By Nayla Lee
John Harvey Kellogg (yes, the cereal guy) advocated for circumcision as an anti-masturbation technique. In his book Plain Facts for Old and Young, he wrote “The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment.” He later invented corn flakes in another attempt to inhibit sexual appetites. But what is circumcision, exactly? Phallic circumcision is the surgical removal of the foreskin, a fold of skin that covers the glans (head) of the penis. In the United States, non-ritual circumcisions are most often performed in the hospitals within 48 hours of birth.
The Gomco clamp is the most popular in-hospital circumcision instrument in the United States. During these procedures, a medical device is used to break the bond between the foreskin and glans, and an incision is made on the foreskin. The foreskin is then rolled back, and a bell-shaped cap is placed over the glans. The foreskin is returned to its normal placement around the head, and a clamp is placed at the corona (where the shaft meets the glans). The skin around the top of the clamp is detached with a scalpel, and the procedure is done (usually within about ten minutes, or longer depending on how long the clamps are in place). When anesthesia is used, it is local (meaning it is only injected into the affected area, as opposed to general anesthetic or “going under” which can be extremely risky).
This is not going to be a piece about the relative merits or drawbacks of circumcision. There are people staunchly in both camps, and valid arguments for both, and I am nowhere near an expert. I watched a video (okay, a lot of videos), and it turned my tummy, but so would pretty much any surgical procedure. The internet is full of conflicting information, and I wouldn’t want to pass something along only to later find out I am way out of my element.
While researching this topic, however, I leared a bunch of really interesting things that can fly under the radar in light of such a heated debate. For example, the origins of the tradition in the first place. It is uncertain where and when the first phallic circumcision was performed, and motivations vary regionally.
Research on its history in Africa was published by scholar Jeff Marck, who notes that in the region between the Niger and Congo rivers, circumcision was performed as part of warrior initiation and training. In Kenya and Tanzania, unanesthetized public circumcision ceremonies were traditionally seen as displays of courage that signified readiness for adulthood. While these elaborate ordeals are largely a thing of the past, the tradition of circumcision still remains.
Religious circumcision can be traced back to the Old Testament. In the book of Genesis, God tells ninety-nine year old Abraham to circumcise himself, his descendants, and his slaves as a sign of the covenant between them. Judaism and Islam, which are Abrahamic religions, traditionally observe this ritual. The Jewish tradition, called a bris or a brit milah, is performed by a mohel, usually when the baby is 8 days old, unless there are health complications.
Like many features of bodily modification, styles and trends affect circumcision. One interviewee brought up an interesting piece of history from the Hellenistic period: circumcision was not popular with the Greeks, and for the sake of participation in sports and bath houses, some Jews would attempt to make their foreskins appear uncircumcised. This was possible because, until around 140 CE, circumcision was performed in the milah style, which removed considerably less skin.
Today, foreskin restoration can be performed in more sophisticated ways. One method is tissue expansion. This technique stretches skin tissue in order for new skin cells to grow. It can also include the use of balloons to be slowly expanded beneath the skin in order to promote growth. Another non-surgical method uses weights to stretch the skin, and is nicknamed “tugging.” Surgical methods include skin grafts, and are considered less safe than their slower counterparts. Reasons cited on CIRP (the Circumcision Information and Resource Pages) for the procedures include enhancing sensitivity, reducing premature ejaculation, and aincreasing mobility and glide.