16

This collegehumour video claims that the practice of circumcision in the US, outside of Jewish and Muslim religions, comes from the puritanical Victorian era, where it was seen as a measure to discourage masturbation, by reducing its pleasurability.

Is this true?

  • 1
    establishing notability: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – Sklivvz May 1 '15 at 23:24
  • 6
    "in the west" — AFAIK, the only Western country where it's practiced outside Jewish and Muslim communities is USA. upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/7e/… – vartec May 2 '15 at 2:38
  • @vartec I'm not from the US, nor Semite, and I'm circumcised. It's not unheard of here. – dwjohnston May 2 '15 at 2:39
  • 3
    @dwjohnston: and where is "here"? OK, per map it seems that in Australia it's practiced to some extent, and Canada to lesser extent. OTOH, in Europe then only two countries that show up, are Muslim countries. – vartec May 2 '15 at 2:43
  • 2
    Isn't this question about motivations? – George Chalhoub Dec 2 '15 at 11:15
20

There's a great article about the history of circumcision and the arguments on both sides here, (also the core of it (without author's opinion) is excerpted here). It's worth noting that neither Mosaic nor Ars Technica are scholarly journals, nor is this an academic paper - rather, this is science journalism with references.


On the origins of circumcision in the West, the article says (links and emphasis added):

The best-known circumcision ritual, the Jewish ceremony of brit milah, is also thousands of years old. It survives to this day, as do others practised by Muslims and some African tribes. But American attitudes to circumcision have a much more recent origin. As medical historian David Gollaher recounts in his book Circumcision: A History of the World’s Most Controversial Surgery, early Christian leaders abandoned the practice, realising perhaps that their religion would be more attractive to converts if surgery wasn’t required. Circumcision disappeared from Christianity, and the secular Western cultures that descended from it, for almost two thousand years.

Then came the Victorians. One day in 1870, a New York orthopaedic surgeon named Lewis Sayre was asked to examine a five-year-old boy suffering from paralysis of both legs. Sayre was the picture of a Victorian gentleman: three-piece suit, bow tie, mutton chops. He was also highly respected, a renowned physician at Bellevue Hospital, New York’s oldest public hospital, and an early member of the American Medical Association.

After the boy’s sore genitals were pointed out by his nanny, Sayre removed the foreskin. The boy recovered. Believing he was on to something big, Sayre conducted more procedures. His reputation was such that when he praised the benefits of circumcision – which he did in the Transactions of the American Medical Association and elsewhere until he died in 1900 – surgeons elsewhere followed suit. Among other ailments, Sayre discussed patients whose foreskins were tightened and could not retract, a condition known as phimosis. Sayre declared that the condition caused a general state of nervous irritation, and that circumcision was the cure.

His ideas found a receptive audience. To Victorian minds many mental health issues originated with the sexual organs and masturbation. The connection had its roots in a widely read 18th-century treatise entitled Onania, or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, and All Its Frightful Consequences, in Both Sexes, Considered. With Spiritual and Physical Advice to Those Who Have Already Injur’d Themselves By This Abominable Practice. The anonymous author warned that masturbation could cause epilepsy, infertility, “a wounded conscience” and other problems. By 1765 the book was in its 80th printing.

Later puritans took a similar view. Sylvester Graham associated any pleasure with immorality. He was a preacher, health reformer and creator of the graham cracker. Masturbation turned one into “a confirmed and degraded idiot”, he declared in 1834. Men and women suffering from otherwise unlabelled psychiatric issues were diagnosed with masturbatory insanity; treatments included clitoridectomies for women, circumcision for men.

There's more in that vein, but it then concludes:

By the turn of the 20th century the Victorian fear of masturbation had waned, but by then circumcision become a prudent precaution, and one increasingly implemented soon after birth. A desire to prevent phimosis, STDs and cancer had turned the procedure into medical dogma. Antiseptic surgical practices had rendered it relatively safe, and anaesthesia made it painless. Once a procedure for the relatively wealthy, circumcision had become mainstream. By 1940, around 70 per cent of male babies in the United States were circumcised.

This is very much a US-focused phenomenon, though:

[W]hat’s more remarkable is that American parents are almost alone in the Western world in their desire to separate boys from their foreskins for reasons other than religion. This difference of opinion is decades old. It began in 1949, when a British paediatrician and scientist named Douglas Gairdner published the first investigation of the rationale for circumcision in English-speaking countries. He found the procedure to be unwarranted.... By 1958, the circumcision rate in the United Kingdom had fallen to close to 10 per cent. Excluding British men who are circumcised for religious reasons, the rate is now 6 per cent or lower.

The situation is much the same elsewhere in Europe. The Victorian focus on circumcision was concentrated in English-speaking countries, and its popularity never spread.


TL;DR

18th-century Victorian attitudes towards sex may have generated an interest in circumcision, but late-19th century medical science led to its widespread adoption in the United States. The rest of the world isn't nearly as interested.

  • 5
    Great answer, but I have to point out that the Victorian era began in the 19th century - the puritanical attitude may have come from the 18th, but it wasn't Victorian. – pete the pagan-gerbil Dec 4 '15 at 12:06
  • Indeed, the Victorian era spanned from June 1837 just barely into the 20th century, lasting until January 1901. – phoog Oct 10 '17 at 14:53
  • "In the west"? Outside of the United States circumcision in western nations for reasons other than religious practice is pretty rare. – GordonM Oct 10 '17 at 15:59

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .