Real Men: Foreskin Cutting and Male Identity in the Philippines1

  • Leonard B. Glick

Abstract

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.

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References

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    I want to dedicate this introductory study to Dr. Yngve Hofvander, of Uppsala University, whose paper on “ Violations Against Children in the Name of Religion and Tradition, ” delivered at the eighth international NOCIRC symposium in Padua, September 2004, stimulated me to think about foreskin cutting in nations other than my own.Google Scholar
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    In an article published in 1936, a Filipino author reported seeing four methods of foreskin cutting, only one of which could be accurately labeled “ circumcision. ” This method, calledtuli sa bao(cutting with a coconut shell), involved use of a shell with a hole in the center, through which the prepuce was inserted, then sliced off with a razor. Post-operative treatment was extensive: A day later the wound was washed in a solution of boiled guava leaves. Then “ fine scrapings of coconut shell ” were applied, and the penis was held over “ smoke produced by burning fresh jackfruit leaves. ” The wound was washed and dressed daily thereafter. Healing usually required “ ten days to one month. ” Maceda GS. Some methods of circumcision in the Philippines. The Philippine Journal of Science 1936;58:513 – 7 [here, pp. 515 – 6]. Two other methods, variants of supercision, weretuli sa gunting(cutting with scissors), andtuli sa itak(cutting with a bolo, a Filipino machete), in which the prepuce was stretched over the blade and struck repeatedly with a banana leaf stalk until cut through. Finally, there wastuli sa batakan: stretching the foreskin over a piece of polished wood inserted into the ground and striking the dorsal surface with a knife until cut through. “ In some instances, ” the author reported, “ the operated person faints, and in this case the operator slaps his face to bring him back to consciousness, then applies the medicine and dresses the wound and the boy is considered baptized ” (pp. 514 – 5). Somewhat confusingly, Maceda also remarked that the method being employed by many Filipinos was “ circumcision in the real sense performed by physicians, ” defined as “ amputation ” of the foreskin and “ suturing of the free borders of the prepuce under local anesthesia ” — presumably in hospitals or medical clinics (p. 513).Google Scholar
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    Jocano identifies the Panay villagers as Hiligaynons (an ethnolinguistic term). Here is what happens in a Hiligaynon supercision: The instruments are “ a stainless steel knife and a guava branch carved into two different shapes, one L-shaped and the other rectangular. ” With the “ patient ” seated, the operator places “ the tip of the penis beneath the end of the L-shaped wood, ” pushes the foreskin forward until the wood is visible, and makes certain that “ the skin is stretched on the wood to avoid cutting the veins. ” Then he “ places the sharper blade of the knife on top of the skin ” and strikes it “ with the rectangular wood until the skin is cut … leaving the tip of the penis bare. ” Note that he does not actually remove tissue. After application of merthiolate, penicillin ointment, or chewed guava leaves, the wound is bandaged, and the circumciser himself changes and washes this daily. The newly cut youth must refrain from eating tomatoes, pork, and dried fish. Also, coming near a menstruating woman may cause “ bleeding and swelling ” of his wound. Jocano FL. The Hiligaynons: An Ethnography of Family and Community Life in Western Bisayas Region. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press; 1983. pp. 193–4. In the personal narrative quoted in my introduction, Jocano does not identify his own town as ethnically Hiligaynon, but it probably is.Google Scholar
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    Ramos S, Boyle GJ. Ritual and medical circumcision among Filipino boys: evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder. In: Denniston GC, Hodges FM, Milos MF, editors. Understanding Circumcision: A Multi-Disciplinary Approach to a Multi-Dimensional Problem. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers; 2001: 253 – 70 [here, p. 255]. In an ethnography of a peasant community in Panay, published in 1976, F. Landa Jocano included two sentences on circumcision: “ Most males are circumcised when they are well advanced in adolescence. Other informants report that they were circumcised in the hospital shortly after they were born. ” Jocano FL. Tuburan: A Case Study of Adaptation and Peasant Life in a Bisayan Barrio. Quezon City: Capitol Publishing, 1976: p. 110. Two points to note: first, this was a small “ peasant ” community, not an urban center; second, although hospital circumcision (or supercision?) was still not the most common procedure, it was happening often enough to be mentioned.Romeo B. Lee says that upper and middle class boys “ tend to have their circumcision performed in hospitals and at times during infancy. ” He reports that physicians “ perform circumcision in clinics and hospitals, and for small clinics in particular, you would find advertisements for circumcision services posted at the front door. ” Personal communication, Dec., 6, 2005.Google Scholar
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    Virola MT. Boys' Rite of Passage Best on Black Saturday. Makati City: Philippine Daily Inquirer, March 20, 2005. Available at www.cirp.org/news/daily inquirer03-20-05/ (June 20, 2005). Opposition to foreskin cutting is developing in the Philippines, albeit slowly. In the medical community, the leader has been Dr. Reynaldo Joson, a prominent Manila surgeon, who says that in 1999 he realized the “ senselessness of this practice ” and its attendant dangers, and began campaigning against it. His personal recollection illustrates the power of the very tradition he opposes, since he continued to perform “ circumcisions ” for two more years, and even now accepts its appropriateness for “ therapeutic ” reasons. In 2001, I completely stopped doing non-therapeutic circumcision, after I advised and convinced my son not to go for the tradition-driven circumcision. I felt I should not have double standards, i.e., not doing circumcision on my own son and yet doing circumcision on patients other than my son. I remember vividly I turned down a request from a surgeon-colleague to do circumcision for his son that year. As part of his personal campaign, Joson successfully persuaded his immediate colleagues and a number in other Philippine hospitals to “ make a stand on No to routine circumcision and No to Operation Tule ” (sic) — the latter defined as “ performance of tradition-driven, non-therapeutic circumcision in adolescents. ” Asked about possible religious basis for cutting, he replied that since most Filipinos are Catholics and the Church “ not requiring circumcision for salvation, ” religion “ is not a strong contributory factor for the rampant practice of circumcision in the Philippines.” How does this pioneer intend to reduce or end “ tradition-driven non-therapeutic circumcision ” ? Joson proposed that through “ public health education and advocacy ” he might change parental beliefs, “ abolish the peer pressure, ” and convince physicians that routine circumcision should end. He seemed to anticipate most resistance from physicians “ who have already acquired the habit of doing the procedure left and right and those who tend to ride on all traditions to avoid any conflict. ” Education would require publicizing a basic message: “Tule: Hindi Na Kailangan! Masakit Pa! ” (Circumcision Is Not Necessary! It's Painful!). Joson RJ. Question and Answer: Dr. Reynaldo Joson on Project Xtulepinoy 2003. http://xtulepinoy.tripod.com/qacircumcisionrj03.htm (July 6, 2005). Dr Joson said that he approves of “ therapeutic circumcision ” for phimosis (defined as “ restrictive foreskin ” ), paraphimosis, and balanitis. Commenting on contemporary efforts to reduce foreskin cutting, Romeo B. Lee says that “ the campaign's arguments which are based on the US' medical primacy are not culturally appropriate. ” Personal communication, Dec. 6, 2005. Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science + Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Leonard B. Glick
    • 1
  1. 1.Professor Emeritus of AnthropologyHampshire CollegeAmherstUSA

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