I just returned from a trip to Washington D.C. for Genital Integrity Awareness Week, which was March 28th-April 3rd. A week full of seed-planting, countless conversations with principled conclusions, minds changed, futures salvaged… This is my kind of activism!
The mission as stated on the web site is to raise public awareness of:
- the basic human right to genital autonomy for all individuals, regardless of sex
- the damage inflicted by forced genital cutting, of boys, girls and intersex persons
- foreskin restoration options for those impacted by forced genital cutting
- research based information on intact subjects to a large body of individuals in Washington D.C. – students, educators, tourists, lawmakers, politicians – who take this information home with them to their own circles of influence
- the need for congress and lawmakers to grant boys and intersex minors equal rights under law with protection from forced genital cutting
March to the White House
On Saturday we marched to the White House. A police escort helped us safely navigate the almost two mile trek. Countless pairs of eyes fell upon our demonstration and many hands received info cards as we passed.
We lined up in front of the White House, some of us continued to hold banners in this perfect backdrop for tourists’ photo ops, while others propped up signs or embarked into the crowd of curious onlookers, ready to educate one-on-one.
Some got it right away. Others needed a bit of help.
A pair of ladies huddled near a poster of a baby boy undergoing circumcision surgery, whispering to each other. I walked up and asked if they’d ever questioned infant circumcision. One clutched a hand to her mouth.
“I… I had no idea,” she said. “I mean really. Until just now. I had NO clue.”
So we started from scratch. Genital Autonomy means the basic right to decide what happens to your own body. American circumcision is a medicalized practice that has no evidenced basis in medicine. Most of the world’s men are intact, meaning not circumcised. Circumcision causes a host of short- and long-term issues. I could go on. At some point even the basics feel overwhelming.
They said this is a terrible thing and they could hardly believe it. They declined an info card, saying they did not need to know a single thing more to agree. I suggested they take info to pass along instead, and one woman said her sister was trying to get pregnant soon. The rest of our talk related to proper intact care and the dangers of pediatric oversight in regard to normal penile development.
A middle-aged man from Pakistan demanded an explanation. I handed him an info card. “This is why we’re here today.”
“But what’s so wrong about circumcision? Where I’m from, everyone is circumcised.”
As I described the health implications, ethical problems, and more, he interrupted several times to say “But the reason this was originally done was for health reasons,” and “This is just something that started because of cultures wanting it,” and “What about the Jews? If you bring up religion you’re going to have a war on your hands.”
I refuted these claims with the evidence I’ve researched and recited about a thousand times in conversations past (the reason the tradition began in America was to curb masturbation; many other cultures don’t practice it, and those that do usually cite religion; an increasing number of Jews no longer accept infant circumcision, some of whom showed up in support of ending genital cutting).
“I’m not trying to argue with you, sir, I just want to correct some of these myths –”
“You ARE arguing with me. You keep interrupting! I don’t disagree with this, but it will keep happening and there’s nothing wrong with it. You hand me a card like that’s going to change anything.”
He huffily bid me a good day and I watched him walk off. When he reached a safe distance from the demonstration, he pulled out the card and spent several minutes reading it, and I suppose due to finding some value in its words, pocketed it for safekeeping, like change.
I overheard a couple reading signs aloud to each other, and sensed a hint of sniggering in their tone. I offered an info card and asked if they’d ever thought about circumcision.
“Well, I’m circumcised,“ the man said.
I asked if he were intact instead, would he choose to undergo circumcision now? Without pause, he said yes, asserting he knows this is the better way because his friend was circumcised in his early 20s and “became more sensitive.”
Many adult females who undergo circumcision say the same thing. However, this possible experience of hypersensitivity is only short-lived for some months or years. Inevitably the remaining tissues that were meant to be covered will attempt to protect themselves and sacrifice pleasure as a means for survival. Also sensitivity is quite subjective; hypersensitive is not always a desirable thing. If you cut off your eyelid, your eyeball would initially become more sensitive. But that doesn’t exactly sound natural or pleasant, does it?
Hearing this changed something in him. A truth he had clung to, for who knows how long, was now unstable. We talked for a long time about informed consent for bodily alterations, sex as nature intended it, and he walked away with a beginner’s knowledge about foreskin restoration.
American Circumcision Film Screening
The tour premiere of documentary film American Circumcision was held during GIAW, which was quite appropriate given much of the activism footage was taken from previous GIAW events.
I was thrilled to meet director Brendon Marotta as well as Ryan McAllister, creator of An Elephant in the Hospital, a Georgetown University lecture widely shared to help bring people out of the dark about male circumcision.
After a second viewing at the upcoming Houston screening, I’ll share my film review.
“Sir, would you like a card?”
“No, I don’t,” he said. We all braced for a grimace of disapproval.
“I’ve got mine still!” he said as he sauntered off. Our relief turned to joy when he touched his son’s arm, leaned in and said with a wink in his voice, “So do you.”
The family passed us again as they moved away from the Capitol. The father wore the same silly-happy smile from before, pride and reassurance that had yet to wear off. He offered a nod of approval and mouthed “Thank you.”
A mother walked with her school-aged son along a trail of a dozen or so signs in the grass. The woman made a point to hover over each one. Eric approached her with an info card.
She said she was really happy to see us out there because she had kept her son intact. She thought it was very important for him to see this so he would know why she made that decision, and that a lot of other people agree with it.
A teenage boy approached to say he was happy to be circumcised. There’s nothing wrong with being comfortable with one’s own body, however it was pointed out that one’s personal preference shouldn’t be forced routinely on all others. The problem is he didn’t have a choice and that choice is what we’re fighting for.
Personal preference is like a subjective gray area of what’s wrong, right, better, best… but entitlement to control ends where another’s body begins, making freedom of choice nothing but objectively black and white.
A man and woman leaned over the wall of the Capitol walkway, studying our materials pensively.
“It’s a bit weird, isn’t it?” the man said.
I agreed that altering infant genitals was indeed a strange cultural habit, to say the least.
“What do the Rabbis say?” he asked.
I explained how Brit Shalom is a non-cutting ceremony some modern Jewish parents are choosing as an alternative to Brit Milah, and that some Rabbis have spoken about falling out of favor with the cutting tradition.
The man admitted he himself was Jewish, and that’s when I pulled Jewish advocate Sandy Roman over to finish chatting with him.
The last thing he said to me: “Every time I go to a Bris, I really don’t like it. I feel bad. It is really weird what we’re doing to babies.”
A trio of Asian women donated to the cause and accepted a GA pen.
The Intact Celebs binder was popular with men and women alike!
A pair of men were agreeable to the cause from the get-go and said they would let their future children keep their whole bodies.
“Would you like some information on why we’re here?”
“No, we’re here with 8th graders and we’re trying to keep them away from these circumcision signs.”
Why? Should this topic be a secret? When is the appropriate time to learn that boys in our country undergo routine genital surgery? When is it a good time for boys to realize part of them is missing? Should it be kept quiet, to wait for their parents to tell them? Will their parents ever tell them? Do we assume society will socialize the normalcy of altered bodies enough that they never question? Is education only valid when served in a doctor’s office or classroom?
So many questions.
“This is a safe space for learning,” I replied simply.
“We can’t allow that,” one said. “This is inappropriate.”
That we can certainly agree on.
A woman was agreeable to keeping babies intact because, as she stated, “There’s absolutely no reason to do it.” She did initially seem to err on the pro-parents’ choice side though, so she was left with the notion that ‘personal choice’ ends where another’s body begins and it is personal only to the owner of the affected body.
A group of guys entered the lawn laughing, saying they were “all for” circumcision. After engaging in calm, rational discussion, they left wearing pro-autonomy bracelets and saying “Guess I won’t be doing that…” (to future sons). Their minds were easily changed without any yelling, threats, manipulation, sales pitches, or shaming.
We want individuals to not only abandon their cognitive dissonance and understand the truth about circumcision, but to feel proud and empowered in their new perspective.
A mother exclaimed as she passed, “I guess I failed as a mother then!”
She was reassured that she is not a failure; the medical system failed her.
She did not wish to admit being a regret parent in front of her son, but she did say she supported our right to speak up for what we believe in and appreciated our passion for spreading awareness.
Karen employs her handy anatomy textbook to explain how the male glans, naturally covered by foreskin, is meant to be moist, self-lubricating mucosal tissue — textured like the inner cheek, vaginal canal, or eyeball. Circumcision strips the organ of its ability to fulfill this function and thus keratinizes (dries out) over time.
A young German woman wished to learn more about this cause as non-religious circumcision is virtually unheard of in her country.
In my advocacy experience so far, it seems Europeans tend to go one of a few ways: 1) they’re strongly and openly against the practice, 2) they say “what’s the big deal” and shrug, because they take genital autonomy for granted, 3) they claim neutrality; that infant genital cutting should be left up to the parents and religious freedom.
Because of these possibilities, I believe it’s especially crucial to educate natives of non-cutting cultures about what circumcision really is. Many are shocked to learn how much skin is removed, the number of important structures destroyed, and the fact that it’s most often inflicted upon two-day-old babies who are forcibly restrained without anesthesia.
It’s important for all individuals to help experienced advocates in planting seeds of knowledge — even if they themselves were spared from circumcision torture, even if they would never think to circumcise their own children, even if they were once under the impression that this is a matter of religious rights.
“This is all they’re talking about right now where I’m from.”
The man had been highly interested in our displays for some time before I could introduce our purpose.
“Where are you from?”
For those unaware, Iceland has proposed a ban on circumcision of children of any sex.
“What does the President say about this?” he asked.
I explained how Americans in general don’t seem to be ready for this cause to reach the political sphere, and that we are focusing on grassroots efforts to change minds directly, thereby altering cultural perspective and as a result, hopefully seeing a decrease in circumcision rates.
He seemed dismayed that the cause did not seem to be taken as seriously in America, where infant circumcision is a national epidemic. He said everyone in his country wishes for the ban to pass, however they are all receiving an abundance of hate mail and threats so they don’t protest too loudly about it. Many fear being targeted as anti-Semitic.
I expressed my own opinion that calling infant genital cutting a human rights violation is the opposite of anti-Semitic. Arguably, a refusal to stand up for the rights of Jewish babies is a far greater injustice to them.
Consider this: At one time or another, different areas of the world have banned ritual animal sacrifice for religion. Yet somehow the ritual sacrifice of human infant foreskin for religion is continually excused.
What’s Foreskin Restoration?
This man received an in-depth education on natural penile anatomy.
“Yeah, so I don’t get any of that. Man. It really sucks.”
That was my cue to jump in: “Have you heard of restoration?”
Thankfully, hope awaited mere feet away at the Men’s Health table featuring a display of restoration options!
We welcome any restoration device makers to have their materials included at future Men’s Health tables. Items can be sent to Saving Our Sons (with a business card) to be included. They will be seen by thousands year after year!
Saving Our Sons
P.O. Box 1302
Virginia Beach, VA 23451
Future Baby Savers
I love the family-friendliness of this event. It makes sense; we are here for children first and foremost. The Capitol lawn is extremely safe, video-monitored, patrolled by watchful security. Advocates’ children of various ages were able to run freely, enjoy an Easter Egg hunt, find new gaming buddies, hand out cards and stickered flags to passersby, help man the tables, and my son learned about PVC pipe construction while shadowing Intact Connecticut director Brian as he set up banners.
MS, age 5, noticing me two weeks ago in Intact Houston’s radio interview video:
- “Is that you?”
- Me: “Yes, I was on the radio.”
- MS: “What were you singing?”
- Me: “I was talking actually.”
- MS: “About what?”
- Me: “I was telling people about circumcision.”
- MS: “What is that again?”
- Me: “Cutting part of a baby’s penis off.”
- MS: “People cut baby’s penises off?”
- Me: “Just part of it. But they don’t know better, so we wanted to tell them how they don’t need to.”
- MS: “Even if it’s just part of it… that’s not a good idea… People really do that?!”
We’ve talked about this, age-appropriately, over the years (starting with when he walked in on his Dad restoring). I think he forgets our conversations from time to time, so it’s always like new information to him. Interesting how children have a natural reaction of shock and distaste for the tradition.
After, I said this is why we’ll be in D.C. this week, to talk to more people about how they don’t need to do that to their babies.
On our first day at the lawn of the Capitol, we saw this poster.
- MS: “Mommy…?”
- Me: “Yes?”
- MS, visibly worried: “What is he doing to that baby?”
- Me: “Remember we talked about how some people cut off part of a baby’s penis?”
- MS: “Yes…”
- Me: “That’s what he is about to do.”
- MS: “That’s not good.”
- Me: “We’re here to show people why they don’t need to do this, and how it hurts the baby.”
- MS: “Yes, that hurts. He doesn’t want that.”
- Me: “What do you think about what we’re telling people?”
- MS: *thumbs up*
“What a bunch of morons!” a man jeered as he snapped dozens of photos on his phone.
A Muslim man boasted he prefers cut women “because they’re more responsive and cleaner. Where I’m from we cut boys and girls and I’m proud of it!”
Thankfully, the skeptics and scoffers were far outnumbered by open supporters, and even the disagreeable folks were met with calm rationale. It’s clear that a positive, pro-intact message is more often the mind-opener than an aggressive, exclusively anti-circumcision one.
I felt proud to stand with these advocates. They presented information sensitively, were particular about dispensing professional and quality materials, and were determined to fully inform all interested individuals — yet respectful of the fact that many wished only to observe, not yet ready to engage.
We wanted people to trust we are willing to meet them where they’re at in their journey toward realization, because we truly believe this is most effective.
In Memory of 100+ U.S. Deaths Per Year
Genital cutting of minors isn’t a political issue, it’s a human rights issue. As humans, we can all come together to speak out regardless of other factors and beliefs.
No red herring issue is relevant here, and in fact they are harmfully distracting and divisive. No, GA advocates don’t all vote for the same political candidate, we don’t agree on all approaches to activism, we don’t have the same weekday occupations, we don’t even subscribe to the same family and parenting values.
We all came to D.C. for one thing only: to represent the interests of children at risk of circumcision. One thing only it may be, but to the 1 in 6 men worldwide who are circumcised, it may be everything. To the 117+ baby boys who die from circumcision every year in the U.S., tragically, it may be nothing. We couldn’t save them, after all. But we’ll be damned if we won’t try saving their brothers and cousins by doing at least this one thing.
Our platform is that all people deserve equal protection from unconsented genital alteration. If you don’t think that’s a significant enough violation of its own, we really have our work cut out for us. Motivation comes in many forms, indeed.
Men Do Complain
A mass of excited teenagers huddled on the Capitol end of the lawn. We distributed info cards to as many as we could, then I stepped to the side to watch the Circumstraint demonstration in progress a number of feet away.
One teenage boy stood in my shadow as we observed the photo op, which showed 10 cut men bravely holding infant genital cutting boards above their heads.
His look of horror is one I’ll never forget. Our interaction was the hardest of the whole week, and possibly one of the most gut-wrenching in all my years of advocacy.
“Those are Circumstraints,” I answered his unspoken question matter-of-factly. “That’s what they strap baby boys to when they cut them for circumcision.”
His face washed pale and his features contorted in a way that I worried he was about to get sick.
“Have you ever thought about or questioned circumcision?” I asked the shocked boy, who still hadn’t unglued his eyes from the row of Circumstraints.
“Not until just now,” he said quietly. “Why do people do that?! It doesn’t make any sense.”
“There is no valid reason,” I told him honestly.
We talked for a few more minutes, and it became evident that for however many years he was old, this was his introduction to what circumcision actually was. He was having an increasingly hard time with it, despite my attempt to balance accurate answers to his questions with empathy for the intense impact the demonstration had made upon him.
His eyes were still wide and mouth agape in astonishment when his class was summoned to leave the lawn. By this time he was almost in tears. It was like he’d lost some bit of innocence in these few minutes, and I hated this untimely juncture at which we’d arrived.
Teenagers scurried off in a hurry and he reluctantly made a move to follow. I didn’t want to leave this thread so horribly unraveled, with no hopeful conclusions, so I promised I’d catch up to him with more information. I rushed to our nearest table and grabbed restoration cards, turned around and discovered him taking a detour from his class to join me at the table instead.
I told him there is a thing called restoration, and you can get back some of the functions you’ve never been able to enjoy, so here are resources on that… He beamed so brightly.
“Oh, no way! I’ll look at this! THANKS!”
Parents need to talk to their children about circumcision, age-appropriately, spanning a number of discussions, whether they ended up with their bodily integrity or not. It isn’t fair to let boys grow up not knowing that something significant happened to them, that they weren’t born this way, that circumcision is a euphemism for amputative surgery, not a snip akin to nail trimming. It isn’t fair that when they find out (and they will), it is often all at once, and they’re expected to have figured it out somehow on their own.
It isn’t fair that this boy had to learn the truth from a perfect stranger — but even still, it’s a truth he deserves to know. It is a truth he owns. So much was taken from him already… parents, doctors, society must not keep that from him too.
One day decades ago, when they had grown only small enough to be strapped onto these boards, their course of fate was changed forever. Those new souls had been victimised off their guard, too young yet for the knowledge of destruction, pain, manipulation, mistrust, fear, and deceit. But they would grow older, gain the right words, gather the strength, and show up to save others at risk.
Today, many times outgrown the defenseless newborns they once were, they gripped these torture devices in their hands in protest. No more.
Now, they could crush these instruments with a swift punch, the way their infant selves must have wished was possible. But, if anything, they have surely learned destruction is not the way — after this powerful demonstration, instead they will preserve these boards as tools for widespread education.
- Genital Integrity Awareness Week
- Saving Our Sons
- The Intact Network
- Intact Texas / Intact Houston / Intact Vegan Network