05 June 2012

Circumcision as a Distinction of Class

Circumcision by David Gollaher, 2000, Excerpts

Medical circumcision in its early phase was reserved for the carriage trade: better-off patients who could afford it. Consequently, medical men grew accustomed to thinking of the procedure in class terms. So it came about that the foreskin, viewed as dangerous by the medical profession, commonly came to indicate ignorance, neglect, and poverty.

Circumcision became standard practice, its legitimacy bolstered by the American military experience [WWII]. Physicians in the armed forces strongly believed that the foreskin was a risk factor for venereal diseases – a source of paranoia during the war – and encouraged uncircumcised recruits to undergo the operation. Impressed by the fact that most officers and soldiers from affluent families were circumcised, thousands of enlisted soldiers and sailors signed up for circumcision in military hospitals before returning to civilian life. Americans found circumcision appealing for its connotations of science, health, and cleanliness – newly important class distinctions.

As white middle-class Gentiles adopted circumcision, those left behind were recent immigrants, people of color, the poor, and others at the margins of respectable society. These were the groups imagined to have filthy, malodorous bodies: people who lacked culture, manners, intelligence, and, in a word, civilization.

Photographer Margaret Bourke-White

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