Why circumcising boys is neither medically justified nor without consequences.
In recounting his own circumcision, Nelson Mandela described it as “a trial of bravery and stoicism”. After being cut, he remembers announcing “ndiyindoda!”, which can be translated into “I am a man!”. Interestingly enough, Arben* – a thirty-year-old man from a small town in South Kosovo — uses the same words when I ask him about his own circumcision. Nowadays, Arben still remembers the men from the oda proudly telling him after the surgery “you are a proper man now!”.
To me, as an uncut man, these words sounded rather odd — was I less of a man because I had my genitalia intact? Had I reached adulthood under the silly belief that I was a man simply because I felt like one? Why didn’t my parents tell me?
Further, I was honestly disoriented by the fact that, worldwide, people could celebrate the nonconsensual loss of a portion of their body. The loss of my prepuce, a finger, a limb — to a catholic-raised, Italian man, they all looked the same! Intrigued by the oddness of it, and interested in understanding the “yuck response” that this tales were eliciting in me, I embarked in a long research to understand why circumcision was a painful and weird ordeal to me, while around the world roughly one in every three men was being circumcised — with no “yuck” at all.
Worldwide, many traditional beliefs justify circumcision, by way of bending scientific evidence, underestimating the risks and effects of the surgery, and turning a blind eye to the pain and trauma it causes to children. The justifications are numerous and creative, and all aim to misconstrue the male body.
Indeed, our societies tend to protect children’s best interest and bodily integrity, thus forbidding irreversible surgeries on young children, in absence of urgent and demonstrated medical need. To allow circumcision, one must either pretend it is not a surgery, or that it has some medical justification, or that it has no relevant effect on the male body. None of these statements are factual. And as these arguments are actually very weak and counterintuitive, the defenders of circumcision will often present them altogether, in a confused and inconsequential patchwork of anatomical, moral and aesthetic considerations.
As it is medically possible to circumcise both male and female genitalia, the difference must rest in how they are perceived, constructed and utilized in our societies.
In Kosovo, where almost 92% of men are circumcised, I am most surprised that the feminist discussion that energizes the country when it comes to other important matters has not touched upon male circumcision. By way of example, the Criminal Code of Kosovo states: “Whoever, for non-medical reasons, partially or totally removes or permanently alters the external female genitalia, shall be punished by imprisonment from six months to five years”. Why are female bodies legally and culturally protected, while male bodies are not? Why do different laws govern the skin surrounding male and female genitalia?
As it is medically possible to circumcise both male and female genitalia, the difference must rest in the bodies, or rather, in how differently female and male bodies are perceived, constructed and utilized within our societies. From an exquisitely feminist perspective, I argue that patriarchal notions have imbued our understanding of the male body, rendering it a repository of archaic significations that perpetuate male privilege all the while exposing young boys to otherwise unacceptable levels of pain, harm and aggression.
All around the world — Arben’s family included — circumcision is justified on four (faulty) grounds:
#1 “Circumcision enhances cleanliness of the penis”
This argument baffles me every time it is presented. When a genuinely curious Arben interrogates me about this, I simply reply that, as for all uncut men, cleaning my own penis is what enhances cleanliness of my penis. There is clearly no need for surgery when I can use water and soap, as I do with the rest of my body. Children’s nails are always full of dirt. Do we take them away like the Mayan did to their enemies? Or do we teach our children to simply wash their hands?
If you struggle with fully accepting this indisputable fact, good. The uncomfortableness is setting in, and you are having your chance to undo the hidden structure of senseless superstitions that have been passed onto you by your parents, and by their parents before them.
#2 “Circumcision reduces the chances to develop pathologies later in life”
This statement demands a deeper reflection. Historically, circumcision has been attached to an ever-changing panoply of medical benefits, virtually rendering it the single most useful surgery to the male body. Unfortunately, there is to date no medical consensus whatsoever on the benefits of circumcision as a standard preventive procedure to be performed systematically on male children. It is not clear whether circumcision reduces other pathologies later in life, and most importantly it is not clear that these uncertain benefits outweigh the certain risks of the surgery.
Even if there was strong evidence that circumcision is a good preventive measure against pathologies, this would be the only invasive surgery routinely allowed on children as a precaution, in anticipation of the pathology itself.
Let’s use an example. Differently from circumcision, there is evidence that mastectomy greatly reduces chances to develop some forms of breast cancer later in life for at-risk women. This risk can be easily assessed through DNA testing. Yet, we would be horrified at the idea of allowing parents to remove their daughters’ breasts, if found to be at risk of cancer later in life. On the contrary, we would expect them to periodically control their daughters’ health, adopt all available strategies mitigating the risk, and, if the risk of developing cancer credibly appeared, explore all non-invasive avenues before resorting to surgery. Even in this case, I doubt any doctor would perform the mastectomy without consulting first with the child.
And yet, none of this happens in the case of circumcision. Arben still recalls how terrified he was before his surgery, about which he only knew that “it’s normal, everyone has to do it”. He still remembers how more than twenty men — relatives and family friends — were silently staring at him while he was stripped of his clothes, forcibly put and kept on his bed, and then — while his mother was trying to calm him down — deprived of a portion of his body without even asking him. He recalls the noise of clinking glasses as more relatives and family friends celebrated the news of his cut genitals outside of his bedroom
It happens more often then one might think that circumcision goes wrong, or more than the prepuce gets cut.
Even more worryingly, it is clear how science is being bended here to the needs of culture and tradition, as, globally, doctors from cutting communities tend to recommend it, while the rest of the world does not. Since the available scientific evidence is the same, it follows that doctors from cutting communities are recommending the surgery for reasons other than science.
My hypothesis is that practitioners from circumcising communities, who are circumcised themselves, are victims of the same superstitions as their patients. In turn, parents find great solace in believing that a procedure that they are doing only for cultural or religious reasons also has some medical justification. As cutters — doctors and xharrah alike — are compensated for their service, economic considerations might also play a role.
#3 “Circumcision is not a risky, painful or traumatic procedure”
It is clear to see that, being a surgery, circumcision involves all the risks of every surgery, such as complications connected to anesthesia (when there is one), hemorrhage, infections, scarring. These risks are the reason why doctors hardly recommend surgery when it can be avoided — as is the case for most circumcisions, especially on individuals who cannot choose for themselves, such as children. Additionally, cut men are exposed to a number of possible iatrogenic complications specific to the site of surgery — their genitalia. It happens more often then one might think that circumcision goes wrong, or more than the prepuce gets cut. This event can have horrifying consequences for the child.
Fortunately, in Kosovo and worldwide, parents are increasingly opting for doctors — as opposed to traditional practitioners — to circumcise their children. Arben was indeed this lucky. While this move should be welcomed, I must insist that being cut with a scalpel by a medically trained professional instead of being cut with a straight razor by a barber certainly reduces risks for the child, but it does not eliminate them at all. Arben still faced medically unnecessary risks. Parents who are still ready to roll the dice should consider that they are gambling not with theirs, but with their children’s body.
Pain, especially in male children, is also inexplicably underplayed. The pain engendered by circumcision is not quick, and can resurface through time. Arben remembers vividly the shooting pain of his first post-cut micturition. Even if circumcision were unproblematic from a medical perspective, why submit children to this pain? Don’t they enjoy the same basic right as their parents, namely, not to be subject to any amount of avoidable pain?
Circumcision can cause greater trauma to the child, beyond the trauma caused by pain itself. Arben recounts receiving no information about it, about sex or bodily anatomy from his parents, teachers and doctors. In other words, as a child, he saw his parents painfully altering an intimate part of his body, in conditions of great stress and exposure, without being given any cognitive tool with which to interpret the event, beyond the realization that his body could be stripped naked and cut by the men of the oda as it pleased them.
He remembers screaming among the tears “why did you do this to me?”, and receiving no answer. While circumcision might involve positive significations, it also literally engraves in the child’s genitalia the notion that his body is not for him to dispose of, but for his male older relatives.
Moreover, this conspiracy of silence around circumcision — which I believe is necessary for all those involved not to awaken to the absurdity of the choices they are making — can have unpredictable effects. Arben confesses to me that, growing up, he had sometimes difficulty in maintaining his erection. Someone that has received correct information about his penis would know that this is very common and absolutely normal. Arben, on the contrary, remained convinced well into adulthood that something had gone wrong with his circumcision, and that his penis had been irreparably compromised. This is trauma.
#4 “It does not substantially change a man’s anatomy or sense of self”
Once it is established that circumcision does not make the penis cleaner, it is not medically justified as preventive therapy, it is painful, potentially traumatic and unavoidably risky, we can move to debunking this last justification. Regardless of the fact that many uncut, cis men — including myself — would vehemently argue that the prepuce is a fundamental part of their body and their sense of manhood, it is interesting to see how the prepuce is conceived as a useless, soft, additional membrane that serves no purpose in the male anatomy.
Circumcision does alter men’s anatomy and sense of self, sometimes substantially and irreparably.
Indeed, we must recognize the role of culture-specific socialization to concepts such as “natural”, “normal” or “beautiful”. Take Arben as an example: although he later learnt that the uncut penis is not pathological in itself, he still sees the circumcised penis as the “normal” one. Oddly enough, in other parts of the world people believe that the penis we are born with is the “normal” one. Normal or not, even if the prepuce was a vestigial structure such as the appendix, we should not systematically remove it in the same way we do not systematically remove appendixes in children – or boys’ nipples, for that matter.
Still, there is actually evidence that the foreskin plays an important role in sexual intercourse, especially when it comes to male pleasure. Not to sound lewd, but I encourage the readers who have the chance to touch their partners’ foreskin — they will see with their own eyes this quite obvious truth. Beyond losing greatly innervated flesh, many men who were circumcised when they were already sexually active report that circumcision reduced feelings of pleasure in their glans. While causing loss of sensitivity is considered a barbarity for vulvas, perversely, this is somehow a neutral or even desirable outcome for penises.
All in all, circumcision does alter men’s anatomy and sense of self, sometimes substantially and irreparably. The fact that circumcision is mostly performed on prepubertal children hides this evidence, but it does not disprove it.
The hidden forces behind circumcision
So why does circumcision happen? Everywhere across the world, genital alterations on both boys and girls serve the same purpose. They are performed as part of rite-of-passage ceremonies that, by engraving communal significations into children’s bodies, ensure their full socialization in their community of birth. It is no chance that, as Arben recounts, his circumcision was organized at the same time as his uncle’s marriage: as his aunt-in-law was physically and symbolically transferred under the tutelage of Arben’s family’s oda, through circumcision Arben was allowed to enter the same assembly of male adults.
But what are these communal significations? For many families, circumcision is an occasion to celebrate and rejoy. Whether parents are aware of it or not, the act of performing non-medical and non-consensual genital alterations on children is not neutral. Beyond offering an otherwise legitimate moment of festivity, standard circumcision in itself reinforces patriarchy, illiberalism and feelings of ethnic particularism.
Patriarchy in that, if we are honest with ourselves, we allow genital alterations on men and we forbid it on women for the sole reason that we have construed the male body as invulnerable, strong, hardened by pain — the warrior-like body that, after being cut, roars to the world: “ndiyindoda!”. Male bodies need not be shielded from pain, need not be protected by the laws that protect the most vulnerable among us — children. The same violence that mutilates girls, completes boys. When women crumble, men thrive. As it was made crystal clear to Arben, “men are not afraid of being cut”.
After circumcision, a man’s penis becomes even stronger, even more penetrating — it needs not cleaning, it needs not care when touched. Visually, the circumcised penis becomes an impregnable fortress of resolute male intent. The prepuce, as it protects the glans, is a feminizing excess that needs rectifying. Only when the innate vulnerability of the male body is excised through pain, can the zot shtëpie rise from the ashes of his own blood and flesh.
Parents do not own nor cannot dispose of their children’s body parts as it pleases them, as their children’s bodies are their children’s and their children’s alone.
Circumcision on children is also illiberal. The foundation of every liberal democracy is the recognition of fundamental rights to the individual, among which stands habeas corpus. The rights to bodily integrity and to self-determination are universal and inalienable — there cannot be selected groups of humans to whom these rights are denied.
Sure, parents are responsible for their children, but guardianship does not consist in ownership. Right after his circumcision, Arben remembers his family reassuring him: “You are good, it’s normal, you’ll forget!”. Are we allowing non-consensual violations of boys’ bodily integrity — which we would consider assault if performed on men — on the basis that children are more likely to forget?
Parents do not own nor cannot dispose of their children’s body parts as it pleases them, as their children’s bodies are their children’s and their children’s alone. Otherwise, we would accept that categories of individuals with superior social status — the parents now, the men, the wealthy, the powerful later — can impose their will on their subjects, and their subjects’ bodies. We would accept to teach our boys that, through suffering, they will earn the right to make others suffer.
Circumcision is also tightly connected to feelings of ethnic particularism and identity. As a Gorani journalist from south Kosovo brilliantly put it, “Stockholm has the Nobel prize, Hollywood the Oscar and we have the Sunet [ceremony of circumcision]”. Now, it must be clear there is nothing wrong in cultural difference, nor in parents passing their ways onto their children, as this normally enriches children’s lives and identities. However, it must be equally clear that culture and religion have value only inasmuch as they are chosen by those who are able to choose.
Asked about the main emotions he attaches to the memory of his surgery, Arben says he felt “fear and pressure.” So much so that, he adds: “Even if I had a choice, I would have done it in a hospital, privately and with no ceremony — but I would have done it. Back in the time, not being circumcised was not an option. It would have brought great shame upon the family”.
Sure, we are all born into a specific cultural and religious community. But, once old enough and able to choose, we will be the ones to actually call ourselves members (or not) of that cultural or religious community. Tradition without freedom is nothing but arbitrary, violent constriction. I would go as far as arguing that, if compulsion is the only way for a community to ensure membership, members of that community do not see it as adding meaning or wellbeing to its affiliates. Otherwise, they would let them choose!
This passage is thorny, and yet fundamental. In a liberal democracy, religious freedom is considered crucial to citizens’ wellbeing — and rightly so. But it should be clear that religious freedom means ensuring one’s right to profess their creed, to change it, or to profess none at all. Interpreting their children’s wellbeing, parents are free to educate their children to their confession, but they should not be free to take decisions that will be irreversible later on, especially if this infringes upon not-open-to-interpretation, fundamental rights — such as bodily integrity.
Globally, many parents are worried that limits to genital alterations will jeopardize their ability to call their children Muslim, Jewish, etc. In Kosovo, parents are worried for their boys; in the Horn of Africa, they are worried for their girls. This is an understandable and legitimate concern.
Yet, freedom of religion protects one’s right to call themselves Christian or Muslim, not others. If parents really value their children’s membership to their own creed, they should let them choose, when they’ll be able (old enough) to choose. As someone who received Baptism, First Communion and Confirmation as a child, and has remorselessly abjured Christianity later on, I believe that “old enough” should be set — at the very least — at the age of consent. Otherwise, we would be implicitly admitting that a 10-year-old cannot freely use his penis for its sexual biological functions, but he can have it permanently cut for sociocultural reasons.
I am aware that this is very uncomfortable for many to hear. However, if we want to call ourselves supporters of a democratic society, this is the essential choice we have to make: to allow others, our sons and daughters above all, to choose whether they want to be like us, or not.
Which way is forward?
With this article I have argued for a more honest and less superficial reflection on circumcision. What I have not argued is that the prevalence of circumcision in Kosovo should justify ethnocentric sentiments, or white, Christian superiority complexes. I vehemently refute the argument that Italian or “western” parents have a better idea of what it means to raise a child, than Kosovar parents. Virtually all parents across the world decide to cut (or not to cut) their sons and daughters under the honest belief that this is what is best for them.
Similarly, I wholeheartedly oppose the idea that there is anything inherently wrong in Kosovar traditions, Balkan culture or Islam. On the contrary, I recognize that most circumcised men do not consider themselves as victims or mutilated individuals; they conduct a fulfilling sexual life, and through circumcision they benefit from full membership to their religious or ethnic community. Good for them! Yet, what all circumcised men have still been deprived of — those who benefit from the cut and those who don’t — is the right to choose.
Routine male circumcisions represent a humiliating and undignified interpretation of what it means to be a man.
Further, however you put it, standard circumcision on boys — equivalently to genital alterations on girls — involves the forcible removal of healthy tissue from children. Beyond exposing children to unnecessary risks and trauma, these alterations are meant to physically align children’s bodies to patriarchal, illiberal and undemocratic understandings of society.
Compared to Female Genital Cutting, male circumcision seems less problematic because it is normally – albeit not always – less anatomically damaging, but mostly because it is harder to link to a higher theory of oppression, notably, women’s oppression. And yet, isn’t all of this part of the same phenomenon?
As eccentric as it might sound, the significations behind circumcision are not only misogynistic, but they also represent a humiliating and undignified interpretation of what it means to be a man, cowardly legitimized by religion, pseudo-science and culture. Men don’t need “trials of bravery and stoicism” to prove their worth. As boys are stripped of the prepuce, they are given the mask of violent patriarchal oppression, a mask that will oppress them first, so that they will be able and willing to oppress others.
Arben tells me his mother didn’t feel strongly about his circumcision. When I ask him if his parents had discussed it beforehand he explains: “When you live in these big, traditional families, you don’t talk a lot. Also, you don’t get to enjoy a lot… you do what you are supposed to do.” Is this what parents wish to impart to their children? Among the infinite number of options, is this the sense of family, manhood, community, tradition, honor that they want to pass on to their sons?
Parents that wish to circumcise their children must face the magnitude of these questions, and answer with honesty. Regardless of what they will decide, I believe this exercise will be of great benefit to them, and to their boys. If he could go back, Arben says he would ask his mom “to protect me from all that pain.” I am certain no parent wishes to have this kind of regret.
As for everyone else, I insist that our freedoms start with our bodies. Ta-Nehisi Coates said it eloquently in his book “Between the world and me”: “We must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” And to all who fight for the freedom of women, I say: to liberate the body of women, we must liberate the body of all.
*The name of the interviewee has been changed in order to protect his privacy.
Feature image from Blend Bytyqi’s installation at the Infrared Exhibition: Additions. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.