Every year throughout sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, between four and five million girls suffer gruesome genital mutilation at the hands of tribal “cutters” or circumcisers.1 Far from being regarded as barbaric criminals from whom children should be hidden, these wielders of sharpened rocks, broken glass, rusty metal, and (only sometimes) scalpels occupy a special position of power and influence in their communities.2 Parents voluntarily, sometimes enthusiastically, bring their young and infant daughters to be mutilated. Though methods vary in severity, in as many as 10 percent of cases, a cutter shears a girl’s labia for “beauty,” excises her clitoris to deprive her of sexual pleasure later in life, and sews closed her vagina to ensure virginity until marriage.3
To the Western mind, such practices are shocking and revolting. How could parents do such a thing to their children? With rare exception, Americans recognize female genital mutilation as a form of assault, and the United States outlaws even the least severe version of this ritual, a prick on the clitoris performed as a symbolic gesture to satisfy parents who demand genital cutting. But Americans’ righteous opposition to genital mutilation does not typically extend to males.
Whereas in the United States girls are protected from even a genital pinprick, boys can legally be circumcised for nontherapeutic reasons, and frequently are. Nontherapeutic circumcision of the infant penis is among the most commonly performed surgical procedures in America today, and the practice is widely supported by Americans. Although many support the practice, however, few understand its medical details.
Like female circumcision, male circumcision can be more or less severe in form. The most conservative or minimally invasive circumcision involves the removal of only the tip of the foreskin of the penis. But circumcision as American doctors typically practice it is a far more radical procedure. American doctors typically remove the entire foreskin, the specialized tissue that covers and protects the glans penis and urinary meatus. In most cases, doctors perform circumcision on an infant in his first days of life, when, unlike an adult’s foreskin, which easily retracts down and away from the glans, the infant’s foreskin is still fused to the glans. So during infant circumcision a doctor “bluntly dissects”—that is, rips away—the foreskin from the glans. The doctor then covers the glans with a protective device and cuts away the foreskin completely.
Unlike female genital mutilation in Africa and the Middle East, which has been a widespread practice since ancient times, the widespread practice of penile circumcision in America is a relatively recent phenomenon.
Until the late 1800s, penile circumcision in America was practically unheard of outside of Jewish communities. How did this infant-mutilating procedure become so common and so uncritically accepted in America? Although penile circumcision has been practiced in various forms by many cultures, the radical procedure commonly used in the United States is rooted ultimately in just one of these cultures: ancient Judea.4 How this procedure was adopted in 19th-century America and then grew in popularity to where it is today is a disturbing story of religious history, quack science, and social conformity.
The Roots of Circumcision in America
The roots of the tradition of Americans circumcising infant boys are traceable to ancient Canaan, a geographical area now consisting of Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. . . .