Genital Pain vs. Genital Pleasure: Why the One and Not the Other?

The Truth Seeker, Volume 1, Issue 3: Pages 14-21, July/August 1989.

by James W. Prescott

Genital mutilations of both males and females have been a common practice in many cultures and have existed from the earliest days of recorded history. These excruciating painful procedures have been inflicted upon newborns and adolescents for a variety of reasons. Religious beliefs and social-cultural customs, particularly "rites of passage ceremonies" have been historically the primary reasons for both male and female genital mutilations. Only recently has one form of genital mutilation, male circumcision, come under a different rubric of justification, i.e., modern medicine.

It is a major thesis of this presentation that male circumcision is not primarily a medical issue but rather has its roots in deeply held religious beliefs and social customs that defy rational and humane understanding. The devastating practices and consequences of female genital mutilation that have been so well documented by Fran Hoskin provides a context for understanding the religious forces of toleration and support for male genital mutilations, i.e., circumcision. Why is it that certain elements of the medical profession can offer support for male genital mutilation (circumcision) but not female genital mutilation that is so widespread in other cultures of the world?

And why have the medical professions, until very recently, ignored and denied the extraordinary and excruciating pain that the newborn experiences when part of its skin (the foreskin) is shredded and cut from the rest of its body?

This indifference to human pain and suffering of the circumcised newborn is not confined to the medical profession but is widespread throughout many cultures, particularly where other forms of male and female genital mutilations are practiced. In this psychologist's opinion, all forms of genital mutilation that are inflicted upon unconsenting children are de facto acts of torture and mutilation which are in violation of Article 5 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that "no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."

This position statement has been unanimously approved as a resolution by the General Assembly of this Conference.

It is my conviction that the acts of newborn and adolescent torture and mutilation which occurs in ritual male and female genital mutilations must be understood within the broader context of human torture, mutilation and violence against the human body which is pandemic throughout the world. The key to understanding this pain and violence is to be found in understanding its converse, i.e., pleasure and peace where physical pleasures of the body, particularly sexual pleasures, are considered inherently dangerous by many fundamentalist/orthodox religious traditions which they believe threatens the salvation of the soul and society.

This understanding of the reciprocal relationship between pain and pleasure; our tolerance and support for the torture and mutilation of the human body and intolerance for the physical pleasures of the body involves profound issues of moral philosophy of good and evil, of the moral theology of pain and pleasure; and how these moral value systems become encoded in the developing human brain and thus, behaviors which includes the social-moral values and ideologies of human culture. In brief, it is my contention that the ultimate resolution of the circumcision issue and other forms of male/female genital mutilations will involve primarily the ethical, moral and neuropsychological issues involved in torture and mutilation and less in the presumptive medical and social benefits of genital mutilations.

Before proceeding with a summary of the religious, philosophical and scientific data in support of this thesis, I would like to comment very briefly on two medical studies that purport to provide statistical medical evidence for the practice of circumcision and which raises serious ethical/moral issues when findings from presumptive pathological groups are generalized to healthy groups to justify surgical procedures on healthy groups in the guise of "preventive medicine."

First, is the study of Dr. William Cameron of the University of Manitoba where it was reported in a sample of 292 men who had patronized prostitutes in Nairobi, Kenya that 20% of uncircumcised men became infected with AIDS virus, whereas only 3% of circumcised men became infected with the AIDS virus. It was also reported that 85% of the prostitutes were infected with the AIDS virus. Some have suggested that circumcision may offer a degree of prevention against the AIDS virus.

Assuming that circumcision vs. non-circumcision, and not other variables, can account for this difference, how can the grossly negligent and irresponsible sexual behaviors and poor personal hygiene practices of OTHERS be used to justify the genital mutilation of the INNOCENT? Another example of the misuse of statistical inference from medical data is provided by the studies of Dr. Thomas Wiswell.

In one of Dr. Wiswell's studies where he evaluated the incidence of Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs) in 422,238 boys born to Army families, he found a ten-fold increase in UTIs in uncircumcised vs. circumcised boys. The increase was 1.1% vs. .11% respectively, where one third of the 1.1% later developed serious medical complications. This finding of 1.1% and/or the .034% serious medical complications in uncircumcised newborns is now being used to justify the routine genital mutilation of 99% of healthy male newborns who do not develop UTIs. Since female infants were found to have 0.57% incidence of UTI which is 50% of the uncircumcised males (1.1%), it is clear that there are other variables unrelated to circumcision that contribute to UTIs. I will leave to other investigators the exploration of these other uncontrolled variables that contribute to UTIs.

Early Sensory Influences Upon Brain Development and Behavior

There is a well established body of scientific data that documents the role of sensory stimulation and deprivation upon brain development and emotional-social, psychological and mental development. From the perspective of the developmental neuropsychological sciences, there can be little question that the extraordinary pain experienced by newborns, children and adolescents who are subjected to ritual genital mutilations has a profound influence upon the brain and later behaviors. It is this writer's conviction that the extraordinary pain and trauma experienced through genital mutilations--an organ and brain system that is designed for the experience of sexual pleasure and the expression of sexual love--has permanently altered normative brain development for the normal expression of sexual pleasure and love. It is proposed that this genital pain has long-term developmental consequences for the ability of such individuals to differentiate pain from pleasures in love relationships and to develop intimate sexual relationships.

It is not without psychobiological consequence that the brain system which is designed for the experience of pleasure and the expression of sexual love is first encoded with extraordinary and excruciating pain. In such individuals, all subsequent acts or experiences of genital pleasure are experienced upon a background of genital pain that is now deeply buried in the subconscious/unconscious brain.

It is this developmental neuropsychologist's conviction that these early experiences of genital pain contribute to the encoding of the brain for sado-masochistic behaviors. The brain system that has been designed for pleasure has first and foremost become saturated or encoded with pain that now limits and qualifies all subsequent experiences of pleasure. When these early experiences of genital pain are followed by a developmental deprivation of physical affectional pleasure in the maternal-infant relationship and in the adolescent sexual relationship, then violent destructive behaviors are the inevitable outcome.

Equally significant, is the prediction that the cumulative consequences of these developmental experiences of genital pain and affectional deprivation precludes the possibility of realizing the spiritual dimensions of human sexuality. These relationships have been discussed elsewhere and need not be repeated here. Suffice it to note that it has been possible to predict with 100% accuracy the torture, mutilation and killing of enemy captured in warfare in 49 primitive cultures from the two variables of deprivation of physical affection in the maternal-infant relationship and in the adolescent sexual relationship; and that brain dysfunction underlies this SAD (Somatosensory Affectional Deprivation) induced violent behaviors. (Prescott, 1975, 1979, 1989; Heath, 1975). (See March/April issue of The Truth Seeker)

Tables I and II summarize the social-behavioral characteristics of primitive cultures that engage in male and female genital mutilations. Tables III and IV provide a similar summary for those cultures that punish pre-marital sex and extra-marital sex. Similarly, for Table V which characterizes cultures that have High Gods. In general, these cultures are patrilineal, subordinate women to men, have low nurturance of children, are sexually repressive, punish abortion, are violent and have a high god that supports human morality.


In summary, the confounding of pain and pleasure in the developing brain provides the neuropsychological foundation for individuals who must experience pain to experience pleasure, or who derive pleasure from the experience of pain.

One of the most recent studies is particularly germane to this these was reported by Jacobsen et al., in Acta Psychiatr. Scand. (2987:76-364-371) entitled Perinatal Origin of Adult Self-Destructive Behavior. The summary of this study is provided by the abstract which reads as follows:

The study was undertaken to test whether obstetric procedures are of importance for eventual adult behavior of the newborn, as ecological data from the United States seem to indicate. Birth record data were gathered for 412 forensic victims comprising suicides, alcoholics and drug addicts born in Stockholm after 1940, and who died there in 1978-1984. The births of the victims were unevenly distributed among six hospitals. Comparison with 2,901 controls, and mutual comparison of categories, showed that suicides involving asphyxiation were closely associated with asphyxia at birth, suicides by violent mechanical means were associated with mechanical birth trauma and drug addition was associated with opiate and/or barbiturate administration to mothers during labor. Irrespective of the mechanism transferring the birth trauma to adulthood---which might be analogous to imprinting---the results show that obstetric procedures should be carefully evaluated and possibly modified to prevent eventual self-destructive behavior.

Specifically, the authors reported that a perinatal event of Asphyxia (a lack of oxygen) carried a risk factor for suicides from hanging, strangulation, drowning and gas poisoning that was five times greater than for controls; for perinatal mechanical trauma, e.g., breech presentations, forceps delivery and multiple nuchal loops, the risk factor for suicides from hanging and other mechanical injuries was twice as great as controls; for perinatal events of opiate/barbiturate use the risk factor for drug addition was approximately three times greater than the controls.

In an earlier study of 52 adolescent suicides, Salk, et al., (1985) reported three prenatal/perinatal risk factors that significantly discriminated the suicide group from the two matched non-suicide control groups. These were: 1) respiratory distress for more than one hour at birth; 2) no antenatal care before 20 weeks of pregnancy; and 3) chronic disease of the mother during pregnancy which were found in 81% of the suicide cases. These authors were quite uncertain as to the mechanisms by which prenatal/perinatal birth trauma were linked to suicidal behaviors.

David Levy in a 1945 study on the "Psychic Trauma of Operations in Children" reported on three cases of male circumcisions at ages 12 months (2 cases) and 6 1/2 years. Psychological trauma included the development of night terrors, temper tantrums and rage. In the 6 1/2 year old, suicidal impulses developed. Levy reports:

"...a circumcision at the age of 6 years 7 months was preceded by a struggle of the patient with his father and the anesthetist before they overpowered him. Immediately after the anesthesia wore off, he said over and over, 'They cut my penis. I wish I were dead.' The rest of the day, the patient never left his mother's side. Thereafter his previous temper tantrums developed into destructive rages. During the treatment he played numerous killing games, in which his father was the principal victim. The operation represented a castration by his father." (p. 10).

Questions must be raised as to the extent to which rage and suicidal behaviors are engendered by the assaults of circumcision whether conducted during the newborn or child/prepubertal periods. (There are approximately a third more suicides than homicides in the U.S.). Is there a link between circumcision and the willingness to kill oneself or others for one's religious/national beliefs, particularly when circumcision occurs at the age of puberty, as it does in the Muslim culture? The willingness of many Muslim men to die or kill for their religious beliefs is well known, e.g. the cases of Salman Rushdie and Sirhan Sirhan may be representative here.

Jacobsen, et al., (1987) noted in their study that hypoxia during birth might cause minimal brain damage that could result in destructive behaviors. However, these authors questioned whether neurological injuries due to hypoxia could be the main factor, "since altogether rather few victims suffered from asphyxia during birth. None of the 86 suicides from poisoning by solid or liquid substance and none of the 53 alcoholics were reported to have been asphyxial."

There are several points to be made concerning these two studies. First, Faro and Windle (1969) in their experimental asphyxal studies in monkeys documented both immediate and delayed brain damage by as much as 10 years in these monkeys. In short, there is a delayed "time bomb" of brain damage that occurs long after the initial injury or insult. It would appear that later stages of brain development are dependent upon earlier stages of brain development which must be normal if later stages of development are to be normal. Secondly, there are a variety of traumas/injuries that can simulate or mimic asphyxial effects.

For example, sensory deprivation (like asphyxia) can damage the sensory receptors and sensory pathways of the brain. This neuronal damage from sensory deprivation prevents normal sensory stimulation of the brain which is essential for normal brain development and function. This is why the experiencing of sensory pleasure--physical affection and sexual pleasure--is essential for normative brain development, function and behavior.

The effects of sensory deprivation or altered and abnormal sensory environments upon brain development and behavior are well documented. This is a mechanism which I will now focus upon since it is my conviction that a variety of early traumatic events of pain, derivation and stress, including asphyxia, damage the affectional neuronal systems of the brain. It is this damage that compromises or prevents the development of affectional bonds of pleasure since these brain systems for pleasure have been damaged by these early insults and injuries. This thesis constitutes the neuropsychological foundation of my SAD (Somatosensory Affectional Deprivation) theory of alienation, depression, addictive and violent behaviors.

It is for these reasons, that SAD is proposed to be the process or mechanism which can account for the linkage between prenatal/perinatal trauma and suicides that have been reported by Salk, et al., and by Jacobsen, et al.

Specifically, Somatosensory Affectional Deprivation (SAD) theory is based on the nature of brain processes where I has been well established that activation of the pleasure circuits of the brain inhibit the activity of the violence circuits of the brain. This normative reciprocal relationship ceases to function when the neuronal circuits of the brain that mediate pleasure are insufficiently developed---a form of brain dysfunction/damage---due to sensory deprivation of physical affectional pleasure, specifically, somesthetic (touch) and vestibular (movement sensory stimulation. Gentle touch and rocking of the infant are powerful sensory stimuli for pleasure, comfort and a sense of "basic trust" for the infant/child. When these sensory stimuli are absent and, in addition, are replaced by painful sensory stimulation, then the neurobiological foundations for depressive, addictive and violent behaviors are established.

In brief, the emotional pain of affectional deprivation (the failure of love in the maternal-infant and parent-child relationships, and in our sexual relationships) seeks relief through drugs, alcohol and violence---in the rage of our physical assaults against others; beatings, rape, homicide and suicide---one of the leading mental health problems of our children and youth. Why should our children and youth be committing suicide in such great numbers--a 112% increase from 1980 to 1985 for children aged 10 to 14 years? Does genital mutilation and sexual abuse in combination with SAD facilitate suicidal and assaultive behaviors?

A further correlate to the above relationships and why certain postnatal traumas are tolerated (e.g., genital mutilations) is to be found in our cultural mores that places a high moral value on pain, suffering, deprivation; and immorality upon the physical pleasures of the body. It is for these reasons that the pain of genital mutilation is tolerated and supported and why the pleasure of genital stimulation is forbidden--with all the developmental neuropsychological and moral consequences that such events have upon the individual and culture.

I will now review the real reasons for circumcision as given by certain moral traditions and the anti-pleasure ethic that is endemic to many religious traditions that support the pain/pleasure reciprocity principal and provides the linkage to violent behaviors.


It is well recognized that circumcision in the Jewish religious tradition represents a covenant with God (See Gerald Larue's article in this issue). It is less well recognized that the diminution of sexual pleasure is another major reason for circumcision in the Jewish religious tradition. This reason is clearly stated by Moses Maimonides in the Guide of the Perplexed (1190) which merits its full reproduction:


"As regards circumcision, I think that one of its objects is to limit sexual intercourse, and to weaken the organ of generation as far as possible, and thus cause man to be moderate. Some people believe that circumcision is to remove a defect in man's formation; but every one can easily reply: How can products of nature be deficient so as to require external completion, especially as the use of the foreskin to that organ is evident. This commandment has not been enjoined as a complement to a deficient physical creation, but as a means for perfecting man's moral shortcomings. The bodily injury caused to that organ is exactly that which is desired; it does not interrupt any vital function, nor dies it destroy the power of generation. Circumcision simply counteracts excessive lust; for there is no doubt that circumcision weakens the powerful sexual excitement, and sometimes lessens the natural enjoyment; the organ necessarily becomes weak when it loses blood and is deprived of its covering from the beginning. Our Sages say distinctly: It is hard for a woman, with whom an uncircumcised had sexual intercourse, to separate from him. This is, as I believe, the best reason for the commandment concerning circumcision."(Part III, Chapter 49)

Elsewhere in the Jewish religious tradition clear warnings are given concerning the dangers of sexual pleasure. The following quotes are taken from the Code of Jewish Law:

Chapter 150: The Sin of Discharging Semen in Vain

1: It is forbidden to discharge semen in vain. This is a graver sin than any other mentioned in the Torah. Those who practice masturbation and cause the issue of semen in vain, not only do they commit a grave sin, but they are under a ban, concerning who it is said (Issiah 1:15): "Your hands are full of blood," and it is equivalent to killing a person. SE what Rashi wrote concerning Er and Onan in the Sidrah of Vayeshev (Genesis 37), that both Er and Onan died for the commission of this sin. Occasionally, as a punishment for this sin, children die when young, God forbid, or grow up to be delinquent, while the sinner himself is reduced to poverty.

Chapter 151: Laws of Chastity

17. Semen is the vitality of man's body and the light of his eyes, and when it issues in abundance, the body weakens and life is shortened. He who indulges in having intercourse, ages quickly, his strength ebbs, his eyes grow dim, his breath becomes foul, the hair of his head, eyelashes and brows fall out, the hair of his bear, armpits and feet increase, his teeth fall out, and many other aches besides these befall him. Great physicians said that one out of a thousand dies from other diseases, while nine hundred and ninety-nine die from sexual indulgence. Therefore, a man should exercise self-restraint.

The Roman Catholic Church is equally affirmative on the moral dangers of masturbation whose only purpose is sexual pleasure. In the Vatican's "Declaration on Sexual Ethics," published by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (December 29, 1975), formerly the Holy Office of the Inquisition, the following is stated:

On Masturbation

9. The traditional Catholic doctrine that masturbation constitutes a grave moral disorder is often called into doubt or expressly denied today. It is said that psychology and sociology show that it is a normal phenomenon of sexual development, especially among the young... This opinion is contradictory to the teaching and pastoral practice of the Catholic Church. Whatever the force of certain arguments of a biological and philosophical nature, which have sometimes been used by theologians, in fact both the Magisterium of the Church--in the course of a constant tradition--and the moral sense of the faithful have declared without hesitation that masturbation is an intrinsically and seriously disordered act.

Elsewhere, the Roman Catholic church affirms the moral value of pain and suffering in The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola (the founder of the Society of Jesus):

"The third kind of penance is to chastise the body, that is to inflict sensible pain on it. This is done by wearing hair shirts, cords, or iron chains on the body, or by scourging our wounding oneself, and by other kinds of austerities" (1541).

Many other examples could be cited, the most significant of which is the Crucifixion itself. God the Father's Divine Plan of Incarnation for his son: "So the Word was made flesh;" (John 1:14); and "I did not come of my own will; it was He who sent me" (John 8:42) was a plan for the mutilation, torture and murder of His only-begotten Son on the cross (euphemistically called "sacrificed") --- for the ulterior motive of human salvation! The ultimate psychopathology of this event is equating this mutilation, torture and murder with LOVE! Clearly Christian Love is as much an expression of pain and suffering as pleasure. It is this fusion of pain and suffering with love that forms one of the roots of sado-masochism which is so prevalent in monotheistic and patristic cultures.

Given the violence that this Father inflicted upon the Son He loved (and others), is it so surprising to find so much violence of other Fathers inflicted upon their sons (and daughters)? If "Man" is made "Unto the Image and Likeness of God", then the violence of "Man", becomes more understandable. Remember, it is this same God the Father that demanded the torture of helpless male newborns through the ritual mutilation of their genitals, called circumcision – a practice that continues today in many monotheistic cultures.

Why was pain and violence and not pleasure and peace selected as the primary path for establishing the "bond" between God and Man and for human salvation? In all His Wisdom, Power and "Love" could He not have found a different solution to the enigma of human "salvation"? The answers to these questions lie elsewhere.

It should be recognized that the roots of the morality of pain and suffering and the immorality of physical sensual/sexual pleasure antedate the Crucifixion and the rise of monotheism. These basic concepts existed in parallel civilizations where, for example, the ancient Greek philosophers provided a clear metaphysical theory of good and evil that was directly related to a moral theology of pain and pleasure.

Greek Metaphysical Dualism provided the following equations:

MATTER = Body, Evil, Wickedness, Darkness, Chaos = FEMALE;
FORM = Soul, Goodness, Godlike, Lightness, Order = MALE.

It was Pythagoras (c. 582-c.507 B.C.) who provided the sex fender equivalents of maleness with goodness; and femaleness with evil:

"There is a good principle which has created order, light and man; and a bad principle which has created chaos, darkness and woman."

Given this information is it so surprising to find the following in Ecclesiasticus (25:33): From the woman came the beginning of sin, and by her we all die." And in Paul, I Corinthians (7:1): "Now concerning the things whereof you wrote me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman." Many other examples could be mentioned that are too numerous to cite which reflect this absurd and more erroneous dualistic moral theory of human nature, gender and behavior.

Maimonides has perhaps provided the clearest exposition of these metaphysical/moral/gender relationships in The Guide of the Perplexed (when the word "matter" occurs think "female," when the word "form" occurs think "Male"):

"All bodies subject to generation and corruption are attained by corruption only because of their matter; with regard to form and with respect to the latter's essence, they are not attained by corruption, but are permanent...Similarly every living being dies and bwecomes ill solely because of its matter and not because of its form. All man's acts of disobedience and sin are consequent upon his matter and not upon his form, whereas all his virtues are consequent upon his form...consequnetly it was necessary that man's very noble form, which as we have explained is the image of God and His likeness, should be bound to earthy, turbid and dark matter, which calls down upon man every imperfection and corruption; He granted it – I mean the human form – power, dominion, rule, and control over matter, in order that it subjugate it, quell its impulses, and bring it back to the best and most harmonious state that is possible (III:8, pp. 430-432). (Part III, Chapter 8)

Perhaps it is now more clear how philosophical and theological moral dualism has conspired against the human body, particularly the female body and the sensual/sexual pleasures that they represent. This moral dualism of Western Civilization which subordinate female to male; assures the continuing inequality of woman to man and supports the violence of man against woman and her children. (Reich, 1971).

This fundamentalist/orthodox morality of Western Civilization requires that the sensual/sexual pleasures of the body must be extremely limited if not destroyed to achieve "salvation of the soul" (re, the "virtues" of celibacy, virginity and chastity). What better place to begin that with the mutilation and destruction of the genitals which are designed to experience sensual pleasure and share sexual love?

It is not without reason the the monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) have carried their religions on the edge of the sword – the same sword that cuts the genitals of children (male and female): and which mutilates their souls.

It is clear to this writer that, before genital mutilations of our children can cease, before male violence against children can end, and before human violence can be eliminated, a moral revolution must take place. Pain must be declared immoral and pleasure must be declared morally necessary, If we are to become moral persons. In the words of Walt Whitman:


In summary, the dualistic/theistic moral foundations of Western Civilization must be transformed if human equality, compassion, justice and love are to be realized; and if the human species is to survive.



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