No, Circumcision Was Not a Mark of Slavery

Anti-circumcision activists (self-branded “intactivists”) claim that circumcision is a mark of slavery—specifically, that slave-owners used circumcision as a means of subjugating their slaves. Some of their memes specifically claim that white American men forced circumcision on their African American slaves. Nothing could be further from the truth! In reality, throughout history, slaves and subjugated races have either been required NOT to circumcise, or have been left alone. I could not find evidence that circumcision was forced on slaves.

 

 

Before America

Let’s step back a bit. Some intactivist sources will start out by specifically mentioning Egypt and claiming that Egyptians circumcised their slaves by force, that circumcision was a mark of slavery. But this is completely false.

In Ancient Egypt, it was recognized that there were hygiene and health benefits to being circumcised. It seemed to be primarily a practice of the middle class and wealthy, with nearly all pharaohs circumcised, and very few slaves (except the Jews, who practiced circumcision before becoming slaves to the Egyptians). Of course, there were certainly exceptions to every rule. But an important point to make is that the intactivist claim that circumcision was a mark of slavery in Egypt is just not true. In reality, nearly all of the pharaohs were circumcised, and those who chose not to undergo the procedure apparently did so to show their spiritual and political superiority over the priests, who performed all circumcisions [1]. If it was predominately a practice of the wealthy and the pharaohs, how could it be a mark of slavery?

Related image

Maccabeean Revolt

In fact, ironically, the opposite is typically true in human history. Circumcision has generally been prohibited of subjugated races rather than required. For example, the Jews were forced to stop circumcising when the white Greeks ruled over them. Although they initially stopped circumcising and circumcised in secret, their ultimate reaction was to fight back in the Maccabeean Revolt, and that battle is commemorated in Hanukkah [2]. As another example, the advanced civilizations of America, such as the Aztecs, practiced circumcision. When the white Spanish conquistadores instituted a systematic destruction of the indigenous cultures, part of their method was to prohibit circumcision, which is why Hispanics to this day do not circumcise—because white man took away their right to do so back in the 1500s [1].

In other words, rather than being forced to circumcise, underdog races have generally been left alone or forced NOT to circumcise.

 

Why Did White Americans Circumcise?

Before we can understand why circumcision might have been recommended for or required of African Americans, we must first understand what Americans thought of circumcision. Why did Americans, Europeans, and others start circumcising in recent centuries?

King Louis XVI

Phimosis has been recognized as a serious foreskin problem since ancient times—in fact, the Greek god Priapus, ironically a god of fertility, is depicted as having severe phimosis, which would have limited his own fertility. In the 1770s, French King Louis XVI suffered from phimosis so severe that he was infertile for the first 8 years of his marriage. After his brother-in-law, Austrian Emperor Joseph II, convinced him to get circumcised, he promptly fathered three children. This may have been the start of circumcision among European royalty, with apparently most of European royalty favoring circumcision, though it remained uncommon or rare among the common people [1].

As far back as the 1820s, it was recognized that circumcision reduced the risk of gonorrhea* [3]. It was also recognized by the 1850s to reduce the risk of syphilis [4] and since at least 1904, if not before, that circumcision reduces the risk of penile cancer [5]. Furthermore, during the 1800s, bacteria were identified as causes of disease, and hygiene was identified as a way to prevent bacterial infections, but bathing was still rare (a weekly event at best), and so hygiene with a foreskin was very difficult, as demonstrated by numerous medical publications on the subject in those days. Surgery was also becoming safer during this time period, so it was no longer seen as a last-ditch effort against death but rather as something one might do for preventive health. They also thought a circumcised penis performed better sexually. So the combination of recognized health benefits, poor hygiene, and a belief that circumcised men were sexually superior, along with advances in surgical technique that made surgery a much safer proposition, led to a gradual rise in the circumcision rate [1].

anti-masturbation device

Around that same time, some uncircumcised men proposed that it is impossible for circumcised men to masturbate. (Allow us a pause for laughter.) Circumcised scholars proved them wrong. Personally, I would have loved to see that scholarly convention. Nonetheless, for this and other reasons, a few people suggested that circumcision might prevent masturbation, which was at that time thought to cause mental illness. However, most sources promoting circumcision made no mention of masturbation, and most sources demonizing masturbation made no mention of circumcision, so this was obviously not a widely-, much less universally-, accepted theory [1].

The experiences of American, Canadian, Australian, and other soldiers in WWI and WWII—where uncircumcised soldiers developed horrific infections and required circumcision—led to a sudden, dramatic rise in the circumcision rate that mere concerns about health and hygiene could not affect [6]. Thus, in the U.S., England, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, circumcision became popular. By 1949, the circumcision rates in the U.S. vs. England were 45% vs. 50% for poor boys and 94% vs. 85% for rich boys. In Australia and New Zealand, there were no such class distinctions, and by 1950, circumcision was nearly universal for whites [1, 9].

However, circumcision has always been less common for the poor and minority races. So how do intactivists get the idea that circumcision became a mark of slavery for African Americans?

 

Circumcision and African Americans

Now on to the question of circumcision in American black slavery.

All of the intactivist articles I’ve read fail to provide any pre-Civil War sources. In other words, they provide absolutely no references to African American circumcision before slavery was abolished. So I’m not sure how they can claim that it was a mark of black slavery committed against blacks by whites. Then again, intactivist sources are known to lie shamelessly…

On the other hand, after the Civil War, there were several publications or speeches suggesting that forcibly castrating black men would protect vulnerable white women from rape. At the same time that uncircumcised men thought circumcised men couldn’t masturbate, they also thought circumcised men were less likely to commit rape. So at least one person suggested that circumcision would be a kinder and more humane method than castration, especially given the proven health benefits of circumcision, as there were no known health benefits to castration.

Furthermore, there were discussions in the early 1900s about the rising rate of syphilis among the black population, and because it was known that circumcision lowered the risk of syphilis and was already recommended to whites for that reason, it made sense to recommend it to blacks as well. In this case, it was not suggested that they should force it on black men; it simply said, “As regards personal prophylaxis, all male babies should be circumcised,” which is similar language to that in discussions of white circumcision of the time period. There were also many other recommendations, including condoms (“prophylactic packages”), addressing cocaine and alcohol addiction (since substance use was involved in many rapes), home studies to prevent overcrowding, curfews, making syphilis a legally reportable condition (as it is today, and as were smallpox, measles, pertussis, and other communicable diseases in those days), provisions for the medical care of children born with syphilis, improving care in-hospital (see quote below), improving care in clinics, and more. Altogether, there was exactly one sentence on circumcision as a preventive, and it took up less than four lines of text; the other recommendations took up 26 sentences and over 80 lines of text** [7]. Note also that this was in the days before antibiotics, so there was no really effective treatment for syphilis; thus, most energy was expended on prevention.

“The way that syphilis is treated in the average ward or outpatient department is a disgrace. [….] If a factory turned out goods in the slipshod way that the average hospital hands out syphilitic medication, it would soon go to the wall.” [7]

But again, there is no evidence that circumcision was actually forced on African Americans as a routine measure, either as a mark of slavery or as a means of racial subjugation.

In short, intactivists have drummed up a number of articles that were apparently in the minority opinion and which were never followed-through on. In these articles or speeches, various racists and non-racists alleged that circumcision would benefit the African American male (or others) for a variety of reasons. The racist reasons included preventing black rape of white women. The non-racist reasons included prevention of STDs. The racist ones rarely called for compulsory castration and circumcision of African American males. The non-racist ones called for recommending circumcision to African American males or parents. Speeches on the subject were even given at African American conventions, such as the Coloured Physicians’ Association in 1889 [8]. However, intactivists have failed to present evidence that male circumcision was forced on African Americans at any point, much less that it was a mark of African American slavery.

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, I could find no evidence that circumcision has ever (much less predominately) in the history of mankind been a mark of slavery. Rather, slaves and subjugated races have been forced by white man not to circumcise in more than one instance. While there were certainly propositions that circumcision should be recommended for the prevention of various ills (for both racist and non-racist reasons) in the African American male, I can find no evidence that it was ever forced on African Americans. Rather, it seems mostly to have been withheld from them due to the difference in socioeconomic status, as circumcision was predominately a practice of the wealthy and African Americans have long been economically disadvantaged and oppressed.

 

~~

 

FOOTNOTES

*Modern research indicates that might be false, but this was considered a medical fact back then.

**I actually was quite surprised by this article. The author went to great lengths to emphasize that there are many African Americans who have made well for themselves and are physicians, lawyers, etc., and that there is no concern about syphilis among this group; that many European cities have higher illegitimate birth rates than do African Americans, so it’s not a uniquely African American problem at all; and that many white children have deplorable morals compared to African American children, etc., and almost apologetically reiterated that nonetheless, African Americans were for some reason more affected by syphilis than were whites. Until reading this article, I was under the impression that political correctness did not exist in the early 1900s! He proved me wrong. Nonetheless, intactivists contend that this article is an example of stereotyping. It seems they didn’t bother to read the entire article.

 

REFERENCES

[1] Cox, G., & Morris, B. J. (2012). Chapter 21: Why circumcision: From prehistory to the twenty-first century. In Surgical Guide to Circumcision.

[2] History of Hanukkah: https://www.facebook.com/CircumcisionResource/photos/a.735986419837365.1073741827.712201812215826/896702953765710/?type=3

[3] Abernethy, J. (1828). The Consequences of Gonorrhoea. Lectures on Anatomy, Surgery and Pathology: Including Observations on the nature and treatment of local diseases; delivered at St. Bartholomew’s and Christ’s Hospitals, Chapter XXII (pp. 315-316). 163, The Strand, London: James Bulcock.

[4] Hutchinson, J. (1855). On the influence of circumcision in preventing syphilis. Medical Times Gazette, 2:542-543.

[5] Sutherland, D. W. (1904). The Middlesex Hospital Cancer Research Laboratories. Archives of the Middlesex Hospital, 3:84. https://books.google.com/books?id=7o5MAQAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

[6] https://www.facebook.com/CircumcisionResource/photos/a.735986419837365.1073741827.712201812215826/764754116960595/?type=3

[7] Hazen, H. H. (1914). Syphilis in the American negro. Journal of the American Medical Association, 63(3):463-468.

[8] At least, according to an intactivist website. I was unable to locate the source they cited.

[9] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2051968/?page=3

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