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Author Topic: circumcision=patriarchy?  (Read 25088 times)
tenured_feminist
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« on: June 18, 2010, 7:01:48 PM »

Should the widespread circumcision of male infants be considered an illegitimate form of body modification that no thinking person should defend or practice under any circumstances?

I admit to a great deal of conflict on this as a practicing Jew. For the record: our boys are circumcised. One by a mohel, one by a doctor. (As an aside, after the doctor experience, I would NEVER let a doctor near an infant boy's dick again.) But leaving aside for the moment the religious issue, what do you think?

It's dangerous, at least to some degree. The penis can get infected. The operation can be botched.

The purported justifications for it are weak. Uncircumcised penises are no harder to keep clean than various other body parts. Circumcision doesn't protect against disease. Even in the US, uncircumcised penises are common enough that no parent need to fear social ostracism for an uncircumcised son in a locker room. That leaves religion, which we're unwilling to countenance as a valid reason in any number of other circumstancest

Increasingly, what scientific information there is suggests that circumcision interferes at least to some degree with male sexual pleasure.

What say you? For my part, I left this decision to my male partner, who owns and operates the relevant equipment. But perhaps I was wrong to do so. For sure if I had it to do over, I'd have a mohel, not a doctor -- if it were done at all.
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« Reply #1 on: June 18, 2010, 7:04:48 PM »

No, clitorectomies = patriarchy. Circumcision is child abuse and genital mutilation but I don't see how it is patriarchal. It is just a weird ugly historic custom.
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big_giant_head
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« Reply #2 on: June 18, 2010, 8:48:38 PM »

T_F, just out of curiosity, what did the doctor do that was so upsetting? 

When my partner's sister had her boy circumcised, the birth center used--I swear--something that looked like a rubber band on the poor little thing.  And the reason she and her husband had the procedure is that, I swear, it had just never occurred to them not to.  They didn't give it a minute's thought.  So in their case, circumcision equalled cluelessness.
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t_r_b
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« Reply #3 on: June 18, 2010, 9:08:29 PM »

As I just said on the other thread, I think that limiting the term "patriarchy" to "things harming women" is counterproductive. If we are going to use the term to describe a social system, then it necessarily affects both men and women, though certainly in different ways. To my mind, professional medicine's often bizarre and destructive efforts to control human sexual behavior are very much a part of that system, and that certainly includes male infant circumcision.

To put it another way, one of the primary functions of patriarchy is the construction (both social and physical) of male and female bodies in ways conducive to the perpetuation of the system. In the modern Anglo-American version of patriarchy, ca. 1870-1970, that involved constructing women who were weak and dependent and men who were dominant and controlling. In the late 1800s and early to mid-1900s, the emerging field of professionalized mental health was extremely preoccupied with how boys developed into men, and in particular whether they developed the emotional strength and self-control considered requisite for modern manhood. That concern popped up all over American and British culture, from the Boy Scouts to Turner's frontier thesis to all the hand-wringing about "shell shocked" soldiers in WW1 to the rise of recreational athletics, and also in the widespread concern with suppressing "aberrant" sexual behaviors like masturbation and homosexuality. This was very much about patriarchy: before men could control women (or for that matter "lesser" - i.e. darker skinned - men) they had to learn to control themselves, and that meant (among other things) learning to control their penises. Hence routine circumcision of male infants.

As for the science, this video that I posted in the other thread offers a very detailed introduction.

And the reason she and her husband had the procedure is that, I swear, it had just never occurred to them not to.  They didn't give it a minute's thought.  So in their case, circumcision equalled cluelessness.

"Cluelessness" may be a little harsh. It's not hard to imagine how rational informed decision-making might go out the window amid the excitement (and exhaustion) of childbirth. At such times, we necessarily depend on "experts" to tell us what we need to do. If the doctor says, "next up is the circumcision," then a whole lot of brand new parents will just nod vacuously. Doctors and hospitals and birthing centers make bank off of childbirth just like funeral homes do off of death: when we're overcome with emotion, we're a whole lot less likely to be intelligent consumers. Circumcision is one part of that.
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walker_percy
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« Reply #4 on: June 19, 2010, 1:26:48 AM »

I'm not following the connection between circumcision and men controlling their penises and selves. Circumcision is someone else controlling a penis. Men as a group? Explain.
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post_functional
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« Reply #5 on: June 19, 2010, 1:33:58 AM »

I think when a man turns 18, he should be allowed to circumcise himself.
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« Reply #6 on: June 19, 2010, 4:32:38 AM »

Two ways to address this question -- in general, and in relation to my own kids.

Circumcision is stupid and ridiculous; it's unjustifiable.  It likely does involve pain for the infant (though a non-orthodox mohel typically uses a topical anesthetic).  On rare occasions it leads to death.  I have doubts about the notion that it leads to inferior sexual experiences; if anything I'm guessing that the efforts of anti-circumcision activists to propagate that notion lead to anxiety on the part of circumcised men, who might start to *worry* that they are really missing something when in fact they're not.  For the vast majority of boys/men, circumcision seems like a minor thing -- a bit of pain soon forgotten, no lasting effects -- but it is still unjustifiable because of the (small) risks and the fact that it has no benefit. 

That's the general point.  Despite this, and with a fair amount of misgiving, we had our boys circumcised.  The pressure of a few thousand years of tradition weighed heavily.  We also worried about the ramifications of *not* doing it, given that we are raising Jewish children after all.  It's not something to be taken lightly, raising a Jewish boy who isn't circumcised -- if that part of the upbringing "sticks", there might be some real angst when the boy learns that he is different in this particular regard.  Perhaps it might also limit marriage options; it's not hard to imagine that some Jewish women would see it as a deal-breaker.  Some people here have been saying that boys should have the choice to do it (have it done) themselves, but that's going to be a difficult choice regarding a much more painful prospect.  So: it's possible to worry about having it done, but it's also reasonable for Jewish parents to worry about *not* having it done. 

If we weren't Jewish we wouldn't have done it, wouldn't have considered it at all.  I'd vastly prefer that this were not a part of Jewish culture/religion, and I'd love to see a movement take hold among Jews to simply abandon it.  But for our own decision, we chose it (again, with misgivings) because the risks/implications of doing it seemed small and the risks/implications of *not* doing it seemed bigger. 
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t_r_b
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« Reply #7 on: June 19, 2010, 4:55:02 AM »

I'm not following the connection between circumcision and men controlling their penises and selves. Circumcision is someone else controlling a penis. Men as a group? Explain.

It's all about masturbation, really. Victorian scientists believed that masturbation contributed to a host of neurological and physiological problems. It was very important to them that boys learn to become "masters of their domain," both in the patriarchal "father knows best" sense and the Seinfeldian "keep your hands off yourself" sense. For the Victorians, those two kinds of masculine "mastery" were closely linked. They really thought society was threatened because so many men were slaves to sexual compulsions. Their concerns here extended way beyond masturbation: homosexuality, sex with prostitutes, even just plain old romantic obsession with a woman (after all, if a man were sexually obsessed with a woman, she would have "mastery" over him - a dangerous inversion of the social order). But when it came to child development, the primary worry was sex with oneself, in part because boys who liked pleasuring themselves were thought to be more likely to have sexual obsessions etc. later in life.

Rather than considering the foreskin an inconsequential piece of extra flesh, Victorian doctors knew quite well that it was extremely sexually sensitive. In their eyes, that was exactly the problem. They worried that when all that sensitive tissue came into contact with, say, clothing or bedsheets or a nice warm bath or the open air or whatever, boys would be thrilled by sexual sensation and feel a compulsion to touch themselves. Now, as far as that goes they were quite correct: as far as I can tell, the vast majority of boys experience something along those lines. But the Victorians missed the boat on two key points: they assumed that this sort of sexual self-awakening was dangerous, and they assumed that it could be prevented by removing the foreskin (or, if nothing else, that the loss of the sensitive foreskin would make boys and men less likely to become obsessed with sexual stimulation). There, they were entirely wrong: once researchers got around to testing these hypotheses, they found that masturbation was quite harmless, except of course to one's bed linen, and that cut boys were no less likely to play with themselves and obsess about sex than uncut boys. Oops. But by then routine infant circumcision had become standard medical practice, with millions of penises senselessly mutilated all in service of medical theories comparable in merit to contemporaries like eugenics and phrenology.
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« Reply #8 on: June 19, 2010, 5:12:49 AM »

I'm not following the connection between circumcision and men controlling their penises and selves. Circumcision is someone else controlling a penis. Men as a group? Explain.

It's all about masturbation, really. Victorian scientists believed that masturbation contributed to a host of neurological and physiological problems. It was very important to them that boys learn to become "masters of their domain," both in the patriarchal "father knows best" sense and the Seinfeldian "keep your hands off yourself" sense. For the Victorians, those two kinds of masculine "mastery" were closely linked. They really thought society was threatened because so many men were slaves to sexual compulsions. Their concerns here extended way beyond masturbation: homosexuality, sex with prostitutes, even just plain old romantic obsession with a woman (after all, if a man were sexually obsessed with a woman, she would have "mastery" over him - a dangerous inversion of the social order). But when it came to child development, the primary worry was sex with oneself, in part because boys who liked pleasuring themselves were thought to be more likely to have sexual obsessions etc. later in life.

Rather than considering the foreskin an inconsequential piece of extra flesh, Victorian doctors knew quite well that it was extremely sexually sensitive. In their eyes, that was exactly the problem. They worried that when all that sensitive tissue came into contact with, say, clothing or bedsheets or a nice warm bath or the open air or whatever, boys would be thrilled by sexual sensation and feel a compulsion to touch themselves. Now, as far as that goes they were quite correct: as far as I can tell, the vast majority of boys experience something along those lines. But the Victorians missed the boat on two key points: they assumed that this sort of sexual self-awakening was dangerous, and they assumed that it could be prevented by removing the foreskin (or, if nothing else, that the loss of the sensitive foreskin would make boys and men less likely to become obsessed with sexual stimulation). There, they were entirely wrong: once researchers got around to testing these hypotheses, they found that masturbation was quite harmless, except of course to one's bed linen, and that cut boys were no less likely to play with themselves and obsess about sex than uncut boys. Oops. But by then routine infant circumcision had become standard medical practice, with millions of penises senselessly mutilated all in service of medical theories comparable in merit to contemporaries like eugenics and phrenology.

A cite, or two, would be nice.  Especially if it, or they, demonstrate the Victorian link.  We do so love to blame the Victorians, almost as much as the Puritans.

And callouses, really?  Bit of a brag I think, you old swordsman; take a break from time to time if only for a ciggy else you wear good johnny out before his time.
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spyzowin
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« Reply #9 on: June 19, 2010, 6:29:09 AM »

Circumcision is genital mutilation. Whether it is done in the name of some patently ridiculous religion or not is utterly immaterial. It should be criminalized, and people, whether they are doctors or religious charlatans, should be imprisoned for its performance on infants and men below the age of majority.

And it has never been about patriarchy. Jesus. That's one of the ways circumcision tries to sell itself in a positive light. But it's really about subservience. It's really about the lifelong inescapable terror of some evil supernatural force that constantly threatens extermination and punishment. Circumcision is YHWH *almost* cutting one's penis off. It's a brutal show of power sold as membership into an elite, but a near castration all the same. It is a mark that cannot be erased.

Those parents who do it for no religious reason are moronic robot sheep who have to live with the knowledge that they allowed a man with a knife to assault their child's genitals.
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t_r_b
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« Reply #10 on: June 19, 2010, 6:38:23 AM »

In reply to Qrypt's comments on Jewish tradition:

First off let me say that I understand and respect the difficult decision you (and TF, and countless others) made regarding your sons. The concerns you mention regarding growing up Jewish and uncircumcised are quite valid. In Jewish tradition, brit milah is a foundational element of the Covenant with G_d. It is both more important symbolically and more ubiquitous among different branches of Judaism than most other Jewish traditions, including laws about diet, ritual observances, etc. It's a big deal. I get that, and I appreciate the dilemmas it creates.

Having said that, I think it's worth pointing out some of what anti-circumcision Jews have to say on the subject (http://www.jewsagainstcircumcision.org/) and the alternative ceremony they endorse, brit shalom. I don't think their arguments necessarily diminish the validity of Qrypt's concerns, but they are worth a look.

Some of their arguments include:

1. Much like Christian Baptists, they question the meaningfulness of a covenant with God established in infancy before the child has even had the opportunity to learn what God is. If circumcision is to be a mark of an individual's dedication to God's covenant, then shouldn't it be entered into knowingly and willingly by men who understand what it means? (I realize that some would argue that brit milah marks the people's covenant with God, not an individual's - and of course God's commandment to circumcise Isaac at eight days old is pretty explicit - but this is an interesting argument nonetheless).

2. There are lots of Jews around the world in countries where circumcision is rare who do not practice it themselves, and are nonetheless still considered Jews (they report that 60% of Jewish boys in Sweden are uncut).

3. Exactly what circumcision entailed, historically, is in question. Some assert that prior to 200CE or so, brit milah involved severing only the tip of the foreskin, rather than the entire thing. While not something I myself would endorse, this milder form of circumcision would leave most of the foreskin's anatomical functions and nerve endings intact, while still creating the permanent mark on the male body mandated in Genesis.

They also offer some choice quotations from Maimonides's explanation of circumcision that suggest he would have gotten along quite well with American physicians of the Victorian era:

Quote
Similarly with regard to circumcision, one of the reasons for it is, in my opinion, the wish to bring about a decrease in sexual intercourse and a weakening of the organ in question, so that this activity be diminished and the organ be in as quiet a state as possible. It has been thought that circumcision perfects what is defective congenitally. This gave the possibility to everyone to raise an objection and to say: How can natural things be defective so that they need to be perfected from outside, all the more because we know how useful the foreskin is for that member? In fact this commandment has not been prescribed with a view to perfecting what is defective congenitally, but to perfecting what is defective morally.

The bodily pain caused to that member is the real purpose of circumcision. None of the activities necessary for the preservation of the individual is harmed thereby, nor is procreation rendered impossible, but violent concupiscence and lust that goes beyond what is needed are diminished. The fact that circumcision weakens the faculty of sexual excitement and sometimes perhaps diminishes the pleasure is indubitable. For if at birth this member has been made to bleed and has had its covering taken away from it, it must indubitably be weakened. The Sages, may their memory be blessed, have explicitly stated: It is hard for a woman with whom an uncircumcised man has had sexual intercourse to separate from him. In my opinion this is the strongest of the reasons for circumcision.

It's all about getting those pesky sexual impulses under control. Left intact, our bodies must surely lead us straight to moral degeneration. Plus, women enjoy uncircumcised penises too much, and we can't let women experience too much sexual pleasure, oh no.

Is that really an aspect of Jewish tradition that twenty-first-century Jews want to perpetuate?

A cite, or two, would be nice.  Especially if it, or they, demonstrate the Victorian link.  We do so love to blame the Victorians, almost as much as the Puritans.

For starters:

David L. Gollaher, Circumcision: A history of the world's most controversial surgery, New York, Basic Books, 2000

Robert J. L. Darby. A surgical temptation: The demonization of the foreskin and the rise of circumcision in Britain. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Leonard B. Glick. Marked in Your Flesh: Circumcision from Ancient Judea to Modern America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

All of the above comment on the role of Victorian medical thought and fears of masturbation and other kinds of "aberrant" sexuality.

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And callouses, really?  Bit of a brag I think, you old swordsman; take a break from time to time if only for a ciggy else you wear good johnny out before his time.

On the contrary. Circumcision necessarily leads to the callousing of the glans (i.e., the skin of the glans becomes dry and rough) simply because it deprives the glans of protection and lubrication. Overuse has nothing to do with it (except to the degree that the calloused and unlubricated glans is prone to chafing).
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abuflletcher
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« Reply #11 on: June 19, 2010, 6:52:59 AM »

That all may be historically true.  But at this point isn't it just more like what side of the road people drive on in country X?
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tenured_feminist
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« Reply #12 on: June 19, 2010, 9:00:04 AM »

I think Qrypt explained about where we were with the decision really well. In addition to all of this, a choice not to circumcise would have been devastating to my partner's parents. It would have created major problems in their relationship with their grandchildren and in my partner's and my relationship with them. We will certainly make it clear to our children that this isn't the case with us should they decide that they want to have children.

The mohel was very quick and did it with a minimum of restraint on the infant and little in the way of highly medicalized accoutrements and preparation. Basically he slapped on a topical, had the child's grandfather hold his legs, and did it. The entire procedure from beginning to end was literally less than 60 seconds. We did the blessing over wine, the baby got a drop, and he was in my arms in two minutes and sleeping calmly in five. We didn't have to do much in terms of aftercare; the mohel put a dressing on and told us that when it fell off, he'd be good to go. And he was.

The doctor strapped the baby down and spent probably 3-4 minutes with him strapped and screaming preparing the site. He then took probably a good minute to perform the circumcision. I think the worst part for the baby in addition to the restraint was the shot of lidocane, which obviously hurt a lot. Why a shot rather than a topical? Who the hell knows? There was a dressing that had to be changed daily, and the baby obviously didn't like that either. The site became a little red a few days after and I was terrified that it was going to get infected. Fortunately it didn't, or at least not at a clinical level.

This is obviously just an N of two, but since then, whenever anyone has talked to me about circumcision and it's been clear that they are committed to doing it, I have urged them to get a good mohel.

If my children have children, I hope they will make different decisions than I did. Oh yeah, and Maimonides, while he was brilliant in many ways and contributed much to Jewish philosophy (I do appreciate this), was a real jerk on gender stuff across the board.
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abuflletcher
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« Reply #13 on: June 19, 2010, 9:15:03 AM »

The doctor strapped the baby down and spent probably 3-4 minutes with him strapped and screaming preparing the site. He then took probably a good minute to perform the circumcision. I think the worst part for the baby in addition to the restraint was the shot of lidocane, which obviously hurt a lot.

That was my impression watching the video that t_r_b posted.  It certainly sounded like the baby was being "tortured" and I think some viewers found the crying to be the most disturbing aspect.  But the fact is, I've heard my own children screaming like that in situations that most certainly didn't involve pain.  Babies cry.  Often uncontrollably.  And then 5 minutes later (as per TF experience) the child can be calm and sleeping.  I'm wondering now how typical the specific medical procedure shown in that video actually is.  Do hospitals also do a "quicker" procedure similar to what the mohil does?
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abuflletcher
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« Reply #14 on: June 19, 2010, 9:51:12 AM »

Just out of curiosity, can a mohel legally perform circumcisions on any child?  And would a mohel agree to circumcise the "infant of non-Jewish parents" (bearing in mind Dawkin's point that no INFANT has a religion)? For that matter, who is allowed to perform circumcisions?  Surely there must be some kind of licensing involved.
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