In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Critical Perspectives on Boys’ Circumcision

  • Introduction
  • Classic Works
  • Religion
  • Human Rights
  • The Ethics of Genital Cutting
  • Law and Legal Considerations

Childhood Studies Critical Perspectives on Boys’ Circumcision
Lauren Sardi, Jonathan A. Allan
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0225


Circumcision is a procedure in which the foreskin is partially or completely removed from the penis. There are a number of ways in which this is performed, and it has been done for different reasons across history and culture. In the United States, for example, circumcision is generally performed in infancy for nonreligious reasons, while it is often performed ceremonially among Muslim and Jewish populations in keeping with religious tenets. In societies where routine circumcision is performed in infancy, parents tend to report that the decision was made because of cultural beliefs surrounding hygiene, cleanliness, aesthetics, and “fitting in” with other boys. In societies where circumcision is performed after infancy, it is often done as part of a rite of passage from childhood or adolescence into adulthood. All mammals are born with foreskin, which is a clitoral prepuce in females and a penile prepuce in males. For those individuals with indeterminate sex status, they also have a prepuce. In the United States, only the penile prepuce of male infants is routinely removed; it is illegal to modify the clitoral prepuce of female infants. On penises, the foreskin naturally adheres to the glans, or head, of the penis, and over time the foreskin will retract on its own. No special cleaning is required, and as the individual gets older and the foreskin retracts naturally, it can be cleaned like any other body part. The foreskin serves a number of important functions. It protects the glans from external trauma and allows it to remain moist. It also serves to allow for a natural “gliding” mechanism during penetrative intercourse or masturbation that allows for loose skin on the penis to slide along the shaft. One of the challenges of evaluating circumcision and scholarship is that oftentimes the studies and scholars have partisan views on circumcision. Some research is anti-circumcision and some is pro-circumcision. While these debates are not new, they are ongoing and important because they reflect the complexity of the subject matter and the realization that circumcision is never “just a snip,” but rather is imbricated in a long history and a significant debate among scholars, scientists, parents, and religious leaders. The study of circumcision is thus an interdisciplinary one that brings together knowledge from a range of fields, including, of course, the study of childhood. Scholarship on circumcision is incredibly diverse not just because of the fields from which it is studied, but also because of the diversity of opinions about circumcision. For some it is a “biomedical imperative” to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, while for others it is “a solution looking for a problem.” In circumcising cultures, the practice is often normalized and therefore invisible to critique; as a result, much of the research and commentary surrounding the practice serves to uphold social norms and the status quo. Thus, our explicit goal here is to refocus and make visible the counter-discourse that provides a more skeptical view of a procedure that is otherwise taken for granted. The focus of this bibliography is to address more of the cultural, religious, ethical, moral, and medical arguments against the routinized practice of circumcision in secular societies. Our aim is to provide scholarly and popularized sources that critique, question, problematize, or reframe the current cultural dialogues that already maintain and uphold routinized penile circumcision performed on boys during the neonatal period.

Classic Works

As many of the sources below describe in greater detail, circumcision, and the foreskin itself, is not without controversy, particularly in the United States, and has a rather curious history. While Lewis 1949 is generally credited as being one of the earliest works to address the ethics of neonatal circumcision in a US context, other classics have emerged since then, including Wallerstein 1980, Ritter and Denniston 2002, Goldman 1997, and Gollaher 2000, a historical analysis. Glick 2005 also provides a well-known historical analysis of circumcision as it is practiced within Judaism. Romberg 1985, on the “painful dilemma” parents face regarding circumcision, is also an oft-cited analysis. Darby 2005 chronicles the ways in which circumcision became medicalized over the course of the 20th century, and an often-cited counter-argument presented in Morris 1999 is that evidence of medical benefit supports the view that parents should indeed circumcise their sons. We have included Morris’s work because it has informed so much of the literature that supports the routinization of circumcision and may be one of the primary sources that readers may encounter.

  • Darby, Robert. A Surgical Temptation: The Demonization of the Foreskin and the Rise of Circumcision in Britain. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226109787.001.0001

    Darby’s book is one of the only studies on circumcision to focus on a given context; namely, Britain. The book has three parts: the first provides the European context; the next considers the medico-moral politics of Victorian Britain, with chapters on Malthus and Acton, and a chapter on clitoridectomy and circumcision in the 1860s; and the final part establishes the “demonization of the foreskin,” which considers spermatorrhea, masturbation, phimosis, prevention, and abstinence.

  • Glick, Leonard B. Marked in Your flesh: Circumcision from Ancient Judea to Modern America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1093/019517674X.001.0001

    Glick’s book provides a history of circumcision that is largely informed by Judaism, for, as he explains, “until the late nineteenth century no one else in Europe or America regularly practiced infant circumcision.” Glick thus begins by questioning circumcision, and then moves to a history that begins with ancient Judea and moves through to medieval and early modern Europe, the medicalization of circumcision in the 19th century, and into the 20th century, including the role of Jewish-American doctors in the medicalization of circumcision.

  • Goldman, Ronald. Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma: How an American Cultural Practice Affects Infants and Ultimately Us All. Boston: Vanguard, 1997.

    In this book, Goldman outlines the “trauma” and psychological harm of circumcision. In his study, he is chiefly interested in secular, cultural circumcision rather than sacred or religious circumcision, a task he will take up in Goldman 1998 (cited under Religion). Goldman has chapters on infant development and response to circumcision, parental reasons for circumcision, social and cultural factors, long-term psychological effects of circumcision, circumcision and the mother-child relationship, and the impact of circumcision on American society.

  • Gollaher, David L. Circumcision: A History of the World’s Most Controversial Surgery. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

    David Gollaher’s book provides a cultural history of circumcision, which he calls “the world’s most controversial surgery.” This book chiefly focuses on circumcision in the West. Chapters focus on the religious experiences of circumcision (Jewish, Christian, Muslim), the medicalization of circumcision, the foreskin itself, circumcision and disease, the backlash against circumcision, and female circumcision. This book is invested in critiquing circumcision.

  • Lewis, Joseph. In the Name of Humanity: Speaking Out against Circumcision. New York: Eugenics Publishing Company, 1949.

    Lewis’s book was one of the first studies to argue against circumcision. As with many works on circumcision, the book considers the history of circumcision. The author asks if the foreskin is a birth defect, and if not, then why is it so often removed. Lewis believes that circumcision is unnecessary and even cruel.

  • Morris, Brian J. In Favour of Circumcision. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 1999.

    This book offers an argument in favor of circumcision, not just as a personal matter, but as a matter of public health policy. Chapters consider the procedure, physical problems, diseases and hygiene, sex and society, and the circumcision debate, as well as personal testimonies of those who were circumcised as adults, those circumcised in infancy, and those who are uncircumcised. While oft-cited, this particular work has been critiqued for its polemical nature and lack of scientific rigor.

  • Ritter, Thomas J., and Georg C. Denniston. Doctors Re-examine Circumcision. New York: Third Millennium, 2002.

    This book consists of forty small chapters that speak to the dangers and harms of circumcision. Each chapter answers a particular question, ranging from the reasons for circumcision to specific risks. This book is designed for a general reader, and shows the ways in which parts of the medical profession are considering circumcision. Originally published as Say No to Circumcision!: 40 Compelling Reasons Why You Should Respect His Birthright and Keep Your Son Whole (1996).

  • Romberg, Rosemary. Circumcision: The Painful Dilemma. South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey, 1985.

    Romberg’s book is an at times personal one about the “painful dilemma” that parents face when deciding whether or not to circumcise their children. This book considers the psychological and social elements of circumcision and presents chapters that outline the harms of circumcision.

  • Wallerstein, Edward. Circumcision: An American Health Fallacy. New York: Springer, 1980.

    Wallerstein’s book provides one of the most influential arguments against circumcision. Throughout the book, Wallerstein challenges the idea that circumcision is more hygienic than simply leaving the foreskin uncut. Included in this book is the history of circumcision in the United States of America, as well as common misbeliefs about circumcision. This book is often recognized as a starting point for anti-circumcision activism.

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