Friday, December 27, 2013

Born Perfect

I took some time away from activism.  In August my family and I set off on an extended road trip across the United States and for four months I didn’t read or write about circumcision.  Every day was an unpredictable adventure and we often camped in places that had no electricity much less a wireless signal.  When I did have time to write and a signal to upload it I was focused on keeping our travel blog take5foradventure (see link at right) up to date. 

Now that we’ve arrived in Arizona our travels are on pause and one morning when I wasn’t busy job searching in our new town it occurred to me how long it had been since I had posted anything related to circumcision.  I took a moment for personal inventory and paused to reflect on the insights I had gained in our four months of travel.  Was doing my personal part to end circumcision still important to me?  Had I lost my fire on that front after taking a proverbial vacation from it for a while?

A wry smile crossed my face as I shook my head to myself.  I still feel as passionate as ever about protecting the right to intact genitalia for all human children.  How could I lose that fire when every day about 3-5 times a day I hold my circumcised penis in my right hand and aim it at the toilet?  Every time I change my clothes I look down at the ring-shaped scar on my shaft that despite several years of restorative efforts is still there and always will be even once it is covered up by extra skin I’ve forcibly trained my body to regrow.  The idea that I would ever lose sight of the importance of this cause no matter how long I took away from it was a laughable one.  Even if I wanted to try to forget my role in putting an end to circumcision I would still have to wake up every morning to someone else’s idea of how my body should look just like millions of other boys and men do every day in the United States.

It sounds harsh but yes I’ve been altered to fit someone else’s conception of how the male member of our species should look.  Open up most medical textbooks and you’ll see that the illustration of the penis with labeled anatomical parts is already circumcised.  It’s like the foreskin was never there, a mistake, a mutation that evolution somehow neglected to eliminate via natural selection.  So the US medical establishment definitely had some say in how I ought to look.  I’m sure every doctor and nurse involved with the procedure at the time felt it was very important that this be done so that weird piece of skin that there was absolutely nothing written about could be wiped off the face of the Earth, freeing them from disturbing wonderings about what it was for, or, if they were male, exactly what happened to theirs.

(On a side note back in September 2012 while I was manning a booth at the Mother Earth fair with the head of the NOCIRC PA chapter, Greg Hartley, I had an interesting conversation with a guy who was a nurse.  The guy had this big grin on his face while we were talking and I could tell he thought I was pretty ridiculous.  He had a lot of reasons why he thought circumcision was a good thing, many of them related to perceived public health benefit.  Rather than exchange volleys of medical journal citations with him I thought I would explore the ethical problems of removing part of a child’s genitalia without their consent.  He remained pretty confident until I finally said, “But don’t you think it’s kind of weird that someone cut off part of your dick and now you don’t know where it is.  I mean, seriously, what did they do with it do you think?  Did they just throw it away?”  The color sort of drained out of his face.  He assured me the conversation had been “interesting” and then left at what most would have considered a fast walk, if not a run.  So often I think the worst things we do to children are done because we’ve never healed from the things that were done to the children we used to be.)

Who else had a say in how I ought to look?  Well Mom and Dad did.  They had to sign off on the whole thing.  I’ve never really known how much of that decision was culled from medical coercion and how much was their idea because my parents’ memories have fallen prey to a mixture of forgetfulness and wishful thinking.  I worked in social services long enough to recognize the hollow perfection of a lie practiced on oneself.  If you tell yourself something happened that way enough times then eventually it really did happen that way.  Regardless of the details at the very least they signed on the dotted line to affirm that they agreed with the way the doctors thought I ought to look.

And in the end that’s what circumcision is about, the question of whether parents should have the right to decide which parts of the child’s anatomy are worth keeping and which should be cut off in the name of religion, supposed health benefits, or just protecting dear old dad’s ego.  We’re not talking about a haircut or removing an appendix that is about to burst and flood the abdominal cavity with toxins.  We’re talking about removing a large section of very sensitive and useful tissue that has absolutely nothing wrong with it.  On the contrary it’s essential equipment for the man to experience his full range of sexual functioning and pleasure. 

The bottom line is I don’t think other people should have the right to decide the appearance or future function of a child’s sexual anatomy.  Every sane person on the face of the Earth agrees that the idea of an adult fondling a child’s genitalia is inexcusable and wrong.  How is cutting part of that genitalia off acceptable?  Because the medical textbook says so?  Because the rabbi says so?  Because dad and everyone else in the family had it done to them so it must be ok?   If you respect the sanctity of a child’s body and right to self-determination then you see how perverse and self-serving such ideas are.

So yes as someone who carries the scar born from other’s ideas of how I should look I will always be an Intactivist.  Once I truly admitted to myself what had been done to me my membership in the movement to end circumcision became inescapable.  While I can’t ever regain the original appearance of my body I can partner with others to someday create a world in which no child will have to wonder what happened to part of their sexual genitalia or why.

My son was born perfect.  He should be the one to decide if he ever wants to alter how his sexual anatomy looks and functions, not me.  

Monday, July 29, 2013

Something BAD is going to happen!

Has anyone out there NOT seen "Ferris Bueller's Day Off?"  I think that's a fairly safe pop culture reference to make, meaning I'm assuming/hoping even the young kids today have experienced the joy of seeing that great movie at least once.  (Yes, this will tie into circumcision in a few moments believe it or not.) 

My wife and I have had a running joke over the years that she's the Ferris in our relationship and I'm the Cameron.  In case you don't remember, Cameron is the one that Ferris has to drag kicking and screaming to ditch school, take in the art museum, the baseball game, the parade, and all the other fun stuff they do.  Why is Cameron such a stick in the mud?  Because he's worried something BAD will happen.  This is captured powerfully in Cameron's fear of his father finding out he's driven the prized Ferrari that he ultimately admits is more important to his father than Cameron himself.  When the car gets wrecked at the end Cameron finally faces his fear and realizes no matter what happens it can't be nearly as bad as he imagined it might be in his mind.

As I've gotten older and realized how important it is I don't pass this "worrying" quality on to my children I've become more motivated to figure out where exactly these feelings come from.  In short why have I been worried something bad would happen from a very, very young age?  Hmmmm.  Sure I got bullied a bit in grade school but I was a worrier even before that.  I had my share of conflicts with my parents but nothing to go on "Oprah" about.  Hmmmmm.

OK, I know some people are going to think this is crazy but here it is: I think if you take a little baby only a few hours or a few days old away from his mother, strap him down to a plastic restraint, and cut off part of his dick, it traumatizes him.  Trauma embeds in memory.  (See previous posts or read current scholarly articles in mental health if you doubt this.)  While that trauma was not something I remembered consciously it made what you might call an impression on me.  I never really felt "safe."  I was always waiting for something bad to happen (still am on bad days.)  I'm just saying that maybe I felt that way because when I was a defenseless infant some asshole cut off part of my dick without asking my permission.  I mean if that won't destroy your trust in the world I don't know what will.

I know, I know... Your husband is circumcised and he's "fine."  Your boyfriend is circumcised and he's "fine."  You yourself are circumcised and you're "fine."  All that I ask is that you seriously think about how this might impact other baby boys and think twice before you subject them to trauma they will have to continue to deal with their entire life.  Why not let your baby boy have a default Ferris setting (life is fun) instead of having the default Cameron setting (life is gonna screw ya if you're not careful enough)?

The irony of all this of course is that US medicine constantly offers a plethora of reasons why something bad WILL happen if you opt not to circumcise your child.  Forget about the fact that the vast majority of men in the world are intact and just fine; in the US you are taught to believe that if you don't circumcise your son women won't want him, he'll get the ultra rare but scary sounding penile cancer, he'll get shmegma and annoy nurses who have to care for him when he ends up at a nursing home, and God knows how many other ridiculous rumors I haven't even heard.  Well guess what?  My son has been intact for six years and nothing "bad" has happened.  Not to mention the fact he's happy and blissfully unaware of how lucky he is to have all of the body parts he was born with.  It is my sincere hope he grows into a Ferris, just like his mom.

I hope this doesn't sound whiny or like I'm using circumcision as a crutch for mistakes I've made in my life.  I'm happy with who I am and the person I am still becoming.  I just think it's important to think about where fear comes from.  I felt a lot of fear when my wife and I made final preparations to quit our jobs and travel the US and beyond, but you know what?  It didn't stop me from doing the things I want to do.  As of 8/2 I'll be unemployed and a full-time blogger, writer, and adventurer.

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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Circumcision and Trauma

I don't talk about it a lot on this blog but my day job is in the mental health field.  Trauma informed care is the big buzz word in behavioral health practice right now.  Finally doctors and clinicians are acknowledging the impact that trauma has on people's ability to cope with stress and function in general.  The vast majority of people receiving mental health services are survivors of some kind of childhood trauma, typically physical or sexual abuse.  Many researchers believe that when children experience trauma it affects their developing brains.  There was a recent study called ACES that looked at how the number of Adverse Childhood Events a child experiences is directly related to the likelihood of them seeking mental health and/or drug and alcohol treatment as adults.  More adverse events like sexual abuse, physical abuse, parent being drug addicted, death of parent, etc. means more likelihood that the person will develop mental health and/or substance abuse problems later in life. 

The reason all this is relevant to this blog is that circumcision is traumatic.  Trauma is defined as an event that the person experiences where they feel a lack of control and fear that their life is in danger.  It is also accompanied by a state of heightened central nervous system arousal, a fight or flight type response.  The flood of chemicals released into the brain as a result of these periods of stress/arousal are what is believed to affect the child's developing brain.  Advocates of circumcision often say it makes more sense to perform the procedure on an infant, that he won't remember it and it will be "just a snip" compared to what the experience would be like as an adult who was able to give consent to the procedure.  Ironically, carrying out this violent, invasive surgery on an infant probably causes much more damage to the brain than if it were to be performed on a person old enough to consent.

Circumcision undeniably creates a feeling of loss of control for the infant.  Imagine just a few days after he has left his mother's womb he is taken from his mother's arms into a cold room.  He is then strapped down to a hard plastic circumstraint or he is physically held down by a mohel.  If this isn't a loss of control I don't know what is.  Does he fear his life is in danger?  Is an infant of only a few days able to fear?  For years doctors argued newborns couldn't feel pain.  That ridiculous notion was finally dispelled.  As for fear, I think anyone who has heard an infant scream as he is strapped down, has his foreskin ripped away from the glans and then violently sliced off with a sharp instrument knows that child is afraid.  That child is possessed by the innate understanding of the threat of violent death that has shaped the evolution of the human race.  He knows his mother is safe and that the people that took him from her are hurting him.  He is cold and frightened and by the time he is returned to her he will be missing an important part of his body.  Soon what little relief the local anesthetic offered will wear off and he will scream as the sensitive and suddenly exposed glans chafes at his diaper.  He will cry when his own urine burns the injury.  The pain will interfere with his ability to concentrate on nursing leading to frustration for him and his mother.  The only way he can survive is to teach himself not to think about it, to pretend that everything is ok.  Many circumcised men will do this until the day they die.

Circumcision is trauma.  Trauma is proven to affect a baby's developing brain and to play a role in the development of mental health and/or substance use problems.  Unfortunately your baby's developing brain is one more thing the AAP doesn't seem to give two shits about.

Many survivors of childhood trauma have only vague memories of what was done to them.  I've talked to hundreds of them over the years.  Each has their own unique story but I can tell you it typically isn't a comfort to them if their memory of the event is fuzzy.  They often wonder what other things were done to them.  They wonder what precipitated the event, did they do something to "deserve" what happened to them?  (The answer is always no but they speculate nonetheless.)  Sometimes they wonder why they experience these abstract feelings that something is missing.  So how can people really think that doing trauma to an infant is ok because they won't remember it?  Is sexual abuse not as bad if it's done to a child that won't remember it?  The trauma of circumcision is inscribed in an infant's developing brain just as surely as any other form of abuse.

Trauma affects everyone differently.  Not all combat vets develop post traumatic stress disorder.  Likewise not all survivors of circumcision will go on to develop problems later in life.  Indeed, many will use their ability to achieve ejaculation as proof that there's nothing wrong with them.  Yet they carry what was done to them as surely as I carry what was done to me.  I don't think about it every day, but sometimes when I'm taking a piss I look down at my penis in my hand.  I'm happy with it: it's given me three children, it gives my wife and I pleasure, yet sometimes I look down at that desensitized, exposed glans and I say aloud, "What the fuck?"  And I know that even if I work at restoring my foreskin for the rest of my life I'm always going to know what was done to me, that I was circumcised.  And it will always hurt on some level.  That's the nature of trauma.