Sunday, February 12, 2017


Speaking of tribalism, tribes, and primitive people, Samuel R. Delany wrote a long post about circumcision on Facebook the other day.  His father, he says, was not circumcised; Delany is.
Again and again I have wished I were not cut and have spent money on attempts to restore my foreskin. That presents two problems. First, it is purely for looks. It does not restore all the nerve endings that were removed in the circumcision itself. And further surgery would only destroy more—so that, for that reason, I have never thought about it at all seriously.
I've often encountered complaints like this, and they baffle me.  I'm circumcised, and I don't mourn my foreskin at all. I'm not aware of any decreased sensitivity (how could I be? I have no basis for comparison). When I first saw uncircumcised penises, I thought they were gross and ugly, because they didn't look like mine; we had a mix of cut and uncut in my junior-high PE class shower room, so I thought the differences were just 'natural' variation. (Not least because foreskins, like all natural features, vary widely. Some still look ugly to me.) I disagree that (as one commenter on Delany's post claimed) an "intact lover is a rare treat in the USA" -- I've encountered plenty, and I have not noticed any difference in their skills.

I say this just to offer a different perspective, one I very rarely see when circumcision is discussed. If I were consulted about a newborn male, I would respond with something like Delany's position:

As a tribal decision imposed on males before they can consent to it, I will never believe it’s a good thing. Nor do I believe most men would consent to the surgical mutilation of their genitals once they pass the age of reason, at what ever age it was set—especially when it is NOT the way of the tribe.
There isn't any good reason to do it, so don't do it, let the kid decide for himself when he's old enough to do so. But I don't feel deprived, mutilated, damaged, disabled, incomplete, etc. I also don't feel bad because I'm different from some other males in this detail. (Which apparently is a major factor in parents' decision to circumcise their sons: so they won't feel different from other boys in the locker room.  Not really a problem, since boys don't usually see each other naked in the locker room anymore -- we now protect their privacy, and have abandoned group showers so boys won't be traumatized by the sight of other boys' naked bodies.  But what a terrible rationale!  If everyone else jumped off a bridge ...)  I'm different from other people in so many ways, and this one seems minor to me by comparison. I feel sorry for those circumcised men who feel impaired by it; feelings are, and that can't be argued with. But I myself am totally comfortable with my lack of foreskin.

Notice the word "tribal" in Delany's remarks.  There's a lot of ambivalence about tribes in educated American discourse.  I see a lot of stuff on the Internet and elsewhere about the primal wisdom of tribal people, about how we shouldn't assume that we modern white Westerners are smarter than they are -- unless, as in this case, we don't agree with or approve of their wisdom.  Which is good, because no authority should be exempt from doubt or criticism.  It appears, however, that circumcision was a widespread though not universal practice among the ancient Egyptians, who can hardly be dismissed as "tribal" primitives.  (Warning: scary uncut mummy photo at that link.)  They were truly civilized!  They built the Pyramids!  They cut off their foreskins!  How dare barbaric modern Westerners disrespect them?

Delany continued: 
From a notoriously active sex life in my younger years—age 18 to (arbitrarily) 65—with many thousands of partners, here and in Europe, I gained the impression that, in the U. S. at least, circumcision as an extension of our anti-pleasure society has taken over. 
Not only Delany but several of his commenters remarked on the "anti-pleasure" US culture that practices circumcision, as opposed to -- Christian Europe?  All cultures, from what I can tell, are at best ambivalent about pleasure.  The apostle Paul is usually seen as "anti-pleasure," but it was he who rejected and forbade circumcision for gentile converts to Christianity.  Not, I'm sure, because he cared about their sexual pleasure; but at least he didn't endorse "becoming eunuchs for the kingdom of Heaven" as Jesus did.  Catholic Europe was anything but pro-pleasure, but neither Catholics nor the most repressive Protestants mandated circumcision as part of their anti-pleasure agenda.

A certain amount of anti-Semitism tends to lurk beneath the surface of contemporary anti-circumcision discourse, and there's an interesting debate about that question in Susan Miller Okin's Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? (Princeton, 1999).  Though of course circumcision is also mandated by Islam, the religion of 1.2 billion people worldwide; so condemning circumcision as a primitive tribal practice is Islamophobic, right?  I know of some South Korean men who chose circumcision for hygienic reasons as adults, during their mandatory military service; but I have no idea how common that is, or whether it predates the influence of European medicine in Korea.

But if there's anything to the "anti-pleasure" trope in connection with circumcision, it would have to connect to Science.  That's the current rationale for its prevalence in the United States, and you cannot go against the word of Science.  According to an article in the Washington Post, younger Americans ("millennials") are much less in favor of circumcision than their seniors: "The age gap on circumcision is of a piece with millennials' skepticism about vaccines."  Which ought to set off alarms for all good believers in Science, shouldn't it?  As of 1999 the American Academy of Pediatric Association no longer recommends infant circumcision as a medical default, but they seem to be waffling, and in 2012 they recommended it again.  In 2014 the Mayo Clinic published new data on (slightly) declining rates of circumcision in the US, which it deplored.
"Infant circumcision should be regarded as equivalent to vaccination," said Brian Morris, coauthor of the new report and professor emeritus in the School of Medical Sciences at the University of Sydney, in a press release. "As such, it would be unethical not to routinely offer parents circumcision for their baby boy. Delay puts the child's health at risk and will usually mean it will never happen."
I guess Australian doctors are anti-pleasure too.  It's curious how lightly scientific consensus can be dismissed by highly educated Americans who'd jeer at anti-vaxxers, climate-change deniers and Creationists for rejecting the consensus of Science.  Delany himself is not a reflexive Science worshiper, but I'm not so sure about his commenters.  In comments, Delany also talked about the wisdom of Nature, to which I don't defer.

So, how interesting.  When you have contradictory categorizations of a practice, and opposition to it on contradictory (if not incoherent) grounds, something is going on: on the one hand, circumcision is "tribal"; on the other, it's the product of an "anti-pleasure" society.  Also Science, but we can ignore Science when we want, as long as we accept evolution and climate change.  To repeat: I am not endorsing, recommending, or mandating circumcision.  I'm just not sure of the quality of the objections I'm seeing to it.

Much of what people were saying in this discussion, about circumcision and its effects and significance, reminded me of some things people say about gay men.  That if you're not a particular physical type, no one will have sex with you because all gay men are obsessed with looks.  Or that if you're older than twenty-five or so, no one will have sex with you, because gay men are obsessed with youth.  Or that gay men are incapable of committing themselves to long-term relationships.  All these claims are common knowledge among gay men, even among gay men who know from their own experience that they aren't true.  Much of what people (and not only gay men) were saying about circumcision felt to me like the same kind of folklore.  I began to wonder if some of what other circumcised men were saying was stuff they'd heard and absorbed, even if (or because?) it made them feel bad about themselves.  The oddity would be that I, who have always been ready to feel bad about myself, never bought into the folklore about the inferiority of the (my) circumcised penis.  To repeat: I don't think that the uncircumcised penis is inferior either.  I do get the impression that they're working hard to convince themselves, and each other, that they are hopelessly damaged, which seems to me out of all proportion to what was actually taken from them.  Perhaps, as a very wise man once said, what they need is a good facial.

But maybe not.  I don't want to go too far in the other direction and tell them what they ought to feel.  I can't tell gay men who feel that being gay is a curse what they ought to feel either.  Just because I feel differently, doesn't mean that they must feel as I do.  If anything, I'm surprised that I don't feel a "morose delectation," as the Jesuits and Andrew Holleran might call it, over either condition.

In the past gay men could and did blame their parents, especially their mothers, for having made them gay.  With belief in gay genes hegemonic among us now (though just as bogus as belief in the Close-Binding and Intimate Mother), they can't do that anymore.  But they can blame Mom and Dad for letting the doctors snip away their foreskin.  Just as long as they blame Science too.  And tribalism.