The role of infant circumcision in the United States of America is mysterious. The US is the only country in the world where the majority of baby boys have part of their penises cut off for non-religious reasons. Yet this extraordinary custom is very much taken for granted. If it were being introduced today, it would certainly be rejected as barbaric and un-American.
Contrary to most accounts, the ancient history of ritual circumcision is almost completely irrelevant to the US. Secular circumcision began as a "cure" for masturbation late in the 19th century in England. It swiftly crossed the Atlantic - though it was only ever confined to the upper classes in its homeland, where it has since withered and died.
In the US, it rose during the 2 - 5 years after each war the US has been involved in. It peaked at 90% in 1964, according to the Laumann study (based on self-reporting by adults). The "war" connection ("It'll make a man of him"?) suggests it will rise again, perhaps using the "desert sand" myth.
A recent paper claims a startling rise in the rate of circumcision. This is however based on some quite selective statistics. Figures from the National Center for Health Statistics show a slow decline. Both sets of figures show a higher rate in the Midwest and a much lower rate on the west coast.
US Circumcision Rate by region over time
USA Circumcision rates 1996-2003
US Inpatient Circumcision Rate by state in 2004
Map of USA showing circumcision rates
The number of baby boys who are circumcised as outpatients, in doctors' offices, etc. is unknown.
- Figures from the US Department of Health and Human Services
Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
Peer pressure, social pressure, and pressure from circumcised fathers and grandparents intoning the mantra "A boy should look like his father", all have combined to make "circumcised" an integral part of the concept of a USAmerican man.
Infant circumcision flies in the face of the country's far older tradition of Liberty and individual rights.
Statue of Liberty with scalpel
It is defended by a curious perversion of those rights, a supposed "right" of parents to cut healthy tissue off a helpless baby - a "right" that has been totally extinguished when that baby is a girl, and is never missed.
TV sitcoms, talk and game shows pour down a steady drizzle of pro-circumcision and anti-intact propaganda on their audiences. Its frequent appearance in comedies makes it seem trivial. Medical associations, popular magazines and TV documentaries, while claiming to be impartial, invariably overstate the case for circumcision and understate the case for intactness (if they present it at all).
One way it is maintained is by denial. The same TV shows that remorselessly promote circumcision and badmouth the intact man, present the typical gentile American as intact if the plot requires him to encounter circumcision (upon which he almost invariably undergoes it).
The flipside of that is that many USAmericans do not know that most of the rest of the world does not circumcise. This is reinforced by the presentation of all males as circumcised, in anatomy textbooks, sex manuals, and even reproductions of such artworks as Michaelangelo's David.
The claim that the intact penis is "dirty" and that circumcision makes him "clean" is widespread - often in an exaggerated form, when you consider that women's smegma is more copious and pungent than men's, and that the great majority of men in the world are intact, without similar complaints from their womenfolk. Women who have never seen an intact penis convince each other that it is "Eeew, gross!"
The striking thing about the medical "reasons" for circumcising is that they come and go. Masturbation hysteria ("moral hygiene") was replaced by Sexually Transmitted Disease, then cancer, then Urinary Tract Infection. The first three of those were the most feared diseases of their day, and it was almost inevitable that HIV/AIDS would take their place. Meanwhile, countless bad reasons ("circumstitions") were used to shore it up.
The role of Jewish circumcision in maintaining the secular rite is ambiguous. Officially, Jews should circumcise only for religion, and be indifferent to the penile status of gentiles. In fact, Jewish doctors are only human when they embrace the medical "reasons" for circumcising as well as the religious, and "My son the doctor" is not just a catchphrase: a higher proportion of doctors is Jewish than the population would predict. The interaction between Jewish and gentile circumcision in the US is analyzed in detail in "Marked in Your Flesh" by Leonard Glick.
Many Christians are unaware that when St Paul says Jesus fulfilled the Law, he explicitly meant that circumcision is not a religious requirement for Christianity, and said so many times. Catholics are unware that three Popes have condemned it, and Mormons are unaware that the Book of Mormon does also.
On the other hand, the narrow focus on circumcision as a Jewish custom means few Americans know that two of their least favourite people, Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are, like all Muslims, virtually certain to have been circumcised (as boys, not babies).