Understanding origins of the word
The word “circumcision” draws from the Latin word circumcidere, meaning “to cut around”.
While there are variations to the method of skin removal, and amount of skin removed, a circumcision generally refers to the removal of the foreskin from a male individual.
Some circles consider circumcision a form of male genital mutilation. Other forms of male genital mutilation from history include the mid foreskin incision, to extreme skin stripping and subincision, which does not carry any medical benefit.
While the origin of the act of circumcision is not known with certainty, it is far older than recorded history.
The global distributions of the male and female genital mutilations among native, non-Western peoples, supported by history and archaeology, suggest that these procedures may have originated in the deserts of Northeast Africa and the Near East. This was likely followed by a diffusion outward into sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania and other parts of the New World. They have generally been transmitted from one region to another by relocation diffusion or by military conquest.
Early Evidence of Circumcisions
The Egyptians give the earliest known unambiguous evidence of male genital mutilations, performed as a puberty rite during the early Dynastic era, in about 2300 BC. However, it is likely that genital mutilations were introduced even before that, when the Nile Valley was invaded by militant pastoral nomads, and culturally transformed around 3100 BC.
The oldest documented written evidence for it also comes from ancient Egypt, documented by The Greek historian Herodotus in 5th century BC.
According to biblical scripture, the Hebrews institutionalized the removal of foreskin after the Exodus from Egypt, making it a special mark of the tribe. It is a part of Judaistic religious law that dates back to the days of Abraham. It is also an established practice in Islam, Coptic Christianity, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. These mutilations appeared widely across the Near East prior to the rise of Moslem armies in the 600s A.D., and were subsequently spread wherever Moslem armies ventured. While neither male nor female genital mutilations have any specific Koranic mandate, Mohammed thought them to be “desirable,” and they predominated Moslem areas. Still, there are regions of non-Moslem Africa and Oceania which possess the mutilations as a probable diffusion from ancient, pre-Moslem times.
Many theories have been proposed as to its purpose including as a religious sacrifice and as a rite of passage marking a boy’s entrance into adulthood. Other theories postulate that circumcision began as a way of “purifying” individuals and society by reducing sexuality and sexual pleasure.
Male genital mutilations were never adopted widely in Europe, European Australia, Canada, Latin America, in the Orient, or by Hindus, Southeast Asians, or Native Americans.
Modern Day Popularization and Medical Applications of Circumcision
The spread of infant circumcision to the United States during the late 1800s and early 1900s is a recent phenomenon. Circumcision only gained in importance in the U.S. after allopathic medical doctors, playing upon prevailing sexual anxieties, urged it as a “cure” for a long list of childhood diseases and “disorders”, including polio, tuberculosis, bedwetting, and a new syndrome which appeared widely in medical literature of the day known as “masturbatory insanity.” Circumcision was then advocated along with a host of harsh, painful contraptions and methods designed to curb any forms of genital pleasure in children.
It is to be noted that before the advent of anesthesia, all these practices were painful and emotionally traumatic. They also carried risk of complications including infections, contractions of the skin and psychological trauma.
While the history of circumcision is complex and has often been seen as a cultural practice, it is only in recent times that any medical benefits have been acknowledged.
Recent studies have shown that the medical benefits include it being a treatment option for problematic cases of phimosis and balanoposthitis (foreskin and glans infections) that do not resolve with other treatments. Chronic urinary tract infections (UTIs) are also helped by circumcision. It also reduces the risk of HIV infection, and other sexually transmitted infections. Circumcision also has a protective effect against the risks of penile cancer in men, and cervical cancer in the female sexual partners of heterosexual men.
Even so, there is still a long-running and vigorous debate over ethical concerns regarding circumcision, particularly neonatal circumcision, for reasons other than intended direct medical benefit. However, there is no serious ethical concern if there is a medical indication for it, such as for the treatment of phimosis and recurrent balanitis.
The purpose of this article is to give you a summarized, objective overview on the history of circumcision. Whether you should undergo a circumcision is a conversation you should have with yourself, family members and doctor.
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