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Powerful Taboo
Phallic Fear Causes Unconscionable Cutting

Mark Baldridge
Daily Nebraskan, October 2, 1995

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Like most men in this country, I am circumcised.

If that first sentence makes you feel a little queasy, maybe you should read on. Because if circumcision is only a simple, hygienic medical procedure, then why does it carry such a charge?

It's not like it's uncommon: perhaps 80 percent of all white males in America arc circumcised within the first few days after birth.

The various reasons given for the procedure change over time - and seem hard to fathom in light of the fact that the rest of the world gets by pretty well without it.

But the truth of the matter is that circumcision represents a peculiarly American fetish and taboo. The reasons for its continued practice are not medical but psychic, magical, sacramental.

When circumcision was introduced in English-speaking countries about a hundred years ago, it caught on in a big way among American hospitals. By the midpoint of the century, however, it had almost disappeared from every country but our own.

Circumcision had been touted as a preventative measure to ward off a host of ills - everything from epilepsy to masturbation which was considered a health hazard in those dark days.

It took a couple of generations to demonstrate that incidence of these conditions were not reduced by circumcision. By then, of course, new reasons to circumcise were offered.

...routine infant circumcision is not medicine, but mojo.

Let's take a look at the most common modern rationalizations of this surgical procedure.

1. It is supposed to lessen the risk of penile cancer in the adult. Cancer or the penis strikes about one in 100,000 older men in America. And circumcising all infants to lessen the risk of cancer in a few old men might seem a shaky policy at best - if any evidence existed that it would actually work. But penile cancer rates in Japan are lower -without hacking off the foreskins of infant boys -and rates among the uncircumcised Scandinavians are almost equal to our own.

2. It is supposed to lessen the incidence of urinary tract infection in boys. Only one study is cited to demonstrate this - one that has acknowledged statistical errors. It shows association, not cause. Subsequent studies have failed to confirm the findings of this original, flawed one. Yet it continues to be cited in the literature.

3. It is supposed to lessen the risk of contracting venereal disease. Well, cutting the whole thing off would work even better on that front, wouldn't it? Maybe the money spent on a circumcision would be better invested for the little scamps so they can buy condoms with it when they're old.

4. Hygiene. We teach little girls how to clean and care for their bodies. Maybe little boys can learn how too.

5. Aesthetics. This borders on the criminal. If a similar procedure was carried out on infant girls we would consider its practitioners savages.

6. Everyone else is doing it. My mom had a remarkably good answer to this line of thinking...something about everyone else jumping off a cliff.

But my claim remains to be dealt with: that routine infant circumcision is not medicine, but mojo.

America has a lot invested in its self-image. We construct ourselves as a clean, manly, upright society. We also possess, or are possessed by, the strongest penis taboos in known history - it must not be seen, must not be touched, must not be mentioned. To polite society the penis does not exist. In its erect state, it carries an even more powerful taboo.

When was the last time you saw a full frontal nude in film or art? Compare that to the infinite number of female nudes.

As with all ritual mutilations, there is something we hope to gain as a culture, some magic protection or power or charm. Some potent good.

As a people we make an offering of blood to this obscure, unknown god. We sacrifice a piece of the sexual organs of our boy children to our own clean, manly, upright self-image.

And it works. It's gotten us to the top of the greasy hill.

But as, we feel ourselves slipping from that ascendancy, what new pain will we offer on the altar of that grinning, ghastly idol?

Mark Baldridge is the Opinion page editor for the Daily Nebraskan.

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