Pagtutuli - circumcision in the Philippines


Philippines flag, cut

Circumcision in the Philippines


A few years before the Spaniards subdued the island of Luzon, certain natives of the island of Borneo began to go thither to trade, especially to the settlement of Manila and Tondo; and the inhabitants of the one island intermarried with those of the other. These Borneans are Mahometans [Muslims], and were already introducing their religion among the natives of Luzon, and were giving them instructions, ceremonies, and the form of observing their religion, by means of certain gazizes [kazis, merchants] whom they brought with them. Already a considerable number, and those the chiefest men, were commencing, although by piecemeal, to become Moros, and were being circumcised* and taking the names of Moros. Had the Spaniards' coming been delayed longer, that religion would have spread throughout the island, and even through the others, and it would have been difficult to extirpate it.

- Antonio de Morga, Sucesos de las islas Filipinas
(Events in the Philippine Isles)
, 1609
(quoted in Ask a Filipino, December 23, 2010)

*This custom has not fallen into disuse among the Filipinos, even among the Catholics.

- annotation by Jose P. Rizal, 1890

A few decades ago, genital incision of Filipino boys (pagtutuli) was purely a traditional custom. An amateur (manunuli) would perform it on local boys (as shown in Kidlat Tahimik's 1977 film about his childhood, "Mababangong bangungot" [The Perfumed Nightmare]). In some areas, the boys sit astride a banana log into which a wooden plug has been inserted as an "anvil". The traditional rite is only superincision, a dorsal slit, removing no tissue (but with variations).

More recently pagtutuli is becoming medicalised (and commercialised).

Circumcision clinic in Zarate

Medicalising the custom, as elsewhere, also often involves increasing the damage to removal of the entire foreskin. The intermediate step of questioning the need for doing it at all has been strangely bypassed.

Routine circumcision anywhere is always of babies or pre-adolescent boys - the great majority of men who have experienced sex when they have a foreskin would never tolerate having it removed. In the Philippines, it has strong elements of a "rite of passage" to manhood, though once he has healed, very little about a boy's life actually changes. At present, peer-pressure, parental pressure, medical pressure and the stigma against being supót (intact) make childhood circumcision almost - but not quite - inevitable.

A wide variety of organisations now organise "operation tuli" - mass circumcision sessions - as a charitable venture.

Despite the fact that circumcision is completely alien to Christianity, the United Church of Christ in the Philippines holds operation tuli - as part of its "healing ministry"!

UCCP organizations  hold tuli, free clinic 

     JAGNA - Two groups from the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) conducted a free operation tuli and medical clinic for residents in Mayana and neighboring communities last April 29.

     The outreach, held as part of the church's healing ministry, was sponsored by the Bohol Conference Inc. (BCI) in cooperation with the Christian Professionals Fellowship (CHRISPROFEL).

     Some 74 boys lined up for the annual "rites to manhood" while 86 patients availed of the free medical check-up.

      Aside from extending free circumcision and consultation, the group also distributed free medicines, vitamins, milk and cerelac to the residents.

Tuli in Bohol

RITES TO MANHOOD. Volunteer physicians perform the "Operation Tuli" on young boys as part of an outreach mission conducted by the Bohol Conference Inc. with the Christian Professional Fellowship of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines.

- Bohol Sunday Post, May 7, 2000

Another anomalous link to Christianity is that tuli is often done on Black Saturday, the day after Good Friday, on which some extremists flagellate themselves and some have themselves crucified. It would be interesting to know the links between these two painful blood-rituals.

The Philippines are predominantly Roman Catholic, and historically the Church has been implacably (and irrevocably) opposed to circumcision. In spite of this, an "Operation Tuli" at the Central School in San Jose Del Monte on April 29, 2001, was sponsored by the Knights of Columbus, the Daughters of Mary Immaculate, and the Catholic Women's League.

Other mass pagtutuli are sponsored by local bodies such as the City Health Office of the Island Garden City of Samal. In Poblacion Peñaplata, on two days in April 2000, more than a hundred boys were circumcised. The city's information officer wrote

This is a timely project since these children, mostly in the elementary grades, do not have classes and so they have ample time to recuperate.

Yes, it is not trivial and recuperation takes time - another reason one might think to question it.


Congresspeople (such as Leyte Rep. Alfred Romualdez), Rotary (such as District 3790, San Fernando, La Union), and university fraternities such as Samahang Alpha Phi Omega ng Cainta or SAPOC and Phi Kappa Mu also sponsor them:

The UP Pagkalinga sa Kalusugan ng Mamamayan is the socio-civic arm of the Phi Kappa Mu Fraternity and the Phi Lambda Delta Sorority. It was created in 1979, spearheaded by then Vice Superior Exemplar Bill Romero to answer a desire to reach out and deliver health services for our less priveleged countrymen. It has continued to endure through the years, delivering quality health service to our fellowmen from the lahar-ravaged plains of Central Luzon to the province of Mindoro.

Medical and Surgical Missions

Medical missions and Operation Tuli - Summer circumsicion clinics are undertaken yearly in the underpriveleged areas of Metro Manila and provinces of Northern Luzon, in cooperation with diferrent organizations and institutions such as the UP Economics Society, Pi Sigma Sorority, Makati ROTARACT, 3M - Philippines, Kodak Philippines, UP Industrial Engineering Club, UP Zoological Society and the Local Government of Pateros.

Doubtless the organisers feel they are performing a service - they may feel they are protecting poor people from incompetent practitioners - and in return, the prestige of an organisation such as a university fraternity impresses the boys with the "rightness" of the rite they undergo. Neither group is motivated to question circumcision.


Dr Edward Cagape, who writes a medical column, has listed a page of "circumcision myths"


Between you and me, Pards, there are a lot of myths concerning circumcision that to this day, many of you think they are facts no matter how ridiculous.

Some parents think that having their children circumcised could make them taller or bigger. What could a piece of skin in the penis do to stimulate growth? The truth of the matter is, no matter how long the prepuce is cut (ininglis for the supot of the Penis), hindi ka pa rin tatangkad kung bansot ang tatay at nanay mo. [you will not be slender if your father and mother are 'stunted'.] Because most circumcision is done at the age when boys grow in spurts, fast growth would be attributed to the circumcision. Eh, bakit yong pisot/supot kong compadre, tumangkad man lagi!! [Hey, why is my pal intact/prepuced, will definitely grow tall!!]

Some parents think that by circumcision, the boy’s testicles would develop and so would the size of his penis. Fathers have this ambition of which they have not accomplished probably. No, Pards, kung ga-tsureso talaga iyang arian mo, ga-tsureso din yong sa anak mo paglaki niya. [if your property is really as big as a sausage, your son's would also grow as big as a sausage] [This is not true.] Nenita’s ba or Swift doesn’t matter. But if yours is a miniature statue of Liberty so would your sons. No amount of tuliation could do something about the size.

[In fact of course, cutting part of the penis off makes it smaller. It's not rocket science.]

The testicles by themselves descend ...

Some Japanese men practice the so called "Bayag dunking" to prevent accidental impregnation ...

[They don't practise circumcision, though.]

They immerse their bayag on hot este lukewarm water to slow down sperm production. This kind of birth control has never been practiced by our POPCOM probably because the incident of malasado bayags could rise in the process. You know our people, they exaggerate things when they think it could be beneficial to them.

[Pretty much what has happened with circumcision: it can have benefit in certain very rare cases. Irrational forces made it universal in the Philippines, as elsewhere.]

Parents have forgotten the main purpose of this ritual; that is to clean and expose the head of Liberty. That’s all. It has nothing to do with height or weight nor the future size of the statue of Liberty. ‘,,,,,,buntag [morning] na , Sir!!

...but he missed the biggest myth of all, that there is any need to do it.

The claim that the intact penis is "dirty" is highly offensive to intact men. When this was pointed out, Dr Cagape replied:

It is not the penis that is dirty. It is the smegma that accumulates at the neck of the glans penis. This has been shown to cause cervical cancer.

What remedial action does Dr Cagape recommend for women's smegma, which is more plentiful and smells stronger than men's, and would be just as carcinogenic (if either were)? He has not replied.

In another of his 'humorous' columns, he writes of a six year old demanding the operation.

At first he doesn't see the little boy, who is very confident.

“Imong gilimpiohan na ang imong sandata?” [Have you cleaned your tool?]

"Limpio na, Doc!! Tan-awa pa?” [It's clean, Doc!! Do you want to see ?]

I did not have any reason not to look. So, I did right then there in standing position ( for those who did not read from the beginning, please do. You might misinterpret me. I do not do standing position……in physical examination that is) [Does anyone else think a sexual joke at this point is creepy?]

It was really clean all right. The prepuce (foreskin) was already retracted and the glans penis (ulo sa German ['head' in German - but "glans" is Latin, not German]) was shining like the bald head of Pugo.
[Of course his intact penis was perfectly clean! Why shouldn't it be?]

"Gusto ko German cut kay makalipay!!" [I want the German cut, and how!]
[Germans do not routinely circumcise. The name derives from a supposed likeness between a circumcised glans and a World War II German helmet.]

"Hala, Becker (5th seed German [and intact] tennis player), higda na!!" [Come and lie down, Becker!]

Most of the time the fathers accompany their children for circumcision. The reason for this is obvious……. They want to see how they fared when they had their won circumcision. If the father does not look when I make the cut, I am sure as Ramos that he had a hard time with his own. But when the father assures his child that it is alright and comfortably watch, he had a wonderful time during his own experience of a lifetime."

["A wonderful time"? "Experience of a lifetime"? Reality check, please. We are talking about having part of one's penis cut off. There is no guarantee whatever that a boy's experience will be the same as his father's.]

While some boys may clamour for tuli,

  • They are in no position to know what they are losing. Their consent can not be considered informed.
  • The peer pressure on them amounts to coercion. Their consent can not be considered voluntary.

The ethics of a doctor performing that or any cosmetic operation at a child's request are highly debatable. A doctor who did so in almost any other country would certainly be struck off.

"Circumcision is a common thing for ages 8 to 10, not 6. I do not recommend it for this age because they are mentally not prepared. But if they are mature enough to have it, I will."

Some may call it "mentally prepared", others "brainwashed".

"There several ways of doing  circumcision. It does not matter what technique your doctor would do. You and I know very well that it is not the size, the shape nor the palamuti that makes it. It is the foreplay that counts."

There are other views of the effect of circumcision on sexuality, and women with intact partners may have other opinions.

Now a few ambivalent voices are being raised against tuli.

Following the AAP's 1999 statement, on April 20, 1999 in his column Pinoy Kasi! ("Because we're Philipinos!") in the Philippines Daily Inquirer, Michael L. Tan (the Philippines' foremost medical anthropologist) wrote:


The AAP recognizes that the decision to circumcise may be based not just on medical factors but also on cultural, religious and ethnic traditions. Since there seems to be little medical rationale now for the procedure, Filipino parents, and their sons, will just have to decide if the cultural stigma of being supot is serious enough to warrant the penile guillotine.

Two weeks later, responding to reaction to the first article, he rebutted many myths about pagtutuli, but repeated some (including "a little piece of skin")


Is it true you won't grow if you don't get circumcised?

I'll answer that with a little story. We had this six-footer of a Dutch volunteer (I think he was 6'3'') working with our office a few years back and when he first arrived one of the first things that intrigued him were the ''Operasyon Tuli'' signs. One of our secretaries explained to him why we have mandatory circumcision, including its imputed effects on height. The Dutch guy listened and then said, in his best Tagalog, ''Hindi 'yan totoo.'' And he's right. The Dutch, who are the tallest people on earth (they have statistics to prove it), are supot or uncircumcised.
[The myth that circumcision stimulates growth appears to be true because it takes place just before an inevitable event - the growth spurt of puberty. In this respect, it is like the sacrifices some people have performed to bring back the sun after winter.]

Next question. Is it true that if you're supot you can't have children?

The Chinese don't practice circumcision but they got to be 1.2 billion.


Does circumcision fatten you up?

It certainly didn't work with me. Seriously, I think people confuse circumcision with capon or castration. When you castrate chickens and pigs, they do fatten up. I'm not sure underweight Pinoys would be willing to pay that price.

...Last words to sum things up: If it hasn't been done, maybe it shouldn't; and if it's done, then it's done. Don't sweat the small stuff.

Dr Tan has written two more columns on pagtutuli, one in the Inquirer of May 23, 2002, called "Circumstitions" smile, the other in the Inquirer of May 17, 2006. If that link doesn't work, the article is here.

Jaime Licauco wrote in the same paper on March 21, 2000:


...I would vote against circumcision. After all, if God had created the foreskin, there must be a good purpose for it. So why cut [it] off?

Another doctor, Reynaldo O. Joson, M.D. (chairman of the Dept. of Surgery at Ospital ng Maynila Medical Center) has written a three-part series in the Manila Bulletin (May 28, 2002) discussing how to break the habit.
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
If those links don't work, the three parts are collected on one page here.


Virginia Beck of Hawai`i wrote to Medscape on July 17, 2000:

As an OB/GYN NP, I observed too many incidents of high stress and trauma associated with the full and partial circumcisions (traditional Filipino "flower" circumcisions, in which the foreskin is slit, and allowed to drape to the sides "like petals," rather than completely amputated.)

...My observation is that if the prehistoric genetic patterning has sufficed for some 10 billion humans to date, we don't need to upgrade the model through crude, traumatic interventions.


HealthBeat, the official publication of the Republic's Department of Health, has an article, "Circumcision, the "Uncut" Version", by Glen Ace S. Ramos


A Filipina living in New Zealand writes:

Unfortuantely, circumcision is still commonly practiced back home mainly for body image reason and not religion. It is believed that if a person is circumcised, he is more virile and hence a better lover or a husband!

Since virtually all Filipino men are circumcised, they have no way of knowing that this is false. Clearly, conformity is the main issue here, and if Filipino men are ever going to enjoy the experience of a whole body, some parents are going to have to go first, be exceptionally brave and strong, and resist the pressure of family, friends and neighbours. Their sons are, too - but the experience of other men in this position has shown that they grow up to be stronger and more individual as a result.

A New Jerseyer writes:

I have several friends who are Filipino. One said that he blacked out for weeks, he has no memory of the 3 weeks following his c[ircumcision]. Another one ... says he refused to have the ritual c, he chose a hospital instead. His parents were supportive and granted him his wish, but his grandparents freaked out!!!

An Australian who has witnessed many tuli writes:

In a way that I do not understand, there is an almost desperate clinging to the 'Tradition' which flies in the face of reasoned debate. This pot-pouri contains elements of cultural identity, quasi religiosity, sex-roles/masculinity, voyeurism, sadism and probably more.

It may be that a large number of people - boys and/or their parents - are just on the brink of refusing pagtutuli and only need to know that there are others in the same position to begin to put their beliefs into (non-)action. They will need to be unusually strong-willed to resist peer-pressure, but the Internet provides a new and effective way for them to get together - Supót Support-Groups. Here are links to such groups:

Feedback about this page would be welcomed, especially from the Philippines and especially from any people or groups questioning or opposing pagtutuli.


Related pages:

Policy Statement

For the record, the author of these pages is firmly opposed to all involuntary circumcision, the Filipino variety no more or less than any other, and has no issue with any other aspect of Filipino culture.

- HY


Back to the Intactivism index page.



Flag courtesy of ITA's Flags of All Countries used with permission.