Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Circumcision is a cruel ancient ritual

Circumcision increases the population growth rate by killing masturbation

The percentage of newborn boys in the U.S. who are circumcised has dropped from 83% fifty years ago to 77% today. The U.S. mainstream media present this nearly undetectable change as the end of the world (one of fifty ends of the world that they frequently cover). MSNBC's title reads
Circumcision Rate Falls Despite Health Risks (MSNBC)
while others offer even more dramatic summaries:
Circumcision Benefits Exceed Risks 'a Hundred Times Over' (IB Times UK)

Circumcision should be seen 'in the same light as childhood vaccination': study (CTV News)
You may see that this hysteria is largely generated by real physicians with real degrees, MD. You may imagine that I find this propaganda stunning because I would subscribe to Penn and Teller's Bullshit, episode Circumcision (30-minute video).

In fact, even though I have spent 10 years in the U.S., I just didn't know that most American newborn boys were being mutilated in this way until I returned back to Europe – if I remember well. If I look back, I am surprised that the American women were not more thrilled by the gift of God – meaning boys and men from Europe – assuming that they realize that most American men are cripples.

OK, more seriously, it's being said that the procedure brings many more health advantages than "risks". Some studies have argued that the procedure reduces the risk of urinary tract infections, HIV/AIDS from heterosexual sex, penile cancer, and other things. There are other papers that equally self-confidently state that no such a relationship exists.

The reduction may exist or not but its magnitude is surely tiny relatively to other consequences of the procedure. Just study the list of countries according to life expectancy. Compare the U.S. with any European country, e.g. Germany. (Less than 1% of boys and men in Europe are estimated to be circumcised.) Or with Denmark. The U.S. had 77.4/82.2 years for men/women; Denmark had 77/82 for men/women. You see that it's pretty much identical. If there were a significant impact on the life expectancy, you would see it in these numbers. There's none.

The question whether one may measure the reduction of very dangerous and lethal diseases is a purely academic question with no significant implications for a vast majority of people. In the ancient times, it may have been difficult to maintain good rules of hygiene but our infrastructure is better these days and allows the men to remain pretty much clean with or without the foreskin.

But there are many other implications of the procedure.

An organ's size gets reduced, along with lots of nerves that are concentrated in the foreskin. The nerves in the foreskin have a stimulating effect on the men while, in the case of a certain contact that I won't describe in detail, the foreskin itself has a tickling effect on a woman. Nature has evolved in this way. It has a reason. In the past, I would think that the circumcised men must have completely different (or missing) ideas about pain and pleasure. Later I realized it cannot quite be the case. America as well as Israel are clearly alive and kicking and the Muslim countries manage to scratch out a living, too. ;-)

So in Europe, we think of circumcision as a cruel and painful ancient ritual that is surviving in countries that just haven't switched to the modern era yet. In a Bundesland of Germany, it was legally identified as a crime of mutilation of a baby without his consent – it is not too far from a rape against a child. Quite generally, people in Europe would think that circumcision is a barbarism – if nothing else, it's so painful for the boy. Even if you decided that that circumcision is sufficiently or highly beneficial, there is no important enough extra advantage in performing it very early. Why wouldn't you allow the boys to wait and decide whether they want to undergo the execution when they are already able to think for themselves?

Yes, indeed, I do think that most boys would prefer to avoid it if they were given the choice at the age of 15 or so – primarily because it's painful, irreversible, and "against Nature's intentions". And because the advantages are just too minor. If the free boys decided – after thinking about all costs and benefits – that the better answer is "avoid it", how can the right answer be "undergo it"? The "right answer" is "undergo it" only because it neglects some costs that actually matter and because it imposes a cruel societal group think on an individual who can't defend himself. And if you don't care about the boy's pain, why don't you consider rape against boys to be equally OK?

But what I consider the most important consequence of circumcision is its impact on masturbation. It must be much harder, right? It was really the motivation why this ancient Middle Eastern barbarian ritual was transferred to some Christian countries. Someone in the Catholic Church just wanted to reduce the heretical masturbation. Don't you think that the ability to do this rather well-known activity is a more important question than the question whether your chance to get a rare, esoteric diseases decreases by 0-10 percent?

I must have discovered the wheel but look at the map of the population growth rate above. It is spectacularly correlated with the rate of circumcision pictured on the first map. The correlation is especially impressive in the patterns going through Africa. If you don't find other sources, please quote me as the discoverer of the relationship.

What is my explanation? It's simple. In countries where circumcision is dominant, the boys or men just can't masturbate as easily as they can in Europe. So when they need something, they are much more likely to make sure that they find a female partner. In some cases, a child is born 9 months later. If this explanation is right, we could also "easily" revert the decreasing population trend in some countries of Europe such as mine. Just import circumcision. I wrote the word "easily" in quotes because it wouldn't really be too easy to convince the people that they should be doing something to their sons that no one has been doing to them and to their fathers, grandfathers, and forefathers.

Even more so than in the case of the recommended ski helmets, the libertarian scientist inside me cannot swallow that some physicians pretend to be "deducing" that some (not really too statistically significant) papers "directly imply" that boys should be mutilated in this way. Even if the probability of some of the diseases decreased after circumcision, this probability is an entirely different question from the question whether it should be done. Science just cannot answer moral questions, questions "what is good for us".

Moreover, the modified sensitivity and more difficult masturbation are much more important consequences of the procedure than the marginal changes of some rates of diseases. It's painful that these elephants in the room are being neglected. It's painful that the boys' pain is being neglected. It's bad that the nearly irreversible violation of the integrity of their body is being violated. It's bad that it's being hidden than 1 in 500,000 boys dies because of the circumcision. It's just dishonest for the physicians to cherry-pick some papers about the risk of diseases whose significance is much lower than what is needed in hard science, and to claim that this shaky research is the only consideration that should matter.

The ritual is ultimately a religious one, a tradition. It has always been primarily a tradition defining the identity of some tribes or nations. Both tribes and nations that respected it and those that avoided it could have survived well. If someone cherry-picks some papers on the small changes of risks of some diseases, he is just rationalizing a predecided religious answer – much like when a creationist invents arguments to defend creationism – and he shouldn't be pretending that he is approaching the question scientifically because he is not. Claims that one nation's dominant opinion about circumcision is scientifically correct are exactly as pseudoscientific as the Nazis' claims that the blonde blue-eyed Nordic race is superior so that the others should be eliminated. In both cases, the superiority of traits of a nation may be rationalized but that's something else than a scientific proof that something should be done.


  1. What I recall most strongly is an (subSaharan) African HIV-transmission study in which—as the researchers were studying, before the planned amount of data had come in—the difference in transmission rate of HIV was so startlingly different that they concluded they could not continue with the study scientifically, as they felt an ethical duty to inform the subjects of the lower transmission rate (like 90%) they were observing.

    So in countries with lower HIV rates in the population I'm not sure this is as important. Which would go against your points about the US and Europe.

    Also – do you have evidence that masturbation is harder with circumcised than not? I remember reading that erectile dysfunction is more common among the circumcised but this was later in life.

  2. Hi, tx for your feedback. I don't know how this is or may be studied really scientifically but there was a paper on the impact on masturbation:

    Jonathan Hutchinson. On Circumcision as Preventive of Masturbation. Archives of Surgery 1891;2:267-268

    Well, 1891 is not very recent ;-) but at any rate, it was a professional and highly influential medical paper.

  3. Circumcision is against Human Rights, Children Rights, Civils Rights and the Convention Against Torture. People who do that to kids should be crucified upside down (is it possible? if well attached? ;-))

  4. Well, while the original reason for the circumcision is religious, or specifically prevention of masturbation (look for John Harvey Kellogg's writings for example), there is whole line of attempts to justify it medically, often without success (check here
    Without doubt though, at least in US, you should follow money. It is rather routine procedure, costing $500 -$5,000, which makes it multi-billion per year business. It is worth mentioning, that circumcision rate is dropping faster in states where it is not covered by insurance.

  5. Another piece of information - circumcision is good for Viagra sales.
    The United States, a nation with 4.5% of the world's population, consumes 47% of the world's Viagra (Pfizer's own figures).
    Circumcised men have a 4.5 times greater chance of suffering from erectile dysfunction (ED) than intact men. (

  6. Desert civilizations circumcized because poor local hygiene re lack of water resulted in pathology. Desert cults of Yahweh then spread where it made no sense.

    Yahweh, "Moses, sacrifice your son by cutting out his heart with an obsidian knife on my altar."

    Moses, " You got it, boss."

    As Moses raised his knife on high to ritualistically plunge it into living flesh, Yahweh said, "WAIT! I just thought of something worse!"

    Count your blessings. It could have been a hemiorchidectomy.

  7. Given the rather low birth rates among the American Jews, they have either mastered the art of masturbation after circumcision especially well, or choose to get circumcised at a lower rate than the non-Jews in the US.

    At any rate, religions societies, circumcised or not, have higher birth rates. That's the real correlation.

  8. "The Effect on Women

    Circumcision can also hinder a woman's sex life. Firstly, the friction a circumcised man needs to build can cause her pain.

    Secondly, circumcised men get less satisfaction form typical sex and require 'compensatory sex', such as oral sex and the use of lotions. Many women may resent giving these services and feel demoralized that their partner cannot reach satisfaction through normal sex. As the saying goes 'sex is between the ears'; if a woman feels the man isn't enjoying it, neither will she."

    Why this nonsense appears all over the US media can be attributed to the religion of Tribe who control it.

    Excellent article. Very interesting correlation.

  9. I suspect this is cultural thing (I live in Australia) but I have a strong preference for a circumcised penis. I have also witnessed many men with a circumcised penis masturbate and they definitely had no trouble whatsoever.

  10. Robert BrandenbergerApr 3, 2014, 5:31:00 AM

    Your questions are good ones. Let me begin from the last of your questions: SGC does not help explain the cosmological constant problem, but unlike inflation it is insensitive to what solves it. The cosmological constant acts the same way which an almost constant potential energy does. We know that quantum vacuum energy does not gravitate (otherwise the cosmological constant we would have would be many orders of magnitude larger than what we observe). So why do we have the right to couple something that looks and acts like a cosmological constant to gravity in the same way that we know vacuum energy does not? The model of SGC we have studied assumes that string winding modes are long-lived. This is easiest to ensure if space is toroidal, i.e. closed. The SGC model is nonsingular (answer to your 5th question). Your first four questions border more on philosophy. I am no big fan of anthropic reasoning. It would be nice is simple principles can explain our universe in a simple setting. Then we do not need anthropic arguments to justify why we see the universe the way it is. We cannot really expect this simple solution to be unique. In this sense, I would answer your first two questions with "no". I think that many physicists who now use anthropic reasonings would abandon them if they were convinced that there is a nice theory which can explain the universe as some particularly symmetric solution. This is my attempt to address your fourth question.

  11. Circumcision made sense once. Nowadays it is just a remainder of what a bunch of savages we still are.

  12. OK, Werdna, there are lots of sources of differences between the nations that affect the life expectancy numbers, it was really my point. Still, the separate life expectancies for men and women and up being almost the same.

    When you argue that the male life expectancy would be higher in the U.S. if... blacks reduced their mutual homicide rate, it's like a climate alarmist who explains who ate his missing heat. Such rationalizations become increasingly vague and demagogic. Won't you agree that it's a simpler and more likely explanation that the original effect - the extension of men's lives - was insignificant - instead of inventing random reasons why it didn't show up?

  13. If you read the actual study, Honza, it doesn't say that circumcised men have a 4.5 times greater chance of suffering from ED, it says they have a 4.5 times greater chance of using ED drugs. Big difference particularly when you consider the expense of ED drugs - it could just as likely be evidence of men who have been circumcised being more financially successful. The type of ED that can be treated by Viagra, etc is actually caused by a narrowing of blood vessels (usually linked to heart disease) - a person who has this type of ED can still achieve orgasm through oral or manual stimulation but cannot achieve sufficient hardness for penetration.

  14. Let me stick to the example I already considered, that of American Jews. Hasidic Jews can have families with half a dozen or more kids, secular Jews won't even have two on average. Both groups are presumably largely circumcised, being both Jews and Americans. So, is the difference in birth rates here physical and biological or cultural?

    Europeans used to have much larger families a century or two ago. Is that because they used to be circumcised and no longer are?

    The correlation you are pursuing seems unlikely to me.

  15. Dear Swine Flu, you are cherry picking not just a nation but parts of the nation where you see a large deviation. All these quantities have lots of noise. You should better look at the big picture and a large number of data points.

    However, the observation that the Jewish Americans have a low fertility rate could very well be a strong confirmation of my hypothesis, too, because the Jewish Americans are actually leading the intra-American drive to get rid of circumcision, see:

  16. If Jews are too small a sample for your taste, look at Latin America, where fertility rate dropped from close to six per woman in 1960 to about 2.27 per woman in 2010. No circumcision, just social changes.

    At the same time, the current fertility rate in Turkey is 2.08 per woman, while it is 2.17 in Saudi Arabia. The last two numbers are per CIA world factbook. It appears that not every Muslim country is Afghanistan.

  17. I am not saying that the relationship is rock-solid. My theory suggests that it's (one of) the strongest contribution(s) to the population growth rate.

  18. I'm not inventing these reasons to claim that benefits of circumcision are "really there" I'm arguing that the US's numbers are better than they look, and that one should be extremely careful with such comparisons.

    I don't particularly like that you are making a full on anticircumcision argument but I really hate that you are making a socialist style argument of the same sort as those who say "look, if our health care is so much better cause it is socialized, how come our life expectancy is worse than these countries."

  19. So your argument is, we can deny freedom to practice religion in some cases-why not all of them? Incredible.

  20. Apologies for the sins/heresies thing. I suppose the difference is that a
    "sin" is a good thing that makes a person more invested into religion
    while seeking forgiveness, while a "heresy" is the truly inconvenient
    thing that the church has to punish. Is that what the difference is
    about? ;-)

    You're kidding, or at least I hope so, but anyway the answer is no. A heresy is a doctrine. An act could only be heretical in the sense of being performed as part of promoting a heresy, and even that's a stretch, which I just now invented.

    No, I didn't cherry-pick the friend. He's the only person I know personally who actually knows enough to deal with the question of Galileo.

    I can't argue with the rest of what you've said. I don't know enough. All I can say is that your general take on the question is at odds with much of what I've read about it, and what I've heard from my friend. There's not enough space here to go over it, not enough time, not enough energy on my part, etc., and even if there were all those things, I am not an expert.

  21. It's also a generational thing. Father's want their boys to look like them and also like the "other" boys at school. There's nothing worse for an American teenager to be called an "anteater" in the school's locker room. As time goes on and more children aren't cut, as that seems to be the case, circumcision may become the exception and not the rule (at least in America).

  22. You noticed a certain correlation, which, as a scientist, you know does not automatically imply causation. One would have to exclude some other very obvious cultural and economic factors first.

  23. Dear Werdna, first, concerning your defense of "freedom of religion" elsewhere. I have doubts about this freedom when it collides with other freedoms I find more fundamental, and especially some religions may be full of these "not spiritual" things and I squarely reject the freedom of such religions. In particular, I oppose the introduction of the Sharia law into any territory where I enjoy an influence as a citizen.

    At any rate, I wasn't really questioning the freedoms of parents to do these things as they see fit, for religious or other reasons. There is a point that the parents may have the right to decide about these issues concerning the babies. I was attacking physicians who try to make these traditions near mandatory by saying that they "result from science".

    The U.S. health care has worked in the capitalist way and I sympathize with the Americans who oppose the introduction of the socialist health care things. I also believe that the U.S. healthcare is at the top of the world when it comes to high-tech surgeries and many other things. At the same moment, I think that the argument about the life expectancy is a valid one whether you find it inconvenient or not.

    The huge amount of money that is being spent for healthcare in the U.S. - whatever the economic arrangement of it is - is clearly not bringing the proportionally great benefits. It may sound inconvenient but I think it is a fact.

  24. As a parent I can tell you one thing about circumcised boys... they are so much easier to clean!

  25. Well, I basically agree with your second paragraph, at least.

    However, I think we simply have a point of irreconcilable disagreement whether arguments from life expectancy are valid or meaningful. You're convinced it has to be meaningful, I'm convinced it's severely misleading.

  26. Hi Lubos,

    I was real curious about their evidence on the "no effect on enjoyment" part. It seemed pretty implausible. But they pointed to this, which seems reasonably careful.

    Entirely out of line with my priors, but I can't see anything obviously wrong with it.

  27. The report about the 6% drop is in error. The present rate for infant circumcision in the US is about 55%. Perhaps the error was in describing the circumcision PREVELANCE in the adult population as the INCIDENCE in the infant population.

    Circumcision alters sex dramatically. Foreskin feels REALLY good. Forcing genital reduction surgery on healthy children is utterly unethical.

  28. Arg. Can't find the French version on my googlr phone. Usy be blocked!

    Did you Dr grosseteste came up with the big bang theory 800 years ago. See peter boots blog comments.

    So. Grosseteste was a lot. Smarter than all of you.
    After all he the inventor of the scientific method.
    Pretty good for a church boy.


  29. Way cool! Maybe I'm not a complete idiot.

  30. gosh, maybe its because i'm an aussie - circumcised, definitely no prob masturbating, absolutely no probs with sensitivty/enjoyment. sometimes wish i was less easily aroused, so i can pleasure my woman longer.

    frankly, either i'm e freak of nature or all this talk of difficult masturbation and lack of sensation is not related to circumcision.

    motl, sounds like you have the opportunity to sacrifice for science here. how about an experiment to test your ideas (bizarre ideas from my perspective)?

  31. Lubos, wondered what you think of this:

  32. I agree with that and I don't think it's quite original or controversial. The energy densities had to be huge which makes radii much longer than the Planck length unstable etc. Liam wrote the same thing etc.

    Incidentally, mail from Steve Hsu (a co-author) announcing the paper came right before the alert about your DISQUS comment. ;-)

  33. Easier than what? The foreskin is fused to the glans until well before the kid is fine to clean himself. Mine didn't separate until I was at least 12 or so, and you'd better believe I was giving myself my own baths.

  34. I don't think it's as much difficult as it is different. The most pleasurable areas of the penis are changed when it has been circumcised. The technique of stimulation is also different.

  35. the skin you're inApr 4, 2014, 10:13:00 PM

    It doesn't get any easier than a whole, normal penis I don't think. I'm a parent of an intact boy, and basically the rule is "leave it alone." Not much can be easier than that. Wipe it down, leave it alone. Boom, done. When he's old enough for it to separate, I'm pretty sure he can handle that half second of effort on his own just fine. Somehow all the boys in my family, and my SO, managed to do it without any drama or issues.


  37. thejollygreenmanApr 7, 2014, 6:55:00 PM

    Hi Lubos,

    Sorry, I am bit late to comment. Just to prove there is no correlation between circumcision and birth rate. In South Africa we have two major Nguni speaking tribes, living adjacent to each other, much like the Ukrainians and the Russians. The one tribe is called the Xhosas, and they practice circumcision, and Nelson Mandela relates his circumcision ritual in his book, The Long Walk to Freedom. Right next to the Xhosas you have the uncircumcised Zulus.and the current president 'Showerhead' Zuma is from that tribe. There is no statistically difference in birthrates, HIV infections and whatever between these two tribes.Except of course, the annual cull by the witchdoctors that botch the procedure on the Xhosas, every year you can read about more than a dozen young men that die from complications.

    So, all I can add to the discussion, is to plea to parents who are considering this procedure for their sons, is to make sure you pick out a good doctor and to do it in a hospital. Every now and again you read about a drunken New York Rabbi that lobs off a poor babies knob!

  38. Maybe it just means that my rule should be restricted to cultures that are at least remotely similar to the Eurasian-American one. If having a woman is as problem-free as masturbation, circumcision may become irrelevant. ;-)