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.
I can’t count the times I’ve heard people say that female genital mutilation (FGM) is “much worse” than routine infant male circumcision. And frankly, I’m tired of it. Cutting the genitals of children – female or male – is a gross violation of their basic human rights. Period.
Which is why a recent New York Times article, “Genital Cutting Found in Decline in Many Nations,” really galled me. While it’s indeed encouraging that the incidence of FGM is declining in some African countries, the article failed to note that in the United States, more than a million newborn boys are subjected to circumcision each year.
As Americans self-righteously decry FGM, the American government and funders such as the Gates and Clinton foundations are pushing male circumcision on misinformed and disadvantaged adult men and, increasingly, on male infants who cannot consent. Removing normal genitalia is not a legitimate public health intervention, yet they continue to relentlessly promote it. Whole ranks of international health specialists are building their academic and foundation careers on this worthless, unethical surgery carried out on third-world men, and American doctors continue to rake in the cash for inflicting it on American baby boys. And all of them are willfully, conveniently ignoring any discussion of the ethical disconnects and cultural biases that prevent honest comparison of FGM and MGM.
A recent study published in the Danish Medical Journal documents significant complications from circumcision in more than 5% of boys. The photo at right – which accompanies the report – generated disgust even among intactivists when we posted it on our Facebook page. Many asked us to remove it. We didn’t, because this photo of an infant’s mutilated, forcibly stimulated penis speaks volumes about our culture’s refusal to see circumcision for what it is: the unnecessary and unethical damaging of a perfectly healthy part of the body resulting in a spectrum of outcomes that no one has the right to dismiss. Why can’t we call that male genital mutilation? Will the DMJ report be picked up by American mainstream media? Of course not.
The hypocrisy and cultural blindness are mind-boggling.
On Monday, the news of England’s newborn male heir to the throne rippled across the world. Naturally, the first thing I thought was, “Thank goodness this boy has a good chance of keeping his foreskin!”
Now, before you launch a tirade against (or for) the British monarchy, let me say this: What you think of the monarchs is irrelevant. But this baby is famous, and if he keeps his foreskin, as we think he will, that’s NEWS!
MSN.com has posted an article on its website titled, “Whether the royal baby is getting the royal snip is our new obsession,” and the question is trending on Twitter, too. I’m thrilled that major media outlets are talking about the royal newborn’s foreskin in the same breath as the news of the birth itself.
Of course, the status of royal genitalia has made the news before. People lauded (and criticized) Diana for breaking with tradition (it is said that Queen Victoria had her boys circumcised) and leaving her two sons William and Harry intact. The paparazzi had a field day when Prince William was caught relieving himself on a soccer match’s sidelines in 2008, inadvertently showing the world he’s holding on to the full monty. (It should go without saying that the photos on that page are NSFW.) And now little Georgie’s genitals are the subject of public concern, in a way that’s far more benign than those of the other guy making the news, Anthony you-know-who.
Keep your fingers crossed, and send all good thoughts and vibes to those new parents. Let’s hope that in this case, “looking like Dad” will work out for all concerned.
When I first started speaking out against circumcision, some of my friends were taken aback; they hadn’t ever really thought about it, and they couldn’t understand why I’d devote so much energy and time to this as a cause. It’s just a flap of skin, isn’t it? Babies don’t feel or remember getting it “snipped off,” right? So what’s the big deal? Men, in particular, rolled their eyes, teased me, and wondered out loud what on earth I was so upset about.
Over the years, as the awareness of circumcision as an issue has grown, many of these same male friends have returned to tell me, upon reflection, that allowing their sons to be circumcised was the worst parenting mistake they’d ever made, the thing they most regret. More men than I can count have told me it’s the one thing they can’t forgive themselves for, even though they’d had no sense of the magnitude of their decision. It breaks my heart every single time I hear, “I had no idea what circumcision really meant, and I had no idea I would regret it.”
Some people, of course, do know, and they make the same terrible mistake. A couple of years ago, columnist Joel Stein wrote an essay for Time magazine in which he questioned whether his son should be circumcised in the Jewish faith. The piece ends with this paragraph:
“So in a few weeks, I’m going to buy some bagels, call a mohel who is also a pediatric surgeon and believes in local anesthetic, and do something that I’m pretty sure is wrong. I have a horrible feeling that all of parenthood is like this.”
Well, I don’t believe that “all of parenthood is like this.” Many mistakes we make as parents are unwitting; they don’t involve clear yes-or-no decisions; you just roll with the circumstances and hope for the best. Circumcision, however, is different. It’s a clear yes-or-no situation. And its consequences are utterly irreversible. Given that Stein’s misgivings were pre-recorded, I can’t imagine he will have a lot of credibility with his own son should he one day say, “I’m sorry I allowed this to happen to you.”
It takes a great deal of courage to look back as a parent and say, “I was wrong.” It also takes courage to resist the pressure from families, faith communities, doctors, and society at large to do something that “everybody does”—and is, at the same time, too embarrassing to talk about. Couple all of this with the fact that many men who regret saying yes are, themselves, victims of parents who were unable to say no.
Bravo to the fathers who have apologized to their sons; and bravo to the fathers who have stopped the cycle of harm, refusing to “consent” to the removal of a part of their sons’ beautiful, normal bodies.
Pass this on, share this post, or just simply start talking about it, because the single most effective way to prevent circumcision is to start the conversation—whether you’re sharing your own experience/pain/regret, or asking pregnant friends if they’ve thought about circumcision. You’ll find that once people really consider it and find out the facts, they’ll realize they are likely to regret it down the road if they allow their sons to be circumcised. (If they’re still on the fence, show them this video by Ryan McAllister, a bioethicist and research professor at Georgetown University. FYI, it includes graphic footage of a circumcision—which is the whole point.)
As parents, we’re often tasked with having to make tough decisions on behalf of our children—but this isn’t one of them. Pass it on.
My mother passed away 11 months ago, so this is the first Mother’s Day I am spending without her in my life. I miss her so much.
Growing up, but especially during my younger adult years, I had my share of grievances against my mother. Over the years, I occasionally confronted her with some of my complaints. Some of her responses satisfied me, while others did not. Sometimes airing my complaints was healing, but in other cases I even got perverse pleasure from seeing that she felt badly about certain parenting decisions she’d made.
A few years ago, though, my grievances against my mother simply dissolved. She was starting to become ill, and – all of a sudden – I saw her not as a formidable figure, one who could give and withhold, one who could shape my happiness and unhappiness, but rather as a woman like me, a mother who made the best choices she could at the time she had to make them. From one day to the next, I realized, truly absorbed, that she loved me, and that she had done the very best she was able to do. I also found that by losing any anger and resentment I held toward my mother, and allowing myself to accept and simply love her, my own life became more peaceful and more purposeful.
Since I became involved in the movement to stop the genital cutting of baby boys, I have heard many maternal remorse and child anger stories.
Mothers have called into radio programs where I was a guest, sobbing from grief and regret about having allowed their baby to be circumcised; some of these have been the mothers of toddlers, but many are recounting stories from 15, 20 or even 40 years earlier. For every one of these mothers, there is a son – a boy or man living with the consequences of a decision he did not make, but that is imprinted on his body and in his brain forever. And I have talked to hundreds, maybe even thousands, of such sons.
Many men struggle to resolve their feelings about having been robbed as babies of their right to a complete body; some struggle with where to place the blame. Some blame the doctors; others take issue with society’s blind acceptance of the ritual, and know they were victims of a terrible tradition. The saddest thing for me, though, is men who continue to blame their mothers; this seems to happen especially if they have attempted to talk with their mothers about their feelings, and have been rejected or told that their anger and feelings of loss are overblown or unimportant or, somehow, illegitimate.
This kind of response is tragic for both parties. While my own sins as a mother do not include acquiescing to the genital cutting of my child, I have done many things I now see were foolish, and I have heard plenty of grievances from my son. I am trying, though, to give myself a break, because while I fully acknowledge his feelings, I know how much I have always loved him, and that I did the best I knew at the time.
I also believe that, with (thankfully) very few exceptions, we mothers love our children and try to do the best for them.
We live in a society that accepts as normal a strange and barbaric ritual promoted as health care, and carried out by authority figures who are promoted (and promote themselves) as healers. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to lose sight of the power of custom and of authority, especially during those times (such as childbirth) when we are most vulnerable and most desirous of doing what’s right. With circumcision, both new mother and newborn baby are victims.
My Mother’s Day wish is that mothers apologize to their sons and forgive themselves, and that sons forgive their mothers. We can then all work together on fighting the custom and the real perpetrators of this awful legacy called circumcision.