Wednesday, April 02, 2008

A very public circumcision

This is my column today.

It’s either of two things: Dumb luck or brilliant marketing strategy.

It is possible that the people behind ABS-CBN’s “Pinoy Big Brother Teen Edition Plus” simply stumbled into the circumcision issue and made an on-the-spot decision to make a big thing out of it. But it is also possible that they knew about it beforehand and that, therefore, this whole frenzy about circumcision is simply a well-calculated marketing campaign designed to attract attention and audience share.

The latter of course puts ABS-CBN’s screening process for housemates in question. I don’t think it is ethical to ask applicants highly intimate questions such as whether they are circumcised or not. At the same time, deliberately putting the spotlight on a minor for being supot, regardless of the willingness of the adolescent in question to bare it all, hardly qualifies as ethical. Or even fair.

But I would like to give ABS-CBN people the benefit of the doubt. Although I know that PBB’s ongoing focus on circumcision is primarily motivated by business concerns, I am willing to grant that the quest for ratings can be pursued alongside nobler goals.

It’s actually about time that a public discussion on something that is an integral part of our culture be conducted. It is high time that we have an intelligent and open discussion about circumcision. After all, it is a practice that majority of Filipino males submit to; and mostly without any comprehension or appreciation for the practice, or even choice on the matter. It’s just a surgical procedure we submit to because it’s part of our culture. And for many, it is a traumatic experience.

Oh, in case you don’t watch PBB and you are happily unaware about what’s happening in that very public fishbowl, one of the male teen housemates admitted on public television that he is uncircumcised. The 18-year-old housemate, Alex Anselmuccio, has a Filipina mother and an Italian father but he grew up in Italy—where circumcision is not the norm. The uncircumcised housemate has since then declared his intention to undergo circumcision inside Big Brother’s House—to become Filipino! Of course, the whole thing will be broadcast on television although no one knows yet exactly how the coverage will be handled. In the meantime, ABS-CBN has launched a gimmick to drum up more interest in Alex Anselmuccio’s rite of passage. They will conduct free circumcision to the first 100 boys to register at ABS-CBN today.

As can be expected in a country where hypocrisy is still prevalent, the censors who go by the name Movie and Television Review and Classification Board, have already sent a warning to ABS-CBN that they are closely monitoring the situation. In response, ABS-CBN executive Lauren Dyogi went into defensive mode justifying PBB’s decision to tackle the circumcision issue by trumping up the “culture” argument. In so many words, ABS-CBN believes that because circumcision is part of Philippine culture, there is nothing inherently wrong with discussing it on television or even showing footages related to the practice.

Actually, ABS-CBN is not the first television show to discuss circumcision in public television or to show footages of the practice. It’s something that news reporters regularly cover during summertime when most boys submit themselves to the practice.

In the final analysis, however, it really boils down to the kind of coverage given to the issue and what kind of footage is shown on television. Offhand, I don’t think that showing the circumcision procedure is objectionable per se as long as they are careful about the way pain and trauma is presented. The last thing we need is to traumatize young viewers. Obviously they also have to safeguard the privacy of the housemate in question. This means they have to be careful about showing body parts.

What I liked so far about the way ABS-CBN is handling the issue is the way they have been trying to do away with the stigma directed at uncircumcised males. The bullying and the teasing that uncircumcised males receive are facts of life in our culture. Kids can be cruel, particularly after they’ve been circumcised and it becomes their turn to bully younger playmates or classmates who still have to submit to the rite of passage. I know—been there, done that. I’ve had my share of being bullied in grade school. So when I finally got circumcised in Grade 5, it was payback time and I did more than my share of bullying others.

The show has gone out of its way to explain to viewers that contrary to myth, circumcision is not a global norm and that in many countries it is a choice given to males. But the reaction of the other male housemates is more telling and encouraging. They’ve expressed empathy and understanding rather than ridicule or tease the uncircumcised housemate. They’ve also shown great maturity in terms of discussing openly the various social and cultural issues around circumcision.

ABS-CBN has also shown footages of the surgeon-father of one of the teen housemates explaining the official stand of the College of Surgeons, which is that circumcision is not anymore encouraged or considered a “requirement.” There are in fact many doctors all over the world who are against the practice particularly neonatal circumcision (i.e., circumcising an infant upon delivery). According to them, circumcision violates the Golden Rule and the first tenet of the medical practice, which is “First, do no harm.” Others see circumcision as a form of mutilation, one that deprives people of a basic human right—the right to an intact body.

In some countries, circumcision is a religious practice. There are passages in the Bible that are interpreted by many as endorsing circumcision. The Philippines may be predominantly Catholic but in our country, circumcision is not associated with religion but with culture. In other words, Filipino men and boys don’t submit to the process to adhere to some religious beliefs but because in our culture, a man has not yet transitioned to adulthood if he has not gone through this process. In fact, one is never a complete man if he is uncircumcised.

And then of course, there are the many myths around circumcision. I was told, for example, that unless I submitted to the practice, I would stop growing. Experts of course say that the perceived relationship is purely coincidental since the growth spurt happens around the age bracket when a boy is ready for circumcision.

The only compelling argument that supports circumcision is hygiene. But then again, hygiene is a purely personal thing. One can be circumcised but continue to be a total slob anyway, or conversely, one can be uncircumcised but be very diligent about hygiene. Some experts cite medical benefits including lesser vulnerability to HIV infection. There is an ongoing debate on the issue, but in the end, it is really safer sexual practices that eliminate the risk of HIV transmission.

Many among us don’t want to talk about circumcision because it involves private parts and we’ve all been conditioned to think that that part of our body is taboo. It’s unfortunate of course that the current discussion is happening amidst a very artificial and seemingly contrived context, one that is fueled by commercial considerations, but if that’s what it takes to bring home the point then we should be thankful for small dividends.

3 comments:

Panaderos said...

Hi Bong. First visit and my first time to comment here. Congratulations for such a great site. Your insights on the various topics of the day make it so.

Back to your issue, I do hope that the MTRCB does not rush to judgment when reviewing PBB's show on circumcision. It is part of the Filipino culture and should be discussed in a mature and objective manner. In addition, any discussion that would help reduce the stigma attached (no pun intended) to the uncircumcised among us would be very helpful and enlightening.

Lester Cavestany said...

Maybe we can have a Pinoy version of "The Soup"

Anonymous said...

It's is the Filipinos' narrow-mindednes is the fault why Filipino boys are undergo force circumcision. Peer presure exist from Filipinos' narrow-mindedness and no peer pressure by teasing "supot' against uncircumcised males without narrow-mindedness and idioticy of the Filipinos.