Men and Sexuality

Gay and Bi Themes in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences

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By Edward Hughes © 2011

1. Aesthetics 

Everyone is entitled to make their own aesthetic judgments about the human body.  No particular body-type is intrinsically more beautiful than another, despite the canons of beauty going back to the Ancient Greeks and beyond; and although there is a general preference in our society for the young, the muscular, the slim and the healthy-looking, many people are genuinely more stimulated by older, skinnier or fatter bodies.  So anyone who finds a circumcised penis more or less attractive than the alternative is expressing a purely subjective point of view which can make no claims to universal validity.  To express my own subjective view on the matter, I find that very often an erect circumcised penis can have a phallic presence and beauty which is enhanced by the absence of foreskin, but that far more often a penis which has been circumcised is also marred by an ugly scar, whether it is erect or in repose.  By the same token, although I prefer uncircumcised penises in general, a foreskin is not necessarily beautiful, if (to my eyes) it is too long, too thick, too wrinkled, too loose, too tight or in some other way different from my ideal.  Any alteration of the body can be seen either as an enhancement or as a mutilation, and again there is no general rule: some tattoos are beautiful, some ugly; the same goes for piercings.  A piercing of the penis or the nipple can be a delightful decoration which draws erotic attention to the body-part in question; a tattoo can please the eye and increase the pleasure we take in looking.  Both can also distract and detract from the body’s original beauty.  Just as we can find a mole or a birthmark appealing or repulsive, or jewellery well-chosen or regrettable, or that the colour of a tie goes well with someone’s eyes – and the same case can inspire opposite reactions in different people – we should find no difficulty in saying that circumcision ‘suits’ some people and not others.  In itself it is neither beautiful nor ugly.

I have heard infant circumcision justified (at least, when the father is circumcised) on the grounds that “every boy wants to be like his father”.  At some level there is some truth in this: I deeply respect the memory of my father’s integrity, gentleness and generosity, and I wish I could be more like him in those respects.  But I’d rather I hadn’t inherited his baldness, and I don’t suppose his professional and sexual life would have been appropriate for me.  And suppose he’d been born with a finger missing?  Would that have justified his having one of mine removed shortly after birth, so that I could be more like him?  The assertion that boys want to be like their fathers, at least as far as circumcision is concerned, is no argument at all.  What it really amounts to is this: “boys want to be like their fathers in some respects, so I will choose for him that he shall be like me in this particular physical respect”.

2. Hygiene and health

There are several parts of the body which produce secretions, or which play a role in ingestion and excretion, and which it is advisable to clean regularly: the mouth, the anus, the ears, the nose, under the fingernails, etc.  The penis falls into this category.  Yet it is the only part where a surgical amputation is advocated on the grounds of hygiene.  No doubt a surgical procedure could be devised which would remove all need for regular cleaning of the ears, perhaps amputating the outer ears and inserting a plastic tube to replace the ear canal, but nobody seriously suggests it.  It was not uncommon well into the twentieth century for people to have all their teeth removed in preference to suffering dental troubles (although I gather it is as much work keeping false teeth clean as real ones), but with better tooth-brushing and diet this practice has become obsolete.  There is no justification in the argument that part of the body should be cut off for reasons of hygiene, when that part of the body can perfectly well be kept clean without removing it.

Advocates of circumcision also argue that women who have unprotected penetrative sex with uncircumcised men are more likely to suffer from cancer of the cervix, or to be contaminated with HIV.  Supposing this to be so (and I have no idea if the statistics are reliable, or even – if they are – what the degree of increased risk amounts to), there are at least three solutions which fall short of surgical intervention, and which are implied in the previous sentence: avoiding penetrative sex, avoiding unprotected sex and avoiding sex with uncircumcised men (for surely everyone is entitled to decide who to have sex with, and free to choose the criteria on which they base that choice).  Against this should be weighed the health risks involved in circumcision: the number of deaths resulting from the operation, or complications leading to the amputation of the glans or the whole penis – although, again, I have no precise statistics to hand.

3. Sexual pleasure

It is a commonplace assumption that the uncircumcised penis is more sensitive, and that uncircumcised men therefore enjoy greater sexual pleasure.  But no one suggests that the circumcised derive no pleasure from sex, nor that the uncircumcised always find it intensely fulfilling; there are so many other factors involved in the pleasure of sex that any such suggestion would be absurd.  The circumcised penis remains highly sensitive (I recall Dustin Hoffman, in a TV interview, saying, “How could it be any more sensitive?  If it was any more sensitive I’d have a heart attack!”), and the possession of a foreskin is no guarantee of an ability to derive the fullest possible pleasure from it.  However, the foreskin is richly supplied with blood vessels and nerve endings, which are removed by circumcision, and there can be no doubt that if we were to compare the same person in a circumcised and uncircumcised state, there would be a large part of sensory stimulation which is no longer possible when the foreskin has gone.  So how do we account for the statements of men who have been circumcised in adulthood, and who testify to a greater degree of sexual pleasure afterwards?  One such account (see states that a greater degree of sensory stimulation is derived from the fact that during penetration the glans remains in contact with the partner’s body during both insertion and withdrawal, whereas when uncircumcised the foreskin comes forward to cover the glans during the withdrawal phase of penetration. There is no reason to doubt this, but it is clearly something which that person finds more stimulating and which another might not.  We might compare this with the use of condoms: some men find it almost impossible to enjoy sex with a condom, some find it makes no difference, whilst still others find the condom itself exciting in a sensory and fetishistic way.  Stimulation is bound up with other elements – aesthetic, psychological and emotional – and in this case it is obvious that the man is happy with his newly-circumcised penis and finds a greater joy in everything he does with it than he did before.  Such evidence fully justifies the right of every man who wants to get circumcised to do so, but it obviously has no bearing on whether or not all men should be circumcised even if they don’t want to be.  Different people get sexual pleasure from different things; just as I have the right to do whatever gives me pleasure, I have no right whatsoever to impose it on anyone else.

4. Trivialisation 

People who argue in favour of circumcision have a tendency to minimise the seriousness of the operation, for example by saying “It’s only skin” (I have heard this from several different people) or by drawing a contrast with practices of female genital mutilation which they claim to be in an entirely different category, because they are so much more drastic.  Both these claims bear examination.  First, supposing the foreskin is “only skin”, does this mean that removing it is a trivial, even benign act?  The skin is often considered one of the organs of the body and is a complex structure containing nerves, blood vessels, secretory glands and so on.  I would not regard the removal of part of my skin with a knife (i.e. the dermis and epidermis, not just the dead layer that peels off if I get too much sun) as something trivial – it would be painful, would take a long time to heal, and would leave a permanent scar.  Describing the foreskin as “only skin” is a denial of the reality that skin is something sensitive, tender and important – and of all the skin of the human body, the foreskin is amongst the most tender.  And then, what of the claim that male circumcision is insignificant in comparison with what is done to some girls?  There are several different forms of female genital mutilation, of which the most extreme – consisting in cutting out the clitoris, removing the major and minor labia and stitching up the orifice – is a barbaric, brutal and heinous form of violence.  There are also practices, however, which are not that much different from male circumcision in that they involve removing only part of the outer labia (which are, after all, “only skin”).  Even if we were to accept that these procedures constitute a greater assault on the physical integrity of the person than male circumcision, the difference remains one of degree, not of kind: a permanent, unnecessary alteration is made to the most intimate part of a person’s body in a way which causes physical and psychological trauma.

Most circumcised men do not indicate that they are traumatised by their circumcision.  We have to discount from this the overwhelming majority of those who are from Jewish, Christian or non-observant families in Europe and North America, since they were circumcised at an age which makes conscious memory of the trauma impossible (eight days old in the Jewish tradition).  It is important to look at the accounts of Muslims, who in most cases were circumcised at anything between four years old and the onset of puberty, and thus can perfectly well remember the experience.  The majority remember the enormous physical pain clearly (sometimes describing it as the most intense they have ever experienced), but indicate no psychological trauma.  Does this mean they were in fact not traumatised?  The human mind has a huge capacity for integrating trauma, particularly when what is being suffered is wholeheartedly approved of by absolutely everyone in the family and cultural circle; when it has been endured by all those who are older, respected and admired; and when its stoical endurance is viewed as a sign of strength and maturity (qualities to which most boys aspire), as well as being a passport to social acceptance.  One could compare this with the regime that flourished in the British public schools until very recently, where bullying, ritualised physical violence and sexual abuse were the norm.  Most men who attended one of these schools show no signs of being traumatised by it, yet if you were to take a boy with no personal or cultural experience of flogging and fagging and put him in a situation where he was subjected to both, the results would no doubt be devastating.  (Similar, though different observations could be made about life in the army and in prison.)  So imagine taking a boy from a non-religious family with no tradition of circumcision and doing to him what is done to most Muslim boys (without the party, presents and social support) and consider what the effects would be likely to be.  Some might survive relatively unscathed, but others would be scarred (literally and figuratively) for life.  Certainly no one could justify doing such a thing routinely.

5. Religion and symbolism 

Jews are circumcised as the sign of God’s covenant (a kind of contract) with Abraham: Abraham agreed to serve God alone, and for his part God promised Abraham many descendants who would have a land of their own. God singled out Abraham and his descendants for this favourable treatment, which is why they are referred to as the Chosen People.  During the Israelites’ wanderings in the wilderness and leading up to the conquest of Canaan under Joshua, the practice of circumcision was apparently neglected and a generation of warriors died in battle.  Before attacking Jericho, Joshua had all the surviving Israelite warriors circumcised, and the Bible attributes their success in part to this new respect for the covenant.  The history of Israel is one of constant conflict between the tendency to observe the monotheistic, non-idolatrous worship enjoined by the covenant and an equally strong – often stronger – desire to go back to the worship of fertility gods in sacred groves and on hilltops.  The worship of such gods often involved child sacrifice.  One interpretation of circumcision is that it was a symbolic substitute for child sacrifice.  Clearly, removing part of the body is a sacrifice, symbolic or not.  Medieval Christian theology echoes this by referring to the circumcision of Jesus as a foreshadowing of the Crucifixion, as it was the first time Jesus shed his blood for mankind.  Circumcision can also be seen as a symbolic castration: part of the sex organ really is cut off, but it is symbolic in that the generative function is not impaired as it would be in the case of actual castration.  For Jews, then, circumcision represents the observance and sign of a contract with God in which they are his special people, and by which they make a symbolic sacrifice to him rather than sacrificing the lives of their children as they did before (and as God commanded Abraham himself to do, as a test of his faithfulness).  After thousands of years most of the Bible’s commandments (there are 630 in all) have been progressively put aside or reinterpreted.  For example, all the commandments about performing animal sacrifices in the Temple are now interpreted on a spiritual level: a Jew who prays and studies the scriptures is considered to be righteous as if he had performed the actual sacrifices (or rather, as if he had paid a priest to perform them on his behalf).  Laws about Sabbath observance have largely been reinterpreted too (although they remain a source of debate between orthodox and liberal Jews): you are not supposed to cook on the Sabbath, but using a time switch so that the cooker comes on automatically is acceptable; driving is forbidden, so orthodox synagogues’ car parks, if they have them, are empty on Saturdays, but the faithful may well have parked round the corner; and hardly anyone nowadays would consider that a Jew deserved to die for picking up a few sticks on a Saturday, as happens in the Bible.  The first Christians, who were all Jews, decided quite early on that all the laws should be interpreted symbolically, including those regarding food prohibitions and circumcision (St Paul says “circumcision is nothing; neither is uncircumcision”).  Jews nowadays have varying relationships with the kosher food laws – some keep them strictly, some not at all, and most keep some of them – but the law about circumcision is still universally practised by all Jews, even the most liberal.  Jewish attitudes to divorce and the family have evolved; a Jew is presumably neither more nor less likely to commit adultery, theft or murder than a member of any other religion.  Why, then, this atavistic attachment to one particular law among all the others?

Jews, of course, are not the only descendants of Abraham, there are the Arabs as well – and, more broadly, Muslims, most of whom worldwide are not Arabs (just as many Arabs are not Muslims).  Muslims accept the Bible as authoritative, and its prophets, including Abraham, Moses, Joshua and Jesus, as authentic, but less so than the last definitive revelation of the Qur’an through the prophet Muhammad.  Islamic practice is supposed to be based on the Qur’an and on subsequent legal traditions.  There is no mention of circumcision in the Qur’an, and other texts indicate that is it desirable but not obligatory, so its practice among Muslims is based on the Abrahamic covenant even though it is not considered binding in other respects.  In fact, like certain other practices (including veneration of the Ka’aba), it is a survival of earlier tribal traditions.  Many tribes all over the world still practice various forms of genital mutilation, for example Aborigines in Australia, who have a tradition not only of circumcision but of subincision, where the underside of the penis is slit along the urethra.  As far as I know no one advocates that this procedure should be undertaken regularly on infant males in Europe and North America.

6. Ethics 

There is an ethical argument as to whether it is justified to bring children up in a particular faith; but it cannot get very far, since it is impossible to educate children not to believe anything at all, whether it be science or scientology, rationalism or Rastafarianism.  However there is a strong consensus that adults have the right to choose for themselves whether to remain in the faith they were brought up in, or to choose another, or to abandon faith altogether.  Most of us would agree with the basic principle that no one should be obliged to do anything against their will, except for the greater good (however we define it), and that if we believe in liberty we must believe in the notion of consent, i.e. that I cannot require you to do anything I want unless you understand as fully as possible what it is I want you to do and what its implications are, and unless you freely consent to it.  This principle fully explains, for instance, the definition of rape and sexual abuse.

The ethical question about circumcision derives from the fact that it is generally practised on infants who are in no position to give their consent, or on young children whose ‘consent’ is not free (in that it is socially constrained) or fully informed.  It is also irreversible.  No one would accept any other unnecessary surgical procedure on a child which results in permanent modification of the person’s body and (arguably) permanent, even if repressed, psychological trauma.

There is of course absolutely no ethical problem with an adult deciding to do whatever he wishes with his own body: getting circumcised, pierced, tattooed or even amputated.  This applies to everyone: if an adult woman should decide that she would like to undergo a clitoridectomy or an infibulation, she ought to be free to do so (although if she was a friend of mine I would feel sorry for her).  The argument that ‘I like this for myself, so it is better for everyone’ is as weak and easily-dismissed as in any other sphere.  I like Shakespeare, and I like talking to people who have read Shakespeare; but I have no right to make anyone read Shakespeare, indeed I’m happy to accept that some people shouldn’t read Shakespeare as they wouldn’t enjoy it. Likewise if I like being un/circumcised, and/or prefer to have sex with people who are un/circumcised, that gives me no right to impose my preference on anyone else, particularly not on a child who has yet to begin sexual activity and over whose body I have the authority which amounts to a duty of care.  If I fervently believe that my child will be happier and better believing (or not believing) in God, I can raise him/her to do so, but I cannot force that belief to continue into adulthood.  If I fervently believe that my child will be better and happier (or more beautiful) by being circumcised, however, I have no right to impose that belief on him before he is old and informed enough to make the choice for himself, since if I make it for him there is no going back.  Circumcising infants and young boys is unjustifiable, immoral and uncivilised.


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