why empowered women choose not to circumcise
by aubrey taylor
Circumcision? What on earth does circumcision have to do with being an empowered woman?
The answer isn’t obvious. The two issues seem worlds apart, one having to do with an infant’s foreskin, and the other: you. Some of us seeking personal strength and empowerment in our lives may never have children, some already have, but the fact is that knowing the truth is empowering for any woman, or any man. How many times have I heard something similar to “If I had known, I never would have let them do it.” This statement is often times made, unfortunately, by the mothers of boys who have had complications, which sometimes need additional surgery to correct. Having the truth about circumcision can only lead to an empowered decision, should the occasion arise, or having an empowered position in your community. However, knowing why an empowered woman would choose not to circumcise goes beyond simple education, and into our strengths and weaknesses; and to see it we must examine also why nowadays we circumcise in the first place, even in the face of the truth.
So let’s start with the truth. Circumcision is unnecessary. You may be thinking “But they’ve been doing it for so long, and I’ve always heard that it’s cleaner.” The medical documents regarding circumcision in the United States date back to the late 1800’s and quote well-respected doctors saying that circumcision would, among many things, end masturbation and even cure insanity.
The hygiene issue wasn’t brought up until after those ideas were realized as false, or as a sort of afterthought. No one had, at that time, ever studied the foreskin, and claiming that it’s cleaner not to have it, is like claiming that it’s cleaner to remove your fingernails so that dirt cannot collect under them. As far as I know, fingers come into more contact with contaminants than the penis.
Since then, there have been many other excuses that take turns defending circumcision, and even today medical professionals are still debating the supposed benefits that include an implication of preventing STDs and penile cancer. Yet, the American Academy of Pediatrics has stated since the 1970’s that there is “no valid medical indication for circumcision”
Still others hold to the old assumed facts. In the face of professionals making opposite claims one can either study everything there is to be studied, or resort to common sense: If 85% of the world has natural genitals, and they don’t end up needing modification, perhaps what’s natural is safe. After all, women have many more folds of skin “down there” and we seem to do OK. Even in the face of an infection or other problems, the solution is NEVER amputation. There isn’t after all, a single body part that is free from an occasional problem. We don’t cut off our toes to prevent getting an ingrown toenail!
Circumcision is also extremely painful and inflicts damage; that’s what they WON’T tell you. The foreskin in infancy is attached to the head of the penis with a membrane called synechia that is similar to the membrane attaching your fingernail to your finger. The foreskin must therefore be torn from the head of the penis before it can be amputated. This would be like shoving a blunt metal probe under your fingernail.
The complications of circumcision arise from the risk of taking too much skin or accidentally cutting off other structures like shaft tissue or the glans (penis head), there’s a risk of infection and hemorrhage, as well as issues arising after the circumcision like skin bridges and chordee (bent penis). There have been many unfortunate instances where the infant suffers a loss of the entire penis or even death.
Though it isn’t well known, the foreskin is an essential part of the penis. The foreskin of an infant protects the glans from abrasion, and contains a tight ring of tissue at the end that keeps fecal matter and other debris from coming in contact with the urethral opening. Later in life, after the glans and foreskin separate, the gliding motion of the foreskin aids in smooth sexual intercourse. The average foreskin is also innervated with 10 to 20 thousand sexually responsive nerve endings.
Finally, we must consider the moral implications of removing a part of someone’s genitals by force. Whose body is it? Who should decide? Who has the right to remove a part of your genitals without asking? No one? Well, how nice for you. In the United States, female minors are protected from any kind of genital cutting by federal law, regardless of race or religion. According to the 14th amendment, everyone deserves equal protection under the law regardless of race, religion or SEX.
Most women in the United States have no experience with an intact penis. There is an underlying belief that it’s ‘gross’ or ‘dirty’. We generally don’t know that it has a function, and are told that circumcision is a good thing. Even as knowledge that circumcision isn’t medically necessary spreads and becomes more commonplace, we are still circumcising. Why? As a woman it is our instinct and our conscious desire to protect our children from any harm. Aside from our ignorance about the subject, what could be so strong that it is able to override this natural tendency? The reasons are the things that hold us down in other situations: the pressure to socially conform, avoiding conflict by allowing denial, and the inability to assert ourselves.
The need to be “normal” is a natural human instinct. That’s why teasing and ostracism are so effective. No one wants to feel like they’ve stepped over the boundaries of taboo. For many women, being seen as different is an unacceptable risk and she will conform to the perceived ‘norm’ to avoid it. Society used to punish those who were different with very severe consequences including death. Living in a more sophisticated and civilized society we no longer face anything as extreme as physical harm for stepping out of the norm, but the weight of social expectation is still too much for some women to handle. “That’s not the American way”, “He’ll be the only boy on the block”, “My parents won’t agree” or “I don’t want to be different” are things that she may worry about. It takes a confident and empowered woman to let go of any concerns about what others will think, or the desire to be like everyone else, in favor of doing what’s right. In fact, in these changing times the rate of circumcision is as low as 30% on the west coast, and possibly only 60% nationwide and dropping. Worrying about being different is becoming less of an issue for women and young boys. Not to mention that most of the world does not routinely circumcise male infants. Boys are more likely to face teasing from peers about things that are obvious at first sight, like clothes, or weight, and we accept this as a normal part of growing up.
A good way to avoid thinking about an uncomfortable topic, or having to make a tough decision is to simply ignore it, or believe something that allows you to dismiss it. This is generally something common with people who are stuck in a negative situation that cannot be changed, so that they don’t have to feel bad. Women who have already had their son circumcised would have to admit they were wrong if they accepted that circumcision is damaging or unnecessary. This plays a large role in circumcisions’ perpetuation. We don’t want to admit that we could have hurt our children, so we may even take it as far, in our subconscious defense, as insisting that it’s necessary and that it continue to prove we were right.
For those with the decision still in front of them, it may be easier to simply believe what we’ve always heard, and skip the argument altogether. Many simply don’t want to know the truth, because it would complicate their situation. Accepting myth at face value and denying yourself knowledge is like locking your own chains. It is allowing someone else to make your decisions for you. Being empowered means having the strength and the courage to stand against oppression, even if it comes from inside your own self. Refusing to deny is a difficult quality to obtain, because the one you’re fighting is yourself.
When a baby boy is born, or sometime before, a woman is faced with the question “will the baby be circumcised?” She must then deal with many pressures. If the baby’s father was circumcised, he may want the same for the child. Because it is an issue concerning the penis, a woman may feel that the decision isn’t hers to make, and even though she may not want to allow it, she will defer to the father. Perhaps the doctor has said that it is necessary. In the United States we trust that our doctors know all and are infallible. It may seem rude or insulting to go against what her doctor has suggested. Who supposes to know more than a doctor?
Even a woman’s faith may be questioned if circumcision is perceived as a religious necessity. She doesn’t want to appear as though she is going against her religion. All of these pressures may make a woman feel as though it’s not her place to interfere with the issue of circumcision, and she finds it difficult to assert herself feeling less than empowered. However, a mothers’ first job is to protect, because infants cannot speak for themselves, so circumcision most certainly is her business. Taking a stand against your mate, doctor, or religious peers is without a doubt a challenge. Again it takes a woman with strength and courage to overcome such situations.
An empowered woman is educated, refuses to believe myth, is strong, moral, and she stands up for herself and the defenseless; it takes all of these things to say no to circumcision. For those empowered women who aren’t faced with making this particular decision, they will have the same qualities: refuse to continue to be a catalyst for the perpetuation of a harmful practice against the defenseless.
References & further information:
John Harvey Kellog, Treatment for Self-Abuse and Its Effects, Plain Facts for Old and Young, Burlington, Iowa: P. Segner & Co. 1888, p. 295
W.G.Steele, MD. Importance of Circumcision. Medical World,Vol. 20 (1902): pp.518-519.
American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Fetus and Newborn. Standards and Recommendation for Hospital Care of Newborn Infants. 5th ed. Evanston, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics, 1971:110.
For the AAPs’ most recent circumcision policy statement, visit aap.org
Deibert GA. The separation of the prepuce in the human penis. Anat Rec 1933;57:387-399
For a comprehensive list of articles documenting circumcision risks and damage, visit cirp.org/library/complications
Doctors Re-examine Circumcision by Thomas J. Ritter, M.D. and George C. Denniston, M.D. 2002
Cold, C, Taylor, J, “The Prepuce,” BJU International 83, Suppl. 1, (1999): 34-44.
Sex as Nature Intended It by Kristen O’Hara with Jeffrey O’Hara. 2001
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