Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Why I'm Not Convinced

By Rebecca Wald
Kahlil Gibran Drawing / The Prophet
Every mother is different and has her own style when it comes to raising kids. I didn’t circumcise my son and I feel it was 100% the right choice, for him and me. At the same time, I don’t condemn moms who do to circumcise. I recognize there are different ways of living and different life circumstances. I’m open to the possibility that mine is not the only “right” answer.
Choosing to leave my son with the penis he was born with was a decision very much tied to the way I view the world. I am sort of an iconoclast, somebody who looks at the society around me with a critical, analytical eye. As I look at the craziness of the world, I often ask myself, is this how things should be? Is this the best we humans can arrive at? I can’t help but wonder why the people of the world are in such a sorry state and what, if anything, can I do in my lifetime to improve things. I think if we treated children better, with more tenderness, kindness and respect, this would be an amazing place to start. 
My Parenting Perspective
Some see parenting as a dictatorship (albeit benevolent) where the parent knows best and imposes their way of living on the child. Children are viewed as blank slates who must be “civilized,” conform to the ways of the world, and taught right from wrong. I hold a different view, which is that children come to the world perfect. That it is they who can teach us about how things could or should be, if we will listen. For me, the parents’ job is to intrude and impose as little as possible (keeping the child safe and making sure he or she is respectful to others) and let the child’s true nature unfold. I agree with poet Kahlil Gibran (1883-1930): 
“Your children are not your children. /  They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself. /  They come through you but not from you, / And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you. / You may give them your love but not your thoughts. / For they have their own thoughts. / You may house their bodies but not their souls, / For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. /You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.” 
It's in the context of this approach to childrearing that I entertained the question of whether to circumcise my child. Being Jewish and American, I grew up in a “double whammy” culture of male genital cutting. I think this is why that even as a committed intactivist, on some level, I still accept the circumcised penis as the “authentic” version. But the more I learned about circumcision, the more I came to see it as well rationalized craziness, a completely human and entirely unnecessary thing to do. 
Do we really need to slice off part of a newborn baby’s penis? Come on. Some say it doesn’t hurt that much, or that even if it does, the pain is quickly forgotten. But when the first experience a human being feels from his sex organ is pain--when one of the first experiences he has in this world is pain--how can we be so sure there aren’t lasting negative consequences? My single friends complain there are few good guys out there. I have to say, before I met my terrific husband, I met plenty of men who were smart and funny, but somehow lacked tenderness and sensitivity. It was as if these men had up a big emotional barricade. Is this just the way many American men are, or did the experience of circumcision somehow play a role? I don’t know, I’m just putting it out there as something to think about.  
Many “Reasons” to Circumcise
Recently my friend Stan, a staunch believer in male infant circumcision, handed me a three-inch thick stack of papers, the sum of his internet research into the health benefits of the practice. It was a rebuttal to my current effort, with this site, to give a fuller voice and presence to the Jewish movement against circumcision. 
Stan, who is in his seventies, is a man of science to the core, a Jewish atheist, and a liberal in the truest sense of the word. He has one of the biggest hearts I’ve encountered. He genuinely cares about people. Stan’s point is simple: it’s been demonstrated in the medical literature that circumcision can or might prevent a range of medical problems, both in circumcised men and their sexual partners. Given Stan’s understanding that circumcision is a prophylaxis against illness, tantamount to vaccination, he sees every reason to circumcise infants at birth. 
I’m well aware of the medical justifications for circumcision that Stan cites, as well as several he does not. Most of have been around for decades (prevention of masturbation and penile cancer, reduction of urinary tract infections, elimination of phimosis--a foreskin which too tight). The touted ability of circumcision to reduce STD acquisition and transmission is currently making headlines. Although some of these medical justifications are not without some merit, in the end I didn’t find them persuading enough to circumcise my son. Here’s why. Stan, like most who favor circumcision, views the foreskin as a functionless body part, akin to the tonsils or the appendix. For them, the foreskin has no merit of its own so they see nothing wrong with removing it, especially if it’s been shown to have the potential to cause trouble. 
The Not So Worthless Foreskin
My research into male anatomy led me to a different conclusion, one that has been reinforced by my own experience with my son’s intact and trouble-free penis. It is that the foreskin has several important functions. It protects the penis from chaffing and abrasion; keeps the urinary opening free from harmful bacteria, especially during infancy and childhood; and plays an important role in healthy sexual function, including enjoyment. Like the female clitoris, the foreskin is not necessary for procreation, or for sexual climax. (Many circumcised women who have had their clitorises removed insist they climax and have sex that is every bit as pleasurable as women who have not been circumcised.) I encourage any parent struggling with the question of circumcision to do their own research into the function of the foreskin and draw their own conclusions about whether this part of the body is disposable.    
For those like my friend Stan who view the foreskin as useless, there can be no competing interest that trumps its removal. In other words, if there is even one iota of benefit in removing it, why not? Since, for me, the foreskin is a valuable part of the normal male anatomy, I would consider its surgical removal a health measure only to be entertained as a last resort. Penile cancer is extremely rare in developed countries (estimated to be about one in 100,000 men) and is typically associated with other serious health conditions and lifestyle risk factors. Urinary tract infections (my son has never had one) are easily treatable with antibiotics. As far as sexually transmitted diseases, only safe sex can prevent them in a meaningful way. I have lost far too many circumcised male friends to AIDS over the years to even entertain circumcision as being a worthwhile preventive measure against this horrific illness. Besides, infants don’t have sex. Adult men can always choose to get circumcised if they feel it’s worth it to prevent contracting STDs, or for any other reason they find compelling.
There are many body parts we could remove at birth because they can cause trouble. We could remove the tissue destined to become the female breast, virtually eliminating the incidence of breast cancer later in life. (Cosmetic implants could always come later, if one desires.) Breasts are not necessary for procreation since babies can be bottle-fed. Given that the risk of a woman developing breast cancer during her lifetime has been estimated to be about one in eight, and that the consequences of breast cancer can be devastating, this argument is in many ways more convincing than the medical arguments favoring foreskin removal at birth. 
Cultural Rationales for Circumcising
Of course, there are many other justifications for male infant circumcision beyond the medical. Some say, “I want my son to look like his father,” or “I don’t want my son to be laughed at in the locker room/bedroom,” or “my Jewish parents/grandparents will never forgive me if I don’t circumcise,” or “he will be less Jewish,” or “I just think it’s cleaner.” I want to talk a little about each of these attitudes and why I, personally, didn’t find them convincing.   
As far as fathers and sons looking alike, I absolutely agree with the feeling behind this sentiment, which is that fathers and sons should have a loving and close relationship. They should feel deeply connected. Maybe it’s because I’m not a guy, but I don’t see how “matching” penises fosters this bond. I think a father demonstrating genuine love for his child by protecting him from the insanity of the world would foster a far greater bond with his son than making his son look just like him through surgery. By the way, my five year old has never expressed any concern, whatsoever, over the fact that he has a foreskin and his dad doesn’t. I imagine one day when he learns about circumcision, he will be relieved and grateful his dad and I spared him from having part of his penis removed. 
To those worried about the locker room (or the bedroom), I totally get that no parent wants their child to be teased by his peers, or a girlfriend, especially about something as personal as his genitals. At the same time, people come in all shapes, sizes and colors. I don’t think we should judge people based on the way they look on the outside and I don’t think we should live our lives in fear of others judging us this way. If I were to circumcise my child based on my own fear of prejudice, what would that say about me? What would it say about my values, my tolerance, my biases--my gumption? What message would I be sending to my son if I allowed what I felt to be the wrongheaded opinions and actions of others to guide my important life decisions?   
Then there’s the Jewish parent/grandparent argument. Of course we want to please the older generation and should try hard to when it’s in keeping with our values. But what if it’s not? I’m not trying to be sassy, but our parents and grandparents had their chance. It’s our world now. Do we live our lives to placate and please others, even close family, when it means doing something we don’t believe in our hearts to be right? Except for those relatives who are devout practicing Jews, firmly entrenched in a religiously observant community, the vast majority will indeed “forgive,” and many may eventually come around to the idea that circumcision is wrong. Just wait until they get their hands on that newborn baby, perfect just the way nature made him. In the words of my own mom, kvelling over my son’s nakedness: “Why on earth would anyone want to alter that beautiful penis?”   
For those who worry their child will somehow be less Jewish because he’s intact, or will have trouble finding/pleasing a Jewish woman, or that not circumcising somehow hurts the Jewish people, I think we need to take a step back and keep things in perspective. Assimilation and intermarriage are the biggest threats to Judaism, not intact foreskins. My husband and I are both Jewish and have chosen to raise our kids in a very Jewish way. They know and are proud of their heritage, celebrate the holidays, and are learning Hebrew. I’m not worried. Meanwhile, I have more friends than I can count who married non-Jewish spouses, celebrate Christmas, teach their children little or nothing about their Jewish heritage, and yet circumcised their sons supposedly for religious reasons. Being Jewish is about way more than circumcising, and I think those who view circumcision as the be-all and end-all of the Jewish people are being short-sighted in their focus. 
Finally on the subject of cleanliness, girls and women have plenty of folds “down there” and we manage to keep it clean. Men can certainly do the same. As far as young boys go (those whose foreskins have not yet become retractable, which is totally normal all the way up to puberty), care of the natural penis is as simple as it gets. You wash the outside. The inside gets flushed out and cleaned whenever the boy urinates. Urine is completely sterile and the foreskin prevents bacteria and dirt from causing trouble. One of the biggest justifications of female circumcision is that it’s cleaner. I don’t buy the hygiene argument as it applies to men any more than I buy it for women. We have soap, we have water, no problem. 
There are more justifications for circumcision that I've not mentioned here, as well as plenty of other arguments in favor of the natural penis. There will no doubt be more "reasons" to circumcise in the future, those that have not yet been discovered or invented, depending on your mindset. That parents are beginning to see circumcision as a choice, not a given, and weighing the available evidence to arrive at an educated decision is a change we should all be happy about. 

10 comments:

  1. I am intact, my father was not. I was reminded of this many times every summer, when he and I changed into togs. Nothing was explained to me, so I was puzzled. But did I stress about this? No, because nothing was said. My parents never mentioned this point of difference between us. While I felt weird when among other boys, I inferred from the silence of my parents that everything was OK with me. Turns out, I was right, but it took me more than 30 years to understand why.

    Bris requires little reflection on the parents' part, none whatsoever from the poor boy it's done to. It takes a minute and last a lifetime. That is soooo "convenient" when compared with nearly everything else in Judaism.

    The following paragraph of yours is profound and moving:

    "At the same time, people come in all shapes, sizes and colors. I don’t think we should judge people based on the way they look on the outside and I don’t think we should live our lives in fear of others judging us this way. If I were to circumcise my child based on my own fear of prejudice, what would that say about me? What would it say about my values, my tolerance, my biases--my gumption? What message would I be sending to my son if I allowed what I felt to be the wrongheaded opinions and actions of others to guide my important life decisions?"

    What you say about breast cancer is very true.

    You are not the first intelligent American women to wonder if American circumcision has damaged the ability of American men to evince passion, to commit, and simply, to be good in bed. I am reading on the net 1-2 narratives a week along the lines of "I love and cherish my husband dearly, but our sex leaves something to be desired as far as I am concerned. And because of a fling I had in college years ago, I know that the problem is his lack of foreskin."

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  2. Very well spoken. I also enjoyed the part about people coming in all shapes and sizes. I look at it two ways: Would I surgically alter my daughter's vagina to look more like mine? Of course not. Would I surgically alter any part of my daughter or sons body simply to match me or their father? Of course not. Not as a baby, not as a child. Not ever.

    And also, how does a parent explain tolerance and acceptance when one circumcises solely for aesthetic reasons? I remember as a child being taught the idea that EVERYONE is different and that's OKAY. I was taught by my parents, teachers and television to embrace those differences. So what are we telling our sons? It's not okay to look different from your father? Which backfires because the truth stands that every single male was born with foreskin. So once upon a time, you and your father did indeed look the same.

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  3. "Do we live our lives to placate and please others, even close family, when it means doing something we don’t believe in our hearts to be right?"
    ME. That rhetorical question gives us a lot of food for thought.

    "Except for those relatives who are devout practicing Jews, firmly entrenched in a religiously observant community, the vast majority will indeed “forgive,” and many may eventually come around to the idea that circumcision is wrong."
    ME. I hope your surmise proves correct. But the whole notion that being intact is abhorent to a Jew is mainly a North American thing. Elsewhere, quite a few Jewish families have given up bris over the past 100 odd years.

    "In the words of my own mom, kvelling over my son’s nakedness: “Why on earth would anyone want to alter that beautiful penis?” "
    ME. Did your mother really say that?? You are soooo lucky!! In many youth, I thought my intact penis was weird and shameful, because every penis I saw in family life and locker rooms was bald. All books on sex and health said that intact put health at risk. Your mother, a respectable Jewish woman, has a more open mind than millions of American gentiles. Let that irony sink in... You may be completely correct when you assert that the obsession to circumcise is a human problem, not a specifically Jewish one.

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  4. You write:

    I don’t condemn moms who do [circumcise their sons, because] I recognize there are different ways of living and different life circumstances. I’m open to the possibility that mine is not the only “right” answer.

    The problem with this is that you completely disregard the opinions of the person's whose sexual organ is being cut up.

    Put another way: Let me see you publicly make the same tolerant statements about parents who choose to circumcise their daughters in Egypt (where 90% of women are circumcised).

    You should not condemn a man who chooses to have himself circumcised, but you should absolutely condemn anybody who forcibly mutilates the genitalia of somebody else.

    A circumcised man who feels violated and betrayed by the fact that his own parents subjected him to such penis-reduction surgery would have wanted you to stand up more strongly for his human rights.

    Please, drop the contrived tolerance and say what is true: The circumcision of a completely healthy child is a violation of human rights; it is genital mutilation and it is child abuse--something that should be regarded as requiring the intervention of Child Protective Services, mental health services, and even prison time.

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  5. Heirofsalazar: You are obviously very passionate about the cause, and we both agree that circumcision is wrong. Where we differ is how best to end genital cutting. You suggest mental health services, child protective services, and even prison. I say we need to educate people from a place of compassion. I said that I don’t condemn parents who circumcise, and I don’t. In my view, parents who circumcise are well-meaning. These parents genuinely believe they are doing what is best for their children. They circumcise because they are either uneducated about the facts, believe in a set of facts that supports genital cutting due to their own compromised reasoning abilities, or they are so strongly entrenched in a circumcising culture that they cannot possibly step out of it. This applies equally to male and female circumcision. My goal is to help educate and enlighten others so that circumcision is decreased by free choice. I do not wish to impose my way of living on others. This never works in the long term and has been responsible for just about every war and act of violence on the planet. I believe that real change is about changing minds.

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  6. I appreciate your even tone because I know deep down that your style probably does work better at convincing other people.

    However, please know that your even tone comes largely from the fact that you are merely an observer of genital mutilation rather than a victim; as a [likely Reform] Jewish woman, you not only get all the benefits of a Jewish community (tight-knit camaraderie, egregious nepotism, good education, the maternal lineage of Jewishness, active participation in all aspects of Judaism including being a mohel), but you also still get to keep all of your genitalia. Fuck YOU. (I say that last bit not to be vulgar but to emphasize my resentment).

    For you, this is just a college-kid's conversation about God and Sex; it's strictly academic and it's probably somewhat entertaining. For others, it's either a lifelong, enervating rationalization or a battle against overwhelming feelings of betrayal and violation (sparked by taking a piss or having a sexual thought or trying to be intimate or being in the company of one's family or traveling through countries with circumcising cultures, etc.); it's probably a form of PTSD.

    For victims, it's not a blog; it's everlasting frustration.

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  7. Heirofsalazar: I do see where you are coming from. I have not had my genitals mutilated (thank god!) so I just can't possibly know your position. I am glad that we have this open forum to discuss it however, so that others reading this CAN have the opportunity to hear your perspective. To characterize my work as a "college-kid's conversation" in which I have no real stake is simply not true. I have a circumcised husband and an intact son, with all that this implies. I hope to have grandchildren one day. Will they be subjected to genital mutilation, or ostracized because they are intact? While I am not a direct GM victim, this isn't something I'm doing for kicks, although I do enjoy the process of writing, and feeling like I am doing something in this world that MIGHT make a difference. In reality, I don't know whether my "even tone" will be more effective than your angry one (believe me, I try very hard to sound measured and it's not always how I feel). This is why it is so important to have many voices against circumcision--yours, mine and others--all working together against the same injustice.

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  8. To characterize my work as a "college-kid's conversation" in which I have no real stake is simply not true... this isn't something I'm doing for kicks, although I do enjoy the process of writing, and feeling like I am doing something in this world that MIGHT make a difference.

    I understand this clearly, and I appreciate what you are doing more than you can comprehend. However, you are missing the focus of my wrath, which is your implicit acceptance of a mother's right to cut up her son's penis; again, from the article:

    I don’t condemn moms who do [cut up the penises of their completely healthy sons]. I recognize there are different ways of living and different life circumstances. I’m open to the possibility that mine is not the only “right” answer.

    Your mistake is that you are trying to say this:

    I don’t condemn any man who has himself circumcised; I recognize there are different ways of living and different life circumstances. I’m open to the possibility that mine is not the only “right” answer.

    which is perfectly acceptable. However, this is not AT ALL the same scenario as that which you used: One person forcibly cutting up the genitalia of another person.

    Please, make sure you understand this distinction, and you must not be afraid to say: "Parents who have chosen to circumcise their completely healthy sons have made a terrible decision, and this is why..."

    People must face the fact that they do not have the right to make such a bad decision; people must face the fact that circumcision is a breach of human rights, dignity, respect, and personal liberty---that it is child abuse and that it is mutilation.

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  9. I agree that the sentence you take issue with is problematic. I could have worded it better and/or explained my thought process more fully. I do see how one might draw the absolute wrong conclusions. What I was trying to address / acknowledge here is that for SOME people circumcising MIGHT be the right decision for them given their unique circumstances. I think here of a woman who contacted me from a very small, insulated and religious Jewish community in a remote part of the United States. She was pregnant with a boy and approached her rabbi about wanting to leave to leave him intact and have a brit shalom. The rabbi told her in no uncertain terms that her son would be a cast out if he was not circumcised. According to this particular rabbi, he would not be able to attend synagogue or otherwise participate in Jewish life. The woman was also to be shunned. The woman felt she would lose the few friends she had in this small town. There was no hiding an intact son, as the whole community was expecting a bris and the rabbi now knew her intentions. The woman seemed very nice, but did not strike me as a particularly strong willed or well educated individual. Picking up and moving, leaving all she knew behind, and making a new life for herself to protect her son's foreskin was not feasible. This story sounds impossible in this day and age, and I was quite surprised and saddened by it, but I assure you that it is true. It is important to remember that for SOME there are HUGE consequences for leaving a boy intact. I don’t feel I’m in a position to judge every parent's decision-making process or life circumstances, although I can say unequivocally that I believe the circumcision of any child is wrong.

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  10. You cannot condemn circumcision without condemning the circumciser; figure out in your mind who the circumciser is and make that condemnation.

    With regard to the story you just told, you must point out and condemn the utterly barbaric, twisted, mentally damaged, nightmarish nature of the community in which this poor woman and her poor child live---she is a victim of extortion, as is her son through her.

    You should be ridiculing your people, shaming them for allowing such a disgrace: "Is this what Judaism is? Community leaders threatening young, uneducated mothers with social liquidation unless they subject their completely healthy boys to penis-reduction surgery?---a blood ritual that serves as a mock human sacrifice! Should we not be nurturing new community members rather than cutting them up? Are Jews really so base and vulgar?"

    Make your readers SEE the insanity and do not hide from offending them, because they need to be offended---because their actions are offensive to human rights, and they are offensive to those men who suffer daily as a result of such actions.

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