Circumcision: not always the most palatable topic of conversation for first dates or dinner parties, but a practice which remains rife for examination within ritual studies. Circumcision is somewhat unique as a ritual in that it is a religious rite that has also transcended its sacred origins to become a relatively common procedure in Western society. As a medical treatment, it is believed to have preventative benefits, and an estimated one-third of males are circumcised.
Utilizing flesh and blood to perform the sacred is a recurring theme within ritual, but circumcision as a practice in both a religious and secular context has attracted its fair share of objectors. Most of these arguments hinge on ethical concerns of consent, given that it is a practice usually performed on infants at the discretion of their parents. Namely, there is concern that the normalization of circumcision produces conditions whereby people feel pressured to conform or face social alienation. This is interesting if we think of how ritual works to connect people and provide a common identity within a community – for circumcision, the religious meaning can be omitted by those who practice it, but it can still cause those who remain “intact” to face pressure or alienation.
As a religious obligation, mainly those within Judaism and Islam practice circumcision as a representation of an individual’s relationship to God. In Judaism, circumcision is an externalization of one’s covenant with God, as first made by Abraham. While Judaism prioritizes the symbolic function of circumcision, within Islam it is associated with bodily cleanliness, as the practice is called tahera, meaning “purification.”[i] Both within Judaism and Islam, infants are circumcised and thus the pain of being cut is eliminated from their consciousness as they grow older, unlike other rituals where pain is rendered at a time where it can truly be felt and thus “makes the message more immediate and permanent” as Ariel Glucklich argues in his book Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul.[ii]
Objectors to circumcision problematize religious obligation as a justification for circumcision: “Nearly all Muslim and Jewish boys around the globe are circumcised for “religious” reasons — as if faith and religious conviction could be carved into a baby with a knife… the true reasons that these parents allow their sons to be circumcised are based on fears of social ostracism and expulsion from the community[iii]”
This remark implicates the importance of circumcision as a ritual that contributes to community structures within religious societies, while harshly condemning religiosity as a force which promotes what is thought to be mutilation. A justification which uses religion is seen as a deflection for the real issue, which is that it reinforces a social standard that improperly harms individuals. Conversely, in the context of Judaism and Islam, circumcision promotes social unity – the authors’ analysis dismisses the symbolic function of circumcision and role within cultural identity.
What makes circumcision a particular source of scrutiny for many is how it transgresses the boundaries of an intact body, particularly the male body. The word circumcision itself comes from the Latin circumcidere, meaning “to cut around.”[iv] To be cut, especially an area of the body that one is particularly compelled to protect, creates discomfort even for those who accept circumcision. Circumcision, when framed as a “penile wounding”, places the site of danger and instability within the same value system which perceives the ideal male body as clean and intact. This is in contrast to the female body, which is framed as one that is porous and open. A blurring of these boundaries is offensive and holds connotation for emasculation.
Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) take these perspectives to severe and sometimes bizarre conclusions, and have begun touting anti-circumcision rhetoric within their agendas. These self-proclaimed “intactivists” describe circumcision as “male genital mutilation” that not only causes Oedipus and castration complexes but is a result of “misandrist oppression.”[v] It is ironic that MRAs borrow from psychoanalysis, in that we may read their paranoia using the same lens as resulting from repressed sexual frustration. The act of circumcision threatens the genitalia and thus the site of masculinity, as the act involves a “wounding” that may render the male body “woman-like” in that it is no longer intact.
The danger of the body becoming unnatural or lacking in boundaries appeals to specific forms of fear that have been undertaken in various ways by those who object to circumcision. The religious meaning of circumcision is dismissed as illegitimate, so we may think of how this practice has become secularized while retaining elements of its ritual function, in that it can still be used to determine inclusion within a community.
Olivia Dumas is a 4th year Gender Studies and Religious Studies student at Queen’s University. She lives in a haunted house and is probably watching Seinfeld as
[i] The United Nations. “Male Circumcision: Global trends and determinants of prevalence, safety and acceptability.” Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS. Last edited in 2007. http://www.unaids.org/sites/default/files/media_asset/jc1360_male_circumcision_en_2.pdf
[ii] Glucklich, A. Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001.
[iii] Denniston, G.C. et al. Bodily Integrity and the Politics of Circumcision: Culture, Controversy, and Change. New York: Springer, 2006.
[iv] O’Grady, J., and Taugher, C. “Circumcision: Ritual and Surgery.” The Global Library of Women’s Medicine. Last Modified January, 2008. DOI: 10.3843/GLOWM.10144 https://www.glowm.com/section_view/heading/Circumcision:%20Ritual%20and%20Surgery/item/144#5901
[v] (author). “The Circumcision Complex: The True Name of the Castration Complex.” Circumcision Complex. Last edited (DATE). http://www.circumcisioncomplex.com/the-true-name-of-the-castration-complex/