[TRIGGER WARNING: graphic descriptions of penile and clitoral circumcision]
Feminists talk a lot about bodily autonomy. In short, it means that we have a right to our bodies, and should be able to protect that right. It’s most often trotted out in favor of abortion rights, but extends to other rights, like female genital mutilation and freedom from rape. No one should be allowed to touch our bodies in a way we don’t want. This right extends to those with penises, too – and that’s why circumcision is a feminist issue.
Forced circumcision, the practice of removing the foreskin from the penis, is a surgery steeped in religious and cultural controversies. Its roots in ancient times have been planted firmly, and sometimes, it seems the practice will never end.
However, genital integrity is common in many places. Although circumcision is very common among Muslim and Jewish populations, it’s rare (and getting increasingly rarer) in places like Europe and Latin America, according to the World Health Organization. We should follow Europe and Latin America’s footsteps and end circumcision.
That may seem like a controversial statement, but it’s one rooted in the principle of bodily autonomy. If we should all be in control of our bodies, why are we allowing parents to choose to have an elective surgery performed on their child’s genitals? Many intactivists, or anti-circumcision activists, compare it to female genital mutilation.
They bare many similarities: modern practice, when separated from religious motivations, were popularized by sex-negative advocates who believed that it reduced sexual pleasure. In Dr. Kellogg’s 1881 book Plain Facts for Old and Young, he recommends both forms of genital mutilation to prevent sexual pleasure. (To find the passage in which he recommends these as treatment, use your search command to find “a remedy which is almost” for recommended mutilation of penises. The 1888 edition of the book is not available online, but recommends “pure carbolic acid” on the clitoris.)
Another similar argument for genital mutilation is religious motivation. Judaism and Islam specifically call for circumcision of the penis as a religious act and, while Islam does not specifically call for genital mutilation on those with vulvas or have references to it in the Qu’ran, it is often cited as a driving force behind it (this source delves deeper into the hadiths that call for this mutilation). Many argue that religious freedom includes the right to circumcise their children, but we since won’t stand for that argument when it comes to abortion, why would we settle for it when it comes to circumcision, especially when we are united against the mutilation of those with vulvas?
One of the best arguments against circumcision, in my opinion, is the argument against ill-health prevention (if it did prevent anything, as I’ll discuss later.) We don’t hand out mastectomies to pubescent girls, despite higher chances of breast cancer than penile cancer, which is (supposedly) a preventative benefit of circumcision. We don’t amputate diabetics’ feet to prevent infection. We no longer remove the tonsils as a preventative measure. We would call practices like these barbaric, so why should genital mutilation be any different?
Now, let me tell you about the prevention myth. Contrary to public belief, circumcision doesn’t actually prevent anything – or we at least aren’t actually sure that it does, in some cases. For one, it doesn’t prevent penile cancer. And the oft-cited study that commends circumcision as prevention against HIV/AIDs is incredibly misleading; the participants who were circumcised had two benefits over their uncircumcised counterparts: they had to abstain from sex for six weeks after their circumcision, giving the uncircumcised participants six weeks of a sexual activity head start, and were taught about the proper use of condoms, which already leads to lower rates of HIV/AIDs. If we learned anything from that misrepresentative study, it was that sex education works.
Of course, there are actual medical conditions that require circumcision of the penis. However, the decision to circumcise can be made as an adult by the person who has the penis. No bodily autonomy violation required! Again, we wouldn’t give out mastectomies to prevent breast cancer to those not at risk, so there’s no reason to use routine circumcision to prevent phimosis, for example.
One last thing: we frequently recall unsafe abortion and the deaths of pregnant people from back-alley abortions as reasons to keep abortion legal, as it will keep it safe. Well, a few more babies die from circumcision-related causes than of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome every year in the United States.
So, let’s recap. Genital integrity is common in many places, like Europe and Latin America. Bodily autonomy is a right, not a privilege. The modern practice is rooted in Kellogg’s sex-negativity. Religious freedom is not an excuse to allow someone to control another’s body. Prevention benefits are non-existent, and we don’t perform routine surgery for other types of prevention. Medical complications that require circumcision usually happen at an age when the person with the penis can make the decision themselves. More babies die from circumcision-related causes than SIDS.
Now, what are the arguments left for routine infant circumcision? Not many. Plenty of people with circumcised penises feel next to nothing about their circumcision – they don’t feel mutilated or violated, even when they read articles filled with the info I’ve just shared with you – and that’s fine, too. But we should still strive to protect genital integrity and bodily autonomy for the babies who don’t have a say in the matter.
If you’d like to fight in the cause, then join the intactivists, and call for an end to routine infant circumcision.