The Cut Around Part 1: A Little History

I have laid out that I am quite the environmentalist – I cloth diaper both of my children, we recycle and compost, I am starting to make my children clothes from the remnants of my old clothes (this is very exciting for me!). I laid out recently that we are trying very hard to be Peaceful Parents to our children, even as they grow and struggle to find ways to express who they are as individuals. Sounds great, right?

But I have not yet laid out what brought on our Peaceful Parenting.

After our son was born, our midwife (a wonderful CPM in Tennessee), asked us: “Are you planning on having him circumcised?”

I honestly had not even considered this. I had no idea parents had this performed! (outside of the small minority of Jewish people in America) I had been homeschooled most of my life, inundated with Catholicism and pro-life thinking (“a person’s a person, no matter how small!”). I guess you could say I had been sheltered a bit. But maybe it was just that people did not talk about circumcision openly. Or maybe it was one of those “adults only” topics. My mother could barely get through talking to me about menstruation and the ability to get pregnant without a large dose of awkwardness, let alone covering the fact that some parents choose to cut their children’s genitalia shortly after birth!

Not only was I not aware of the staggering number of parents who choose this for their children on a daily basis, but I had run across Female Genital Mutilation when I was attending college. Yes, I was revolted by the practice! But I had not even scraped the icing off the cake with my brief research of the topic.

I happened to be without internet for awhile after having my son. When I finally had frequent access to the internet again, I began researching circumcision. I was shocked. I researched more. Pretty soon, I realized I knew more about sexual anatomy than the average person. (I’m still not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing)

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
—George Santayana

History teaches us that people have never learned anything from history.
― Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

The more I researched circumcision, which literally means “to cut around,” the more I waded through history. History. I minored in history I enjoyed reading about it so much! So perhaps I like mucking around and pulling up dirty things from the past? Perhaps I like learning what people have done wrong, so I do not make the same mistakes? I do not believe there is anything wrong with that!

The History of Circumcision

When it comes to circumcision in history it is deep, dark, complex. The practice of circumcision stretches back millennia. Not only among males, but also among females. It is not something that is always freely chosen by individuals. In fact, it was often used as a marking upon those who had been captured and were enslaved, it was a way for slave-holders to inflict initial pain upon a slave so that the slave would fear them and behave in an orderly fashion, lest a more severe pain be inflicted. Not only that, but circumcision of slaves was not visible to others on a routine basis as clothing easily hid the markings. This is the same reason why many American slave-holders readily used devices like whips on slaves, because the welts, bruises, and scars were easily covered with clothing.

Certainly, the Old Testament of the Bible mentions circumcision. Many other ancient literary works mention circumcision as well. Some of them shun the practice as destructive, others viewed it as a marking that “set them apart” from the rest of society.

The history of circumcision in America is intriguing to me. There were, of course, tiny pockets of Jewish people who had immigrated from abroad in the early beginnings of the United States. It is quite possible they continued the tradition of infant male circumcision, so carefully laid out for them in the Torah. But more likely than not, they assimilated into this New World. It was not until much later that greater numbers of Jewish people began pouring into the United States, seeking refuge from places like Russia and Germany, that the practice of circumcision saw an increase.

Now for a moment, step back and question this moment in time. What was it about Jewish people that the Russians and Germans found so unholy? So much so that they felt the need to pen them up, to tattoo their arms, to kill them? For centuries the Jewish people, and before them the Hebrew people, had “set themselves apart.” Apart from what? Their fellow human beings? Why? They murdered and plundered and stole, just as many humans did back then. Just as many humans still do today.

Before we continue, let me make something clear – circumcision as found in the Torah is a far cry from the modern medical circumcision now performed in the United States. Just take a minute to Google “Brit Milah vs. Periah Milah” and you will see what I mean.

History of Circumcision in America

The modern medical circumcision now practiced in the United States began in the late 1800s and did not gain favorability among the medical field until the early 1900s. At the time, medical doctors were beginning to experiment on their fellow human beings. Doctors had been placed in a position of authority within society. Many average citizens had fallen away from being well-educated on a variety of topics.

Circumcision became seen as a “cure all” for everything from Syphilis to headaches. Doctors recommended circumcision for the “sin” of masturbation. The Victorian Era had arrived. This was a time of over-the-top humility, of outward prudishness. Religious leaders called the masses to turn away from their sinful nature. A movement within the Catholic Church that became quite large around this time taught that physical punishment for transgressions was necessary for spiritual purification – many individuals sought stigmata. Corporal punishment of children became wide-spread. Parents readily beat their children with hands, wooden spoons, belts, and more.

Funny how that was okay. Just as whipping slaves, or cutting off parts of their genitalia, was okay. But I digress.

The human body had become a disgusting object. No longer was Michelangelo’s David an object of praise. No longer were images of a breastfeeding Madonna and Child hung lovingly in places of worship. It was a time of covering up, from the neck all the way down to the ankles. It was a time of reigning in undesirable sexual passions. And what better way than to surgically remove sexual pleasure organs!?!

Both male and female circumcision were purported as beneficial during this time in America. Male circumcision gained more popularity than female circumcision, it was easier to do. Male infant circumcision rates peaked in America at 90% around the 1970s, then began slowly declining. The most common form of female infant circumcision within the medical field of America was the clitoridectomy, though it never gained the widespread popularity of male infant circumcision. What girls would sit around and compare their genitalia!?!

Around the time of the 1970s-1980s, reports started surfacing from Africa, where female circumcision was wide-spread. Some forms of female circumcision were so severe abroad that women died during child birth or shortly thereafter due to complications from the genital cutting they had received. The reports were disturbing to say the least, young girls being forcibly held down with little to no anesthetic while their genitalia were cut, often without their consent. The sanitary conditions were appalling. This practice was carried out by medically untrained individuals. Within the matter of a few short years, the United States was banning what had become commonly known as Female Genital Mutilation. The United States Congress passed landmark legislation in 1996, which then went into affect in 1997.

I want to point something out here. While I was in college researching Female Genital Mutilation, nowhere did I read of this being practiced in the United States. In all the controversy surrounding Female Genital Mutilation, nowhere did I hear of the dark past that America carried. It was not until after I had my son and delved deep into the topic of genital cutting that I began to hear of American women who had been placed under the knife as infants at the hands of American medical professionals. Talk about covering up the truth!

When we look at the way that Female Genital Mutilation is framed by the law Congress passed in 1996, it would appear that it is a filthy, unsanitary procedure. But in reality, many American doctors had performed genital cutting of female minors in “sanitary” conditions. The irony is baffling.

What baffles me more is that so many people are unaware of the history of circumcision in the United States, why it was begun. I think once we delve into why it was begun and toss aside any perceived benefits, it will be clear that parents should not be the ones making this life-long decision for their children if there is no reason to. Please, delve into history and learn from the mistakes of the past. Education is the key to a better future.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
—George Santayana

History teaches us that people have never learned anything from history.
― Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

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