The down-low on circumcision
Although the American Medical Association does not recommend routine circumcision as a procedure to prevent health problems, more than 30 percent of males and 3 percent of females are circumcised worldwide. In the United States and Canada, although there is little data on how many females are circumcised, it is estimated that three-fourths of males become circumcised in their infanthood or adolescence. Here, at least, that leaves the vast majority of males with a removed foreskin. In fact, most Washington University female students I’ve talked to have never seen an uncircumcised penis!
But let’s get back to the basics. In male circumcision, a physician surgically removes the foreskin of the penis, usually within the first few weeks of birth because doing this practice later is more likely to lead to complications. Male circumcision is a common religious practice across all monotheistic religions—especially Islam.
In Judaism, most follow the Covenant of Circumcision, or the Brit Milah (or “Bris” in “South Park”—don’t we just love this show and what it teaches us about sex?), taken from the Genesis and Leviticus books of the Old Testament in the Bible. The father must have the son circumcised eight days after birth; or, if the father is not present, the son is obligated to be circumcised as soon as he reaches adulthood.
In Islam, male circumcision is considered a rite—as part of the fitrah or natural part of human creation. Many parts of the Quran reference circumcision, relating it to Abraham just as Judaism does. Circumcision in Islamic families is also usually performed directly after birth—around the seventh day of infancy. Although circumcision is most commonly associated with Judaism, the World Health Organization measured that 68 percent of circumcised males worldwide are in fact Muslim.
In Christianity, the origins of circumcision are much more diverse. While it is not a required ritual across denominations, several sects practice it routinely. For instance, the Nomiya church in Kenya requires male circumcision for membership, in reference to Jesus’ circumcision in the New Testament. On the other hand, some churches believe modern circumcision practices are a form of torture and mutilation, mainly understood from a passage in the New Testament’s Colossians. The Catholic Church and its various popes have endorsed circumcision, but only if it prevents disease that cannot be prevented in any other way. In short, Christianity remains neutral about the practice.
But what about female circumcision? The World Health Organization calls it Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), and that seems to say everything. The practice is extremely controversial in today’s world, as millions of females, especially in Africa, have been unwillingly subjected to it. In male circumcision, there are some known health benefits, such as helping to prevent HIV and other STDs (it cuts down transmission by about 50 percent for HIV), preventing infant urinary tract infections, and severely reducing the risk of developing penile cancers. FGM, on the other hand, has absolutely no known health benefits in any of its four major types: the partial or total removal of the clitoris (clitorectomy), the removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, the narrowing of the vaginal opening through use of manipulated labial flesh, or any other type of vaginal manipulation.
There is little evidence that FGM has any religious backing—in the Quran, the Bible or otherwise. It is mostly a procedure conducted by midwives or other birthing doctors as a cultural tradition, believed to have originated from ancient Egypt. Although I cannot cover all of the difficulties and the cultural and political issues surrounding this practice, I can say that it is sometimes motivated by the cultural idea that a woman’s libido is taboo and needs to be controlled—even if that means dangerous surgery. FGM can cause everything from hemorrhage to infertility.
As for sex, obviously FGM not only can make vaginal intercourse impossible or severely painful, but it can also readily cause recurrent urinary tract and bladder infections, as well as remove all physical pleasure from the act. Male circumcision, on the other hand, has no known sexual drawbacks—it actually has been proven to improve sexual pleasure for women in some studies and, again, reduce the risk of contracting STDs. Although some say that removing the foreskin can reduce sensation during sex, there are no accurate studies correlating the surgical process and sexual pleasure. On the whole, it seems male circumcision has its benefits and drawbacks, whereas FGM remains dangerous and only intrudes on a female’s natural reproductive organs.