It was perhaps the first beautiful day of the season and hardly anyone showed up. The morning was slow, and though I was grateful to spend a few hours outside without nearly fainting from the usually oppressive Texas heat, we had come here to talk to people… a lot of people.
The turnout did remain slight all day, but the conversations we had were meaningful. Even those who seemed to think they had no personal history with circumcision certainly had plenty to say… or plenty left unsaid, for now.
At the end of the day, though I did feel somewhat frustrated, confused and deflated, I walked away feeling mostly just thankful. The best part is, I know I wasn’t the only one.
Giving Thanks For…
“Is this the anti-circumcision table?” asked a young girl who said she was there with her stepmom.
I said, no, we are pro-foreskin, pro-information. With a hint of bitterness, she said her father had circumcised her brother who is now a year old, and she was angry at him for doing it. I asked if she’d ever spoken to him about it in advance. She said she hadn’t because she never even considered that he’d do that to him, not ever.
She said she was thankful for our presence here.
Another vendor strolled by to see what our table was all about before the event officially opened. I told her what I always say, that we are sharing information about intact care and educating about circumcision. A noticeable frown.
She said, “Oh, I do know a bit about this.”
I asked what her thoughts were and she corrected herself: “Well, I guess I actually don’t know much.”
I asked if she was expecting. She said not yet, but she already has a son who was circumcised (we later found out he is now 19 months old). I dove into some of the subjects covered on our table… with as much caution and gentle pacing as I could manage, but perhaps still too much, too fast. She burst into tears.
“I feel so bad that I did this to my son…”
I believed her. She meant it. She was the mother we’re all terrified to meet in person. Seeing the fresh realization of a grave mistake upon her face… hearing the only words she can muster yet sensing those choked away for someone other than a stranger like me to hear… it’s the moment where we turn into the bad guy, a really bad guy. The bearer of the most horrifying news. And she started off her day like this. She didn’t come here for this.
But now she knew. She knew this was a question she should have considered, maybe a fight she should have fought. She is the mother who was lied to, caught in a social and medical system that failed many times over to inform her about this choice that should have been her son’s.
It was terrifying to meet her, to see her cry, but I cannot truly speak of terror when I know she must have experienced something much worse when she finally researched circumcision after this day was done, the way she was never encouraged to do before the surgery itself was done.
She has since been in contact with additional questions, and of course we are happy to support and help her along with all regret parents.
Thankfully, her son had been loosely cut, which affords greater possibilities for restorative options in the future (should he choose that route himself) and less likelihood for some of the later-term effects of circumcision that present after sexual maturity.
A young couple with a toddler boy in a stroller proudly told us they kept him intact. The woman said her mother had her brother circumcised and it was extremely traumatic, so her mother emphatically warned against it.
Her pediatrician had instructed her to retract her son so she followed the advice until one day she discovered it’s not correct. She said she was “so mad!”
Thankfully her pediatrician is “great and open to things,” but was likely just not properly updated. (Of course we intend to follow up to remedy this oversight).
A woman strolling by with her adorable, tiny 5-week-old baby girl let us know the topic of circumcision makes her feel uncomfortable. She had seen a circumcision video online and couldn’t help but think, “That poor baby!”
After listening to her thoughts for a few minutes it was clear she was horrified, but still under the impression that this is just ‘something you do with boys’ and ‘a necessary evil.’
She invited our attention to her baby’s pair of perfect little ears. They were so new and flawless, it seemed as if they belonged on a doll. She despaired over her husband’s strong desire to have them pierced as soon as possible.
We encouraged her to give greater space for these protective instincts to develop. Her inner voice made a case for her daughter to choose for herself (at an age appropriate to give informed consent) whether she wanted a purely decorative body modification.
She agreed wholeheartedly with each of our points in line with her own instinct, though she kept deferring back to “when she gets them pierced soon…” as if it’s just ‘something you do with girls’ and ‘a necessary tradition.’
She said she didn’t really have any friends or anyone to commiserate with her feelings. Thankfully, we had a list of supportive groups she could join and connect with local mothers just like her, many of whom struggled with listening to their own maternal instincts amid the noise of opinionated others.
I met a pregnant mom who declared she was having a boy, and already had a circumcised son. I told her how easy it is to care for an intact child and that it is, in fact, much easier to care for an intact child than a circumcised one.
She said, with great surprise, “Oh! Really? I didn’t know that… I thought it was the opposite, that it was a big reason for circumcision.”
I explained how caring for a baby doesn’t need to involve cleaning a wound, applying Vaseline every day to keep the exposed glans protected and prevent sticking to diapers, maybe even dealing with skin adhesions or other issues that can arise. It really can be as simple as “wipe like a finger, clean only what is seen” — if a baby is kept whole as nature intended.
“Doesn’t really seem like there’s much point in doing it [circumcising], then,” she concluded before thanking me for the information.
A childbirth educator connected with the birth center had a personal conflict with the intactivism movement, even though she supported keeping boys whole.
Her two sons were circumcised, her second on his seventh day of life. It was then discovered he had a previously unknown blood disorder called hemophilia. He bled so profusely from his surgery that he needed to be transferred hospitals and required two blood transfusions to save his life.
Traumatized, confused, and devastated, she sought support and answers from online forums but was shamed and attacked. The vindictive, unforgiving response turned her off from the movement, and it sounded as though her impression of its followers was almost irreparably unfavorable. The experience convinced her maintain a position that is often described as ‘pro parents’ choice.’
Had we presented our information in a manner intended to judge or admonish parents who didn’t know better (and perhaps still don’t), this woman may not have spent longer than sixty seconds with us. After engaging in supportive and gentle discussion first, (instead of an introduction of bloody images or always-unnecessary harsh language), she softened in her reception.
Before leaving, she lifted back the lid on the “For Adult Eyes Only” box, which holds graphic cards comparing images of newly circumcised and intact penises. She drew out a card, showed her husband, and asked, “What does this remind you of? Do you recognize this?!”
“I know, I don’t want to look at that again,” he replied.
This is not a box of cards we leave on the table visible to just anyone. If a person feels called to see what’s inside despite the cautionary label, this is something they personally felt prepared enough to see. There is no pressuring of any person to look at or read anything they aren’t comfortable with. We always preface each handed-out material with a brief on its focus subject and what to expect from the links printed upon it.
We were thankful to serve as proof that gentle (yet effective) advocacy does exist. There is a side of intactivism that sides with regret parents without question… and we wanted her to know she could find this side alive and well in our organization.
An older man acted especially enthusiastic about our table. With a beaming smile, he asked if we do circumcisions. Taken a little off-guard, I politely said no, but we do educate about circumcision and about the benefits of intact foreskin.
He said, “That’s great! … We do ours with a rabbi.”
I asked where he was employed, to which he said he was a retired nurse. At the end of the day, his wife came by. She also asked if we do circumcisions and I repeated what I told her husband. She said her grandsons “had their circumcisions done by a rabbi.”
I waited a beat to compose myself before asking her thoughts on the experience, but she was a step ahead of me.
“It was done beautifully!” she exclaimed. (Proudly? Ignorantly? Defensively? I really couldn’t tell).
She said with her own circumcised sons she didn’t research anything, she just did it — despite normally being such an investigative person.
She said her son’s reasoning was purely religious as he closely followed the Christian Bible. He wanted his children to follow in the image of Jesus who was a Jew. Amber informed her about Galatians and other passages in the New Testament that warn about circumcision, but the woman said we’d have to take it up with her son because “that’s his thing.”
I told her about Brit Shalom and how boys can choose to undergo circumcision later, if they wish.
“But that would be so painful!” she said, aghast.
I agreed, then explained how circumcision surgery is actually even more painful for babies. Studies show babies feel pain more acutely than adults, and adults are given adequate pain relief during the surgery and in the recovery period.
“But at least they don’t remember it!” she said.
I informed her this has been proven untrue — they do retain that muscle memory and MRI studies have shown a baby’s brain psychology to be permanently altered after circumcision.
She accepted heaps of information from us. She promised she wanted to look into and read it all. I couldn’t be sure whether she spoke genuinely but it’s hard to believe that amount of information could end up straight in the trash without even the briefest of glances.
For their apparent openness to updates on tradition and ultimately respecting our difference in perspective, I felt thankful.
We met with a pair of female representatives from the Lactation Specialists of Houston. They said they were very interested to learn about this topic. I gave them a crash course on all the main points. It all sounded “very logical” to them, but they were eager to ask a few more questions.
“What’s the research backing all of this up, like what about infections?”
Infections, infections, infections… If I had a penny for every time I heard about infections…
- One of the functions of foreskin is to protect against infection.
- Circumcised men were found in a study to have higher lifetime rates of STI than intact men.
- The vast majority of infections in intact males are caused by premature forced retraction in infancy and childhood due to the tearing of the normally adhered membranes.This can be 100% prevented with proper intact care.
- In the study that found an increased risk of UTI in intact babies, the risk is actually statistically insignificant and it only applies to the first year of life, after which the relative risk is the same.
- Females have a much higher rate of infections (yeast, UTI), but they are treated with antibiotics instead of circumcision — a treatment plan that works for males, too.
I asked if they ever noticed issues with clients breastfeeding after circumcision, and they quickly replied that no one had reported such a thing. Yet when I explained exactly how circumcision can interfere with breastfeeding, they began to connect the symptoms…
“You know, I have noticed how babies fall into a deep sleep after circumcision, it’s really not normal otherwise. And the formula supplementing trap when that happens…” said one of the women.
They nodded knowingly when I mentioned many circumcised babies’ fussiness from being in pain, or excessive clinginess.
“Thank you so much for all of this, I really learned a lot. This was very eye-opening.”
Allies For Babies
“Just research and whatever choice you end up making, you know you researched it.”
This is what one Birth Boot Camp instructor tells her clients. A well-intentioned piece of advice, but not one that operates in a pro-baby or pro-parent manner.
The truth is, those who truly research circumcision will ultimately choose to keep their baby whole. A decision to circumcise is not a thoroughly researched decision, as countless regret parents can attest.
The instructor was courteous and kind. She claimed to teach the “pros and cons” in her birthing class, which sounded about right because I remember reading that lengthy section on circumcision when I took the Birth Boot Camp program myself. However, the “pros” listed were actually described as unsubstantiated and not valid reasons to cut. Anyone who reads or teaches the program could not reach the conclusion that these choices are equal.
It turns out she had chosen to circumcise her son because her father had to be circumcised as an adult (the same story we hear often, not surprisingly only among American men who were raised in the generation of rampant forced retractions), and she didn’t want to put her child through that experience.
This is where we hoped to gently intervene and help her see it’s unreasonable to perform prophylactic surgery on a child to help him avoid the same surgery later. As an individual with a position of power and a special influence upon new parents, she needed to walk away with at least one layer of personal bias shed.
She did take some information for friends with intact sons who she said were being taught to retract and they developed infections (whether they were previously aware of the cause/effect here, now they would have the right answers).
For the many families we reach, there are many we miss. We’re thankful for those who can begin these important dialogues with parents-to-be in an educational setting like a birth class, especially if they’re willing to see past the blinders of personal bias.
Inside the birth center, Amber held a conversation with several women — midwives, midwives-in-training, or otherwise associated with the center. She said she felt if more people knew the many vital functions provided by foreskin, “they’d be less likely to just cut it off.”
The discussion went smoothly enough until one of the women (who had noticeably drawn a wide berth around our booth earlier) joked how this conversation “would never happen in her family.”
“Oh, can you tell me why?” Amber asked.
She explained how her husband had to be circumcised at age thirteen and he wouldn’t even consider keeping their boys intact. She said she didn’t really know the reason why he ‘needed’ a circumcision, but Amber could’ve likely guessed correctly.
In our parents’ generation (and still today), medical providers wrongly instructed for babies and children to be retracted and cleaned or scrubbed underneath their foreskin. As the penis is a single unit in infancy and childhood rather than made of separate ‘parts,’ one can imagine the host of chronic issues caused by overzealous, invasive cleaning.
(Do we pry apart the hymen of a baby girl to cleanse inside her vagina? No, and the equivalent practice for boys is similarly impractical and absurd).
Even with this, unfortunately she didn’t seem amenable to serious consideration of Amber’s points.
Another young midwife trainee admitted, “The process just doesn’t sit well with me… BUT, my Mom used to get really bad yeast infections with my Dad when he was intact. When he got circumcised they went away.”
Her parents ended up adopting two young boys, a circumcised five-year-old and an intact three-year-old. They took him to be circumcised and it was “the most horrific experience,” but her family is still pro-circumcision.
She said seeing her brother walking around, pulling his shorts away from his body and crying, just did not sit well with her. She couldn’t understand why someone would do something like that.
The understanding of normal sexual health is America is shockingly minimal. Amber offered what she learned in her training as a nurse — that yeast overgrowth is caused by poor diet and/or hygiene, not by the presence of normal, functional tissue. These are things we should all know, long before we’re ever confronted with the circumcision decision.
At least the seeds were planted. Thankfully, it did seem as though the cycle of violence might end with her.
Here are more photos from the event. See the event album on Intact Houston’s Facebook page.