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The following is an extract from my book, Circumcision on the Couch: The Cultural, Psychological and Gendered Dimensions of the World’s Oldest Surgery, published in 2022 with Bloomsbury Academic Press. The book is a psychoanalytic study of the practice of male circumcision that focuses on three case studies: the significance of St Paul’s abrogation of Jewish circumcision for theories of universalism; the medicalisation of circumcision as a cure for nervous disorders in the nineteenth century and its relationship to Freud’s early work; and contemporary debates over the ethical permissibility of routine infant circumcision.

For Sitegeist, I’ve selected a section from the first chapter of my book, ‘Freud’s Foreskin: Psychoanalytic Interpretations of Circumcision’, where I explore classical psychoanalytic theories on the meaning of ritual circumcision alongside an interrogation of the impact of anti-Semitic views about circumcision in Freud’s own thinking. I identify a contradiction between those, such as Theodor Reik and Freud, who view circumcision rituals as ‘masculinising’, because they involve the consolidation of bond between fathers and sons and establishment of a patriarchal order – and those, such as Bruno Bettelheim, who emphasise ‘feminising’ aspects of the rite, including its relationship to fantasies of childbirth and the ritualistic links between circumcision blood and menstrual blood. In the extract below I attempt to synthesize these divergent perspectives by arguing that circumcision is fundamentally ambivalent, giving form to an originary signifying ‘cut’ through which masculinity and femininity emerge as simultaneous possibilities. This ambivalence, I argue, may be the source of circumcision’s seductive power. The below text also therefore establishes the primary theory of circumcision that I explore throughout the rest of the book.

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