Here we gathered, sixty four of us. All affected by circumcision in one way or another, the lucky among us protected from the worst of its damage. Sixty four of us prepared to deliver the message that natural bodies are normal, healthy, and beneficial; to leave the alteration for medical necessity or personal consent.
We were here for Genital Integrity Awareness Week — which, in the great fortune of the 2017 calendar — happened to fall on the same week that female genital cutting was outlawed in the U.S. twenty years ago.
For the past two decades, baby girls have been protected from threat to their genital integrity, but their brothers, sons, nephews and grandsons are still routinely cut in barbaric fashion. Some die, and the rest bear the telltale scar forever.
“I’m happily circumcised!” one man exclaimed as he sauntered past our table with a woman of similar age.
“You didn’t have the choice, you dummy,” retorted an elderly man who followed in the couple’s wake, presumably the father to one of them. His tone evidenced he thought the man’s claim was nonsensical at best, though neither of them appeared to take the message seriously.
I approached a trio of adolescents who had separated from their tour group. One boy read the sticker I handed him and said with a knowing smile, “Oh, I’m good…”
I mentioned restoration and he clarified with a thumbs up: “I mean that didn’t happen to me.”
The other boy told me he “had done research” and it said circumcision has benefits. I suspected he only heard research says such a thing, so I emphasized the importance of verifying credibility and scientific currency of sources.
The girl was incredibly interested and just bursting with questions, but they had to catch up to their group. She took one of every card I had and said she would look into it right away.
A couple walked by. So… very…. slowly…
They almost seemed to move slower the more signs they passed, each one subtly braking their forward motion. They’d been casually chattering but now they fell silent.
The man wore a tiny baby in a front-facing carrier while the woman pushed an empty stroller. Neither could unglue their eyes from the messages on our signs. I couldn’t help but notice their smiles had disappeared, and to wonder if their baby’s stereotypically boyish outfit meant he was a ‘he.’
Was I witnessing a pair of regret parents being forced to relive a mistake? Or regret parents in the making? Had their baby been saved, but knowing the immensity of his luck was still too much to bear up close?
I didn’t know if reaching out to them would help or hurt, especially as they made a point to pass us twice along the farthest end of the walkway from our demonstration. I didn’t want to see the baby’s face. I didn’t want to cry.
This was going to be a conversation they’d need to have later on their own. Judging from the intensity in their expressions and heaviness in their step, I think it was going to be an unavoidable one.
In the final moment before the new family strolled out of view, the woman paused to snap a photo of a few signs. Still not smiling, she returned to her husband, who had looked away as she captured the display on camera.
I met a German man who felt shell-shocked by the mere concept of circumcision. I handed him a sticker about the legality of male infant circumcision in the U.S.
“I’m from Germany. We don’t do that. I mean, it’s easy to keep clean. I just don’t get it!” he said.
I explained how female genital cutting is illegal here, and the double standard is absurd (as double standards go).
“Well, but that [female circumcision] is SO terrible,” he said with a hand clutched to his heart. “At least with the male [circumcision], it still works.”
He didn’t know male genital cutting removes half the penile skin that would’ve been present in adulthood. He didn’t realize it’s not ‘just a snip.’ When you change form, you change function regardless of sex.
Even he, a man raised and educated in a pro-intact culture, had believed the cutting of one sex was not equivalent to the other in scope, severity of damage, and potential validity.
Hence the importance of sharing knowledge even with those who aren’t at risk of consenting to circumcision of their babies.
Three young college-aged kids howled with laughter and loudly mocked each sign they passed. The young man offered only lightly amused chuckles (but interestingly no commentary) while the two girls exaggerated their sniggering and snapped photos of each sign, presumably to ridicule later.
Then they reached the oversize poster of a baby suffering through genital cutting.
“Of ALL the things to protest! Hahaha!” one girl shrieked, clearly at the peak of her entertainment.
I could hardly believe a person faced with this image could react by cackling. It was like we weren’t even there. It was like that baby — that very real baby — wasn’t even there.
I ran after them with a handful of ‘YouTube: Elephant in the Hospital‘ stickers.
“Hey, you should really look into this. It’s a deep rabbit hole… you’ll really learn a lot you didn’t know before.”
One of the girls looked at me like I was crazy but went along with it to appease me. When I turned to walk away, she and her friends read the sticker and proved their supply of belly-laughs was in fact without limits.
My point wasn’t to change their minds with a mere seconds-long exchange; the goal was to give them something to talk about later on. At least one would check out the video in hopes of continuing the joke, but that seed of questioning would’ve been planted.
“Why not do a circumcision as a baby?” asked a doctor from China. He assumed we were advocating for waiting to perform the surgery later in life.
I told him foreskin has many functions and is important to keep intact throughout life.
He kept asking, “What does it do?” He wasn’t challenging me. He was actually open to learning.
“I need to know,” he said. “I’m a doctor so I should learn this.”
I asked if they educated about the anatomy and purposes of foreskin in medical school and he said, “Yes… Well, uh… no.”
Apparently all they teach is how to cut it off.
An African American woman paused by our table with her two daughters. She was receptive to our platform at first, then the conversation took an argumentative turn as she clung to her disproven beliefs about hygiene.
“What about infections?” asked a teenage boy.
“Well, what about them?”
“You get more infections if you’re not circumcised…”
There’s really no perfect way to concisely address this unfounded myth. Sometimes I simply say “That’s a myth” and explain how foreskin protects against infection with coverage of the meatal opening, naturally balanced pH, smegma production, and so on.
I explain how the epidemic of misguided intact care (forced retraction and overzealous cleaning) directly causes infection.
Sometimes I bid them to consider whether they’d circumcise a daughter to prevent infection or if they’d defer to antibiotics instead?
I also might reference the study that showed a slight increase in UTI risk among intact males — a statistically insignificant difference that’s only applicable for the first year of life (and would theoretically decrease with proper intact care — no retraction).
In countries where men remain intact for life, interestingly the dreaded ‘foreskin infection’ is not some sweepingly common issue like that feared by Americans.
“You cut mine off?”
A young boy looked distraught and refused to make eye contact with his mother.
“Don’t you remember it? You had to have it because it was too tight.”
He ran to his father, half hiding behind him, still staring only at the ground and visibly upset.
Together the family made their way down the Capitol stairs and walked past the other signs, all unavoidable. The mother wrapped an arm around her older daughter’s shoulder and said, “It should be their choice because it’s their body.”
Wise words from a compassionate mother. Unfortunately, their situation sounded like a classic case of ‘the phony phimosis diagnosis,’ which you can read more about here.
I watched a South American father teach his young son what circumcision is. The young boy had asked a question after passing an image of a baby being circumcised. He wanted to know what was happening to that baby.
His father explained using fingers and gestures how foreskin covers the glans. Despite the disturbing nature of the subject matter that sparked this conversation, it was a tender father-son moment.
With an affectionate squeeze of his boy’s shoulders, the pair walked away apparently feeling better about their own situation.
“This is why we’re here.”
It was a popular introductory line to catch the attention of passersby (thanks for the suggestion, Danelle Frisbie!) while handing them an info sticker or card.
My 4.5-year-old enjoyed gifting stickers to tourists, too. He said “This is for you!” and won over many hearts with little effort.
A father, mother, and their two adolescent sons were very intrigued by the materials on our table. They didn’t say much, but they seemed perfectly comfortable allowing their boys to freely explore the stickers, cards, and bracelets.
The father gave his sons a pat on the back as they did so.
“It’s too late for these two.”
“Well, there’s restoration!”
A pair of college-aged males took notice of our Intact Celebrities card. I encouraged them to take one, but they seemed embarrassed and hesitant.
“Maybe one of your friends would like to see it?”
“Yeah, sure, probably a friend…”
They quickly grabbed one, smirked, and walked away with the freebies — either for a friend or ‘for a friend.’
“But what about religion/tradition?”
We encountered many Jewish families, students, and tourists, most of whom were referred to speak to Sandy, a Jewish genital autonomy advocate who joined us for the GIAW event.
TDD spoke with a Jewish man. He said this individual was the most upset he’d seen all weekend.
“But it’s tradition!” the man protested.
“What if I cut an arm off as a tradition? How much penis is too much penis to cut off a baby?”
TDD talked to a Jewish woman and her accompanying male friend (or partner). From her point of view, “a parent’s religion trumps human rights.”
She said, “You shouldn’t tell people what to do.”
TDD replied, “We agree on that.”
TDD was interviewed by two young boys who said they were documenting their trip for a project.
“What about religion?” they asked.
Babies aren’t born religious after all. Digging deeper, one finds circumcision isn’t a requirement for any religion.
Find out the history and truth: Judaism & Circumcision Resources / Christianity & Circumcision Resources / Intact Muslim Network
“Would you like to talk about penises today?”
Worded politely enough yet still an uncomfortable prospect for many — sometimes there’s no better way to break the ice.
Judging by their expressions of curiosity and openness to new information, many young folks were especially drawn in by the promise of discovering ‘what they don’t want you to know.’
An African man said he chose to get circumcised as an adult and “immediately realized it was a big mistake.”
He said, “Now I’m just miserable.”
I empathized with his situation and suggested he stop by our table to check out the restoration devices. He didn’t even know foreskin restoration was an option.
I explained how it would be impossible to replace many of the normal mechanisms of foreskin, but some important functions could be regained to help prevent the negative effects of circumcision that come with increased age. Restoration takes commitment and time, but any little bit can make a measurably worthwhile difference.
TDD happened to chat with him afterward and gave him an O-ring to take home.
A pair of young male students approached: one an intact European, the other circumcised and presumably American. TDD explained gliding action and other functions of foreskin that the European might take for granted. He gave the other one an O-ring to take home and test out in case he wished to restore.
We opened the window for many people and sent others farther down the rabbit hole of waking up to the horror of genital cutting. Then sometimes we found ourselves preaching to the choir.
More than once, my offer of free information was met with: “Nah, I agree. Save your card!”
A mother walked up with her children and husband. Beaming and excited, she enthusiastically thanked us for being there. I offered cards and stickers for her to disperse to friends, but she declined: “Don’t worry, I already talk to EVERYONE about this. They all hear it!”
A couple from North Korea wanted to know if we were “for or against” circumcision. At first we struggled to overcome a language barrier as I attempted to explain how we supported autonomy and the value of intact genitalia. In the end they were able to shed their discomfort with our demonstration upon realizing we did not condone infant genital cutting. With relief, they admitted they agree and they don’t do that where they come from.
I met an advocate from New York City who practically bounced over to us. She said she learned about this movement online and educates members of pregnancy and baby forums. I told her she could find other local advocates by connecting with the Intact New York chapter (find your local chapter here). The more voices that speak out, the farther the pro-autonomy message spreads and the fewer regret parents.
A man in his 50s or 60s said he has a 28-year-old son. Before his child was born, he’d heard the impact of circumcision upon sex was like taking a shower with a raincoat on. So he decided he’d “give that to him.” He remembers getting “a lot of pushback” in those days, and felt happy to see he made the right choice.
TDD talked to this sweet couple in their 20s. The young man said he’d held many debates with his mother about this and was happy to see us out there. It wasn’t clear whether he was a victim of genital cutting himself, but it was safe to assume any of his future children would be spared the unnecessary trauma.
After demonstrating at the Capitol, we marched to the White House with our chosen signs and a few of us hauled banners with positive, pro-foreskin messages.
We walked and walked. Slow enough for onlookers to read our signs in full. Spread out to catch the attention of those traveling by foot and car in all directions, with a hand in a pocket stuffed with info cards, hopeful they’d make it into the wanting palm of a curious passerby.
Eventually our awareness-raising caravan of men, women and children reached the White House. We had walked for autonomy and now we would stand for it.
Tourists snapped photos of us — some intentionally, some accidentally as they attempted to get a clear shot of the Presidential residence behind us.
Two middle-aged women stared at our display of signs and appeared to be exchanging thoughtful comments with each other.
“Here are stickers for you! Do you have any questions?” I asked.
“Um… yeah. What’s an intersex baby?”
“Babies born with ambiguous genitalia or both sexes’ genitalia. They’re as common as redheads.” (Also interesting to note: intersex people outnumber those with cystic fibrosis, a condition most of us have heard of).
“And they make them have surgery as babies? I didn’t know that….”
“Sadly that’s often the case,” I said. “But there is nothing wrong with intersex genitalia so it shouldn’t be altered unless the owner of the body decides to do so…”
“Yeah, that makes sense.”
“… just like circumcision of babies,” I added.
“Well, but that’s done for medical reasons.”
“Actually there are no valid medical reasons for routine genital cutting of any children. Medical professionals in our culture weren’t taught about the value and purposes of intact genitalia in the past, but thankfully some of them are now catching up to speed.”
“Huh. Yeah. This is interesting for sure.”
At the White House, a small group of young women (early college age) were quietly discussing our sign-wielding members amongst themselves.
I approached them with ‘YouTube: Elephant in the Hospital’ stickers, told them to check it out on YouTube, and asked if they had any questions.
“So you’re saying they should get circumcised when they’re not babies?”
This was the first time they’d ever heard of the concept of not circumcising. As we continued talking, I suspected this may have been their introduction to the raw reality of what circumcision is: a genital cutting surgery — not a normal state of the genitalia, not a natural ‘type’ of genitalia.
“I’m saying circumcision is not necessary at any point in life. Foreskin has many functions, it’s a valuable part of the body.”
“Uh, it has… functions?!“
Do you know a genital cutting victim who stands up for future children’s right to genital autonomy?
Be sure to thank him for doing so. It takes a great amount of bravery not only to confront what was taken from him, but also to speak out in attempt to prevent it from happening to others.
These men continued standing even when an angry passerby gave them the middle finger; they kept standing for the silent onlookers who finally realized the harmful impact circumcision makes upon real people.
Thank you, men.
Babies who survive an attack upon their bodily autonomy will one day grow into men. They might grow into one of the many men who do complain about being circumcised, or may one day take the place of these men who held Circumstraints above their heads last week in front of the nation’s Capitol.
These men didn’t ask for a reason to protest.
These men didn’t ask to be advocates.
These men didn’t ask to be made examples.
More than anything, they didn’t ask to undergo genital cutting.
“This is powerful.”
The policeman’s proximity to the long line of decorated onesies made us nervous… until he spoke.
The sight was indeed conspicuously haunting. Each onesie, empty of a body, strung up along the Capitol wall, in remembrance of the more than 117 babies who die as a result of circumcision every year in the U.S. alone (other estimates put the number at 225).
Each onesie symbolizes an individual life lost to circumcision. A onesie perhaps with likeness to the first clothing to dress the baby in real life — tinier than you’d expect, fit for the most helpless of bodies, the first and perhaps last item they’d ever wear on this Earth.
These babies die before they can be held long enough by their mothers; before they can hold their bodies up on their own or walk or speak; maybe even before they can feel the warmth of sunlight; before they can hear the adoring coos of all their relatives who wanted so badly to meet them; before every life milestone they deserved to have.
They die because of misinformation, prevailing myths, cognitive dissonance, and the refusal to question.
When a single baby dies in a carseat or a bouncer, the product is recalled immediately. At least a hundred baby boys die in the U.S. every year at the hands (and clamps and probes and scissors) of circumcision and yet our nation still hasn’t recalled male infant circumcision.
Why isn’t the ghost inside a single onesie more than enough?
See more photos from Genital Integrity Awareness Week: Saving Our Sons, Intact Houston, and Intact Connecticut albums.
If you weren’t able to make it to D.C. for GIAW, you can participate in the next upcoming event by joining or hosting a Grand Intact Stand location near you! Visit the website and Facebook page for details.
Beautifully written account of a moving experience. It’s such a study in human behavior to see the responses: the anger, the shame, the secrecy parents wish this to remain in. It’s inspiring to see the thumbs up, the “I agree with you” comments and to hear “I’m not cut” or “I didn’t do that to my baby”. This is an emerging human rights issue and those brave enough to face the truth will change lives for so many to come. Thank you, fellow activists, fellow compassionate souls. One of the best perks of adulthood is the power to choose your family. My fellow human rights activists have become family to me and I cherish them. We have important work to do and it’s so much better together with other kindred fellow travelers.
Wow amazing article! Thanks for sharing!
“What about infections?” asked a teenage boy.
“Well, what about them?”
“You get more infections if you’re not circumcised…”
Easy answer! Infections are a fantasy of US physicians. They spread it to unwitting new parents who agree to circumcision and the doctor gets a hefty fee from insurance company. Don’t fall for it. If the one in a million chance does come along, the infection is easy to treat . . . for an honest doctor and earnest parents. Don’t accuse the boy of evil thoughts causing an infection in his “evil” foreskin. Just take care of it! In fact, intact boys may have less infections; no one has actually studied that possibility. Millions of intact men and boys in Europe do not have the fantastic infections predicted for USA boys if they are left intact.