To cut or not to cut: Culture and male circumcision

By Hayley White

Reading time: 9 minutes

Male circumcision is arguably the oldest and most common surgical operation in the world, dating back to the 23rd century B.C.

As our modern society develops into one where bodily autonomy and the right to choose are central issues for social justice, the continuation of male circumcision becomes more and more controversial. Despite this, it is still widely practised, with culture and religion among the highest reasons why approximately 25 percent of boys are being circumcised globally (Bailey, Moses & Ronald, 1998).

Dr Gerald Young is a general practitioner from Auckland City. He has been a GP for 33 years and during this time has seen many men come in, requesting circumcision for a variety of reasons. The most prevalent motive is based on either culture or religion, and he says that every two or three months someone comes in who wants to undergo the

By Hayley White

Reading time: 9 minutes

Male circumcision is arguably the oldest and most common surgical operation in the world, dating back to the 23rd century B.C.

As our modern society develops into one where bodily autonomy and the right to choose are central issues for social justice, the continuation of male circumcision becomes more and more controversial. Despite this, it is still widely practised, with culture and religion among the highest reasons why approximately 25 percent of boys are being circumcised globally (Bailey, Moses & Ronald, 1998).

Dr Gerald Young is a general practitioner from Auckland City. He has been a GP for 33 years and during this time has seen many men come in, requesting circumcision for a variety of reasons. The most prevalent motive is based on either culture or religion, and he says that every two or three months someone comes in who wants to undergo the minor surgery to fit into their cultural group.

Over one quarter of men in the world are circumcised, though this percentage is largely concentrated in the United States, Canada, Africa, Middle East, Asia (which has a large Muslim population), and Africa. Cultural and ritualistic circumcision in most of these countries has been carried out for thousands of years – in the Middle East for over 3000, and in Africa for more than 5000 years.

Traditional male circumcision (TMC) is essential and sacred to African culture. There are traditional male circumcision initiation schools that are protected by the South African Constitution. Boys spend four weeks at this school learning about adulthood from elders and are forbidden from telling anyone what they learned or what happens during the rituals. Without circumcision, African men are not allowed to get married or establish their own households (Douglas, Maluleke, Manyaapelo & Pinkey-Atkinson, 2017).

Polynesian men make up the biggest group of circumcised men in New Zealand. Boys from Samoa, Tonga, Niue, Fiji, and the Cook Islands are still routinely circumcised for mostly cultural reasons, but if they are not, it can cause issues for them, such as being bullied or ostracised from society (Afsari, Beasley, Heckert & Maoate, 2002).

“Not being circumcised carries a very strong cultural stigma. Getting teased and bullied a lot as young children and then as teenagers can become sexually difficult, because Polynesian females won’t usually engage in sexual activity with an uncircumcised male,” says Dr. Young.

Some Filipinos also undergo the procedure due to bullying and not wanting to be made fun of by their friends for being supot (Filipino for uncircumcised) (Dennnison, Hodges & Milos, 2008).

Dr. Young believes that Catholicism might have been the cause of circumcision ‘moving away a bit’. More than 86% of Filipinos practise the Roman Catholic faith (Miller, 2021); a religion which has condemned religious circumcisions for its members, but which holds a neutral stance towards non-religious circumcision.

Dr. Young is not too sure why these traditions have stuck around for as long as they have. “I tried to talk to elderly Samoans who said they did it as a coming-of-age tradition, following the social norm entrenched in their inherited custom,” he tells me. In the Filipino community this traditional cultural circumcision is known as Tuli.

In spite of the cultural and religious significance of circumcision, there has been a backlash recently as modern viewpoints on bodily autonomy and consent make it harder for traditional male circumcision to continue. After an influx of Muslim and Jewish immigrants in Germany which began in the 1990s, the number of circumcisions skyrocketed. But in 2012, the Cologne regional court ruled that circumcising young boys was a form of bodily harm and that bodily integrity was more important than parents’ rights.

Not too long after the ruling, legal authorities permitted the ritual under a new law, but this sparked protests in Cologne for ‘genital autonomy’ which called for the ban of all ritual male circumcisions (Yurdakul, 2016). There are also numerous studies that attempt to prove that male circumcision is not necessary and can be damaging to boys. Dr. Young says that circumcision is always a choice and is not something people can disprove. “I guess it’s people’s perspectives,” he says.

“Obviously, people who are anti-circumcision say you don’t need to do it and they’re largely correct because the vast majority of men don’t need to be circumcised for medical reasons. But most people have a fixed view, and a lot of the views are cultural or religious based.”

As for the argument around bodily autonomy, Dr. Young has never heard of a person from any of these cultures who wishes they were not circumcised. “I’ve not had someone when they’re older come back and say, ‘Hey, why the hell did you do this to me?’” Dr. Young laughs.

“I’ve had the reverse though, where they’ve missed out because the parents had decided not to do it. Then, when they got older, they decided to proceed with the operation and said: ‘I wish I was done when I was a child.’”

New Zealand’s own history of circumcision began during World War 2 and caused New Zealand to have one of the highest rates of male circumcision in the Western world. Dr. Young says that men were coming home from war and requesting their children be circumcised. A lot of men had to get circumcised throughout the war because of the lack of hygiene in the trenches, where they had no access to water to clean themselves.

“A lot of people, fathers in particular, said that ‘I’m not gonna let my son go through that so we’re gonna just do circumcision’, so it was offered and done in the ‘50s and early ‘60s as a matter of routine,” says Dr. Young. After the ‘70s, circumcision rates for Caucasian males dropped below 1% but it is still offered to boys and men if later on in life they decide to get the procedure done.

Many people know that circumcision is common in Jewish and Muslim societies and do not realise just how many cultures and religions subscribe to the practice. Dr. Young agrees that being pro or anti-circumcision is a choice, but many studies emphasise the importance of traditional male circumcision in a variety of cultures. As New Zealand becomes more culturally diverse, it is important to be aware of the different practices that remain significant to these cultures and deserve to be respected no matter where they are in the world.

 

 

Sources: 1. Attitudes of Pacific parents to circumcision of boys, Pacific Health Dialogue 2. Filipino Male Experience of Ritual Circumcision: Perspectives and Insights for Philippine-Based Anti-Circumcision Advocacy, Circumcision and human rights 3. Opinions and perceptions regarding traditional male circumcision with related deaths and complications, American Journal of Men’s Health 4. Circumcision: What do women prefer?: Gentle circumcision: Pediatric and adult circumcisions. 5. Male circumcision: Assessment of health benefits and risks. Sexually Transmitted Infections 6. Jews, Muslims and the ritual male circumcision debate: Religious diversity and social inclusion in Germany, Social Inclusion 7. Religion in the Philippines, Asia Society

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