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The Cultural Trauma of Circumcision
How genital cutting culture harms survivors.
When the trauma of circumcision is acknowledged, it is usually framed in terms of the initial pain the child experiences. Circumcision causes trauma. Studies have shown that this trauma alters brain development creates a lasting change in behavior. Entire books have been written about this trauma, and I cover it in my own documentary on the issue of circumcision, American Circumcision.
This trauma is serious. Yet there is another less understood form of trauma that survivors experience once they have become aware of the harm of circumcision. This trauma is the cultural trauma that survivors experience from living in a genital cutting culture.
Cultural trauma is understood and acknowledged on other social issues. For example, racial justice activists use the term racial trauma or race-based traumatic stress to describe the trauma they experience from racism or interacting with a systemically racist culture. To illustrate this concept, imagine a black man walking alone at night when a police car pulls up slowly alongside him. The moment he sees that police car, the man might become tense or afraid. This fear is due to the cultural knowledge of black men’s experiences with police. Even if in this particular the police officer would be nice or doesn’t even see him, the man might still experience stress due to the culture itself. Racial justice activists suggest that these repeated experiences can add up to a form of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which they call race-based traumatic stress (RBTS).
Most men I know who are aware of the harm of circumcision also have repeated stressful experiences around the issue. They are used to having their feelings invalidated when they speak about being sexually assaulted as children. They might have lost friends or family for speaking up. They have endured fragile outbursts from perpetrators when they bring awareness to the harm of circumcision. They have endured repeated body-shaming both for what they have and the body part they lost due to circumcision. They are regularly exposed to cultural propaganda telling them that the abuse inflicted on them as children is normal and that they are somehow better for it. These repeated experiences can also add up to a form of complex PTSD due to the trauma of living in a genital cutting culture.
What are some examples of this cultural trauma?
Stress around potential victims. Many survivors report becoming tense when they see pregnant women. Whereas most people experience happiness for the new life coming into the world, survivors of genital cutting perceive a potential threat to that child’s safety if they are male in a culture that normalizes male genital cutting.
Stress around family. Many survivors report becoming estranged from their family after speaking out about circumcision or questioning their parents about it. This is very similar to the familial homophobia many gay activists have written about, yet there is no word for this among survivors of genital cutting and the added component that the people they would most want support and comfort from are also perpetrators.
Stress around medical perpetrators. Many survivors avoid doctor’s visits because they do not want to be around or give money to people engaged in abusing children the way they were abused. This means when survivors do need medical care, they must choose between their psychological and emotional safety and their health.
Stress around their child’s medical needs. Some survivors also avoid bringing their children to the doctor due to the fact doctors often sexually assault intact children by forcibly retracting their foreskin. (One survey showed that 43% of intact boys have been forcibly retracted, often by a doctor.) Survivors often have to risk their child being sexually assaulted to get him medical care.
Stress around birth. Hospitals solicit for circumcision an average of eight times per mother. Hospitals have also circumcised children without parental consent. Many parents aware of circumcision report being tense and hypervigilant in hospital birth settings and watching their new baby like a hawk to ensure no harm comes to him. Even if home birthing, the possibility of any need for medical help carries with it the possibility of perpetrators entering the sacred space of the birth of their child.
Stress around sexuality. Every time a circumcised man sees his body, there is a visible scar that can remind him of his own abuse. He might feel pain during sex or erections. There might be ongoing harm due to circumcision complications. There can also be stress in relationships, especially if the survivor’s partner(s) do not understand his feelings.
Stress around media. Media often reinforces dominant narratives about genital cutting being somehow “better” or “beneficial.” Seeing media that portrays their feelings of survivors as invalid can be triggering. Even seeing the male body in media can remind survivors either of what they do not have or what is normalized in genital cutting cultures.
Stress around Jewish perpetrators. Evening mentioning this source of trauma can provoke fragility and abuse from Jewish perpetrators. Jewish perpetrators often frame survivors’ trauma and resulting feelings as “antisemitism” and use that discourse as a justification to harm and target survivors for speaking about sexual assault they endured as children. Some survivors feel rightfully tense around Jewish people because they have experienced or know they might experience harassment and abuse from Jewish people if they share their testimony. Others feel tension for the same reason any survivor might feel tension around a perpetrator.
Stress around Jewish victims. Other survivors feel tense around Jewish people for the same reason they feel tense around new mothers. They know that children born into Jewish homes risk enduring the same abuse they endured as children. Seeing potential victims or other people they know are survivors reminds them of their own trauma, even if those other survivors are in false consciousness about their own abuse.
Stress around sharing feelings. There can be cultural stress if the survivor shares his feelings and they are not seen, heard, or acknowledged by those around him. Many survivors have to be careful about who they share their feelings with due to the ridicule and verbal abuse normalized against men who share their feelings on this issue. This abuse serves the cultural function of protecting the dominant narrative around circumcision so that perpetrators can continue to say “I’ve never heard anyone complain,” since those who do complain are often abused into silence.
Stress around bystanders. In order for a child to be abused, multiple aspects of society must fail to protect him. Survivors often feel stress around any element of society they feel should have protected them from child abuse that did not, especially if that aspect of society engages in or contributes to the abuse. This can include elements of government, religion, or the family.
These are just some examples. Once survivors become more aware of the concept of cultural trauma, I’m certain they will identify more. It is important to name and talk about these traumas because acknowledging them is the first step to changing and healing them.
To learn more, read my book Children’s Justice.