The Geography of Genital Mutilations

James DeMeo, Ph.D.

Presented at The First International Symposium on Circumcision, Anaheim, California, March 1-2, 1989.

       This paper summarizes portions of a prior study of the geographical aspects of human behavior among subsistence level aboriginal peoples (DeMeo, 1986, 1988). The focus here will specifically be on the phenomenon of male genital mutilations. Genital mutilations are often classified as a "cultural practice," but there is growing evidence that this benign-sounding label merely serves to dismiss or evade the painful and contractive effects the mutilations have on the psyche and soma of the child. Genital mutilations elicit severe pain and terror in infants and children and are often very dangerous to the health, which raises important questions how they could have gotten started in the first instance. People who do not engage in such practices view them always with horror and disbelief, while people who do them often have difficulty imagining life without the practice. Oftentimes, the presence or the absence of the rites are seen as important requirements for the selection of a marriageable partner, and very powerful emotions focus upon them. Among the various theories developed to account for the mutilations, their geographical distribution has only rarely been discussed (DeMeo,1986).

       The global distributions of the male and female genital mutilations among native, non-Western peoples, along with history and archaeology, suggest their genesis in the deserts of Northeast Africa and the near East, with a subsequent diffusion outward into sub-Saharan, Oceania and possibly even into parts of the New World. They have generally been transmitted from one region to another by virtue of relocation diffusion, accompanied by phases of military conquest of cultures which do not mutilate by invading cultures which do, or by voluntary adoption in association with other cultural changes of an antisexual and antichild nature. One must keep in mind the premarital, pubertal character of the mutilations as originally practiced by most cultures, performed at a time of otherwise great sexual interests and passion. I have demonstrated elsewhere that the global distributions of genital mutilations are similar to that of other patrist antichild, antifemale, and antisexual cultural factors, such as infant cranial deformation, swaddling, the virginity taboo, vaginal blood taboo, male domination of kinship and inheritance, and so on (DeMeo, 1986).

Male Genital Mutilations

       Figures 1 and 2 show the overlapping distributions of various types of male and female genital mutilations, respectively, as they existed among aboriginal, subsistence level peoples with in the last several hundred years. As such the maps greatly minimize or eliminate the influences of the diffusion of European peoples within the last several hundred years. For example, the maps do not reflect the existence of male circumcision as adopted in the USA over the last 100 years; North and South American data is composed from the aboriginal peoples only. The various forms of the mutilations, and the source of the mapped data, are discussed below. A detailed discussion of female genital mutilation will be given later by Fran Hosken, whose work (1979) provided the basis for the map of female mutilations.

Female Genital Mutilations

Male Genital Mutilations

       Incision, the least harsh of the male genital mutilations, consists of either as simple cut on the foreskin to draw blood, or a complete cutting through of the foreskin in a single place so as to partly expose the glans, Incision existed primarily among peoples on the East African coast, in Island Asia and Oceania, and among a few peoples of the New World. Circumcision, a harsher mutilation where the foreskin of the penis is cut or torn away, was and is practiced across much of the Old World desert belt, and in a number of Sub-Saharan, Central Asian, and Pacific Ocean groups. When performed during puberty, circumcision was largely a premarital rite of pain endurance.

      Circumcision only gained the status of being a "hygienic operation" in relatively recent times, although the most recent and best medical evidence has in fact shown that routine circumcision has neither the short nor long-term hygienic benefits; indeed, it has severe negative psychological and physiological effects. Particularly in the bush, under less than sanitary conditions, the circumcised boy infant or child would have been at greater risk than the uncircumcised boy. The most severe form of male genital mutilation, a form of skin stripping, was practiced along the Red Sea coast in Arabia and Yemen, at least into the 1800s. Here, in an endurance ritual performed on a potential marriage candidate, skin was flayed from the entire penile shaft as well as from a region of the pubis. The community blessing would only be bestowed upon the young man who could refrain from expressing emotion during the event (DeMeo, 1986).

       The ethnographic atlas of G. P. Murdock (1967) provided most of the data for Figure 1. Murdock's Atlas also contains raw data on the age at which the mutilations were customarily done among a globally-balanced sample of 350 cultures. A map of that data which I constructed indicated that genital mutilations possessed a widespread distribution centered on Northeast Africa and Arabia. Furthermore, the greater the distance from those central regions, the older was the male at the time of the mutilation (DeMeo, 1986, p. 159). As one moves farther and farther east from Africa and the Near East, the males are progressively older at the time of the mutilation. Furthermore the practices occur less frequently and undergo a gradual dilution of harshness as distance from those central regions increases. Genital skin stripping, the harshest mutilation, was centered on the Red Sea region, and was surrounded by a region practicing only male circumcision. Circumcision, in turn, gives way to the less harsh practice of incision as one moves eastward across the Pacific. Genital mutilations were not practiced at all among most of the aboriginal peoples of the Americans or Eastern Oceania. It was precisely in those regions of mutilation absence where the decorative "penis tops" were most frequently found among native peoples, indicating a similar interest in the genitalia, but only in a decorative and pleasurable sense.

       >From the standpoint of the pain involved in circumcision as a puberty or premarital rite, the easterly decline in mutilation frequency and dilution of the rite towards less painful methods, and to older ages, makes perfect sense if we also assume that the emotional attitudes, beliefs, and cultural institutions which originally mandated the painful ritual were likewise diluted as they were carried eastward from a Northeast African or Arabian point of origin (DeMeo, 1986). With the social and emotional root reasons for the rituals becoming diluted with time and distance, less painful methods such as incision were substituted, or it was put off as long as possible, certainly well past the period just before marriage, preferably into the period of old age. Or it was relinquished altogether. In the Near Eastern desert regions where the social institutions and emotional roots for the ritual remained, but where the pain of the mutilation was feared as a puberty/premarital rite, it was occasionally shifted into infancy, or adopted as such from the start.

       There have been several phases of diffusion of the mutilations. Egyptian bas-reliefs give the earliest known unambiguous evidence of male genital mutilations, performed as a puberty rite during the early Dynastic era, about 2300 BC (Paige, 1978; Montagu, 1946). However, it seems probable that genital mutilations were introduced before 2300 BC, when the Nile Valley was invaded by militant pastoral nomads, and culturally transformed around 3100 BC. These invaders, who possessed Asian and Semitic characteristics, ushered in an era of divine kings, ritual widow murder, a military and priestly caste, massive graves and fabulous grave wealth, temple architecture, and other trappings of extreme patriarchal authoritarian culture (DeMeo, 1986, p. 218-294.). As discussed below, cultural tendencies of a similar direction, but of lesser intensity, are positively correlated with genital mutilating cultures of more recent times.

      According to biblical scripture, the Hebrews institutionalized the mutilations after the Exodus from Egypt, and it thereafter became a special mark of the tribe. The mutilations appeared widely across the Near East prior to the eruption of the Moslem armies in the 600s AD, but were subsequently spread wherever Moslem armies ventured. While neither male nor female genital mutilations have any specific Koranic mandate, Mohammed thought them to be "desirable," and they predominate in Moslem areas. Still, there are regions of non-Moslem Africa and Oceania which possess the mutilations as a probable diffusion from ancient, pre-Moslem times. Diffusion from these earliest periods may also yet account for isolated, rare examples of the traits in the New World (DeMeo 1986, p. 358-426).

Areas Influenced by Arab Armies

       Male genital mutilations were never adopted widely in Europe, European Australia, Canada, Latin America, in the Orient, or by Hindus, Southeast Asians, or Native Americans. The spread of the rite of infant circumcision to the United States during the late 1800s and early 1900s is a most recent phenomenon not reflected on the maps. Circumcision gained in importance in the USA only after allopathic medical doctors, playing upon prevailing sexual anxieties, urged it as a "cure" for a long list of childhood diseases and disorders. "To include polio, tuberculosis, bedwetting, and a new syndrome which appeared widely in the medical literature known as "mastubatory insanity." Circumcision was then advocated along with a host of exceedingly harsh, pain-inducing devices and practices designed to thwart any vestige of genital pleasure in children (Paige 1978).

       Freud and other analysts have discussed male genital mutilations as inducing a form of "castration anxiety" in the child by which the taboo against incest and parricide is pathologically strengthened. (DeMeo, 1986). Montagu (1946) and Bettleheim (1962) have discussed their connections to the male fear of vaginal blood, when menstruation is imitated (subincision), or where the male must be ritually absolved of contact with poisonous childbirth blood (infant circumcision), or hymenal blood (pubertal circumcision). Reich identified genital mutilations as but one, albeit a major one, of a series of brutal and cruel acts directed toward infants and children which possess hidden motives DESIGNED to cause a painful, permanent contraction of the child's physical and emotional self. Reich saw the real purpose of circumcision and other assaults upon the child's sexuality, to be reduction of the child's emotional fluidity and energy level, and their ability to experience maximal pleasurable genital excitation later in life, a major step in, as he put it, transmuting Homo Sapiens into Homo normalis. Reich argued that parents and doctors blindly advocated or performed the genital mutilations, and other painful shamanistic medical procedures, in proportion to their own emotional armoring and pleasure-anxiety, in order to make children more like themselves: obedient, docile, and reduced in sexual vigor and emotional vitality (Reich, 1967, 1973).

       These ideas, as disturbing as they may be, find support in cross-cultural comparisons of cultures which mutilate the genitals of their males. Textor's cross-cultural summary (1967) demonstrates positive correlations between male genital mutilations and the following other cultural characteristics (also see Prescott 1975, DeMeo 1986):

High narcisism index
Slavery and Castes are present
Class stratification are high
Land inheritance favors male line
Cognatic kin groups are absent
Patrilineal descent is present
Female barrenness penalty is high
Bride price is present
Father has family authority
Polygamy is present
Marital residence near male kin
Painful female initiation rites are present
Segregation of adolescent boys is high
Oral anxiety potential is high
Average satisfaction potential is low
Speed of attention to infant needs is low
High God present, active, supportive of human morality

       One cannot extract a list of correlated prochild, profemale, or sex-positive traits from Textor's work as cultures which mutilate the male genitalia do not generally possess such characteristics. male genital mutilations are present in a cultural complex where children, females and weaker social ethnic groups are subordinated to elder, dominant males in rigid social heirarchies of one form or another. while the cross-cultural analysis contrasted only aboriginal subsistence level cultures, many of the factors identified in the above list are or once were ppplicable to the USA, where male circumcision predominates. It must be noted, however, that many or most of those patristic mutilations are absent, but which can be accounted for by deprivation of physical affection in the maternal infant and adolescent sexual relationships (Prescott, 1975, 1979, 1989).


       The underlying psychology of genital mutilations is anxiety regarding sexual pleasure, mainly heterosexual genital intercourse, as indicated by the associated virginity taboos and ritual absolutions against vaginal blood. In the final analysis, these mutilations say more about predominant attitudes regarding sexual pleasure than anything else.

       Given their similar distributions, similar cross-cultural aspects, and similar psychological motifs, the time and location or origins of male and female genital mutilations are probably identical, the use of each being mandated and widely expanded by groups where dominance of the sexual lives of children by adults, and of females by males, was most extreme. The use of eunuchs has died out over the last 100 years with the decline of the harem system, but female infibulations and other forms of female genital mutilation persist in accordance with the arranged marriage system, and other vestiges of a powerful and hysterical virginity taboo.

       The genital mutilations of young males and females are major examples of cultural "traits" or "practices" which, on deeper analysis, reveal roots in severe pleasure-anxiety, with sadistic overtones. The parent or tribal elder who cuts the genitals of young children, was subject to the rite himself and is made angry when confronted with a child whose genitals are not mutilated. This incapacity to tolerate pleasurable movement or feeling in others (pleasure anxiety) was first identified for Homo sapiens by Reich, who also identified the role that social institutions play in demanding a systematic recreation of trauma and damage in each new generation; primatologists have identified similar processes of abuse transmission at work in monkeys deprived of maternal love in infancy (DeMeo 1986), Prescott (1975) previously confirmed many of these relationships in a cross-cultural manner. The materials summarized here in geographical form further confirm these processes which possess historically identifiable roots in specific regions. The urge to mutilate the genitals of children stems from deeply ingrained cultural anxieties regarding sexual pleasure and happiness. Genital mutilations always exist within a complex of other social institutions that provide for the socially sanctioned expression of adult sadism and destructive aggression towards the infant and child, with unconscious motivations aimed at destroying or damaging the capacity for pleasurable emotional/sexual bonding between mothers and babies, and between young males and females. In the absence of such deeper motivations, genital mutilations would not be welcomed or championed by parents or birth attendants.


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James DeMeo earned his doctorate at the University of Kansas and has served on the Faculty of Geography at Illinois State University and the University of Miami. He is currently director of the Orgone Biophysical Research Laboratory, P. O. Box 1395, El Cerrito, CA 94530, Editor of the environmental journal, Pulse of the Plant, and author of The Orgone Accumulator Handbook.

This article later appeared in the Truth Seeker (San Diego), Volume 1 Number 3, July/August 1989, Pages 9-13.

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