Thankfully, one of the impositions not required by Mormons is circumcision. During the course of the sequence of lessons, generally known as the missionary discussions, from the visiting elders in the early 1960s my mother apparently asked them if "the boys" would have to be circumcised. I have sometimes wondered what made her ask this. I suspect it may have been something to do with the many references to Jews and to the House of Israel that crop up in discussion of Mormon doctrine. For example, people in receipt of a patriarchal blessing (a Mormon version of fortune telling, which of course is not fortune telling at all!) will normally be told from which one of the tribes of Israel they are descended. I never found out whether my mother was just worried about my brothers and me, or whether she thought she might have to break the news to our father as well. As well as relieved, though, I am in some ways a little surprised that circumcision is not a requirement, since male circumcision is also very common in the USA, where it seems there could be half to a million male genital cuttings carried out each year. I can't help thinking that Joseph Smith's extraordinary imagination probably stopped short before coming up with the idea, but would have been an excellent way to get men to prove their loyalty. It certainly worked for Abraham. The practice became more popular in the USA and the UK later on in the nineteenth century.
Since adolescence, when I discovered that the penis can be a lot more fun than previously imagined, I have been grateful that my parents left me intact. I always felt a little sad for one of my brothers who had a medically recommended procedure in childhood. These days there is more understanding of child development and we know that many cases of phimosis have been misdiagnosed. Invariably the foreskin will retract given time. This is normal development.
Many years ago I joined a campaign to work for an end to the cutting of boys - essentially male genital mutilation. I have had many discussions with people about the issue. Usually the conversations follow similar paths. If I am talking to a woman, the conversation will nearly always be turned round to the subject of the barbarity of female genital mutilation and how men cannot possibly suffer in the same way. I agree, female genital mutilation is utterly barbaric and everything that can be done should be done to discourage and wipe out this horrible practice. It is also illegal in our country. On the other hand I am frequently shocked by the way that male genital mutilation is trivialised. It is not only legal it is endemic in some cultures and perfectly permissible for parents to have their baby boys, or children, or adolescents, mutilated in this way. It is sometimes the subject of humour in a way that for FGM would rightly be considered unthinkable. We had to invent a name for a uniquely functioning part of the penis in order to treat it separately. In the USA, circumcision is not only not illegal, it is apparently normal to offer new mothers the procedure for their baby boys. Is there any other operation performed purely on social grounds and where permission is granted with none of the necessary discussions about the procedure itself, after-care, the risks, the pros and the cons that routinely happen before any other operation is carried out? Germany tried to introduce a ban on MGM recently and found that the uproar the move created, particularly among some of its ethnic minorities, raised too many problems resulting in the plans being shelved. Sadly another generation of baby boys will be tortured for no reason other than the whims of parents and pressure from cultural and religious leaders.
Just in case there is any doubt, circumcision
- removes a unique part of a healthy organ
- results in a lifelong loss of function
- is the removal of the most sensitive and responsive part of the penis
- is a form of social surgery and not usually carried out as a medical treatment
- is performed on minors who cannot give informed consent
- is illegal on girls, but may be promoted for boys
- carries the risk of significant complications ranging from scarring (in every case) to severe permanent disability or death
- is part of an industry that sells babies' foreskins to companies that use them in biomedical research, skin grafting technology and high-end cosmetics.
The risks during and after male genital mutilation seem to outweigh vastly any imagined good it might do. How can "looking like dad" or not looking different in the school changing room be sufficient reason for so drastic a procedure? The NHS in the UK used to offer genital cutting to parents (parents, not the little boys, I note) before the issue of fourteen deaths a year from complications was raised. This is when circumcision took place in hospitals. I have no idea how many are carried out outside medical establishments.
P., who feels as strongly as I do on this issue, sent me a link this morning to "An Elephant In The Hospital". If one person watches this presentation by Ryan McAllister and can change their mind on the issue, I shall be pleased. I warn that part of it reduced both P and me to tears.
For years I have been trying to write a song about this issue. It is one of two subjects I have started and dropped several times over the past five years. I couldn't find the words to express what was in my head and in my heart. Eventually, last year, the song began to come together. It is interesting how different it is from what I imagined it might be when I first started thinking about it.
by Marshlander (2014)
You’ve heard of him before, but at the risk of being a bore
There’s more to say about a certain Mister;
As a dad he was despotic, as a husband quite exotic
He “knew” the maid and lied his wife was his sister.
When his longed-for son was born, he reacted true to form
And one day took him out to sacrifice him.
In his head there spoke a voice offering a better choice,
“Don’t kill him; here’s an idea … why not circumcise him?”
The father of three major world religions
Dwelt in a tent and travelled north and south throughout the land.
He really set the cat among the pigeons
When he eschewed blood sacrifice and called a prepuce ban.
He said the voices in his head demanded
The permanent disfigurement of helpless little boys.
I really fail to understand commandments that demand
That society absorbs and normalises
What should be abhorred, is somehow “glory to the lord”
And acceptance to the tribe when it circumcises.
An antiquated, barbaric tradition.
Shame on you for stealing his volition.
Tribes around the world commit this crime
You may worship a creator, but I call you, mutilator
For child abuse like this you should do time.
Gentlemen in Queen Victoria’s day
Said she disapproved of forms of adolescent play.
The reverend said that self-love was a sin;
Onan was despised and sex should only come within
The bonds of wedlock ‘twixt man and his wife.
Morality was soon restored with the surgeon’s knife.
One third of penile skin, twenty thousand nerve endings,
The price to pay for this abomination
God used the surgeon’s skills as the cure for manly ills,
Syphilis, spermatorrhoea … masturbation!
The devil hides in culture and religion.
Them and us, society's division.
Lies about poor hygiene and infection.
Soap and water keep it clean and a condom, evergreen;
Preparing for that short-arm inspection.
An opportunity for turning profit
Has now become an industry, so much for rights of man.
Once mothers kept the foreskin in a locket,
But now the bits can be sold off in some disgusting plan.
Some people spend a fortune on cosmetics.
Some have no conscience when they buy the products that they crave,
But do they know the origin of the ingredients within
And the price that little boys have had to pay?
Can stolen stem cells mitigate the pain they propagate
For the baby penis face cream that they slap on each day?
The cutting edge of cultural collision.
Maiming little boys demands derision.
You interfere with what could bring him joy.
How can you wield the knife that will forever change his life?
Don’t mutilate the manhood of your boy.
Even in this present century
Barbarity persists under the flag of being free.
Grievously this torture still goes on,
Doctors offer cutting when a baby boy is born.
A father thinks his son should look like him
And so the shame perpetuates. On and on and on.
You cut him for the lies you’re told of health and cleanliness
And ignorance of physiology.
A baby has no voice. Let him grow up to make a choice.
Perhaps the greatest cost is that he’ll never know what he’s lost.
It ought to be his free, informed decision.
You think you’re free to cut. That needs revision.
Time to make this act a rarity.
Join a swelling throng who think this practice is all wrong … and work for
Children’s physical integrity.
"Circumcision" Copyright Marshlander.
After I included it in a set a few months ago two women wanted to discuss it. Immediately they raised the subject of FGM and they went on to suggest that since cutting only removes a small amount of tissue it can't make much difference to boys ... surely? In other words they trivialised the subject. There is still a lot of work to do.
I often find that when discussed, the implications for the baby are rarely treated seriously. Many men who were circumcised in infancy seem not to think it an issue either. I have had discussions with many Americans who think it looks nicer and they have swallowed the lie about it being more "hygienic". The men I have spoken to cannot get their heads around the idea that this unnecessary procedure is a human rights issue. Every individual should be able to make decisions about their own bodies, not have these decisions taken by others, except in extreme medical situations of course.