Sexual Surgery


Long before people rationalized sexual surgery on medical
grounds, they rationalized it on religious grounds.  Indeed, the
idea that the sexual organs ought to be surgically altered runs
through all of history.  Because the genitals (as well as certain
other body parts, especially the face) have symbolic meaning, and
because culture rests on symbolic interactions, human beings are
easily led to believe that, in their natural state, the sexual
organs and powers are not in their proper form and hence ought to
be enhanced or diminished by means of artifacts or surgical

The earliest historical example of sexual surgery is
circumcision.  According to the Old Testament, its origin and
meaning are as follows:

     And God said unto Abraham...That is my covenant, which
     you shall keep between me and you and thy seed after
     thee.  Every man child among you shall be circumcised. 
     And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and
     it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and
     you...And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of
     his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut
     off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.

The Bible thus tells the story of the ancient Israelites making a
bargain with their god:  the jews give Jehovah their foreskins,
in return for which Jehovah gives them preferred nation status. 
Mutilation of the penis becomes a badge of identity--the mark,
according to the Jews, of their being God's Chosen People.  Since
subsequently the Christians and the Muslims have also claimed,
perhaps even more successfully, that they, and they alone, are
God's favorite children, this operation must be deemed a failure.

The ancient Israelites seemed to have been decidedly preoccupied
with foreskins--viewing the severed flesh of the penis as a
trophy, much as headhunters view the severed head:

     And Saul said, Thus shall ye say to David, the king
     desireth not any dowry, but a hundred foreskins of the
     Philistines...Wherefore David arose and went...and slew
     of the Philistines two hundred men; and David brought
     their foreskins, and they gave them in full tale to the
     king, that he might be the king's son in law.

Despite this biblical passage, most people--Jews and non-Jews
alike--continue to believe that ritual circumcision is evidence
of the ancient Hebrews' sophisticated concern with genital
hygiene.  However, such a view is inconsistent with the fact that
Jewish law requires the circumcision of dead infants:

     An infant who dies before circumcision, whether within
     the eight days or thereafter, must be circumcised at
     the grave, in order to remove the foreskin which is a
     disgrace to him...If he was buried without
     circumcision, and they (his parents) become aware of it
     immediately, when there is no likelihood that the body
     has already begun to decompose, the grave should be
     opened and the circumcision should be performed.  But
     if they have become aware of it after some days, the
     grave should not be opened.

If Asclepius is the archetypal physician, then surely Abraham is
the archetypal sex-surgeon.  He is well enough known for having
invented and popularized circumcision.  (Actually, circumcision
was practiced by the Egyptians, from whom the Jews had copied it. 
Routine post-natal circumcision remains the most widely performed
surgery on American males, despite the fact that the procedure is
hazardous and lacks any medical justification.  If performed on
infants under one year of age, there is significant bleeding in
15 percent of circumcisions, and serious bleeding, sometime
requiring transfusion, in 2 percent.  One neonatal circumcision
in 6,000 results in the death of the infant.  About 1,325,000
newborn American males are circumcised annually and about 230 of
them die as a result of the operation.  The annual cost to the
"consumer" of this massive sexual-surgical mayhem is estimated to
be around $54 million.)

Although the Christians gave up circumcision, their attitude
toward the penis was decidedly less friendly than that of the
Jews had been.  Believing that sexual desire was itself an evil,
the early Christians were ready to assist their aspirations
toward asceticism by means of autocastration.  In the Gospel
according to Matthew, extravagant praise is heaped upon men who
"have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake." 
(Some biblical scholars interpret "eunuch" metaphorically, to
mean simply a man who renounces marriage in favor of celibacy.).

So much for some early examples of sexual surgery.  Let us now
skip the next eighteen centuries--replete with such practices as
castration, infibulation, clitoridectomy, and the use of the
chastity belt--and turn to a review of modern sexual surgery.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the most common and most
feared sexual disease was masturbatory insanity.  According to
Henry Maudsley, who was the foremost psychiatrist of his age, the
prognosis for this disease was hopeless.  "The sooner he (the
masturbator) sinks to his degraded rest," he wrote in 1867, "the
better for the world which is well rid of him."  Since Maudsley
believed that the disease was incurable, he offered no remedy for
it.  Many other physicians, however, thought that it was curable
by means of sexual surgery.

The treatment of masturbation by means of surgery reached its
apogee, as might be expected, when the patient had "only" a
clitoris.  According to the conventional medical wisdom of the
late nineteenth century, "it was irrelevant to a woman's feelings
whether she had sex organs or not."  While (male) doctors could
never quite convince themselves or the public that the proper
treatment for male masturbation was penectomy, they did convince
themselves and at least some women that the proper treatment for
female masturbation was clitoridectomy.  The credit for this
discovery belongs to Isaac Baker Brown, a prominent London
surgeon who later became the president of the Medical Society of
London.  He introduced the operation of clitoridectomy around
1858, because he believed that masturbation caused hysteria,
epilepsy, and convulsive diseases.  One woman who had been
castrated for the "sexual perversion of masturbation" wrote back
to her castrator to report:  "My condition is all I could desire. 
I know and feel that I am well; I never think of self-abuse; it
is foreign and distasteful to me."

Even as late as 1900, masturbation was still considered to
justify the following surgical procedure:

     The prepuce is drawn well forward, the left forefinger
     inserted within it down to the root of the glans, and a
     nickelplated safety pin introduced from the outside
     through the skin and mucous membrane is passed
     horizontally for half an inch or so past the tip of the
     left finger and then brought out through the mucous
     membrane and skin so as to fasten from the outside. 
     Another pin is similarly fixed on the opposite side of
     the prepuce.  With the foreskin looped up, any attempt
     at erection causes painful dragging on the pins, and
     masturbation is effectually prevented.  In about a week
     some ulceration of the mucous membrane will allow
     greater movement and will cause less pain; then the
     pins can, if needful, be introduced in a new place, but
     the patient is already convinced that masturbation is
     not necessary to his existence, and a moral as well as
     a material victory has been gained.

How docilely people then accepted such brutal medical
interventions, and how docilely they still accept similar
barbarities.  Then, the quacks claimed that masturbation was
pathological--and proved it by torturing the masturbator and
calling it treatment.  Now they insist that masturbation is
healthful--and prove it by inventing the disease of masturbatory
orgasmic inadequacy.

Since masturbation was principally a male disease, the fury of
anti-masturbatory surgery was vented mainly on men.  For women
there awaited sexual operations undreamt of in medically less
advanced times.  The most important--because it was the most
widely practiced--of these procedures was the removal of both
normal ovaries, known eponymically as "Battey's operation," so
named after Robert Battey, the American surgeon who developed it
in 1872.  During the next three decades this procedure was
performed on thousands of women, in the United States as well as
in Europe.

Consistent with this intensely interpersonal (rather than
individualistic) view of the sex act, Jewish law strictly forbids
masturbation.  The practice is condemned unequivocally both in
the Talmud and in extra-Talmudic literature.  The Zohar calls
masturbation "a sin more serious than all the sins of the Torah." 
jewish exegetes interpret the act as "murder" and say that the
guilty person "deserves death."  Although this was rhetorical
hyperbole rather than an actual demand for execution, it is
nevertheless indicative of the Jewish condemnation of sexual
self-gratification.  This prohibition rests, of course, on the
view that the masturbator destroys his "generative seed" and thus
commits an act not unlike murder.

Jewish law went further still.  It regarded even involuntary
(nocturnal) emissions as "partly sinful," because it did "not
consider the man a helpless, innocent victim in every case." 
Taking into account the obvious connection between sexual
stimulation during the day and subsequent seminal emission at
night, the Jewish law commanded men to avoid such stimulation--a
prohibition that went so far as to forbid touching one's  penis: 
"The law definitely prohibits touching one's genitals--the
unmarried man never, and the married man only in connection with
urination."  This is why, among orthodox Jews, one of the most
important aspects of bladder training is to admonish the boy not
to finger his penis:  "Without hands!" is the admonitory cry of a
parent seeing his or her son attempting to pass water with
digital aid.  Better a bad aim than a bad habit!"

Psychologically, the Jewish religious prohibition against
touching one's penis symbolizes that the male sexual organ
belongs to the Jewish God.  Theologically, the Jewish religious
prescription of circumcision symbolizes the covenant between
Yahveh and Abraham (and all Jews).  These two sets of practices
are clearly connected:  only the circumcised male can urinate
without touching his penis--the uncircumcised male having to pull
back the foreskin.  Jewish ritual circumcision is a necessary
complement to the Jewish religious prohibition against touching
one's penis.

The Christian moral premise--that chastity is the supreme sexual-
ethical virtue, and that all sexual pleasure is wicked--entailed
a significant downgrading of marriage from the position it
occupied in Judaism.  Although marriage later became a Christian
sacrament, the early Christians ranked matrimony far below
celibacy, as Roman Catholics still do (hence the required
celibacy of their priests and nuns).  The most novel feature of
Christianity lay, indeed, in identifying chastity--that is,
abstinence from sexual acts and pleasure of all kinds--as a
virtue, and in elevating it above all other virtues.  In fact,
the Greeks, like all primitive (non-Christian) people, had no
special word for chastity.  When the Church Fathers, who wrote in
Greek, spoke of the new Christian virtue, they employed the term
agneia--which means a "rite of aversion or mourning"--and
extended it to cover this new idea.

The religious requirement of chastity set a moral standard to
which few, if any, human beings could adhere; and that failure in
turn served admirably to confirm the image of mankind as innately
wicked.  Since sex was considered sinful, how did the early
Christians accept and then even sanctify marriage?  By an
ingenious chain of rationalizations:  they maintained that the
pleasurable satisfaction of lust was a grave sin, even in
marriage, but argued that marriage was a permissible arrangement
because it was "a remedy against sin" that led to producing more
virgins to worship Jesus.  Thus, they remained hostile to
matrimony, viewing it in terms that resemble the language of
contemporary critics of this institution.  In his classic study,
Sexual Relations in Christian Thought, Derrick Bailey documents
how the Church Fathers "continued to regard matrimony as a
concession to the inordinate desires of fallen humanity," calling
marriage a "sad tragedy" and a "galling burden," "servitude" and
"an oppressive bondage."

(Author Unknown)

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