Editors' Note: Guest blogger Alaric DeArment grew up in Washington and Oregon, spent three years in China and went to college in Indiana. He now works as a journalist in New York.
On Memorial Day, I went to get lunch at one of the only places that stayed open in the predominantly Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn where I live: a kosher fast food restaurant. While waiting for my fish and chips, I noticed a sign on the wall above the counter: "Planning a bris? We can help with all your needs -- except for the mohel." Taco Bell, this was not.
But it also served as a reminder of the importance of ritual circumcision in the Jewish religion, such that while a gentile atheist like me with a penchant for Freudian slips would struggle to avoid asking the clerk about the status of my bris and chips, an Orthodox Jewish customer would likely not find its placement at all unusual. I'm the son of an anthropologist, and I grew up in a multiracial and multicultural household, so I learned from an early age to reserve judgment with regard to other cultures and avoid imposing my own cultural sense of propriety.
Thus, the blatant insensitivity displayed by Matthew Hess, the sponsor of a ballot initiative in San Francisco that would ban circumcision of males under 18 -- including ritual circumcision practiced by Jews and Muslims -- was already palpable when he released an online comic in which a blond-haired Übermensch of a superhero named Foreskin Man battles Monster Mohel as the latter tries to circumcise a newborn. Needless to say, Hess has faced numerous accusations of anti-Semitic sentiments over the comic, which is replete with crude stereotypes about Jews.
Because of the initiative's deliberate disregard for religious practices protected under the First Amendment and its trampling of the rights of two minority groups in the name of turning some people's values into law -- something that we as GLBT people should find repugnant, given our ample experience with referendums on our rights sold under the guise of "protecting" values and institutions -- it's unlikely that the initiative will ever make it past a judge's scrutiny, assuming it wins in the first place. A similar initiative, in Santa Monica, Calif., has been withdrawn.
Unfortunately, Hess' apparent mission to discredit himself and cast himself as just another one of those "intactivist" weirdos who hang around outside hospitals has resulted in most of the debate focusing on how the initiative would violate religious freedom. As a result, it's ruined an opportunity to have a real debate about the American tradition of routine circumcision. I use the term "tradition" because, while routine circumcision is considered a medical procedure and often promoted as a protective measure against urinary tract infections, penile cancer and sexually transmitted infections, it really has more to do with entrenched cultural values that ultimately stem from the misguided medical thinking of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
I'm one of those rare American guys who was spared the scalpel. And like most uncut guys in this country, I was sometimes made fun of as a kid for having an anteater because, for my mushroom-bearing tormentors, it was just dirty, gross and abnormal. It's not because I had bad hygiene, but because Americans have formed an emotional association between circumcision and cleanliness despite the lack of any intrinsic relationship between the two. This emotional association often causes negative reactions to the very term "uncircumcised penis," thus making routine circumcision a cultural tradition rather than a tenable medical practice.
As such, I've approached with skepticism recent studies showing that circumcision can reduce the risk of STIs, including HIV. When news of HIV and circumcision studies in sub-Saharan Africa emerged, newspapers and magazines around the country made a big deal of them, and the San Francisco Chronicle even published an editorial recommending routine circumcision. Now, whenever the U.S. media cover the initiative in San Francisco, they include a little blurb about studies that have shown circumcision can cut the risk of STIs, including HIV. But they never bother mentioning that condoms can prevent the spread of most STIs by almost 100%, or the obvious fact that an uncut guy with a condom has a lower risk of getting infected with something than a cut guy without one.
Circumcision has also long been touted as a preventive measure against urinary tract infections and penile cancer. But the American Cancer Association no longer recommends circumcision as a prevention for penile cancer: Studies showing it offered protection were flawed because after they were controlled for men with poor hygiene and phimosis, a condition in which the foreskin can't be retracted, the benefit was no longer seen. And according to the American Urological Association, urinary tract infections occur in 12 percent of men and 2 percent of boys -- compared with 40 percent of women and 6 percent of girls -- and, as long as they're not allowed to go untreated for too long, they're curable with a oral antibiotics.
But from my experience, most anteater-phobia in America stems from the misconception that uncut is unclean. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, at least not from my experience. From 2001 to 2004, I lived in China, where most non-Muslim men are uncut. In fact, the Mandarin word for the head of the penis, "guitou," literally translates into "turtle head" because of the resemblance of the foreskin moving over the head to a turtle's neck skin moving over its head when it emerges from its shell, an indication that being uncut has historically been the norm there. Whenever I was in the public shower on my then-boyfriend's college campus in the coastal city of Lianyungang and observed the other bathers -- because if I'm in a room full of slender, naked college boys, I tend to do a lot of observing -- I noticed they were fairly meticulous about cleaning themselves down there, including washing under their foreskins.
One reason is because they're taught to clean themselves properly from an early age, usually by their fathers. But in the United States, many guys who are uncut -- including me -- are because of Baby Boomer and Generation X parents who rejected circumcision, but sometimes didn't know the fine art of pulling back the foreskin, applying soap and rinsing. I admit that while I knew how to clean myself before I went to China, I didn't quite master it until I saw the guys there doing it because I didn't have anyone to teach me when I was growing up.
When I came back to the United States to finish college, I ended up in Indiana, a state with such a high percentage of circumcised men that I'm surprised "foreskin" even appears in dictionaries there. Sampling the local menfolk, I often detected some rather funky smells emanating from my bedfellows' nether regions. When showering with them, I noticed they simply allowed the water to run over their private parts, but didn't do any real scrubbing. They apparently thought they didn't need to do much because they were circumcised. I also noticed they had difficulty masturbating, having to use spit, lubricant or even their underwear to provide traction. Not surprisingly, circumcision was originally promoted in English-speaking countries during the Victorian era as a way to prevent boys from masturbating, though the United States remains the only such country where it has remained common.
By contrast, I and most of the men I met in China needed nothing more than the parts we'd had since birth. Curiously, however, some men in China are getting circumcised today because they think it's "cleaner," so while we don't seem to have a lot of manufactured goods to export to China, we have plenty of silly ideas to send there. According to some literature I've read, similar thinking has taken hold in South Korea, where circumcised American servicemen have inspired many Korean parents to have their own sons circumcised.
If the goal is to call this misguided American tradition into question and eventually make it go out of fashion, then the San Francisco ballot initiative is the wrong way to go because it violates religious freedom and because if it passes and parents still want to have their sons circumcised, they can simply go to the next county. Making sure that parents are well-informed and teach their sons to bathe properly and not base their self-esteem on how identical their penises are to those of other guys in the locker room while eliminating routine circumcision from health insurance and Medicaid plans are much smarter ways to approach the issue.
But though Matthew Hess is at best culturally insensitive, at worst anti-Semitic and most definitely a loon, routine circumcision is a practice that should be questioned because it's a cosmetic surgery that permanently alters the body but offers no real medical benefit.