What were the original motivations behind routine infant circumcision in the West?

Routine circumcision as a preventative or cure for masturbation was proposed in Victorian times in America. Masturbation was thought to be the cause of a number of diseases. The procedure of routine circumcision became commonplace between 1870 and 1920, and it consequently spread to all the English-speaking countries (England, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). None of these countries now circumcise the majority of their male children, a distinction reserved today for the United States (in the UK, in fact, nonreligious circumcision has virtually ceased). Yet, there are still those who promote this social surgery, long after the masturbation hysteria of the past century has subsided.


"By about 1880 the individual... might wish[to]... tie, chain, or infibulate sexually active children... to adorn them with grotesque appliances, encase them in plaster, leather, or rubber, to frighten or even castrate them... masturbation insanity was now real enough--it was affecting the medical profession."
(B. Berkeley, quoted from _Circumcision: The Painful Dilemma_, by Rosemary Romberg, Bergin & Garvey Publisher, Inc, S. Hadley MA, USA, 1985, ISBN 089789-073-6)

Dr. E.J. Spratling, who promoted this surgery by telling his colleagues that "...circumcision is undoubtedly the physician's closest friend and ally..." prescribed in 1895 the method of circumcision as it is practiced in hospitals today.


"To obtain the best results one must cut away enough skin and mucous membrane to rather put it on the stretch when erections come later. There must be no play in the skin after the wound has thoroughly healed, but it must fit tightly over the penis, for should there be any play the patient will be found to readily resume his practice not begrudging the time and extra energy required to produce the orgasm... We may not be sure that we have done away with the possibility of masturbation, but we may feel confident that we have limited it to within the danger lines."
(E.J. Spratling, MD. Medical Record, Masturbation in the Adult, vol. 48, no. 13, September 28, 1895, pp. 442-443.)

Here is an example of what another sexaphobic American doctor had to say about masturbation in 1903:


"It (self abuse) lays the foundation for consumption, paralysis and heart disease. It weakens the memory, makes a boy careless, negligent and listless. It even makes many lose their minds; others, when grown, commit suicide.... Don't think it does no harm to your boy because he does not suffer now, for the effects of this vice come on so slowly that the victim is often very near death before you realize that he has done himself harm. It is worthy of note that many eminent physicians now advocate the custom of circumcision..."
(Mary R. Melendy, MD, The Ideal Woman - For Maidens, Wives and Mothers, 1903.)

(The above material is quoted from J. Bigelow, The Joy of Uncircumcising, Hourglass Book Publishing, Aptos, CA, USA. Thanks to Robin Verner.)

In America, foreskins were not rare at the time circumcision was introduced into widespread practice. Paradoxically, then, the understanding of the intact male organ at that time was somewhat greater than it is today. (In particular, it never would have been possible to promote circumcision on the basis that it was "necessary for hygienic reasons"---this came later, when doctors themselves were mostly circumcised men.)

Further, in proposing circumcision as a preventative against self-abuse, physicians of the day understood very well that male masturbation involves stimulation of the foreskin. However they were incorrect in assuming that, by reducing the pleasure, masturbation itself could be reduced or eliminated.

Porn Flakes:

Interestingly, Messrs. John Harvey Kellogg and Sylvester Graham (advocates of fibre, of both the moral and dietary varieties) were involved in this movement. Here's what Dr. Kellogg recommended:
A remedy for masturbation which is almost always successful in small boys is circumcision. 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. In females, the author has found the application of pure carbolic acid to the clitoris an excellent means of allaying the abnormal excitement.
(John Harvey Kellogg, M.D., "Treatment for Self-Abuse and its Effects," Plain Fact for Old and Young. Burlington, Iowa: F. Segner & Co. (1888). P. 295) ...Isn't that enough to put you off Corn Flakes for the rest of your life? Visit this link for an essay by Carrie McLaren about Kellogg and Graham.

Circumcision in America, England and the other countries received a strong boost during each of the World Wars, because it was claimed that the procedure was necessary for soldiers for "hygienic reasons". Some soldiers who refused to be circumcised, were disciplined and/or received dishonourable discharges.

In 1949, the important work of Gairdner appeared in Britain, which led to the virtual cessation of medically-motivated circumcision in that country. Australia and New Zealand now also have very low rates (5% or less).

The largest problem remains in the United States, where the procedure has become culturally entrenched. The American public largely still believes circumcision to be a useful procedure, even though the rest of the world does perfectly well without it. It is worth noting that in 1996 the Canadian Paediatric Society issued a statement depreciating the value of circumcision in rather strong terms. All Canadian provinces have dropped insurance coverage for circumcision.

Circumcision never became an issue in continental Europe and in most of Asia, where the vast majority of men are intact. Religious circumcision is popular in some African, Muslim and Middle Eastern countries.

How is this genital reduction surgery perpetuated in the West today?

From its original roots in anti-masturbation hysteria, circumcision continues in English-speaking western countries (the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) because of mistaken beliefs and unfounded fears about hygiene, disease, appearance and sexuality, and denial of the pain of infant circumcision. Please see the article Circumcision: A Medical or a Human Rights Issue? by Marilyn Fayre Milos, RN, and Donna Macris, CNM, MSN, in the Journal of Nurse-Midwifery, Vol.37,No.2 (Suppl.), March/April 1992.

For an excellent historical article detailing how circumcision became entrenched as a medical practice, see "From ritual to science: the medical transformation of circumcision in America", by David L. Gollaher, Journal of Social History, Fall 1994, vol. 28 no. 1, pp. 5-36. (Read the article)



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REVISED, 2007-03-12

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