Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Parallels: Comparing Tattoos and Circumcision


A while back, I wrote a post comparing male infant circumcision to rape, and I briefly touched upon tattoos to talk about the principle of consent. I'll copy/paste the excerpt here:

Consent is at the center of the intactivist argument

The difference is consent.

There is nothing wrong with male circumcision, if, indeed, becoming circumcised is the express wish of the adult male in question.

It is forcibly circumcising a healthy, non-consenting minor which is a problem.

Tattoos are beautiful to some. There is nothing wrong with a tattoo, as long a person is giving his full consent. A person interested in getting a tattoo need only walk into a tattoo parlor and make the proper arrangements, s/he is free to do as s/he wishes with his/her own body.

US sailor agrees to have his body tattooed

It is forcibly tattooing a person against his or her wishes which is a problem.

An Auschwitz survivor displays his identification tattoo

In this post, I wanted to expand on this thought just a little more, as the more I think about this, the more comparable male circumcision is to a tattoo.

Purely Cosmetic
A tattoo has no medical value; it is purely cosmetic. They are obtained as a visible marker of religious or cultural distinction, or purely for aesthetic value. Barring medical necessity (and this is extremely rare), the same is true for male circumcision. Men are usually only ever circumcised as a marker of religious or cultural distinction, or because it is thought to be more sexually attractive and/or aesthetically pleasing. Unless there is medical indication, male circumcision is purely cosmetic.

Aesthetic Value
Let's face it; tattoos can be beautiful works of art. A tattoo artist has skill, and a person can be a living canvas. In a certain light, circumcised penises can be beautiful. A certain aesthetic other than what is natural can be desired. As a wood or marble block can be chiseled to a desire shape, as flowers can be arranged to a desired form, the penis can be surgically manipulated to have a desired appearance. It is possible to appreciate such works of art. The circumcised male may be a willing or unwitting canvas through which a a circumcision "artist" (or amateur) can display his artistic skill (or lack thereof). In a past post, I compare male circumcision to Japanese flower arrangement.

A bonsai master carefully prunes a work. A circumcised
and/or tattoed man can be compared to a bonsai tree;
a living means for another's artistic expression.

A tattoo can be a source of pride, especially when a desired aesthetic value is achieved. Men or women can be the proud bearers of art created by a masterful tattoo artist. Just the same, a circumcised man can be proud that he has (what he and/or others perceive to be) an aesthetically pleasing penis.

 Men and women alike can be proud to have tattoos

In some cultures, tattoos are a source of religious or cultural identity. The Ainu people of Northern Japan traditionally tattoo the mouths of women.

Traditionally, Berber women's faces are tattooed.

And who can forget the traditional face tattoos of the Maori tribe?

In yet other cultures, tattoos mark a man as being a member of a particular group. In Edo Japan, for example, tattoos marked men of a particular trade, such as firemen and fishermen.

Fireman in the Edo Period

It's no secret that members of the yakuza gangs of Japan are distinguished by elaborate tattoos.

Yakuza gang member displaying his membership

That Jews, Muslims and other peoples use circumcision as a source of cultural identity needs no mention.

In Ancient Egypt, circumcision distinguished priests from the rest of the population.

Indeed, to distinguish one group from the other has always been the point of male circumcision.

A Botched Job
Sometimes, a tattoo doesn't quite turn out as intended by either the tattoo artist or the person getting a tattoo. Sometimes the tattoo can be "saved", and sometimes it just can't be, or is even made worse, and a person has to live the rest of his life with an ugly tattoo on his or her body.

Sometimes tattoo botches can be salvaged, but not always.
The same can be true of male circumcision. Sometimes the doctor screws up and cuts off too much or too little skin. The scar may not be perfectly circular but uneven, or may even have horrific stretch marks where too little skin was left. At times, so much skin is removed from the penis that skin with pubic hair rides up the shaft. It is not unheard of for children to undergo circumcision "correction" surgery; that is how some doctors make their living. Sometimes adult men can go in for "correction" too. But other times, there is just nothing a doctor can do to "fix" a problem that should have never been caused in the first place, and a man has to live with a botched circumcision job and a deformed organ for the rest of his life. There will be no pride for him.

Oppression and Shame
Tattoos can be used to oppress people. I've already talked about the example of Nazi Germany tattooing Jews at a concentration camp.

The arm of a Holocaust survivor with an ID number tattoo

Historically, slaves were branded with tattoos across many cultures. The bible outlines that Jews circumcise their slaves (Genesis 17:12, 13) .

In some cultures, circumcision is used as a tool of oppression or humiliation. In Africa, for example, some tribes are very strict about their male members being circumcised, and if for whatever reason, a male is found to have skipped the circumcision ritual, he will be paraded along the streets, publicly humiliated and circumcised. In addition, members of a circumcising tribe will forcibly circumcise male members of a rival non-circumcising tribe as a sign of dominance. Tribes known to do this are the Kikuyu and Bagisu tribes.

In the Bible, Jews would circumcise their enemies as a sign of dominance and/or retribution (Gen. 34:14-17, 25-26, 1 Sam 18:27). In some Islamic countries, non-Muslims have been forcibly circumcised and forcibly converted to Islam. Forced circumcisions as part of forced conversion to Islam have continued to this very day.
Therapeutic Value
Sometimes, a tattoo can serve therapeutic purpose. In the event a woman loses a breast to cancer, a skillful tattoo artist can create a nipple where one would be for aesthetic purposes, for example.

This "nipple" is actually tattoo

Perhaps a person suffered an accident and is left with a horrific scar; a tattoo artist can creatively hide the scar by tattooing over it with something more aesthetically pleasing.

This elaborate tattoo hides a scar

Sometimes men do develop problems where circumcision is surgically indicated. It is rare, but sometimes men do develop phimosis, and a man may or may not choose to get circumcised. (Not all phimosis cases warrant surgery, and it is possible for a man to live with phimosis for the rest of his life.) So yes, sometimes circumcision may actually serve a medicinal purpose.

The Difference is Consent
For the most part, tattoos are cosmetic alterations. They can be aesthetically pleasing and a source of pride. There's nothing wrong with getting a tattoo, if indeed, that's what a person wants. A person should be free to get as many tattoos as they want, so long as they understand the risks involved, as it is their body and their choice. Most would agree, however, that there is a problem when a person is forced to get a tattoo. Parents in the US have gone to jail for tattooing their children, as well as for modifying other parts of their bodies and rightfully so. The German concentration camp tattoo is an example of forced tattooing that is all too familiar. In addition, there are actually some cultures where children are forcibly tattooed as part of culture or religion.

A Copt child being tattooed, for Christ of all things

The same is true of male circumcision. For the most part it is a cosmetic alteration. A circumcised penis can be a source of pride, especially when the results are as intended and aesthetically pleasing. There is nothing wrong with getting circumcised, if indeed, that's what a man wants and he fully understands the risks. A man should be free to be circumcised, as it is his body and his choice.

A boy being forcibly circumcised in Indonesia

The problem is when a boy or man is forced to undergo circumcision. Even when there is a medical problem that necessitates surgery (again, very rare), a man gives his consent fully understanding the implications of the procedure. A boy or man who is forcibly circumcised must live with consequences, aesthetically pleasing or otherwise, for the rest of his life, if indeed he survives the ordeal; death is one of the risks of forced male circumcision, whether performed by a trained professional in the hospital, or an amateur shaman in the African bush.

I end this post with my mission statement:

The foreskin is not a birth defect. Neither is it a congenital deformity or genetic anomaly akin to a 6th finger or a cleft. Neither is it a medical condition like a ruptured appendix or diseased gall bladder. Neither is it a dead part of the body, like the umbilical cord, hair, or fingernails.

The foreskin is not "extra skin." The foreskin is normal, natural, healthy, functioning tissue, with which all boys are born; it is as intrinsic to male genitalia as labia are to female genitalia.

Unless there is a medical or clinical indication, the circumcision of a healthy, non-consenting individual is a deliberate wound; it is the destruction of normal, healthy tissue, the permanent disfigurement of normal, healthy organs, and by very definition, infant genital mutilation, and a violation of the most basic of human rights.

As with a tattoo, getting circumcised should be the choice of the person whose body is in question. If forcibly tattooing a person is a problem, because it violates that person’s basic human rights, then the same is true of forcibly circumcising a person.

My body, my choice.

Getting circumcised should be a man’s choice; forcibly circumcising a boy or man takes that choice away.
Related Posts:
REPOST: Of Ecstasy and Rape, Surgery and Mutilation 

Random Thought: Is Circumcision Human Ikebana?

Circumcision Botches and the Elephant in the Room

PHIMOSIS: Lost Knowledge Missing In American Medicine

ALABAMA: Mother Busted for Tattooing Son

LAS VEGAS: Parents in Hot Water After Giving Baby Zelda Ear Mod

CIRCUMCISION DEATH: Child Dies After Doctor Convinces Ontario Couple to Circumcise

Poetry Corner - To Me
External Links
Wikipedia Tattoo Article

Wikipedia Forced Circumcision Article

Los Angeles Times - 'Purified' in the Name of Allah (Christians forcibly circumcised in Indonesia)

BBC News - Kenyan men in hiding fearing circumcision (from circumcising tribes)


  1. Getting circumcised as an adult does indeed affect others. It affects the partners of the circumcised man - all the negative effects of circumcision apply to any partner of the newly-circumcised man. And this is permanent. Not only does the newly-circumcised man suffer loss but amy and all of his partners suffer from the effects of circumcised sex such as dry, painful sex and the lack of the rolling action and the "buffering" that the foreskin and indeed the entire intact penis provides! So yes, circumcision doesn't only affect the man who decides to get himself circumcised.

  2. Well, this is true, but this also true of any other body modification a person chooses to get.

    If a person chooses to get their ears pierced, or gauged, or if they choose to get a tattoo, or a unique haircut, this affects others too.

    If a person chooses to get any of these things, this will affect the way people see him or her. People will make judgements about him and his/her lifestyle.

    This will limit his or her dating pool to people who tolerate or even appreciate these things. Some employers may choose not to hire a person if they are overly tattooed or pierced. This prospect of being less employable may yet deter others from wanting a romantic relationship with said person, because it means less security for financial resources to buy a house, start a family, attain better education for their children etc.

    It all comes down to choice.

    A person may yet choose to get certain tattoos and piercings given the negative perception s/he will get from others.

    And that's just it; we are all free to make our own choices and to live with the consequences of those choices.

    A man may choose to get circumcised even given awareness of all the negative side effects for him and his partner. Women may choose to marry such men anyway. It's their choice.

    At least it's supposed to be...

    Just as forcibly tattooing a man would force him to live with negative consequences he may have not wanted for himself or any of his partners, forcibly circumcising a man forces him to live with similar consequences.

    Barring serious medical necessity, forcibly modifying another person's body has got to be one of the most heinous crimes against humanity.