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The Disturbing History of Circumcision in America

by Christian

Worldwide, infant male circumcision is an uncommon practice. About 35 percent of the globe’s men are circumcised, and the vast majority of these are in the Muslim world. Aside from the small populations of Israel and to a lesser extent South Korea, which has been influenced by American military occupation, the United States is the only developed nation that widely practices circumcision.

Because ritual circumcision dates back thousands of years in the Abrahamic tradition, which is why it’s common in Jewish and Muslim culture, many Americans mistakenly believe that the American tradition is also tied to this religious ritual. In reality, though, this is completely false. While religious circumcision isn’t justified either, American circumcision has a much more recent and much more disturbing history.

Racist Origins

Source: National Library Of Medicine via Pexels

There is no Christian tradition of circumcision. Prior to the mid 19th Century, no Christian nation widely practiced circumcision, including the United States and other English-speaking countries. However, after industrialization, London saw a rapid increase in population density that saw an increase in diseases including venereal disease. Consequently, medical scientists looked for solutions.

In 1855 British physician Jonathan Hutchinson suggested that circumcision might provide protection against venereal disease. His only justification for this was that Jewish populations generally had lower rates of these diseases. Of course, he didn’t perform any rigorous studies and ignored confounding factors like the fact that the Jewish population generally intermarried and had a more insulated sexual community.

Regardless, circumcision caught on in the Anglosphere, especially in the United States, but not actually due to this medical recommendation. Instead, it became a class symbol that allowed Anglo-Saxon Americans to set themselves apart as “cleaner” than immigrant populations.

John Kellogg, who also invented cornflakes, is partly responsible for popularizing circumcision as a way of preventing masturbation and sexual impulses in boys

Sexual Taboos

Perhaps an even more significant factor in circumcision’s rise to popularity in late 19th Century America was the claim by numerous physicians that it prevented masturbation or cured “masturbation addiction.”  Perhaps the most famous example of this was John Harvey Kellogg, a prominent physician in the 19th Century famous for his invention of cornflakes, the bland taste of which he believed could curb sexual desire. Kellogg also published a book called Plain Facts for Old And Young in which he claimed circumcision would help promote chastity and prevent masturbation. He even circumcised himself at age 37 and promoted female genital mutilation by pouring carbolic acid on the clitoral glans.

Another proponent of circumcision was Lewis Sayre, who actually founded the American Medical Association and claimed the practice could prevent masturbation. Along with his British counterpart Jonathan Hutchinson, Sayre pointed to masturbation as the cause of a number of illnesses including epilepsy, insanity, and even tuberculosis. So he therefore proposed circumcision as an important part of “preventive” medicine.

More disturbingly, their justification for circumcision’s use as prevention for masturbation was based on the fact that the mutilative surgery removes most of the male nerve endings involved in orgasm and sexual pleasure. In other words, they hoped that less pleasure would mean less sexual desire.

While these physicians were obviously blatantly wrong about the effects of masturbation or even that circumcision could prevent masturbation, they were at least right that it would severely diminish their patients’ sexual pleasure.

The Changing Story of the American Medical Community

As science improved during the late 19th Century and doctors quickly came to understand that disease was not connected to masturbation, circumcision rates gradually declined in most of the Anglosphere. In fact, today the medical associations of other English-speaking countries like the UK, Australia, and Canada count themselves among the dozens of national and international medical communities that openly state circumcision provides no benefits and should not be performed on infants.

Nevertheless, despite the blatant absurdity of circumcision as a preventive measure against “masturbation addiction” and ensuing psychosis, the American Medical Association (AMA) and later the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have repeatedly developed new justifications for continuing the practice that ultimately boils down to their desire to increase revenue. Some of these have been as absurd as that circumcision prevents bed wetting.

Once the claims about masturbation became recognized as ridiculous, the AMA and AAP largely focused on the prevention of venereal diseases or STIs. These studies were widely flawed and criticized internationally. Scientific meta-analysis and academic reviews have found that in many cases circumcision even marginally increases the risk of STIs. 

As a result, the AAP fully dropped its recommendation against circumcision in 1971. However, this meant insurance no longer paid for the procedure, so by 1989, they came up with a new excuse: UTIs. This claim has also been widely criticized in the international medical community simply because it makes no logical sense.

Even if the AAP’s claims were correct, male infant UTI rates are negligible compared to female rates, yet no one is searching for a way to prevent female UTIs because they aren’t serious medical issues and can be easily cured with an antibiotic that monetarily costs 20 times less than circumcision and also does not cost the removal of an important body part.

Nevertheless, the general medical community does not even consider the AAP’s research about UTIs to be persuasive and the decades since have shown it to be inconclusive. Consequently, the AAP backed down again in 2012. Their report that year declared circumcision not medically necessary but still insisted that American pediatricians offer it to parents. The reasoning is right in their report and fits with the disturbing history of circumcision in America.

Third-Party Payments

Source: Nick Youngson via Pix4free.org

Pretty much all other medical organizations in the US and international community consider the AAP’s report on circumcision to be a sham filled with bias keeping in line with their previous nonsensical claims that the procedure would prevent masturbation, tuberculosis, psychosis, and bed-wetting. If you read the report for yourself, you’ll see why. 

One thing I found particularly interesting about the report was that the AAP openly specified “English-language” literature. This severely limited their samples and eliminated countries where circumcision is not common.

However, the worst and most embarrassing part of the report is that the AAP gave away the whole reason they’ve come up with so many ridiculous reasons over the years to promote male genital mutilation: money. The third paragraph of the report openly states:

“Although health benefits are not great enough to recommend routine circumcision for all male newborns, the benefits of circumcision are sufficient to justify access to this procedure for families choosing it and to warrant third-party payment for circumcision of male newborns.”

In other words, the AAP is ultimately admitting that circumcision does not provide any benefits but that they still want insurance to pay for the procedure. This way people will keep opting for it, and they’ll be able to keep charging them. To further support this, consider that since this report came out, insurance companies no longer classify circumcision as a medical procedure and many hospitals require parents to sign a waiver stating they understand that it provides no medical benefits. 

Basically, from stopping masturbation to billing your HMO an extra $400, the American medical community doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to circumcision. It’s time to call out this corruption and admit that this minority group of physicians has been promoting mass male genital mutilation for flawed and selfish reasons. The US should join the rest of the developed world and end this atrocity regardless of what the AAP says.

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