Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Going Bare: An Exclusive Interview with Intactivism's Favorite Runner


At age 28, Kevin (AKA the Barefoot Intactivist) is one of the most compelling emerging figures in the current anti-circumcision movement. He is a thoughtful and well spoken University of Florida graduate with a great idea. He trains and runs races barefoot to raise awareness about why it’s so important to leave baby boys whole. Kevin takes to the streets in Manhattan, and around the world, to stay healthy and educate others about the harms of circumcision, of which he has firsthand experience. In the following interview, Kevin shares his thoughts on issues that matter to him most.

REBECCA: Tell us why you run barefoot. Is it simply to draw attention to yourself as a circumcision opponent, or are there also benefits as an athlete? 
KEVIN: I actually started running barefoot first. It turns out that shoes change the way your body moves for the worse. All the padding below the foot and heel limits your ability to feel the ground and move with finesse, encouraging a slower stride with a jarring heel-first landing that can send shocks up the entire body. This is true for both walking and running. Support from the shoe also prevents foot and ankle movement and can lead to muscle atrophy in the foot and lower leg. Many professional marathoners run in “racing flats” with virtually no cushioning or support. If you’d like to read more on this topic, I highly recommend the book Born To Run by Christopher McDougall. Very entertaining and informative book.

REBECCA: Is there something about barefoot (natural) running that corresponds to your feelings about circumcision?

KEVIN: At a high level, barefoot running and intactivism share the idea that the human body works best without tampering or intervention. Just as boys are not born with defective penises requiring surgical correction, humans are not born with defective feet. The foot is an amazingly complex body part designed for interacting with the ground. No shoes required! Luckily, many problems caused by shoes can be undone just by taking them off and using our feet as nature intended.

I also get immense joy from running barefoot. It’s just flat out fun. The sole of the foot is loaded with nerve endings, just like the palm of the hand. Imagine living your whole life wearing thick winter gloves, then one day taking them off. That’s how I feel about my feet. All the sensations are fascinating. I feel like my feet and body have been awakened from a deep, shoe-induced slumber.
REBECCA: How did your love of barefoot running and your opposition to infant circumcision come together?
KEVIN: I kind of stumbled upon the idea for Barefoot Intactivist. Lots of people were stopping me to ask about barefoot running. My sister had bought me an Intact America shirt for my birthday, and I just decided I would put it on during a run and talk to people about genital integrity that day! Shout out to my friend Maaike in Amsterdam who suggested I start a group called the Barefoot Intacticons.
REBECCA: Most people don’t challenge accepted culture. What do you think it is about your personality, and your life experiences, that led you to conclude circumcision is wrong and what gives you the courage to do something about it?
KEVIN: As long as I can remember, I’ve always been very analytical. I like to debate and if I disagree with something I’ll say so. I also credit my family, friends and teachers who encouraged me to think for myself from an early age. That said, I think most children instinctively know that having part of their genitals amputated is painful and undesirable. Perhaps this was more obvious to me because I suffered a severe, tight circumcision. Before I even knew about circumcision, I sensed that my penis had been damaged. The first thing I did when I found out about circumcision as a child was run to the bathroom to confirm that I did in fact have scar tissue all around my penis, as I’d already suspected. I didn’t say anything about it, though. I mostly just felt ashamed about what had been done to me.
REBECCA: What were some consequences of your circumcision?
KEVIN: Early on, I noticed masturbation was painful due to excessive friction, although I hadn’t yet connected the dots about circumcision, and that I was actually causing permanent damage to myself behind the corona. I also always felt discomfort from being exposed and rubbing against my underwear. Certain types of boxer shorts had seams in them that were unbearable for me. I didn’t understand how any person could wear this kind of underwear, until I realized the problem was that I was circumcised. I played tennis in high school, and one of my teammates who was intact told me straight up that his penis was vastly more sensitive due to being intact and that he would never be able to play sports with his penis exposed and rubbing against his underwear. Another teammate, who was circumcised, told me he also had problems from the rubbing and chafing against his underwear. He said he had to put lotion all over his penis before he played to ameliorate the symptoms. These are the types of conversations circumcised men have, never having any idea the cause of the problem is that the foreskin has been cut off.
REBECCA: What about sex?
KEVIN: Once I was sexually active, it became clear to me that sex wasn’t as enjoyable for me as it should be, due to lack of sensation, soreness and damage afterward. Hand job? Forget about it. And it wasn’t just me. Tons of guys I knew in college talked about how manual stimulation from their girlfriends was uncomfortable or even painful if she wasn’t careful. The only option for foreplay was to receive oral sex, because hand jobs were often terrible. Who would’ve guessed it was due to circumcision? There was no real sex education growing up, and everyone was circumcised, so none of us had any idea about the function of the foreskin. Not surprising, considering many doctors don’t either!
REBECCA: How did you decide to start looking into circumcision?
KEVIN: The “ah-ha” moment for me came when I studied abroad in Spain at age 20 and learned that virtually nobody in Europe is circumcised. My girlfriend at the time asked me if I was Jewish when she saw my penis. I was shocked. To that point I had never thought of circumcision as a religious marker because almost every male I knew in the U.S. was circumcised. Meanwhile, I was becoming increasingly upset by the continuing desensitization and trauma to my penis. I could see the keratinization building up and changing the appearance of what was left of my penis. A few quick web searches later and I found out that many circumcised men were experiencing these issues. Still, I felt so deeply ashamed about it that I almost never brought it up. The one time I mentioned being upset about circumcision to my friends back in the U.S., I was ridiculed.
REBECCA: What prompted you to begin speaking out? 
KEVIN: I started confronting this issue directly a couple years back when two family members had sons. The fear that this could happen to another member of my family was devastating to me. I decided to do more research into all the myths about the unaltered male penis causing deadly diseases for its owner. I read a few articles on the topic and picked up David Gollaher’s Circumcision: A History Of The World’s Most Controversial Surgery, which I highly recommend. What I found is that the claims are false, and that circumcision was popularized in the U.S. to stop children from masturbating and prevent men (and their partners) from fully enjoying sex. I found out that circumcision removes the most sensitive part of the penis, and that female circumcision was tolerated in the U.S. until 1997. I was, and continue to be, shocked and disgusted by what I learned.
At some point last year, I realized I had an obligation to my friends, many of whom are having babies, to start sharing what I know. Particularly because the information they’re receiving at the doctor’s office and from the media about genital cutting is so inaccurate. It’s also nice to speak openly about something I’ve been upset about for so many years. It’s empowering to realize that while I can’t go back in time and stop my own circumcision, I can go out and protest this injustice and help protect other children.
REBECCA: What difficulties have you met with as a barefoot runner? What are the hazards? How about as a circumcision opponent?
KEVIN: The transition from shoes to going barefoot can take many months or even years. I made a classic mistake when I first started barefoot-style running by putting on a pair of Vibram Five Fingers toe shoes and running way too much before my feet were ready. A few weeks in and I was running eight-plus miles at a time. Not surprisingly, I strained my foot and it took me a month or two to fully recover. Barefoot running requires heavy use of the muscles in your feet and a totally different running form. It’s best to start off slow. Just walk around your neighborhood barefoot or run very short distances. I also stepped hard on a big rock once when I wasn’t paying attention, and I occasionally get a tiny piece of glass or debris stuck in my foot (nothing serious so far). You definitely have to keep an eye out while going barefoot. 
I was very self-conscious at first and nervous about going around town or meeting friends wearing toe shoes, much less completely barefoot. The reality is, most people just don’t care what kind of shoes you are wearing or not wearing. Of course, there are always a few detractors. If you want to go outside barefoot, then just do it! No need to be worried about what other people think. Getting over this fear has been a big confidence booster for me and has helped bring me to the point where I also feel comfortable speaking out against circumcision. I realized this is something I believe strongly in and, hey, I have a right to speak my mind about it.


Jennifer, Greg & Kevin at the Washington, DC
5/10 K run during Genital Integrity Week 2011
REBECCA: What’s the toughest part about opposing circumcision?
KEVIN: I've had a couple of friends really come after me. They had no facts, no research, no logic--just pure rage that I dared to say boys have a right to keep their whole genitals. What really gets people angry is when you mention how similar it is to female genital cutting. I imagine this kind of reaction is normal any time somebody speaks out against a social injustice the whole country is complicit in. Campaigners for women’s suffrage or the abolition of slavery probably dealt with similar problems.
I once had a friend come up to me and laugh in my face. She said she couldn't believe, when she looked into the information I was posting, that one of my key reasons for opposing circumcision was that it takes away from sexual pleasure. I asked her, “How would you feel if your clitoris were removed when you were a baby, and you decided to protest, and your friend came up to you and laughed in your face?” How is it possible that we think destroying somebody’s ability to fully experience sex is trivial?
All that said, the response I’ve received from my family and friends has been overwhelmingly positive. Huge thanks to everyone!
REBECCA: What do you find most frustrating?
KEVIN: Going up against the legion of clueless doctors in this country that know nothing about intact male anatomy and the impact of circumcision. I had a longtime friend who was expecting a baby boy approach me for information after he saw some of my comments on genital integrity. Ultimately, he asked his doctors about the information I showed him, and they said I was wrong. That he should have his infant son circumcised for “future health benefits.” 
Last year alone, I had at least three or four friends go through with circumcising their boys despite all the information I sent them. This is pretty devastating for me. I feel like I let my friends down by not being able to get through to them. But at a certain point, what can you do? I send the information; try to talk some sense into them.
To give you an idea of how little doctors in this country are taught about the anatomy of the natural penis and how it works during sex, I once heard a urologist say it might be difficult for a man to get full sensation from the inside of a vagina if he’s not circumcised. Genital cutting is so culturally ingrained, and such an incredible source of denial in this country, particularly among the doctors propagating it. It’s astounding.
Another big frustration is that some doctors are still advising parents to forcibly retract their intact sons’ foreskins for cleaning. Intact boys should never be forcibly retracted.
REBECCA: What kind of response have you received from other Jewish people?
KEVIN: Just the other day, a Jewish friend of mine was debating me on this. He’s a smart and logical guy so he agreed with me on a lot of things. Unfortunately, his conclusion was that female circumcision should also be legalized in the U.S. and that children have no right to be protected from their parents’ religious beliefs. He said parents could even poke their kids’ eyes out if it was part of their religion. Say what?! This is the road you go down when you try to logically defend infant genital cutting. He said if Jewish parents decide not to circumcise, then neither the parents nor the son are Jewish any longer. He’s convinced there is something about circumcision, either the trauma or the blunting of sexual pleasure, that helps a man grow up to have a better chance of being successful in life. Is this really the heart of Judaism? What happened to the Golden Rule?
However, this isn’t the typical conversation. Most Jewish people I’ve spoken with are very receptive. They usually haven’t given it a whole lot of thought and just accept it’s something you do if you’re Jewish. One Jewish father (of a daughter) I spoke to had thought about it. He told me he’d been to bris ceremonies that seemed like “no big deal,” and to others that were “like nightmares, where everyone in the room is scared shitless.” A Jewish woman told me her friend’s son had a heart attack at his bris and suffered permanent brain damage. These things don’t make it to the newspaper.
Once at a protest a woman stopped me and said proudly (through tears!) “I’m Jewish and I have two sons who are not circumcised. They thank me every day.” This is an exact quote. I always bring up the brit shalom ceremony and that many of the most outspoken advocates against circumcision, throughout history, have been Jewish.
REBECCA: What are your long term goals, both as a runner and also as someone who is involved in the genital integrity movement?
KEVIN: As a runner, I’d like to get faster and run more long-distance events. My last race was a four-miler that I ran at a 7:48/mile pace. I’m really just a beginner when it comes to running, so I think if I keep at it I should be able to get a good deal faster over time, especially if I get lighter. I’d also like to complete a marathon barefoot one day. But the main thing is just to keep running, stay healthy, and enjoy myself. It could be years before I run a marathon. I’m not in a hurry. I’ve seen too many friends hurt themselves in marathon training to rush into it.
As an activist, I’m just happy to make my small contribution to the genital integrity movement. I hand out information cards when I run, and I run a fan page where I post news, photos and videos. If I can save a few babies from this procedure, it’s worth it. Also, the circumcision of children is such a negative thing, a really horrific thing if you look into it, that I think it’s nice sometimes to try to stay positive, if at all possible, while protesting against it. That’s kind of the idea of combining something positive like running with intactivism.
Longer-term I would love it if people all over the country were running for intactivism. Running for a cause has a long history. Just look at the massive efforts to run for breast cancer awareness or to raise money for leukemia research. I’ve started a group called Intactivist Runners Network that invites anyone to join in. We are looking to make our Washington, D.C. running event an annual tradition coinciding with Genital Integrity Awareness Week.
I’m also making a point to be very bold in my messaging. While I’m out training, or at races, I wear T-shirts with enormous letters denouncing circumcision. It’s time everyone realizes it’s okay to speak out against genital cutting. We have a right to speak out that’s protected by the First Amendment. The number one thing that keeps circumcision going is that people are afraid to talk about it. Why should I be embarrassed to say I’m all for protecting the basic human rights of children?
REBECCA: Apart from running, what else do you do to stay healthy? Do you have any special advice for people seeking to become more fit?
KEVIN: I’m not a fitness expert, but I do have a few good tips. Some are easier to adopt than others: 
  • Lose the shoes, or at the very least the heels. This doesn’t just apply to women. Almost all men’s shoes also have heels built in. Big shoes can be detrimental to your health by impacting the way you move, hurting your joints, and discouraging you from physical activity. Try going barefoot more often and pick up a pair of nice minimalist shoes. You’ll be amazed by how much better and in touch with the world you feel with strong feet and less shoe between you and the ground.
  • Don’t sit so much. Most people don’t realize how bad sitting all day is for your health. If you have a desk job, seriously consider switching to a standup desk configuration. If you want to watch a television program, try watching it while standing. You’ll burn more calories, keep a higher metabolism, and avoid problems in your hips, knees and back that can arise from staying seated for prolonged periods. Ditching uncomfortable shoes is a prerequisite for standing more. Forget about finding the perfect thousand dollar office chair, or buying one of those bouncy medicine balls to sit on all day, the only decent solution is to get off your butt.
  • Avoid eating chemical-filled, processed foods. Just watch the film Food, Inc. There’s also a good book called The End Of Overeating In America by David Kessler, which talks about how food companies engineer processed foods for maximum addictiveness.
  • Try dynamic stretching exercises instead of static stretching. Until a few years ago, I was big into static stretches, where you hold a stretch for 15-30 seconds. Then I started doing dynamic stretching exercises instead (think lunges, hip thrusts, high knee raises, etc.), and my flexibility went through the roof.
  • Sleep! I’m still working on this one. For what it’s worth, I ditched my big coil spring mattress and now sleep on a Japanese futon. It’s much firmer and has helped me get a better night’s rest. There’s interesting research hypothesizing that excessive mattress cushioning and pillows keep the spine from moving naturally during sleep as you breathe in and out, preventing the spine from keeping itself lubricated overnight. Definitely worth checking out for anyone with a stiff back.


REBECCA: What do you do for fun?

I’m really into photography and now video production, although recently it’s mostly been in support of the Barefoot Intactivist project. I also like tennis, playing guitar, and I’m a big fan of Real Madrid in soccer and the Boston Celtics. I like reading all kinds of books.


To follow Kevin's activities, become a fan of the Barefoot Intactivist Facebook page and the Intactivist Runners Network Facebook page


© 2011 Rebecca Wald / Beyond the Bris

18 comments:

  1. Roger DesMoulinsMay 10, 2011 at 4:33 PM

    Kevin may be the most articulate male intactivist I have ever encountered. This long and thoughtful interview deserves a 5 minute standing ovation. Good God is he lucid!!

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  2. Thanks Roger, really glad you enjoyed this. We spent some time getting it right -- the editor at Beyond The Bris deserves a lot of credit!

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  3. Bravo Rebecca and Kevin. This is a great interview, intelligent questions and conversation!

    There is no doubt genital mutilation of all children will end with such thoughtful people as Kevin devoted to raising awareness.

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  4. Great interview and great site. Thank you!

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  5. Emily GoldenbergMay 13, 2011 at 6:33 PM

    I did not circ my 8 month old son, and he is 1/2 Jewish. I'm glad to hear that he'll thank me one day rather than ask me why I didn't do it. As far as being Jewish goes, unless you're an Orthodox Jew, why would it matter? If my son thinks he has to be circumcised in order to be Jewish he can go have it done himself. Then it'll be his own decision for his body, like any plastic surgery.

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  6. The next time someone laughs in my face, or attacks me with ignorance, or calls me ridiculous, crazy, stupid, etc...I'm going to re-read this interview and smile. Thank you for helping me to feel less crazy and for all you are doing for human rights. You're making the world a better place.

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  7. Kevin, I admire your courage and support you and the movement ! I believe Circumcision is a disgraceful violation.

    But I do wonder why only Jews are ever mentioned in this regard. Muslims are circumcised and many others too. In fact the WHO estimates that 30% of males word-wide are circumcised.
    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circumcision

    The Jewish friend in the interview, who is quoted as saying :"...if Jewish parents decide not to circumcise, then neither the parents nor the son are Jewish any longer." I don't know about Jewish religious law and no doubt interpretations vary greatly. But no matter what religious law states, it is my conviction that it's high time in this day and age for the Jewish nation, as a nation, and all others too, to leave the barbaric, primitive practice of circumcision behind ...

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  8. karen issksenderovMay 14, 2011 at 5:52 PM

    beautiful, thouoghtful article, thank you. I made sure my children learned to walk barefooted despite what advice people gave me about putting shoes on them.Shoes are just so unnatural, it made no sense. About as much sense as circumcision!

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  9. roger desmoulinsMay 19, 2011 at 4:56 AM

    "As far as being Jewish goes, unless you're an Orthodox Jew, why would it matter?"

    Emily, let me try to answer your fair question. Philip Roth has written that he stares at the intact penises he sees in the locker room of his New Jersey sports club. Subconsciously, Jewish parents don't want their son stared at in this fashion when he uses the YMHA locker room, the men's room in Sunday School, and most of all, when he dates Jewish women. The bald penis is a cattle brand signalling that you are a prize steer on G-d's ranch! And woe unto him who lacks the cattle brand; he will get written out of G-d's will...

    Feminism teaches women that they can vary considerably in body shape and in the details concealed by the bikini, and yet can all be OK. North American men have yet to cross the bridge into acceptance of body variety.

    If the God of middle eastern monotheism is real, that God allows men to have foreskin. If one is an atheist in awe of evolution, then Nature has been fine-tuning the mammalian penis for at least 200 million years. Either way, what bris removes cannot be all bad, and probably has a lot going for it.

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  10. What you do is amazing!! Thank you!!! I wish more people were as outspoken against this cruelty.

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  11. You are an inspiration! Keep passing the word, and hopefully this will be the last generation that had to be mutilated for no good reason.

    Foreskins have a purpose. Circumcision doesn't.

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  12. Why are some people so vehemently insane about attacking you if you are against cruelly mutilating a baby's genitals? Is it because deep down they feel guilty about doing it to their own kids? Hmmm....

    I liked his comment about how people who were against slavery probably got the same flak, too true!

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  13. As a non-Jewish intactivist, I have encountered exactly the same ignorance, and the same sorts of comments. (I am a former Catholic; I formally abandoned my church when I learned that it had abandoned me--by not following its own doctrine and allowing me to be circumcised.)

    Regardless of religion, as civilized human beings, we all have a moral obligation to oppose barbarism. Infant circumcision, whether rationalized for religious or "medical" reasons, is barbaric.

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  14. Raymond wrote that Muslims aren't mentioned concerning circumcision. According to specialists of Islam, circumcision isn't as "mandatory" as it is in Judaism. In theory it is like growing a beard. Muslims are advised to look like their prophet, who supposedly had a beard. The same goes for circumcision. Yet Muslims circumcise their boys, and sometimes very late, at the age of 10-12, especially in Turkey and the Balkans. They don't use anaesthetics, they just give them to drink a mix that partially sedates them. Yet, there's no intactivist movement among Muslims that I know...
    An intact Jew, grateful to his parents.

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  15. If a person's mother is Jewish, (s)he is Jewish under Jewish law; even the absurd Shmuley Boteach (aka Jon Gosselin's celebrity rabbi) has acknowledged this. I'm afraid Kevin's friend isn't terribly well educated, Judaically speaking. Circumcision is not what makes a man a Jew, it is what makes a man part of the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 17) which excludes women (who do not have penises to be mutilated symbolically). But we have b'rit shalom to preserve the human rights of Jewish boys and respect the equality of Jewish girls.

    As to "Well let's legalize FGM too!": This is always my fear of explaining why there is no difference between mutilating boys and mutilating girls (or, for that matter, mutilating their genitals or mutilating any other body part). It's like Kevin said: This is what happens when a person decides that a children are the property of parents.

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  16. Very enlightening. Barefoot Intactivist is my hero. I have him as my "favorite athlete" on my Facebook page. I'm so thankful for all he does. Marc

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  17. MomtotwowholeboysApril 15, 2012 at 9:27 PM

    I too have made the same connection between the fight for boys' genital integrity and the fight against slavery and for womens' suffrage. I find it heartening that in both cases, the side of morality eventually triumphed. I just hope it does not take as long or is as violent as what was involved with ending slavery. Keep up the good work!

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