By Logan Miller
Circumcision advocacy recently gained a new layer of scientific varnish.
Brian J. Morris, professor emeritus at the University of Sydney, Australia, in the co-authored review published in “Mayo Clinic Proceedings” on April 4, suggested that circumcision should be considered as important as vaccinations — a public health necessity. The authors of the review conducted a risk-benefit analysis that looked at conditions that circumcision either treats or prevents and found the procedure staggeringly beneficial. They did not go so far as to suggest that circumcision should be mandatory, but they did not mince words on the subject either, stating the benefits of circumcision outweigh any risks 100 to one.
I disagree wholeheartedly and, what’s more, I’m suspicious of the scientific rigor of such studies and think they perpetuate not only cultural biases, but reproduce damaging opinions about uncircumcised men.
Despite the fact that rates of circumcision have declined from 83 to 77 percent since the 1960s, we’re still drinking the Kool-Aid. Morris is just another in the expansive list of pro-circumcision advocates. In addition to co-authoring this review, he maintains the website circinfo.net, and, given such advocacy, I have to question the ideological underpinning of this review and, therefore, its claim of representing scientific fact.
That said, I understand that circumcision is a contentious issue. Proponents suggest that circumcision reduces the spread of sexually transmitted infections, that many uncircumcised adult men (a full half, according to this review) will experience medical complications because of their foreskin and that circumcision may even increase sexual pleasure. Opponents are quick to bring up the host of complications that can arise with circumcision, and that removing numerous nerve endings from a body part could not possibly result in greater sensitivity. At every turn, people seem to be yelling, “My penis is the best!”
Both sides of the debate overstate their evidence. This is apparent with regard to sexual satisfaction. No one can offer an accurate testimony regarding sex with both a foreskin and without. Even men who have chosen circumcision as adults have already self-selected for a certain preference; how could they possibly offer an unbiased account?
Beyond such comparisons, this argument relies on how well we can quantify subjective experiences. My guess is that individual sexcapades vary in satisfaction along a continuum that supersedes the overall pleasure both intact and circumcised men feel in their sex lives.
But what about all the health concerns between being circumcised or not? Various studies suggest that sexually transmitted infection rates are higher among uncircumcised men. However, I have to question the efficacy of circumcision in a world where condoms exist; they certainly offer a more sound method for preventing infection.
Likewise, concerns about urinary tract infections can be counteracted through proper hygiene.
Phimosis, or a non-retractable foreskin, cannot be fixed by practicing safe sex or by taking regular showers; however, it can be dealt with by both surgical and non-surgical methods that do not remove the foreskin.
Complications with circumcision are harder to manage. Bleeding and infections are not major difficulties, but there is no easy solution for the amputation of the glans, or head of the penis. Fortunately, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists the complication rate as two percent, but given that foreskin issues can be counteracted in other, less permanent ways, why the hell are Morris and others harping on circumcision as if it were medically necessary?
The answer, I think, lies within U.S. and Australian cultures.
According to Robert Darby, circumcision gained prevalence as a preventative measure against masturbation in both boys and girls in the 19th century. This is not particularly surprising, this was the same time period that saw the advent of the masturbator as a pathology, after all.
Given a predilection toward puritanical opinions on sexuality, the U.S. continued practicing the procedure on boys. Australia continued along a similar trajectory. Western Europe almost dropped the practice entirely.
That our two cultures consider circumcision normal colors Morris’s review. Of the 80 references included in the review, 16 percent were penned by at least one of the authors. Also, the abstract states that the authors searched the PubMed database for relevant articles, but given that they chose only 80 articles out of a potential 6,048, I can’t help but wonder if the relevant articles were only those that supported their premise.
This is a provocative claim, I know, but if the importance of circumcision is overstated by its proponents and both U.S. and Australian cultures have long since normalized the practice, then I find it hard not to consider whether biases drive research of this type instead of a legitimate interest in scientific inquiry.
Cultural bias was the determination of 38 European physicians that authored a rebuttal to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ support of circumcision.
However, I am not suggesting that the practice needs to be immediately halted. Instead, I am suggesting that we interrogate studies that argue for its medical necessity, because these studies may only masquerade as science.
On a more personal level, both male and female friends have said that they would never sleep with an uncircumcised man, citing aesthetics and cleanliness. Such viewpoints are damaging and result from such research. Even if you choose to support circumcision, remember the costs of our cultural practices.
Logan Miller studies English. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.