Circumcision and Human Rights

pp 155-174

Real Men: Foreskin Cutting and Male Identity in the Philippines1

  • Leonard B. GlickAffiliated withProfessor Emeritus of Anthropology, Hampshire College

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Most Filipino boys submit to foreskin cutting as an essential experience in the transition from childhood to adulthood. Usually this means not circumcision but supercision, which consists of a single dorsal incision with relatively minimal tissue destruction. As a further important contrast to the situation in the United States and other Anglophone countries, in the Philippines foreskin cutting is seldom touted for its ostensible medical benefits; rather, the practice is embedded in broadly accepted social norms connected with male identity, social maturity, and sexual acceptability. Moreover, although beliefs about cleanliness are part of the picture, the dominant theme is not foreskin rejection but penis improvement, and the anticipated reward is not disease prevention but social acceptance as a properly formed man. There is good evidence that supercision is an indigenous practice that long antedated the arrival of either Christian or Muslim missionaries, and that although Islamic circumcision replaced the older practice, the Christian population retained supercision. Filipino beliefs about foreskin cutting correspond closely with those of Polynesians, who also practice supercision. In all these societies, foreskin cutting is so firmly embedded in entire cultural systems that it will probably endure until the cultures themselves change radically.