Circumcision and “moral hygiene”

Despite what the circumcision promoters claim, prevention of masturbation was a principal reason for the introduction of male circumcision in Victorian Britain and America. Circumcision of male infants and boys cannot be understood except in relation to the 19th century anti-masturbation crusade.

In 1895 a leading American medical journal published an article by a prominent MD who asserted that in all cases of masturbation:

circumcision is undoubtedly the physician’s closest friend and ally, offering as it does a certain means of alleviation and pronounced benefit …. Those cases in which the glans presents a moist, semi-oily appearance … long thickened foreskin, pliant and giving, large and often tortuous dorsal veins, go to make up a picture that is exceedingly tempting to the surgeon’s scissors. … To obtain the best results one must cut away enough skin and mucous membrane to rather put it on a stretch when erections come later. There must be no play in the skin after the wound has thoroughly healed, but it must fit tightly over the penis, for should there be any play the patient will be found readily to resume his practice, not begrudging the time and extra energy needed to produce the orgasm. It is true, however, that the longer it takes to have an orgasm, the less frequently it will be attempted, and consequently the greater the benefit gained.”

Edgar Spratling, “Masturbation in the adult”, Medical Record 48, 28 September 1895, 442-3

The importance of articles such as this one by Dr Spratling – one of hundreds along these lines – is that they demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that prevention of juvenile sexual activity (masturbation and other forms of pleasurable touching and manipulation) was a primary reason for the introduction of circumcision in the second half of the nineteenth century and one of the main advantages that doctors cited when selling the surgery to parents. They also show just how avidly surgeons such as this one relished the thought of taking a pair of scissors to other men’s penises; all that luxuriant overhang was just begging to be trimmed into insignificance.

Despite the overwhelming evidence – hundreds of articles in medical journals and baby and child care manuals from the 1860s until the 1930s – prominent figures in today’s pro-circumcision lobby refused to accept the truth and insist that the claim is a mere invention or falsehood of the so-called anti-circumcision movement. Typical of their approach is (1) to cite the one or two articles or textbooks that appear to agree with their position and ignore the dozens that do not; and (2) to gloss over the careful distinctions made by genuine scholars. They also claim that modern studies of sexual behaviour (such a surveys by Richters et al in Australia and Laumann in the United States) do not find much difference in the incidence of masturbation between cut and uncut adults. Both of these responses are unscholarly, irresponsible and evasive of the three crucial issues.

Circumcision and masturbation: The real issues

Frequency: The real issue is not whether sexually mature circumcised men masturbate less than uncut men, but whether cut men have to work harder and get less pleasure from masturbation than uncut men. This was the finding of Kim and Pang’s study of Korean men, and it is also a common statement in personal testimony.

Children: For the Victorians, the issue was not whether circumcised men masturbated less than men with foreskins, but whether circumcision could reduce the incidence of masturbation among infants, children and adolescents (when it was regarded as particularly dangerous, since they were supposed to need all their energy for growth). Adult men were presumed to be satisfied by their wives, mistresses and prostitutes.

Fact or belief? In relation to the Victorians, the issue is not whether circumcision actually did reduce the incidence of masturbation among children and adolescents, but whether doctors believed that it did, and whether they acted on that belief. On these points the evidence is overwhelming that the majority of the medical profession up until the 1930s did believe that circumcision reduced the frequency of masturbation in childhood and that they did act upon it by advocating and performing widespread circumcision. They did not carry out any quantitative surveys (Jonathan Hutchinson explained that the subject was too distasteful), but there is any amount of comment from clinical observation in British and US medical journals from the 1860s until the 1940s, all assuming that masturbation was a bad thing and that circumcision could help to limit it. These questions are discussed in great detail and with massive reference to contemporary sources in the only scholarly studies of the history of circumcision, published by leading university presses after a rigorous process of peer review:

Both scholars establish beyond any shadow of doubt that discouragement of masturbation among children and adolescents was one of the three prime motivations for circumcision from the 1860s until the 1910s (the other two being protection against syphilis and prevention of “congenital phimosis”), and a significant motivation until the 1930s (and in the case of the USA, until the 1950s). Professor Brian Morris is fond of referring to the “avalanche of evidence” as to the health benefits of circumcision; in the nineteenth century and up to the 1930s much of that avalanche was made up of claims for the effectiveness of circumcision against the scourge of masturbation.

The studies by Richters and Laumann are not relevant to this question because they deal with the behaviour of adults and cover only the frequency of masturbation. They ignore the far more important question question of whether uncut men get more pleasure from the activity: libido (driven by testosterone) and psychology can explain the frequency of sexual activity such masturbation, but more frequent masturbation does not mean that the activity is more pleasurable or rewarding, merely that the person is feeling horny. As to methodology, both studies rely on self-reporting (in Richters case, from telephone interviews), meaning that this evidence is of the sort that circumcision promoters such as Brian Morris contemptuously dismiss as “anecdotal” (equals unreliable) if it runs against them. If they are willing to accept the validity of these figures arising from anecdotal evidence, they should also be willing to accept the personal testimony of men who say that circumcision has reduced the pleasure they get from masturbation and other forms of sex.

Neither Richters nor Laumann gives the circumcision lobby much joy on their central contention, however, that uncircumcised men are far more liable to STDs; on the contrary, Richters found little difference in the incidence of both STDs and HIV-AIDS between cut and uncut men, and in a later study actually found that circumcised men were more vulnerable to some STIs. Laumann actually found STDs more common among the circumcised. The fact that circumcision as a remedy for masturbation was not mentioned in absolutely every medical text from the period proves nothing. Nobody has suggested that the contention was universal, merely that is was very common and very much part of the mainstream. The fact that some medical texts of the period did not discuss circumcision must be set against the fact that dozens of others – in fact, the majority – made much of it. This is what is known as weighing all the evidence: something that circumcision enthusiasts seem notoriously unable to do.

Circumcision as pornography

Among the texts the circumcision lobby cite as a reliable survey of circumcision practice that rejects the circumcision-to control-masturbation connection is a book published in the 1930s, Felix Bryk’s Circumcision in Man and Woman. This is certainly not a “major” text, if “major” is intended to mean intellectually respectable. Bryk was merely an amateur anthropologist, and the book was published by the American Ethnological Press, a far from respectable publisher, belonging to that class of publishers that liked to dress up soft core pornography as ethnological research so as to get it past the censor. The book is as much fantasy as research, but even Bryk (whatever his own opinion) quotes sources that do claim that a major motivation for circumcision was to reduce sexual pleasure. (See quotation from Nuri Bey Risa on the Quotes page.) Another of Bryk’s efforts along these lines was Voodoo-Eros: Ethnological Studies in the Sex Life of the African Aborigines, published by the United Book Guild in an edition “limited to 500 copies sold only by subscription to physicians and adult students of sexology and anthropology”. Highbrow pornography, in other words.

Bryk’s book on circumcision is actually less reliable than the notorious History of Circumcision (1891) by Peter Charles Remondino, a fully qualified physician and a somewhat more serious researcher than Bryk. Professor Morris and friends fail to mention this book because Remondino was both an equally fanatical crusader for universal circumcision and a firm believer that one of the most important reasons for circumcision was that it would reduce the incidence of masturbation. He was sure that the prepuce was the most frequent cause of onanism and quoted the opinion of Dr Bernheim, surgeon to the Jewish community in Paris, that the irritation “it produces through the sebaceous secretion is a frequent cause of masturbation which nothing short of circumcision will remedy” (p. 225). The origins of ritual circumcision lay in the desire of ancient Judaic lawgivers first to discourage the idolatrous debaucheries practised among their free-spirited neighbours in the Middle East, and masturbation specifically; and secondly to encourage procreation. Referring to the story of the circumcision of Abraham and the impregnation of Sarah, he writes: “Here we have suggestions of a preventive to onanism, and a cure to male impotence when due to preputial interference” (p. 201). For that very reason, Remondino was convinced that universal male circumcision was a bio-medical imperative for the twentieth century. A stormy blast against "the opponents of circumcision" from Dr Remondino in 1902 shows that anti-foreskin activists were just as dogmatic and intolerant of criticism then as their counterparts today.

Turning to the sources that the circumcision lobby always ignores, the most important are:

This is a peer reviewed article on precisely this subject in a leading social history journal, and (as well as citing numerous contemporary authorities, such as William Acton, G. Frank Lydston, Charles Beard, Abraham Wolbarst etc) it cites numerous other scholarly articles that have found a strong link between the rise of circ and the desire to control masturbation and other expressions of sexuality, especially in children.

Circumcision to control masturbation in infants, children and adults

An avalanche of evidence in favour of circumcision

Here is a random selection of quotes from the 1870s to the 1970s, showing that for over a century the medical profession cited discouragement of masturbation as one of the major reasons for circumcision.

Athol Johnson, "An injurious habit occasionally met with in infancy and early childhood", Lancet, 7 April 1860, 345

In such cases [i.e. masturbation]  we must, I believe, break the habit by inducing such a condition of the parts as will cause too much local suffering to allow of the practice being continued. For this purpose, if the prepuce is long, we may circumcise the male patient with present and probably future advantage; the operation, too, should not be performed under chloroform, so that the pain experienced may be associated with the habit we wish to eradicate. In the female, Dr Gros has advocated, in like manner, complete or partial extirpation of the clitoris; this, however, would seldom seem to be necessary, except, perhaps, in those cases where furious masturbation is associated with congenital malformation of the organ. ... [Such measure] are most likely to be called for in boys, for in female children, with the exception of the congenital cases I have alluded to, the practice seems to be more easily checked by surveillance than it is in males.

Medical Times and Gazette (London), 1867 (1), 19 January, p. 79

A Jewish surgeon informs us that the practice in question [masturbation] is virtually unknown in Jewish schools. It is well known that the removal of the foreskin diminishes the temptation and the facility. The skin of the glans becomes harder and less sensitive. The learned Dr Copland and many other writers express regret that circumcision was ever discontinued. … we have known masturbation effected habitually by a sickly child of three; but … eczema and ascarides were the exciting causes. Nevertheless, the removal of the prepuce effected a complete cure.

M.J. Moses, “The value of circumcision as a hygienic and therapeutic measure”, New York Medical Journal 14, October 1871, 368-74

From time immemorial medical men have been consulted by parents and desired to prescribe for children whose haggard faces and extreme nervous irritability have caused them alarm and anxiety. The practised eye of the surgeon sees beyond the veil which shadows the case and recognizes the ravages which solitary vice is making upon the nervous system of the little sufferer. Examination of the case most frequently reveals a long, contracted and irritated prepuce, the presence of which accounts for the initial cause of the trouble. … I refer to masturbation as one of the effects of a long prepuce; not that this vice is entirely absent in those who have undergone circumcision, though I never saw an instance in a Jewish child of very tender years, except as the result of association with children whose covered glans have naturally impelled them to the habit.

Letter from a Jewish surgeon, Lancet, 12 December 1874, p. 856

That the deprivation of the prepuce induces premature sexual excitement and onanism is quite opposed to experience and fact. On the contrary, the removal of the prepuce reduces in an extraordinary degree the sensitiveness of the glans penis; and, apart from biblical reasons, which have necessarily no place in your journal, I believe that the intention of the rite was to enhance and advance as far as possible the chastity of the race by blunting mechanically the sensibility of the organ of sexual appetite.

The surgeon was responding to a notice in the previous issue of the Lancet about a pamphlet against circumcision by a Jewish physician in Vienna, Dr Levit.

Dr J.M. McGee, "Genital irritation as a cause of nervous disorders", Mississippi Valley Medical Monthly, 1882, quoted in David Gollaher, Circumcision: A history of the world's most controversial surgery, p. 85.

Whether it [circumcision] be curative or not it is conservative, and removes one source of irritation from an exquisitely sensitive organ. I would favour circumcision, however, independent of existing disease, as a sanitary precaution. … (2) It is acknowledged to be useful as a preventive of masturbation. … (5) It probably promotes continence by diminishing the pruriency of the sexual appetite.

Dr McGee also claimed that circumcision alleviated the symptoms of tubercular meningitis and was a complete cure for brass poisoning.

Alexander Davidson, “Genital irritation in boys”, The Practitioner, Vol. XLII, 1889, 350-56

[In uncircumcised boys] the mucous membrane and glands [sic: read glans] are unnaturally excited, while secretions increase and are pent up by adhesions. Thus the irritation is not only maintained, but intensified. The boy is in a condition of frequent irritation, and seeks to relieve it by purely physical means … He rubs himself, but quickly discovers that tugging on the prepuce is much more effectual. Continued pulling elongates it, its orifice contracts … till finally in severe cases … the prepuce balloons out during micturation, straining weakens the abdominal walls, and hernia may result. … But the fact I am anxious to emphasise is that continued irritation of the genitals induces a habit of manipulation which may persist long after the irritation ceases, and which if retained till puberty leads to the practice of masturbation in its most odious sense

Case I. Aged seven years. Been ailing for a year, and under medical treatment. Previously active, intelligent and healthy. Now he is apathetic and unable to stand or walk; “plays with himself”, and suffers from nocturnal enuresis. Prepuce long, orifice contracted, with inflamed edges, and very excitable. Circumcised. Nocturnal enuresis at once ceased; in a few days he tried to walk, and within a month walked a mile without support. Former intelligence had then returned.

Case II. Aged three years. Double hernia; cannot stand or walk; always “in doctor’s hands”. “Plays with himself”. Circumcised. In a week or two he began to “walk on the grip”, and withina month could walk alone.

Case IV. Aged five years, Paraphimosis with superficial sphacelation. Has often been flogged for “bad habits”. Circumcised. Parents believe that he has ceased to manipulate, and his health has greatly improved. …

But it may be asked, “What is to be said of the origin of masturbation during adolescence?” This is not nearly so common as is supposed, and in the great majority of cases is due to the contamination of early manipulators. … As with infant and child, the same means of relief are sought, but the results are the more serious, because now we have to contend with a developing sexual instinct. Here again it would seem that if remove purely physical causes we might reasonably hope to greatly diminish the practice, and the only method which seems to me safe and unobjectionable, simple and complete, is circumcision.

Jonathan Hutchinson, "A plea for circumcison",  Archives of Surgery, Vol. II, 1890, p. 15; reprinted in British Medical Journal, 27 September 1890, p. 769

It is surely not needful to seek any recondite motive for the origin of the practice of circumcision. No one who has seen the superior cleanliness of a Hebrew penis can have avoided a very strong impression in favour of removal of the foreskin. It constitutes a harbour for filth, and is a constant source of irritation. It conduces to masturbation, and adds to the difficulties of sexual continence.

P.C. Remondino, History of circumcision from the earliest times to the present: Moral and physical reasons for its performance (Philadelphia and London: F.A. Davis, 1891), p. 224

Dr Vanier … looks upon the prepuce as the most frequent cause of onanism. “If the prepuce is lax, its mobility produces an irritation to the highly irritable and sensitive nervous system of the child by the titillation in its movements on the glans; if too tight … it compresses the glans and by its irritation it leads the child to seize the organ”. So that in either case he look upon the prepuce, through the sensitiveness it retains and induces in the glans, as the principal cause of masturbation. … In children who have not yet the suggestions of sexual desire imparted by the presence of the spermatic fluid, the presence of the prepuce seems to anticipate those promptings. Circumcised boys may … either through precept or example, physical or mental imperfection, be found to practice onanism, but in general the practice can be asserted as being very rare among the children of circumcised races, showing the less irritability of the organs in the class; neither in infancy are they as liable to priapism during sleep as those that are uncircumcised.

Jefferson C. Crossland MD, "The hygiene of circumcision", New York Medical Journal, Vol. 53, 1891, pp. 484-5

In consequence of circumcision the epithelial covering of the glans becomes dry, hard, less liable to excoriation and inflammation, and less pervious to venereal viruses. The sensibility of the glans is diminished, but not sufficiently to interfere with the copulative function or to constitute an objection. … It is well authenticated that the foreskin … is a fruitful cause of the habit of masturbation in children.

M. Clifford, Circumcision: Its Advantages and How to Perform it (London: Churchill, 1893), pp. 6-8

“The glans penis is very vascular, and is well supplied with nerves … and the slightest irritation is sufficient to cause a great deal of discomfort. It is not uncommon to see a child dragging at the foreskin as a consequence. As age advances the habit of masturbation is very frequently to be attributed to it. But after circumcision the glans penis is always dry …. It loses much of its acute sensitiveness, and all unnatural irritation being guarded against, the mind is not directed towards the sexual organs, and a decided check is put to one of the vices only too commonly practised in early manhood. … The cleanliness and chastity which circumcision undoubtedly promotes is probably the reason why the operation has been performed for so many centuries, and may also account for its acquiring a religious significance.”

Compare Brian Morris:  “The concept … that circumcision was used in this era to prevent masturbation is in fact a falsehood that has been promoted by anti-circumcision groups. The real reason was that it prevented smegma, itching and so on, and thus stopped males scratching their genitalia. The fact that such excessive attention to a penis to relieve the irritation might have led to arousal and thus masturbation was purely coincidental. The Victorians cited many of the same medical conditions associated with uncircumcised penises as do people today.”

Brian Morris, In Favour of Circumcision (Sydney: UNSW Press, 1999), 57

Edgar Spratling, “Masturbation in the adult”, Medical Record 48, 28 September 1895, 442-3

In all cases [of masturbation], taken as they come, circumcision is undoubtedly the physician’s closest friend and ally, offering as it does a certain means of alleviation and pronounced benefit …. Those cases in which the glans presents a moist, semi-oily appearance … long thickened foreskin, pliant and giving, large and often tortuous dorsal veins, go to make up a picture that is exceedingly tempting to the surgeon’s scissors. … To obtain the best results one must cut away enough skin and mucous membrane to rather put it on a stretch when erections come later. There must be no play in the skin after the wound has thoroughly healed, but it must fit tightly over the penis, for should there be any play the patient will be found readily to resume his practice, not begrudging the time and extra energy needed to produce the orgasm. It is true, however, that the longer it takes to have an orgasm, the less frequently it will be attempted, and consequently the greater the benefit gained.

Jonathan Hutchinson, "The advantages of circumcision",  Medical Review, Vol. 3, 1900, p. 641-2

It is an open question whether the removal of the prepuce tends appreciably to increase the power of sexual control. Its influence, so far as it has any, must be in that direction. The only function which the prepuce can be supposed to have is that of maintaining the penis in a condition susceptible of more acute sensation than would otherwise exist. It may be supposed to increase the pleasure of the act and the impulse to it. These are advantages, however, which in the present state of society can well be spared, and if in their loss some degree of increased sexual control should result, one should be thankful.

Ernest G. Mark, “Circumcision”, American Practitioner and News 31, 1901, 231

Another advantage of circumcision … is the lessened liability to masturbation. A long foreskin is irritating per se, as it necessitates more manipulation of the parts in bathing. … This leads the child to handle the parts, and as a rule, pleasurable sensations are elicited from the extremely sensitive mucous membrane, with resultant manipulation and masturbation. The exposure of the glans penis following circumcision ... lessens the sensitiveness of the organ.

G. Frank Lydstone, Sex Hygiene for the Male (Chicago 1912), 158-9

Circumcision is a most commendable practice. … Circumcision promotes cleanliness, prevents disease, and by reducing over-sensitiveness of the parts tends to relieve sexual irritability, thus correcting any tendency which may exist to improper manipulations of the genital organs and the consequent acquirement of evil sexual habits, such as masturbation.

Abraham Wolbarst, “Universal circumcision as a sanitary measure”, Journal of the American Medical Association 62, 10 January 1914, 92-97

It is a well known fact that the foreskin is a frequent factor in the causation of masturbation, not alone in children but in adults as well. This has been amply proved by the fact that circumcision has become recognised as a most effective remedy in these cases. N.B. Morris and Co still cite Wolbarst as an authority for the contention that the foreskin should always be removed as a precaution against penile cancer.

William J. Robinson MD, “Circumcision and masturbation”, Medical World 33, October 1915, 390

There are a hundred arguments in favour of circumcision, but to speak of them all in detail would require a book or at least a good-sized essay. At this time I wish to touch merely upon one point, the relation of the prepuce to masturbation.

I am convinced that the prepuce is one of the great factors in causing masturbation in boys, and many cases of masturbation cannot be treated successfully until the prepuce is removed. Here is the dilemma we are in: If we do not teach the growing boy to pull the prepuce back and cleanse the glans there is danger of smegma collecting and of adhesions and ulcerations forming, which in their turn will cause irritation likely to lead to masturbation. If we do teach the boy to pull the prepuce back and cleanse his glans, that handling alone is sufficient gradually and almost without the boy’s knowledge to initiate him in to the habit of masturbation.

While masturbation is not the terrible calamity that it was once thought to be, and while we recognize the fact now that most children recover from it without permanent effects, still we want to avoid everything possible that may be a factor in the cause of masturbation, and the prepuce unquestionably being such a factor, it should come off. Therefore, once more, off with the prepuce!

Nuri Bey Risa, “Studien uber die rituale Beschneidung im osmanische Reiche”, Sammlung klinischer Vortrage, No. 438, Leipzig, 1906, quoted in Felix Bryk, Circumcision in man and woman: Its history, psychology and ethnology, New York, Ethnological Press, 1934, 102-3

The irritation which is caused by the inflammation of the distal part of the [uncut] penis leads to erection and release through ejaculation, to enuresis, to onanism and pederasty with their psycho-pathological reactions, and finally to moral crimes. A wise Moslem writer says: “It is exactly these fundamental effects and their influence upon men that the Moslem lawgivers take into consideration in establishing the strict performance of circumcision.” [A pious Moslem told him:] “The reduction of sexual pleasure is just what circumcision aims at. Too great sexual excitement puts man on an equal plane with the lower animals, impels him to wicked moral aberrations and tragic crime. On the other hand, the complete abolition of sexual feelings would make men non-organic beings. We men enjoy coitus just enough.”

R.W. Cockshutt, “Circumcision”, British Medical Journal, 1935 (2), 1935, 764

I suggest that all male children should be circumcised. This is “against nature”, but that is exactly the reason why it should be done. Nature intends that the adolescent male shall copulate as often and as promiscuously as possible, and to that end covers the sensitive glans so that it shall be ever ready to receive stimuli. Civilization, on the contrary, requires chastity, and the glans of the circumcised rapidly assumes a leathery texture less sensitive than skin. Thus the adolescent has his attention drawn to his penis much less often. I am convinced that masturbation is much less common in the circumcised. With these considerations in mind it does not seem apt to argue that “God knows best how to make little boys”.

Alan F. Guttmacher, “Should the baby be circumcised?”, Parents Magazine 16, September 1941, 26, 76-78

“It [circumcision] does not necessitate handling of the penis by the infant’s mother, or the child himself in later years, and therefore does not focus the male’s attention on his own genitals. Masturbation is considered less likely.” Compare Brian Morris: “The fact that such excessive attention to a penis to relieve the irritation might have led to arousal … ”

M.F. Campbell, “The male genital tract and the female urethra”, in M.F. Campbell and J.H. Harrison (eds), Urology, 3rd edn (Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders, 1970), Vol. 2, 1836

“Parents readily recognise the importance of local cleanliness and genital hygiene in their children and are usually ready to adopt measures to adopt measures which may avert masturbation. Circumcision is usually advised on these grounds.”

See also Quotes on foreskin and sexual function on this site

Circumcision and prevention of AIDS

It is likely that the persistence of the masturbation taboo in the United States is a factor in the obstinate survival of routine (preventive) circumcision of newborn boys there. At a time when every variety of sexual expression is discussed on television and most may be viewed on DVD, the topic of masturbation still arouses nervous titters, if not choleric outrage. As recently as 1994 President Clinton dismissed his Surgeon General, Jocelyn Elders, for stating at a United Nations conference on AIDS that masturbation was “a part of human sexuality and … something that perhaps should be taught” (Lancet, Vol. 344, 24 Dec. 1994, p. 1714). Like the bishops of southern Africa, who believe it is more sinful to wear a condom than to infect another person with a fatal and incurable disease, Clinton and the bible-bashing Republicans he was trying to appease seem to think that the only acceptable form of safe sex is continence. The Lancet, Britain’s oldest medical journal, condemned Clinton’s action and praised Elders for speaking the truth, but it acknowledged that the medical profession was itself to blame for its own mighty contribution to the phobia about masturbation, originally whipped up by purity campaigners in the eighteenth century, which raged like an epidemic during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and which is evidently far from extinct even today.

This is unfortunate because, as the Lancet acknowledged, masturbation is safe sex. In a moral environment that encourages promiscuity and an ever-younger onset of sexual activity with others, any policies or practices that discourage safe sex activity must be regarded as increasing the risk of STDs and AIDS. It follows that if circumcision reduces the pleasure and incidence of masturbation, it increases the incidence of penetrative sex, and thus the likelihood of disease transmission. The Victorians looked upon masturbation as the “solitary vice”, but it is a simple truth that all sexual activity, either alone or with others, involves manual fondling and manipulation; masturbation and penetrative sex are not a dichotomy, but phases of a continuum. By radically simplifying the penis, circumcision greatly reduces its versatility and the range of fun and games to be had with it, thus steering men away from fondling and other forms of safe sex and towards penetrative and other forms of potentially unsafe sex. Circumcised men complain that wearing a condom reduces sensitivity to the point where they can’t feel a thing, and in Africa there are increasing reports that victims of the American-funded World Health Organisation circumcision programs drop condom use the moment their wound heals.

The facts is that the uncircumcised penis offers vastly more scope for safe sex than the simplified and stripped-down variety, however “armour plated” it may have become as a result of the surgery. The fact that the USA has both the highest incidence of neonatal circumcision in the developed world (apart from Israel) and one of the highest incidences of HIV-AIDS infection does not suggest that circumcision is a particularly effective AIDS prevention strategy. Maybe they need to fondle more and cut less.

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