Experts have been unable to understand the origin of the practice of routine male circumcision. Most of the literature shows no awareness of phimosis - its frequency - or the sexual and erectile problems which can be cured by circumcision. If routine circumcision had been introduced for this most obvious reason of eliminating difficult foreskins; then the importance of an alternative modern method, suitable to our culture's attitudes in this day and age, would be clear.

updates and supporting education on new site :

"Symbolic Wounds. Puberty Rites and The Envious Male" (1962)
New, Revised Edition, Collier Books, New York. (1968)

Bettelheim's "Symbolic Wounds" argues menstruation/vagina envy as the original motivation behind routine male circumcision. This replaced the classical psychological interpretation of circumcision as a cultural expression of castration fears and the oedipal complex. Bettelheim immerses his reader in psychological anthropology, fascinating stuff, well written and well worth reading. It is an enjoyable book well researched with much common sense ... except for the passages which discuss a boy with adhesions. Here Bettelheim demonstrates a problem which the psychological profession clearly misunderstand. The entire story of this boy is related on four pages (p.32-33, 50 and 53).

It must be the psychologists preoccupation with unconscious motives which leads Bettelheim to demonstrate that this boy's "painful adhesions" were of a symbolic or psychological nature.

Bettelheim suggests the newly freed glans merely represented his masculinity and served as a symbol of maturity: "the freed glans represented a newly won masculinity" - "the now permanently freed glans may have served ... to assure him that his sexual maturity had been attained", and even though the boy's glans was anatomically hidden Bettelheim suggests it is the penis "he had always tried to hide".

Bettelheim says "painful adhesions interfered with full functioning of the penis" - surely then any speculation about symbolic meanings should be founded on the obvious fact that the boy would enjoy first and foremost a physically enjoyable erection.

(Pages 32 and 33)
At the Orthogenic School, a ten year old uncircumcised boy, living with a group who had been circumcised in infancy, wanted the operation very badly.

Eventually we had to arrange for his circumcision because of adhesions. When told about it he was happy but anxious, as was to be expected. He spoke at great length about his fear of the pain of the operation. But after it was over he also admitted that he had feared the doctor would make a mistake and cut off too much or all of his penis. He told us anxiously that he thought he had heard, about persons born "a girl and a boy at the same time," and how the "doctor had to cut it off" to make the person a girl. Thus he showed his great castration anxiety.

But powerful as his fears were, still more impressive were first his wish for the operation and afterward his pride in what he called his "new penis." This emotion overshadowed his castration anxiety throughout. As soon as the wound was healed he displayed to everybody the penis he had always tried to hide. As soon as the bandage was taken off he declared, "I think my penis is very handsome and elegant now." With great pride he told how much better it functioned, how when urinating he could make a bigger and better stream and direct it wherever he chose. Now he fully enjoyed masturbation, which before because of adhesions, had been partly painful. He summed up his feelings by saying, "Boy, I can do anything now." Circumcision showed him the organ's importance. the freed glans represented a newly won masculinity. Circumcision had indeed provided him with a better penis and with sexual pleasures not available before.

(Page 50)
His case does not permit unequivocal inferences, because first he was living among boys who had been circumcised since infancy, and second, painful adhesions interfered with full functioning of the penis. from this we cannot draw conclusions about the emotions of boys in preliterate societies toward circumcision, if they are not suffering from adhesions. What his behaviour does show is that living among circumcised men may make circumcision appear very desirable,

(Page 53)
For the boy who wished circumcision, the circumcised penis with the now permanently freed glans may have served as well as menstruation to assure him that his sexual maturity had been attained.

Bettelheim says "From this we cannot draw conclusions about the emotions of boys in pre literate societies toward circumcision, if they are not suffering from adhesions." He never follows up this idea, did he not realise that practically all infants suffer adhesions?, he could feasably have discussed the memory of this pain motivating an adult rejection of the foreskin.

Throughout the book there is no mention of the tearing of the frenulum. It is an astonishing omission for any book discussing menstruation envy in relation to the origin of routine male circumcision. The tearing of the frenulum of the male foreskin is an event often accompanied by pain and intense bleeding. As Grewel says: (82) "That excoriation of the frenum praeputii has also been neglected by psychiatrists and psychoanalysts is ... remarkable. The parallelism with the defloration of the female is too obvious to be ignored."

Such an occurrence must have stimulated awe and amazement and been seen as a great mystery among our forefathers in much the same way aa men these days. Here is something to parallel any envy or astonishment at women's mysterious menstruation. Added to this, at least three ancient cultures perform an operation related to circumcision: an incision of the frenulum.

It seems a great shame that Bettelheim's thinking was so clouded by psychology without any actual information on the anatomical problems with foreskins.