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?) 


  1. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to speak IN REAL LIFE to people you know about something so important that no one wants to talk about. Which is why it is SO important that we have these discussions, even if it doesn't save that particular son. American culture is undergoing a major cultural shift away from child genital cutting, and even the parents who cannot and have not coped with their own cognitive dissonance, will one day be living in a country where it is widely accepted that circumcising children is not ok.

    So, yes, it's imperative that we pull this ugly wizard out from behind the perverse cape of deception, fear, and denial, in the most loving and informative way possible.

    1. Great point! After all, one of the most basic ways that cultural change can begin to occur is by people talking with one another about things that matter to them as human beings. And when we are met with hostility or disinterest we have to remember it's because we're bumping up against that cognitive dissonance you mentioned and that it takes a lot of cumulative advocacy to break through this but it IS possible.

  2. As I read your account of your exchanges with the pregnant colleague I was anticipating a happy ending to the story. Upon discovering that you suspected the boy had been circumcised after all I experienced an instant shudder through my body and a feeling of disgust. I commend you for being able to control yourself as you described, as I think I would surely have not been so diplomatic. Ignorance and prejudice are indeed difficult forces to contend with.

    1. This is an interesting point: how does it affect our relationship with people when we have an honest conversation with them about circumcision and, despite being informed, they elect to do this to their child? I can say from experience it is a hard road to travel, especially when it happens in your own family. Definitely grist for the next blog!

  3. Thank you for everything you do!!!