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Cognitive Dissonance & the Truth about Circumcision

I was asked to be a guest blogger for Martin Pribble while he is on blogging hiatus. I was totally flabbergasted and humbled because he’s kind of a big deal, and the other guest bloggers are all super smart and way cooler than me.

Obviously I wrote on circumcision. Go read it here

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The reason circumcision is so controversial, and the fiery emotions that

flare on both sides lie ultimately, in the psyche. When we begin to
understand the very complex psychological factors that contribute to male
genital cutting in the developed world, we see why it persists. Which is
why women are sometimes a clear, rational voice in the debate; because we
have intact genitals. For my generation especially, as one that has
benefited greatly from the sexual revolution and culturally sanctioned
extramarital sex and serial monogamy with multiple partners, many of us,
for the first time in generations, have had sex with intact partners.

I was once naive, inexperienced with the penis, and incredibly ignorant on
male sexuality. That is greatly thanks to a system of education that
presented the penis sans foreskin. Don=92t blame your doctor for not knowing
what to do with the natural penis, dear Americans, they were only taught
how to cut if off in med school.

This is not a joke.

Once upon a time, about 150 years ago, the only people who cut baby penises
were Jews. Nearly every non-Jew was intact. Then some guy named Kellogg
(you might know him from the famous genetically modified cereal brand), who was
a staunch 7th Day Adventist, came up with the idea to cut the foreskin off
adolescent boys to prevent them from masturbating. This was during that
amazing time in American history when everyone thought sex was from the
devil, and masturbating was a manifestation of the demons in you and led to
insanity.

However, it was soon discovered that adolescent boys were difficult to
restrain, so the better idea was to do it when they were babies. This
didn’t catch on for awhile in mainstream American culture because only
wealthy good Christians could afford it.

Enter World War II, post Industrial Revolution and the great medicalisation
(and institutionalisation) of everything, where two things happened. The
first was the shaming of men in the barracks [1]. Officers would march in
and do strip downs, and any man who wasn’t circumcised was ridiculed and
humiliated before being ordered off to have his foreskin cut off. The
foreskin was blamed for venereal disease [2] since it usually showed up on
the exterior (foreskin), and men of colour were especially targeted. [3.]

This was an intense and emotionally damaging moment in male history where
the natural penis was shamed in such a way that no father would ever do his
son the disservice of not cutting his penis ever again. This is where the
old favourite locker room argument originates. It comes from a painful
scarring that has been psychologically passed down from father to son, and
perpetuated in myths about the foreskin being dirty.

The second thing that happened was birth moved into hospitals, and there
was a great movement of high-intervention medicalisation of
birth where women birthed in twilight sleep, fathers were sentenced to
waiting rooms, babies were kept in nurseries, breastfeeding was
abandoned in favour of bottled formula, and baby boys were circumcised
routinely. Often without the parents’ knowledge or consent, and sometimes
before they were even out of the womb.

It was literally a cutting off of the natural process, and a total disregard for our biology. Biology became pathology. The foreskin became dirty, filthy, infection prone, and there
was a systematic demonizing of the natural male genitals.

And here we though sexual repression and body shaming was only for women.

It’s important that we understand the history of medicalised circumcision so that we can adequately understand the baseless and erroneous medical justifications for amputation of a healthy sexual organ in contemporary terms.

In case you were unaware, our current list of maladies circumcision
prevents against is penile cancer, prostate cancer, STD’s, HIV, and urinary
tract infections. However, amputation of healthy body parts of children
cannot be justified when we have less invasive ways of treating and
preventing disease.

Many STD’s and urinary tract infections can just as easily be treated with
antibiotics, and they work well. Further, amputation to prevent a disease
largely dependent on behaviour and lifestyle decadesdown
the road cannot be justified since these diseases present themselves
well after the age one can make choices regarding one’s own sexuality.
There is no imminent risk to having intact genitals, and the public health
isn’t at risk if too many people have their whole penises or vulvas. This
is underscored in the policy statements of medical authorities around the world.

Given our current understanding of medical ethics, self-determination,
bodily autonomy, and humanism, permanent body modification of the genitals
when not immediately medically indicated of non-consenting, otherwise
healthy children is profoundly unacceptable.

Which is why the psychological compulsion of circumcised people to repeat
the ritual, as well as cognitive dissonance and cultural psychology is the only reason genital cutting of children continues among otherwise civilised people.

It is a very uncomfortable psychological state to accept one’s own
circumcision while simultaneously recognising the inherent and unethical
nature of the surgery when forced on children. A man has to rationalise in
his brain, ‘I’m circumcised and it’s okay, I like my penis, but circumcising children is not okay.’

The other part of cognitive dissonance is from parents who have circumcised
their children. Parents do not maliciously cut their son’s genitals. It is
done to fulfill the cultural mandate, because the men in our country
underwent such a psychologically damaging moment in their sexual history.
Parents circumcise to protect their children from real or imagined social
‘otherness.’ It is psychologically uncomfortable or near impossible for a
parent to accept, ‘I love my children and would never harm them, but I am
able to see that circumcision is unethical and ultimately harmful.’

Coupled with the inability to hold conflicting psychological states of mind
is cultural psychology and ethnocentrism. Americans have been socialised
with misinformation about male anatomy and the function of the foreskin,
and have been culturally conditioned to believe that having a foreskin will
have negative social implications. This has been so integrated into our
cultural psychology, and passed down through formal and informal sex
education, that many intelligent, critical thinking individuals will
actually cringe in disgust at the thought of the natural body. Some American
scientific publications will go so far as to say the foreskin is an unnecessary leftover from
biological evolution. This is, of course, not true, nor is it a reason to remove it from a child.

The foreskin is healthy, erogenous tissue with bands of specialised nerve cells, and the
glans(head) of the penis is designed to be an internal organ. Think of the foreskin as the sheath that protects the most sensitive part of the male body. Humans are a promiscuous species, and have evolved with a foreskin so that coitus can be enjoyed throughout the lifespan. All circumcised men experience keratinization, or a leathering of the glans, from being unnaturally exposed to the elements, and the naked glans gradually loses sensation over a lifetime. As a result, men circumcised in infancy are five times more likely to suffer from erectile dysfunction.

In the end, there is really no debate.  Once Americans as individuals and a culture can come to terms with the bioethical problems with altering the healthy genitals of children, and cope with their own cognitive dissonance and denial, we will see this practice completely disappear. This ending of child genital cutting can only be seen as necessary and positive social, cultural, and medical progress.

1. M.L. Gerber, Some practical aspects of circumcision, United States Navy
Medical Bulletin 42, 1944, 1147

2. L.L. Heimoff, Veneral disease control program, Bulletin of the US Army
Medical Department 3, 1945, 93

3. E.A. Hand, Circumcision and venereal disease, Archives of Dermatology
and Syphilology 60, 1949, 341

  1. concerned cynic on said:

    Thank you very much for this contribution. Your revelations about shaming in barracks life during the 1940s may be new facts.

    Why American women are such tough and smart intactivists deserves a long essay.

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