Friday, November 9, 2012

Circumcision and Female Genital Mutilation

Please check out the newly developed and very easy to use genital mutilation comparison sheet before reading this post...

True for BOTH Male Genital Mutilation and Female Genital Mutilation
Sometimes called "circumcision"
Involves the cutting of part of the person's genitalia
Alters the appearance of the person’s genitalia
Typically causes some bleeding in the genital area
Is often carried out without the consent of the person being cut
Is supported by religious groups who believe its practice is important to their faith
Is often described as a way to ensure "cleanliness" of the genital area
Is sometimes described as a rite of passage
Religious proponents say criminalization of the procedure infringes on the practice of their faith
Negative effects are often downplayed by those that practice the procedure and those that have allowed it to be practiced on their children
Reduces sensation/pleasure during sex
Proponents claim it keeps various bad things from happening to the child
Proponents express worry that if they don't cut the child it will affect how desirable the child is to the opposite sex

True for Male Genital Mutilation only
Legal in the United States
Profitable for US medicine
Endorsed by some US doctors

True for Female Genital Mutilation only
Illegal in the United States
Not profitable for US medicine
Not endorsed by US doctors

Why do so many people take issue with comparing the US male circumcision phenomenon with female genital mutilation that takes place in other parts of the world?  The procedures are far more similar than they are different.  To maintain that "circumcision" in the US is so much different than female genital mutilation is downright ethnocentric.  Americans think it's different because they need it to be different.  This is part of the cognitive dissonance that always permeates the circumcision debate.  Americans who believe circumcision is a good thing for children believe so in part because it is what they know, it is the "right" thing, culturally speaking, to do.  All the poorly supported medical research is just an excuse for them to do something they wanted to do anyway.  (I'll bet if a doctor did research “proving” that keeping your son's hair short will help him do better in school, TONS of people in mainstream America would say that's why they cut their son's hair.)  Thus when someone like me tries to tell them, "Hey did you know they do the same kind of thing to girls in other parts of the world?" they vehemently deny that it can't possibly be the same thing at all.  People who cut female children are disgusting and backward but somehow those that cut male children are enlightened.  To accept that these procedures are essentially the same thing is to accept that circumcision is a cultural practice and, as with many cultural practices, the people that practice them don't see them as culturally correct practices they see them as TRUTHS that are essential to survival.  To accept that circumcision isn't a simple truth, that's it's not something they HAD to do is so frightening, so horrible they will go to any extreme to protect themselves from this reality.  It is essential to all the cultural mores that define who they are and how they function in daily life to maintain the belief that female genital mutilation and male genital mutilation are two radically different things.  Well, I hate to break it to ya… They’re not!

Let's be real: People have been cutting genitalia for thousands of years.  Lots of different superstitions, religious beliefs, and cultural ideas have grown up around both male and female genital mutilation over the years but the essence of the practice remains the same: mutilators forever alter the child’s appearance and his/her future sexual experiences.  Those who facilitate or support mutilation of either sex do harm to children who can’t advocate for themselves.  If you’re going to be one of those people I say at least be consistent and support female genital mutilation too.  Women and men are supposed to be equal after all.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Speak out against the AAP

Now is a more important time than ever to speak up if you oppose routine infant circumcision.  The new AAP statement could potentially do a lot of damage to the progress that has been made in reducing the rate of circumcision in the US.  More babies will suffer circumcision and even death as a result of the AAP statement.  There is hope though.  In its infinite wisdom the AAP put out a statement back in 2010 advocating for laws to enable doctors to offer a "ritual nick" to families that wanted to circumcise their daughters.  Fortunately, shortly after its release the backlash against this idea was so great that the AAP backed away from this statement.  We need to create that same kind of backlash through letters, education, and every other kind of activism you can think of.  Here are some ideas to start:

1)   visit Intact America's Website to send a letter to the AAP.

2)    read this NY Times article It's actually a lot more balanced than NPR's coverage of the issue was and probably because of that many doctors have written to the NY Times in an effort to get them to retract parts of the article.  Send a letter to the NY Times of 150 words or less and let them know why you disagree with the AAP policy.  Here's a copy of the letter I wrote to them:


I was shocked and dismayed to hear the AAP had shifted its stance on infant circumcision. 

Regardless of what research the AAP trots out now or at any point in the future infant circumcision will always be unethical.  Circumcision removes healthy tissue that is required for normal sexual function thus forever altering the appearance of the man's sex organs as well as his future sexual experiences.  The AAP report does not consider the dramatic reduction in sexual sensation that circumcision always causes, much less the deaths and other serious complications that can also occur. 

Every child worldwide should have a right to intact genetalia.  No one should have the right to alter a person's sex organs without his/her consent.  As a survivor of circumcision I am angry this was done to me without my consent and I think it is unethical that the AAP supports such a practice.

Jeff Sanger, MFA

3)    Continue to talk to friends and family members that are of child-bearing age or are already pregnant, especially on twitter or facebook where others can view the info as well.  Talk openly about the AAP policy shift and why you disagree.  Direct them to websites and blogs (several good ones are listed on the right) that make it abundantly clear that circumcision is harmful and unethical.

4)    Write a letter to your local newspaper or periodical editor as well expressing your views on the AAP changes and encouraging them to provide local coverage of the issue.

5)    Don't be discouraged by the AAP.  Just GET LOUDER.

 Let's make it clear there are PLENTY of people in the US that disagree with what the AAP is doing.   Shame on them indeed.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Top Five refutations for AAP "evidence" for benefits of circumcision


Why do these people want to cut baby penises so desperately?  What is wrong with them?  Their devotion to cutting child sex organs is simply fanatical.

The "evidence" the AAP has put forward in support of circumcision is so poorly supported they might as well have built a house of cards on a Florida beach in hurricane season.  Just to prove that yours truly will now, despite my utter lack of medical training, refute some of the reasons the AAP has given for circumcision.  I know it seems crazy but you don't need years of med school to figure this out.  It just requires a little empathy, some ethics, and the ability to think for yourself.

1)  "Circumcision helps prevent HIV/AIDS"
I placed this at number one because physicians developed this idea in the hopes it would really grab people.  HIV is not as scary of a subject as it was in the '80s and early '90s, but the idea that it can be prevented still gets people's attention.  The problem is the studies they are basing this claim on are flawed.  Don't even worry about the numerous articles in academic journals refuting the HIV/circumcision studies done in Africa, JUST USE YOUR BRAIN.  The United States has six times the HIV rate of Sweden and 3 times the HIV rate of the Netherlands yet a far higher circumcision rate than either of those predominantly intact countries.  Comparisons with other industrialized European nations yield the same outcome.  What happened there?  If circumcision really helped prevent HIV than Europe with all of its intact penises should have a higher infection rate than the thoroughly circumcised US shouldn't it? 
The truth is circumcision does NOT help prevent HIV.  Just ask all the circumcised men in the US that are infected with HIV.  If you want to prevent HIV transmission wear a condom.

2)  "Circumcision helps prevent the spread of HPV"
Since when do we as a society perform surgery on infants without their consent for the sake of public health initiatives?  If it was discovered that the female labia helped promote the spread of HPV would the AAP promote the removal of the labia at birth?  Oh heavens no that would be genital mutilation.  How is removing part of a baby boy's penis any different? 

3)  "Intact penises are driving up health care costs"
Hmmm.  This got me thinking: how much does our country spend on breast cancer?  I'm judging a lot just based on all the walks and ribbons that are out there.  I'll bet if we removed breasts at birth that would save billions in health care costs.  What, no one thinks that's a good idea?  How about we remove everyone's appendix after birth so they don't have to worry about paying for emergency appendectomies in the future?

4)  "Circumcision prevents UTIs"
Seriously?!?!?! This is the reason Susan Blank leads with on her interview that was aired on NPR this morning?  You're telling me the hope of preventing a minor infection is reason enough to perform surgery on a baby without his consent and remove part of his body that he needs for healthy sexual functioning?  Are these people crazy?  If they found out removing one of the male's testicles would forever cure the common cold, would you sign your baby up?  Would you sign yourself up?  How about your earlobe?  What parts of your body are you willing to have cut off for some supposed medical benefit?  It's a tough call isn't it?  It's better to let your son make his own decisions about which parts of his body he wants to remove.

5)  "Circumcision prevents penile cancer"
Hmmm.  I've heard mastectomies prevent the return of breast cancer but we don't do those at birth do we?  I'll bet removing a boy's testicles at birth would prevent testicular cancer.  What, you say he needs his testicles for healthy sexual functioning?  News flash: he needs his foreskin for that too!  Circumcision is the removal of healthy tissue that men need for good sexual functioning.  In what other case do doctors remove healthy tissue to prevent cancer?  I don't see anyone signing up for a proactive colostomy and TONS of people die of colon cancer. 

The bottom line is male circumcision is something that, unfortunately, has been around for many years and people, usually ones that are themselves cut and/or do the cutting, are always looking for reasons to justify circumcision to salvage their ego and pad their wallets.  Monetary concerns and ego drive the AAP's decision today NOT what is best for our sons.  If you circumcise your child you take away his right to his whole body and you will forever alter his sexual identity and experiences.  If you leave your child intact he can make his own choices about his body.  If he disagrees with your decision then when he's 18 he can sign up for circumcision if he chooses.  If you circumcise him at birth and he disagrees when he grows up there is nothing you can do to return that part of his body to him.  (By the time he asks you where his foreskin went it will have already been sold for research or skin cream.)

This is not an issue of medical evidence.  This is an issue of ethics.  Do you trust doctors/mohels that are cut themselves and make money from cutting babies or do you trust independent researchers from intact countries and the millions of unpaid Intactivists working every day to spread information about why circumcision is wrong?  Circumcision is yet another place to apply that old cliche: Follow the money.

Do I trust doctors?  Sometimes.  I trust a doctor to treat my trauma in an ER if I'm in a car accident.  I trust him/her to mend my child's broken bone.  But I always keep in mind that not all that long ago doctors used to say smoking was good for you.  Doctors also used to put icepicks in people's brains to "cure" mental illness.  And let's not forget they also used to think circumcision could "cure" masturbation or epilepsy.  Doctors make mistakes just like other people do, especially when their own paychecks are involved.

Upton Sinclair: 'It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.'

Monday, August 20, 2012

Moms who regret circumcising

Many of us speak out about things that are important to us but how many of us are brave enough to speak out about a mistake we made?  This is one of the most powerful ways to create change in my opinion, but it's unfortunately rare because most humans (myself included :)) are psychologically hard-wired to not enjoy admitting they are wrong.  And therein lies one of the many challenges in stopping the practice of routine infant circumcision in the United States.  Most people that have circumcised their sons are not particularly interested in considering the fact that they might have made a mistake.  After all, it's done now, they can't take it back, why should they make themselves uncomfortable by considering the fact that they as a parent signed off on something that did real harm to their child?  And so most of these parents go out of their way not to think about circumcision.  They trivialize the procedure, mocking those that make a "big deal" out of it.  Others advocate circumcision to pregnant family members and friends so that they can feel more secure about what they've already done to their child.  After all, if their friend/relative doesn't circumcise his/her child that's going to force them to think about what they've done and then they'll feel uncomfortable.  It's frightening the lengths people will go to just to avoid facing the horror of what they've done to their own child.  These people are perpetuating a violent cycle just so they can avoid taking responsibility for their part in it.

But this post is not about those people.  It is about the people that are really truly special and unique.  The people who are brave enough to unflinchingly face a horrible mistake they made with their child and then speak out about it no matter how much much pain it may cause them to think and talk about it.  When I talk to people about circumcision I use a variety of different methods depending on the parent and how well I know them, but none of the methods I use are as powerful as a loving mother standing up and saying, "I circumcised my son.  I regret it every day and this is why."  There is no mother that can ignore such a statement.  She may argue but she cannot ignore.

Mothers who speak out about circumcision regret not only save future sons, they do honor to their own sons and men like me who are survivors of circumcision.  They validate how what we have gone through is wrong and they give us, all of us, the apology we always deserved and never got.  I didn't have the best experience when I tried to talk to my mother about circumcision.  (I'll save the gory details for another post.)  I actually felt worse for a while after talking to her about it, but every time I hear Jenny Vaughn or Marilyn Milos or any of these other brave moms speak up about how they wish they had not circumcised their sons it helps me heal.  When I hear about the heartfelt apologies they offered their children it makes me feel better.  When I hear about the work they do for Intactivism it gives me hope.  They are the people who pave the way for others to feel safe enough and brave enough to speak out against circumcision.  And they do this horrifically difficult thing simply because it is the right thing to do.

I feel honored to work alongside these women as an Intactivist and call some of them my friends.  They have helped me in my personal healing, in becoming an Intactivist, and in my journey as a parent.  Thanks in part to them I've come to accept that ALL of us make mistakes as parents and, thankfully, our children recover just fine from most of them.  The key is what you do about the mistake.  If you deny it to protect yourself the hurt to the child is increased exponentially.  If you admit it and apologize the child receives the validation he needs to heal and to realize that even the most devoted mothers and fathers make mistakes.  Circumcision is a mistake that the US has been lying to itself about for decades.  It's time more people were brave enough to face it head on and call circumcision out for what it is: violence against children.  It cannot be cloaked in religion and imagined medical benefits.  It is ALWAYS violence, pure and simple.   

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Circumcision: The Hidden Hurt

Circumcision hurts.  I know it sounds crazy but when you take a knife to a baby's penis it DOES hurt the little guy.  In more ways than one.  Modern medicine has finally acknowledged that yes babies can experience pain.  Um yeah.  Thanks for clearing that up for us.  The problem with circumcision though (one of the many) is that some of the worst pain, the most lasting effects of it, are hidden from view and experienced on a deep internal level that can affect the boy and then the man's very identity. 

It's been a while since I've spoken from personal experience on a post and I think it's necessary here.  Rather than telling you how I think psychological trauma affects survivors of circumcision I'd rather tell you what my personal experience was.  Unfortunately I think it is all too familiar of a story.

I did not even know what circumcision meant until early adolescence.  My parents had purchased this puberty picture book called "What's happening to me" book and foisted it upon me.  For those who aren't familiar this came out in the 70s I think and was, for its time, a progressive approach to sharing information about puberty with kids.  It was the follow up to the "Where Did I Come From" book.  Circumcision received a one page treatment in "What's Happening To Me."  There was an illustration of two guys in a shower, one cut one uncut.  I don't remember exactly what the text said but it was something along the lines of "some guys are circumcised, some aren't; either is fine."  Interesting that there wasn't any effort made to justify the act of circumcision, but then again they didn't really explain what circumcision really did either; the authors almost made it sound like you were born that way.  Needless to say I had some questions about this.

My mother reported that I had been circumcised because it was "cleaner."  She noted that Jews also practiced circumcision.  For some reason the latter comforted me.  I thought in my gentile and rather ethnocentric young mind, "Well, Jews seem pretty smart and they wear those cool hats so circumcision can't be too bad of a thing."  Years passed and I thought no more about it.  It wasn't until we learned my wife was pregnant with a son that the subject reared its ugly head once more.  When she asked me about circumcision I replied that I didn't think that was something I could do to my son, but at the time I wasn't even thinking about how I felt about it having been done to me personally.  That didn't come until after he was born and left intact.  But boy let me tell you, once you really start thinking about the fact that part of your body is missing because it was removed without your consent it becomes kind of hard to let it go.

Do I feel traumatized?  Hmmm.  I don't have nightmares like many trauma survivors do but I have read that many small children who are circed experience night terrors and I was told I had those as a small child.  Does my penis still work ok?  Yes, I never thought it worked poorly to begin with, but since I've started restoring my foreskin I have had MUCH more sensation and lubrication during sex.  But here's the rub: before I started restoring I had no idea what I was missing.  And this is why circumcision is such an insidious kind of violence.  Survivors of circumcision don't know there's anything wrong with them because they don't remember a time when they had a foreskin.  Consequently they have no reference point for what sex ought to feel like.  They think it's normal to not be able to feel much besides the climax.  They think it's normal to have to use lubricant to masturbate.  They think it's normal to have more feeling in the palm of their hand or on their fingertips than their penis.  I know because I used to think these same things.  It is a scary road to tread to learn that so many of the things you thought you understood about your own body were lies.  I think the vast majority of guys who are so dead set on having their sons circumcised know deep down subconsciously that if they don't circumcise their child they going to have to set out on a very difficult road for themselves.  I don't condone their cowardice but I think it's important to try to understand it. 

What's maddening to me though is when people try to justify circumcision by saying that everyone they know who is circumcised is "fine."  Well certainly these guys are able to hold jobs and pay their bills and if you ask them how they feel about being circumcised they'll either say "fine" or "what the hell does that mean?"  But how much do we know about their sex life?  Perhaps they have painful erections, perhaps they can't even have sex, or maybe they're sexually preoccupied and unfaithful, constantly in search of a feeling/meaning in sex that has been denied to them.  Or maybe they just have to use viagra like millions of other Americans.  News flash: this isn't fine.  This isn't ok.  Circumcision hurts every man it is inflicted upon.  The hurt is hidden, driven deep into the subconscious so the fragile newborn can protect himself from the trauma of someone cutting off part of his body.  Some men never come to a full realization of what was done to them, but this fact does not mean the hurt isn't there.  And this trauma goes on to affect their life SOMEHOW, whether they're immediately conscious of it or not.  I think as more and more survivors speak out about circumcision the more accepted it will become that circumcision doesn't just hurt newborns, it hurts grown men too.

Friday, July 6, 2012

How many times do I have to say it?!?!?! Circumcision does NOT prevent HIV/AIDS

Please follow these links to review this story NPR ran yesterday about the circumcision campaign in Africa and then take time to comment either directly on the story or send a comment to NPR to potentially be read on the air.  The comment I sent to NPR is below the links.  I'm sooooooooo disappointed in them.

As a long-time NPR listener I was very disappointed with your recent article about circumcision in Africa.  Circumcision does NOT prevent HIV/AIDS.  Perhaps the the most obvious evidence of this is the high number of HIV infected men in the United States that are circumcised.  The best protection against HIV is condom usage.  Circumcision removes healthy tissue that is essential for pleasurable sex.  Many men struggle with a host of psychological and medical complications as a result of circumcision including painful erections, lack of sexual arousal, damage to the glans, and much more.  Condoms pose no such side effects.  It disgusts me that American medicine is helping to export circumcision to other countries when NO medical organization in the world recommends routine infant circumcision for HIV prevention or any other reason, not even the American Academy of Pediatrics.  NPR ought to have at least mentioned this.  NPR also ought to have noted the cultural shift in the United States about circumcision: more than half of all babies born in the United States today are left intact. 

The Kenyans are being sold a false bill of goods.  They are being told that getting circumcised is a weapon in the war on AIDS when in reality all of the "research" done on circumcision in Africa is nothing more than a propaganda tool to prop up the waning industry of routine infant circumcision in the United States.  The fact that some of the Kenyans agreeing to this are adults does not, to me, diminish the ethical problems involved in this circumcision campaign.  These "researchers" are exaggerating and altering their findings to people who are so frightened of HIV/AIDS they are left all too vulnerable to manipulation and influence by well-meaning but misguided public health workers.  I hope that in future coverage of circumcision NPR will make a stronger effort to cover both sides of this issue instead of being so quick to accept "research" that upon further inspection is so obviously questionable.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Top Ten Reasons Circumcision Sucks

There's WAAAAAAY more than ten but we've got to start somewhere.

10)  Circumcision alters the way a boy's penis looks without him having any say in the matter whatsoever.  Think about that.  If circumcised your child's sex organ will suddenly look vastly different than at birth and will look different for the rest of his life.  He will never know what his penis used to look like.  It's bizarre when you think about all the parents who circumcised their children that get angry when junior wants to dye his hair blue, pierce his face, or tattoo his elbow.  Um, maybe you ought to let him have that since you altered his genitalia to meet your standards.

9)  Circumcision kills children every year.  Yep.  Let that sink in for a minute.  This is a "surgery" -- and I put that in quotes because there's nothing "surgical" about hacking off healthy tissue-- that is not endorsed by ANY medical organization in the world that can cause death or disfigurement to your child.  And you're actually considering this?  Really?  You make his older sister hold your hand at every intersection, you vaccinate the hell out of the kid, and you have a nannycam but you're going to risk the death of her baby brother by signing off on a "surgery" no one endorses.  (And I'm the weirdo?)

8)  Circumcision hurts.  Docs used to claim that babies that young couldn't feel pain.  Some mohels STILL claim this.  Convenient isn't it?  Research has proven that babies experience pain and anyone with the most basic psychological training knows that pain=trauma and trauma affects the developing brain.  This is why physical and sexual abuse is bad for babies.  So circumcision causes pain and thus trauma for little babies.  Oh and by the way even if Junior gets some local anaesthesia, he's still going to hurt every time you change his diaper and the psychological hurt will persist for years.  (see previous posts)

7)  Circumcision ruins sex.  Let's just get it out there.  You're fucking with your kid's sex organ.  What the HELL where you thinking?!?!?!?  Circumcision is about and has ALWAYS been about taking away sexual pleasure.   This shit has been going on for thousands of years; it's just over the last hundred years or so that some really creepy doctors are trying to find bizarre reasons to justify it.  Circumcision removes healthy tissue that keeps the glans supple and sensitive.  Without foreskin the glans becomes so callous that the sensation during sex is dramatically reduced.  My foreskin is not even 50% restored and I have experienced a ridiculous amount of restored sensation.  To all you circumcised guys who say you have no problems and like sex I say, well that was me too but now it's about 100 times better.  That peak your interest?  Anyway, don't put your kid in this position.  His future sexual pleasure is not your goddamn business.

6)  Circumcision is sexual violence.  Sorry but it is.  You are cutting genitalia, people.  Violence + genitalia= sexual violence.  Think about how angry you get when you think of some freak child molester touching a little child's genitalia.  These doctors and mohels are actually cutting part of it off!!!!!!!

5)  Circumcision hurts families.  Circumcision makes it harder for babies to breastfeed successfully and hurts the bond between mother/father and son.  Even animals understand the parents' most important role is to protect their young.  Circumcision often haunts mothers and fathers for years after the event either because of complications or the nagging voice of instinct telling them it was something they never should have done in the first place.

4)  Circumcision isn't hip anymore.  Yep.  It never was in Europe and is confirmed to be on the wane in the US.  If you circumcise your child he is going to be in the minority.  Gym class is likely going to lead to him asking you some questions you may find it hard to answer.  Your best friend who just cut her child without his consent might make it sound like everyone else is doing it (the idea is certainly comforting to her) but it just isn't true.  Thousands of parents are waking up and protecting their sons from this perverse act of violence.  Listen to your heart and I bet you will do the same. 

3)  Circumcision is WEIRD.  I mean what kind of crackpot is sitting around his tent in ancient times and thinks, "Hmmmm, I think I'm going to cut part of my penis off."  And people followed this guy?!?!?!?  Do you really want to hitch your wagon to this kind of thinking?  They used to stone people to death back then too, you know...  Please remember you CAN choose to keep your son intact and still be just as fantastic of a Jew or Muslim.  (Check out Beyond the Bris)  Mormons are hanging in there without polygamy; you can practice your religion without circumcision.
2)    Circumcision is unethical.  It is amputation without the person's consent.  It is always unnecessary and could easily be deferred until your child is able to make his own decisions about how he wants his body to look.  Doctors who perform circumcisions are violating the most important principle of their discipline: First do no harm....  If circumcision isn't harm, I don't know what is.

1)  Circumcision makes your child less than what he could have been.  You are taking something away that he will spend the rest of his life trying to get back.  For those who don't realize what's missing they chase the void like a shadow in late afternoon.  Those who do have a better chance of filling that void but if often becomes a lifelong endeavour and is always one they wish they didn't have to endure.  After all, they never agreed to it.  They just realized one fateful day what they were missing.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

What if mom & dad knew better but didn't do better?

One of my favorite phrases is from Maya Angelou: "When you know better, you do better."  This is, I think, particularly applicable to the problem of routine infant circumcision in the United States.  So many parents sign off on their child being circumcised because they don't know better.  Many have not even discussed circumcision before the doctor asks about it, much less before they were pregnant.  They trust the doctor to know best.  They've got many decisions to make, everything from what color junior's room is going to be to what kind of diapers they are going to use to whether they intend to tote him around in a plastic bucket or a cloth sling.  So when they get hit with the circumcision question it's tempting to defer to the doctor, especially if Dad is circumcised.  It makes him feel better about his own cut status when Doc prattles on about the supposed health benefits.  Mom may be blindsided and all too often, among women I've surveyed anyway, defers to Dad's decision.  Apparently all Dads are supposed to be experts on medical ethics just because they have a penis too.

Anyway, one of the reasons I speak out about circumcision is to prevent this kind of uninformed decision-making.  Parents need to know what circumcision really does to a baby both physically and psychologically.  They also need to be aware of the risks circumcision poses to future sexual happiness, bonding with their baby, and even the baby's life.  The dramatically reduced circumcision rate nationwide is directly related to parents starting to make informed decisions about circumcision.  Lord knows it's not because doctors are out there informing people.  It's because new parents are investigating things for themselves, talking with friends, and perhaps even listening to activists like me once in a while.

This is all well and good but this post is about the people who DO get the information to make an informed decision and still choose to circumcise their child.  People who claim not to have much of an opinion on circumcision often will say, "well, it's the parents' choice."  To which the intactivist responds, "Actually it's the baby's body, it's HIS choice.  That's the whole problem with circumcision!"  This makes it difficult to accept a friend or family member's decision to circumcise.

Example: I rode the same bus to work for several years and got to know a number of people who also rode the same bus.  (Special shout out to any ex-44U rider who someday reads this LOL.)  One was a gal who eventually became pregnant.  One day she happened to get on at my stop instead of a later one and I had a chance to talk to her about circumcision.  She was very receptive to the information and appeared somewhat interested in talking about it.  She let me know that her husband wanted the child to be circumcised and she wasn't so sure.  I tried to give her as much information and encouragement as I could without being overbearing.  Time went on and I stopped seeing her on the bus, probably because she was on maternity leave.  A few years later my wife ran into her in a Mom oriented book club and told me that based on a conversation that took place at the book club she was pretty sure this girl had ended up circumcising the baby.  I felt sad and frustrated and wondered what I could or should have done differently.  I felt bad for the baby primarily but also for her to some degree because I knew she didn't really want to do it and had let her husband talk her into it.  Like MANY dads who sign off on circumcision he was probably cut himself and not real interested in delving into why someone cut part of his dick off; better just to make junior look the same way so he doesn't have to think about it.

Now here's the point of this post that is starting to ramble a bit: I never had to see this girl again so I haven't thought about the whole thing much until now.  But what happens when the mom and dad that know better and still circumcise are related to you?  I can't tell you how many posts I've read from people that are going through some pretty serious family conflict because they are trying to talk a brother or sister or cousin out of circumcising their child and the family member just digs their heels in.  The intactivist feels extra motivation to go above and beyond to try to protect this child; it's a future family member for God's sake.  The family member in question, unfortunately, may perceive the intactivist as overbearing.  They think to themselves, "Well, it's my choice.  I'm the parent.  Why does x think he/she can talk me into something that's just their own opinion?"  I have the utmost respect for those that continue to try to protect the child in question in these difficult situations.  But what happens when they circumcise the baby and then you have to see them at family gatherings?  It can be awkward.

I talked with my younger cousin about circumcision as soon as I found out his girlfriend was pregnant.  I did this via email since I live in PA and he lives in AZ.  This didn't go very well.  He outright ignored the first email and then told me very unequivocally that they intended to circumcise their child.  Again, I felt frustrated and wondered what I should have done differently.  Fast forward a year later.  His wife posts some misinformation about foreskins on Facebook and gets flamed by me, my wife, and all the intactivists we are friends with.  (Apparently his wife has had one year of nursing school and is suddenly an expert on everything.)  This electronic exchange got pretty heated, but I didn't feel the least bit bad about it.  I thought, "goddamn it, I tried to give you information about this.  I'm not going to pull any punches for your dumb ass.  You and your wife need to know what you did to your kid."

When we saw them at my sister's wedding several months later I wasn't sure what to expect.  It turned out to be kind of ironic because our kids played with their kids almost the entire time we were there leaving the adults plenty of time to talk.  Of course the topic of circumcision was never broached.  We all knew where each other stood so we talked about other parenting topics: interests the kids had, activities, etc.  In the end, the anger that I feared I would have for them was just not there.  More than anything I felt bad not just for their son, but also for them.  I've made my share of mistakes as a parent but this is one that they will never be able to correct.   Even if they get a clue 30 years from now when circumcision in the US is almost if not entirely eradicated, no matter how their position on this changes their son will have to pay for their mistake his entire life.  And whether or not he confronts them about it years from now, as I warned them he might, they'll always know that they had the opportunity and the encouragement to protect their child from circumcision and they opted not to.  Perhaps that's why they seemed sad and not angry when I saw them at the wedding.  Perhaps seeing my face reminded them of a decision they're trying not to think about, a subject that they wish would just go away.  Well, I'm not going away. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

Stopping circumcision one coworker at a time

Working to help end circumcision in my lifetime has become an important part of my identity both as a writer and a human being.  This blog is my small contribution to this movement.  In addition to my blog I try to talk with people in person about circumcision when I have the chance.  I admit that I tend to prey on pregnant people.  Now don't get me wrong, I'm not running across the street accosting pregnant women who are waiting for the bus or otherwise trying to make their way to work, but if fate brings me into close proximity with a pregnant woman I often ask her what she thinks about circumcision.  This is not so much because I really think I can change her mind; most adults don't like to have their mind's changed by anyone.  Rather, I do it for two reasons, the first being that I just want to get her thinking about it and create some uncomfortable associations in her mind that go along with circumcision so that she can't fool herself into thinking it's "just a little snip" like all of her damn friends who have already done it are probably telling her. 

The other reason I do it is more selfish: every time I miss an opportunity for advocacy I beat myself up.  I think about how given my personal experience with recovering from circumcision I really have some obligation to speak out to try to prevent it whenever I can.  So then I start feeling like I, in some minute way, failed this little baby and anybody who knows me will tell you I tend to obsess over things so it's just a whole lot easier to say something to this poor pregnant lady and risk offending her.  Even if I make her uncomfortable I think that's ok on some level.  Think about those creepy anti-smoking ads where they show the post-tracheotomy patients or the old men hooked up to hospital machines.  These ads are designed to make you uncomfortable, to make it less enjoyable to buy cigarettes and light up.  If I end up making her a little uncomfortable it's not entirely a bad thing.

That said it's a helluva lot safer to do this kind of work with people you don't know that you won't see again than it is to do with people you work with.  I work for a pretty large company which we won't name here because they are big enough to try to play Big Brother a bit in terms of social media.  I tend to come across pregnant women in my department pretty regularly.  Most of them I know on some level and I always think to myself, "_______ is a really sweet gal.  I know in her heart she wouldn't want to do anything to hurt her baby but this is Western Pennsylvania for God's sake and the chances are very good that his dad will a) want to circumcise him, b) want to give him a crew cut, and c) want to teach him to hunt."  The latter two I can live with but not the first one.  But how the heck was I supposed to approach this?

Most decent sized US companies have some kind of anti-harassment policy just like the one at my company.  At first I was really paranoid of running afoul of something like this.  What if I make her angry and she claims it's a form of harassment?  This kept me from saying anything to anyone for quite a while.  Eventually though someone I worked with frequently and knew fairly well got pregnant.  The more I thought about the reason behind my silence the sillier it sounded.  I realized I was making excuses to get myself out of it because this is, almost always, a difficult conversation to have with people.  I realized that unless I'm screaming in her face that people who facilitate their children being circumcised are going to burn in hell she's probably not going to complain.  The worst she will do is think I'm a crackpot and avoid me in the hall.  So I said something.

I asked permission if I could talk to her about it and she gave it to me.  I told her that I think everyone makes different parenting decisions and everyone makes the decision that they think is best and I make it a point not to judge other people's decisions but circumcision is THE ONE thing that has such a profound effect on families that I feel obligated to talk to people about it.  She listened and we discussed.  Like several other women I've spoken to about it she said she already had some reservations about the issue but she knew her husband wanted to circumcise the child.  We talked about his reasons for this and ways she could talk to him about it.  I encouraged her to have him call me if she liked and also gave her some websites for further information.

Fast-forward: she chose not to return to work from her maternity leave.  I told her I respected and admired her decision to stay home with her new baby.  I saw her about a week later when she came to turn some work items in.  She had the baby with her and I could just tell by the look on her face she had allowed him to be circumcised.  She couldn't look me in the eye and she seemed uncomfortable and eager to get the brief meeting over with even though both myself and a coworker were busy goo goo-ing with the new baby.   So our conversation didn't make a difference.  But wait...  What if she allowed the circumcision, regretted it, and now if someone she knows asks her about it she actually tells, wait for it, the TRUTH about how the violence of circumcision affected her bond with her baby and her family?  Ok maybe I'm reaching a bit there but when you get people talking about this you never know what might happen.

Now I'm in a similar situation again.  Someone else is pregnant.  I don't know her as well as the person I supervised but, again, she seems kind and thoughtful enough that I feel obligated to offer information on the side of keeping her baby intact, at least creating the idea that saying no to circumcision is an option.  I was feeling conflicted about how to approach this and whether it was appropriate for me to say anything, but after writing this I realize that it is my duty to make what small contributions I can to the effort to keep all babies whole.  And every pregnant woman is, like it or not, offended or not, an opportunity to further this advocacy as respectfully as possible.

(After all if some idiot at Starbucks years ago can get away with chiding my then pregnant wife for drinking what he thought was a caffeinated coffee, is it so out of bounds for me to ask and have a non-confrontational, respectful discussion with a pregnant woman about circumcision?) 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Circumcision & Motherly Instinct

Mothers. The lifeblood of the world. The warm center of a cold senseless universe. Those who bear life. They are amazing people and their role in circumcision is often a strange one. What better time to meditate on this than the day after Mother's Day?

My kids have a book that is titled "All Mommies Love Their Babies." It always strikes me how true this title is. There are things in life that become obstacles to that love, that slow the passage of the stream like rocks, dirt, silt, moss, but they seldom stop it. A mother's love can be befuddled by the artifices of modern life but typically it perseveres. It must. Where would the species be without it? With love comes responsibility. Every parent who has held their newborn child and gazed into the pure light in their eyes knows this. And one of the most pressing responsibilities is to protect them. We worry about everything from getting them in the best school to protecting them from child molesters to making sure they don't run into traffic on a busy street. And, if you'll pardon my language, that is one of things that is so fucked up about circumcision: The mothers who sign off on it often think that by doing so they are protecting their children.

All of modern medicine's scantly supported justifications for circumcisions become frightening bugaboos these mothers feel compelled to prevent. I once read a post from a woman who worked for a urologist. Her reason for circumcising her son was that she had seen a case of penile cancer and thought she had to do everything to protect her son from acquiring such a disease. A noble thought, certainly, but a rash one and poorly researched. Part of protecting your children is about odds. It's kind of like Vegas: which is the safer intersection to use to cross the busy street? Is the benefit of Junior's medication worth the risk/side effects? Odds of acquiring penile cancer are pretty slim yet with circumcision the odds of the child's future sexual pleasure as an adult being reduced is 100%, the odds of violating his right to choose what happens to his body is 100%, and I don't know what the odds are that he will be angry at her for her decision but they are probably greater than the odds he would have gotten penile cancer! So in trying to prevent harm to her child she has instead caused it. Stories like this are repeated every day. Why? Because all of us, mothers included, have lost touch with our instincts.

As humans we are hardwired to protect our children. Without these instincts the species would not have continued to exist. These animal instincts are powerful. Instinct is what drives the mother to pull her child out of the street before she even sees the car. She just knows one is coming. Instinct is what helps her and the child breastfeed. Instinct is how mothers can take their baby's temperature without a thermoter. :) But unfortunately we have been taught to distrust our instinct, to drown out that little voice inside that often has the very best ideas. And without our instinct we are like babes in the woods. Nothing makes sense if we can't trust ourselves. Adrift, we turn to the lighthouse of education and knowledge: doctors. Their books, their degrees will save us. We just need to do what we are told. But even their messages seem contradictory at times, or diluted, or just completely absent. That leaves us in fear. And decisions made out of fear are not typically good ones.

I'm not sure what's happening to the motherly instinct in the US. Is the declining circumcision rate proof that instinct is growing stronger again or is that a measure of activism and the desire so many of us now have to educate ourselves, especially in the matter of our children?  Certainly instinct survives, and in many families thrives. But every time a newborn baby is handed over to someone with a knife to be cut, whether the mother believes this will save his soul, or prevent AIDS, or improve his health in some bizarre fashion, the outcome is the same: her bond with him is damaged, his body is violated, and what began as an impulse to protect becomes an act of harm.

As I raise three children, now ages 3, 5, and 6 I can honestly say that learning to listen to my own instincts has been more valuable than any book about parenting I have ever read. Certainly not all of my decisions have been good ones but I'm going to keep playing the odds. I'm going to bet on the animal instinct that's helped the human race survive for 200,000 years NOT fear. I'm going to listen to the little voice that says, "It just doesn't seem like a good idea to let that fucking weirdo with the knife cut off part of your newborn child's body." All the research I've done and continue to do about circumcision just proves that voice right over and over again.