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A Little off the Top: A Brief History of Circumcision

I apologize for this in advance. I have fallen behind in my duties as an IDC writer, and I decided to let the Chief choose an article topic for me this week. He hit me with circumcision. And then he said, “Well, that was fun! Why don’t you write an article about it?”

Where God Went Wrong

In all seriousness, circumcision is a serious issue. Even today the debate rages as to its health benefits versus its hindrances. Is it better to be cut, or is it better to be the way God made you and not the way some claim God would have made you if he had paid closer attention to the blueprints? From a religious standpoint, circumcision makes no sense as it implies God made a mistake in the design. Same thing goes for holy water. What, exactly, is the priest adding to water that God forgot to include in the recipe? “Whatcha got there, God? A little water? Just hydrogen and oxygen? Nice try. How about this – Dominus Ominous! Kazam! Now THAT you can kill some vampires with!” Why do so many religions claim that God is infallible and then go ahead and correct God’s obvious oversights?

Well, hey there, little fella! Hmm... something's missing... or should be...

“Well, hey there, little fella! Hmm… something’s missing… or should be…”

A Classic Whodunnit?

I am not going to get into a religious debate with you. That’s not why I am writing this. I am writing this because someone, somewhere, wants to know why that happened to his foreskin. You want to know why? We don’t really know, to be honest. Who had the idea originally? The Jews, right? See, there you go again, blaming the Jews for something they didn’t even start. No, in fact, circumcision goes back long before the Bible, back into the prehistory of human civilization. Whose brilliant idea was it to cut off a little piece of your thingy? We don’t know. All we can surmise is that the practice of circumcision started long, long ago, in East Africa, when someone decided that touching the little fella felt too good and could lead one into temptation. How would civilization ever develop if everyone sat at home touching themselves like we do today, what with the internet and all? That does explain a lot about our current situation… but back then, we had our whole lives ahead of us! Developing the wheel, and then building roads to roll it on. Stonehenge, Easter Island, the Great Pyramid of Khufu or Cheops or whoever the hell that guy was, all of it eventually unfolding into our bright modern age of airplanes and standing in security checkpoints to get on one of those airplanes. None of this could have happened without circumcision. If some random guy way back when in East Africa had not taken a sharpened stone and sliced off the feel-good skin on his wedding tackle, would we have made it this far? Or would we have all just masturbated our civilization into an early grave, scores of unsung would-be inventors dying of some rampant outbreak caused by untreated chaffing? Would we have vanished as an unsung species of blind, hairy-palmed do-nothings? One can only theorize. So let’s do that.

The usual suspects

The usual suspects

We have Opportunity, but what of Motive?

The most prominent theory is that male genital mutilation (because that is indeed what it is) began as a method of “purifying” the individual – removing the most sensitive part of the penis in order to reduce sexual pleasure. It just felt too damn good, apparently, and we were afraid that we simply lacked the self-control to be a productive civilization rather than a herd of horny hand-monkeys. The male prepuce (foreskin) is said to be the main region of erogenous sensation – the male G-spot, as it were, before we nipped it in the bud – and therefore, we could not be trusted with it.  Pleasure, we apparently decided, had no place in this world, only in the afterlife, when we had earned it by being total douchebags here on this corporeal plane.

Visual distraction: Look, puppies!

Visual distraction: Look, puppies!

Circumcision, therefore, became entwined in religious ritual, a way of getting us incarnate humans to reject the pleasures of the flesh and to seek a higher spiritual calling. Look at all the great religious leaders throughout history – surely they could not have enlightened us all had they all been diddling their doodles in the bushes rather than preaching from the pulpit about why such diddling is a sin. Who was the first big leader in the Bible? Moses. Let’s look at him… I mean, really look at him. Let’s peek under that tunic and… wh – what’s this? Moses was never circumcised! And neither were his sons! (Exodus 4:25) What gives? God was even going to kill Moses for not doing the deed to bleed… that is, until Zipporah took the initiative and circumcised her son in Moses’s stead, going against her own beliefs (she found circumcision

Son, gonna need you to take one for the team here...

“Son, gonna need you to take one for the team here…”

to be repulsive) and sparing Moses so that he could lead his people out of Egypt… and into the desert for 40 freakin’ years. They wandered, they got water from rocks, they ate manna, and they received the Ten Commandments. Do you know what Moses didn’t do during those 40 years? Institute circumcision as a common practice for the Jews. It wasn’t brought back into practice among the Chosen People until Joshua popped up as the new leader and said, “Hey, guys, I have a great idea…” (Joshua 5:2-10) As soon as all the men had sliced up their goodies, they joined Joshua’s army to invade Palestine, because as you can imagine, they were probably pretty pissed and looking to kick someone’s ass.

Who Else Wants One?

The Greeks and the Romans, however, never went in for such silliness. They abhorred circumcision as the plight of the Jews. It was a Jewish issue and of no concern to the likes of Caesar or Constantine or Socrates or Plato. Many of the Jews saw the frivolity of their self-mutilation and tried to pass themselves off as uncircumcised Greeks, until around 140 C.E. when a new procedure called peri’ah was introduced. This made circumcision even worse – it was more painful as it stripped away all of the foreskin, right down to the glands, and it was impossible to conceal. Today, in medical terms, this procedure is called a synechotomy, and brother, you do not want to be on the receiving end of this treatment. Before this, early circumcision as it was done by Abraham and his ilk only cut the very tip of the foreskin that overshot the end of the penis proper. Now they were shaving it down to the shaft, and I am sure I do not have to remind you how many super-sensitive nerve endings there are down there. They are called the Meissner corpuscles, and they do not like to be cut, scratched, or caught in your zipper, and they don’t grow back if you are circumcised. On the negative side, they take away from some of the sensations of sex. On the positive side, you don’t have to think as hard about baseball to buy yourself a few more seconds. Anyway, a synechotomy is the type of circumcision you get as the medical norm today. Just for the record, I will share more information than you would care to know: I, myself, am circumcised. I’m not Jewish (at least, I don’t think I am, and that seems like the kind of thing I would know), I guess my parents just thought it was a good idea. The trauma of just being born not being satisfactory, they figured a little slice off my new naughty bits would keep me clean and teach me an early lesson: Life hurts sometimes. Obviously, I have no memory of the procedure itself, but there it is. Look! A kitty getting tickled!

Passing as a Regular, Unclean Guy

Moving on… not all men liked the look of being circumcised, largely due to the stigma that often accompanied it, particularly for the Jewish men. Many circumcised men would go to great lengths to restore their foreskin to improve their social standing or to avoid persecution. During World War II, some circumcised men underwent surgery to restore the foreskin – even those that were not Jewish – simply to avoid trouble from a certain goose-stepping group of idiots. In ancient Rome, men would try to restore the foreskin so that they could participate in athletic events or patronize the local bath houses – both of which required them to be fully nude. To achieve this, they sometimes wore a copper weight, called a juedum pondum, which was hung from the remains of the foreskin to stretch it out again. Similar weights, such as the Foreballs, are still in use today by circumcised men who wish to restore the uncut look. So there’s that image.

Out of consideration for our readers, the image “Stretching the Foreskin” has been replaced with this picture of kitties playing patty-cake. You’re welcome.

Out of consideration for our readers, the image “Stretching the Foreskin” has been replaced with this picture of kitties playing patty-cake. You’re welcome.

Getting back to history…

Jericho: A Cut above the Rest

Are you still reading this? Fine. So if Moses did not practice circumcision, why is it still practiced today? Let me tell you about the mass circumcision at Jericho. After wandering in the desert, where many of the fighting Jewish men had died, Joshua, the new leader, felt he needed to reinstate the covenant with God to ensure his people’s victory over the Canaanites. As noted earlier, there was no circumcision during the forty years in the wilderness. Now, at Jericho, Joshua decided it was time to set things right. He proceeded to circumcise anywhere between 300,000 and a million men, depending on whom you ask. These men were then laid up for three days to recover, the third day of recovery said to be the most miserable. The spot where this happened is known as the “Hill of Foreskins” because that’s where all of those little bits of flesh were buried. Then, after Passover and a weird little trick involving ram’s horns, they swept down on Jericho and “destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys” (Joshua 6:21). Because they were understandably very pissed off, and misguided rage can be therapeutic.

JoshuaSun_Martin

Then came the Talmudic period (500 – 625 C.E.) and the introduction of the Metzitza, the third stage of circumcision. This is the famed version of circumcision in which the mohel, or circumcision specialist, sucks the blood from the wounded baby peepee. Gross, right? Yes, it was…because it did transmit diseases to many a sliced infant, and it caused many deaths. Today, if this traditional method is followed, the mohel performs a metzitza b’peh, a practice that uses a glass tube to suck the blood, bypassing any viral transmission. This practice has, of course, come under some scrutiny. And, finally, the Reform Movement of 1843 decreed that circumcision was cruel and unnecessary. Theodor Hertzl, the founder of Zionism, refused to have his son circumcised. Good on ol’ Hertzl for breaking with tradition.

Those Christian Cut-Ups

Christians, on the other hand, were never very big on circumcision. St. Paul the Apostle even warned parents against circumcising their children, and was even quoted as advising at least one person to beware of the “circumcision group” (Titus 1:10-16). The modern practice of using Hebrew circumcision style dates to the late 19th century in both England and the U.S. South Korea adopted circumcision after WWII, during the American Trusteeship and it was common place after the Korean War. Consider that the next time you hear a conspiracy theorist saying that circumcision is proof that the U.S. is under Israeli control… even though circumcision has not caught on in other parts of the world. Most people from these circumcised cultures still claim it is done for sanitary reasons, but this is not really true. A little soap and water can cleanse a foreskin just as well as it does anything else down there. The real reason behind circumcision is still to prevent masturbation (and take it from me, one of the circumcised – it didn’t work).

A squirrel drinking an itty-bitty beer! He can't do that!

A squirrel drinking an itty-bitty beer! He can’t do that!

I am not saying I am against circumcision. I actually am happy my parents made that odd decision and had me sliced up. It is just more aesthetically pleasing to me, mainly because of the culture I come from, I guess. That’s just me. Still, many adult men decide to have circumcisions performed simply because they do not like the reaction they get from some people when they whip out that extra bit of flesh at the bus station. They also feel it may be better to be circumcised, if only for aesthetic reasons. Most doctors advise against this, however, as it is painful and can carry such negative side-effects as psychological impacts, emotional difficulties, and – in rare cases – physical problems. Some still feel that circumcision protects against such ailments as penile cancer and STDs, but studies into these claims have been inconclusive. Conversely, some men go to great lengths to reverse the effects of a circumcision in order to restore some of the lost sexual sensation, even though this is impossible as the nerve endings can never be repaired.

It’s Almost Over!

On a final sickening note, the practice of female circumcision also exists, and it is horrible, brutal, cruel – just barbaric. And remarkably, rather than being wiped out by now, this practice is actually growing in popularity. Meanwhile, as our world culture becomes more and more homogenous, the practice of male circumcision seems to be falling out of favor. Fewer and fewer parents are choosing circumcision for their offspring in the U.S. Both the American Association of Pediatrics and the Canadian Pediatric Society have taken the position that circumcision is medically unnecessary. Since 1971, male circumcision has been on a steady decline in North America. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, the majority fashion choice is sporting the ol’ flesh turtleneck. We still need to put an end to female genital mutilation the world over. That horror must be stopped. As a male, I can say I am OK with the cut of my jib. I have yet to hear of any female who has spoken up in favor of her procedure.

If you take anything away from this troubling article and its disturbing imagery, let it be this: Girls should never have to be circumcised. Anywhere. Ever. Even boys don’t really need it. The enjoyment of sex is nothing to be met with shame or punishment. Still, we do need to reduce our numbers – that is painfully obvious. Use protection, be responsible, and have fun. The earth can provide for us all – if we can stop the corporations from hogging all the resources and making the rest of us pay for them.

Screw the corporations. Let’s circumcise them.

"Just you try it, m***erf***er!"

“Just you try it, m***erf***er!”

 

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Written by Matthew Leach

I am an American expat that has been living overseas since 2007. Most of that time has been spent in East Asia as I lived in Korea until 2012. Currently I reside in the Sultanate of Oman. I enjoy traveling, and I always bring a towel, but ultimately I hope to return home to Pittsburgh. So if you hear of any jobs...

There are 8 comments

  • drealgrin says:

    ” Girls should never have to be circumcised. Anywhere. Ever. Even boys don’t really need it. ”

    this really irks me, the idea that you hold female bodies above male bodies by simply suggesting that it’s less immoral to destroy part of a male’s body due to YOUR culture’s norms. It’s ethnocentric and very sexist.

  • I think you did a good job with the history and ridiculousness of circumcision….however there ARE females and cultures that still do defend the practice and even circumcised females say they prefer it. You also didn’t go into the differing degrees of female circumcision….which some degrees are much less invasive than male circumcision. I’m glad you reference you’re acceptance of your own cutting to the cultural and societal conditioning…….because 80% of the worlds males have natural intact genitals and wouldn’t have it any other way. Other countries are baffled at why Americans still do this to their male babies.

  • Good Article, Matthew Leach !
    I gotta write an article about Spirituality for October 24th, like you did.
    And I´m kind of lost !
    How did you came up with so many ideas? I have some, but not anything concrete yet.

    Best wishes !

    Guadalupe Scioscia

  • Matthew Leach says:

    But wait — it gets worse! Accidents do happen… and here is an example of a bad one: http://www.ajc.com/news/news/lawsuit-filed-claiming-botched-clayton-county-circ/nhX9h/

  • Isaac Kim says:

    How exactly does a woman get circumcised? Wait, never mind. I don’t want to know.

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