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I was 11 years old when I found out I’d been mutilated. I was standing in the yellow light of the bathroom, feet clammy against the cold tile. Gut-churning feelings washed over me: confusion, disgust, and, most of all, violation. My body had been altered irrevocably without my consent. No one had ever told me; rather, an internet rabbit hole impersonally informed me that I could never live in the body in which I was originally born. I never had a say in it, because they had done it to me hours after I was born. The worst part of it all is that I’m not the only one in this situation — in fact, I’m far from alone. As of 2016, an estimated 71.2 percent of men in the United States are circumcised.
I understand that not every circumcised man thinks about this. Most either never consider the absurdity of their condition or are content with it. But it seems that these men would also be happy without being circumcised, as the majority of men throughout history have been.
For the millions of us who do feel the lack, what recourse is there? There’s no way to get back what was taken from us, and there’s hardly even a movement to rally behind. Harvard is full of socially conscious young people. Walking through the Yard, opinions fly left and right about reproductive rights, racism, Israel-Palestine, and more — a myriad of ideological battles waged daily through flyers, demonstrations, and walkouts. And yet, it seems we’ve missed this one: When it comes to circumcision, everyone acts like it’s normal.
In reality, it isn’t normal. America is the only major Western country to believe in and practice circumcision at such a high level. As of 2021, nearly half of Americans find routine infant circumcision acceptable, while another sizable proportion has no opinion either way. Conversely, in most European countries, less than 10 percent of men are circumcised.
Circumcising babies is wrong. Some have a perception that the practice is natural, yet the natural state of the body is not circumcised. Oftentimes, people cite medical benefits as reasons to circumcise; however, these benefits are marginal at best and unfounded at worst. Others say that the issue is exclusively the parents’ business, yet we generally agree that it’s wrong for parents to modify their children’s bodies in other ways, such as tattooing. Some religious populations, such as Jews and Muslims, argue that circumcising their children is ordained by their religion, but religious freedoms should naturally end where another person’s freedoms begin. The human rights to bodily autonomy and religious freedom should extend to every child, regardless of their parents’ religion; segments of the Jewish population in fact recognize this right and propose the Brit Shalom, an alternative naming ceremony that delays circumcision until the man is old enough to make the decision for himself.
To object to the mutilation of a baby boy’s penis should not be in any way radical. On the contrary, this objection seems like a natural product of human reason and compassion. So why do we remain content with circumcision?
It seems that a large part of the issue is the cycle of shame. Although the evidence is all freely available, we don’t talk about circumcision because it’s taboo. We’ve taken a widespread issue and convinced ourselves it’s private or shameful just because it’s inflicted on our genitals. Furthermore, conceptions of masculinity play a role. In order for a circumcised man to advocate against circumcision, he must first acknowledge that he was made a victim at the most vulnerable time in his life. Frankly, many men do not feel strong enough to admit this. And so the cycle continues, the issue is ignored or downplayed, and people inflict the same violence on their children for generations.
There are signs of hope. American infant circumcision rates have slowly but surely dropped in recent decades. With each successive generation, fewer parents believe that all male babies should be circumcised.
However, there’s still a lot more work to be done. To this day, 58.3 percent of baby boys born in America will be circumcised. Our generation has an affinity for shedding light on injustice, eschewing taboos, and discussing difficult issues. This Sex Week, Harvard undergraduates will come together in open discussion to change the culture of shame around our bodies and genitals. By also talking about circumcision, we can inspire the shift towards bodily autonomy for all.
James P. GaNun ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Philosophy concentrator in Pforzheimer House.
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