Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Call for Sensitivity in Discussing Circumcision

By MOLLY MCFLY

I am a young woman who is proud to be deeply invested in the movement to defeat institutionalized circumcision. However, as I have previously confessed, I once agreed with and actually defended this unnecessary surgery and its imposition on non-consenting infants. 


Since I used to be pro-cutting and am now adamantly opposed to it, I remember which messages I used to scoff at, and which messages actually got me to listen. I couldn't identify with the horror of the procedure until I learned about it in a non-judgmental manner. 


When I became increasingly interested in the cause this past year, I sought out other intactivist “converts” like me but encountered sparing results. Most acquaintances and friends with whom I’ve spoken understand why I feel passionately about the issue and agree its practice should end, but few of them ever actively supported circumcision. 


I’ve met a similar lack of representation in communities of more outspoken intactivists. I feel almost envious of the instinctive horror that these people rightfully experienced when they learned what circumcision meant. I feel guilt for having needed evidence to understand that the permanent alteration of male infant genitalia with a scalpel should be—at the very least—harshly questioned. Still, I am endlessly relieved that I gained this knowledge before becoming a mother and letting a mohel amputate large amounts of sensitive tissue from my son’s penis by default.


My former misguided opinion is understandable given the misconceptions about circumcision that most Americans hold, especially considering my upbringing in a Reform Jewish family and year-round attendance of Hebrew school throughout my youth. Religious leaders taught me that God commanded circumcision upon Jews to protect the Chosen People from common fatal, foreskin-related infections, just like He banned treyf items like shellfish and pork to prevent health risks associated with their consumption.


Just as I remained in the dark about the reprehensibly unethical and medically dangerous facts of circumcision for so long, I hold no ill will towards people who remain ignorant to the severity of this surgery. My former mindset is the primary reason why spreading knowledge about this procedure is so important to me. I want other people who see infant circumcision as the default choice for parents of boys to understand why permanent alteration of the human penis from birth is not sensible, beneficial, or trivial.


I’ve noticed with some disappointment that much of the propaganda released by the pro-intact movement is so severe and harsh that it sways laymen even further from our message. Phrases like “genital mutilation” and “child abuse” aren’t necessarily false when it comes to infant circumcision, but they are so inflammatory that most people will quickly reject them when confronted about a controversy that they may not have even known existed. Millions of excellent mothers and fathers have allowed the surgery to be performed on their sons without question at the ill advice of medical professionals. These people, who endlessly love their children and have done everything in their power to protect, foster and nourish them, do not deserve to be labeled “child abusers” and won’t readily accept any movement that so labels them. Similarly, most people are resistant to conceive of their body, or their partner’s body, as “mutilated.” 


As abhorrent as circumcision seems to most intactivists, we must remember to withhold our judgment and our anger in order to be productive in our cause. I’ve personally struggled with such emotions, and I certainly haven’t overcome their presence in my life. However, I know how to handle these feelings in a way that lets me communicate with pro-cutters, and I believe that’s an imperative step in promoting the intactivist movement.


Circumcision exists because of institutionalized regulations on normality rather than specific parental wrongdoings, but combating it requires loud voices from supportive individuals. For this reason, we must forgive our opposition before we can sway them. Otherwise, we will never be open enough to garner their support.


Foreskin is not a birth defect. “Male” is not a diagnosis. Corporate financial profit does not justify dividing baby boys into pieces. Condoms prevent HIV; circumcision doesn’t. Circumcision is more than just a snip. Circumcision has no compelling medical benefits, but carries dozens of potential dangers. Medically unnecessary cosmetic changes to the body should be a matter of personal choice and should never be performed on a person without their consent. 


These messages—ones of clarity and factual assertion void of personal judgment—have the potential to open minds. Only after this respectful introduction to our cause may we delve into the deeper implications of circumcision and its plague on baby boys while remaining productive in our fight to protect our sons.


Molly McFly (a pen name) is a blogger and third-year student at Indiana University, where she majors in Gender Studies and minors in Human Sexuality. She was raised as a Reform Jew in the suburbs of Chicago before moving to her current residence in Bloomington, Indiana.

20 comments:

  1. It is my experience that people with a closed mind are not receptive to any approach. With these people, no argument -- medical or ethical -- will convince them. Even with the most gentle of approaches, they will not listen. I have tried many times. Sometimes, you need to express the reality in accurate terms. Closed-minded folks will shut down at first, but the seed is planted.

    Open-minded folks will generally be receptive to any approach. What they are after is information and facts. They are ignorant, but not foolish. Open-minded people do not want to hold the wrong beliefs! These folks will receive a gentle or aggressive approach, mull it over, and realize that the belief they were holding previously was ill-informed.

    The gentle approach is best, I suppose, because people tend to get defensive. A more aggressive approach more accurately portrays the severity and the importance of the issue. I may be unique in this regard, but I much prefer when people try to convince me with a passionate plea full of facts and realistic information than trying to sugar-coat it.

    I do harbor anger towards those who choose cutting even after being presented with the facts. I harbor some anger and judgement over those who cut out of ignorance. Why? Because I find it hard to believe that anyone would accept cutting genitals without even thinking to question it. Again, I may be unique in this regard.

    There may be differences in how men and women want to be talked to or discussed with about controversial issues. My point of view is male.

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    1. Thank you for your input! I agree with you that some close-minded people will refuse to accept the information no matter how they hear it. However, I think these people are few and far between so long as we focus on our approach. Many people of all mindsets remain ignorant to the reality of circumcision because misguided, money-driven medical professionals convince them that circumcision is medically beneficial and that intact penises are unhealthy.

      We shouldn't sugarcoat the frightening realities of circumcision or present them in any way other than purely factual. From my experience, however, we should be somewhat gentle in our approach so that people don't shut down as a defense mechanism. Terms like "child abuse" and "mutilation" aren't wrong, but I think they should be reserved for specific contexts. Respectful, calm conversation is what opens minds.

      To my chagrin, I harbor anger and judgment too. Not towards parents, because ignorance and misinformation is not equivalent to malice, but more towards the people who keep circumcision alive through lies for their own financial profit. I feel it is important for us to learn how to separate these emotions from our passion that creates more believers in our cause.

      As you said, men and women might generally require different kinds of conversations about circumcision to open their minds. To that effect, all people have different ways of thinking that may only be affected by a certain approach. I hope for more intactivists to see the circumcision debate as an opportunity for discussion rather than war.

      Always,
      Molly McF

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    2. In a perfect world, people would listen to reason regardless of the way it is presented to them. Alas, this world is not the one we are in.

      If we would like to give people the chance to think about the issue objectively, and see our point, then it is not helpful to yell factoids wrapped in loaded language. Because that is not an argument. An argument is a path that begins in a place shared by all parties involved, and leads somewhere else.

      Sending a telegram from Paris will not take the recipient to Paris. One must take their hand, lead them to a plane, and fly there in tandem- or at least give directions.

      "I find it hard to believe that anyone would accept cutting genitals without thinking to question it."

      Why is that hard to believe? There are lots of 'facts' that we don't question, because it is incredibly inconvenient to go and figure that out ourselves. We can't all be scientists. Appealing to authority, and the bandwagon effect are some serious ingrained biases that are hard to overturn- often because they are convenient shortcuts.

      Wisdom teeth are removed to prevent various ailments. We don't seem to question this (or, at least, I don't). It could very well be that this is just some unnecessary act of mutilation; I mean, I've never *actually* read any of the *actual* papers claiming health benefits about this- have you?

      Admittedly this situation is different in myriad respects (consent comes to mind), but the point remains: let's not pretend we are better than the innocent people that fall victim to the same cognitive biases we all do, every day. Let us, instead, politely guide them to Paris. (I hear the food there is great.)

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    3. Male circumcision isn't really a scientific issue. You don't need to be a scientist to question it. To think of cutting the genitals of an infant is disturbing -- it's a common joke in movies for men to cringe at the thought of circumcision even when they support it. Routine infant male circumcision is an ethical issue rather than a medical one. We have been hoodwinked by the American medical community.

      I don't think your wisdom tooth argument helps to make your point. Wisdom teeth are removed generally when one is a teenager or young adult and with consent (not as an infant without consent). They are generally removed when causing problems (e.g. mouth to small to fit, growing in a bad angle, impacted). I've never heard of wisdom teeth being removed to cure any medical condition other than that caused by their presence (e.g. making other teeth crooked, causing pain, deep pockets at the back of the mouth that collect food).

      If the foreskin caused problems the way wisdom teeth may cause problems, then you may have a point there. I tried to keep my wisdom teeth as I had room, but the deep pockets, etc. made them too much trouble.

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  2. Thank you for writing as you have.

    Years ago, I made the conscious decision to never refer to male circumcision as "genital mutilation." Doing so begs the question, and fails to convince the people who most need convincing. Less consciously, I have never linked circumcision to child abuse, not even metzitzah b'peh. Again, doing so is inflammatory language that jumps straight to the conclusion without taking the time to convince anyone.

    Most important, I do not blame the American tragedy of circumcision on parents. Parents are in part victims of their trust in the medical profession, and in part victims of a sexual culture that has strongly normalised the absence of foreskin. I decline to attack the typical doctor, who was not properly trained about the natural penis, and whose mind is held prisoner by the same American popular culture of sexuality that afflicts parents. I reserve harsh blame for American medical school profs, who for several generations have taught residents how to circumcise and have remained incurious about the possible adverse consequences for human sexuality.

    American Jewish and hospital circumcision is wrong for two simple reasons. First, there is a cavalier dismissal of the pain boys undergo. Second, the mobile foreskin is very much part of the machinery of sex. We should not alter that machinery unless and until we thoroughly understand the consequences of that alteration for sexual pleasure and functionality, for foreplay as well as penetration. Amazingly, there is no American research bearing on those possible consequences. When we circumcise a baby boy, we literally do not know the possible downside, for his future partners as well as for himself.

    We cannot dismiss the possibility that circumcision damages human sexuality simply by asserting that if it were harmful, we would know it because Jews and Moslems have circumcised for thousands of years without evident harm. Those who circumcise for religious reasons have a powerful incentive to rationalise away any evidence of harm.

    "Religious leaders taught me that God commanded circumcision upon Jews to protect the Chosen People from common fatal, foreskin-related infections..."
    Did any of your Hebrew school teachers actually say that intact boys and men suffer from common and fatal infections? If they did, how could they reconcile that assertion with the reality on the ground in Europe, Japan and Latin America??

    This sort of teaching may explain why so many North American assimilated Jews advocate routine infant circumcision for all. It is my understanding that orthodox rabbis never talk this way. They quietly admit that circumcision is purely an act of faith that serves no medical purpose.

    Circumcision has been on a collision course with the progressive attitudes towards human sexuality that many Jewish families have adopted over the past 120 years. That collision has begun; take pride in the fact that you are in the vanguard.

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    1. Mr. Desmoulins, your insight is wonderfully enlightening as always!

      It is also my understanding that Orthodox Jews do not justify circumcision in this way. As I said, I was raised in Reform Judaism. I think our sect is quicker to cling to medical benefits as justification for two reasons: we feel less comfortable using God's commandments as an excuse (after all, many of us don't even keep Kosher), and because we are also victims of the lies propagated by American society.

      My Hebrew school teachers didn't assert that intact men actually die of fatal infections nowadays, but that this reason was supposedly true at the time that God created this commandment. I'm not sure why the conversation ended there, except that we were too scared to label ourselves or our family members as mutilated human beings.

      Always,
      Molly McF

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    2. Roger, I do not understand your viewpoint. Do you also believe that we shouldn't refer to any of the various forms of FGM as "genital mutilation"? Certainly it is. It is mutilation from the point of view of either gender. The most common forms of FGM (e.g. sunat, Type I/II FGM) are equivalent to or less invasive than male circumcision. I call this FGM and I consider male circumcision mutilation for the same reason.

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    3. A little over 400 years ago, we humans stumbled on the scientific method, whose most distinguished early advocates were Galileo and Francis Bacon. This event was a game changer. One thing led to another, and 150 years ago, the role of microorganisms in human disease began to be understood. Then antibiotics and fungicides were invented. Condoms of good quality became routinely available. Eventually, the scientific method came to be applied, however imperfectly, to our understanding of human sexual activity. In my view, much remains to be done here.

      I submit that the operational implications of this rapidly evolving understanding of biology, medicine, and sexuality include the following.

      1. The prophylactic benefits of circumcision are now at best minimal, and probably nonexistent. Condoms, washing, and a responsible attitude about casual sex are much better ways of assuring sexual hygiene.

      2. The sexual drawbacks of circumcision are beginning to be understood. People, please understand that Judaism is not anti-sexual. All Jews are supposed to marry and raise children. Jewish husbands and wives are supposed to take delight in each other. Read the Song of Solomon. If circumcision sometimes damages the ability of husbands and wives to take delight in each other, that is a grave dilemma for Jewish culture.

      3. Brit milah should be performed with sterile tools, and lidocaine should be injected beforehand. Hence every mohel should also be a doctor.

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  3. I disagree.
    As s jew myself,I can understand where your coming from.
    but, today the only real issue with circumcision of infants is the that they do not get to decide.
    In Israel, the procedure is almost always done by a doctor, using sterilized equipment, and pain reducers, so that the pain the baby feels is as about the same as getting your ears pierced.
    also, about the dangers of circumcision, and the harmful effect of it on sexuality or sexual function,
    i have no idea where you get your facts from.
    It has been proven numerous times that circumcision is harmless, and reduces the risk of infections and several foreskin related diseases, most common around the middle east. as for the sex- I've lived in Israel most of my life, and i can assure men here enjoy sex just as much as those who aren't circumcised, and impregnation is not an issue of concern due to circumcision anymore than it is with non circumcised men.
    I do not think labeling circumcised men as mutilated is correct just as I wont label people who have gotten tattoos,piercings,plastic surgery or even people who harm their lungs by smoking cigarettes or shishas.

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    1. How would a circumcised man know that the sex he is experiencing is of the same quality as another man with 50% more penile skin and 20,000 additional nerves? I believe that you do not have the facts.

      Circumcision destroys the natural operation of the penis and is indeed mutilation in the same way the various forms of FGM are. You also neglect the issue of consent and ethics. Medical research shows no significant benefit to male circumcision. It's not a medical issue anyway, so I suppose any "health benefits", if they did exist, would be irrelevant.

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    2. Nitzan, comments like this are really uninformed. If you assume: "it has been proven" you have already closed your mind. There is an enormous amount of fraud in published science today, often as a result of money corrupting science, but also sometimes because of research bias. There are MANY studies saying that circumcision causes sexual harm. I am one of those people that has always had low sensitivity, creating sexual problems. So please open your mind and review ALL the research.

      This references one of many studies. http://www.thewholenetwork.org/14/post/2011/08/does-circumcision-cause-erectile-dysfunction.html

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    3. There is much more to circumcision than the child's lack of agency.

      Many American mohels are not doctors and hence cannot use lidocaine. Most American doctors refuse to use lidocaine when doing routine infant circumcisions. That circumcision without lidocaine is very painful is amply attested to by the medical literature and video after video.

      One cannot prove anything harmless, because it is impossible to prove a negative. And everything that humans do has some adverse side effects for at least a few people. We do things because as far as we know, these adverse effects are mild and infrequent. There has never been an honest large sample study of the possible long term adverse effects of routine infant circumcision on adult sexuality.

      Hence circumcision cannot be "proved harmless." An essential fact is that Europe and Japan do not circumcise their children, and those countries are not urological or STD hells. How can you compare the sexual enjoyment of circumcised and uncircumcised men? Are you aware that what circumcision ablates interacts directly with a woman's body during foreplay and penetrative sex? That foreskin motion makes penetrative sex gentler and more enjoyable for both? Have you read internet testimonials by American women who have had long term relationships with both kinds of men? Testimonials by anguished married women who cannot enjoy marital sex, and who have decided that the fact that their spouses are circumcised is to blame? Are you aware that a lot of the sexual damage of circumcision becomes apparent only in middle age, and that your typical doctor or sex therapist has little awareness of how circumcision can be problematic?

      I agree that those of us who oppose routine circumcision, and who argue that ritual circumcision should be limited to consenting adults, should not call circumcision a "mutilation." Likewise, those who defend circumcision need to appreciate that the human understanding of human sexuality is constantly growing and evolving. That evolving understanding is not putting circumcision in a good light.

      Jewish circumcision has been on a collision course with Jewish sexual sophistication, humanitarian ideals, and commitment to progressive politics. There is ample evidence from the USA and Israel that that collision has now begun.

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    4. Hello in Nitzan in Israel,

      If you could take a neutral look at things, experience what a foreskin felt like, you'd be pretty angry at the thought that someone can forcibly slice it off without your consent at birth.

      I have one, and I can tell you, you are missing out big time, so are your ladies.
      Having dated women who have tried both, they found the uncut penis much less abrasive and far more enjoyable. Thats not to say that you cannot please women, but you have unfortunately been diminished due to said procedure.

      The Jewish religion will simply have to adapt, as it is on a collision course with basic human rights. Consensus is that stoning homosexuals is wrong, Judaism had to adapt.
      Also, had circumcision not been a custom, the holocaust would have never happened.

      Its a horrible torture ritual that really has no place in a world of order. Very painful, dangerous, and no benefit. The AMA is a lost cause, no credibility, when they were advocating allowing a similar procedure on girls. Horrible.

      I think you can still be a good Jew without mutilating penises. I think it is an insult to the creator to find fault with his work.

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  4. if anyone here refuses to see how shaming parents who do this helps future infants then i would ask,, how does normalizing the language (using medical terms that are accepted) help spread the word that this is elective surgery that causes death and is no longer ok and that infants have a right to be intact and whole until they choose otherwise for themselves later in life

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    1. It takes all kinds. We need the men in bloodstained suits on the corner howling about mutilation, to shake people's sense of reality and bring home the fact that men are angry. But at the same time, what we are trying to do is get people to agree with us. It's a lot like trying to move frightened small animals into a designated area of the lawn. If there are frightening things there, they won't budge. If we insist that in order to agree with the genital integrity movement, you must also agree that all parents who have circumcised are evil child abusers, NO ONE who has is EVER going to agree, because it's simply not true. People do it because they were fooled into believing it was good, not because they were trying to harm. You have to make it SAFE for them to change their minds. Attacks on their goodwill only make them defensive of circumcision.

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    2. I agree, it takes all kinds. The kind of sensitive arguments that Molly is talking about are important so that soome people can hear the message, but there also needs to be space for the angry voices of victims, because that is an unavoidable part of the story.

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  5. landed here by chance when someone shared a link.

    I find it preposterous that circumcision is even accepted. It's part of the body you're cutting, not hair, not nails, and even those pain if done incorrectly - pull the hair by the root,for example.

    I have read of men who are circumcised and defend it saying, they get along just fine without any visible or apparent problems - as if the men who do complain are crybabies. My counter point is, many women who are raped also get on with life and show no trauma or symptoms of. Should we then brand women who are raped and complain about it as crybabies ? Rape doesn't even remove any part of the body , and the same act , is done consensually by millions over. So it defies all sense to consider rape the most henious crime yet not consider genital mutilation as a mere ritual than a severe crime against humanity.

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  6. Molly, you are absolutely right. Logic, reason, ethics, and cogent, respectful dialogue is how we win people over, both in direct correspondence and for third-party observers. For those of us socialised in cutting cultures, the very real problems with child genital cutting has been all but blinded from us. We must de-robe that ugly wolf one layer at a time.

    I think there is absolutely a time and a place for anger to manifest, and that is in private circles and groups. Much the same way, as a white person, I can't enter a place provided for PoC to discuss their anger about racism. Or rather, those private places aren't where we educate white people about white privilege. (as an example of 'ingroups' and outsiders)

    Intactivists need our "safe zones" to express our anger, our frustration, our grief about this, and it can't be done on the public forum. It's not where we'll be able to make the most difference.

    It's absolutely normal to be angry about the atrocity of child genital cutting, and indignant about the willful ignorance of members of the public. It's also important intactivists learn the circumcision apology script, and perhaps develop their own, rational rebuttal to each and every point we encounter in circumcision apology. We can vent and lament human stupidity in private, but we must always remember it's because we care about children that we hate circumcision. Thank you for this thoughtful post.

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  7. I think your debate would benefit tremendously from taking some of Molly's advice and removing some of the jargon that puts alot of you across as closed minded: "mutilation", "atrocity" etc.

    As Nitzan says, there are whole countries of circumsised men, and yes they (we) do enjoy sex tremendously. I have spoken to Jewish girlfriends who have talked about circumcised versus non-circumcised, preferences were split in terms of aesthetics but never did sexual enjoyment come up as an issue. I've also seen numerous comments from older men who chose circumcision (on other blogs) and reported no decrease in "pleasure".

    As for "mutilation" that really is a cultural or personal perspective, isnt it? There are many cultural practices of permanently altering the body among different (non western) cultures; they regard these as beautiful, and maybe they are...?

    The only argument that really holds water for me (so far) is that of agency i.e. choosing for the child. Not to say that maybe I wont see things differently, but thats the only issue that stands up to scrutiny for me so far.

    But as I said in the beginning, I find some of the language used by proponents of "non circumcision" to be disturbing and reminiscent of religeous anti-abortion extremists.

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    1. Removing the foreskin doesn't (usually)completely deprive a man of his ability to experience sexual pleasure, but the fact of the matter is that the foreskin is a substantial amount of erogenous tissue as well as the mobile skin of the penis, and when you remove that you irreversibly alter the sexual experience. Period.

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