Sometimes they’ve just got you by the foreskin. That little rag of flesh at the end (or which was at the end) of our penises dangles a lot closer to our soul than we know. The crafty male prepuce shamelessly thrusts its way into national and international debate becoming both the subject and the object of the control of our thinking and values. A foreskin is no less than a medium of exchange, a banner of nationality, a point of human rights contention, a divine signature, moral discipline or a handy medical opportunity.
The recent European controversy got me thinking about this. A resolution crafted by the Council of Europe entitled Children’s Right to Physical Integrity moved to ban male circumcision for any but “therapeutic” purposes. This “Yeah, and that, too!” outcry comes on the heals of a German court ruling circumcision to be illegal bodily harm. Though religious circumcisions remain allowed, German doctors are quietly putting away their scalpels for fear of repercussion. One never knows which way the wind is going to blow, and one best not be caught with a foreskin clinging to their lab coat sleeve.
The European ethical argument is mostly with Jews and Muslims who share a holy history surrounding their foreskins. If Europeans think they feel strongly that European baby boy foreskins should remain intact, it will be helpful to them to understand that their Jewish and Muslim neighbors feel even stronger that foreskins be removed as the heart of the rite of circumcision. The very act identifies them as a people.
David, around 1000 BC, presented King Saul with 200 Philistine foreskins as his dowry for Michal, the king’s daughter. At a glance it’s a grotesque scene and maybe a little romantic, but in reality it is more than a price for a wife. David swiftly proved his ability to control not just the enemy nation but his own by grabbing a couple hundred foreskins. In the economy of people and power, the wiley little slips carried weight.
Back up approximately another millennium and you see why neither David nor his future father-in-law sported a foreskin and why they could so easily number the uncircumcised Philistines.
Around 1900-something BC Abraham, the father of Jews and Muslims, experienced two divine and mystical encounters when God promised Abraham a great nation distinct and divinely favored among all others. In the second meeting, God commanded Abraham to mark his own people by circumcising them on the eighth day of life. Those uncircumcised will be cast out.
Abraham complied immediately and to this day, a mark of belonging to hundreds of generations of all Israelites and most Muslims which followed, the ritual of circumcision will be indelibly watermarked on every cell wall of their being. It remains unthinkable to be uncircumcised as to be uncircumcised means simply not to belong.
The rite of the peoples of the Middle East and wherever Muslims and Jews reside has remained central as they’ve battled among themselves over everything but circumcision… circumcision connects them to Father Abraham and to each other. They aren’t going to change their minds and cave to the new European ethics with regard to circumcision — at least not this week.
For Europeans, circumcision along with most non-medical physical procedures involving cutting tissues present a purely human rights issue in the same spirit of female genital cutting and foot binding. While the Council’s resolution is not legally binding, the direction of the tide is clear that these kinds of decisions are in their minds best left to every man for himself. However, in a community growing more civilized than say… before… the community feels that the decision to not circumcise should be everyone’s own decision.
While adult elective circumcision for reasons other than a medical condition is by no means a popular decision, it is however certainly not uncommon. Men occasionally choose to remove their foreskins for many reasons including religious, sexual, health or aesthetics.
Meanwhile, men in Africa are lining up in increasing numbers each year very willing to part with their foreskins as they have come to believe that they will escape HIV infection. Studies in certain African countries suggest a lower incidence of HIV infections among heterosexual men who have been circumcised. Exactly why these findings occur isn’t yet certain nor why groups among men who have sex with men don’t also seem to show a similarly low incidence of HIV infection.
Even though more research is obviously required into the still very murky foreskin-HIV relationship, African men and African circumcision centres are pleased to perform large-scale surgeries not unlike David unceremoniously trimming foreskins from Philistine penises to fill his dowry basket. News services display no scarcity of stories of non-concentual circumcision of teenage boys in Africa. Several manufacturers are producing non-surgical devices to remove foreskins more quickly and cheaply than surgical methods enabling massive circumcision campaigns funded mostly by the West.
I would be interested to sit in on a patient education session in an African circumcision centre. In social effort to reign in HIV, policy makers have chosen to pathologize foreskins while forgetting that foreskins don’t expose people to HIV, people expose people to HIV. At the end of the day, African men receiving either surgical or non-surgical circumcisions are left without their foreskins, still not learned the skills to adjust their sexual behavior in a world with HIV. Now, with foreskins safely out of the way, few men are aware of their HIV status, feel even more safe to set aside barrier methods of HIV protection (condoms and dental dams), and still haven’t learned the skills to discuss safer sex with their partners.
Yet, by leverage of the foreskin another people overpowered.
American’s are no exception having been dragged along by the foreskin by John Harvey Kellogg of breakfast cereal fame who writes that masturbation in young boys can be allayed by circumcision without anesthesia. While Kellogg was swaying the diets of generations of Americans to bland, flaked cereal, he was also cementing the sexual values of Americans in a fearful, moralistic mindset where circumcision is mentally connected with moral purity.
While Kellogg is only remembered for Corn Flakes, sexually unnerved Americans continue to circumcise their boys only because over the generations, Americans became accustomed to circumcising boys. It’s a custom. Parents circumcise newborn boys simply because they want their penises to look like the other boys’ penises in the locker room and like their father’s penis at home. Though with 21st century images of uncircumcised penises abounding on the Internet, this could easily change over time, Americans will learn that an intact foreskin is natural — not circumcised. European fashion always eventually hits American shores.
–Occupy Foreskin Photo — Flickr / Elvert Barnes