Circumcision: A Cultural-Legal Analysis

121 Pages Posted: 9 May 2003


This paper considers the legal and cultural meaning of circumcision, the most commonly performed operation on men in the United States. The paper explores three periods of American history in which circumcision has had very different meanings. Before the turn of the Twentieth Century, circumcision was uncommon and generally disapproved. During the first part of this century, and until recently, the operation became increasingly frequent - first as a cure for disease (especially masturbation), and later as a routine prophylactic measure performed on newborn boys. Beginning in the 1980s, an anti-circumcision movement has developed in the United States and elsewhere in the world that attempts to reverse the positive cultural meanings the operation achieved earlier in the century. The paper uses the case of circumcision to explore the social construction of the Good. It argues that our culture's concept of the Good is organized around certain key polarities: purity and pollution, health and harm, self and other, natural and unnatural, beauty and deformity, gender-appropriate and gender-inappropriate, order and chaos, good and bad, and true and false. The article demonstrates how the cultural meaning of circumcision changed along each of these dimensions during the last hundred years.

Suggested Citation

Miller, Geoffrey P., Circumcision: A Cultural-Legal Analysis. NYU Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 6, Available at SSRN: or

Geoffrey P. Miller (Contact Author)

New York University School of Law ( email )

Center for the Study of Central Banks
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