M. L. Tan
"Routine male circumcision is NOT necessary!" The capital letters and the exclamation point are in the original statement, a letter from Dr. Reynaldo Joson who chairs the Department of Surgery at the Ospital ng Maynila Medical Center.
Joson wrote me asking if I could help me campaign against this pagtutuli, especially since it has become a summer ritual sponsored by all sorts of groups from the Catholic Women's League to Kodak Philippines (Smile, you've just been cut!). The "Operation Tuli" banners always intrigue foreigners because really, we are one of the few countries left in the world that insist on, well, let me use a strong term, mutilating our males.
I actually wrote about the circumstitions or myths around circumcision back in 1999. (I'm borrowing the term "circumstitions" from someone named Hugh, a New Zealander who has a website on this controversy. Will give you the address at the end of this article.) At that time, the American Academy of Pediatrics had just issued a statement stating that "the foreskin plays very little or no role in the spread of sexually transmitted diseases", which was the rationale for routine infant circumcision in the States.
Among western countries, it's been mainly the Americans who have clinged on to the practice, with strange reasons. At one time, American doctors thought circumcision could prevent masturbation. Remember that in the 19th century and, I suspect for some moralists in the 21st century, there was this myth that masturbation had harmful effects. Some doctors even thought you could masturbate to death – no wonder they had this mad search for preventive methods.
Then there was this idea that uncircumcized males were "unclean" and that the "dirt" causes diseases in their partners. In fact, Filipinos tend to tease uncircumcized men by wrinkling their noses when they pass by, insinuating that the stench from the "dirt" is so overwhelming. This is of course total nonsense – junior's state of hygiene depends less on a piece of skin than what you do, or don't do, with it. I worry, for example, about how Filipinos avoid taking a bath after sex because they think this causes pasma. I think that belief creates more problems of sexual hygiene than being uncut.
In the last few years there has been speculation that circumcision might prevent HIV/AIDS. One theory is that the uncircumcized male's foreskin provides more surface area for the virus to enter but I think this is not very scientific – the virus' entry into the body, and its causing an infection, involves more of blood vessels than skin. The bottom line is that Filipino circumcized men are being infected with HIV/AIDS so it may actually be dangerous to propagate the idea that a cut penis protects you from AIDS.
Circumcision in the Philippines persists because of many other folk beliefs. Let me refute them. First, circumcision does not make help to make a person taller. Once puberty sets in, you will grow with or without circumcision, your height pretty much a function of genetics and nutrition. Second, circumcision does not make you more fertile – how many children you have depends on you're the quantity and quality of your sperm, and your sense of sexual responsibility. Third, circumcision doesn't give you a longer penis – having a pedro or a pedrito involves a bit of genetics. Nutrition, as far as I know, does not play a significant role. (Some of our readers will remember how they had [to] bring out a magnifying glass with that superhunk of a partner). Finally, circumcision doesn't make you a better lover – that you pick up from experience and reading Inquirer columnists. Moreover, Margy Holmes (who you should also read, even if she isn't in the Inquirer) will tell you the research shows that the foreskin is exquisitely sensitive and that supot males have more pleasurable sexual sensations than their "cut" brothers.
So where does this leave us – tuli or not tuli? (I just had to reuse that column title from 1999.) Let's hear from our medical experts. Joson wrote his colleagues at the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila's Department of Family and Community Medicine for their stand and they agree: "Routine circumcision has no therapeutic basis." The doctors do not recommend infant circumcision and they worry that circumcision done with "bare" health facilities, such as in charity medical missions, may cause more harm than benefit.
At the same time, the doctors recognize the strong cultural pressures to continue the practice. Circumcision is a ritual of passage, with an entire barkada of boys on the verge of puberty going through the guillotine together. The doctors recognize, too, the stigma attached to being supot, and have this interesting observation: the pressure to circumcize is said to be "psychologically ingrained and culturally embedded in the collective psyche of Filpino women". No wonder sometimes it's mothers who drag their sons, screaming and begging for mercy, to the chopper.
The doctors worry that if they stop circumcizing, there may be more problems because Filipino boys will end up in the hands of traditional practitioners, who will perform the lethal procedure with a bamboo sliver or broken glass, spitting on a wad of guava leaves after the coup de grace.
It looks like circumcision's going to be around in the Philippines for some time. Our doctors will just have to keep speaking out, explaining the risks and disadvantages involved with circumcision including infections, bleeding, reduction of sexual pleasure. At the same time, they will have to keep on explaining that so-called benefits such as increased height, fertility, virility and a long dong are all myths.
Meanwhile, I do recommend you visit www.circumstitions.com, which is both informative and entertaining. (The website's slogan is: A trombone can play more notes than a bugle.) The site includes an entire section on the Philippines. Do note that the site has some photos of cut and intact manoys so prudes should just keep out. Uy, finish reading the Inquirer first.