A Surgical Temptation: The Demonization of the Foreskin and the Rise of Circumcision in Britain 1st Edition
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"Left to its devices, the human male foreskin goes on its merry way, but Victorian England would have none of that. The uncircumcised penis was blamed for the 'moral and physical decay' of syphilis and masturbation, while doctors characterised the emission of sperm as 'a life-threatening illness that demanded drastic treatment if there was to be any hope of a cure'. Medical historian Robert Darby, . . . brilliantly records the rise of circumcision as 'a miracle-working cure-all' for many ills, including hysteria."
From the Inside Flap
Why Britain adopted a practice it had traditionally abhorred and then abandoned it after only two generations is the subject of A Surgical Temptation. Robert Darby reveals that circumcision has always been related to the question of how to control male sexuality. This study explores the process by which the male genitals, and the foreskin especially, were pathologized, while offering glimpses into the lives of such figures as James Boswell, John Maynard Keynes, and W. H. Auden. Examining the development of knowledge about genital anatomy, concepts of health, sexual morality, the rise of the medical profession, and the nature of disease, Darby shows how these factors transformed attitudes toward the male body and its management and played a vital role in the emergence of modern medicine.
An erudite, lively, and sometimes combative investigation of a formative period in medical history, A Surgical Temptation will inform and engage any reader with an interest in the history of medicine, gender, sexuality, the practice of circumcision in the world today, and the ways in which culture fashions the human body.
- Item Weight : 1.47 pounds
- Hardcover : 368 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0226136450
- ISBN-13 : 978-0226136455
- Dimensions : 6 x 1.3 x 9 inches
- Publisher : University of Chicago Press; 1st edition (August 1, 2005)
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #2,469,480 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Intriguingly, Darby speculates on p. 99, "If all doctors had been as coolly inductive [as John Snow was in 1849 in identifying cholera's transmission via a water pump], and if the genitals had been regarded as neutrally as the digestive tract, circumcision as a preventive health measure might never have been heard of." The author outlines in detail the various forms of backward thinking in the field of sexual medicine that enabled circumcision to endure in Britain for far longer than should have happened. Indeed, many of these errors in reasoning and fact-gathering continue to be used even today, wittingly or otherwise, often in somewhat modified form, to excuse and justify neonatal penile amputation.
The author outlines in detail the deliberate role in circumcision's development played by famous 19th century British physician William Acton. Darby also locates and deftly contextualizes a number of fascinating contemporaneous reviews of the work and writings of the initially famous, then disgraced Isaac Baker Brown. The author recounts that "a central image in Victorian pathology was the corruption of the pure by contact with impurity, and its transformation into another impure agent that could spread further corruption."
Robert Darby possesses an encyclopedic command of relevant writings from a broad range of disciplines and integrates them seamlessly into his analysis. Many of the always fascinating details provided by the author are only indirectly related to circumcision itself. Often the author is laying a broader social context, pursuing a line of argument that is relevant to the story Darby is telling.
One of the sections of the book that some would probably consider among the most speculative is Darby's original analysis of the works and lives of the poets Alfred Housman and W.H. Auden. Both men suffered circumcisions early in life that, based on the author's penetrating reviews of their writings, may well have seriously scarred them and also may have had a strong bearing on their artistic careers. Darby is to be congratulated for taking risks with his book and delving into these fascinating issues from which many authors would have shied away.
In the end, Darby demonstrates, it was the disappearance of medical and popular concern (some would say obsession) with masturbation that made it possible for circumcision to decline in Britain thanks to Douglas Gairdner's flawed if highly influential 1949 article.
Not until he reaches his concluding chapter does Darby do much connecting of dots to the modern era. In a few pages, he skillfully paints the evolution of the practice from the nineteenth century up to the present in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States, as well as bringing his tale about Britain up to present times. Each of these English-speaking countries has a somewhat unique story, yet the author shows us the commonalities as well.
A Surgical Temptation is quite simply a spectacular book. It is most highly recommended to anyone reading these words and anyone else with an interest in one or more of medical history, male sexuality, and social mythmaking. Don't miss it!
circumcision in English-speaking countries. It is easy enough to be aware of the general nature of this negative energy around male sexuality, but until A Surgical Temptation exposed me to its murkiest depths I did not really understand where it all came from, or how mad it really is!
At the centre of the book is Victorian medical men's hatred of the foreskin - and their frank if backhanded acknowledgement of how significantly the foreskin contributes to sexual pleasure: they realised that it is easier and more pleasurable for a boy to play with his penis if it still has all its moving parts. This is the fundamental reason for the surgical temptation and the demonisation of the foreskin in the title.
There is an indignant voice behind the detailed historical research that quietly asks us to question modern practice and attitudes. Routine circumcision rates remain high in the United States and many developing countries. Much lower rates are found in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. My suspicion is that the reasons for this are to be found in the same misinformed Victorian prudery that the book so expertly and thoroughly exposes.
I notice that Dr Darby has outlined some of the arguments in his book in an article published by American Sexuality Magazine. The book has been referred to as, "required reading" in a review published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.