Bonobos are our peace-loving cousins, a little known species of monkey that was only discovered in 1928. Previously thought to just be “small chimps”, they’re actually an entirely different species. Bonobos have the same percentage of DNA (98.5%) in common with us as chimpanzees do, meaning that chimpanzees and bonobos now share the distinction of being our closest relatives in the animal kingdom. But as opposed to chimpanzee society, which is a “dominator” culture, bonobo cultures demonstrate a “partnership” society, with remarkable cooperation and peacemaking capacity. It’s fascinating to think that we hold the genetic potential to go in either direction.
The bonobo monkey is an omnivorous frugivore. The majority of its diet is fruit, but it supplements its diet with leaves, meat from small vertebrates such as flying squirrels, and invertebrates. It nests high up in the trees of their jungle, which is swamp jungle (there’s half a mile of swamp inland from the river before you reach solid ground, a pretty tough terrain.)
In over twenty years of research, there has yet to be one instance of intergroup killing by bonobos – completely the opposite of chimpanzees. In fact, when two different groups of bonobos come across each other, the males do all stand and posture at each other, waving sticks and baring their teeth. But the females from both groups immediately gather together and start sharing food or grooming each other. Now bonded, the males can do nothing but acquiesce to the new peace. It seems to me that this is a perfect demonstration of how bonded females can hold the power in our society.
There is also no infanticide in bonobo groups. This is because there is no way of discerning paternity – due to bonobos’ nonstop sexual exploits! For a male bonobo, killing a baby could be killing his own baby – he would never know. In fact, male bonobos are known to babysit and interact with little ones even though they don’t know if it is “theirs”. Overall, bonobos are more sensitive and emotionally aware than chimpanzees. Bonobos are known to show empathy and help other species too. Young bonobos stay with their mothers for five years in a prolonged childhood – in fact, sons basically never leave their mothers, staying always by her side. This differs from chimpanzees who leave their mothers to bond with other males.
Bonobos live in a kind of “matriarchal” society. The females get first access to food and resources and then decide who gets what. Females form strong bonds by sharing food and through sexual activity like tribadism (rubbing genitals with or on each other for a period of 10-20 seconds, which females do every two hours on average!) While the males are physically stronger, they lack the bonded group that females form, and therefore their occasional attempts to dominate fall flat on their face. From the PBS Nova documentary “The Last Great Ape”: “Males want to muscle in but if females stand united the males remain under their collective thumb.” The sons of powerful females in the group have higher social status – but once their powerful momma passes away, they immediately lose their status.
When there is tension, sex is used to diffuse the situation. There is amazing footage in “The Last Great Ape”, where a male bonobo is running, clearly aggressively, with a large stick in hand. Mid-run he realizes he’s approaching a female bonobo who is bent over on all fours – so he drops his stick for a quick shag. Anger forgotten as they make love and not war!
In fact, sex has all number of social functions for bonobos. It’s like a handshake or greeting: it’s used to bond/create intimacy, to resolve issues and for reconciliation. They have all kinds of sex as well: gay, straight, masturbation, tongue kissing, and oral sex. Bonobos have sex face to face which is rare in the animal kingdom, and they have much gentler sex compared to chimps. In a group, a female will have had sex with all the males. This constant sexual interaction creates calm in bonobo life. Intimacy makes it hard to stay angry.
Bonobos give us insight into our lineage of cooperation and partnership societies, that likely existed farther back in hunter-gatherer (pre-agricultural) times. They share the DNA we have that is correlated to affiliation and bonding, which chimpanzees lack. It is interesting to realize that a lot of what we think is “natural” about ourselves comes from our knowledge of chimpanzee culture – when actually we are at least equally related to bonobos. We resemble them more physically as well (more distinct faces, longer legs, pronounced breasts, larger penises). And a fun note from Wikipedia: a female bonobo weighing perhaps half that of a human teenager, “has a clitoris that is three times bigger than the human equivalent – and visible enough to waggle unmistakably as she walks.”
Unfortunately bonobos are very difficult to study. They are an endangered species, there are only about 30,000 of them left, all in the jungles of the Congo – where they are hunted for bush meat as well as the pet trade. Researchers have barely had a chance to study them in recent years because of warfare and uncertainty in the region. But there seems to be so much hope in this cute cousin of ours. Interestingly, the translation of “bonobo” in the extinct Bantu language is said to be “ancestor”.
Riane Eisler theorizes that there are two strands of our evolution: “dominator” culture based on fear and pain and “partnership” culture based on pleasure. I must note that I often find Eisler’s work problematic, particularly in regards to her opinions on sex work, pornography, BDSM and kink. However, in her book “Sacred Pleasure”, she stresses that “bonobos demonstrate an evolutionary movement toward sex as a means of reinforcing social relations based on the give and take of shared sensual pleasure rather than on coercion and fear.” Bonobos are masters of using sex as peacemaking ritual. It’s important to note that bonobos aren’t inherently peaceful, or there would be no need to make peace! They just know how to use female bonding and all kinds of sex to make peace and prevent violence.
Learning all this about bonobos is potentially very empowering for humans, especially since we are often told that the worst of human nature can be explained away through genetics confirmed by watching how chimpanzee society operates. The more I read about bonobos the more I see the importance of their discovery for our evolutionary understanding. Imagine if we all became masters of using sex as peacemaking, healing and spiritual ritual.
It’s a shame that in our society, it would be a bit dangerous to go down on all fours with your skirt raised in between two blokes about to have a fight – but what a potent image of female sexual power!
For more on bonobos, I highly recommend watching “The Last Great Ape”:
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.
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When it comes to making policy decisions, science seems less and less popular these days. David Nutt was sacked as the UK government’s chief drugs advisor for publicly stating what science had already proven: that tobacco and alcohol are more harmful than marijuana, ecstasy and LSD.
Too often our society lets fear dictate how we deal with our children’s inevitable exposure to sex and drugs.
In an ideal world, teenagers would wait until they were more firmly settled psychologically before experimenting and making adult decisions about sex and drugs – due to the complications and risks that such decisions inevitably bring with them. However today’s reality is a culture where children are exposed to adult themes at younger and younger ages.
In America we teach abstinence-only education in the hope that by not teaching kids harm-minimizing techniques such as birth control and contraception, they will simply not have sex. Unfortunately, there is now concrete evidence that this doesn’t work. Studies show that, following a decade-long decline ‘U.S. teen pregnancy rates have increased as both births and abortions rise.’
As a teenager most of my friends’ parents were strong abolitionists. If any of them had found out their son or daughter were smoking the occasional joint or having sex, they would have permanently grounded them or even kicked them out of the house. Needless to say this didn’t stop them. So what can parents and teachers do to help teens mature into young adults who make responsible decisions?
Maybe if someone taught them how to minimize risks when imbibing mind-altering substances in the same way one learns about units when drinking alcohol. Maybe if schools taught about emotional and physical intimacy (and of course, contraception) alongside lessons on physiology and sex.
What passes for ‘sex education’ in America is, frankly, disgraceful. For over a quarter century, the federal government has supported abstinence-only education programs that censor information to youth. America still has the highest rate of teen pregnancies in the developed world, 1.5 times the teen pregnancy rate of Britain (the highest in Europe.)
The United States’ teen pregnancy rate is over five times that of the Netherlands, over four times that of Germany, and over three times that of France. The obvious explanation is that young people in the United States are significantly less likely to use contraception than youth in these European nations.
These statistics come as no surprise when you look at the number of programs that teach abstinence-only-until-marriage: an unrealistic, morality-based agenda that ignores the fact that virtually all Americans have sex before marriage (a fact that has been true since the 1950s). Amplify Your Voice, a sex-education and youth-education organization, has published several videos featuring animated bears discussing real abstinence-only lessons being taught in classrooms. Losing one’s virginity as a girl can be difficult enough, never mind with lessons like these at school:
The organization says the “chewed up candy” exercise is from AC Green’s Game Plan, an abstinence-only program endorsed by the former basketball star that is used in many public schools in Illinois. The “Spit in a Cup” exercise is from “Why Am I Tempted,” a program which received funding under President Obama’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative (TPPI) to be taught in schools in Florida.
These programs censor information about contraception and condoms while stigmatizing and shaming students who have already had sex. Never mind the fact that they discriminate against LGBT youth by at best ignoring them altogether – or worse, promoting homophobia by teaching students that homosexuality is deviant and immoral.
“Until recently the dominant approach was Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE), a programme developed in Los Angeles in 1983 and quickly exported to the rest of America. Cops would arrive in schools, sometimes driving cars confiscated from drug-dealers, and tell 11- and 12-year-olds about the dangers of illicit substances. They drew little or no distinction between marijuana and methamphetamine. Teachers liked DARE because they felt uncomfortable tackling the topic themselves, and because they got a break. Parents liked it because they felt their children would listen to police officers. Unfortunately, they did not. ”
Studies are constantly conducted to see if drug education is effective in preventing drug use. Maybe researchers are asking the wrong question. Accepting that the urge to alter one’s consciousness is actually a universal human (and animal) drive, we should be looking at how that can be accomplished safely. If kids were taught about harm reduction, the potential for compulsive use and addiction, how to make sure you don’t exceed the correct dosage, etc. would we not stand a better chance of eliminating unnecessary deaths from drug abuse?
But of course when it comes to drugs, we’re even farther away from this ideal than we are with sex. For at least most people agree that it’s natural for teenagers to want to start experimenting sexually, whereas our society can’t seem to accept drug experimentation in adults, never mind teens.
This mindset, based on stigma, judgement, stereotypes, and puritanical denial of basic human urges, can do nothing but make the situation worse. Teens see the hypocrisy of adults drinking alcohol and then telling them not to ‘do drugs’. They see their friends getting stoned and not turning into junkies. They find out their parents once experimented too.
So it’s their turn to experiment – and that’s exactly what they do. During this naive experimentation kids consume impure substances purchased on the street, combine drugs that shouldn’t be mixed, overdose because they didn’t know how much they were taking. But who was there to teach them?
At the same time, young adults inevitably explore their sexuality, either with or without guidance from the adult world in regards to physical precautions that can be taken and the emotional implications of becoming intimate with another human being.
Parents’ strict prohibitionist attitudes backfire as they’re no longer on the list of people their kids can talk to about these new and sometimes overwhelming experiences. They lose touch with their own children. Their ability to retain influence and stay involved during this crucial time in young adulthood all but disappears.
At the end of the day, the problem is that the majority of adults are not comfortable with their own sexuality or history of drug-taking, and they’re certainly not comfortable imagining their kids doing the same thing they did when they were younger. If parents don’t start growing up themselves, why should they expect their kids to?
America is a country of great contrasts. The country that invented the popular ‘Lingerie Bowl‘ – an annual pay-per-view football game during the Super Bowl, featuring only scantily clad females. Home of phenomena like ‘Bikini Baristas‘ who work at ‘Sexpresso’ stands for those who like their coffee with their kicks. We export a hyper-sexualized MTV culture around the globe in one of the most powerful forms of cultural colonialism to date. Yet right back at home, we struggle to keep our sex laws in even the twentieth century, never mind the twenty-first.
It would seem that progress is slow. It took the Supreme Court ruling of Lawrence v Texas in 2003 to finally strike down the sodomy laws that remained on the books in many U.S. states. You’ll be pleased to know that as of 2005 pre-marital sex is finally legal in Virginia.
But not all states are ready to accept the new precedent of sexual privacy set by the Lawrence v Texas ruling. As recently as last November (2009), Alabama upheld it’s criminal ban on sex toys. This was the latest decision in an eleven year legal battle brought to court by Sherri Williams, owner of a sex toy store called Love Stuff in Hoover, Alabama.
The judges ruled that the Constitution does not include a right to sexual privacy when it comes to purchasing sexually stimulating devices. One might ask what kind of morality judges gun ownership as a God-given right but masturbation aids as a threat to society.
Alabama is one of the easiest places in the U.S. to buy a gun. There are no state laws requiring licensing, registration, child safety locks, a mandatory waiting period or a limit on the number of weapons that can be purchased at any one time. Maybe that’s one of the reasons Alabama has the 4th highest homicide rates in the country.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Alabama’s law in 2007, saying that the state could regulate commerce that it considered ‘harmful to the public’. I suppose that means dildos are officially more dangerous than firearms in the eyes of the law – and maybe even harder to acquire?
Alabama’s Anti-Obscenity Enforcement Act prohibits, among other things, the commercial distribution of ‘any device designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs for any thing of pecuniary value.’
Some sex laws in America are simply antiquated and un-enforced, but not in this case. This law was put on the books in 1998 (yes you read that correctly), making it illegal to buy or sell sex toys for anything other than ‘medical purposes’. Your first offense can get you a year in jail and a $10k fine; your second offense can earn you up to ten years in prison. There are similar laws on the books in Georgia and Mississippi.
As others have noted, a few select vegetables should probably be banned as well, not to mention massaging shower heads. Maybe just amputate women’s fingers altogether as we really shouldn’t risk someone somewhere giving themselves pleasure (especially without the aid of a man!)
Taking her cue from Charlton Heston’s famous speech to the National Rifle Association, Sherri Williams isn’t giving up: ‘My motto has been they are going to have to pry this vibrator from my cold, dead hand.’ she said. Love Stuff will continue to sell sex toys; however, customers must sign a form stating that they are buying the toys for one of the permitted reasons.
In the meantime men, have no fear. Viagra is of course still legal in Alabama. Ah, the sweet smell of patriarchal hypocrisy.
♥ Let’s start with a story of trivial magnitude that I still found fairly unbelievable: ‘Oshkosh Police Arrest Las Vegas Woman For Prostitution After Viewing Posts For Services On Websites’. Maybe it’s just because I’ve been living in the UK too long. But the idea of government money spent on an ‘undercover operation’ to arrest a single independent woman advertising sexual services on the internet seems unreal to me. No excuse of stopping trafficking, coercion, soliciting – just good old-fashioned moralizing on the exchange of cold hard cash (versus presents and dinner?) for sex. She was only living in Oshkosh, Wisconsin temporarily – a pretty harsh wake-up call to the fact that our Dorothy wasn’t in Las Vegas anymore!
I have no idea how common these kind of police operations are, tracking working girls on the internet. If you have any further info, please feel free to post in the comments below.
♥ On to some discrimination on a much larger scale. Queerty has been bringing CBS’s ridiculous hypocrisy to the public eye with regards to it’s Superbowl ad choices.
First we hear that ‘The Super Bowl Welcomes $2.8 Million Ad Buy From Hate Group “Focus on the Family”‘. Which is fair enough, until you remember CBS’s own policy that does not allow any ad that “touches on and/or takes a position on one side of a current controversial issue of public importance”. This quote is from a letter to the United Church of Christ, whose ad campaign of inclusiveness (“Jesus Didn’t Turn People Away. Neither Do We.”) was rejected for broadcast in 2004. So much for CBS’s ‘long-standing policy of not accepting advocacy advertising.’ No one’s seen the Focus on the Family ad spot yet, but from what the group has said publicly, it is going to be very clearly pro-life.
♥ Next, to the BBC reporting on how ‘Sanitary pads help Ghana girls go to school’. “Schoolgirl absenteeism in Ghana could be cut by half by providing free sanitary towels, a study has shown.” So easy to take things like that for granted in life. Somehow I think this is the kind of study that only gets done when it’s women on the research team!
♥ The NY Times had an interesting article called ‘Many Successful Gay Marriages Share an Open Secret’ on the number of gay partnerships that are open sexually, and how they negotiate that understanding. I find it fascinating not just in itself, but as a model for straight couples as well. There needs to be a certain amount of trust, lack of jealousy, etc. – but these are things that often make relationships stronger. Some studies show that open gay relationships last longer than closed ones. As Joe Quirk, author of the relationship book “It’s Not You, it’s Biology”, put it: “If innovation in marriage is going to occur, it will be spearheaded by homosexual marriages.” Here, here!
Nine out of 10 children aged between eight and 16 have viewed pornography on the Internet. In most cases, the sex sites were accessed unintentionally when a child, often in the process of doing homework, used a seemingly innocent sounding word to search for information or pictures.
I clearly remember attempting to visit the website for the US government and making the unfortunate mistake of typing in whitehouse.com rather than whitehouse.gov at a very young age. But I would imagine that as we see children dealing with adult themes earlier and earlier in their lives, a lot of this viewing is not unintentional.
We mustn’t make the assumption that children viewing sex at a young age is necessarily harmful – however, the problem is that most popular pornography is a very skewed and one-dimensional portrayal of sex. As a teenager, I personally thought of sex as something one does because men like it – that was the impression I had gotten from my exposure to porn on the internet. It wasn’t till years later that I would start to understand female sexuality, and then my own.
It would be great if our education system could provide sex education that taught more than just the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. How about teaching our children something about sexuality as an important way humans express intimacy and sometimes love?
I agree with Walter when she writes that:
“If the rise of pornography was really tied up with women’s liberation and empowerment, it would not be increasing women’s anxiety about fitting into a narrow physical ideal.
“…women are still encouraged much of the time to concentrate on their sexual allure rather than their imagination or pleasure.”
Unfortunately the article goes downhill from there, as she goes on to attack the sex industry across the board.
I was disappointed to see the conflation of the entire industry with the intimacy-less portrayal of sex in much popular porn and culture.
Walter completely ignores the shifting trend in the sex industry away from the “porn-star experience” (PSE) prostitute in favor of sex workers who offer the “girlfriend experience” (GFE). Many men are not interested in paying for sex without intimacy. The highest paid call girls in the industry are those who provide more personal interaction – not just completing a sexual act, but focusing on things like kissing, cuddling, foreplay, and conversation.
Walter claims that “women are scarred by the myth that selling sex is a positive career choice” citing two girls who worked in the sex industry as examples. But when she refers to the bestselling memoirs of prostitutes such as Belle de Jour, she completely ignores the validity of their experiences as empowered sex workers. Denying women’s agency and subjective experiences – is that not typical misogyny?
He’s compared himself to Rosa Parks, but don’t laugh. Read what 25 year-old “Markus” has to say in his interview with Details first.
Markus is America’s first legal male prostitute after Nevada finally changed it’s health codes in December. Male prostitutes were previously unable to qualify under these codes because they specified that prostitutes must undergo “cervical” testing for sexually transmitted diseases. Talk about confirming the assumption that the word prostitute always implies a female worker!
It’s great that Markus is a political crusader who wants to make a point through his employment:
“This actually isn’t about selling my body. This is about changing social norms.”
Having empowered straight male prostitutes who work legally in Nevada will probably help build the case for de-stigmatisation and legalisation of sex work across the country. Somehow the fact that he’s so heteronormative stops people from reverting back to a prostitutes-as-victims discussion.
However, as Gawker pointed out, his business plan is a bit flawed. For now, women who purchase sex are a serious minority in the sex industry, and the competition is rough. Judging from the fact that he’s not much to look at, he probably stands a better chance in the world of gay prostitution, a market with a higher demand. Society seems to allow men the right to pay for sex, so prostitution is more accepted among free-thinking homosexuals.
So unless he’s the charmer of the century, he may have to reconsider the idea that his “sphincter is not for sale”. Even if he only wants to service women, how about all the potential clients who enjoy pegging?
Funny how we pick and choose which social norms to deconstruct, eh Markus?
That’s right, police in Washington D.C. have the right to arrest anyone suspected of sex work – and carrying three or more condoms has been used as proof of intent to sell sex.
In any sane society, you’d think the police would be relieved to find prostitutes carrying condoms. After all, sexually transmitted diseases are one of the most common ways we tend to stigmatize prostitutes.
As you may have noticed, there’s been a hell of a lot of writing about prostitution in the last week following Belle de Jour’s coming out on the cover of the Sunday Times. Here is the Daily Transmission’s pick of some of the more interesting articles and commentary from this past week:
Of course, there will always be some who manage to call themselves feminists and yet deny the validity of a woman’s account if she dares to claim an experience that doesn’t suit some feminists’ political agenda. Here’s a classic example:
I first felt a man’s erection at the tender age of fourteen. On my daily commute to school on the subway in New York City, a crowded train provided cover for unsolicited dry-humps from strangers behind me. I suppose this was my sexual awakening. Not particularly romantic.
This first experience was not shocking in the context of teenage pop culture. I was already dressed for the part, in my mini-skirt and high heels. I just needed to learn the moves. Watching MTV, the instructions came in loud and clear. Even at my uber-nerdy school of math and science geeks, the point needed no clarification. Nelly told us to ‘take off all our clothes’, Xtina got ‘Dirrty’, and even not-so-innocent Britney showed us how to make high school hallways and school uniforms more palatable. From music videos and movies to school discos and prom, sexier was always better. In this period I had a moment, an awakening which occurs in many young women’s lives, that maybe I should start wearing more skirts, putting on the lip gloss, and learning to flirt.
Becoming ‘sexy-conscious’ I unknowingly entered a world of delicate balancing and complicated hypocrisy. Looking back, I’m sure I’m not the only one who cringes at memories of too much makeup, skirts that were too short, and heels that were too high. I quickly became attuned to the effects of dressing provocatively. Cat calls from builders, comments on the street and special treatment in shops became regular occurrences – which, in a funny way, I soon found myself reliant upon for constant reassurance that I was, indeed, attractive to men.
Even then I remember feeling confused as to the point of it all. I knew I didn’t want to follow through with all the attention I was attracting, but I was also secretly pleased I was getting it. It meant I was sexy – in the world of high school, a ‘hot chick’. Then there were times when I’d manage to get my way with a male teacher, and I had no illusions as to why it was happening. It seemed to me that flaunting my assets finally had a payoff. But there was disapproval. These tsk-tsks were the early precursors to the all too common ‘she-slept-her-way-to-the-top’ syndrome – where both men and women belittle or disregard a woman’s accomplishments if it turns out she was once a glamour model or slept with her boss.
One has to wonder why don’t we look down on the men in these situations for thinking with their ‘second brains’? It seemed to me they were making fools of themselves, leaving themselves easy targets to be manipulated by a wink of an eye or a hint of cleavage. But feminism tells us that I was the one ‘cheapening’ and ‘objectifying’ myself by actually using the sexuality we’d all earnestly aspired to flaunt (after much social instruction). Had I been completely mistaken in feeling empowered?
This, it would seem, is the confounding legacy of the feminist revolution. We’ve whittled down the principles and ideals of our foremothers – burning bras has long been out of fashion. Sexy is the new black, it never goes out of style. But we still look down our noses at those women who choose to capitalise on that sexual power – or at least when done with purpose or agenda.
Maybe it’s time we stopped to ask ourselves, who does this benefit? I think back to school discos at ex-strip clubs (podiums, cages and all), where we bumped and grinded our way up the social ladder to the captain of the football team. We dressed to tease and please, and were in awe of those girls who had mastered the arts of seduction and fellatio – not those who had learnt to give themselves an orgasm. We competed by out-doing each other on the ‘hotness’ scale, looking for crucial signs of approval from guys, our own self-esteem hanging in the balance. But we also waited like sharks in the water for the first girl to follow through with the tease, who could then be publicly humiliated for being a slag.
This trend continued on from high school into the ‘real world’. I became aware that those women whose careers were reliant on their sexuality (lap dancers, strippers, prostitutes and so on) are widely looked down upon. It’s as if that fact undermines any other qualities they may have – or indeed, that the career choice itself reflects a lack of other options, brains, or talent. Women in more ‘serious’ careers who are seen to use or even express their sexuality risk losing their colleagues’ respect altogether. But those who don’t often find themselves being labeled as ‘ball-breakers’ or ridiculed by men for lacking feminine appeal. A bit of a catch twenty-two.
We’re expected to hone our sexual power but not to use it. Whether we should be using it or not is another question, but surely our current raunch culture has nothing to do with female liberation. Personally, I’d have felt more emancipated if I’d at least been saving up a college fund, charging men for all the free bumping and grinding I did in the subways and at the school prom. I laugh when I hear people refer to pole dancers and topless models as ‘cheap’. Because in the end, what’s cheaper than giving it away for free?