Revisiting Circumcision

In May I wrote for In These Times about New York City’s tentative plans to promote adult circumcision as an HIV prevention method. Re-posted on Alternet, the article caused a furor among some commenters, who assumed that my last name had something to do with the fact that I gave a fair hearing to researchers enthusiastic about circumcision’s ability in Africa to decrease a man’s chance of contracting HIV by as much as 60 percent.

To set the record straight, I have mixed feelings about circumcision. Members of my (yes, Jewish) family are uncircumcised, and I even have a friend whose Jewish family stopped cirumcising their sons generations ago because of a botched procedure. I’m pretty horrified by the thought that adult circumcision would be promoted in the United States specifically as an HIV prevention method; advocates have worked for decades to send the message that sex with a condom is the only safe sex. And certain sex acts are more dangerous than others, so circumcision would provide little protection. I’m less sure about circumcising infants. Perhaps expectant parents considering the procedure should be told of the overwhelming medical evidence of the benefits of circumcision in decreasing the contraction and spread of STIs. The HIV epidemic is very much still an American problem. In some cities, such as Washington, D.C., 1 in 20 people are HIV-positive.

Yesterday my old pal from Brown, Jeremy Bearer-Friend, currently a field building fellow at the Movement Strategy Center, wrote to tell me why he feels that gay men and African American men, because they are marginalized, are more likely to be asked to undergo a painful procedure like circumcision. I post Jeremy’s thoughts here to share his perspective. I’m always learning more about these topics as I report and write about them and hear feedback.

one main reaction [your article] brought up for me was the epic history of medical regulation and pathologizing of gay male bodies and practices. circumcision would be a new extreme for this history, considering how invasive the surgery is. that gay men are being asked by the state to permanently alter their genitalia in the name of public health, i have to say, is an incredible request.

it also makes me draw connections with the field of reproductive justice and reproductive rights. to what extent is the state permitted to demand surgerical procedures amongst women in order to protect others from their sexual practices?how does the history of regulating female sexuality provide a context for the circumcision debate?

3 thoughts on “Revisiting Circumcision

  1. Thud

    Dana, I’m suspect of any new “circumcise for good health” argument — especially for infants. The bit that’s snipped is not superfluous, but is instead a highly sensitive part of the male anatomy, and snipping it off because poor hygiene (and poor choices) might make you sick strikes me as roughly equivalent of pulling all your teeth to avoid cavities.

    Now, if an adult wants to get circumcised, that’s his decision. But, religious practice aside, I really think we ought to leave the infants alone until they are capable of making their own decisions. Modifying someone’s sex organs before they’re capable of speech just doesn’t seem right.

    Reply
  2. Tony

    I’m way late to this, since I found your site only recently. Sorry.

    …the epic history of medical regulation and pathologizing of gay male bodies and practices.

    It’s just as valid to remove the word “gay” from that statement. Circumcision started in the U.S. because medical science pathologized the male body and the male sex drive as something to be fixed. It’s continued for more than a century.

    Basically, what Thud said.

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