September 1, 2008

The Demonization Of The Foreskin In Victorian Britain, By The Student Of The Foreskin In Victorian England

I don't know what the Journal of Social History has been working on for the last three years, but they're finally getting around to reviewing Robert Darby's groundbreaking historical book, A Surgical Temptation: The Demonization of the Foreskin and the Rise of Circumcision in Britain. [Spoiler alert: their reviewer complains that Darby didn't include any of the exciting, new adult-circumcision-decreases-HIV-transmission study results coming out of Africa in the last couple of years. Maybe because Darby published his book in 2005?]

Anyway, let's get right to the point. Darby wanted to figure out how Victorian Britain did a complete 180 on circumcision--from total, derisive opposition to all-important medical and moral imperative--at the end of the 19th century. Victorian physicians pathologizing male sexuality and masturbation identified the foreskin as the source of their patients' problems. Getting rid of the foreskin, they promised, had major health advantages--it was both a preventive and treatment for syphilis--and it ensured the manly survival of the British race [sic] and the Empire.

Or something like that. I confess, it's always a bit weird to sit here writing about something like the history of circumcision, and I'm only doing it for a couple hundred words. I frankly can't imagine why or what it'd be like to research and write an entire book on the subject.

But the reality is that while circumcision went into steep decline in England after the 1920s, America has kept those Victorian cultural norms and perceptions alive, and they form the generations-deep foundation of our culture's own rationales for circumcision. And according to Darby, that foundation is pretty unscientific, flaky and outdated.

Journal of Social History, Summer 2008: The Demonization of the Foreskin and the Rise of Circumcision in Britain [jsh, via bookforum]
A Surgical Temptation... is on Google Books, but vital parts have probably been snipped. [google books]
If you like your foreskin history uncut and in hand, you can always buy the book on Amazon [amazon]

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