‘Just a Snip’?: A Social History of Male Circumcision

Peter Aggleton
Reproductive Health Matters 2007;15(29):15–21


The last seven years have seen growing advocacy for male circumcision as a means of HIV prevention, commencing first among public health specialists working mainly in the USA, then among some of those working in international organisations, and more recently endorsed as part of a comprehensive package of measures supported by both the World Health Organization and UNAIDS.

Opinions continue to differ sharply as to whether or not to implement this form of prevention – or how quickly to do so – although there appears to be growing consensus that, as with all HIV-related public health interventions, male circumcision must be promoted in a culturally appropriate, rights-based and gender sensitive way.

Papers and discussions elsewhere take up issues of gender sensitivity and rights. It is issues of culture and politics that I want to examine here. All over the world male circumcision has its roots deep in the structure of society. Far from being a simple technical act, even when performed in medical settings, it is a practice which carries with it a whole host of social meanings. Some of these meanings link to what it is to be a man, with circumcision taking place as a rite of passage into adulthood in several African and oceanic societies.

In other settings, male circumcision carries religious connotations, it being widely practised among Jews and Muslims, although less so among Christians and rarely among other religions. From the late 19th century onwards, however, male circumcision also entered into the field of public health. It has been viewed in the USA in particular as a panacea for a wide range of medical and social problems historically – from paralyisis and hip joint disease to nervousness, anti-social behaviour and imbecility.

Crucially, however, male circumcision remains a potent indicator of hierarchy and social difference. During the Ottoman and Moorish Empires, in Nazi Germany, in India at partition and in the recent genocides of Bosnia and East Timor, a man’s circumcision status had serious consequences for how he was treated: with violence, torture and death being the consequence for those who fell short of the mark.

Against this background, this paper seeks to add balance and context to current debates concerning male circumcision. It questions the value neutrality of an act so profound in its social significance and so rich in meaning. It highlights how male circumcision – like its counterpart female genital mutilation – is nearly always a strongly political act, enacted upon others by those with power, in the broader interests of a public good but with profound individual and social consequences.

A vast deal has been written on this subject by sociologists, anthropologists, historians and psychoanalysts, among others,5 which I will only touch upon here, yet in its current global incarnation for HIV prevention, male circumcision is being talked of as if it were the most trivial and inconsequential of matters. “Just a little snip” was how one participant in one of the recent WHO/UNAIDS consultative meetings on male circumcision described it.

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