Reproductive Health

[OPINION] Arguments against male circumcision

Lois Engelbrecht
[OPINION] Arguments against male circumcision

Illustration by Guia Abogado

'[T]he rationale that removing the foreskin is for health reasons is no different than the rationale to preemptively remove everyone’s tonsils, wisdom teeth, and appendix'

I recently watched a Youtube video of a young man from Italy whose Filipina mother had him circumcised when he was 8 years old. This young man shared how traumatic the event and his recovery were. While describing what happened, he was unable to even use the word “penis,” and instead referred to it as “down there.” He ended, however, by stating that circumcision is “really better” and was thus happy to have gone through the trauma.  

I shared this piece with a human rights advocate in the US who is part of the group Doctors Opposing Circumcision. Mr. Geisheker expressed his opinion that the change in the young man’s stance about what happened is a symptom of Stockholm syndrome. Stockholm syndrome is a grooming process wherein hostages develop a psychological bond with their captors, in that the captive identifies with the captor’s goals and demands. Stockholm syndrome is not a mental health diagnosis, but instead is a coping mechanism.  

Are our boys captive, and are our socio-cultural demands their captors? To better answer this question, it is time for us to critically examine the expectations we place on our boys by asking what, why, when, and how.

Let’s start with the what. Circumcision is the removal of the foreskin from the human penis. In the most common procedure, the foreskin is opened, adhesions are removed, and the foreskin is separated from the glans. After that, a circumcision device may be placed, and then the foreskin is cut off. 

Why do we circumcise our boys? There is no medical reason for non-therapeutic circumcision. Rationales based on health, cleanliness, and better sex are widely considered as myths. Yet, these reasons were embraced by the men that academic Romeo Lee (2006) interviewed in a study. In addition, the pressure to go through with the painful procedure is manifested in the way uncircumcised boys are called cowards. They are supposedly not “real men” because they were not brave enough to undergo the procedure. 

As with any organ in our body, future problems are possible. Yet the rationale that removing the foreskin is for health reasons is no different than the rationale to preemptively remove everyone’s tonsils, wisdom teeth, and appendix (organs considered no longer needed) in case of future problems.   

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The strongest reason for why the Philippines continues with the practice of circumcision is to follow the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, which we share through the Old Testament:

This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised.” (Gen. 17:10)

St. Paul, however, stated in the New Testament that a relationship with God is not dependent on circumcision:

Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God.” (1 Corinthians 7:19)

Behold, I, Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing.” (Galatians 5:2-11)

Even Italy, which houses the Vatican, does not circumcise their boys except for therapeutic reasons. 

If we wish to continue in a tradition that follows Jesus’ circumcision, on which religious tradition could be built, we need to acknowledge that Jesus was an infant:

“And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations, a servant who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner, who is not of your descendants.” (Gen. 17:12-13) 

Yet many of our boys are circumcised around the time they turn 13. Which leads us to the next critical question of when we circumcise our boys.

There are some valid reasons so many boys are not circumcised until age 13. For example, historically, babies were born at home with the help of midwives. Circumcision thus became a rite of passage for males at adolescence, performed by those trained to do so. At present, some boys are circumcised at birth, more are circumcised at age 8, and those at the cusp of adolescence and manhood are provided free circumcisions each summer.

If we critically examine the what, why, and when and still decide to continue the practice of circumcising our boys, the next and perhaps most important question is how we perform circumcision. Many circumcisions, which are always painful, are done in the hospital with or without anesthetic. Others are done in public, without anesthetic, and often include picture-taking. These documents show trauma, including instances when a cloth is placed in the boy’s mouth to stifle his screams.  

Child participation is a common requirement for international social services. Before we set up any service on behalf of children, donors require that we base our work on their voices. We work to educate them on their choices. But do we give our boys a choice on circumcision? Or is this a form of Stockholm syndrome, like the young man born in Italy who eventually embraced the myths told to him?

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We refer to the practice of female circumcision in parts of Africa as female genital mutilation. But we insist that what we do to our boys is not male genital mutilation. It is time to critically examine why the Philippines willingly, and often without question, circumcises almost all of its males, and often in a way that is public, demeaning, painful, and creates trauma.  

Why do we put our boys through this trauma without even thinking? Should we not give our boys, as we do our girls, the right to intact genitals? –

Lois Engelbrecht holds a PhD in social work and is a founding member of the Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Sexual Abuse.