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Circumcision Exposed
Rethinking a Medical and
Cultural Tradition

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Banished Knowledge:
Facing Childhood Injuries

Alice Miller
Excerpted from pp. 135-141, Doubleday, New York 1990
[Order Banished Knowledge from NOHARMM's Online Bookstore]

Following this passage from Banished Knowledge is an excerpt on female circumcision
from Miller's book Breaking Down the Wall of Silence

...Only through the unequivocal condemnation of child abuse will society and the individual become aware of the true state of affairs and what it will lead to.

It must also be made clear that the problem does not merely affect a few aberrant families and individual perversions. Society must be shaken out of its sleep and be made to see that until now it has been sanctioning humanity's greatest crime. It is necessary to arouse the guilty conscience that can be completely absent even in cases of actual physical mutilation of small children. The common practice of circumcision shows how in many cultures the cruel mutilation of children's sexual organs is taken for granted. This practice is demanded by religious institutions and is not prevented by any legislation. Seventy-four million women are alive today whose clitoris was mutilated in childhood. The monstrous rationale for this was, among others, that the woman was not supposed to enjoy the sex act. With male circumcision the "reasons" vary from culture to culture, but common to all is the fictitious claim that circumcision is performed in the interests of the child. That this procedure constitutes a cruelty that will later encourage the adult to indulge in similar, also denied, cruelties and will invest his deeds with the legitimacy of a clear conscience is constantly overlooked and ignored, although some scientists have been able to refute all such "reasons" for circumcision. Desmond Morris, for example, writes:

For thousands of years, in many different cultures, the genitals have fallen victim to an amazing variety of mutilations and restrictions. For organs that are capable of giving us an immense amount of pleasure they have been given an inordinate amount of pain.

Although it is a piece of deliberate wounding of children by adults,
it has always been done with the best of intentions

The commonest form of assault they have suffered is male and female circumcision. This strange mutilation is older than civilization and was probably already well established in the Stone Age. Although it is a piece of deliberate wounding of children by adults, it has always been done with the best of intentions. Over the millennia it has caused countless deaths from infection, but its advantages have always been said to outweigh the risks involved. These alleged advantages have varied from epoch to epoch and culture to culture, but recent re-examination of the evidence has shown that they are all imaginary.

It has been claimed that one of the oldest reasons for performing male circumcision - the removal of the foreskin - is that it provided immortality in the shape of life after death. This odd notion was based on the observation that when the snake sheds its skin it emerges with glistening new scales and is "reborn." If the snake can enjoy rebirth by the removal of skin, so too can the human being. For snake read penis; for snakeskin read foreskin.

Once male circumcision had become traditional it no longer mattered whether old beliefs survived. Being circumcised was now a badge of belonging to a particular society. The ritual mutilation spread and spread. Ancient Egyptians were doing it as long ago as 4000 B.C. In the Old Testament, Abraham demanded it. Arabs circumcised as well as Jews. Mohammed was said to have been born without a foreskin (which he may well have been, as this condition is not unknown to medical science), a claim which automatically doomed the foreskins of his future male followers. [NOHARMM note: this condition, aposthia, is recognized as a birth defect.]

As the centuries passed, religious reasons gave way, for many, to quack medical arguments. The possession of a foreskin was said to cause "masturbatory insanity." Other medical horrors resulting from its retention included hysteria, epilepsy, nocturnal incontinence, and nervousness. Such ideas survived into the early part of the present century and even led to the formation of an Orificial Surgery Society devoted exclusively to the "modification" of offending genitals as a means of preventing mental illness.

Cancer had become the secular version of hellfire and brimstone,
the perfect weapon for the anxiety-makers of a post-religious society.

When at last this nonsense was on the decline a crisis arose. What new reason could be found for mutilating children's genitals? The solution had to be one that suited the rational climate of twentieth-century scientific enquiry. The answer appeared in that learned journal The Lancet in 1932: foreskins caused cancer! By the end of the 1930s 75 percent of boys in the United States were being circumcised; by 1973 it was 84 percent; by 1976 it was 87 percent. Cancer had become the secular version of hellfire and brimstone, the perfect weapon for the anxiety-makers of a post-religious society.

To be more precise, the claim was that the "debris" called smegma which collects under retained foreskins could cause cancer of the penis and also cancer of the cervix of the wives of the uncircumcised. The paper which started this false rumour was founded on faulty statistics, but nobody minded because here was a plausible new reason for slicing away at the infantile penis. Subsequent experiments, however, revealed that there is nothing remotely carcinogenic about the smegma produced under the fold of the foreskin, but they were widely ignored. Other investigations showed that women whose uncircumcised husbands always wore condoms were no more or less likely to develop cervical cancer than those whose husbands never wore condoms. But, again, nobody wanted to know. In one project, a country where there was no circumcision at all was compared with one in which all males were circumcised. The results showed, to the relief of the foreskin snippers, that prostate cancer was higher in the uncircumcised country. Unfortunately this form of cancer is an ailment of elderly men, and when a correction for age distribution was made the figures showed that this disorder was actually more likely in the circumcised country.

Not only was the cancer scare completely without foundation, but the operation of foreskin removal continued to prove a distinct health hazard for small babies. There were many cases of haemorrhage, ulceration of the urethra, surgical trauma and local infection. In rare cases foreskin removal resulted in the death of the baby. There were also more subtle effects with possible long-term implications: following circumcision male babies showed an increase in the level of hormones related to stress; sleep patterns altered; there was more crying and more irritability.

Despite all this, "medical" circumcision continued (and still continues) at a merry pace in certain countries where private medicine is the rule. In Britain, significantly, there was a dramatic decline in the operation following the introduction of the National Health scheme and free treatment. It is impossible to refrain from asking why it should be that the operation sank to a level of less than one percent (only 0.41 percent of male babies in 1972) in a country where there was suddenly no financial gain to be made from it, while in the United States, for example, in the same year, over 80 percent of male babies were circumcised, at an annual cost to the health insurance companies of more than $200 million. The new deities demanding foreskins appear to be more fiscal than sacred.

Young females have also been assaulted in a similar fashion. This has been rare in the West, although as recently as 1937 a Texas doctor was advocating removal of the clitoris to cure frigidity. [NOHARMM note: As late as 1959, U.S. medical journal articles promoted female circumcision.] The harshest traditions of female circumcision are found in Africa, parts of the Middle East, Indonesia and Malaysia. It is a staggering fact that, far from being an ancient memory, the practice of cutting away all or part of the external genitals of young females is still going on in more than 20 countries.

No fewer than 74 million women alive today have been more subjected to this mutilation. In the worst cases, they have had their labia and clitoris scraped or cut away and their vaginal opening stitched up with silk, catgut or thorns, leaving only a tiny opening for urine and menstrual blood. After the operation the girl's legs are bound together to ensure that scar tissue forms and the condition becomes permanent. Later, when they marry, these females suffer the pain of having their artificially reduced orifices broken open by their husbands.

The continuance of such practices in the twentieth century against a background
of modern enlightenment is clearly going to puzzle historians of the future.

The effect of this practice is to dramatically reduce sexual pleasure for wives in the countries concerned, which may be its hidden significance. A side-effect is a high number of deaths and serious illnesses caused by the unhygienic conditions under which the operations are performed, especially in such countries as Oman, South Yemen, Somalia, Djibouti, Sudan, southern Egypt, Ethiopia, northern Kenya and Mali. The continuance of such practices in the twentieth century against a background of modern enlightenment is clearly going to puzzle historians of the future.

As a rule, children who were once injured will later injure their own children,
maintaining that their behavior does no harm because their own loving parents did the same.

Historians and psychologists will long continue to ponder the reasons for this outlandish behavior because in their deliberations they overlook the only correct explanation. But in the long run this explanation cannot be avoided, and it become obvious the moment the question is asked: What eventually happens to the person who was mutilated as a child? When a small child is tortured by ignorant adults, won't he have to take his revenge later in life? He is bound to avenge himself unless his subsequent life allows the old wounds to heal in love, which is seldom the case. As a rule, children who were once injured will later injure their own children, maintaining that their behavior does no harm because their own loving parents did the same. Besides, in the case of circumcision it is a religious demand, and to many people it is still unthinkable that religion could demand cruelty.

But what if the unthinkable is true? Are the children and children's children to be sacrificed because of the ignorance of the priests? It took three thousand years for the church to accept Galileo's proofs and admit its error. Today it is not a matter of theoretical astronomical proofs but of the practical consequences deriving from an insight that could save humanity from self-destruction, because it has already been proven that all destructive behavior has its roots in the repressed traumas of childhood. As soon as legislators become serious about the rights of the child to protection and respect as proclaimed by UNESCO, the fact will have to be acknowledged that ritual circumcisions

  1. offer no advantage and are a mutilation;
  2. prevent the relaxation experience and lead to over-stimulation with potentially destructive and self-destructive effects;
  3. inflict a trauma on the child leading to an injury of his whole being, with the consequences of these injuries affecting not only the individual and his descendants but other human beings as well. [NOHARMM note: For an excellent in-depth discussion of circumcision's personal and societal consequences, read Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma.]


Breaking Down the Wall of Silence

Alice Miller
Excerpted from p. 74, Meridian, New York 1993
[Order Breaking Down the Wall of Silence from NOHARMM's Online Bookstore]

Miller analyzes female circumcision in a manner that also speaks to the mechanisms perpetuating male circumcision:

Their consciousness, however, has not registered the realities of their situation. By repressing not only the pain but also their anger and desire for revenge, they have managed to banish consciousness, even idealizing the custom. Today, as a a result of their repression, they can justify the procedure as harmless and necessary. They cannot recall their repressed anger and have never grieved about what happened to them. Consequently, they inflict the same ordeal on their children without wishing to acknowledge what they're doing to them.

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