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Origins of Circumcision

The origin of male circumcision is not known with certainty.

It has been variously proposed that it began:

as a religious sacrifice

a rite of passage marking a boy's entrance into adulthood

a form of sympathetic magic to ensure virility or fertility

a means of reducing sexual pleasure

an aid to hygiene where regular bathing was impractical

a means of marking those of higher social status

a means of humiliating enemies and slaves by symbolic castration

a means of differentiating a circumcising group from their non-circumcising neighbors

a means of discouraging masturbation or other socially proscribed sexual behaviors

a means of removing "excess" pleasure, as a means of increasing a man's attractiveness to women

a demonstration of one's ability to endure pain

a male counterpart to menstruation or the breaking of the hymen, or to copy the rare natural occurrence of a missing foreskin of an important leader

a way to repel demonesses, and as a display of disgust of the smegma produced by the foreskin.

There are theories that it promotes good health.

Removing the foreskin can prevent or treat a medical condition known as phimosis, a condition where the foreskin is too tight to be pulled back over the head of the penis. Phimosis is normal in babies and toddlers, but in older children it may be the result of a skin condition that has caused scarring. It isn't usually a problem unless it causes symptoms. Immediate treatment is needed in cases where phimosis causes problems such as difficulty urinating.

Normal development:

Most uncircumcised baby boys have a foreskin that won't pull back (retract) because it's still attached to the glans.

This is perfectly normal for about the first 2 to 6 years. By around the age of 2, the foreskin should start to separate naturally from the glans.

The foreskin of some boys can take longer to separate, but this doesn't mean there's a problem – it'll just detach at a later stage.

**Never try to force your child's foreskin back before it's ready because it may be painful and damage the foreskin.

Phimosis isn't usually a problem unless it causes symptoms such as redness, soreness or swelling. If your child's glans is sore and inflamed, they may have balanitis (inflammation of the head of the penis). Most cases of balanitis can be easily managed using a combination of good hygiene, creams or ointments, and avoiding substances that irritate the penis.

Balanoposthitis can also sometimes be treated by following simple hygiene measures, such as keeping the penis clean by regularly washing it with water and a mild soap or moisturizer.

Topical steroids (a cream, gel or ointment that contains corticosteroids) are sometimes prescribed to treat a tight foreskin. They can help soften the skin of the foreskin, making it easier to retract.

Urine can irritate the glans if it's retained for long periods under the foreskin, so if possible you should withdraw the foreskin to wash the glans.

When surgery may be needed?

Surgery may be needed if a child or adult has severe or persistent balanitis or balanoposthitis that causes their foreskin to be painfully tight.

Circumcision (surgically removing part or all of the foreskin) may be considered if other treatments have failed, but it carries risks such as bleeding and infection.

This means it's usually only recommended as a last resort, although it can sometimes be the best and only treatment option.

Alternatively, surgery to release the adhesions (areas where the foreskin is stuck to the glans) may be possible. This will preserve the foreskin but may not always prevent the problem recurring.

Tribal Rituals:

It has been suggested that the custom of circumcision gave advantages to tribes that practiced it and thus led to its spread.

Congo peoples predominantly have and have had male circumcision that occurred in young warrior initiation. Male circumcision in East Africa is a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood, but is only practiced in some tribes.people of Kenya and the Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania, male circumcision has historically been the graduation element of an educational program that taught tribal beliefs, practices, culture, religion and history to youth who were on the verge of becoming full-fledged members of society.

In some South African ethnic groups, circumcision has roots in several belief systems, and is performed most of the time on teenage boys:

The young men in the eastern Cape belong to the Xhosa ethnic group for whom circumcision is considered part of the passage into manhood. ... A law was recently introduced requiring initiation schools to be licensed and only allowing circumcisions to be performed on youths aged 18 and older. But Eastern Cape provincial Health Department spokesman Sizwe Kupelo told Reuters news agency that boys as young as 11 had died. Each year thousands of young men go into the bush alone, without water, to attend initiation schools. Many do not survive the ordeal.

The circumcision ceremony was very public, and required a display of courage under the knife in order to maintain the honor and prestige of the young man and his family. The only form of anesthesia was a bath in the cold morning waters of a river, which tended to numb the senses to a minor degree. The youths being circumcised were required to maintain a stoic expression and not to flinch from the pain.

After circumcision, young men became members of the warrior class, and were free to date and marry. The graduates became a fraternity that served together, and continued to have mutual obligation to each other for life.

Despite the loss of the rites and ceremonies that accompanied male circumcision in the past, the physical operation remains crucial to personal identity and pride, and acceptance in society.

Uncircumcised men in some communities risk being "outed", and subjected to ridicule as "boys". There have been many cases of forced circumcision of men from such communities who are discovered to have escaped the ritual.

Some suggest that circumcision causes lowered sexual arousal of pubescent males, and hypothesize that this was a competitive advantage to tribes practicing circumcision, leading to its spread.


The alteration of the body and ritual of circumcision were supposed to give access to ancient mysteries reserved solely for the initiated. (See also Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 1.15)

Circumcisions were performed by priests in a public ceremony, using a stone blade. It is thought to have been more popular among the upper echelons of the society, although it was not universal and those lower down the social order are known to have had the procedure done.


ancient Greek aesthetics of the human form considered circumcision a mutilation of a previously perfectly shaped organ. Greek artwork of the period portrayed penises as covered by the foreskin (sometimes in exquisite detail), except in the portrayal of satyrs, lechers, and barbarians.[24] This dislike of the appearance of the circumcised penis led to a decline in the incidence of circumcision among many peoples that had previously practiced it throughout Hellenistic times.

In Egypt, only the priestly caste retained circumcision, and by the 2nd century, the only circumcising groups in the Roman Empire were Jews, Jewish Christians, Egyptian priests, and the Nabatean Arabs.


Circumcision was sufficiently rare among non-Jews that being circumcised was considered conclusive evidence of Judaism.

**The Abrahamic covenant of circumcision defined in the Bible was a relatively minor circumcision; named milah, this involved cutting off the foreskin that extended beyond the glans. The tip was only circumcized and there were procedures to allow the skin to grow back.

**Around 140 CE, to deny such a thing, the procedure was named Brit Peri'ah. In this step, the foreskin was cut further back, to the ridge behind the glans penis, called the coronal sulcus. The inner mucosal tissue was removed by use of a sharp finger nail or implement, including the excising and removal of the frenulum from the underside of the glans.

Later during the Talmudic period (500–625 CE) a third step, known as Metzitzah, began to be practiced. In this step the mohel would suck the blood from the circumcision wound with his mouth to remove what was believed to be bad excess blood. As it actually increases the likelihood of infections such as tuberculosis and venereal diseases, modern day mohels use a glass tube placed over the infant's penis for suction of the blood. In many Jewish ritual circumcisions this step of Metzitzah has been eliminated.

First Maccabees tells us that the Seleucids forbade the practice of brit milah, and punished those who performed it – as well as the infants who underwent it – with death.

The 1st-century Jewish author Philo Judaeus (20 BCE - 50 CE) defended Jewish circumcision on several grounds, including health, cleanliness and fertility. He also thought that circumcision should be done as early as possible as it would not be as likely to be done by someone's own free will. He claimed that the foreskin prevented semen from reaching the vagina and so should be done as a way to increase the nation's population.

He also noted that circumcision should be performed as an effective means to reduce sexual pleasure: "The legislators thought good to dock the organ which ministers to such intercourse thus making circumcision the symbol of excision of excessive and superfluous pleasure." Philo Judaeus, author in antiquity.

The Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1135–1204) insisted that faith should be the only reason for circumcision. He recognized that it was "a very hard thing" to have done to oneself, but that it was done to "quell all the impulses of matter" and "perfect what is defective morally." Sages at the time had recognized that the foreskin heightened sexual pleasure.

Maimonides reasoned that the bleeding and loss of protective covering rendered the penis weakened and in so doing had the effect of reducing a man's lustful thoughts and making sex less pleasurable. He also warned that it is "hard for a woman with whom an uncircumcised man has had sexual intercourse to separate from him.

A 13th-century French disciple of Maimonides, Isaac ben Yediah claimed that circumcision was an effective way of reducing a woman's sexual desire. With a non-circumcised man, he said, she always orgasms first and so her sexual appetite is never fulfilled, but with a circumcised man she receives no pleasure and hardly ever orgasms "because of the great heat and fire burning in her."

According to the Gospel of Thomas saying 53, Jesus said:

"His disciples said to him, "is circumcision useful or not?" He said to them, "If it were useful, their father would produce children already circumcised from their mother. Rather, the true circumcision in spirit has become profitable in every respect."

Parallels to Thomas 53 are found in Paul's Romans 2:29, Philippians 3:3, 1 Corinthians 7:19, Galatians 6:15, Colossians 2:11–12.

The Catholic Church condemned the observance of circumcision as a moral sin and ordered against its practice in the Council of Basel-Florence in 1442.

According to UNAIDS, the papal bull of Union with The Copts issued during that council stated that circumcision was merely unnecessary for Christians.

Papal Bull in reference to circumcision

"It [The Holy Roman Church] firmly believes, professes and teaches that the legal prescriptions of the old Testament or the Mosaic law, which are divided into ceremonies, holy sacrifices and sacraments, because they were instituted to signify something in the future, although they were adequate for the divine cult of that age, once our lord Jesus Christ who was signified by them had come, came to an end and the sacraments of the new Testament had their beginning. Whoever, after the passion, places his hope in the legal prescriptions and submits himself to them as necessary for salvation and as if faith in Christ without them could not save, sins mortally. It does not deny that from Christ's passion until the promulgation of the gospel they could have been retained, provided they were in no way believed to be necessary for salvation. But it asserts that after the promulgation of the gospel they cannot be observed without loss of eternal salvation. Therefore it denounces all who after that time observe circumcision, the sabbath and other legal prescriptions as strangers to the faith of Christ and unable to share in eternal salvation, unless they recoil at some time from these errors. Therefore it strictly orders all who glory in the name of Christian, not to practise circumcision either before or after baptism, since whether or not they place their hope in it, it cannot possibly be observed without loss of eternal salvation."

In the 18th century, Edward Gibbon referred to circumcision as a "singular mutilation" practised only by Jews and Turks and as "a painful and often dangerous rite" ... (R. Darby

By 1910 the entry [in the Encyclopedia Britannica] had been turned on its head:

"This surgical operation, which is commonly prescribed for purely medical reasons, is also an initiation or religious ceremony among Jews and Muslims".

Now it was primarily a medical procedure and only after that a religious ritual.

By 1929 the entry is much reduced in size and consists merely of a brief description of the operation, which is "done as a preventive measure in the infant" and "performed chiefly for purposes of cleanliness". Ironically, readers are then referred to the entries for "Mutilation" and "Deformation" for a discussion of circumcision in its religious context

There were two related concerns that led to the widespread adoption of this surgical procedure at this time. The first was a growing belief within the medical community regarding the efficacy of circumcision in reducing the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, such as syphilis. The second was the notion that circumcision would lessen the urge towards masturbation, or "self abuse" as it was often called.

The Royal Family

The tradition of male circumcision is said to have been practiced within the British Royal Family, with varying accounts regarding which monarch started it: either Queen Victoria on account of her rumored adherence to British Israelism and the notion she was a descendant of King David (or on the advice of her personal physician), or her grandfather King George.

The German-born King George was also the Prince-Elector of Hanover, and rumors existed that the Prince electors were circumcised.

This is highly dubious since there is no evidence that Victoria was a supporter of the British Israeli movement, and the links between the royal family and the ancient House of David were only first proposed by its followers in the 1870s, long after she bore her sons (there is also evidence lacking that her sons, particularly Edward, had circumcisions); there is also no indication that the prince electors (or George himself) were circumcised and that the king introduced it upon his arrival to Britain and his ascension to the throne in 1714.

If male members of the royal family were circumcised, the reason was due to their embrace of a custom popular amongst the upper-classes in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

Prince Charles and his brothers are believed to have been circumcised (the former by a reputable rabbi and mohel), but the supposed tradition ended before the births of William and his brother Harry due to their mother Diana's objections.

Speculations arose in the media that William's son George may have been circumcised following his birth in 2013, but this is also highly unlikely.

Medical concerns:

The first medical doctor to advocate for the adoption of circumcision was the eminent English physician, Jonathan Hutchinson. In 1855, he published a study in which he compared the rate of contraction of venereal disease amongst the gentile and Jewish population of London.

Hutchinson was a notable leader in the campaign for medical circumcision for the next fifty years, publishing A plea for circumcision in the British Medical Journal (1890), where he contended that the foreskin "... constitutes a harbor for filth, and is a constant source of irritation. It conduces to masturbation, and adds to the difficulties of sexual continence. It increases the risk of syphilis in early life, and of cancer in the aged."

As can be seen, he was also a convert to the idea that circumcision would prevent masturbation, a great Victorian concern. In an 1893 article, On circumcision as a preventive of masturbation he wrote: "I am inclined to believe that [circumcision] may often accomplish much, both in breaking the habit [of masturbation] as an immediate result, and in diminishing the temptation to it subsequently.

Circumcision for Women:

The controversial obstetrical surgeon Isaac Baker Brown founded the London Surgical Home for Women in 1858, where he worked on advancing surgical procedures. In 1866, Baker Brown described the use of clitoridectomy, the removal of the clitoris, as a cure for several conditions, including epilepsy, catalepsy and mania, which he attributed to masturbation.

In On the Curability of Certain Forms of Insanity, Epilepsy, Catalepsy, and Hysteria in Females, he gave a 70 per cent success rate using this treatment.

However, during 1866, Baker Brown began to receive negative feedback from within the medical profession from doctors who opposed the use of clitoridectomies and questioned the validity of Baker Brown's claims of success. An article appeared in The Times in December, which was favorable towards Baker Brown's work but suggested that Baker Brown had treated women of unsound mind.

He was also accused of performing clitoridectomies without the consent or knowledge of his patients or their families. In 1867 he was expelled from the Obstetrical Society of London for carrying out the operations without consent.

Baker Brown's ideas were more accepted in the United States, where, from the 1860s, the operation was being used to cure hysteria, nymphomania, and in young girls what was called "rebellion" or "unfeminine aggression".

Cure for Paralysis:

Lewis Sayre, New York orthopedic surgeon, became a prominent advocate for circumcision in America. In 1870, he examined a five-year-old boy who was unable to straighten his legs, and whose condition had so far defied treatment.

Upon noting that the boy's genitals were inflamed, Sayre hypothesized that chronic irritation of the boy's foreskin had paralyzed his knees via reflex neurosis. Sayre circumcised the boy, and within a few weeks, he recovered from his paralysis. After several additional incidents in which circumcision also appeared effective in treating paralyzed joints, Sayre began to promote circumcision as a powerful orthopedic remedy. Sayre's prominence within the medical profession allowed him to reach a wide audience.

1890's Practitioners:

As more practitioners tried circumcision as a treatment for otherwise intractable medical conditions, sometimes achieving positive results, the list of ailments reputed to be treatable through circumcision grew. By the 1890s, hernia, bladder infections, kidney stones, insomnia, chronic indigestion, rheumatism, epilepsy, asthma, bedwetting, Bright's disease, erectile dysfunction, syphilis, insanity, and skin cancer had all been linked to the foreskin, and many physicians advocated universal circumcision as a preventive health measure.

Specific medical arguments aside, several hypotheses have been raised in explaining the public's acceptance of infant circumcision as preventive medicine. The success of the germ theory of disease had not only enabled physicians to combat many of the postoperative complications of surgery, but had made the wider public deeply suspicious of dirt and bodily secretions. Accordingly, the smegma that collects under the foreskin was viewed as unhealthy, and circumcision readily accepted as good penile hygiene.

Stopping masturbation:

Secondly, moral sentiment of the day regarded masturbation as not only sinful, but also physically and mentally unhealthy, stimulating the foreskin to produce the host of maladies of which it was suspected. In this climate, circumcision could be employed as a means of discouraging masturbation.


During the same time period, circumcision was becoming easier to perform. William Stewart Halsted's 1885 discovery of hypodermic cocaine as a local anesthetic made it easier for doctors without expertise in the use of chloroform and other general anesthetics to perform minor surgeries.

Devices to prevent masturbation:

A device designed to prevent masturbation by inflicting electric shocks upon the perpetrator, by ringing an alarm bell, and through spikes at the inner edge of the tube into which the penis is inserted. Circumcision was also recommended to prevent masturbation.

In the 1890s, it became a popular technique to prevent, or cure, masturbatory insanity. In 1891 the president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England published On Circumcision as Preventive of Masturbation, and two years later another British doctor wrote Circumcision: Its Advantages and How to Perform It, which listed the reasons for removing the "vestigial" prepuce. Evidently the foreskin could cause "nocturnal incontinence," hysteria, epilepsy, and irritation that might "give rise to erotic stimulation and, consequently, masturbation." Another physician, P.C. Remondino, added that "circumcision is like a substantial and well-secured life annuity ... it insures better health, greater capacity for labor, longer life, less nervousness, sickness, loss of time, and less doctor bills." No wonder it became a popular remedy.

At the same time circumcisions were advocated on men, clitoridectomies (removal of the clitoris) were also performed for the same reason (to treat female masturbators). The US "Orificial Surgery Society" for female "circumcision" operated until 1925, and clitoridectomies and infibulations would continue to be advocated by some through the 1930s.

19th Century:

In the 19th century the role of the foreskin in erotic sensation was well understood by physicians who wanted to cut it off precisely because they considered it the major factor leading boys to masturbation.

The Victorian physician and venereologist William Acton (1814–1875) damned it as "a source of serious mischief", and most of his contemporaries concurred. Both opponents and supporters of circumcision agreed that the significant role the foreskin played in sexual response was the main reason why it should be either left in place or removed.

William Hammond, a Professor of Mind in New York in the late 19th century, commented that "circumcision, when performed in early life, generally lessens the voluptuous sensations of sexual intercourse", and both he and Acton considered the foreskin necessary for optimal sexual function, especially in old age.

Jonathan Hutchinson, English surgeon and pathologist (1828–1913), and many others, thought this was the main reason why it should be excised.

Mainstream pediatric manuals continued to recommend circumcision as a deterrent against masturbation until the 1950s.

Infant circumcision was taken up in the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and the English-speaking parts of Canada. Although it is difficult to determine historical circumcision rates, one estimate of infant circumcision rates in the United States holds that 30% of newborn American boys were being circumcised in 1900, 55% in 1925, and 72% in 1950.


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