Originally posted at Feministing.com
Circumcision is one of the most common surgical procedures in the United States. It is also among the most hotly debated. Scientists and doctors aren’t settled on the benefits or risk of the surgery and it is so politicized that it’s hard to parse fact from fiction, objective truth from medical mythmaking. Recently, vlogger Justin Dennis, at Everyday Feminism, gave us five reasons why (feminist) parents should consider not circumcising their boys. An important feminist foray into the topic, Dennis points to important issues like consent, bodily integrity, sexual health, and sexual pleasure (1). Those are great entry points for feminists who care about children’s rights and human rights.
But not every anti-circumcision position is a feminist one, and that’s where we need to be careful. In fact, male circumcision has been actively politicized by the Men’s Rights Movement (MRM), a dangerous and reactionary grouping of organizations who seek to undo many of the gains made by feminists (called ‘misandrists’ in the MRM). According to Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs), they fight for gender equality, against a feminist movement that has made men subservient to women. When you hear men (and sometimes women) speak about the danger of false rape accusations, or the myth of the wage gap, or a marriage boycott, chances are you are talking to a Men’s Rights Activist, or at least someone influenced by their ideology.
And the MRM has also latched onto male circumcision (2)(3). Like so many of their issues, they see male circumcision as evidence of men’s subordinated position in society. Society sacrifices men—through military conscription, through dangerous and forced labor, through circumcision. And this is why I’m writing; circumcision can be a feminist issue, but not the way MRAs talk about it. Here’s what they’re missing (and what we need to remember).
Male circumcision is symbolic of men’s power.
Circumcision has always been symbolically connected to male privilege. As a Jewish religious ritual, for example, circumcision separates the sexes. Boys are marked with full patriarchal power, and full group belonging; girls are a secondary class, not worthy of the mark. Men are full participants in the ritual; traditionally, women are not worthy of participation. As a medical practice, circumcision was part of a medical movement against masturbation. Masturbation was believed to sap boys’ and men’s energies, energies which were rightly saved for their participation in the public sphere—as workers, as leaders. Women, whose lives were relegated to the private sphere didn’t need such energies…and anyway, we didn’t think of them as particularly sexual to begin with.
Medicalizing circumcision also served male power. Circumcision’s inclusion as a normal part of childbirth was a tool, helping to solidify medicine’s dominance over pregnancy. What was once the realm of women, of midwives, childbirth rapidly came under the purview of men’s authority. The medicalization of birth and pregnancy was part of a concerted campaign by male doctors seeking to create a discipline of their own. Aided by the building of hospitals (claimed to be safe and sanitary, contrary to much evidence), and the development of medications which could ease women’s pain during birth, midwives were discredited. Circumcision, a surgery requiring training and precision, arose alongside these other developments. Ironically, doctors and mohels (traditional Jewish circumcisers) even conversed in medical journals over who was best trained and most precise. It didn’t really matter who won that fight—either way, men were guaranteed dominance over childbirth.
A final point about circumcision’s medical history; it has not only been about male privilege, but white male privilege. Circumcision was implemented medically at a time when industrialization and urbanization were encouraging immigration. Migrants from around Europe threatened white, American born men’s position in the workforce. Migrants from Europe were not likely to be circumcised, and thus the surgery served to distinguish the groups. The myth of circumcision’s hygienic benefits is likely borne of this part of its history. Migrants were poor and unclean; circumcised ‘native’ born whites were different from, better than, the unwashed masses.
Circumcision is painful. And it may very well be related to long-term psychological harm; for the men who fight against circumcision, the experience of harm is quite upsetting (4). But, what they are missing is that harm has historically and symbolically been in service of men’s power. It served men’s dominance in the public sphere and in the medical discipline; and it worked to distinguish white men’s superiority in a changing society and economy. Circumcision has been American society’s way of readying individual men for group power and privilege. Missing this point—that individual harm =/= group subordination—is a fundamental flaw of nearly all MRM arguments.
It is evident in their arguments against military conscription. Yes, individual men die as soldiers, but the reason they are sent to battle is because society views them as stronger and more courageous, as leaders. It is precisely because we value masculinity that we send men to war.
It is evident in their arguments in fathers’ custody battles. Yes, individual men suffer when they are denied custody of children during divorce. But it is because we have always given men positions of power and authority and relegated women to the subordinate position of homemaker and caretaker. It is precisely because we value masculinity that we do not see men as parents.
If we want to oppose male circumcision, we can recognize that it harms men. Dennis does this, recognizing the violation of consent and bodily integrity, and the potential physical and sexual harms of circumcision. But, if given the chance, I would have added another point to her list—circumcision is a feminist issue because circumcision is about patriarchy. To recognize this history (and its contemporary relevance) will necessarily shape how circumcision is feminist issue, and how we resist it. We must acknowledge its connection to men’s privilege, even as we acknowledge men’s pain. We can recognize individual harm without equating circumcision to the subordination of men. If not, we find ourselves with strange bedfellows. If we want to fight circumcision, we must fight patriarchy, not ignore it.
(1) She also mentions issues around hygiene and biology, though those are less directly relevant for feminist conversations on circumcision.
(2) See, for example, groups like the National Coalition for Men and A Voice for Men. I won’t link to their sites, because I’d rather they get fewer page views, but you’re welcome to google them to see their positions on the issues I discuss.
(3) Not all groups who politically oppose male circumcision are necessarily affiliated with the MRM. Groups in the Intactivist Movement (or, alternatively, the Genital Integrity Movement)–an umbrella term for groups fighting male circumcision–occupy a variety of positions on the political spectrum.
(4) The link between circumcision and harm is debated. For those men who are unhappily circumcised, the harm seems quite obvious. But because sexuality and our bodies are so loaded with social meaning, it is hard to know whether the harm is physiological, or psychological; that is, it is difficult to separate their belief in the harm from actual harm. The social construction of penises and masculine sexuality helps explain why many circumcised men in the U.S. never experience any problems with the circumcised penises, while other men seem to suffer greatly.
Amanda Kennedy is a PhD candidate in sociology at Stony Brook University (SUNY). Her main areas of interest are race, gender, sexuality, and the body, issues she approaches from a critical race/postcolonial feminist perspective. She teaches courses on race/gender/sexuality, the media, and technology.