Re: Male Virginity and Circumcision (was: Re: Origin of circumcision)

Stephanie G. Folse (
9 Nov 1995 04:24:30 GMT

Apologizing in advance for any irreverence -- it's near the end of the
quarter here, so I'm in the middle of pre-finals stressing...

In article <47h4sa$>,
Michael Nakis <> wrote:

>Thank you for your thoughtful posting, Stephanie. I had started to get
>annoyed by the resonance of idiotic little articles that have been posted on
You misspelled "Usenet". Hope this helps!

(Stephanie writes...)

>>What I think would be interesting would be to find out howmany of these
>>groups practice circumcision-at-birth and how many practice
>>circumcision-at-puberty. The African groups I've read about (and I don't
>>claim to have read about all or even most) tend to practice
>>circumcision-at-puberty, which I think would argue against the
>>cleanliness hypothesis for those tribes at least, since a boy would spend
>>eight to fifteen years of his life at risk for infections, according to
>>the hypothesis.

(Micahel answers...)
>Yes, it would be interesting to find that out, but it would not say anything
>towards or against my hypothesis. At an earlier post I noted that in

I was answering the previous poster's suggestion of the cleanliness
thing, not your stuff, so it's probably not too surprising that it
doesn't touch on your hypothesis. :)

>cultures where men get circumcised right before sexual initiation nobody ever
>sees or hears of a man loosing his virginity, while in cultures where

Perhaps because these cultures don't place such a big emphasis on the
states of virginity and non-virginity that Western cultures do. In many
cultures children's play imitates adult actions, up to and including
sexual play. In cultures where they are not stopped, (and sometimes in
cultures where they *are* stopped -- witness the American game of
"playing doctor"), sex play can increase to the point where the kids can
be said to have lost their virginity.

Plus, in most tribal cultures, groups are so small (100 members or less)
that everybody knows what everybody else is doing. Embarrassment at the
presence or absence of a physical mark of virginity in a male is totally
pointless when everyone knows if you're a virgin or not anyway. *If* the
culture is such that anyone cares.

>circumcision takes place immediately after birth nobody ever even sees or
>hears of an intact male hymen. What you note about African tribes is one
>more reason why the cleanliness hypothesis holds no water as far as
>nonwestern cultures are concerned. As a matter of fact, it does not even
>hold water in western cultures either, if we are to believe what D. Morris
>notes in €Babywatching€ page 194:
> There is another, rather unpleasant, reason for male circumcision
> being carried out in modern times. In some countries, babies are
> treated in this way because it provides an attractive fee for the
> doctors who perform the operation. Significantly, in Britain, where
> a National Health Service removed the doctor€s fee, the frequency
> of the operation fell to 0.41 percent of the male population.

Frankly, I think this is a major reason why circumcision is common in
Western society today. If I was sitting in one of my anthro classes
right now, I'd say somthing about it also serving to socialize the child
and re-socialize his parents into the Western scientific/technological
culture. But I'm not, so I won't.

Anyway, the cleanliness hypothesis serves in Western culture as far as
why the people *believe* they are having it done. Cultural materialists
aside, belief and motivation are quite powerful systems and should be
taken into consideration, or at least studied. Or so I think.

(For the uninitiated: cultural materialism is the school of anthro that
looks into the environmental and biological reasons deep beneath what
people do. The reasons people think why they are doing what they are
doing may have little or no bearing on the "real" reason. For example:
Marvin Harris' theory states that Judaic and Islamic people don't eat
pork because their cultures arose in an area that did not have the proper
environment to raise pigs. It was far more efficient to give that land
over to other uses, and the pork prohibition was incorporated into
religious law to ensure that it was followed...dare I say it?...

>(Isn€t that word supposed to be spelled €female€?)

Hey, I spell durn good -- it's my typing that sucks. Don't mention my
mistyping of "female," and I won't mention your mistyping of "loosing"
for "losing" earlier in your reply. Deal?

>Well, you can either say that it is a rite of passage and the issue stops
>there, or you can actually find some purpose behind it. It is up to you. If
>you wish, can also believe that clitoridectomy is the removal of a €dirty€
>part of the female body, rather than a means of assuring that woman will
>remain uninterested in sex until well after she is married.

Remain uninterested in sex? Try telling that one to the Masaai women who
remain quite interested in sex after their clitoridectomies. As Cecil
Adams puts it, clitoridectomy affects your ability to have an orgasm in
the same way that chopping off your feet affects your ability to polka,
but it doesn't destroy your pleasure and delight in all other aspects of
sex. Caresses and kisses feel just as good after as before. This is
another example of Western ethnocentrism, I think -- the belief that
orgasm is the only thing that is attractive about sex.

And don't just toss aside rites of passage. There is some very good
research into those rites out there, that basically points out they are
very powerful things that incorporate and assimilate people into their
roles i society. Every society has them. They may not be really
obvious, but they're there. In Western society: marriage, divorce, the
rituals surrounding birth (baby shower, etc), graduations, and
appropriately enough for this thread -- in our society, the losing of one's
virginity. It may not be ceremonial, but I'm sure a large number of
people on this group can remember their high school and/or college years
and being desperate to Get Rid Of It and Prove That Ineffable
Something-or-other About Yourself. Sounds very much like the feelings
before puberty circumcision rites, hm?

>>And for the gentleman who started all of this: while his hypothesis is
>>interesting, he is assuming that all cultures value female virginity (and
>>by extension that all cultures who practice male circumcision value
>>female virginity). This is a culture-bound assumption and simply not
>>true. Many tribal cultures value female fertility higher than virginity,
>>which makes sense since fertility will enhance the survival of the group
>>(*biological* sexual impulses tend to enhance the survival and
>>continuation of the individual, *cultural* sexal impulses and practices
>>also enhance the survival of the group).
>Very true, but what does it have to do with the price of tea in China? As I
>have noted in previous posts there exist different ways to reach my
>conclusions, both in scenarios where female virginity alone is valued, and in
>scenarios where virginity for both sexes is considered undesirable. None of
>these scenarios intersects in any way with fertility issues. But if that is
>not enough for you, then let me tell you that concealing male virginity is
>mostly an issue of preserving male macho image, and male macho image is a
>universal everlasting phenomenon, and not culture-bound or specific to any

Um, how can I put this mildly? Bull! I won't go too far into it since
Gerald Firl has posted a message on this very topic elsewhere in the
thread. I *will* say that "macho" is very culture-bound, that there are
cultures out there that do not have what we think of as th "macho
complex," and I will also say that the macho thing is expressed so
differently among the groups that it is in that it is very hard to use it
as a specific, cross-cultural term. For example: in America, two men
walking down the street together holding hands are considered to be
homosexual. In Italy, one of the very "macho" countries, young men
(teens, 20s) *will* walk down the street arm-in-arm as they are trolling
for girls, and no one thinks it says anything about their sexual orientation.

I will also say that the very first thing you have to do in the process
of scientific inquiry is: Define Your Terms. Just exactly what do you
define "macho" as?

I will also say that male superiority is not the norm in all cultures.
Hunter-gatherer groups (the groups that circumcision arose in, BTW), are
basically egalitarian. there are a few exceptions, most notably the
Inuit, who are male-dominated, but these groups live in extreme
environmental conditions. In areas where both the hunter-men and
gatherer-women can contribute equally to the food supply, they are
equal. The Inuit live almost entirely on meat hunted by the men and are
correspondingly male-dominated. Males dominate as societies
move to agriculture and more complex societies. Stereotypical "macho"
occurs in male-dominated societies.

As while Desmond Morris has a lot of interesting stuff, and is worth
reading, his "Man The Hunter Drives Evolution (grunt, grunt)" theory is,
shall we say, not that widely accepted anymore. Just thought I'd drop
that tidbit of info.

>>Once groups are organized at a more complex level than the tribal one,
>>female virginity takes on importance. Male circumcision, however,
>>seems to have originated in tribal times. I would say that while Mr.
>>Nakis' hypothesis might have some bearing on a few cultures in modern
>>times (and it might not, I don't know), the origins of the custom had
>>nothing to do with disguising male virginity.
>You spelled my name right, but you failed to make some cause and effect
>evident here.

OK, here -- Virginity, in males or females, does not have importance in
hunting and gathering cultures. Male circumcision arose in hunting and
gathering cultures. If male physical evidence of virginity is/was
embarassing to those men, it would imply that virginity (and the lack of
it) was important. Disgusing male virginity is not important in
societies that don't care whether the male is or is not a virgin.
Therefore, circumcision did not arise as a means of disgusing the
evidence of male virginity.

>In any case, male macho image has existed practically forever,
>even before the food gatherers invented agriculture and subsequently

Um, no. See above notes.

>>If we take his hypothesis, that male circumcision is to disguise male
>>virginity, and take it to mean that female virginity is valued and male
>>virginity is not in these cultures, then the inverse should be true, that in
>>cultures where male circumcision is not practiced, we should find that
>>female virginity is not valued in these cultures. In medieval and
>>present-day Europe, where circumcision was not practiced on the general
>>population (excluding Jewish and Arabic settlers), female virginity was
>>and is still highly prized (Note that "prize" and "practice" can be two
>>differnet things).
>The fact that some cultures did not discover (or perhaps even abandoned) the
>ritual means nothing other than that males in those cultures felt pretty
>comfortable with themselves and did not find loss of virginity a much too

Be careful of making generalizations about that. The concept of feeling
or not feeling comfortable with oneself is a Western concept. Try to
explain this concept to others, and you'll get blank looks or laughter.

And if it is true that in cultures where, as you say, men feel
"comfortable with themselves," why is there no knowledge of this telltale
mark of anatomy? Why don't women say to inquiring little boys "That is a
mark of virginity and will tear/go away/whatever when you first have sex?"
No one seems to have any cultural knowledge of this, and it seems odd
that other cultures would be so worked up over it when others don't know
of its existence.

>terrible thing to bear, or that they regarded genital mutilation as a much
>too far-fetched way of dealing with the problem. Do not forget that the same
>cultures are generally less into other bloody rites of passage.

>>I simply do not see a clear correspondence between the occurrence of male
>>circumcision and the valuation of virginity within cultures. That does
>>not mean it is not there, since I have not sat down and done the
>>research, but at first glance I do not see it.
>I am not sure whether the above means €despite what Mr. Nakis has said I
>still do not agree€ or €I have not read what Mr. Nakis has said.€ If the
>latter is the case, I could dig-up some previous postings and email them to
>you. If the former is the case, I could further debate the issue with you if
>you tell me exactly why you did not find what I said convincing.

It refers to the paragraphs I had typed directly above it. I laid out
why I thought the concept of cultural knowledge and care about the
evidence of male physical virginity was important. I could not see any
correspondence in the occurrence of the rite of circumcision and the
value or lack of value of virginity, whether male or female, in the
cultures that I have read about. I also went on to say that I could not
say definitively whther or not this was the case, since I had not sat
down and done research into that, but that the circumstantial evidence
against the idea was enough for me to not be too terribly interested in
sitting down and doing that research.

>>(This is not intended to be a dismissal, but a suggestion for the next
>Thank you for your non-destructive attitude on the issue. I wish more people
>saw it this way.

Destructive attitudes against people honestly wishing discussion are
pointless. Destructive attitudes against people clearly wanting flame
wars are also sort of pointless.

>>What I suggest is that Mr. Nakis fully develop his hypothesis, figure out
>>what evidence he needs to look for, sit down with a bunch of
>>ethnographies and other books, and chart the correspondences between male
>>curcumcision and attitudes towards virginity in males and females
>>cross-culturally. Then in six months or a year, provide us with the numbers
>>and then let us merrily argue out whether or not his research was accurate.
>That is what I should have done or I might have to do. However, my original
>idea was to start this thread in sci.anthropology in order to see what other
>people think and get some ideas from them, and perhaps even find some real
>Anthropologist who is interested in the issue and would like to do the
>research. My field is NOT anthropology, so I would be very inefficient in
>researching the subject, and even if the research yielded any positive
>results, they would not be of much value, since nobody would believe a
>non-Anthropologist anyway.

Preliminary research -- seeing what else is out there -- is one of the
first steps of any research project. Heck, I don't think not knowing
anthropology has stopped many of the anthropologists out there. ;)

>In any case, it seems to me that out of the two different hypotheses that I
>am trying to make, most people focus on the circumcision story, and very few
>seem to have anything to say on the male hymen issue.

Kinda natural -- most of us are cultural anthropologists rather than
physical anthropologists. Having had only one class in physical
anthropology, one in which we studied bone structure only and not soft
tissue, I feel unable to make any sort of comment on physical structures
and analogues. I feel quite comfy with running my mouth off on cultural
stuff, though. Try finding one of the biology or medical groups, and
sorting out the replies of people who know what they're talking about
from those who think they're experts, but really are totally clueless.
Much like what happens on any newsgroup.

>The €Circumcision as a
>Means of Obliterating the Notion of Male Virginity€ hypothesis is only
>secondary to the €Presence of a Virginity Hymen in Males€ hypothesis. I
>suppose this happens because most people reading the thread are either female
>or circumcised, meaning that they have no personal experience to speak of.

According to *my* hypothesis above, it's because we know better than to
talk about physical structures when we haven't a clue. :)

>Still, a famous anthropologist suggested to me via email that I better look
>for the scientific name of what I call €male hymen€ or else nobody will care
>to hear what I am trying to say. This is based on the understanding that
>even though science may not necessarily have a clue as to what the function
>of this little piece of skin is, science may nonetheless have a name for it.

Good point. If you find out, let us know.

>If anyone out there has access to any real good anatomy book, I would
>appreciate any feedback on this. Otherwise, I will enlighten all you people
>out there when I find the time to go pay a visit to the UCI library, whenever
>that may happen.

>What is an Isz?

One Is, two Isz. Small eyeless creatures from the comic book "The Maxx"
(which also is dramatized surprisingly well on MTV's Oddities), who are
the flunkys of the evil (but maybe only sometimes...) Mr. Gone. Recommended.

Stephanie Folse

<*> || <*>
+ Museum Studies grad student|| "Will you cut that out? +
+ Department of Anthropology || Everybody knows Isz don't have eyeballs." +
<*> University of Denver ||====>I claim this .sig for Queen Elizabeth<*>