The previous pages addressed several common myths as to why circumcision started in the USA.
Summary: Pseudo-medicine and social morals joined in the late 1800s and early 1900s to deprive first British and then American males of a correctly functioning, God-designed, natural body part. The main reason behind this drive? As bizarre as it sounds, it was an attempt to curb masturbation.
For sources and further reading, please consult the works at the end of this article.
There are several reasons America’s practice of routine infant circumcision started, but one outstrips the rest by far: preventing masturbation. This is probably a big surprise for most readers, as masturbation doesn’t seem like a medical issue and also doesn’t seem to be prevented by circumcision in the US. But to understand why this happened, we have to take a peek at the context of 19th century Britain, where all medical infant circumcision began.
1. Europe, and Christianity, never practiced circumcision
Christians in the New Testament era affirmed that Christ abolished circumcision as a ceremonial custom of the Old Testament era. In fact, until the 1800s there was even periodic fear in Europe that Muslim hordes would capture groups of men and circumcise them as war trophies—which has been happening recently to Christian men and boys in ISIS territory.
2. Masturbation gradually became viewed as the greatest health hazard (late 1700s)
This attitude towards circumcision began changing in Britain in the 1700s, with a well-documented attitude called “masturbation phobia.” Masturbation had long been considered a particularly heinous crime – medieval confessional manuals ranked it more serious than incest – but in the eighteenth century the clergy would join forces with the medical community.
Two medical theories were both employed against masturbation. The older (outgoing) one was the theory of the humours, four fluids that made up the body and caused sickness when out of balance. Sperm was thought to be a very concentrated fluid, worth by some estimates up to forty times the volume of blood. Under this model, even normal sex could be dangerous; masturbation was simply insane. Medical manuals such as Onania and Onanism catalogued the potential damage from masturbation: weakened intellect, loss of bodily strength, pimples, intestinal diseases, etc.
The new medical idea was nerve force theory. Many physicians, such as medical giant Lord Action, viewed the human body as a finite energy resource. Humans only get so much energy, so they must expend it wisely. Also, some physicians concluded that orgasm was a nervous shock that could damage the brain. And so, the prevailing idea was that sex should be as infrequent as possible, since it depleted your total energy reserves and the shock might hurt or even kill you. Understandably, masturbation came to be seen as the most unhealthy thing a person could do, and all sectors of British society mobilized to prevent it.
Medical publications such as the Lancet debated methods to prevent masturbation. Schools started flogging and/or expelling boys for masturbating. Parents were extremely active as well. “A number of physical interventions were tried before the medical profession settled on circumcision as the most efficient, including chastity devices, infibulations, blistering, castration, and cutting the main … nerve…. Various chastity devices were tried, ranging from such mild measures as mittens or tying the hands to the bedrail overnight to more extreme contraptions such as straitjackets and cages over the genitals” (Darby, 196-7).
3. Circumcision was done on boys caught in the act, in order to make masturbation less pleasurable and more difficult (late 1800s)
So British society was clearly motivated to act against masturbation. But why choose circumcision? Most Americans don’t know this today, but most men throughout history have known that the foreskin is extremely involved in the sexual act. The foreskin is an erogenous zone and carries out several functions related to the pleasure and comfort of both partners. Removing the foreskin significantly reduces sensitivity and does, in fact, make masturbation much more difficult. In fact, circumcision does seem to reduce masturbation in younger (pre-pubertal) boys.
And so, at first, British doctors practiced circumcision on boys and adolescents caught masturbating, often after blistering treatments or cauterization by catheter failed to be effective. Circumcision was usually without anesthetic, so boys would remember the pain as a lesson. Girls caught masturbating would sometimes have an acidic substance rubbed on them, causing painful blistering. Clearly, medical ethics was in its infancy. But it is quite a leap from these practices to routine circumcision for infants. There were several factors that bridged this gap.
4. Several parts of the body were demonized as “dirt traps” (late 1800s and early 1900s)
Since eighteenth and nineteenth century medicine had made little progress in actually curing diseases, preventive medicine was the prevailing strategy. Cleaning up the cities had improved public health. Doctors wondered if the human body had similar dirt traps that bred disease. Natural lubrication (smegma) was declared an infection-bearing ooze, at least in males. To give some perspective, at the same time circumcision was becoming popular, doctors were cutting out teeth, tonsils, appendices, and even colons, thinking they were similar dirt traps. These “preventive” surgeries became popular after Listerism (keeping surgical areas and devices clean) greatly reduced the risks of surgery, and they began crossing the pond from Britain to the United States of America.
5. A normal condition was misdiagnosed as unhealthy for many decades (late 1800s and early 1900s)
Finally, the cause of routine circumcision was advanced by a misdiagnosis, “congenital phimosis,” which is sometimes even made today. Delivery room doctors began noticing that many of the infants had adherent foreskins. They supposed that this was abnormal, a congenital defect, even though retraction does not naturally occur in boys until at least 3 years old and often not until the teen years. A new diagnosis was formed, “congenital phimosis,” and the recommended treatment was circumcision. This seemed to be an epidemic, as the vast majority of male infants met the description. But in the 1940s, Douglas Gairdner conducted extensive research into the development of the foreskin and rediscovered that the foreskin naturally adheres to an infant, gradually becoming looser and retractable, usually before puberty.
The misdiagnosis of congenital phimosis testifies to the absolute loss of medical knowledge about the foreskin in the Britain of the 1800s and America of the 1900s. Pseudo-medicine and social morals had joined to deprive males of a correctly functioning, God-designed, utterly natural body part.
6. All English-speaking nations realized these medical theories were wrong and stopped cutting baby boys, except the USA (mid 1900s)
After the debunking of the various medical theories regarding circumcision, Britain experienced a sharp decline in cutting rates, down to nearly 0% today. Canada, New Zealand, and Australia all went through a period of routine infant circumcision, but now in those countries circumcision is rare. Only the United States persists in this dubious and harmful practice, even though it has long since forgotten its reasons for doing so.
A number of books have been published on the history of circumcision. Two very helpful ones are:
- Circumcision: A History of the World’s Most Controversial Surgery by David Gollaher. Gollaher is an award-winning history author and is a leader in several organizations at the forefront of medical and scientific research. His book is a very satisfying general introduction to all kinds of circumcision, weighted somewhat toward the contemporary Western situation.
- Robert Darby’s A Surgical Temptation: The Demonization of the Foreskin and the Rise of Circumcision in Britain. Darby’s work is very thorough, building on a number of important studies on British sexuality, society, and medical practice throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.