A Cut Below

This morning, sitting in the garden catching up on the weekend’s newspapers, I found an opinion piece in yesterday’s Observer about male circumcision. This of course stems from a story that broke a few weeks ago about a court in Germany ruling that the circumcision of male children constitutes “bodily harm” and is consequently in breach of their human rights.  Since this procedure is traditional practice in some religious groups, including Jews and Muslims, there has been a predictable outcry that the court ruling violates their right to religious freedom.

At the risk of causing discomfort among (especially male) readers of this blog I thought I’d comment on this issue from a personal perspective. I’m not going to go into the ethical question, actually. I can certainly see the argument that an infant is unable to give consent and there must be limits to what parents can do to their children in the name of religion.

I will however, state parenthetically that one thing that does puzzle me is the court’s statement that being circumcised as an infant interferes with a person’s right to determine their religion later in life. Huh? That’s a non sequitur because there’s nothing to stop a circumcized man becoming a Christian. Is there?

Anyway, in the modern world female genital mutilation is rightly regarded as abhorrent, so why should male circumcision be any different?

But there is an angle to this story that most commenters have ignored, and that is that not all male circumcisions are carried out because of religious or other traditions. You’ll probably all think this is too much information to write on a blog, but I myself was circumcised, not as an infant, but as a young boy of seven or eight. I’m neither Jewish nor Muslim nor anything else in particular when it comes to religious belief. I won’t go into the reasons I had it done, but they were entirely medical. Anyway, I’m not in the slightest bit embarrassed to be a Roundhead rather than a Cavalier. In fact, I like my willy just like it is.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to show you a picture.

Being gay, and therefore having more than a passing interest in such issues, I’d also say that a “cut” penis is arguably more attractive and certainly more hygienic compared to the “uncut” variety. I guess my aesthetic judgement is influenced by the fact that that’s what my todger is like, but I know plenty of other men and women who prefer their partners that way too. At any rate the operation certainly doesn’t impair sexual function in any way, and possibly even improves it. At least in that respect it’s very different from female circumcision.

Of course I’m not going to argue that such preferences constitute good reasons for the involuntary circumcision of young boys. My point is that virtually all the rhetoric on this issue implies that to be  circumcised is to is to be incomplete. Mutilated. Damaged.  Inferior. I don’t think of it that way at all. Indeed, it bothers me to think of the effect this language could have on younger guys just coming to terms with their adulthood. Do you really want anyone to feel ashamed or embarrassed because they have been circumcized?

What I’m saying is that it’s not circumcision that’s bad, but the circumstances in which it is sometimes carried out. So by all means let’s debate the deep ethical conflict that this issue highlights between religious observance and the prevention of bodily harm to infants, but let’s also have a bit more respect for those of us who are, and are happy to be, a cut above the rest.

P.S. I was going to relate the famous schoolboy exam howler about how Sir Francis Drake circumcised the globe using a 60ft clipper, but decided not to.

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9 Responses to “A Cut Below”

  1. “I will however, state parenthetically that one thing that does puzzle me is the court’s statement that being circumsized as an infant interferes with a person’s right to determine their religion later in life.”

    This might have been lost in translation. There is a huge amount of discussion about this in Germany. Only the communist party voted against a non-binding resolution (not a law) in parliament to pass a law sometime in the future to allow religious exceptions, while the other parties were almost universally in favour of it. Opinion in the general population, though, is different, with a slight majority agreeing with the court. The aspect you mention plays no role in the discussion here. The question, of course, is to what extent parents have the right, in the name of religion, to make permanent changes on the bodies of their children at an age at which no consent is possible. There is no question that the idea is to have an exception for “established” religions (and Islam is getting a free ride here since it has a similar tradition to Judaism in this respect—there is no question that the parliamentary resolution was fueled by fear of being seen as antisemitic if anything else had been decided); if the scientologists decided to lob off the earlobes of their babies, you can be sure that both the government and the population would be up in arms to prevent it.

    Most forms of female circumcision are worse than most forms of male circumcision, but the (rare) form of female circumcision which is analogous to the most common form of male circumcision is also forbidden in Germany, so any sort of logic would give the same status to both on grounds of fairness. (About a year ago in the States there was a suggestion to allow this mild form of female circumcision in the hope that parents would be happy to stop at that rather than going for more drastic forms, but this was withdrawn after nearly universal protest.) This, and the general idea of putting religious tradition above basic constitutional rights, will make any such law difficult. The courts in Germany have no problem striking down laws seen as unconstitutional, and do this regularly. It is questionable whether the constitution could be changed, since what is involved is one of the basic unchangeable articles (at least that is what a logical interpretation leads to).

    I think the article you link to makes all the valid points. My view is that anyone subscribing to a religion for which genital mutilation is a basic tenet (much more the case for Judaism than for Islam) should do some serious thinking.

    The big issue, of course, is precedent. If religious tradition can trump constitutional rights here, why not elsewhere?

    Yes, there is no room for interpretation in the Jewish tradition; it must be done. However, many other Old-Testament traditions are not kept up today, and most Jews don’t have a problem with that.

    “Most serious threat to Judaism since the Holocaust”? Give me a break.

    Israel has nuclear bombs and Germany doesn’t. The rhetoric seems to indicate that this is an option which is on the table.

    As you note, the question is one of consent. If people want to get circumcised as adults, or get a Prince Albert, or a tattoo, then fine, its their body, its their decision. That’s not the case when one is 8 days old, though.

    One can debate the age of consent, but it should be high enough so that children can believably decide something other than what their parents want. I think this should apply to any sort of permanent change to the body done for non-medical reasons, be it circumcision, tattoos, piercings or whatever.

    As to the argument that forbidding it will cause people to do it illegally under worse conditions, this applies even more so to female circumcision. For that matter, one could use this argument to argue that there should be no laws at all.

  2. telescoper Says:

    One thing I was going to mention, but forgot, is that in my experience (!) quite a large fraction of non-Jewish American men are circumcised, whereas in continental Europe it seems much less common for men to be circumcised for non-religious reasons. I don’t know how this difference arose.

    • Definitely the case. On the Continent, practically no-one is, except those circumcised for religious or medical reasons. In my experience(!) other types of body modification are popular among those who go for that sort of thing.

      In the States, it used to be practically universal (parents weren’t even asked), but I gather that it is not as widespread today as it used to be. Why? America is full of stupid traditions. In this case, probably the (mythical?) belief that it reduces the sex drive was the main reason.

  3. I guess your original blog sums up the case pretty well. The Guardian articles, especially one written by Giles Fraser, (circumcision identifies me) caused furious argument online, particularly among Jewish males!

    One point however was left hanging in the air. Nabeela Shah from the Ahmaddiya Muslim Women’s Association wrote ‘If the state wishes to supersede the rights of parents in deciding what’s best for their children, we might as well put all our babies into care at birth ……..Religious practices can bind individuals to society and the state. The state would be foolish to try to alienate such a dynamic force for social cohesion’. She had cited the MMR fiasco as a good reason for the state to be wary, and there are many other areas where surgical intervention is necessary, and where a child cannot give consent. Alas, the matter does not simply involve the question of whether you have a right to chop bits off little Jonkins before he is old enough to decide which care home he puts you in, it involves much wider constitutional and religious rights.

    However as a gay man who was circumcised as an adult, and is very happy with the situation, I suppose I might be seen as slightly biased!! I must go and put some of my blogs on my own website.

    • Obviously, as with any issue, “the state can do anything; parents have no rights” and “parental rights always trump state rights” are both extreme positions, neither of which, as far as I know, anyone in this debate is advocating. “If we let the state decide this, why have children at all, why not just give children into state-run care at birth?” is as absurd as “if we allow this, then we have to allow sexual abuse of children and indeed anything, even cannibalism, at least as long as it is done in the name of religion”. The debate is difficult enough without bringing bogus issues into it.

  4. Michael Kenyon Says:

    I agree with most of the above but does it really improve performance, ‘some’ might claim the opposite….http://www.briansewell.co.uk/brian-sewell-written-word/brian-sewell-normuk.html

    • telescoper Says:

      I think there’s more than an element of scaremongering in the link you supplied, but it is something that obviously depends on the individual. I certainly can’t report any lack of “satisfaction from foreplay” or “intensity of climax”.

      I’d add that, in my experience, statistically speaking, circumcised men are more likely to be able to achieve multiple orgasms, and are also less likely to climax prematurely. That depends of course a lot on the person and the partner, but that’s what I meant by improved performance.

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter: Because Christianity grew out of Judaism, and Jews were (and, if Orthodox, are) required to be circumcised for religious reasons, there was a debate about it in the early church. This debate made it into the New Testament, so the conclusion settles it for Christians. The conclusion is that it is not required. Nor does Christianity forbid it, of course.

    A secular person has made a good point elsewhere about the recent German debate: that according to the Bible God required Jews to mutilate a body that, being part of creation, was originally “made very good”. The 8-day-old Jewish boy does cry at circumcision; it is indeed painful (although it does not seem to do much subsequent harm or good). So there can be no real medical justification for it in the great majority of cases; it is a question of parental faith, and of the extent to which the State can legitimately interfere with the rights of parents over their children in the name of those children. Difficult questions.

    Muslim boys are circumcised rather later, in which case it is more painful; see


    Female ‘circumcision’ is a horror that is clearly related to a peculiar male view of female sexuality. It is unknown in Judaism. In Islam there is a hadith (a saying attributed to Muhammad although not in the Quran) that the circumciser of a girl should not cut “too severely”. This particular hadith ((Sunan of Abu Dawoud, bk. 41, statement 5251) is not accepted as authentic by all Muslims. Correspondingly, in some Muslim communities this operation is not done, whereas in others it is almost universal. It is also found in some pagan cultures around the Middle East; presumably Arab interaction with those cultures, and varying pre-Islamic Arab practice, triggered a debate among the early Muslims.

  6. telescoper Says:

    Another thing I should have mentioned is that when I had it done I had a general anaesthetic.

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