have them cut off and consider them to be the best part of the penis.  You don’t have this part of your penis.  And that sucks.  And it was for no good reason.

Rather than cut off your own son’s foreskin to make yourself feel better, just own up to it, mourn the loss, and do better by your own child.  Restore your own foreskin if you’re interested.  It’s a long haul, but the men who have done it (and their wives) are really happy about it.

Routine infant circumcision is a 90 year aberration in the 150,000 years that Homo sapiens has existed on this planet.  It’s a remnant of times when people thought it was okay to beat your wife and children, that babies couldn’t feel pain and so could be operated on without any anesthesia, and that it was bad to enjoy your sexuality.  We’ve discarded all these other ideas, and now we’re discarding circumcision, too.  It’s going to stop with the generation being born now – only 32% of babies born in 2009 in the USA were circumcised.  Boys born today who keep their foreskins are not going to be made fun of, because they’re in the majority, and because people now are more informed.  In fact, the social stigma has reversed: the less-educated parents are the ones who circumcise their children now.  The genie’s out of the bottle – too many people know the truth to ever go back to the idea that being circumcised is better.  Your son is going to love his foreskin as soon as he finds it (trust me – I have three intact boys!)  He’s not going to be made fun of, and he won’t be sad because his penis doesn’t match yours.  Actually, he’s going to be sad for you because you’re missing his favorite part.  It really sucks.  Now man up and do what’s right.

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23 Responses to A brief history of the foreskin and circumcision

  1. roger desmoulins says:

    This is as good of an attempt to decypher the deep psychological underpinnings of American RIC as anything I have ever read.

    I would add just one thing: the influence of military life.

    1. During WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, American military medicine believed that the foreskin put men at risk of debilitating infections, and of STDs caught from sex workers while on weekend leave. Military doctors were happy to circumcise any young soldier who requested it, and some doctors inappropriately pressured young men to go under the knife.

    2. There is no privacy in barracks, especially in boot camp. Men see each other naked while dressing, undressing, and to, from, and in the showers. Barracks life is how rural and working class American men discovered that urban middle class men usually had bald penises. Better educated men who had grown up comfortable, who had gone to college or were very likely to go to college after the war, were mostly circumcised. Thus the bald look became cool. I am not surprised that the circ rate was higher in 1920-30 than in 1910, and that WWII and Korea ushered in the American Foreskin Holocaust of near-universal circumcision among white families.

    I have heard intact fathers of baby boomers welcome the circumcision of their own sons, on the grounds that it was “cleaner.” Somehow, a daily shower was assumed incapable of doing the job…

    • Lilli Cannon says:

      Thank you for the compliment, Roger. I really appreciated it. Your idea of military influence is a good one; I agree that military circumcisions added to the normalization of circumcision.

  2. This is fantastic! It’s exactly what I would write if I could organize my thoughts as well as you have! With that said, can I quote parts of this (like the entire fox and grapes passage) in a blog post of my own with links to you? I think this would be more effective than just linking–people won’t click over.

  3. Pingback: Circ psych: fox and the sour grapes « Mama Raw

  4. Purist says:

    Excellent points and so well written!

    I lived my whole life ignorant about intactness, only finding out what circumcision was 3 years ago at age 43! Up until then I had no idea something had been cut off me! (On a conscious level, anyway. There were clues and thoughts about how my body felt not quite right, but which I never pursued to a conscious level).

    When I first found out I was NOT one of those men that had a problem seeing it for the atrocity it really is, and I’ve felt extremely disturbed about it since. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought to myself how can guys not see how fucked up what was done to them is! So your explanation of the psychology behind denial was VERY well taken!

    The only thing I might add is the level ignorance of many women I’ve encountered. When I went to tell my girlfriend at the time she simply couldn’t grasp what all the fuss was about and why I was so upset. And most of the women I’ve talked to since then range from outright dangerously ignorant to indifferent and not able to grasp the magnitude of this issue. Though to their credit, I have met women who DO get it once you explain it.

    One of the many curses of circumcision is the potential wedge it places between me and a woman. I need to find out a woman’s stance for me to feel comfortable with her. If she has a son I’ll want to find out if she allowed him to be cut and what she thinks about it. If it turns out she’s a mutilation apologist (and not willing to be educated) I have no choice but to withdraw from her, no matter what amazing qualities she may otherwise have. A man shouldn’t have to fucking find out a girl’s stance on infant mutilation! That this curse hangs over any potential relationship makes me very angry and sad. But because I was mutilated, every woman now comes with this automatic deal breaker.

  5. Pingback: The purpose of circumcision is to ruin male sexuality » Moralogous

  6. Purist says:

    So why exactly is the US so recalcitrant in dropping it (as compared to England, Austrialia, Canada, etc)? You’re implying it’s the US’s relatively higher anti-sex attitudes? Just wondering if you could clarify. Thank you

    • Lilli Cannon says:

      That’s a good question, and here’s my best stab at an answer: higher anti-sex attitudes, inherited from the Puritans long before the Victorians rediscovered the joy of anti-sex, + our lovely medical insurance system. England simply defunded circumcision and it was done. At the same time in the U.S., we had Ronald Reagan recording advertisements proclaiming national insurance to be the toehold of communism. Our system of many private insurance providers has the consequence of promoting pointless procedures because the consumers can’t see where their premiums are going. In a single-payer system it is easy to see where the money is going and make decisions accordingly.

    • MrBBQ says:

      The history is basically that private insurers and Medicaid have been paying for circumcisions since after WW2. Therefore, hospitals and doctors have a huge financial incentive to perform the unnecessary surgery, since it’s an easy sell, when parents don’t have to pay for it anyway. Also in the past, they didn’t even ask for consent, it was just assumed it was going to happen.
      In the UK, the national health service decided not to pay for it, and it quickly died out.
      In Canada, most provinces paid for it through public health insurance, but all slowly dropped it. No more provinces pay for it, but it’s still practiced (but much less than in the USA).

      As for Australia, I’m not as sure. Government still technically pays for it, but the fee refund has not kept up with inflation. But historyofcircumcision.net has some insight:
      “Although Gairdner’s paper was approvingly discussed as early as 1953, it was not until the late 1960s that it really made an impact, and not until 1971 that the Australian Paediatric Association decided to recommend that “male infants should not, as a routine, be circumcised”. This policy was cautiously endorsed by the Medical Journal of Australia, and the incidence of circumcision then fell steadily to its current low of about 12 per cent. The trend was accelerated by a stronger statement issued by the Australian College of Paediatrics in 1983 and slowed down by a weaker and rather equivocal one which mysteriously appeared in 1996. It is likely that the detailed policy issued by the Royal Australasian College of Physicians in 2002, confirming the original stance that there is no medical justification for routine circumcision, will lead to the resumption of the declining trend.”

      Take from that what you will.
      It may also be significant that in 1983, the Australia College of Paediatrics not only said it wasn’t recommended, but said it should be actively discouraged. This is quite distinct from positions in Canada and the USA. In their 1996 statement, they said “Neonatal male circumcision has no medical indication. It is a traumatic procedure performed without anaesthesia to remove a normal and healthy prepuce.” Quite an extraordinary statement by North American standards.
      So, it’s entirely conceivable that changes in education for doctors has made a big impact in Australia in causing the decline of circumcision.

  7. Marcwolf says:

    Loo9king at the pictures of a circumcised and intact penis on your site one is immediately struck at how pink and healthy the glans looks when the foreskin is drawn back. The skin is thin and smooth.
    The with the circumcised penis it looks hardened, calloused, and unsensitive.

    It’s like the arguement of why circumcision is supposed to preven HIV transmission. Basically the arguement is this.
    A carpenter gets splinters whilst woodworking. Does he
    a. Wear gloves and so to protect his hands and keep the sensitivity or
    b. Dip his hands into caustic solutions to toughen them up with thick skin and callouses.
    If you choose B then circumsion is right for you.

    • MrBBQ says:

      These photos are slightly deceptive.
      I forget the details, but these photos of the uncut penis belong to a transexual model (Vietnamese?). There are far more pictures of his/her penis online and in those photos the glans is more normal-looking, and not as perfectly smooth.

      • Lilli Cannon says:

        So you’re saying it’s doctored? Or that he has applied something shiny? The pics are not mine; they came from Peaceful Parenting. Had I unlimited freedom, I would simply put up a clip from a porn, but some people get all uptight. Seeing an intact penis in action in a porn makes it so obvious, but I don’t want a reader’s sex negativity to get in the way of their understanding.

        • Marcwolf says:

          Actually I am intact and when I become aroused my glans is a colored and as shiny as the one in the photo. Actually mine turns a deeper purple color that shows how thinthe covering of the glans actually is. Regardless of whether the pictures cam from a transexual or a average man they still show the basic difference between a circumcised and uncircumcised penis.

  8. MrBBQ says:

    You forgot how a man rationalizes circumcising his son. I think knowledge that circ is wrong is not so subconscious. It goes:

    I was harmed by circumcision.
    My penis is inferior.
    I don’t like feeling inferior.
    My son will be born with a foreskin.
    He is luckier than I am.
    He will be happy but I am miserable.
    I don’t like this kind of disparity.
    I can pretend I am not damaged if I bring him down to my level.
    I will circumcise him to alleviate my pain.

    • Alek says:

      In short, jealousy is the cause of newborns being circumcised. I’d be jealous too if another male had something I didn’t, the only difference is, I wouldn’t take that out on my own son, that is sick.
      I read on a Jewish website a couple weeks ago where a rabbi said “the majority of them (baby boys) will not opt to get circumcised as adults, that is why we must make the decision for them”. So basically, hurry the fuck up, quick, before they can think for themselves and realize it is damaging to them.

      • Lilli Cannon says:

        Do you have a link to that quote?

        • Alek says:

          Sorry, I remembered the quote wrong, but the message it says is the same, the quote I was refering to is
          “As far as letting the baby decide for himself later in life, it is highly unlikely that as an adult he will choose circumcision, so you are effectively making the choice for him now. And don’t we make many such choices for our children: Being selective about the books they read, the children they play with, etc. This is how we train our children to grow up with the values we hold important. I hope this has been helpful.”
          The link is here.
          http://judaism.about.com/library/3_askrabbi_o/bl_simmons_circumcision.htm
          The quote is towards the bottom, on the second answer. I love how he compares cutting part of a childs penis off to being selective about the books they read.

  9. purist says:

    Lilli — what do you make of the claim regarding the theory as to the origin of circumcsion that goes something like this: “circumcision may have made sense in the days before there was access to running water, etc , bla bla…” I have a hard time believing that a foreskin is a liability even under the most primitive conditions, and that men started hacking them off as form of preventive maintenance. In your readings have you found any evidence to support this narrative? I am suspicious that it’s just a myth that got repeated over and over, then eventually turned into a narrative that gets taken seriously, but shouldn’t. Your thoughts?

    • Lilli Cannon says:

      All mammals have foreskins. Only one mammal showers with Lever 2000. Were unwashed foreskins a health liability, they’d have disappeared millions of years ago, and monkeys would be suffering an epidemic of rotting penises. Instead, the human male foreskin has actually become more elaborate. Clearly they’re doing something important: killing germs in their Langerhans cells, and increasing their female mates’ desire to bond and reproduce are what I think are the biggest benefits, but I am hesitant to wade into EvoPsych territory as most of their claims are “just so stories.”

      This reminds me of when I used to ride horses as a child. Part of the procedure for washing male horses was to clean up inside their foreskins with soap and a sponge. Their smegma was dried and flaky, and there were also these things that looked like kidney beans (no idea what those were.) Even at 10 years old, I thought, “I bet this horse doesn’t like me being up inside his penis.” I don’t ride anymore, but I hear they don’t do this anymore, and horses aren’t dropping like flies. I don’t know why they ever did it in the first place – probably the same Victorian prudery and fear of bodily secretions.

      • purist says:

        Well, I found the answer to my question.

        The idea that “primitive desert peoples” may have started circumcision to prevent “sand under the foreskin” is just another myth started by 19th century doctors:

        “It was only in the late nineteenth century, when mass circumcision was being introduced for such vital “health” reasons as control of masturbation, that doctors sought legitimacy for the new procedure by claiming continuity with the distant past and attempting to explain the origins of circumcision in terms of their own hygienic agenda.”

        http://www.historyofcircumcision.net/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=30&Itemid=0

        I find this one especially irritating (no pun intended) because you’ll often hear people generally opposed to circumcision repeating this bullsh*t myth, namely, “maybe back when people lived in the desert it might have made sense, bla bla bla, but today…”

  10. Pingback: Why I Didn’t Circumcise My Son | moments of exhilaration

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