THE BLOG

Unkind Cuts That Hurt Us All

20/12/2013 12:15 GMT | Updated 19/02/2014 10:59 GMT

My readers sometimes comment about the negative stories about men prevalent in the media. It goes something like this: "Men are dangerous, they are the cause of all ills in society, and women are obviously going to have problems with men. Now don't think outside of this box!" Here, fear of what lies beneath the surface is the underlying message.

For instance, after a horrifying experience of rape, Laurie Penny argued male rapists were probably lurking somewhere in your friendship network: "there's a good chance you know somebody who might have raped someone else" [1]. But the vast majority of men don't rape others, and boys and men are also the victims of sexual violence (e.g. sexual abuse of boys, rape of men in prison, and women's sexual violence against men). Crucially, "concern for one type of victim, in this case, men and boys, need not signify the lessening of concern for women and girls. It is not a zero-sum game." [2]

But we have compassion fatigue for men. We have become desensitised to how boys and men might be feeling about this "what lies beneath" narrative. And it's pretty hard to think outside of this story. But increasingly, people like Glen Poole, UK coordinator for International Men's Day, are happy to disrupt this narrative whenever they can. He is unapologetic when he says, "men and boys are the main victims of both men's violence and women's violence." But the problem is society remains indifferent. As a case in point, the lack of concern surrounding male circumcision is a perfect micro-system of what men are up against here.

It was a relief when US journalist Hanna Rosin was able to overcome any trauma she experienced in submitting her sons to circumcision for religious reasons [3]. She made light of how easily she overcame her hesitations. And she was able to cite all kinds of sexual health data to bolster her cheery attitude, while simultaneously acquiring an anecdote for the dinner party circuit. She acknowledged all the blood and potential trauma, but was unable to admit that her infant sons were not going to be sexually active for a very long time. So her health arguments were not relevant. Had her sons had a say in the matter of circumcision when they were older, they might well have withheld their informed consent.

Non-religious circumcision is relatively new in the UK, emerging out of Victorian times, while being advocated as an operation for supposed medical reasons (e.g. bed wetting but also insanity and gout) [4]. Since these early days, circumcision represented an attempt to reduce the imagined spectacle of teenage boys masturbating [5]. It is sobering to think that an original motivation behind circumcision was to reduce sensitivity of the nerves in the frenulum so as to reduce sexual pleasure. But routine infant circumcision translates into involuntary circumcision, and thankfully in the UK, circumcision was mostly de-medicalised. Fewer boys than elsewhere are subjected to the practice, which many doctors see as barbaric, although religious rituals still may be given as a reason for circumcision. And unlike other countries, babies in the UK thankfully bleed to death from circumcision relatively rarely, but serious complications are not uncommon, with just one hospital reporting 100 cases in 2009 alone [6].

De-medicalisation of male circumcision did not take off in the US [7]. And there is currently a move to re-medicalise circumcision, especially in terms of reducing the risk of HIV transmission in Africa, even though the relevance to infant boys in the West is questionable [8]. So while the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) moved against routine male circumcision in the early 70s, by 2012, the AAP had swung back to argue to benefits, saying [9]: "Evaluation of current evidence indicates that the health benefits of newborn male circumcision outweigh the risks and that the procedure's benefits justify access to this procedure for families who choose it.... [the] benefits of circumcision are sufficient to ... warrant third-party payment for circumcision of male newborns." So reassuring words for private health insurers, if not infant boys. But the statement only brought disrepute for the AAP. The supposed health benefits were widely disputed, and a powerful pro-circumcision culture in the US was cited as the most likely culprit for the U-turn [10].

True enough, many men (and their partners) don't mind not having a foreskin, and so perhaps the parents will know best on some occasions. Although of course, how can parents predict the views of a future adult male? Just ask all the irate men who are grieving their loss on the Internet, or as one man put it, "The frenulum is reputed to be the single most sensitive spot for the natural man. However, I wouldn't know, since my own frenulum was stolen from me by a sexual mutilator" [11].

If infant circumcision is not routinely justified on medical grounds, you have to ask what it is really for. Circumcision is a cultural practice first and foremost, but it is brutal. Not only is severe physical pain caused (unbelievably, it is frequently carried out without anaesthetic), but psychologically it may dissociate boys from their emotions and generate a store of negative emotions. Infants being circumcised frequently appear to observers to go into a shock and dissociate, and subsequently it is thought that many are left with lasting psychological trauma [12].

In the past, circumcision might have made sense in highly militaristic societies as a means of disconnecting boys from their sensuality and feelings so that they can kill. But I'm not sure how useful that is in a world of drones and cyber warfare where few men will ever see battle. Many men and helping professions are now attempting to reverse this disconnect, to help both men and women reconnect to their emotions as a means of becoming more rounded human beings. Such re-connection underpins movements like mindfulness and emotional intelligence.

Thus, infant male circumcision should be seen as brutality without consent. Like other forms of violence against boys and men, it is difficult for people to notice it. But we need to talk about the wider social implications of the practice, which include snipping off any feeling the wider population might have about the plight of modern boys and men. Instead, advocates of infant male circumcision focus on religion, cosmetic appearance, or health arguments that neglect consent. Male infant circumcision should be understood not just for the disturbing effect on the unfortunate baby, but also for the numbing effects on those who inflict it, promote it or are just plain indifferent. For people like Hanna Rosin, male circumcision is just another brick in the wall of jadedness.

1. http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/commentators/laurie-penny-its-nice-to-think-that-only-evil-men-are-rapists--that-its-only-pantomime-villains-with-knives-in-alleyways-but-the-reality-is-different-8079403.html

2. http://scienceblogs.de/geograffitico/wp-content/blogs.dir/70/files/2012/07/i-e76e350f9e3d50b6ce07403e0a3d35fe-Stemple_60-HLJ-605.pdf

3. http://nymag.com/health/features/60146/

4. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1525/maq.2005.19.2.125/abstract

5. http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/journal_of_social_history/v036/36.3darby.html

6. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/dec/17/male-circumcision-baby-goodluck.

7. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9566.2009.01233.x/abstract?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false

8. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/aug/28/circumcision-the-cruellest-cut

9. Task Force on Circumcision, Circumcision Policy Statement. Pediatrics, 2012. 130(3): p. 585-586.

10. http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2012/08/the-aap-report-on-circumcision-bad-science-bad-ethics-bad-medicine/

11. http://www.johmann.net/essays/psychological-harm-of-circumcision.html.

12. http://epublications.bond.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1036&context=hss_pubs