Academic journal article Journal of Social History

The Masturbation Taboo and the Rise of Routine Male Circumcision: A Review of the Historiography. (Review Essay)

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

The Masturbation Taboo and the Rise of Routine Male Circumcision: A Review of the Historiography. (Review Essay)

Article excerpt

Although it is becoming rare as a routine procedure on newborn males, circumcision in both a medical and cultural/religious context has been the focus of increasing attention from medical historians. With the publication of David Gollaher's path-breaking investigations into its history, international efforts to ban the circumcision of women (female genital mutilation) as performed by some traditional Islamic and east African cultures, continuing protests against the survival of routine circumcision of male infants in the United States and parts of Canada, and a contrasting campaign on the part of some medical conservatives in Britain, the USA and Australia to restore the practice as a public health measure, scholarly interest in the origins and evolution of "the world's most controversial surgery" has never been more intense. Not that many definitive answers have emerged. Contrary to the mantra which opens nearly every article on the subject in medical journals (that circumcision is the oldest surgical operat ion known to man, practised by many ancient cultures etc), circumcision as a medically rationalised procedure is a recent invention, dating from the eighteenth century. Even as a religious ritual, circumcision was practised by only a few tribal societies, mostly living in desert regions: the Semtitic and Hamitic peoples of north and east Africa and the Middle East, and the Aboriginal people of central Australia are the most notable. (1) Therapeutic circumcision was first introduced as a treatment for severe venereal infection of the penis (often causing scabs which fused the foreskin to the glans) and was no more than a last-ditch amputation of incurably diseased tissue; even then it was not performed often because most men were reluctant to lose part of their most prized possession. (2) The concept of circumcision as a preventive, and then routine, procedure emerged in the mid-nineteenth century, though the reasons for this development remain contested. In a recent historical survey, Dunsmuir and Gordon cite prevention or cure of impotence, phimosis, sterility, priapism, masturbation, venereal disease, epilepsy, bed-wetting, night terrors, "precocious sexual unrest" and homosexuality as among the contradictory benefits urged by Victorian and Edwardian physicians in Britain and the USA, without offering any firm suggestions of their own as to the relative weight of these factors. (3) Circumcision as a "routine" (that is, involuntary) operation on male infants was practised only in the English-speaking world; in its place of origin, Britain, it lasted only from the 1870s to the 1940s and probably affected no more than a third of boys at its peak--points which emphasise the importance of cultural and religious factors in explaining its rise and fall. (4) Other authorities, however, stress the medical origins and continuing value of the procedure as a health precaution. According to Brian Morris, "the Victorians cited many of the same medical conditions associated with uncircumcised penises as do people today," whil e the idea that mass circumcision was introduced in the nineteenth century to discourage boys from masturbating is "in fact a falsehood that has been promoted by anti-circumcision groups." (5) As a contemporary champion of the routine circumcision of male infants, Professor Morris is very critical of the unscientific approach of anti-circumcision activists, but it is strange to see him endorsing the Victorian enthusiasm for circumcision as consistent with today's arguments in its favour, yet denying that control of masturbation had anything to do with the matter.

It is this issue that I wish to address here. By means of a review of the historiography of both the masturbation phobia and the rise of routine circumcision I hope to shed light on how significant the aim of preventing masturbation was in this process. To anticipate my conclusions, I shall argue that it has been widely accepted by medical historians since the 1950s that discouraging masturbation was a major reason why doctors, educationists and childcare experts sought to introduce widespread circumcision of both boys and girls in the nineteenth century, a campaign which was successful in the former case, unsuccessful in the latter--an outcome which still colours popular concepts about what constitutes genital mutilation. …

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