Science & Health

Rationalists and circumcision

On 14 April 2023, it will be 10 years since I sent out the very first edition of ‘RSA Daily’. 

Every weekday morning for a decade, I have checked about 100 websites and skimmed over about 700 headlines to choose no more than 10 articles to send to my loyal subscribers before 8 a.m., keeping them informed of news and views of interest to the freethought community. And I add a brief editorial, drawing attention to the more interesting or insightful pieces.

One of those pieces shared last week was titled, ‘Circumcision: the human rights violation that no one wants to talk about’. It argued that male circumcision and female genital mutilation (FGM) are both harmful and morally unacceptable practices, and that human rights bodies are slowly but surely waking up to the inconsistency in the social, political and legal treatment of the two.

Opposition to medically unnecessary, non-consensual circumcision has been a campaign item for the Rationalist Society of Australia since 2017, when we published an Occasional Paper called ‘Genital Autonomy’, written by our then vice president, Jonathan Meddings.

Since then, Jonathan has gone on to become chair of the Darbon Institute, an organisation that advocates for everyone’s right to bodily integrity and autonomy, and works toward a future where “no child is subjected to genital mutilation, and every baby is brought home whole”.

But back to that article in RSA Daily. Conscious that circumcision is a sensitive topic and that, as a woman, I have no personal experience of it, I invited readers to send me their thoughts. Here’s what I got at first (somewhat edited for length):

Hi Meredith, you asked for a comment about MGM. Will you accept a male’s perspective? I ask, because it really strikes me that women are far more concerned about this than men, even though we men are the ones who have had to either be chopped and know no other (such as myself) or have foreskins that are too short, too tight, too fleshy and have to [be] removed anyway. Not to mention the obvious reason, hygiene, for the practice in origin.

Personally, I’ve never had a problem with the fact I was chopped, neither in terms of sexual ability or any of the other reasons being bandied about. …

The issue seems to be a rather pathetic thing to be getting worked up about when we still haven’t sorted out climate change, religious dominance of society, or even a decent education system.

On the other hand, I was never asked. I don’t really have a problem with that, but I suppose it would have been nice to have had a choice…

Female genital mutilation is a practice designed to assert control over the woman. Circumcising does nothing of that. In fact, it might appear to make us males even more horrible. It’s a club badge, as you well know, a symbol of early Christian gentility. If, as some have said, it reduces the sensations in the penis during sex, then I can only say so much the better. Men are already guilty enough of behaving badly, sandworm or not, and if chopping off an annoying flap of skin clams [sic] us down even a little, it might be worth it…

And then there was this:

I suspect the fairly apathetic response to your call for comments, cutting or otherwise, on circumcision is a product of social conditioning and the fact that ongoing physical injury is rare. I think also that it is very significant that circumcision doesn’t affect a bloke’s enjoyment of sex. Contrast this with what happens to women. I’m pretty sure if men’s sex lives were affected the topic would be at the, ahem, forefront of their minds.

The benighted religious insistence on male circumcision indicates more inconsistencies than five-second mashed potato: “I love you, son, so I’m gonna chop a bit off you”; “Now you are part of a great, ongoing tradition that has held our people together for millennia. We are united in our cruelty”…

I’ll let you in on a secret: blokes don’t spend a lot of time worried about whether they’re circumcised or not. The main issue, trust me, is whether it makes them look bigger, or smaller…

I was surprised. I would have thought Rationalists would judge this issue from a disinterested perspective and comment on the principle of whether it’s morally acceptable to cut off parts of another human being’s body, particularly when they are in no position to provide consent, and when these days there is no compelling reason to do it, the hygiene reason having been pretty much rebutted in recent years. Instead, I got generalisations from personal experience, with the message being, “Doesn’t worry me, my sex life has been fine thank you very much.”

Then, I got this: 

The gaslighting statement made by the Rationalist Society regarding circumcision is in poor taste. “The majority are ok with it” is not ok.  The responses you received are most likely perpetrators writing in to justifying their actions. The people most affected by this intrusion on their bodily autonomy have not spoken up for fear of being shouted down by this kind of gaslighting. This is classic victim blaming where those who feel harmed are made to feel bad by those who are doing the harm.

There is significant evidence of both physical and psychological harm caused to children and the adults they become caused by this hideous ritual.

All children should have protection from genital cutting.

I expected better from the Rationalist Society.

I was taken aback. I thought I had made it plain that the RSA was opposed to genital cutting of children, be they male or female, but I was being accused of gaslighting. 

Clearly, my editorial summarising the early submitted comments had failed to get this message across. Fortunately, the writer of this last message left a mobile number in his email, so I called him. After about 20 minutes of discussion, the misunderstanding was cleared up and, in the process, I learned a lot. 

I learned that this is, indeed, a sensitive issue for all sorts of reasons, but perhaps most of all, because it involves personal pride or shame.

I also learned that sometimes simply speaking with someone who appears to attack you can, indeed, lead to a constructive outcome. I’m reminded of one of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: first seek to understand before being understood.

Subsequently I received more emails, mainly focusing on the issue of lack of consent but also criticising the religious tradition and the pressure to conform. One commented:

It seems to me that this question simply turns on the relative risks and morality of carrying out these procedures immediately without permission, or waiting until informed and voluntary consent can be given by the person involved. 

Another wrote:

Agree with you entirely, Meredith. Although I was circumcised shortly after birth as was standard practice in the late 1950s, and have never been dissatisfied with the form or function of the organ. It was a procedure performed without my informed consent. As should be the case for ANY elective surgery performed essentially for cosmetic purposes, the patient must be able to furnish consent based on a full understanding of the nature, consequences and risks involved in undertaking the procedure.

One person, born and raised in the Jewish community but now a committed atheist, said:

It won’t come as a surprise to you that I’m completely opposed to ritual circumcision. Apart from considerations of whether there are benefits, I just find it completely daft for otherwise intelligent people to believe it’s the right thing to do — and based on imagined instructions from their imaginary friend. I’d like to see legislation to ban the practice even though I’d likely be a traitor in the eyes of the Jewish community.

Another shared their experience from South Africa:

Having tested both varieties (with and without), I can attest that performance is not affected. In the 1980s, circumcision was the norm in white South African circles. However, we did not have our son circumcised (for all the reasons you have mentioned). When he went to primary school, he was teased because he looked different. He came home in tears and I told him that he was perfect and that the other boys had had their willie heads cut off! He then had a great response to the next comment. The other boys went home in tears, parents contacted the school and I was called in to account, which I did so satisfactorily in my Inimitable fashion.

One writer shared their experience from childhood growing up in Germany:

I grew up in Germany and, if my memory doesn’t fail me, it wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I became aware that some people had their penis cut! Shock, horror. Why on Earth would one submit to such ignominy. Why would parents do that to their babies? They cry out in pain, don’t they? That makes it child abuse. OK, so it’s for religious, customary reasons. One more reason to reject religious customs … as if one more reason really was needed. 

And then there was one that criticised my ability to think rationally. I note that, on first reading, this writer appears to be saying that I can’t think rationally because I am a woman. But, on closer inspection, I don’t think he is meaning this, but rather pointing out that, as a woman, I don’t have personal experience of circumcision – which is true, and which I admitted at the outset: 

I’ve been reading your comments over the last two days about the MGM issue, and in spite of your expressed rational attitude, I suspect you are in fact thinking about this irrationally and as a woman. It strikes me that there is a certain amount of unacceptance of the male experience, (and whose else is it?) and that we should automatically adhere to the same reasonable morals that apply to FGM. 

The difference between the two practices is striking, and that seems to have been ignored. If you’d care to pay attention, there are quite a number of unnecessary non-clinical practices that humans engage in and seem acceptable. The problem in your reasoning is that you are seeing the MGM and FGM as similar because of their location on the body. Not the same. If there was ever a reason for women to be anti-patriarchal, it is the disgraceful habits that have been forced upon them by stronger and more selfish creatures.

As for my own experiences, I have never known an honest man who thinks that MGM is a major social issue causing real physical and social harm. Note, HONEST. That word is integral to the conversation. I believe in critical thinking and reason and rationality, and that is the very reason why I have had to write this. It is not an honest thing to compare the two, to even call the male practice ‘mutilation’ is to engage at an emotionally compromised level, typical of a kind of subjectivity I often find amongst News Corp watchers or irrational feminazi. It’s a category error.

As for necessity, I admit there is no good argument in favour of circumcision, especially clinically, but there are likewise no genuine clinical reasons against it. The basic religious practice behind it is contemptible, as is any religious practice. Any argument that it lessens or greatness [sic] sexual experiences is unproved and cannot be proved since enjoyment is subjective. Any medical analysis of nerve endings is likewise irrelevant for the same reason.

This is one of the rare times that I would be willing to suggest that rationality and sensible commentary is being overridden by female sentimentality and a somewhat feminist inability to accept that not all animals are equal, but that none are more equal than others.

Well, I leave it up to my readers to judge whether I am indulging in ‘female sentimentality’, but I do reject the assumption that feminism necessarily entails not accepting that “not all animals are equal”. Feminism is not about women trying to be the same as men, but about having the same rights as men.

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Photo by Mitchell Hollander on Unsplash.


About Meredith Doig

Dr Meredith Doig OAM FAICD has been president of the Rationalist Society of Australia Inc since 2011. She is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors and an expert in governance. Her Australian honour was for service to business, to higher education and to the community.

3 thoughts on “Rationalists and circumcision

  1. Craig Sankey says:

    Well done on 10 years Meredith, you do a great job with the RSA daily. I agree with your thoughts on this as well (as a man). Not required and unnecassary surgery is always a risk.

    1. Meredith Doig says:

      Thanks, Craig, for the kind words. Much appreciated. M

  2. Michael Glass says:

    Hello Meredith,
    I’m glad you raised the subject of circumcision. The Medicare subsidy for male circumcision really needs to be reexamined, if only because it’a being used to subsidise female circumcision. Here are the facts, taken directly from Medicare statistics:

    Female circumcision never appeared in Medicare statistics before July 2013. On 1 July 2013, guidelines from the Australian Government on sex and gender stated that the chromosomal, gonadal and anatomical characteristics associated with biological sex are distinct from gender. Male hysterectomies, female vasectomies and a decade of “female circumcision” followed.

    From 1 July 2013 to 31 October 2023:

    * 2,222 girls and women were “circumcised”.
    * 898 were less than 5 years old.
    * 170 were between the ages of 5 and 15.
    * 1,068 of the 2,222 females ‘circumcised’ under Medicare were under 15.

    You would think that these statistics would make people sit up and take notice. No way! Of the few that take notice, most seem to fall over themselves to explain these statistics away.

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