Did you notice the chalked messages on the asphalt of your city earlier this month?
Based on anecdotal experiences and observations on social media, I gather that some people were upset and offended by the colorful creations. They expressed concern that these messages are terrifically inappropriate displayed in public spaces where children can see them.
Genital autonomy advocates across the nation wielded chalk in recognition of Worldwide Week of Genital Autonomy, which ended on May 7th. Hosted as an event for The Intact Network/Saving Our Sons, activists were encouraged to create awareness about the harms of routine infant circumcision (RIC) by doing a simple act like chalking a message at a public park or dropping an educational card somewhere for other people to find.
What is chalking? Exactly what it sounds like: Writing an informative, genital autonomy message with chalk in a public, high-visibility area like a park sidewalk or public driveway. Though it’s considered a peaceful method of spreading awareness, some people debate whether this kind of advocacy can truly be effective.
Note: The majority of city governments agree that chalking is benign and perfectly legal in public spaces (though defacement definitions differ in some areas). Now that we have that out of the way…
America: Home of The Blind
I’m sure we can all agree that informed consent to any permanently function- and form-changing cosmetic procedure is important, if not essential. Messages supporting equal rights, human rights, and ethical behavior should be considered in any format as not only family-friendly, but welcome and worthy of further exploration.
Contained in the pro-genital autonomy message, we have unapologetic opposition to an unacceptable tragedy, a sick wink of reality somewhere between the chalk and the pavement but not fully attainable without further investigation. So who’s to blame for the harsh topic’s existence on the sidewalk — those who wield the chalk or those who desire to immediately wash it away?
I suppose we all share the blame. That is, all of us except our children. They need to see these messages to grow up without the armor of ignorance that becomes increasingly heavy to shed. They’re born with an inherent memory of right and wrong (evidenced by any child’s reaction of resistance to the question, “Can I cut off part of your body?”). Affected by misleading associations, this moral muscle begins to atrophy. We fail them if we lead by example of weak ethics, and we fail them if we don’t confront these examples when we see them.
I can’t approximate the number of parents who choose to circumcise their sons expecting or hoping for a “Thank you!” but I do see that many expect or hope to never speak of the situation again. As if after the child has his foreskin ripped, torn, crushed, and cut away, his remaining genitalia then officially, finally belongs to him. As if we don’t want our boys to really, unquestioningly know they were cut, altered, not whole. We cutely, casually call it “getting fixed” or “getting done.”
If the boys do know what happened to them, we don’t want them to know it’s unnatural and illogical. We don’t want them to consider whether it’s wrong. We make up legitimate-sounding reasons like it’s “cleaner,” “healthier,” “safer.”
At least at the time of granting consent (whether with enthusiasm, neutrality, or apprehension), we don’t imagine having another discussion about it, ever — certainly not after a trip to the playground. Many don’t plan to tell the boy he was circumcised, as if it’s a no-brainer — he’ll somehow figure it out on his own, of course? Or that there’s nothing to “figure out” because circumcision is the norm and standard, and whole male genitalia is an abnormal condition to be corrected. Many parents don’t even recognize circumcision as their son’s very first surgery.
We desperately want to protect our sons from messages that reflect the injustice actually suffered by them at our request or compliance. Yet it is a parent’s job to protect the child against the action, not the message. Sometimes we realize what this means far too late.
Americans are beginning to take notice and question; boys are becoming men who realize they feel intimately violated. The world we find ourselves in today is not suited to forever-kept secrets. If people begin seeing circumcision as an inescapable national conversation, exposed and raw like the scarred half of their child’s genitals, perhaps they’ll think twice about consenting to, performing, or recommending the practice again.
Fear of Acknowledgement
Most parents wouldn’t think twice to take their children to a war memorial, a cemetery, or teach them the consequence of pelting another child with rocks at the playground. Kids see and learn about difficult topics everywhere, all the time. The grave prickliness of the issue is not what we’re truly afraid of when confronted with a genital autonomy message at the park.
There is much fear surrounding the mirage of mutilation when we learn it’s hardly a mirage at all; rather an entirely tangible and measurable loss that requires an equivalent degree of emotional processing to neutralize. A loss that will follow a cut child for the rest of his life and through his relationship with himself and with others, whether he’s aware of this or not.
You see, the loss is not apparent only within the window of time it took to accomplish in the hospital. The loss is a phantom injury that follows him for the rest of his life. It continues to haunt his body’s stored memory of early trauma when he’s alone, when he’s in public, while he’s at work and at home and at the park… whether or not messages about it dress the pavement he stands upon. Because he is there with the message already carved into him, and it’s not going to wash away with the rain.
The fear of genital autonomy acknowledgement comes from the references, whether implied or explicit, to private body parts (in the majority of cases, proper anatomical terms are used rather than euphemisms or slang). God forbid children find out they have genitals! God forbid they get an idea in their head that this area of the body is personal, only their business, not for sale, not up for debate, that it’s to be explored, questioned, and wanted as nature intended because God knows, Puritan America is alive and well.
There is also a fear for our daughters in the eye of the MGM storm. The fear of genital autonomy messages cannot come solely from a place of protecting sons from shame because it seems we grant their sisters equal protection (ironically) from the topic of MGM. America really doesn’t want our young girls to see these genital integrity messages. Evidenced by the population of sexually active young women and new mothers who remain shockingly unaware of their country’s MGM crisis, it’s clear that America works hard to shield them from the epidemic of male genital cutting.
You see, America doesn’t appreciate our whip-smart little princesses thinking too rationally about their own genitalia, and certainly not about the equal rights deserved between all genders in regard to bodily autonomy. Because they will make connections. They will tear through the hypocrisy. They are princesses but not the kind America primes them to be. They will get angry and it will be dangerous. After all, they have themselves grown up in a world of “Don’t complain!” and the expectation to keep one’s feelings muffled is an ugly dress to wear but it sure fits well in our country. Given the knowledge and chance, they will try to protect their brothers, fathers, husbands, and sons.
More than anything else, the fear of genital autonomy acknowledgment wells up from a deeper, gut understanding that RIC is wrong. Many parents freely comment upon their baby’s circumcision with pride (“What a trooper! He took it like a champ!”). At times it’s an apparently confident, “well-researched” decision that elicits such pride. Yet as the cut child ages, more time passes and the topic never breaches the surface again, especially not with the owner of the affected body. If circumcision is chosen “in the best interest of the family,” why isn’t the event routinely discussed with congratulations in kind thereafter?
Deep down, we know it is wrong. The pride is not real; it is tragically misplaced ego. The (un)necessary evil may seem inconvenient to think about or talk about, but in fact it’s painful to do so. Hence why boys don’t typically ask parents about their circumcision history or status; it should not be their responsibility to ask for confirmation of their suspicions, especially knowing such parents are in no position to give it to them unless they’ve successfully removed the blinders.
Knowing Better, Doing Better
So let’s consider the parents’ roles in this journey of discovery, especially if such a discovery was prompted by life-changing action taken by the parents themselves.
When an adult cut man sees “HIS BODY, HIS CHOICE” chalked on a sidewalk, he may feel (perhaps not consciously) urged to seek answers from his parents or whoever he believes “made” him this way. Maybe his lifelong knowledge of circumcision had been previously limited by memory of his parents’ pride or ignorance and the concept of “choice” never occurred to him until now.
I know enough regret parents to be sure the fault cannot entirely lay upon those who made the ill-informed decision. Parents are lied to through societal experiment, doctors’ misguidance, half-truth anecdotes. We’re flawed enough in our humanity that we allow our precious babies to undergo unnecessary amputation; we’re then unsurprisingly human enough to make stupid mistakes without much forethought. We’re also human enough to need to silence the victims of our actions: Don’t listen, don’t discuss, don’t question. Don’t look at the chalk. Most of all, don’t complain.
I also know enough regret parents to be sure that we’re human enough for compassion and forgiveness and growth. And so either way, it’s never too late for this discussion that enlightens children about their bodies and exposes the unknown traumas stored within. Even if we don’t have all the answers, we can help children to learn how important it is to always ask questions.
Violent Action vs. Peaceful Education
When a child sees a message about genital autonomy, he may not understand what it says. Maybe the topic just hadn’t come up yet. There’s less risk of confusion if he’d been previously informed of what happened to him (or his peers). That said, confusion is not a threat, it’s a learning opportunity.
I went to an acquaintance’s house recently to pick up materials for an intact education booth. Her young daughter answered the door with her and she asked who I was. Her mother explained that I work at Intact Houston where I educate about circumcision. Her daughter asked, “What’s that?”
Her mother answered, “Well, you know how your little brother has skin on the end of his penis? A lot of people cut that off their babies because they are told they should.”
“I don’t think that’s a nice thing to do!” her daughter said. “They shouldn’t do that! It’s wrong.”
She didn’t understand what was said, but without being told or taught, she knew what it meant. What would happen if parents more commonly took it upon themselves to discuss circumcision as a matter of human rights?
Explaining Circumcision To A Cut Son
Informing Him That He Underwent A Genital Surgery
We must consider why it’s even necessary to hold this conversation. Our culture rejects the topic of circumcision so fervently and effectively that a shocking number of grown men who do know they’re circumcised still don’t know that circumcision is a genital surgery defined by removal of what would amount to half their penile skin.
A circumcised penis is so normal in the United States that many cut boys and men don’t realize a surgical instrument had once removed most of the erogenous parts of it. Some men are oblivious that they’re circumcised (!) and believe they’re intact because, after all, their body has always looked this way, as far as they know, and sensation has always been what it is, and this is as “whole” as it gets. They’re missing an entire organ — one that is sexually-responsive and serves to maintain many health functions for the larger organ — but they literally have no idea. In our culture, lubricant and Viagra are standard integrations of one’s intimate life.
If a boy/man hadn’t been informed by his parents, he might learn about circumcision in high school sex ed. However, not all sex ed classes bother to cover intact male anatomy, and if they do it’s no guarantee that a young boy will make the connection that he is not intact (because surely, a parent or someone would’ve mentioned it by now?). Once he learns that there is such a thing as a surgically-modified penis, he may then resort to consulting Google.
Somehow it has become okay for parents to consent to the permanent, painful removal of their child’s most sensitive organ, and okay for them to never bring it up again after affirming to the doctor “Yes, please!” Because it’s “the family penis” and “our body” until after the circumcision is complete; then it’s “his body, his business, his problem” thereafter.
Every individual deserves to know the truth about his own body, especially if he can’t consciously remember. Will he hear about it from his parents (who are themselves human and foolish at all the wrong times but who love him more dearly than anyone) or from an anxious Google search?
Mandi Woolery writes in “A Public Apology to My Circumcised Son“:
“You are five, and little bro is three. So far, there have been no questions as to why your penises look different. How will I answer that when it does come up? When you are still little I think I will keep it generic, so as to not freak you out. “Mommy made one decision for you, and another for your little brother.” So far each of you thinks that your penis is the most awesome thing since… well, since anything, so I don’t think it will be an issue.
But when you are older… a man… I would like to explain things more truthfully… and apologize.
I can only pray to God that you will be able to understand why I made such a poor decision, and that you will forgive me.”
Taking Accountability For Irresponsible Consent
A parent may not have known about cultural blind spots at the time, may have been misled, and was probably lied to. We can’t always know everything, but when we know better we are challenged to do better. Before parents tell a son he was circumcised, they should educate themselves about what it really is, what really happened, and what are the consequences. They stepped into these shoes of responsibility the moment they granted consent for his cosmetic surgery.
Many “circumcision regret parents” become genital integrity advocates to protect future babies in the name of their own child who they weren’t at the time in the position to save. Many of these amazing people chalked across the nation this week, too. Their bravery and strength absolutely astounds me on a daily basis.
Lauren Stone writes in “A Letter To My Son“:
“When you were taken from me at the hospital and carried down the hallway to a ‘sound proof’ room something inside me started to panic. A million thoughts were swirling through my head all at once… and then I heard you scream. It was a sound unlike anything I had ever heard in my life.
The hair stood up on the back of my neck and my knees buckled. It felt like my heart was no longer beating and I could feel my face flush and tears start to fall down my cheeks. There was a knot in my gut and I wanted to vomit. I was shaking and I muttered, “Oh God what have I done?” A nurse, almost laughing, said to me, “Oh he’s okay honey, he’ll be just fine and he won’t remember a thing.” I grasped at that delusion for a moment, but I knew that I would never forget it. I would never be the same person again.
When they handed you back to me I could hardly breath. The look on your face was that of shock, pain and betrayal. I held you close to me and whispered through my tears, “Oh my God, I am so sorry. I am so sorry, I am so sorry…”
All the sparkle was gone from your eyes and I knew that I had been lied to. I felt so betrayed and confused. I felt such guilt for having hurt you this way. How could I have not instinctively known that this was wrong? How could everyone in my country, in the world, not instinctively know that this was wrong? Why didn’t even a single person ever say to me that you were perfect as you were and this pain was unnecessary. Or even mention pain at all? I was so full of hatred towards the doctors. They knew what they were doing, and they lied to me. They hurt you and thought nothing of it. I was so full of hatred toward myself for letting those bastards hurt you that way.
I made a choice that wasn’t mine to make, one that I wasn’t equipped to make, one that I should never have been allowed to make.”
Here is how one intactivist mother brought up circumcision with her cut son:
“I can honestly say that I am glad I talked about circumcision with my son. The weight of the conversation was lifted from my heart. I can now say, there is nothing I am withholding from him. It was hard. Looking into his big blue eyes and telling him that I made a choice for him that was not mine to make. That I took something from him. That I put him in harm’s way. That I had a hand in some of his pain.”
Preparing Him For The Long-Term Effects
Surprised to learn there are long-term effects? Today we know more about the later-presenting effects of circumcision and that frequency of incidence is greatly under-reported in many categories. Here are some common issues caused by circumcision that show up with increased time and maturity:
Anatomical (chordee [bending of the penis], skin bridges and skin tags, buried [concealed] penis, lymphedema, inclusion cysts, urethrocutaneous fistula, wound infection, pubic hair on the shaft skin due to tight circumcision, urinary retention, meatal ulcer, meatal stenosis, edema of the glans, granoloma, penile adhesions, penile rotation, etc.); Sexual (erectile dysfunction, tight and painful erections due to insufficient amount of skin left, causing vaginal dryness in a female sex partners [as well as “orgasm difficulties, dyspareunia and a sense of incomplete sexual needs fulfillment”], loss of penile sensitivity, keratinization and drying out of the glans surface, masturbatory difficulty, etc.); Emotional & Social (alexithymia [clinical inability to process emotions], post-traumatic stress disorder [once known as combat neurosis], post-traumatic anxiety, etc.).
By the time a male is old enough to recognize any of these effects, his parents probably won’t be the first to know, and likely not at all. His partners and doctors might, but ultimately it will be his own cross to bear. He deserves to know these risks in advance because he may desire to take any possible preventative action.
Offering Options For Healing
We can gently inform about where to find information about foreskin restoration. The choice to restore is entirely up to the owner of the body and it shouldn’t be suggested as necessary for healing; understand that he may struggle with the idea of getting “fixed” again. Although even full restoration cannot regrow the specialized erogenous nerves that will remain permanently lost, it can reestablish several important functions of the foreskin such as protection of the glans from keratinization and callousing (which results in decreased sensation with increased age) and natural gliding action during sex and masturbation. Perhaps most powerfully, restoring can help him finally feel like his body is fully “his.”
Parents usually don’t think to tell a cut son in person that there was a choice, and he didn’t get a say in it. In many cases neither did the parents.
They don’t think to tell him his body was surgically altered. An organ that would’ve served more than a dozen unique functions was removed before he’d ever have the chance to enjoy it in a fully-matured state that spent years adapting perfectly to his body. That is the truth. Ignorance is not bliss if the ignorance affects his own life in untold ways and the outcome of his future sons’ bodily integrity.
If they don’t have this important conversation with him, he will make this discovery on his own. In the school locker room. Decades later at a doctor appointment anxious for answers about the dark ring around his penis. On an episode of Penn & Teller. Maybe even at the neighborhood park, where children can see.
Know Better, Do Better
“A Letter To My Son” – Lauren Stone
“Dear Sweet Boy, Please Forgive Me” – Jessica Grindstaff
“I Circumcised My Son: Healing From Regret” (a list of stories by regret parents)
Keeping Future Sons Intact (Facebook page)
“Marching Forward: Telling My Son About Circumcision” – Danielle LeRoy
Mothering magazine thread (from hundreds of mothers who regret circumcision)
“Foreskin restoration” – CIRP