Male circumcision (second go) – “He should look like his father…”

One of the often produced reasons for having male children circumcised is an essentially social one. “He should look like his father…” or “He should look like his brothers…” or “He should look like his peers…” There are other versions too, such as “I think the circumcised penis looks neater or better…”

All of these reasons point back towards custom. In Australia, infant male circumcision used to be quite routine – much as it is in the USA still today. Men my age were circumcised as a matter or course – this was a practice dating back probably to the inter-war period, but certainly back to the time post World War II. The reason given for this circumcision craze was at first medical – cleanliness, prevention of phimosis and prevention of urinary tract infection. But following the first wave of circumcisions, a self-reinforcing cycle of circumcision developed. Men wanted their sons to be circumcised to be like them. Women wanted circumcision for their boys because they saw circumcision as normal, and the circumcised penis as normal (and the uncircumcised penis as abnormal). The circumcised penis became so normalised that illustrations of men in anatomy and physiology texts depicted the penis as circumcised. The foreskin, where it was discussed, was noted to be removed in infancy in circumcision.

In later times, when circumcision became a procedure which was much more elective, requiring choice and decision on the part of parents, a series of rationales arose to justify circumcision, in the absence of medical necessity. It was suggested that a boy would feel socially disadvantaged, for instance, if he was uncircumcised and his peers were circumcised. Similarly, a boy would suffer from emotional or psychological conflict if he was uncircumcised and his father and/or brothers were circumcised. It was felt to be important for the son to be ‘like’ his father, brothers and peers. There is possibly some truth in the argument that uncircumcised boys might have suffered some teasing as a result of being uncircumcised in a peer group of circumcised boys. But this, like the perceived intrapsychic stress caused by having a father or siblings who were circumcised could easily be combated and overcome by explanation and education – of the uncircumcised boy and the circumcised. In any case, in Australia the tide has decidedly turned. Parents who now have their son circumcised face the very real likelihood that he will be the ‘odd one out’ among his peers, as in many places in Australia the rate of infant circumcision is as low as 5-8%.

The reality is that ‘normal’ is what we define it to be – we construct ‘normal’ based on social custom, understanding, the experience of the majority, and the opinions of powerful opinion-makers. If most men are uncircumcised, then being uncircumcised is ‘normal’ in a social sense. If most men are circumcised, then being circumcised is ‘normal’ in a social sense. We need to distinguish ‘normal’ (a social category) from healthy in this context. I would argue that unnecessarily modifying a healthy body for a social reason is unethical, and an assault on the well-being of the person whose body is modified. The only counter to this argument would be if the person were able to choose to have the modification. We now understand that the uncircumcised penis is the normative state, and confers benefits. The amputation of the foreskin imposes costs and has potential risks, for little benefit (though there is argument about one potential health benefit demonstrated in a couple of studies on African men – a slight preventative effect in HIV transmission).

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