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The Weirdness of this World - infant male circumcision
originally posted April 3, 2009

It's was very easy to look at other cultures and see them as strange and barbaric from the comfort and safety of my own country, but there's nothing like a little distance to give a person perspective.  Since coming to China, I have been looking at the Western world with more detachment,  and questioning many of my cultural assumptions.  I was reminded,  by reading Christopher Hitchens' book, "God is Not Great", that circumcision of male infants is a very weird practice.  Incredible,  actually.  Horrible. Unthinkable, if it wasn't so entrenched in our culture.
     This gets personal.  I'll never forget the shock and anger I felt when, at the age of about seven, my great-uncle informed me that I had been circumcised at birth.  I was incensed.  Quietly furious.  How dare they do that to me
     This feeling has never gone away.  But for years I have put this whole subject aside.  After all,  isn't it trivial?  Isn't it just one more of my "issues" that might make me seem an angry neurotic in the eyes of the world?

Today I sent an email to Doctor Carolyn Bennett - MP representing the riding of St. Paul's, Toronto

Subject:  infant male circumcision from Zale Dalen


You may remember me from the old days in Toronto.  It's Zale Dalen here,  former film maker now teaching at a university in China.

I'm writing to you because you are one of the most influential people I know and also a doctor.  For years I have been resentful about my own circumcision,  but I put this out of my mind as trivial, and too entrenched in our culture and religious dogma to question openly.  I no longer feel this way. 

Circumcision is genital mutilation,  and it surprises me that my culture doesn't seem to recognize this yet.  It should be illegal.

I'm asking you, on behalf of myself and all the millions of victims of this barbaric practice, to help put an end to circumcision in Canada.

Thanks a lot for your support.

Zale R. Dalen (AKA David James Scott)


We of the Western mind set might be tempted to feel superior to China because of such things as the practice of foot binding,  which ended so recently relative to the long history of this country, or our much exaggerated freedom of speech.  I don't think my students even know what circumcision is, much less the extent of circumcision in the West.  It's our nasty little cultural secret.  But it puts a whole different light on our "enlightened" society.  It's still legal in Canada,  and still widely practiced,  both by religious leaders and the medical establishment.  Amazing. And embarrassing.

Am I all alone here?  Or do others share my situation and view?  I would really appreciate some reaction to this post.  If you have an opinion, comment or thought on this subject,  please send an email to david@themaninchina.com 

Circumcision Revisited
originally posted April10, 2009

After a friend told me about a study that suggested circumcision helps prevent HIV transmission, I was ready to eat my words on the subject.  Certainly wouldn't be the first time I've been totally off base on an issue. Suddenly this isn't a trivial subject any more. It's life and death. I read a very authoritative sounding study which claimed that circumcised men were 60% less likely to get HIV. That a significant difference, and if it's true I guess it's worth it.

This study seems very authoritative and scientific. It presents a strong argument. But then I took a look at the criticisms of the study, which was done in Africa, and found some more information. The evidence is far from clear and there are a lot of conflicting results.

"In the United States, on the other hand, data from the 1992 National
Health and Social Life Survey, a nationally representative sample of
1,511 men and 1,921 women between the ages of 18 and 59, showed that
there was no evidence of a prophylactic role for circumcision in
regard to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). In fact, circumcised
men were slightly more likely to have had both a bacterial and a viral
STD in their lifetime."
                                     - From Family Health International

It's so hard, if not impossible, to control for bias and unrecognized but influential factors. Groups of intact and circumcised men tend to come from different cultures. They may have widely differing habits of personal hygiene, sexual preferences, sexual practices (I understand that anal sex is more risky than vaginal sex, and apparently many Africans use anal sex as a form of birth control.), condom use, and education. If circumcised men come from more educated cultures that tend to use condoms, while uncircumcised men don't, this would certainly skew any survey results.
     Then there is the bias of the investigators. It seems to me that medical professionals might, consciously or unconsciously, not want to think that they've been routinely performing genital mutilation.

For me the procedure remains clearly wrong. If an adult wishes to be circumcised, for any reason, more power to him. I wouldn't even mind taxpayer money paying for the operation. But it's not a decision anybody should make for a child, without clear medical reasons. I've been asked: Do we really need a law against it?  I think we do.

All of this has generated some interesting discussion. I had one correspondent,  a Muslim friend, who explained the cultural importance of the circumcision done to him at the age of seven.  He wrote:  " I was not consented for the procedure. It was a ritual and I (un?)willingly obeyed the tradition. I know from that era and after many kids who tried to escape it, but they were forced or convinced to come back. It was a parental as well as community decision. Having said that, I still don't see it as a violence of any sort, though."  He still supports the practice and "Again, as a circumcised adult, I have no problems as well as no regrets for the event. I have two grown up girls. Had one or both were boys, I'd have them circumcised as well; not necessarily for health reasons (I do believe its merits), but simply because of its traditional values. FYI, I'm not a fundamentalist Muslim"
     I want to respect other cultures,  but I don't think it's too much to ask that they wait until a child reaches an age of consent. We do have law about this for sex itself.  One can't legally impose it on a child.  Why should anyone be legally entitled to impose a medically questionable amputation?

I've been surprised in the past by the number of women who have a strong opinion on the subject, and I find this interesting. I suppose women have a stake in the issue, but I don't feel it's my right to advocate amputation of a parts of their genitals. I find the argument's from women based on cosmetic considerations to be the most appalling. I have one relative who had it done to her son because "it just looks neater". And the "I don't want my boy to be laughed at in the locker room" argument is truly misguided, especially if this medical fad dies away and suddenly it's the circumcised boy who has the weird little wee wee.
     There seems to be a lot of complacency around this issue. Or maybe most people just don't want to talk about it.  I'm fighting the impulse to become one of them (Who wants to be seen a guy who is fixated on his dick.  Not me.) Please do write if you have a point to make or a personal history that is relevant. david@themaninchina.com

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