Myths about Circumcision

Dr Peter Ball MB,B Chir

John Dalton Bsc,Msc

Last updated on 22nd June 2003

Modern, non-religious circumcision began in the Victorian era as a means of deliberately desensitising and denuding the penis in order to discourage masturbation, which doctors then believed was the cause of insanity, epilepsy, hysteria, tuberculosis, short-sightedness, and death.

In 1891, Jonathan Hutchinson, president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, in his article “On Circumcision as a Preventative of Masturbation,” wrote:

Measures more radical than circumcision would, if public opinion permitted their adoption, be a true kindness to many patients of both sexes. [Jonathan Hutchinson. On Circumcision as Preventive of Masturbation. Archives of Surgery 1891;2:267-268]

The myth that circumcision improves hygiene originated at this time to mean the improvement of moral hygiene.

Clarence was addicted to the secret vice practised among boys. I performed circumcision. He needed the rightful punishment of cutting pains after his illicit pleasures.[N. Bergman. Report of a Few Cases of Circumcision. Journal of Orificial Surgery 1898;7:249-251.]

By the turn of the century, amputation of the foreskin was “scientifically proven” to cure and prevent malnutrition, paralysis, bed-wetting, hip-joint disease, headache, alcoholism, criminality, club-foot, and heart disease.

Even in the 1930s, some doctors openly declared in the British Medical Journal that sexual oppression of young men was their motivation.

Nature intends that the adult male shall copulate as often and as promiscuously as possible, and to that end covers the sensitive glans so that it shall be ever ready to receive stimuli. Civilization, on the contrary, requires chastity, and the glans of the circumcised rapidly assumes a leathery texture less sensitive than skin. Thus the adolescent has his attention drawn to his penis much less often. I am convinced that masturbation is much less common in the circumcised. [Cockshut RW. Circumcision (letter). Br Med J. 1935; 19 October: 764.]

New myths about circumcision have arisen and continue to arise. These are as unfounded and misguided as the excuses used in the Victorian era. Even if they were not, amputation of a healthy part of the body is a poor and barbaric means of disease control. On this basis one could recommend amputation of the toes under the pretext of preventing athlete’s foot for example, and pre-pubescent castration would have a very high success rate in the prevention of venereal disease.

It is generally agreed that there are no proven physical health benefits from new-born male circumcision [Prof Liam Donaldson, Chief Medical Officer for England; Letter to NORM-UK, 6th September 2000]

In reality, non-religious circumcision is being perpetuated for a number of reasons: ignorance, arrogance, perversion, general disregard for patients’ bodies, denial (perhaps because the surgeon is himself circumcised), and, in some countries, profit for the commercially motivated who can get paid both for the surgery and for ‘donating’ the amputated foreskin for research.

Despite the obviously irrational cruelty of circumcision, the profit incentive in American medical practice is unlikely to allow science or human rights principles to interrupt the highly lucrative American circumcision industry. It is now time for European medical associations loudly to condemn the North American medical community for participating in and profiting from what is by any standard a senseless and barbaric sexual mutilation of innocent children. [Paul M. Fleiss. Circumcision. Lancet 1995;345:927.]

Circumcision does not prevent urinary tract infection.
Circumcision does not prevent AIDS or HIV infection.
Circumcision does not prevent penile cancer.
Circumcision does not prevent cervical cancer in the female partners of circumcised men.
Circumcision does not prevent sexually transmitted diseases.
Circumcision does not improve penile hygiene.
Circumcision does not prevent infections.
Circumcision is not painless.
Circumcision does not prevent masturbation.