On watching this film, I was really horrified how much male circumcision rates have increased since I left the US. In the eighties and nineties, they seemed to be declining as more feminists entered the medical profession. Like many of my feminist friends, I have always opposed circumcision, along with a variety of child rearing practices that seem to affect men’s sensitivity and self-confidence. Contrary to the claims of pro-circumcision advocates, young infants experience pain as acutely as adults do. Now that the US has become both post-feminist and post-racial, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that male circumcision is making a comeback.
Circumcise Me? examines the alarming US cultural practice of genitally mutilating their male infants. It also asks why American doctors have parted ways with their British (and Australia and New Zealand) counterparts in this area. The documentary demonstrates how infants are strapped down at eight days of age, enabling a surgical circumcision specialist to snip off the foreskin with a specialized circumcision instrument.
Medical circumcision was first introduced to the English speaking world in 1860. Doctors claimed it inhibited masturbation and cases of insanity caused by masturbation. Nineteenth century medical textbooks stress that the pain of circumcision is essential – theoretically the cure only worked if young boys to associated the penis with pain and punishment.
During the twentieth century, the rationale for medical circumcision changed. Without a shred of research evidence doctors (many US doctors still do) claimed that uncircumcised men were at higher risk for cancer of the penis, herpes, warts and HIV. When these claims were debunked, doctors claimed the partners of circumcised men were at higher risk of cervical cancer. When high rates of cervical cancer among Israeli women (the Jewish and Muslim religion requires all men to be circumcised) suggested otherwise, circumcision rates in most English speaking countries declined. In the 1940s, 50 percent of British male infants were circumcised. By 2012, the figure had decreased to 3%. This contrasts with Fargo North Dakota which, in 2012, had a circumcision rate of 90%.
Although sexologists don’t do population research, the film features several who have seen a link between loss of glans* sensitivity in circumcised men and erectile dysfunction in middle age. The filmmakers also interview circumcised men who have restored their foreskins (either through surgery or a procedure known as “tugging”**) . All report greatly enhance sensitivity and functioning.
American men seem to want their sons circumcised though their motivation is unclear. In the film, the most common reasons given are “Everyone else does it” and “I want him to look like me.”
In a candid interview at the end of the film, a British Medical Association representative refers to the US obsession with circumcision as a risky unethical procedure that continues that’s mainly driven by a multimillion dollar surgical circumcision industry.
*Phimosis is a congenital narrow of the foreskin which prevents it from being retracted.
** “Tugging” – A technique for foreskin restoration. See foreskin restoration