Elwood 5566

Finding a Pathology to Fit the Procedure – Circumcision (포경)

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Comparative, Education, Gender, Health care, podcasts, seasons by 노강호 on March 24, 2011

a sometimes used image on Korean urology websites

podcast 76

Mention ‘whaling’ (포경) to Korean men and most will cross their legs in pain while boys about to go to middle school (at about 13) , and perhaps some about to go to high school (16), will turn white with fear. ‘Whaling’ is a touchy subject and it is during the lengthy winter vacation that the cull reaches its peak. In Korean, ‘po-kyeong’ is a homonym attributed to the hunting of whales and of the widespread practice of circumcision, (포경 수슬), and in this case, as I will explain later, it is a misnomer. Finding information about or attitudes towards this subject are difficult and very little is available in English. That Korea has the world’s highest rate of secular circumcision is rarely acknowledged and the practice is generally associated with the USA.

it needs to be…you don’t have to…

However, attitudes are changing. I recently spoke to two men (one 27 the other 32), who explained that while they didn’t blame their parents for undergoing circumcision, they are nonetheless angry it had been performed. Both felt the procedure resulted in a reduction in sensation and given boys are well into puberty by the time they have the operation, their claims are perhaps more valid than those from American audiences where it is usually performed neo-natal and where men are not really qualified to make qualitative comparisons. One friend clearly remembers his circumcision and the fear invoked in anticipation even though it is done under local anaesthetic.  I have discovered Korean boys tend to be more squeamish about injections than girls and this is hardly surprising given that you are either anticipating multiple injections in your dick or in a cold sweat recalling the memory. Both men are adamant that it will be their sons who choose whether or not to be circumcised.

once you’re out of elementary school you need a circumcision

The circumcision debate is a great subject for exposing how dumb people really are. There is nothing intrinsically superior about a circumcised dick and the aesthetics attributed to penal status are largely derived from whatever is the most accepted social custom.  Circumcision looks ‘weird’ to many Europeans as much as a foreskin looks ‘weird’ to many Americans. Meanwhile, a Filipino boy might be proud of his new circumcision (pagtutuli), which isn’t really a circumcision at all, while both Americans and Europeans are likely to consider it reminiscent of an accident incurred with a meat grinder. Beauty might be in the eye of the beholder but the beholder is significantly influenced by their social and cultural milieu. In the USA where radical circumcision, including the unnecessary and extraneous removal of the frenulum, have several decades’ dominance, cultural values have transformed wonky stitches and chewed up scar tissue into aesthetically pleasing damage which in the least is seen as an enhancement and at the extreme deemed natural.  If a society can eradicate the botched and overzealous circumcisions many American males have been subject to, making them ‘disappear’ with far greater success than any cosmetic surgery or skin cream,  just imagine how it could transform attitudes to acne, obesity and aging.

beauty is culturally informed

Then there is the ridiculous argument that circumcision protects one from HIV and STI’s. Well, maybe there is some medical evidence to support this but I suspect it is spurious or simply invalid. When rates of  circumcision in the USA were almost at a peak, in the 1980’s,  HIV was able to infect a significantly large number of people. Surely the answer lies in safer sexual practices rather than in an amputation which leaves the recipient under the assumption that a circumcision is as good as a condom in terms of safer sex.

Circumcision has a long history of being a cure for something and when not the foreskin has been identified as a cause of immorality and perversion. The ‘benefits’ of circumcision, apart from the obvious, which ironically is currently one of the most contested, namely that it reduces sensitivity, include: reducing a tendency to masturbation (Athol Johnson, Lancet, London,  April 7, 1860),  cures polio and reduces masturbation, (Dr. Lewis Sayre, USA, 1870),  reduces masturbation (J.H. Kellogg,  USA, 1877. Not only did he advocate circumcision, but that it be performed without anesthetic, a trend that continued in the USA  until recently.),  reduces lethal diarrhea (AAP, USA, 1880’s advocating routine neo-natal circumcision), cited as cure for bed-wetting, syphilis and tuberculosis (Dr P.C Remodino, 1893), will reduce syphilis by 49% (Dr. Jonathan Hutchinson, London, Lancet. 29th December,1900), will prevent cancer, masturbation and syphilis (A. Wolbarst, USA 1914), will prevent HIV in Africa (Halperpin and Bailey, Lancet, London 1999). Not only has there been a crusade against the foreskin for several hundred years, but its possession has been associated with physical and moral degeneracy. Remodino accused it of being a ‘moral outlaw.’ From the 19th century onwards, and repeatedly, a tight foreskin (phimosis) has been attributed with promoting masturbation (an immorality) and circumcision presented as its cure.  Even as late as 1935, circumcision was being advocated to curb the sins of self abuse.

Nature intends that the adult male shall copulate as often and as promiscuously as possible, and to that end covers the sensitive glans so that it shall be ever ready to receive stimuli. Civilization, on the contrary, requires chastity, and the glans of the circumcised rapidly assumes a leathery texture less sensitive than skin. Thus the adolescent has his attention drawn to his penis much less often. I am convinced that masturbation is much less common in the circumcised. [Cockshut RW. Circumcision (letter). Br Med J. 1935; 19 October: 764.]

And perhaps the greatest exposé of how dumb nations can be is when parents fall for the shite spouted a ‘medical’ profession which benefits financially from the procedure. In the USA, the procedure produces approx $400 million dollars profit a year in addition, foreskins are sold to biotechnology and cosmetic companies.

Despite the obviously irrational cruelty of circumcision, the profit incentive in American medical practice is unlikely to allow science or human rights principles to interrupt the highly lucrative American circumcision industry. It is now time for European medical associations loudly to condemn the North American medical community for participating in and profiting from what is by any standard a senseless and barbaric sexual mutilation of innocent children. [Paul M. Fleiss. Circumcision. Lancet 1995;345:927.]

At a time when neo-natal circumcision has declined drastically in Australia, the USA and Canada, it should be wholly anticipated that in any  country where medical procedures are paid for by the patient or parent, that claims will now be made that mass circumcision will reduce transmission rates of HIV and sexually transmitted infections.  The USA is one of the most poxed up countries in the world, and the most poxed up in the developed world and  incredibly high rates of circumcision have done nothing to curb this. Whatever your particular view on the topic, the decision to be circumcised or not should ultimately rest with the consenting individual especially when medical claims are spurious and made in the interests of profit.

and yes, some facecreams really are manufactured from redundant foreskins

Korean circumcision, influenced by the USA’s involvement on the peninsula during the Korean War, is widespread and by the age of conscription most men are circumcised.  However, Korean medical ‘care’ has made a significant leap affixing a pathology to the procedure and the most commonly used term for circumcision, ‘po-kyong’ (포경) isn’t really an operation but the condition a circumcision will cure.  When Korean boys and young men head off for session with the scissors,  it is because  they have been led to believe foreskins are inherently tight and in need of amputation.  Indeed, po-kyong (포경 수슬) is simply phimosis and if you have a foreskin it is naturally phimotic and requires removing – once you’ve paid the fee!  The word for circumcision proper is ‘hal-lye’ (할례) but its usage to describe the procedure is much less common.

So, a few weeks ago I overhear that, ‘Tom is going for his circumcision,’ except what is really said is, ‘Tom is going for his tight ‘foreskin operation.’  And I think, like the majority of boys, he probably hasn’t got a tight foreskin at all. However, the debate about medical ethics vs. profiteering and the pros and cons of the procedure has a long way to go especially in a society where conformity is a perquisite.  With a pathology already affixed to the procedure, and a few more claims waiting in the wings, whaling is a lucrative business and for the foreseeable future the victims are not just parents and boys, but social integrity.



Summer Snippet (an inside view of Korean circumcision)

I Saw a Snood

Creative Commons License

© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.


10 Responses

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  1. My Kafkaesque life said, on March 24, 2011 at 4:21 pm

    Brilliant post! I totally agree with you and I’m happy that in my country Slovenia we don’t have this tradition. It’s horrible to what some parents force their kids.

  2. shotgunkorea said, on March 26, 2011 at 3:09 pm

    So glad you wrote about this– we’d heard the rumors but never got a straight answer one way or the other. Fascinating.

  3. Circumcision in Korea | Shotgun Korea said, on March 26, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    […] why anyone would ever choose to go through with it.  Just stumbles across a great post about it on Bathhouse Ballads, so if you’re interested and have a second, check it […]

    • Nick said, on March 26, 2011 at 11:00 pm

      Hey, thanks for the link. I’ve added you to my blogroll.

  4. Charles said, on March 26, 2011 at 10:28 pm

    Here are some Korean medical journal articles regarding circumcision in the ROK. If you click on the link to the full article, most of them are freely available in PDF form.




    • Nick said, on March 27, 2011 at 12:54 pm

      I had a look at them Charles, they’re pretty basic and brief on analysis, don’t you think? Unfortunately, the one that was the lengthiest was only in Korean. Thanks for the visit!

      • Charles said, on March 27, 2011 at 10:31 pm

        I agree those particular ones are a bit brief on analysis. The only journal article I know that goes into it in some depth (but not much) was published in 1999 as part of a special issue on circumcision by the British Journal of Urology. Admitting that the US military had a very strong influence on circumcision in Korea, I’ve wondered nevertheless if there weren’t other cultural forces at work. I don’t have any Korean sources to point to but in the neighboring countries of China and Japan there are some references to how a foreskin should appear. There is an 8th century Chinese poem and a 17th century short story that both imply that an adult who has a foreskin hooded glans looked child-like. In the 1890s in a German anthropological journal and again in the early 20th century for a Japanese anthropological journal, B. Adachi wrote about a cultural association of a hooded glans with physical immaturity (and the 19th century disparagement of Dutchmen by Japanese in Yokohama regarding their hairy penises that looked as if they belonged on a dog).

        None of these sources advocated circumcision–what they did say (or, in the case of the Chinese sources, imply) is that in chlldhood the foreskin naturally covers the glans but as the boy matures into a man the foreskin naturally comes to rest behind the corona of the head. I don’t know how much this has carried over into the late 20th, early 21st centuries. When I was researching this in the 1990s, there were a few surveys conducted in Japan that indicated similar attitudes. An informal survey of my Japanese friends revealed that when they undressed in public they always retracted the skin. In China they seem to be hung up on phimosis 包茎 and their definitions at times appear to consider any foreskin completely covering the glans (retractable or not) to be an abnormality. Its a very interesting question. There is no doubt that circumcision as cultural phenomenon in Korea is due to the foreign military presence but I wonder if there weren’t already cultural ideals that “meshed” with the new practice and facilitated its adoption.

        For a different look at foreskin see if you find a copy of Hodges article “The Ideal Prepuce in Ancient Greece.” 30 pages discussing the Greek cultural ideal of an overhanging foreskin ending in a point. An abstract is here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11568485

        Its times like this that I think I might know too much about penises. 🙂

      • Nick said, on March 28, 2011 at 12:14 am

        Charles, thanks for the lengthy response. Your references to broader influences which may have facilitated changes here in the 1950’s are interesting and apart from the one in relation to Japan, are all new to me. Of course, it’s the same old problem regarding lack of information in English. Not too long ago there was a total lack of information on the most significant epochs in Korean history (apart from the Korean war), Korean cooking and kimchi. Things are gradually changing. I will look at the Greek reference you sent me as I have come across many references to the issues of prepuce and the ‘dainty penis’ in Greek history. Do you know anything about the ‘Mishnah?’ I have read a number of resources which claim the original Jewish practice, which did not remove the entire foreskin, was radicalised in the 140 AD. It is for this reason Michelangelo’s David does not appear to be circumcised. Is the Mishnah urban myth or is it historically accurate?

  5. Charles said, on April 1, 2011 at 7:03 pm

    Sorry its taken so long to reply. I’ve been away from my library for almost nine months and so couldn’t find the right resources quickly. As for the change in Jewish circumcision, this is called millah periah.

    It is mentioned in Gollaher’s book “Circumcision.” Here is the link, the term appears on page 17.


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