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Circumcision: Power & Profit
2420 B.C. to 1988 A.D.

John Money, Ph.D.
Zeitschrift für Sexualforschung (Journal of Sex Research) - Frankfurt, vol. 2, p. 101-198, June 1989

 

Circumcision Heiroglyph.jpg (33KB) The ritual of male circumcision, from Australian aboriginal Arnhem Land to American metropolitan medical centers, has its origin shrouded in the far horizon of history. The first known record of circumcision of the male dates from the sixth dynasty of the Egyptian pharaohs, around 2420 B.C. It is depicted in a bas-relief in color, engraved on the wall of the deep, underground of Ankhmahor, the physician, at Saggara, an the banks of the Nile, a short distance upstream from the great pyramids of Giza (Manniche, 1987). Two youths stand naked before two squatting figures as their foreskins are cut with a bladed instrument. Alas, there is no hieroglyphic explanation of either the significance or origin of the ritual.

The explanation of the origin of circumcision can be found only in the annals of historical science fiction, in which the most likely theory is that the practice represents a residual attenuation of a still earlier practice of infant sacrifice. The foreskin of the boy and the clitoris and vulva of the girl (so-called Pharaonic circumcision or infibulation) are sacrificed to appease the vengeance, or solicit the favor of a spiritual or magical power.

Even in historical science fiction, there is no adequate theory to explain the far-flung, transcultural distribution of the ritual of circumcision in times long gone and unrecorded. Aboriginal Australians have circumcised (and in some tribes subincised) male penises since time immemorial, long before their recent contact with the circumcision culture either of Moslem Indonesia or, even more recently, of European Australia. On the River Ucayali, in the Peruvian Amazon, the Shipibo Indians had the custom of Pharaonic circumcision of females long before the Spanish conquest, and with no known trace of contact with the culture either of the Pharaohs or of those contemporary Africans who still practice female infibulation.

The irrationality of contemporary secular, non-ritual circumcision
of the newborn male has a history that can be retrieved.

If its history could be retrieved, the irrationality of ritual may take on the appearance of being less irrational. The irrationality of contemporary secular, non-ritual circumcision of the newborn male has a history that can be retrieved. It is not a history that makes the practice more reasonable, and certainly not more justifiable, but it does make it more explainable. After the middle of the 19th century, the secular practice of mass circumcision of the newborn gained great momentum, not in continental Europe, but in England, from which it spread to North America and to those parts of the British Empire populated by English settlers. Its origins are preliterate. They derive from the false logic of semen-conservation theory.

In semen-conservation theory, masculine strength and health are equated with preservation of the vital fluid, semen, the loss of which debilitates, and drains away health and well-being. It may even cause the penis to, shrink and retract into the abdomen, where it causes according to southeast-Asian folk-medical theory regarding the local malady known as koro (Money and Annecillo, 198-7).

Attribution of power to semen is widespread in folk medicine from Africa to China. In India, it became incorporated into the writings of the Ayurvedic system of medicine as early as 600 B.C. Still today, in India's universities, the curriculum of the traditional, Ayurvedic medical colleges include the doctrine of semen conservation. Wastage of semen is a basic principle used to explain a wide range of debilitating disorders in general, as well as a narrower range of specifically sexual disabilities like impotence.

In the 1700s, anti-Onanism and semen-conservation achieved prominence
as the basis of degeneracy theory in European medicine.

In the Bible (Genesis 38-9), the principle of semen conservation became identified with the sin of Onan, who spilled his seed upon the ground, whereby he evaded the duty of being a substitute for his deceased brother in providing the widow with progeny. Whereas Onan's actual sin was coitus interruptus, Onanism has become a synonym for masturbation.

In the 1700s, anti-Onanism and semen-conservation achieved prominence as the basis of degeneracy theory in European medicine. The chief architect of degeneracy theory was the Swiss physician, Simon André Tissot (1781). First published in Latin in 1758, his treatise was translated into French under the title: L'Onanisme, Dissertation sur les Maladies Produites par la Masturbation. In the English of the first American edition (1832), the title was revised: A Treatise on the Diseases Produced by Onanism.

Tissot wrote at a time when the superstitions of demon-possession theory had been discredited, even though the last witch would be burned alive at the stake as late as 1793 (Money, 1985). The scientific findings of the Age of Enlightenment already were having a profound effect on medical knowledge, but there was not yet a replacement for demon-possession theory to explain the cause of epidemics and diseases. Tissot's concern was not only to find a new theory to enhance the professional credibility of physicians. If one reads between the lines of his Treatise, it is evident that he sought a theory that would have practical applicability to the public health problem of what, in the language of the era, was referred to as the social disease. Today we know it as not one, but two diseases, syphilis and gonorrhea. They were ravaging Europe at the time. Syphilis, perhaps, had been introduced early in the 17th century, by sailors returning from Columbus's voyages in  the New World.

Germ theory, the first truly scientific theory of the cause of would remain undiscovered until the 1870s. Tissot was as much in the dark about how to contain the social disease as we are today about how to contain AIDS. For help he turned to an anonymous British writer's tract or sermon on the evils and dire consequences of onanism (1724). Its title is: 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 injur'd themselves by this Abominable Practice.

Tissot expanded the basic promise of Onania and implicated not only the secret vice of masturbation, but also the social vice of
promiscuity as the two sources of failure to conserve semen. Loss of this vital fluid degenerated both body and mind, resulting in disease and ultimately untimely death. Concupiscent thoughts and desires were targeted as chief culprits in bringing about this deplorable result. Concupiscence occupied in Tissot's doctrine the place taken over by pornography in today's anti-sexual doctrine. Not only were the secret vice and the social vice attributed to concupiscence, but so also was the then newly named disease of spermatorrhea, otherwise known as the nocturnal emissions of wet dream. Concupiscence could be treated with diet, physical exercise, and prayer, and by avoidance of all stimulation likely to incite lust.

Children themselves, especially boys, were morally at risk
and susceptible to being exposed to the secret vice of self-abuse

Tissot justified marital intercourse, provided it was infrequent, with the fiction of the torrens invisibles, the invisible humors that were exchanged in the perspiration of the husband and wife engaged in copulation. There was no adequate accommodation for women in degeneracy theory, except that, having no semen to conserve, they were weak and illness-prone to begin with. They were like children. Children themselves, especially boys, were morally at risk and susceptible to being exposed to the secret vice of self-abuse by older age mates, and to concupiscent thoughts and desires by unscrupulous nursemaids and other corrupters of childhood innocence. Tissot did not attempt to reconcile the concept of original sin, which predisposes children to corruption, with the concept of original innocence which they lose upon exposure to corruption. Like women, children are not well accommodated in degeneracy theory, for they have no semen to conserve.

In America, the Reverend Sylvester Graham (of graham crackers fame) in the 1830s, and John Harvey Kellogg, M.D. (of corn flakes fame) from the 1870s until his death at the age of 91 in 1943, were the great exponents of Tissot. Degeneracy theory was widely disseminated throughout the English-speaking world, and in Europe. It was, in effect, unchallenged as the sexological theory of most of the 19th century, although it was not explicitly identified as belonging to the science of sexology, but rather to a system of morals and the moral etiology of disease. It provided the theoretical underpinning of the masturbation phobia and the paroxysmal anti-sexualism of the Victorian era. Anti-masturbationism became a 19th century medical frenzy, and a major topic of every marriage manual and book of sexual advice addressed to youth.

Neonatal circumcision as a masturbation preventive was not applied
to baby girls as it was to baby boys.

One of the tenets of anti-masturbation theory was that the habit could be caused by irritation and itching of the genitalia brought on by the accumulation of secretions under the foreskin of the penis or clitoris. Since the habit of masturbation became extremely difficult to eradicate, then prevention surely would be better than cure. The doctrine of prevention became the doctrine of circumcision, which allegedly left the penis cleaner. This was the era before modern bathrooms had been invented. Washing in a small, portable tub of warm water was a major and infrequent undertaking and, according to customary belief, potentially hazardous to health - a hazard that still persists in the popular belief that going outdoors immediately after bathing or showering is likely to give a person pneumonia, or at least influenza.

Neonatal circumcision as a masturbation preventive was not applied to baby girls as it was to baby boys. Victorian theorists of anti-sexualism took for granted the inequality of the sexes and the superior power of the male who, therefore, had more to lose if he lost his semen. Moreover, the fact that the female had no semen to lose if she masturbated was evidence of her inferiority - such was the circularity of their reasoning. There is, however, another consideration: physicians of the 19th century in England and America had Jewish ritual circumcision of the male as an example, whereas they had little or no familiarity with Pharaonic circumcision of the female, which is still widely practiced in today's Nilotic Africa, to guide them. In addition, their moralistic prudishness about sex so completely incapacitated them as scientists of sex that they dared not survey Jewish adolescents in order to ascertain whether, having been circumcised in infancy, they masturbated or not. Moreover, in an era long antedating civil rights, since Jewish students were not welcome in medical schools, the anti-masturbation doctors had no Jewish colleagues whose masturbation histories they could compare with their own, even if they had been disinhibited enough to do so.

...masturbation phobia was used as an endorsement for punitive circumcision

Semen-conservation theory, reformulated as anti-masturbation theory, long survived the appearance of germ theory in the 1870s. In fact, it did riot disappear from the Boy Scouts' Manual until after World War II. In a particularly vicious form, masturbation phobia was used as an endorsement for punitive circumcision of both boys and girls by Kellogg in his Plain Facts for Old and Young (1888), written on the honeymoon with which he began his unconsummated marriage. The book was reissued well into the 20th century. The following are excerpts.

Influence of Stimulants - The use of stimulants of any kind is a fruitful cause of the vice. Tea and coffee have led thousands to perdition in this way. The influence of tobacco is so strongly shown in this direction that it is doubtful if there can be found a boy who has attained the age of puberty, and has acquired the habit of using tobacco, who is not addicted to this vile practice. Candies, spices, cinnamon. cloves, peppermint, and all strong essences powerfully excite the genital organs, and lead to the same result. It should be further added that there is evidence that a powerful predisposition to this vice is transmitted to the children of those who have themselves been guilty of it (pp.244-5)

The Race Ruined by Boys - The human race is growing weaker year by year. The boys of today would be no match in physical strength for the hale, sturdy youths of a century ago, their great-grandparents. An immense amount of skillful training enables now and then one to accomplish wonderful feat of walking, rowing, or swimming; but we hear very little of remarkable feats of labor accomplished by our modern boys. Even the country boys of today cannot endure the hard work which their fathers did at the same age; and we doubt not that this growing physical weakness is one of the reasons why so large a share of the boys whose fathers are farmers, and who have been reared an farms, are unwilling to follow the occupation of their fathers for a livelihood. They are too weakly to do the work required by an agricultural life, even by the aid of the numerous labor-saving
inventions of the age.

What is it that is undermining the health of the race, and sapping the constitutions of our American men? No doubt much may be attributed to the unnatural refinements of civilization in several directions; but there can be no doubt that vice is the most active cause of all. Secret sin and its kindred vices ruin more constitutions every year than hard work, severe study, hunger, cold, privation, and disease combined. (pp.345-6)

Suspicious Signs - The following symptoms, occurring in the mental and physical character and habits of a child or young person, may well give rise to grave suspicions of evil, and should cause parents or guardians to be on the alert to root it out if possible. (Then follow thirty-nine paragraphs of text, of which only the subheadings are reproduced here.)

General debility; early symptom of consumption; premature and defective development; sudden change in disposition; lassitude; an unnatural dullness and vacantness of the eyes; sleeplessness, failure of mental capacity; fickleness, untrustworthiness; love of solitude; bashfulness; unnatural boldness; mock piety; easily frightened; confusion of ideas; aversion to the other sex, or its opposite, wantonness; round shoulders; weak backs, pains in the limbs, and stiffness of the joints; paralysis; gait; bad positions in bed; lack of development of the breasts; capricious appetite; extreme fondness for unnatural, hurtful, and irritating foods; eating clay, slate-pencils, plaster, and chalk; disgust for simple food; the use of tobacco; unnatural paleness, acne, or pimples; biting the fingernails; sunken eyes, with red edges, soreness and dark rings; habitually moist, cold hands; palpitation of the heart; hysteria; chlorosis, or green sickness; epileptic fits, wetting the bed; unchastity of speech. (pp.249-59)

For girls, two other suspicious signs appeared in The Ladies Guide (1908).

Ulceration about the roots of the nails, especially affecting one or both of the first two fingers of the hand, usually the right hand, is an evidence of the habit which depends upon the one just mentioned, the irritation of the fingers being occasioned by the acrid vaginal discharge.

Biting the fingernails is a habit, which, when very marked, may be regarded with some degree of suspicion. The irritation of the fingers which gives rise to the habit, grows out of the irritable condition of the nails described in the preceding paragraph. (p.152)

Cure of the Habit - In younger children, with whom moral considerations will have no particular weight, other devices way be used. Bandaging the parts has been practiced with success. Tying the hands is also successful in some cases; but this will not always succeed, for they will often contrive to continue the habit in other ways, as by working the limbs, or lying upon the abdomen. Covering the organs with a cage has been practiced with entire success. A remedy which is almost always successful in small boys is circumcision, especially when there is any degree of phimosis. The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anaesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment, as it may well be in some cases. The soreness which continues for several weeks interrupts the practice, and if it bad not previously become too firmly fixed, it may be forgotten and not resumed. If any attempt is made to watch the child, he should be go carefully surrounded by vigilance that he cannot possibly transgress without detection. If he is only partially watched, he soon learns to elude observation, and thus the effect is only to make him cunning in his vice....

Through the courtesy of Dr. Archibald, Superintendent of the Iowa Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children we have become acquainted with a method of treatment of this disorder Which is applicable in refractory cases, and we have employed it with entire satisfaction. It consists in the application of one or more silver sutures in such a way as to prevent erection. The prepuce, or foreskin, is drawn forward over the glans, and the needle to which the wire is attached is passed through from one side to the other. After drawing the wire through, the ends are twisted together, and cut off close. [NOHARMM Note: This is male infibulation.] It is now impossible for an erection to occur, and the slight irritation thus produced acts as a most powerful means of overcoming the disposition to resort to the practice.

In females, the author has found the application of pure carbolic acid to the clitoris an excellent means of allaying the abnormal excitement, and preventing the recurrence of the practice in those whose will-power has become so weakened that the patient is unable to exercise entire self-control. (Plain Facts, pp.295-6)

The appeal of false doctrines that endorse the persistence of the 19th century custom
of routine circumcision is, covertly, a for-profit appeal.

Since the sexual revolution (reformation is the more accurate term) of the 1960s and 1970s, the counterreformation of the 1980s has set in. The Torquemadas of the Inquisition of the sexual counterreformation have not dared to burn masturbators at the stake - only to declare masturbation a seriously disordered act if practiced by those whose allegiance is to the Vatican. These same counterreformationists have not found it necessary to say a word either for or against circumcision as a masturbation preventive. Why? The answer, in part, is because circumcision in the 19th century never became popular in Catholic countries. But mostly, it is because the doctrine that circumcision prevents masturbation is patently false. Under the guise of science, various other false doctrines have, from time to time, been put forward as endorsements of routine circumcision. The latest of these pseudoscientific, false doctrines originated in California. It claims that circumcision protects against the spread of HIV, the AIDS virus, and should therefore be mandatory for all males of all ages.

The appeal of false doctrines that endorse the persistence of the 19th century custom of routine circumcision is, covertly, a for-profit appeal. In most American states, the professional fees for routine circumcision are reimbursed by third-party, medical-insurance carriers, either private or governmental. This alone is sufficient to explain the persistence of a routine surgical procedure the prevalence of which is totally unnecessary, often harmful, and sometimes lethal in its consequences.


Bibliography

Anon. 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 injur'd themselves by this Abominable Practice. Boston, John Phillips, 1724. Facsimile reprint edition in The Secret Vice Exposed: Some Arguments Against Masturbation (C. Rosenberg and C. Smith-Rosenberg, advisory eds.). New York, Arno Press, 1974.

Kellogg, J.H. Ladies Guide in Health and Disease: Girlhood, Maidenhood, Wifehood, Motherhood. Warburton (Australia), London, Cape Town and Calcutta, Signs of the Times, 1908.

Kellogg, J.H. Plain Facts for Old and Young: Natural History and Hygiene of Organic Life. Burlington, low&. I.F. Segner, 1888. Facsimile reprint. New York, Arno Press, 1974.

Manniche, L. Sexual Life in Ancient Egypt. New York, Methuen, 1987.

Money, J. The Destroying Angel: Sex, Fitness, and Food in the Legacy of Degeneracy Theory, Graham Crackers, Kellogg's Cornflakes, and American Health History. Buffalo, Prometheus Books, 1985.

Money, J. and Annecillo, C. Body-image pathology: Koro, the shrinking-penis syndrome in transcultural sexology. Sexual and Marital Therapy, 2:91-100, 1987.

Tissot, S.A. L'Onanisme, Dissertation sur lea Maladies Produites par la Masturbation. Lausanne, Franc. Grasset & Comp., 1781.

Tissot, S.A. A Treatise on the Diseases Produced by Onanism. Translated from a New Edition of the French, with Notes and Appendix by an American Physician. New York, 1832. Facsimile reprint edition in The Secret Vice Exposed: Some Arguments Against Masturbation (C. Rosenberg and C. Smith-Rosenberg, advisory eds.). New York, Arno Press, 1974.


John Money, Ph.D. Professor of Medical Psychology and Pediatrics, Emeritus at Johns Hopkins University and Hospital, Baltimore, MD

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