Is there any better symbol of what’s gone wrong in mainstream American culture than the success of Donald Trump?
For the most part I’ve chosen to ignore the day-to-day coverage of this election, to spare myself the pain and frustration of rubbernecking our train wreck democracy. When I do tune in however, I’m always disappointed at the level of social commentary on the Donald, the superficial humor about his hair or hand size or mannerisms, with the frequent pieces on him being a lying conman and rampant xenophobe, or even slightly more sophisticated coverage on the dumbing down of the electorate and the media’s complicity in his candidacy.
Psychological perspectives on Trump interest me more – I tend to agree with the psychologists who have written articles claiming Donald Trump exhibits strong signs of sociopathy. I’ve known enough sociopaths to recognize the patterns myself: the ability to repeat lies over and over – and then contradict them shamelessly five minutes later. Constant impulsive statements and actions. The sheer magnetism of personality that seems to blind many around them from seeing their glaring faults. The superficial emotions that seem to switch only between glee (having attained power) and anger (over its loss). The bullying and the endless quest for domination. The complete lack of basic human empathy, of conscience, guilt or remorse.
Trump’s former ghostwriter Tony Schwartz recently came out to state that if he were rewriting The Art of the Deal today he would rename it The Sociopath. An analysis by Dr. Kevin Dutton of Oxford University found that Trump has more sociopathic traits than Hitler.
But even this analysis stops short of the wider sociological question: How is it that we have managed to elevate such a person to a celebrated personality, now one step from the Oval Office? What is it about him that we, as a culture, must like to an extent – even as many mock him?
I think it’s time to take a good look in the mirror: Is there any better symbol of what’s gone wrong in mainstream American culture than a greedy, superficial, sociopathic megalomaniac reality TV star who makes constant displays of fragile and toxic masculinity?
At the end of the day, these are the qualities we, as a culture, too often celebrate and encourage: Money and fame are our core values. Success at any price. Cut throat business practices. Bullshit your way to the top. Be a “real” man. Isn’t that why it doesn’t seem to matter what Trump says or does, or how many lies he’s caught out on? Don’t a lot of us kind of admire the sheer gall he has? Isn’t that why we can’t stop watching him?
From the moment Trump announced his run for presidency, I never took it as a joke. The glove fit too well. I couldn’t think of a better caricature of the lowest common denominator of our mass culture.
Robert Hare, the psychologist who developed the checklist for diagnosing psychopathy (a term used interchangeably with sociopathy, both colloquial terms for “anti-social personality disorder” in the DSM), believes that “our society is moving in the direction of permitting, reinforcing, and in some instances actually valuing some of the traits listed in the Psychopathy Checklist.” Sociopathy rates in the USA are estimated to be between 1-4% (and increasing), compared to just 0.03-0.14% in parts of East Asia, for example. The difference is not genetic – it’s cultural. Rather than focus on the collective, our culture endlessly celebrates the power of the individual above all else. We glorify and encourage the ego and the self rather than the interrelatedness of all living things. Sociopaths and narcissists have always existed – but in our culture they are aspired to.
Trump perfectly embodies the core values of toxic masculinity as well, the socialized male who is meant to be dominant, violent, competitive, unemotional, misogynist and sexually aggressive. These values are in no way inherent to being a man, but they are completely integral to how we raise and socialize our boys. From a young age boys are taught over and over that displays of human emotion are unacceptable, that sex is conquest, power and status, that their value and worthiness as men depends on disproving themselves to be empathetic, “effeminate” or “gay” in any way – through constant exercises of assertiveness, repressed emotion and sheer force.
Finally, in a time when the most (white) Americans are safer than they’ve ever been, we’ve culturally adjusted to a constant climate of fear. Fear of the other: the gays, the blacks, the Muslims, the Mexicans, the Russians, the Chinese, the terrorists, the people coming to take our guns. Our news channels endlessly broadcast the new threats we must live in fear of and our TV programs teach us survival skills for the upcoming apocalypse, putting our collective survival down (once again) to the individual. We make ever greater sacrifices of our principles, liberty and humanity in order to defend ourselves from these supposed threats. We become ever easier prey for those who seek to abuse those fears in their quest for power.
And now? This was the inevitable next stop on that path. This is where these values and this culture have landed us.
The options this November seem understandably bleak to some. What we are missing, as Michael Meade suggests in the Huffington Post, is the third kind of person:
The first kind of person tends to be preoccupied with self-interest as everything refers back to “I, me and mine.” At this basic level the world can be divided into winners and losers as self-assertion rules the day and excesses of aggression and rule-breaking can seem justified.
The second kind of person learns to operate at a higher level of life that includes an increased awareness of both the needs and the value of others, even those who seem quite other than oneself… However, when times get hard and people feel the pressure of enduring threats and persistent hardships, the greater sense of fairness and justice becomes more difficult to sustain. In the face of uncertainty and fear, the second kind of person can lose touch with the core values of humanism…
Many of us fit this description and I agree with Meade when he argues that Clinton is one of them, perhaps with a heart in the right place but ultimately making decisions out of fear and other pressures – decisions that have brought suffering to both our own country and the world at large.
The third kind of person survives some life-changing defeat or loss and suffers a descent in life that makes them aware of the agonies and tragedies experienced by so many throughout the world.
…those who survive loss know who they are at their core; they also know the core values and ideals upon which humanity depends. They cannot be manipulated by fear or greed, cannot be shaken by threats or be pressured to act against either their own integrity or the interests of the greater good…
In this way the third level of awareness produces the truly inspired leaders, the wounded healers, and the wise counselors who know that the ideals of humanity must be upheld precisely when the darkness and confusion around us grows.
I’m blessed to know a great number of such people, those who have been pushed to the margins by society, pushed into the darkness by circumstance – but who have survived to find a deep knowing, a profound integrity and an unshakable set of principles. I look to these people for inspiration at these times, those who follow the ideals of empathy and selflessness and love especially in times of great fear and darkness, especially when it’s most difficult to do.
Come November, we’ll elect either the first kind of person or the second – a depressing thought. Darkness will follow either of these results (if in different magnitudes). There will be yet more suffering.
For those of us not already there, we too may find ourselves collectively entering “the dark night of the soul.” Perhaps the silver lining to this doom and darkness will be the emergence of more wounded healers who reject that first kind of person, reject fear and egotism even in the worst of times.
For if sociopathic, narcissistic and toxic masculine traits were taboo rather than celebrated in America, someone like Trump could never be where he is now. Instead, his candidacy is only the inevitable product of the toxic environment he’s grown up in. Americans who have a problem with Trump actually have a much bigger problem: American culture.
So let’s stop watching the train wreck and start talking about our personal and collective problem. Because if we wish to indict Trump it seems, we also have to indict ourselves.
The glans, which is at the end of the penis, [is] covered with a very thin membrane, by reason of which it is of a most exquisite feeling. It is covered with a preputium or foreskin, which in some covers the top of the yard [slang for penis] quite close, in others not so, and by its moving up and down in the act of copulation brings pleasure to both the man and woman. 1 – Aristotle
A remedy for masturbation which is almost always successful in small boys is circumcision. The operation should be performed without administering anesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutory effect upon the mind, especially, if it is connected with the idea of punishment, as it may well be in some cases.2 – Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, creator of the Corn Flake
I suggest that all male children should be circumcised. This is ‘against nature’, but that is exactly the reason why it should be done. Nature intends that the adolescent male shall copulate as often and as promiscuously as possible, and to that end covers the sensitive glans so that it shall be ever ready to receive stimuli. Civilization, on the contrary, requires chastity, and the glans of the circumcised rapidly assumes a leathery texture less sensitive than skin. 3 – R.W. Cockshut
While the history of circumcision goes back to ancient Egypt and is found in the religious texts of Judaism and Islam, the normalization of circumcision in the West is a relatively new phenomenon, dating back only to the nineteenth century. It originated in response to the hysteria around masturbation in Victorian times, and was named a cure all for a number of other serious medical problems. However, the evidence for this was thoroughly debunked by the middle of the twentieth century and, as a result, circumcision rates in Europe began a steady decline. Only in America did this procedure remain standardized – the only nontherapeutic and “preventative” surgery that we commonly subject babies to. So what is a foreskin? Why does having one matter? How did a ritual practice become a prophylactic one? And why do we still circumcise today?
Sex 101: Foreskin and Function
The glans cover’d with its prepuce, which is at one of its extremities, has such tender and sensible [sensitive] flesh, that nature hath there established the throne of sensitivity and pleasure in women’s embraces.4 – Nicholas De Venette
Knowledge about the fully-formed human penis should be part of normal sex education – but it often isn’t. In America today it is common in anatomy books for the foreskin to be left out altogether.
The foreskin is not a birth defect – it is a normal part of male and female anatomy. The foreskin of the penis starts out growing from the same tissue as the clitoral hood, the skin that covers the clitoris. The gender-neutral term for this bit of skin is the prepuce. The glans (head of the penis) is an internal organ, meant to remain covered in the same way our eyelids protect our eyes or our fingernails protect our nail beds. In our society, women get to keep their foreskin, but men who are circumcised do not.
There are repercussions to making an internal organ external. In order to survive the organ must adapt. In addition to losing sensitivity, removing the foreskin means that over time the pH will be altered, the temperature will no longer remain stable, moisture and lubrication will be lost (leading to dryness and chapping), antibodies and healthy microflora will no longer exist, and callusing will take place. (To see a side by side comparison of an adult male penis, cut and uncut, click here. Warning: graphic content.)
The foreskin contains some of the most erogenous tissue in the male body. There are twelve to fifteen square inches of foreskin, containing an astounding 20,000 fine touch nerve endings – or Meissner’s corpuscles. Most of the rest of the penis has Pacinian corpuscles, the most common nerve ending in the skin. If you want to understand the difference between Meissner’s corpuscles and Pacinian corpuscles, stroke the back of your hand repeatedly and softly, and then do the same to the palm of your hand. The palms of your hand have Meissner’s corpuscles – as do the mouth, anus, frenulum, foreskin and other openings of the body.
Normally, the foreskin covers and protects the head of the penis, keeping contaminants out. The foreskin actually has many functions – it allows the skin to move around and the penis to remain softer, moister and warmer. In contrast to a circumcised penis, the foreskin actually contributes lubrication to sexual intercourse, as well as helping to keep the lubrication present in the sex act.
As Marilyn Miros, former nurse and “intactivist” (that’s an activist who campaigns for the penis to be left in tact) put it, “you can’t change form without altering function.”5 Circumcision, the removal of the foreskin, alters the function of the penis. Regardless of which side one falls on the circumcision debate, it is important to know and understand how function changes.
“The biological sexual act for the circumcised male becomes a satisfaction of an urge and not the refined sensory experience it was meant to be.”6 – C.J. Falliers
The problems of painful intercourse, lack of lubrication, premature ejaculation and inability to climax can be related to circumcision. Without the foreskin the male takes longer strokes to ejaculate because he has no fine sensitivity. With these longer strokes, each withdrawal of the penis drags some of the lubrication out – on top of not contributing any lubricant of its own, as an intact penis would. He has to work harder and harder to climax as he gets older and loses more sensitivity due to increased dryness. In the meantime, if he has a female partner she loses her ability to “ride the wave to orgasm”7 as Miros puts it, because of his constant withdrawing. Without an honest and open discourse on the effects of circumcision, it is possible that many are struggling in their sexual relationships over issues they have no idea are due to the male(s) being circumcised.
No one actually knows how the ritual of circumcision came about. There are endless (often contradictory) theories on the reason for it. As Wikipedia summarizes:
It has been variously proposed that it began as a religious sacrifice, as a rite of passage marking a boy’s entrance into adulthood, as a form of sympathetic magic to ensure virility or fertility, as a means of enhancing sexual pleasure, as an aid to hygiene where regular bathing was impractical, as a means of marking those of higher social status, as a means of humiliating enemies and slaves by symbolic castration, as a means of differentiating a circumcising group from their non-circumcising neighbors, as a means of discouraging masturbation or other socially proscribed sexual behaviors, as a means of removing “excess” pleasure, as a means of increasing a man’s attractiveness to women, as a demonstration of one’s ability to endure pain, or as a male counterpart to menstruation or the breaking of the hymen, or to copy the rare natural occurrence of a missing foreskin of an important leader, and as a display of disgust of the smegma produced by the foreskin.8
The only thing all these theories have in common is that they have nothing to do with health. The argument that circumcision is “cleaner” because it prevents the normal buildup of smegma (the substance which is actually produced by both the penis and the vagina) is the equivalent of saying it’s easier to chop off some of your ear than to have to clean out your earwax. Washing the intact penis is a simple matter of pulling back the skin and rinsing with water (not soap, which is irritating) in the shower or bath, just as a female might clean her vagina.
Circumcision is strongly associated with Judaism, but the ancient Egyptians practiced it as well. Bodies dating back to 4000 B.C. and hieroglyphs from before 2300 B.C. show circumcision in ancient Egypt and it is likely the Jews learned from the Egyptians. Circumcision was also performed by many other Semitic peoples as well as tribes throughout Africa.
But the amount of foreskin cut and the age at which the ritual takes place has changed over time. The Egyptians performed circumcision on boys rather than infants, and ritualized circumcision took place with large groups of boys being cut at the same time. (In Islamic traditions to this day, circumcision traditionally takes place as a boy, before age ten.) The Jewish tradition eventually became to circumcise infants. Originally it was the mother who would circumcise her baby, though later that role was taken over by the mohel.
The circumcision of ancient times, as was supposed to be practiced by Abraham, was a much less severe operation than it is today.9 Originally just the tip of the foreskin was cut, called milah. This practice lasted two thousand years, until the Hellenistic period, when many Jews started stretching their foreskin back in order to conceal their circumcised penises (which were looked down upon by the Greeks). Because of this, the rabbis of the time decided that circumcision must be performed in such a way that there would be no way to disguise it. So began the practice called periah, the removal of the entire foreskin. It is this practice which was originally taught by Jewish mohels to Western doctors in the nineteenth century, and which remains our standard practice of circumcision to this day. This technique is significantly more severe than most ritual or tribal varieties – or what the God of the Old Testament was said to have commanded.
A Note on Language
Moving into modern history and away from religion and ritual, it seems appropriate to examine the language that is used today around circumcision. The word “uncircumcised” to refer to a whole, intact penis implies that an uncircumcised penis is not yet in the normal state. It would be similar to referring to women who had not had a mastectomy as “unmastectomized” – which would be strange indeed! Therefore for the rest of the article I will refer to “uncircumcised” as “intact”. For “circumcision” I prefer the more neutral term “male genital cutting” which is a more accurate description of what is occurring – although some would argue that the term “male genital mutilation” would be appropriate as well.
The first medical (non-ritual) male genital cutting took place in Britain in the eighteenth century, becoming a routine preventative procedure by the late nineteenth century, in the context of Victorian morality. Up until this time men valued their foreskins as the “best of your property,”10 as demonstrated in the mid-eighteenth century when Jewish emancipation was feared in case it meant universal circumcision – seen back then as both humiliating and mutilating.
It was the rise of hysteria around masturbation that is the key to this story. This medical crisis over masturbation is an example of what Thomas Szasz describes as the “therapeutic state” where “social controls are legitimized by the ideology of health.”11 At this time, many things that were taboo from a spiritual or social point of view such as masturbation, homosexuality or suicide – then become forcibly controlled through medical justifications.
In this case, a variety of illnesses came to be blamed on masturbation. Young boys and even babies caught masturbating were given the mistaken diagnosis of “phimosis”, where the foreskin does not retract back over the glans. It was later proven that phimosis is the normal state for intact penises until pre-pubescence. Back in those times however, the diagnosis of phimosis would be used to justify the cutting of the foreskin.
While today we argue over whether male genital cutting affects the sensitivity of the penis, back then there was no question. Often the whole point was to reduce sexual pleasure and therefore sexual temptation:
Another advantage of circumcision is … the lessened liability to masturbation. A long foreskin is irritating per se, as it necessitates more manipulation of the parts in bathing. … This leads the child to handle the parts, and as a rule pleasurable sensations are elicited from the extremely sensitive mucous membrane, with resultant manipulation and masturbation. The exposure of the glans penis following circumcision … lessens the sensitiveness of the organ. It therefore lies with the physicians, the family adviser in affairs hygienic and medical, to urge its acceptance.12
To understand how masturbation could be blamed for so many medical issues, one has to understand the degenerative theory of disease, which said that the body had a limited amount of energy. This energy could either be conserved through “correct living”, or permanently lost through “wrong living”. 13 Sexuality then represented a life-threatening loss of energy, because the non-procreative use of the sexual organs was seen as physically dangerous. The Reflex Neurosis Theory of Disease “postulated that the sexual organs and the erotic sensations they produced were the cause of all human disease.”14 Preposterous now, but this was the original justification for circumcision in the West.
In this way, patients who might have been suffering from various illness due stresses such as overwork, bacterial infections, mental disorders or malnutrition, would then be interviewed by doctors to inevitably reveal that they masturbate, which doctors concluded was the reason for their conditions. All of sexual function was pathologized, with erotic sensation being redefined as “irritation”, orgasm redefined as “convulsion” and erection now termed “priapism.” 15 Thus sexuality became both symptoms and cause of disease, and the stimulation of the genitals could “cause” problems throughout the body.
As time went on there were few things that male genital cutting wasn’t “proven” to treat. By reducing pleasure and therefore masturbation, circumcision would cure and prevent cancer, epilepsy, paralysis – you name it!
Male genital cutting wasn’t the only surgery of the time aimed at eliminating sexual desire. America specialized in alternative treatments to curbing carnal lust. “Spermectomy”, a less drastic alternative to castration (but more severe than a vasectomy), involved surgically removing the spermatic ducts. Neurectomy had a brief popularity in the 1890s, which involved severing the dorsal nerves of the penis, permanently and completely destroying sensation and function. This was commonly performed on boys who were caught masturbating. Other less drastic measures included:
slitting open the urethra, cauterizing the prostate, corporal punishment, blistering the penis with caustics, acid or heat, flaying the skin of the penis with razor blades, sewing the penis shut with metal wire, encasing the genitals in plaster or lockable metal cages, or fitting the penis with rings studded with sharp teeth to discourage erections.16
New diagnoses such as “spermatorrhoea” emerged. The tell tale symptoms of spermatorrhoea included the ejaculation of sperm under any condition other than marital intercourse. How did one treat spermatorrhoea? Circumcision, of course.
The hysteria around sexuality wasn’t exclusively for boys. For young girls, the preferred treatment for epilepsy and masturbation was clitoridectomy (the removal of the clitoris).17
In this time, one often encounters medical articles with such titles as “The value of circumcision as a hygienic and therapeutic measure”, which might bring to mind today’s claims that circumcision is more “hygienic”. But it’s interesting to note that back then the word “hygiene” was being used to refer to moral hygiene (i.e., not masturbating), not personal cleanliness.
In the UK, male genital cutting became routine and widespread among the wealthier classes by the end of the nineteenth century. The final push had been a paper published by English surgeon Jonathan Hutchinson claiming that it provided protection against syphilis (paralleling the rise of the claim that it protects against AIDS today) – one of the most influential texts in the history of circumcision advocacy. There were some pretty extreme flaws in Hutchinson’s methodology. The paper was based on his observations at the Metropolitan Free Hospital in east London, where many Jewish immigrants had settled. He observed that fewer Jews than Englishmen sought treatment for syphilis. As noted by Robert Darby:
Being innocent of any awareness of the principles of statistical analysis, epidemiology, the germ theory of disease or the quarantine effect of ghetto living, Hutchinson asserted that only circumcision could account for the difference in the incidence of the disease.18
Despite these flaws, Hutchinson’s paper retained its influence until the 1940s.
The president of the American Medical Association in 1890, Dr. Lewis A. Sayre, spent his entire career urging physicians that they must examine a boy’s prepuce first, in all cases of disease. While his claims seem ridiculous now, they were always supported with numerous case studies and endless clinical evidence. This is a running theme with male genital cutting, with new “evidence” popping up for new justifications, just when the old ones had been debunked.
My original intention in writing this piece was to track the history of medical justifications (and their later disproving) throughout the past two centuries. But this turned out to be too arduous a task. It’s a long and checkered history, and if one is really interested, “A short history of circumcision in the United States” by Robert Darby is an in-depth history that is highly recommended and thoroughly annotated (footnotes at end of Part 2 of the article.)
To summarize, in the last two hundred years circumcision has been “proven” and then disproven to prevent or cure:
Inflammation of the bladder
Curvature of the spine
Restlessness and Irritability
Even after the germ theory of disease was established (and diagnoses like tuberculosis were therefore no longer attributable to the intact penis), anti-sexual attitudes and bad information prevailed. An article that appeared in the September 1941 issue of Parents Magazine by Dr. Ian F. Guttmacher, an obstetrician at Johns Hopkins University Medical School, openly admits that circumcision “causes blunting of male sexual sensitivity” but argued that this was an advantage.19 Myths about the difficulty cleaning the penis prevailed in American literature just as they were being disproven in British medical journals. Guttmacher argued that circumcision at birth is easier for the mother, so that the mother doesn’t have to handle her son’s genitals as much – making masturbation less likely.
The landmark 1949 study “The fate of the foreskin” by Cambridge pediatrician Douglas Gairdner, published in the British Medical Journal, marked the end of the era of mass circumcision in the UK. Gairdner debunks the phimosis myth, and rejected the “evidence” that male genital cutting reduced risks of syphilis and cancer as spurious. As a result the National Health Service in the UK did not cover the operation, which would have to be performed at parents’ discretion through a private doctor. Circumcision rates plummeted as a result. To this day, the NHS website states, “most healthcare professionals now agree that the risks associated with routine circumcision, such as infection and excessive bleeding, outweigh any potential benefits.” 20
In the United States, however, Gairdner’s paper was ignored. Old circumcision myths were recycled, new myths were created (such as the idea that male genital cutting was actually good for the male libido), and the Gomco clamp went into mass manufacture (the stainless steel device still widely used today to crush the foreskin and isolate it during the surgical procedure). There was a new cancer scare that was blamed on foreskin, blaming it for prostate, penal and cervical cancers. In this same period of time there was another push to popularize circumcision of adult females by removal of the clitoral hood.
But by 1962, theories that retaining a foreskin caused cancer or that smegma was carcinogenic were disproven, even in America. Further medical research led to the revolutionary statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 1971 that “There is no valid medical indication for circumcision in the neonatal period.”21
This lead to a period where an American grass roots movement questioned the ethics of neonatal circumcision and considered the issue of who had the right to consent for a baby to have an unnecessary surgical procedure. In the mainstream however, myths began circulating in popular baby care guides that it would be terribly traumatizing for a child to realize that his father’s circumcised penis differed from his own.
Another myth that created social pressure for circumcision was the idea that uncut boys would feel awkward and weird in school locker rooms.
Meanwhile, even female circumcision hung about as a possibility in the American medical practice of the 1970s. Dr. Leo Wollman published an article arguing that the removal of the clitoral hood was a cure for frigidity.22 This was aimed to appeal to the ethos of the sexual revolution – and was the exact opposite of the argument being made in support of circumcision a century earlier!
What should have been the final death knell for neonatal circumcision appeared in 1975 when the American Academy of Pediatrics clarified:
There is no absolute medical indication for routine circumcision of the newborn… A program of education leading to continuing good personal hygiene would offer all the advantages of circumcision without the attendant surgical risk. Therefore, circumcision of the male neonate cannot be considered an essential component of adequate total health care.23
But another decade, another excuse. There was a scare that intact penises were more prone to urinary tract infections – little mention being made that UTIs are relatively common for girls as well and no one has suggested cutting their clitoral hoods off as a preventative measure (not yet anyway!)
There is a clear historical pattern here of finding ever new reasons to perform male genital cutting. I will take a brief look at the modern medical justifications later in this piece.
What Does Circumcision Involve?
First however, it seems appropriate to take a minute to clarify exactly what this surgical procedure looks like. Often misconstrued as “a little snip”, male genital cutting is a serious operation that is often performed without anesthesia.
This video is not for the squeamish, but as Michelle Storms, an obstetrician who stopped performing circumcisions in 1988 for reasons of conscience, said, “any person who wants to subject a child to this should be required to witness one first.”24 Many parents have expressed regret in the aftermath of the procedure, only then realizing the severity of what has been done to their child.
Not often spoken of, there are common surgical complications, from the scarring that is universal to penile adhesions, punctures, skin bridges, “buried” penis, and even accidental full amputation of the head. Postoperatively, there can be difficulty breastfeeding, excessive bleeding, long-term aggravated response to pain, infection, meatitis, necrosis, and even severe permanent disability or death.
Why Do We Still Do It?
Even today there are popular news stories with dramatic warnings on the dangers of the falling rate of circumcision and the public health repercussions, like this CBS news article, for example. There are also revivals of medical justifications, such as the idea that circumcising reduces risk of prostate cancer, such as this study from just last year.
The current justifications for circumcision, outside of social pressures and mistaken ideas about hygiene, include the prevention of UTIs, penile and prostate cancers, HIV, HPV and other STDs.
The American Cancer Society actually disagrees with the idea that circumcision prevents penile cancer, which has an incredibly low rate of 1/100,000 in any case. A similar number of people actually die of circumcision related deaths (117) to penile cancer (328) in the United States each year.25 26
The main 2002 study that linked foreskin to cervical cancer a) presumes that the child will be having sex with a woman when they are an adult and makes a surgical decision based on that presumption, and b) was later invalidated because the partners in the study were actually found to have different strains of HPV, and therefore could not have gotten it from each other.27
The idea of circumcision for HIV prevention got its start in the 2000s, but there were many problems with the three randomized control trials in Africa that are cited as evidence, including the fact that circumcised men were provided more access to condoms and safe sex information than intact men. The idea that the author promotes of likening circumcision to an effective vaccine, when they are only claiming a 60% effective rate, is hugely irresponsible. There are now people (mostly in Africa) who think they are immune to HIV because they are circumcised.28
The major 1986 study that is often cited as confirmation that circumcision is an effective preventative measure for UTIs was skewed. In the study, parents of children with foreskins were told to wash with soap – interrupting the normal colonization of bacteria and leading to increased risk of infection. 29
It’s also ironic to note that the United States, with the highest rate of sexually active, circumcised men in the world – also has one of the highest rates of genital cancers and STDs in the Western world. By contrast, countries such as Japan and Scandinavia, where circumcision is practically unknown, have much lower rates.30
But in the meantime, the American Association of Pediatrics backtracked once again in 2012, moving way from their more neutral position to state that the health benefits of infant male genital cutting outweigh the potential risks.
As one can read here, the medical associations of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, UK, Germany, and Canada would disagree.
Social Pressures: Normalizing Mutilation
Some of the most common reasons given today for circumcising a child are social pressures: wanting them to look “normal” or like their father, for instance. In what other situation today would we allow a parent to elect a nontherapeutic (not medically necessary) surgery for their child in the name of a social or aesthetic preference?
While the female genital mutilation that we often hear about and judge in Africa can vary from the removal of the clitoral hood to the removal of the entire clitoris, it is worth comparing notes for a minute. The justifications used in Africa often sound the same – better or preferred appearance, necessary for social acceptance – as well as “medical” justifications based on the idea of increased “hygiene” and disease prevention. Backwards social practices often hide under the accepted and institutionalized discourse of the time – in this case, modern medicine.
Denial, Grief, Mourning
Why do many still defend circumcision in the face of evidence? It is an emotionally charged issue for many reasons. There is denial, grief, and anger at the realization of having experienced what in reality was a completely unnecessary violation and loss, a kind of abuse. There is also the pain of realizing what one might have unknowingly done to one’s own child. It’s an emotional issue, to say the least.
There is an aspect of “cognitive dissonance” here, whereby the easiest way to deal with the fact that one may be missing something important or have deprived a child of something important, is to discount the foreskin, claiming it’s no big shakes. But the answer cannot be to turn away from the facts.
Foreskin Restoration and Resources
Some circumcised men are now reclaiming their foreskin as part of a physical and psychological healing process. While it is not possible to regain the lost nerve endings, it is possible to stretch and expand the skin back into a foreskin, over a course of years. This has the effect of recreating the mucus membrane, increasing sensitivity of the glans and lubrication, as well as healing any callousing. Some who have undergone foreskin restoration say the process also promotes psychological wellbeing through a sense of reclaiming wholeness. For more resources on regrowing foreskin, see the end of this article.
I believe the time has come to acknowledge that the practice of routine neonatal circumcision rests on the absurd premise that the only mammal in creation born in a condition that requires immediate surgical correction is the human male.31 – Thomas Szasz
Many practices that are now seen as very clearly unethical had been going on for an extremely long time before anyone had the idea to question them. Examples include slavery, footbinding, the cutting of female genitals, and beating disobedient children with sticks…what’s happening right now with circumcision…the relevant ethical principles—about bodily integrity, consent, protecting the vulnerable in society, and so on—have been available to us for quite some time now. It’s just that we’re so used to circumcision as a cultural habit, that many people fail to see how blatantly inconsistent this practice is with the rest of their own moral landscape.32
– Brian Earp, research associate at Oxford University
Throughout history, many injustices have hid in plain view, normalized by the society of the time. Male circumcision is one of them. We hear justifications all the time: “it’s cleaner”, “it looks better”, “everyone does it”, “I’m circumcised and I’m fine”, “babies don’t feel anything”, “doctors do it”, “it’s just a little snip”. But looked at from a fresh angle, we see a procedure that removes a healthy unique organ part as a social ritual and not a medical treatment. Such a procedure would be illegal on girls but is more or less standard for boys in America, in spite of potential complications and lifelong loss of function.
It’s interesting to note that it was glaringly obvious that male genital cutting would greatly reduce man’s sexual pleasure a hundred and fifty years ago, but we argue today over whether it makes any difference. Or at least we do in America, as opposed to Britain where studies are still being published showing that:
The glans of the circumcised penis is less sensitive to fine touch than the glans of the uncircumcised penis. The transitional region from the external to the internal prepuce [ridged band, removed in all circumcisions] is the most sensitive region of the uncircumcised penis and more sensitive than the most sensitive region of the circumcised penis. Circumcision ablates the most sensitive parts of the penis.33
Only three in ten men in the world are circumcised, but eight out of every ten American men are. There is a conversation that needs to take place here. Our society needs a better understanding of the repercussions of circumcision so that, if nothing else, parents make more informed decisions. And perhaps one day we will recognize that no parent has the right to perform a cosmetic and medically unnecessary surgical operation on a child who is unable to consent.
~ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ~
All fired up? Here are some great resources for sharing:
The “Miami Zombie” or “Miami Cannibal” was the perfect headline to go viral, as it shocked people around the world. For those of you who somehow avoided the media blitz, a naked homeless man was shot and killed by Miami police after he was caught literally chewing off the face of another homeless man on a sidewalk near the MacArthur Causeway. The poor man’s face was unrecognizable by the time he was sent off to the hospital, you can see pictures of him pre-surgery and post-surgery (but please don’t click if you have a weak stomach.)
Finding out victim Ronald Poppo was an alumni of Stuyvesant High School in New York City (my alma mater) piqued my personal interest in the story. How does one go from Stuyvesant graduate to homeless in Miami and victim of a freak cannibal attack? More confirmation that attendance at a ‘prestigious’ school guarantees nothing.
Back to the story. From the very beginning, it was portrayed as a drug-related incident – adding another sensationalist layer to the headlines:
“Cops: New LSD May Be Behind Miami Cannibal Attack” – CBS News
“Apparently LSD Can Turn You Into a Face-Eating Zombie Now” – NY Magazine
[Armando] Aguilar, president for the Fraternal Order of Police, tells Banana Republican that Eugene exhibited signs he was high on LSD, as well as symptoms for “excited delirium,” a controversial syndrome that supposedly turns drug users (primarily cocaine enthusiasts) into raging and almost unstoppable incredible Hulks. “I’m going by similarities in other cases of excited delirium I’ve researched in the last couple of days,” Aguilar says.
Spoken like someone who’s definitely never taken psychedelics. Remember all those violent hippies in the 1960s?
The story quickly shifted over to ‘bath salts’, a legal high that commonly contains research chemicals mephedrone and MDPV. But the LSD angle still stuck.
“Miami man shot dead eating a man’s face may have been on LSD-like drug” the Guardian reports. Hilarity ensues as one reads the article:
A man shot dead by police as he ate the face of another man may have been under the influence of a potent LSD-like drug called bath salts, investigators believe.
Eugene was naked and Poppo was wearing only a shirt when police arrived, possibly a result of the delirium-inducing drug, which can have effects similar to cocaine and LSD. It can raise users’ body temperature significantly and make them feel they are burning up inside.
“When a person has taken all of his clothes off and become violent, it’s indicative of this excited delirium that’s caused by overdose of drugs,” Armando Aguilar, head of the Miami Fraternal Order of Police, told the city’s WSVN news. “What’s happening is, inside their body their organs are burning up alive.”
Paul Adams, an emergency room doctor, said that synthetic stimulant drugs such as bath salts, named for its powdery substance, can make users feel invincible and give them superhuman strength, but can also trigger aggression, extreme paranoia and hallucinations.
“It’s the new designer drug,” he told the Guardian. “It causes a state of excited delirium, raises the body temperature and causes irritability and confusion, which is heightened when combined with a lack of adequate hydration. You find yourself not making sense, and you don’t control your emotions or your actions.”
How a drug can have “effects similar to cocaine and LSD” is beyond me, as the two drugs have almost polar opposite effects on consciousness and behavior. And “their organs are burning up alive”? Who is this guy?
In fact, “bath salts” (as they are sold in the US) are another name for the legal high that caused a similar (although not quite as sensational) moral panic in the UK a few years ago: mephedrone (sold as “plant food” and commonly called “meow meow” or “mcat”.) A story based on rumor and police statements claiming that a fourteen year old girl had died due to mephedrone led to a swift ban at the end of 2009. Less than a year later the Guardian reported “Mephedrone found not guilty” as it turned out mephedrone was not involved in the incident at all. (Several additional incidents cited as reasons to ban mephedrone turned out to be hoaxes or unrelated to mephedrone as well.) If only newspapers bothered to fact-check against their own prior reporting mistakes before publishing…
Mephedrone’s pharmacology has hardly been studied but it is chemically related to the amphetamines. Users describe effects that suggest its actions are between those of amphetamine (speed) and MDMA (ecstasy); it activates, energises and makes them feel good but is relatively short-lasting. This has been known for years, so articles describing mephedrone as LSD-like should be completely unacceptable under any standard of journalism.
But it’s not. Why? Because unfortunately our media (and police) are about as educated on the effects of drugs and illicit substances as the rest of society. The group of illicit substances that we colloquially label “drugs” have a mind-blowingly vast range of effects on consciousness and often have nothing in common other than their illegality. Only in a society this ignorant could articles like this be published and syndicated again and again with little to no questioning. Not to mention the fact that whenever anyone does something crazy, LSD is the favored scapegoat. Ironic when the heavily over-prescribed (legal) anti-anxiety, anti-depressant, painkiller and ADHD medications all cause various levels of psychosis either in overdose or withdrawal. But the tripped out “Ritalin Cannibal” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
So that’s it, case closed. Mention “bath salts” to your average person, and it’s likely that the “Miami Cannibal” will be the first thing that comes to mind.
Except that yesterday the coroner’s report on attacker Rudy Eugene was released. Time Magazine reports “The Cannabis Cannibal? Miami Face-Eater Didn’t Take ‘Bath Salts’”. It was found that the only drug in his system was cannabis, confirming earlier reports where his girlfriend stated that he never took drugs other than marijuana. Bath salts were only ever part of this story as pure police and media speculation, based on a complete lack of knowledge as to what effects bath salts generally have on the user.
Inevitably of course, the true story will never get circulated even a fraction as widely as the original was. And so another urban legend is born. Now all there is to do is wait for the inevitable political backlash against bath salts, which remain legal in some states. Not for long!
Occupy Wall Street is back in the news after a march to Liberty Plaza this past weekend celebrating it’s six month anniversary led to violence between the NYPD and protesters. While this writer was unable to attend, all accounts report undue force against protesters, who were given little notice to evacuate the park before things got heavy. Read more at the Huffington Post.
In light of what is now a much-anticipated “American Spring” it seems appropriate to have a look at where we left off in November when Occupy encampments were forcibly dismantled across the nation.
Here are a few things you might have missed this winter:
Keith Olbermann gave one of his more stunning tirades against New York City Mayor Bloomberg following the raid that took apart the original occupation in Liberty Plaza. Listening to it now amid reports of new violence, his words have renewed relevance.
No, answers Matt Taibbi in his blog for Rolling Stone, “Woman Gets Jail For Food-Stamp Fraud; Wall Street Fraudsters Get Bailouts.” In an example that is the epitome of what’s wrong with our nation, a mother of two who was ineligible for food stamps due to a past criminal drug offense lied about her history in order to feed her children and got caught. She paid the government back for the full amount of her fraud (a whole $4000). The judge didn’t feel she was punished enough so she ended up with a three year jail sentence. A stark comparison with the repercussions of corporate fraud on Wall Street ensues.
The examination of police brutality, corporate rule and corrupt politics in America could send us on a never-ending journey of pessimism. So if you’re craving some positive inspiration, have a look at TDT’s last post featuring a film that speaks to the soul of this movement, “Occupy Love”.
To end on a lighter note, I leave you in the capable hands of George Carlin. One can only wonder what he would have to say if he was still with us now in these changing times.
Hope that’s helped warm you up to this early spring. The weather’s ripe for revolution so keep updated on www.occupywallst.org/ for news of this global movement for change.
“A profound shift is taking place all over the world. Humanity is waking up to the fact that the current system that dominates the planet is failing to provide us with health, happiness or meaning. The dominant paradigm is based on separation, as exemplified by the financial system, and the corporate emphasis of profits before people.” – Occupy Love
Taking a moment to present to you the trailer for a very important documentary currently raising funds for completion. “Occupy Love” is a film looking at the bigger picture of the Occupy movement that made headlines last fall, arguing that the revolution is not only worldwide – the revolution is love.
The Indigogo campaign has raised almost $40,000 of its $50,000 goal, with 6 days left. So if the following video speaks to your heart, as it did to mine, you know what to do.
More from Occupy Love:
“Our headlong rush towards infinite growth is destroying our communities, our ecology, and threatening our very existence. The climate crisis is hitting us with droughts, extreme weather, floods, sea level rise and more, yet corporate lobbyists block any attempts at mitigation. Unemployment is at an all time high, and the gap between the wealthiest 1% and the remaining 99% is growing alarmingly.
People are losing their homes, and the quality of life for the many is plummeting, while the few are raking in absurd profits. Wall Street is making dangerous bets, greed is running rampant, and entire economies are collapsing. Governments have been bought by the corporations, and many of us had lost hope. Until now.
This crisis has become the catalyst for a profound transformation: millions of people are deciding that enough is enough – the time has come to create a new world, a world that works for all life. We have experienced an extraordinary year of change, from the Arab Spring, to the European Summer, and now, erupting into North America: the Occupy Movement.
This is a revolution rooted in compassion, direct democracy, and shared power, as opposed to the “power over” model of the corporate world view. The new story is one of Inter-dependence. Love is the movement. As the Occupy cry goes: “We are unstoppable. Another world is possible!”
The modern version of Santa Claus as we know him can largely be attributed to Coca Cola’s marketing executives. But where does this strange legend of a ruddy faced merry soul and his flying reindeer really come from?
The figure of Father Christmas evolved out of centuries of pagan traditions, whose elements were first officially cobbled together in the poem “Twas The Night Before Christmas” or “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” in the 1820s by author and professor Clement Clark Moore of Albany, New York. Although Christmas is a Christian holiday, most of the symbols and icons we associate with Christmas celebrations are actually derived from the shamanistic traditions of the tribal peoples of pre-Christian Northern Europe. (The word ‘shaman’ comes from Siberian Tungus word ‘Saman’, the name they give their spiritual healers.)
But first we need to introduce a new character into our Christmas tale, the amanita muscaria mushroom, otherwise known as ‘fly agaric’. The amanita muscaria often seen illustrated in magical fairytales, children’s storybooks, cartoons and of course, Christmas cards and ornaments. The little red and white mushroom or ‘toadstool’ has gained celebrity status over the years for good reason (little known that reason may be). When consumed, it evokes an intense psychedelic experience. Fly agaric is one of the most potent psychedelic mushrooms on the planet, containing the active ingredient muscimol.
Eating the amanita causes visions and altered states, which have been used by tribal peoples to gain insight and transcendental experiences. The hallucinations usually include sensations of size distortion and flying. One of the side effects of eating amanita muscaria is that one’s skin and facial features take on a flushed, ruddy glow (sound familiar?). Those who indulge in the magic fungus tend towards states of euphoric laughter. “Ho, ho, ho!”
Origin of the Phrase, “To Get Pissed”
The active ingredients of amanita muscaria are not metabolized by the body, and therefore remain active in urine. In fact, it is safer to drink the urine of one who has consumed the mushroom than to eat the mushroom directly, as many of the mushroom’s toxic compounds are processed and eliminated on the first pass through the body.
It was common practice among ancient people to recycle the potent effects of the mushroom by drinking each other’s urine. The mushroom’s ingredients can remain potent even after six passes through the human body. Some scholars argue that this is the origin of the phrase “to get pissed,” as this urine-drinking activity preceded alcohol by thousands of years. (For those not familiar with the expression, “getting pissed” is English slang for getting drunk.)
Someone who had eaten fly agaric may drink their own urine to prolong the state of hallucination, or offer it to others as a treat. Drinking the urine of one intoxicated by fly agaric has only a slightly less intoxicating effect than eating the fungus itself. Filip Johann von Strahlenberg, a Swedish prisoner of war in the early eighteenth century, reported seeing Koryak tribespeople outside huts where mushroom sessions were taking place, waiting for people to come out and urinate. When they did, the fresh piss was collected in wooden bowls and greedily gulped down. This method of ingestion was much less likely to cause the vomiting often associated with eating the mushroom itself.
How did ancient peoples gain this knowledge? Why, from the reindeer of course.
There are many indigenous peoples who used the amanita muscaria as their sacrament. Best documented are the Sami (Lapps) of northern Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia and the Tungusic and Koryak peoples of Siberia. All of these groups live in the Arctic Circle and are traditionally reindeer herders.
Reindeer were the sacred animals of these semi-nomadic people, as they were the source of food, shelter, clothing and other necessities. As it happens, the reindeer have a particular fondness for amanita muscaria, even seeking them out from underneath the snow. When they eat the mushrooms they become stupefied, staggering and prancing around while under the influence.
Reindeer also enjoy the urine of a human, especially one who has consumed the mushroom. Reindeer will seek out human urine to drink, and some tribesmen carry sealskin containers of their own collected piss, which they use to attract stray reindeer back into the herd.
When Georg Steller, and explorer, visited Kamchatka in 1739 he noted that reindeer were sometimes intoxicated. The Koryak people sometimes tie up the animals until their condition subsides and then kill them. All who eat the flesh become intoxicated. Jonathan Ott, an American author, suggested in 1976 that use of the fly agaric in the midwinter festivals of deepest Siberia may have inspired some of the imagery of Santa Claus.
The World Tree
These ancient peoples also share a belief in the idea of the World Tree. The World Tree was seen as a kind of cosmic axis onto which the planes of the universe are fixed. The roots of the World Tree stretch down into the underworld, its trunk is the “middle earth” of everyday existence, and its branches reach upwards into the heavenly realm.
Amanita muscaria grows only under certain types of trees, mostly firs and evergreens (Christmas trees) in a symbiotic non-parasitic relationship with the roots. The cap of the mushroom is the fruit of the larger mycelium beneath the soil which exists in a symbiotic relationship with the roots of the tree. To ancient people, this mushroom was literally “the fruit of the tree.”
The North Star was also considered sacred, since all other stars in the sky revolved around its fixed point. They associated this “Pole Star” with the World Tree and the central axis of the universe. The top of the World Tree touched the North Star, and the spirit of the shaman would climb the metaphorical tree, thereby passing into the realm of the gods. Could this be the true meaning of the star on top of the modern Christmas tree, the reason that the super-shaman Santa makes his home at the North Pole?
The feeling of flying experienced on fly agaric easily accounts for the legends of shamanic journeys using winged reindeer to transport their riders up to the highest branches of the World Tree.
Some of these peoples lived in dwellings made of birch and reindeer hide, called “yurts.” Somewhat similar to a tee-pee, the yurt’s central smoke-hole (supported by a birch pole) can also be used as an entrance. The shamans of Siberia were responsible for bringing the mushrooms they collected from under the sacred evergreen trees to the houses of the the people on the winter solstice (a few days before our modern celebration of Christmas on December 25th). Sometimes dressing in the colors of the mushroom (red with white trim) and carrying a huge bag full of mushrooms that were picked and dried during the previous season, the shaman would go door to door to give the community the mushroom experience.
If the main door to the houses were snowed over (which they often were during the winter time), the shaman would enter the houses through the smoke-hole in the roof or the chimney. Climbing down the chimney-entrances, they would share out the mushroom’s gifts with those within.
The Amanita muscaria mushrooms are often dried before ceremonial consumption, reducing the mushroom’s toxicity while increasing its potency. Families would often hang them in socks around the fireplace to dry, ready to be shared on the morning of the solstice.
In the initiations of shamans in Buryatia, a tree will actually be erected inside the yurt. Sometimes the shaman literally climbs the tree, other times drumming at the base and only ascending with his spiritual being. As the shaman ascends the tree in his ecstatic state, he describes his journey to the upper world. To journey to this upper world requires the ability to fly, so the shamans often change themselves into birds or ride upon a flying deer or horse to make the journey. The magic flight of Santa Claus through the midwinter night sky is a superb expression of the basis of all shamanism – ecstasy, or the flight of the spirit.
In Popular Culture
In Victorian times travelers returned with intriguing tales of the use of fly agaric by people in Siberia, Lapland, and other areas in the northern latitudes. One of the first was reported by the mycologist Mordecai Cooke, who mentioned the recycling of urine rich in muscimol in his A Plain and Easy Account of British Fungi (1862). Patrick Harding of Sheffield University points out that Cooke was a friend of Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), the author of the fantastic children’s story Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). “Almost certainly, this is the source of the episode in Alice where she eats the mushroom, where one side makes her grow very tall and the other very small,” Harding says. “This inability to judge size—macropsia—is one of the effects of fly agaric.” It is also interesting to note that, in central Europe, the fly agaric has been adopted as the symbol of chimney sweeps.
There are some historians, such as Ronald Hutton, who refute the connection between the amanita muscaria and the legend of Santa Claus. “The Santa Claus we know and love was invented by a New Yorker, it really is true,” Hutton says. “It was the work of Clement Clarke Moore, in New York City in 1822, who suddenly turned a medieval saint into a flying, reindeer-driving spirit of the Northern midwinter.” Moore brought that beloved Santa Claus to life in his poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” otherwise known as “The Night Before Christmas.”
From Wikipedia, “Hutton claims that reindeer spirits did not appear in Siberian mythology, shamans did not travel by sleigh, nor did they wear red and white or climb out of smoke holes in yurt roofs. Finally, American awareness of Siberian shamanism postdated the appearance of much of the folklore around Santa.”
But reindeer were very important in Siberian mythology, they even put antlers on their headdresses to symbolize the protective spirit of the reindeer. The Chuchki and Koryaks of Siberia do train reindeer to pull them on sledges. Hutton is right that shamans do not exclusively wear red and white, but this picture of a Kamchatkan (Northeast Siberian) shamaness with fly-agaric mushrooms proves this is a real phenomena. (Photo by Emanuel Salzman).
Whether or not the smoke hole was used as a second entrance to the yurt, the connection between the shaman and the smoke hole of the yurt is well documented. The dwelling of the shaman was easy to recognize due to the top of the tree placed inside poking through the smoke hole. During ceremony, the shaman would climb the tree to shamanize, calling deities and ancestor spirits from the top of the yurt.
Hutton’s final claim that awareness of Siberian shamanism came after the evolution of our Santa Claus is irrelevant. The date of the 25th of December, for example, is pagan in origin although for most of the last two thousand years most Christians were not aware of that fact. Traditions and ideas regularly evolve without public knowledge.
But don’t take my word for it. I leave you in the capable hands of the BBC. Merry Christmas!
I can think of no better debut for the Daily Transmission’s culture section than Lana Del Rey. From the music blog Arjan Writes: Lana del Rey (aka Lizzy Grant) is an exciting new pop artist who crafts a distinct sound, best described as cinematic dark pop wrapped in smoky, sultry and glamorous overtones. Born in the rural town of Lake Placid, New York, Lana then relocated to a series of places – Alabama, New Jersey and New York City, but now spends most of her time in London.
Her press release sums things up pretty nicely, “No matter where in the world Lana is, her love of film noir, Italian landscapes, big churches, roller coasters and the memory of faded stars like Bette Davis, Kurt Cobain, Nina Simone and Elvis are the chorus line for her music, and her love of New York is her heartbeat.” Lana is currently in the studio writing her album, and you can see the video for “Diet Mtn. Dew” below:
Don’t forget to follow her on Twitter and for more tunes, visit her MySpace. Just in time to ring in the Summer Solstice. ♥