Circumcision: The World’s Most Controversial Surgery

Author: David L. Gollaher

Circumcision: The World’s Most Controversial Surgery. By David L. Gollaher. New York: Basic Books, 2000. 253 pages. Review by J. Steven Svoboda.

Historian David L. Gollaher has a tale to tell us of the world’s most controversial and the United States’ most frequent surgery, circumcision. Invented so long ago that its origins are lost in the shadows of history, circumcision has proven a stunning persistent practice, found in various forms in many countries and in many historical eras as well, of course, as in some leading religions. It is difficult to imagine how any history could more fascinatingly combine the strangest idiosyncrasies of sexuality, religion, and psychology. Gollaher makes it clear in the book’s preface via a compelling “thought experiment” that no one would today dare to invent circumcision if it didn’t already exist. And yet, Gollaher notes, so deeply intertwined with certain cultures and worldviews is it that it is devilishly hard to recognize for what it is.

Anyone who fears that our culture stands alone in its strange obsessions need only read a few pages of this book to disabuse oneself of this notion. The Egyptians, the likely inventors of circumcision, were preoccupied with the body’s excretions and secretions. It was the Egyptians who first promoted circumcision as advancing not only physical hygiene but also moral, spiritual and intellectual refinement. Thousands of years later, Victorian physicians in the United States resurrected this same parallel to justify the same procedure.

It is impossible to imagine that anyone could do a better job than Gollaher does of combing through millenia of arcane primary sources and distilling a remarkably accessible summary which nevertheless contains documentation sufficient to satisfy the most exacting scholar. It is fascinating to see him pull together in one place and provide more detail about many different authors and issues relating to circumcision’s history, including the Egyptian roots and Philo’s and Maimonedes’ early writings about Judaism and circumcision. In the Twelfth Century, Moses Maimonedes noted that circumcision served the same spiritual purposes accomplished by castration, without depriving a man of his fertility. Starting with Maimonedes, numerous authors over the past centuries have recommended circumcision BECAUSE it reduced the sexual pleasure for the man, putting the lie to those circumcision promoters today who, stunningly, still attempt to deny that removing half the surface area of the penis would affect sexual response. As early as the Thirteenth Century, a French follower of Maimonedes noted that the procedure reduced sexual pleasure for both the man AND THE WOMAN, thereby freeing both from lascivious desire.

In religious symbolisu, physical circumcision represents spiritual circumcision, or circumcision of the heart. Gollaher’s detailed religious history suggests that there is almost no limit to the bizarreness which lies at the intersection of psychology, circumcision, and religion. One author suggests that gentiles, by accepting Christ’s sacrifice of his blood on the cross, are thereby vicariously circumcised. Gollaher manages to avoid raising stylistic eyebrows as he recounts to us the story of the search for Christ’s foreskin and the numerous claims by its supposed possessors. Anything combining the penis and religion obviously fascinated our ancestors. Other cultures are no slouches at creativity either. In Madagascar, immediately following a circumcision, an older male relative of the boy’s puts the foreskin between two pieces of banana and gobbled down the sandwich!

Chapter Four is equally invaluable in its detailed recounting of the origin of the notion of circumcision as a panacea and a routine prophylactic measure. Lewis A. Sayre, a highly prominent and apparently completely well-intentioned surgeon in the 1870’s, played a leading role in convincing the American public that circumcision could prevent a now ludicrously expansive list of diseases. Displaying a nice talent for understatement, Gollaher ironically notes, “The ultimate popularity of circumcision depended not on convincing normal men to undergo the ordeal of surgery, but on targeting a group of patients who could not object.” Gollaher again proves his adeptness at distilling complexities, noting that in order to induce parents to select it for their infants, surgeons had to persuade them that it was a minor operation, neither dangerous nor unduly painful. This was facilitated by two medical advances appearing around this time, asepsis and effective anesthesia.

Gollaher also takes the time to carefully debunk all asserted justifications of circumcision based on elimination of diseases. He notes that the American Academy of Pediatrics has clearly denounced female genital mutilation while issuing a number of statements about circumcision which have been “models of ambiguity.” Gollaher goes on to examine the striking parallels between rationales for male circumcision in this country and female genital mutilation in Africa. He acerbically notes that “the themes the Western world abhors [in female genital mutilation]-removing part of the genitals to reduce sexual pleasure, carving children’s bodies to conform to certain social ideals, visiting pain on helpless children-are all fully present in the history of male circumcision.”

The tale Gollaher tells gives us Colapinto’s John/Joan lesson in a crazyhouse mirror. The same knife that cuts a baby girl can cut a baby boy. As one anti-FGM activist once said, “Pain is pain.” We all need to work together so that boys can be boys and girls can be girls, with all body parts intact, and hopefully all possibilities intact as well. We have a long way to go, but if we can muster the same admirably incisive thinking and clear writing of these two authors, we have a chance to get our points as well as our intact bodies and minds across and make it through to the other side.