The psychological impact of circumcision


“There is strong evidence that circumcision is overwhelmingly painful and traumatic. Behavioural changes in circumcised infants have been observed 6 months after the circumcision. The physical and sexual loss resulting from circumcision is gaining recognition, and some men have strong feelings of dissatisfaction about being circumcised.

The potential negative impact of circumcision on the mother-child relationship is evident from some mothers’ distressed responses and from the infants’ behavioural changes. The disrupted mother-infant bond has far-reaching developmental implications [99-104] and may be one of the most adverse impacts of circumcision.

Long-term psychological effects associated with circumcision can be difficult to establish because the consequences of early trauma are only rarely, and under special circumstances, recognizable to the person who experienced the trauma. However, lack of awareness does not necessarily mean that there has been no impact on thinking, feeling, attitude, behaviour and functioning, which are often closely connected. In this way, an early trauma can alter a whole life, whether or not the trauma is consciously remembered.

Defending circumcision requires minimizing or dismissing the harm and producing overstated medical claims about protection from future harm. The ongoing denial requires the acceptance of false beliefs and misunderstandings of facts. These psychological factors affect professionals, members of religious groups and parents involved in the practice. Cultural conformity is a major force perpetuating non-religious circumcision, and to a greater degree, religious circumcision. The avoidance of guilt and the reluctance to acknowledge the mistake and all that that implies help to explain the tenacity with which the practice is defended.

Whatever affects us psychologically also affects us socially. If a trauma is acted out on the next generation, it can alter countless generations until it is recognized and stopped. The potential social consequences of circumcision are profound [21]. There has been no study of these issues perhaps because they are too disturbing to those in societies that do circumcise and of little interest in societies that do not. Close psychological and social examination could threaten personal, cultural and religious beliefs of circumcising societies. Consequently, circumcision has become a political issue in which the feelings of infants are unappreciated and secondary to the feelings of adults, who are emotionally invested in the practice.

Awareness about circumcision is changing, and investigation of the psychological and social effects of circumcision opens a valuable new area of inquiry. Researchers are encouraged to include circumcision status as part of the data to be collected for other studies and to explore a range of potential research topics [21]. Examples of unexplored areas include testing male infants, older children and adults for changes in feelings attitudes and behaviours (especially antisocial behaviour); physiological, neurological and neurochemical differences; and sexual and emotional functioning.”

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