The Circumcision Decision

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CIRCUMCISE – From the Latin word circumcidere, meaning ‘to cut around’

Depending on where you live—and who you have sex with—the picture you have in your head of a penis may look different to mine. In the United States, you may be picturing something that is two-tone in color, with taught skin and a scar about ⅔ of the way up. In Europe, you are probably used to something with more skin, that comes out of its turtleneck in certain moods and has a ‘banjo string’ on the underside. The former is circumcised; the latter is not. What you find normal or attractive is vastly cultural and based on experience and exposure. 

Male circumcision has existed for thousands of years, amongst different races, geographies and religions. There is anecdotal evidence of circumcision existing as far back as 10,000 BCE, during coming of age ceremonies in Aboriginal tribes, but the first hard evidence of it dates back to an Egyptian tomb from 2400 BCE, where, within the stone is carved a picture of an official standing before a man, holding an instrument up to his penis.

Today, roughly 40% of males are circumcised around the world, with approximately half of those instances for religious and cultural reasons. 

Circumcision in the Jewish Faith

A boy born into the Jewish faith will never know his foreskin. This is because, according to the Old Testament, God created a covenant with Abraham: “You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He that is eight days old among you shall be circumcised” (Genesis 17: 9-14).

And now, for the past 3,000 years, Jewish parents have been introducing their 8-day-old sons into the Jewish faith through circumcision, also called a Brit Milah or a bris, a nearly-universally accepted practice amongst Jews. There are, however, a small percentage of Jewish families who decide to skip it. Some may favor less invasive procedures, like simply washing the baby’s feet, or lighting a candle to welcome their baby into the world. Not only are these ceremonies less painful for the child, but they are inclusive of both genders.

Some of these dissenters might try to make a case against circumcision through other passages in the Torah, such as the prohibition to mark or alter the human body (Leviticus 19:28), or the guidance to not harm another human being (Exodus 21: 18-27). But those that choose to leave their baby’s penis intact are few. Not only does the Torah invoke a sacred covenant, but it threatens that “any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people” (Genesis 16:14). Circumcision is seen as a way for Jews to connect with their heritage, and most Rabbis guide families towards this route, warning that they may feel at odds with their communities if they do not take part in this ritual.

Circumcision in the Muslim Faith

Although not laid out explicitly in the Qur’an, as it is in the Torah, male circumcision amongst Muslims is just as widespread. In the Sunnah, which is a record of the Prophet Muhammad’s words, circumcision is described as the “law for men”. The procedure in Islam is known as tahara, or purification, and like in Judaism, is viewed as the introduction to the faith.There is no prescribed age for boys to be circumcised, and it can take place at any time between the age of 7 days up until the onset of puberty, though seven-years-old is common.

According to myth, Muhammad was born without a foreskin, and as Muslims are meant to follow the way of life of Muhammad—right down to the penis—this custom follows, and is greatly encouraged, though not enforced.

For Muslims, the procedure is about cleanliness and the prevention of infection. Before prayer, Muslims must wash themselves, and afterwards, no urine should be left on the body—a feat apparently much easier to achieve without a foreskin.

Circumcision and the Victorians

In the 17- and 1800s, masturbation was viewed as morally wrong: a sinful epidemic sweeping Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States, with young girls and boys held tightly in the clutches of this evil malady. In the early 1700s, a 300-page treatise against masturbation was written and soon found wide circulation in the US and UK, and by the end of the century had become a best-seller; it was titled Onania: or, the heinous sin of self-pollution, and all its frightful consequences (in both sexes) considered: with spiritual and physical advice to those who have already injured themselves with this abominable practice

So concerned were certain groups with the moral stain of masturbation that undiagnosed mental disorders found a new name: masturbatory insanity. The treatment? Circumcision and clitoradectomy. This madness reached a pinnacle in 1870, when Lewis Sayre, an American doctor, treated a 5-year-old boy who was having difficulty walking. There was no clear cause of the boy’s paralysis, but upon examining him, it became clear that he was living with a sore and painful penis, which had become very inflamed, causing the young boy great discomfort. Dr. Sayre concluded that the boys’ physical ailments were a manifestation of a distressed penis, and so performed a medical circumcision in front of a rapt audience of medical students at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. Miraculously, the boy’s health returned almost immediately, and within a few weeks, he was able to walk again. By relieving the “irritated and imprisoned penis,” he had restored the young boy to health. 

Sayre repeated this operation on several other teenagers and young boys who had been experiencing partial paralysis or injuries in their joints; each one found a speedy recovery in circumcision. The medical issue appeared to be phimosis, a condition wherein the foreskin is too tight and therefore unable to contract. This would then cause a general state of nervous irritation, which could manifest itself in more serious physical ailments. To the Victorians, this confirmed with scientific evidence what they already knew: that the foreskin—and anything that might increase sexual pleasure or promote masturbation—was evil.

Morality and Cleanliness

Following this, medicine and morality merged, and in the early 20th century, L. Emmett Holt published an influential pediatric textbook that explicitly urged circumcision as a key disincentive for masturbation. Though boys that lost their foreskin continued to masturbate, and subsequent attempts at treating other physical ailments with the procedure were unsuccessful, the circumcised penis had come to represent a higher morality. The National Temperance Society called foreskin the “mark of Satan,” and a doctor out of California called it a “malign influence” that had the ability to weaken a man and make him a criminal. Uncircumcised men were, he said, a hazardous risk. 

For the hundred or so years between the middle of the 19th century and the middle of the 20th, circumcision was a very common procedure in both the United States and the United Kingdom. However, in the 1940s and 1950s, the UK started following a very different path, with the creation of the National Health Service in 1948. The NHS could not afford to fund procedures that were not deemed as necessary—which, for the most part, circumcisions were not. Yet the United States was still circumcision-crazy, performing the surgery on roughly 60% of newborn males during their hospitalization (notably, this does not take into account the circumcision of babies performed at home or in a synagogue). 

Contemporary Considerations

Even with a staggering amount of resources going towards the removal of babies’ foreskin, there is not a single medical group between the US, Canada, Australia or the UK that outright recommends routine neonatal circumcision. 

This is not to say that all circumcision is bad, or that it does not provide health benefits in certain circumstances. For example, medical male circumcision has been one of the most successful methods for reducing the transmission of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. Generally performed on boys and men aged 10 and over, voluntary male circumcision has reduced transmission by nearly 60% in some countries, for HIV passed through heterosexual sex. 

But what about in the US, where circumcision is still the norm for baby boys, even though there is no medical case for it? It seems that, rather than treating the genital issues of young boys if and when they occur—namely phimosis, urinary tract infections, and other minor bouts of infection or inflammation—we use a catchall prevention strategy at the very start of life, which is both invasive and costly. All sorts of infections are common in babies, and can be treated through much more targeted, short-term and humane methods. Later in life, simply ensuring their penis is cleaned properly after using the bathroom or during washing, along with condom-use, is sufficient for the reduction and prevention for most kinds of infections (importantly, incidence of STIs in uncircumcised males is only slightly increased or the same as that for circumcised males).

Perhaps routine circumcision could be seen as reasonable preventive care if the foreskin served no purpose; but that does not appear to be the case. The foreskin is a natural layer of skin that protects the penis, without which the head of the penis can become dry, irritated, and experience loss of sensation. The foreskin is also home to a high volume of Meissner’s corpuscles, which are touch-sensitive cells also present in our lips and fingertips; by removing the foreskin we are removing the most sensitive and sexually-pleasurable part of the penis. By circumcising babies we are also leaving them vulnerable to complications down the line, such as a narrowing of the urethra, an incomplete circumcision, a rotated penis, or even a buried penis, wherein the penis is concealed by scar tissue. None of this sounds too pleasant to me.

Circumcision is costly, medically unnecessary, and, depending on your perspective, a violation of a defenseless human. I think it’s time we teach boys how to take care of themselves, and leave their genitals intact. And leave it at that.


Citation for main image:Picart, Bernard, 1673-1733. Wellcome Library no. 22883i

Palmer, Brian. “Why Don’t Christians Have To Get Circumcised?” Slate, 2012.

“Estimation of country-specific and global prevalence of male circumcision,” Population Health Metrics, National Center for Biotechnology Information, 2016. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4772313/

“Judaism and Circumcision,” BBC, 2007.


Greenberg, Zoe. “When Jewish Parents Decide Not To Circumcise,” The New York Times, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/25/well/family/cutting-out-the-bris.html

“Islam and Male Circumcision,” BBC, 2009. http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam/islamethics/malecircumcision.shtml

Wapner, Jessica. “The Troubled History of the Foreskin,” Mosaic Science, 2015.

Darby, Robert. “The masturbation taboo and the rise of routine male circumcision: A review of the historiography,” Journal of Social History, Volume 27: Pages 737-757, Spring 2003. Retrieved from The Circumcision Reference Library. http://www.cirp.org/library/history/darby4/

Hodgson, Dominic. “USA and UK: differences in neonatal circumcision,” Trends in Urology and Men’s Health, Volume 11, Issue 2, March/April 2020. Retrieved from Wiley Clinical Healthcare Hub. https://wchh.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/tre.2