In South Florida, a Mother’s Quest to Protect her Child. In the Nation’s Capital, a Demand for Basic Human Rights
Note: The following essay appeared on the op-ed page of the (Palm Beach, Florida) Sun-Sentinel on March 28, 2015. This version has been edited slightly for timeliness and for the audience of this blog.
The headlines have subsided, but Florida mother Heather Hironimus is in now in her seventh week of hiding to protect her son from his father, who wants to cut off the boy’s foreskin. A Palm Beach County judge has ordered her arrest. As Heather sat in captivity, just recently scores of intactivists gathered in Washington, DC to protest the removal of boys’ normal, healthy foreskins by U.S. physicians. A practice for decades accepted as the regular American thing to do has emerged as a landmark human rights concern.
Widely decried by physicians and ethicists throughout European and Commonwealth countries, circumcision is falling out of favor here as parents learn the facts. Meanwhile, as Denmark and other Scandinavian countries are considering whether to outlaw the surgery on minors altogether, U.S. physician organizations are redoubling their efforts to get the government to pay for it.
Adding to the mix are the ever-more-vehement voices of American men expressing outrage at having been robbed of their normal sexual anatomy – and their freedom of choice – when they were too young to consent.
Incongruously, the judge who ordered Heather’s arrest has said that, once jailed, she will stay there until she signs a consent form for her son’s unnecessary surgery.
The human rights movement against infant and child circumcision relies largely on the principle of informed consent. Arising from revelations of horrific medical experiments inflicted by Nazi doctors on concentration camp prisoners during World War II, this principle requires that before any medical procedure can be administered, the patient must understand its risks and benefits, be told of less invasive alternatives (including doing nothing), and freely agree to it. For children, parents may give “proxy” consent – but only if treatment is medically necessary.
In addition to the fact that “consent” cannot be compelled, “routine” circumcision fails these tests. The foreskin is not a birth defect; it’s a normal body part, and it plays protective and pleasure-enhancing roles. Most of the world’s men are intact, and suffer no ill effects. In fact, despite fear-mongering by a medical establishment that peddles this infant surgery to two million American parents a year, European nations, with circumcision rates near zero, have the same or lower rates of urinary tract infections and sexually transmitted diseases (including HIV) as the United States, where most men have been circumcised.
Heather Hironimus became informed and declined to consent to her son’s surgery, because it’s not needed, it’s painful, and it will put him at risk for bleeding, infection and other complications. Her reasons are backed up by the opinion of a respected urologist who examined the boy and testified that there’s nothing wrong with him.
If Heather’s child were a girl, she would be protected by federal and state law from anybody tampering with her genitals. Heather in Florida and those who come back to Washington to demonstrate every year are asking for the same justice for American boys.
April 5, 2015
In recent days, celebrity news has been aflutter with talk that Jimmy Kimmel “had surgery on his penis … twice!” Though we don’t know exactly when, it appears that as an adult Kimmel underwent two “horrible” operations to reopen his urethra when “it just kind of closed up on its own.”
What nobody’s saying is that Jimmy almost certainly experienced not two but three horrible penis surgeries. And the first one – his circumcision – was responsible for the other two.
Meatal stenosis, the narrowing of the penis’s opening, is one of the most common complications of circumcision. It can occur years or even decades later, because cutting off the foreskin disrupts the normal blood flow in the penis, causing it to atrophy and scar over time.Do we think that a well-informed guy like Kimmel didn’t do some research on what caused his ailment? If you Google “meatal stenosis,” you’ll see source after source confirming that the condition virtually never occurs in intact (i.e., “uncircumcised”) guys.
So I think Kimmel does know, and I think he’s sent us a sly thumbs-down message about circumcision. Check out the coincidental March 15 release of his special Obama edition of “Lie Witness News,” in which, after she supposedly fails to spot the lie about “the President’s newborn son Marcus,” a pretty young woman boldly tells parents: ”You don’t have to circumcise if you don’t want to.”
You go, girl! And, Jimmy, thanks for giving us a heads-up!
In a new “listicle” posted on its website this week, The Huffington Post outlines Eight Things America Gets Wrong About Sex. From health care to homophobia, the piece covers a range of historical and sociological reasons for America’s sexual dilemmas. It speaks to just about everything, except anatomy. And what’s one thing about American sexual organs that’s unique compared to much of the rest of the world? That’s right—routine male circumcision.
It astonishes me that in talking about sex, pretty much nobody mentions that most adult men in the United States today have been deprived of the most pleasurable, sensitive part of their penises. Without a foreskin and its sensory feedback, a man has difficulty controlling the timing of his orgasm. Also, because he’s missing the very organ that serves a gliding and lubricating function—and because he has a scar where his foreskin used to be—his penis is calloused and dry, when compared to that of an intact man; this creates a friction during intercourse and compromises the pleasure of both sexual partners.
Don’t believe me? Then explain the uniquely American proliferation of lubricants and masturbation creams, the existence of which many Europeans—most of whom are intact—find strange. CIRCUMserum is available for those who want to combat what it calls “Dullness Syndrome” by restoring “natural feeling for more intense sex”; Stroke 29, Wicked Cream, and others are designed to help circumcised men seeking solitary pleasure, who find the after-effects of circumcision to stand in the way of sensory pleasure.
Understanding the history of American circumcision helps to explain all of this. In fact, when doctors began promoting circumcision in the Victorian era (late 1800s), the purpose was precisely to reduce pleasure and cause pain–to dissuade men from the “immoral” and “unhygienic” practice of masturbation. Among those who pushed the circumcision solution to masturbation were American physicians Abraham Jacobi (the organizer of the American Pediatric Society) and J.J. Moses (then-head of the New York State Medical Society and president of the Association of American Physicians).
Just as Jewish physician and philosopher Maimonides had recognized 800 years earlier, these fathers of American medicalized circumcision believed that its physiological and psychological effects–aversive pain memory and loss of sensory tissue–would help to diminish sexual gratification, whether self-sought or through genital contact with a partner.
Should we be surprised, then, with findings such as those from Denmark, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology in 2011, showing that circumcised men have greater difficulty reaching orgasm, and that female partners of circumcised men are less likely to feel sexually satisfied?
What is astonishing is that American doctors persist in a practice designed to ruin the natural pleasures of sex, and then deny that it in fact does so. Meanwhile, the vast majority of adult American men are living with scars instead of foreskins. Half of the couple is missing a most basic, sensual part of his anatomy, and we wonder why Americans find sex less than fulfilling.
Things have changed considerably in just the last few years with respect to mass media and the topic of circumcision. Several articles are published every month now – if not every week — in major newspapers and websites here in the U.S. and abroad.
As a result, it’s somewhat of a luxury to find myself being critical of a piece written by an author who self-identifies as a “Humanist” and presents his personal views as “progressive” on the topic of circumcision.
In his report on a recent intactivist street protest where he interviewed several of the demonstrators, he states, “… my own feeling is that we should not be surgically altering the genitalia of our children without their consent, and that consent can only be given when the child is of legal age.”
What more could you ask, right?
But in an attempt to identify the root cause of the inertia that stands in the way of the real progress made to end circumcision in this country, the author relies on an unsubstantiated claim that conflates notions of American progressivism with unwavering support for religious freedom.
He says, “Circumcision has a deep cultural and religious meaning, and asking people to give up on that practice will be a long, uphill battle.”
The truth is that in the United States, only a tiny fraction of infant circumcisions are conducted as religious rituals. Jews constitute just two percent of the U.S. population. Of those, only a few say religion is very important in their lives.
While no study I’m aware of has been done to uncover current attitudes and thinking specifically about circumcision among American Jews, it’s clear from the number of Jewish intactivists, from the Jewish physicians I know who have refused to have their own sons circumcised, and from information gleaned over the years I’ve been involved with this issue, that many, many Jews forgo the bris, which is the only way of achieving a religiously valid circumcision. And, it’s well known among health professionals that American Muslims have their sons circumcised by the doctor, before they leave the hospital, rather than as part of any religious or “spiritual” ritual.
The author also ignores the much more interesting and inherent conflict between a commitment to human rights and a knee-jerk “progressive” reluctance to condemn a religious practice that violates those rights – all of this while buying into the fallacy that circumcision’s “deep cultural and religious meaning” is the major roadblock to ending its practice in the U.S.
Except for misplaced anxiety about whether siding with the rights of the child will brand one an anti-Semite, circumcision in America has almost nothing to do with religion. Yet doctors and hospitals exploit this myth in order to sell an unjustifiable but money-making surgery.
Several days ago, Intact America posted this meme on Facebook:
The response was astonishing – the posting got the greatest number of views and comments, by far, of anything we’ve ever posted on our Facebook page.
Many of the comments contained arguments and rejoinders about the relative “badness” of circumcision and rape; some objected strenuously to the insinuation that circumcision was “as bad as” rape; and others said that circumcising an unconsenting infant was “worse than” raping an unconscious woman.
These arguments miss the point of the meme, which is: The fact that a victim has no memory of having been wronged does not mean that a wrong has not been done, nor does it let the wrongdoer off the hook.
Think of it this way: If a neighbor enters your home unbeknownst to you, takes a gold necklace from your jewelry box, and leaves, and you never discover that the necklace is missing, did a burglary occur? Of course. Is the neighbor who took the necklace not guilty, simply because you didn’t miss the item? Of course not. Your home was burgled, and your neighbor is guilty of burglary.
Why should wrongs committed upon someone else’s body be different from a property crime?
Both circumcision and rape meet the common law definition of battery – an intentional, unpermitted act causing harmful or offensive contact with the “person” of another. What makes the act in question “unpermitted” is that the victim did not consent. Lack of consent doesn’t require the victim’s active objection; rather it may come from legal incapacity (i.e., an unconscious individual is, by law, incapable of consenting; a baby is, by law, incapable of consenting). Whether or not the victim later recalls the battery (or recalls it at some subliminal level, as may be the case with any violent act) is irrelevant to the classification of the act as a violation of that person’s rights.
There are those who will say, with regard to infant circumcision, that consent has been given – by the parent. This is another legal fallacy. No person can consent to a legal violation of another. Just as I cannot tell a thief that it is alright for him or her to enter your home and remove your gold necklace, just as I cannot allow another person to have sex with my underage daughter, just as in the United States and most western countries, I cannot permit another person to slice off my minor daughter’s labia or clitoris, I cannot “consent to” (and thereby absolve from culpability the operator) the medically unnecessary removal of perfectly healthy, normal tissue from my son’s genitals. In medicine, parental or “proxy” consent is reserved for operations or treatments needed to save the life or health of a child. “Routine” circumcision – a cosmetic procedure – doesn’t meet this criterion.
The motive of the perpetrator, the batterer, is also irrelevant. The fact that the person who slices off a part of a child’s genitals thinks s/he’s doing the child a favor is no more a defense than the claim of a man who has sex with an incapacitated woman because she “needed it” or “asked for it.”
In striving for equal rights for all human beings, we must avoid being drawn into irreconcilable arguments about which of two horrors is more horrible, which of two violations is worse, and which of two victims is more entitled to protection or to sympathy (or, worse, which deserves condemnation). These arguments only serve as distractions from the real imperative – protecting the vulnerable and holding accountable those who violate them.
Ok, I’m a sucker for provocative headlines. So when I saw a link to a Huffington Post piece called “What French Women Can Teach Us About Sex and Love,” of course I opened it.
The author gives a few rather mundane observations about flirting, romance, the non-importance of marriage. But, for me, there was one rather interesting factoid mentioned – data from a 2008 study which found that 90 percent of French women over the age of 50 are sexually active, as compared to an estimated 60 percent of American women. Now, this didn’t just get my attention because I’m a woman over 50. It was interesting because it told me that more MEN over the age of 50 are also having sex in France than in the U.S., and made me ask why that might be?
The answer to that question must lie in one very important difference between the French and Americans. Largely, French men (and, of course, women) are having sex with intact genitals, while the vast majority of American adult men (probably around 80 million, to be specific) are missing the most sensitive part of their penis – the prepuce, or foreskin.
In addition to the intuitively obvious (that having a body part removed would mean you’re missing, at minimum, the sensation and function of that body part), scientific data is starting to show long-term sexual consequences from removing this highly sensitive tissue from boys’ genitals. Both circumcised men and their female partners report higher levels of sexual dysfunction, less sensitivity, and less satisfaction.
This should not surprise us. We have absolutely no problem accepting that women whose genitals have been mutilated will experience sexual pain or ongoing trauma, or that their male partners might find sex with such women to be less enjoyable. Yet many Americans continue to resist the clear parallels when it comes to male circumcision. This is particularly ironic, given that historically and across cultures one of the main rationales for cutting off a boy’s prepuce was to reduce his sexual pleasure, whether self-administered through masturbation (thought in Victorian times to be the root of all evil), or through intercourse. Moses Maimonides, the Jewish Medieval philosopher and physician, indeed cited the diminution of pleasure as an explicit benefit of male circumcision:
“The fact that circumcision weakens the faculty of sexual excitement and sometimes perhaps diminishes the pleasure is indubitable. For if at birth this member has been made to bleed and has had its covering taken away from it, it must indubitably be weakened.” – Moses Maimonides, Jewish Medieval philosopher and physician
So after reading about French romance, French foreplay, and who takes the initiative in French lovemaking, here’s my take:
The most important thing the French – men and women – can teach Americans about love and sex is to leave our children with the bodies that nature intended them to have.