What We Talk About When We Talk About How We Talk About Circumcision


ON OCTOBER 9, The Good Men Project published a piece entitled “Please Respect Our Circum-Decision.” The author, Renee Lute, asks for tolerance regarding the decision to circumcise her son, writing “I could not care less whether other people circumcise their sons or not. Do it if you want! Don’t if you don’t want! But I am begging you—begging you—to not make families who choose to circumcise their sons feel like they are abusers of children, or human rights violators.”

Ms. Lute says she has read blistering assaults against parents on other threads about circumcision. “I wasn’t prepared,” she writes, “for some of the name-calling I found … Terms like ‘pro-cutters,’ ‘circumcision enthusiasts,’ and ‘mouth breathing Americans who have circumcised their sons…’” At 198 comments and counting, the tone of responses to Ms. Lute’s plea at TGMP are mostly polite. Some express anger and frustration in a measured way. Others are so straightforward as to seem emotionless. One commenter, identified as “Dave” (October 9, 2013 at 6:51 pm), responds, “I’m really glad to read the comments to this article; on the whole they are respectful while pointing out just how misguided the author is in her rationale… I would agree that it is important to keep a respectful tone in discussion, but I do not for a minute respect the opinion itself and won’t defer to it.”

To be civil and to be critical are not mutually exclusive. One can criticize, disagree and argue without ugly language. Yes, I’ve seen the kinds of attacks she references: responses which lend credence to the idea that Intactivists are so uncivil as to make their defense of the innocents seem incongruous. But for someone who is already on the defensive, even the most logical argument may feel like an attack. Outrage, however nobly expressed, is threatening to anyone with buried doubts. When Ms. Lute calls for “respect” for her decision, what she is really asking is not to be criticized at all.

The concept of righteous anger, which exists in Eastern and Western cultures, religions and philosophies, is at the root of most activism: channeled anger leading to positive change. But what happens when anger impedes discourse? As someone who opposes non-consensual circumcision, I must check my own anger before reading articles in favor of genital cutting. Usually the Intactivist movement, which opposes routine infant circumcision, is treated with condescension. Men who feel they have been harmed by circumcision are dismissed by men (“my penis works just fine”) and women (“put on your big-boy pants, uncut dicks are gross”) alike. Parents defend their choice to circumcise, holding parental rights above a child’s genital integrity. Intactivists are called loons, conspiracy theorists and anti-Semitic for refusing to budge on exceptions for religious custom.

The Intactivist fight is based on one thing: allowing the child to grow up and decide for himself. Conversely, parents who have given the matter careful consideration are interested in the well-being of their sons. These parents claim, among many reasons, that circumcision, routine in America but NOT in a majority of the world, is necessary for a boy’s health. (Intactivists say this is not so, as do the medical societies of most European nations, Australia and Canada.) For an Intactivist, the instinct to nurture a child negates anything which might harm him: cutting off an infant boy’s foreskin is anathema.

On the other end of the spectrum is the parent whose decision starts with “Ewww… it’s weird,” as if the human body isn’t just plain weird all over. Parents defend their choice across a spectrum from “Ew” to “Medical necessity,” but all cling to the right to make choices for their children, even though that right is not unlimited.

Pediatric associations of most European nations, as well as Australia and Canda, advise against routine infant circumcision.

Pediatric associations of most European nations, as well as Australia and Canada, advise against routine infant circumcision.

No one I know argues that a parent is not responsible for the child’s well-being. Health care choices, schooling, nutrition – parents accept all of these responsibilities in an unspoken contract when they decide to bear children. But do they have unlimited freedom? No. The law prohibits parents from putting a child in harm’s way. Georganne Chapin, the founding executive director of Intact America, says: “We do not own our children. Our responsibility is to protect their rights, not to violate their rights.”

The necessity for surgical intervention is much lower than Americans believe. Even as I try to understand the rationale of the other side, I must skip reading articles about circumcision because my own anger is just too much. The arguments are always the same: circumcision lowers instances of urinary tract infections (when infant girls suffer UTI’s they are treated with antibiotics, not surgery); it lowers instances of sexually transmitted disease (as if an infant is going to be sexually active); it prevents phimosis (an anatomical malfunction treatable without surgery); he’ll never remember it (probably, but we don’t fully understand what happens to buried trauma); it doesn’t hurt (because a baby has nerves everywhere but in his penis?); it’s cleaner (because you can’t be bothered teaching your child to wash?); most guys are glad they are circumcised (anecdotal – anyway, an assumption is not a good reason to cut off a part of your son’s penis); I want him to look like his dad (because they’re going to compare penises???); what if he is made fun of by other children (if a bully wants to bully, he will find a way); and, finally, I’m the parent so it’s my choice.

The notion of pre-emptive surgery for issues which are a) minor; b) easily treated without amputation; or c) unlikely to occur, is unconscionable to those of us who believe in genital integrity. But the topic of genital integrity triggers a shut-down in which parents’ choice is the most important thing. This is when the debate can turn shrill.

When I reposted Ms. Lute’s article for the benefit of compatriots in the Intactivist community, I asked for civility when responding. Like the comments on The Good Men Project article, some were angry, but none bore the venom I have seen in other forums. One friend said, “I can’t be civil so I’ll hold my tongue.” I understood that answer. It’s a respectful one. Unable to suppress the blinding rage described by some men, he chose instead to share with those of us who understand.

A circumstraint, used to immobilize the infant while the foreskin is amputated.

A circumstraint, used to immobilize the infant while the foreskin is amputated.

Strong language is used in rebuttal. Some use the term ritual cutting, genital cutting or Male Genital Mutilation (MGM the parallel term to FGM which is applied to women.) “Amputation” sounds horrific but it is the clinical term. Other men feel as if they have been raped. This is not euphemism. Euphemism serves neither side and making someone else feel comfortable is not the goal. The goal is to present the facts, no matter how difficult they may be. Intactivists say parents considering circumcision for their newborn should witness one before making the decision.  If you can’t face the the truth, how will you parent?

Ms. Chapin’s opinion on the conversation is that “…the opportunity is in educating the readers – not addressing the parents who made and are defending the decision to circumcise their son. Perhaps some of those reading the comments will listen to the human rights arguments for leaving children’s bodies intact.”

I do my best to follow her philosophy. I do not try to shock, cajole or berate; I simply present the facts. One cannot know what will trigger another person. Keeping the conversation civil while sharing a contrary point of view can be done with non-combative language, though if someone is triggered even the most respectful tone can seem like an attack.

Whether or not you like the way it looks, this is way men are made.

Whether or not you like the way it looks, this is the way men are made.

About Tom Gualtieri

Tom Gualtieri (@TomGGualtieri)is a theatre artist with his hand in many disciplines: lyricist, playwright, performer, director, knitter. He maintains an ongoing collaboration with composer David Sisco. His solo play, That Play: A Solo Macbeth, was nominated for a 2013 Drama Desk Award.
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14 Responses to What We Talk About When We Talk About How We Talk About Circumcision

  1. Chris Changnoi Lacy says:

    If you were observing a conversation between rape advocates about how rape was good, and witnessed a rape victim spewing vitriol against advocates of her abuse, would or could you tell her that she was being an ineffective opponent of rape culture or that she was “harming the cause?” If you answered “no” to this question and still agree with the author of this article, you might be a sexist. And no, it’s not hyperbolic to call male genital mutilation rape: if someone clamped hemostats onto your genitals and forced a probe into them, you’d be shouting rape real quick, I reckon.

    Those who silence victims of male genital mutilation are part of the problem. Period.

    • Are you saying it’s not possible to get one’s point across without abuse, derision and contempt? I would have to disagree there.

      Victims have every right to their feelings. That is simply not in question.

      Rather, this piece is meant to discuss what is the most effective means of communication. Anger can be expressed without aggression. I don’t believe that spewing vitriol is a well-chosen tactic – it distracts from the issue and derails conversation. You’ve probably seen it in dozens (if not hundreds) of internet forums.

      Though it may be temporarily satisfying to unleash and unload, I think it is the least effective way of getting one’s point across, causing a debate to devolve away from the primary goal which is to affect change.

      • Chris Changnoi Lacy says:

        Take my words at face value and quite literally. Can you imagine yourself telling a female victim of sexual assault that her vitriol derails the conversation or distracts from the issue? I cannot imagine myself thinking or saying such a thing because it’s not true. Well, if it’s not true for her, then what makes it true for a male victim? Sexism is the only possible answer.

        Looked at another way, in retrospect has a female’s complaint about her assault EVER derailed the conversation or distracted from the issue that rape is wrong? I cannot think of a single example wherein that’s the case. I have actually dug around trying to find examples of this kind of claim which were not universally abhorred. No luck.

        That we cannot see this level of sexism speaks volumes about why and how forced infant male genital mutilation is still accepted while forced infant female genital mutilation is not.

        • You seem fixed on the erroneous idea that a rape victim (or any victim of violence) is being asked not to express him/herself. Because the hypothetical is going to draw us into a straw man debate, I will reiterate my point: No one is asking a victim to remain silent.

          The topic is not sexism, nor is it rape, it is the way we choose to communicate, even through our anger. If I were engaged in a discussion and the other person become emotionally irrational, I would ask him or her to please find a way to calm down. I’m not talking about a “heated” debate, emotional clarity or clearly expressed rage – I’m talking about language of such hostility and violence that it makes me question the sanity of the commentor.

          Recently, in a debate thread on another circumcision article, I saw this: “this woman should have her clit cut off and see if that changes her mind.” I do not think this is acceptable simply because it may have been spoken by a victim.

          I reiterate: the feelings of the victims are not in question. The manner in which we choose to communicate is.

          Anger? Certainly acceptable. Verbal abuse? Absolutely not.

          • Chris Changnoi Lacy says:

            “That rapist should have his (balls/dick) cut off.” is used quite often without criticism.

          • Hugh has already pointed out that constant use of the rape analogy is a straw man. I agree that circumcision is like rape – and that the sexual assault is parallel. However, I’m having a hard time understanding why we are debating whether or not people should be polite to each other in a debate – no matter how emotional.

            I’m going to leave it at that because you seem determined to argue the point that foul and violent language is acceptable. I have already pointed out that I feel clear, direct and clinical language is different from assaultive and violent language – even in the case of rape – so I have nothing further to add.

            Thanks for reading and for sharing your opinion.

  2. Hugh7 says:

    But there are no “rape advocates” who say rape is good, so this conversation is doubly hypothetical. There are advocates of female genital cutting who say that is good, but I see no vitriol from victims who reply to them, only very vivid descriptions of (the worst varieties of) the procedure, rarely from victims, more often from people who have probably never seen it.

    When slavery was normal, the debate about it was so far as I know respectful throughout, but it was a different age, and slaves had no voice.

    We should acknowledge we are entering new territory here, challenging a cultural norm that has been until recently conducted under a veil of silence, trivialised and minimised. (Some of that could be said about rape, but I see no articles headed “To Rape Or Not To Rape?”)

    And circumcision defenders (at least on Facebook) seem very ready to perceive attacks where there are none. Many claim to have been called bad parents (sometimes spelt out in considerable fabricated detail) when all that was said was that circumcising is a bad thing to do. Sometimes not even that, just a detailed outline of its risks and harms.

    • Thanks for taking up my point, Hugh.

      Like the point I make in the essay, some parents feel attacked whether or not they have been. Conversely, I have seen vitriolic and even violent language (on both sides) which is both uncalled-for and purposeless. Naturally, as human beings, our buttons get pushed and we sometimes shout, cry out, and let our anger get the better of us. Especially when we’re fighting for the defenseless, it is hard NOT to get angry.

      My piece is an acknowledgement that triggers happen on BOTH sides. Just because we feel (and I strongly believe) that the pro-circ camp is wrong doesn’t mean we should allow ourselves to become irrational. If we do – the debate is lost.

  3. Infant Circumcision should be a thing looked upon with revolt and the parent who has it done should feel deep personal shame.

    It is sexual abuse of a child. it is rape.


  4. Michelle says:

    People respond defensively because they have deep-seated guilt that is usually not recognized as such. I believe that those who circumcise their children defend it vigorously because somewhere in their psyche they know it is wrong. Or, they have no idea what circumcision really involves, how much tissue is removed, how much suffering their child is enduring, etc. They believe it is a “minor” procedure. No one wants to believe they harmed their child, so it is much easier to dismiss it as no big deal. Physicians do the same thing. How else are they to cope with the real trauma they are causing??
    I have rarely seen the anti-circ crowd “attack” those who circumcise except with statements of fact. I hardly think calling someone a “circumcision enthusiast” or “pro-cutter” to be angry name-calling. These are just accurate descriptions. You are correct in stating that any criticism of them is considered an attack on them personally. I have no tolerance for those who cannot stand someone criticising their beliefs. It just means they have not thought things through well at all. Maybe they should stick their heads in the sand and continue being fundamentalists in their warped thinking. I think it bothers them that many of us can actually quote facts and research. Makes them look like idiots.

    • You’ve hit it, Michelle and I agree with you. I also believe that listening to someone like Elizabeth Noble in the video below makes me sit up and take notice. Her sheer rationality and lack of hysteria makes the plain, educated and very strong case against cutting.


    • Andrew says:

      Speaking from the opposite side of the issue (I’m a circumcision proponent), I suggest that for circumcision opponents, your strongest argument is when you argue for bodily integrity — a right of the child to decide for himself. Your weakest arguments are claiming that parents who defend their decision are trying to compensate for some deep-seated guilt, or that men who are not unhappy with having been circumcised as infants are repressing feelings of anger, betrayal, inadequacy, etc.

      Projecting your own views of circumcision on circ. proponents is mere speculation. Opponents seem to assume that a reasonable person could only view circumcision as a human rights violation, and a negative response is the only true human reaction to learning that one was circumcised as an infant. You explain to yourselves that the only reasons that a reasonable person could be unable to see the light are: ignorance of the facts, blind allegiance to one’s religion, an attempt to justify one’s own circumcision, or guilt over a decision to circumcise one’s son(s). While I personally find the bizarre assumptions opponents frequently make about me and other proponents to be amusing, they actually waste time and do nothing to advance the discussion.

      In terms of personal attacks, I’ve been called a fetishist, a child abuse/rape defender, and a monster. I think that a discussion cannot produce agreement or understanding until we set aside ad hominem arguments and assertions and stop trying to dictate to each other what they believe “deep down.” Let’s stick to the facts and the evidence, and see where they lead us. Agreed?

  5. Richard Russell says:

    Bottom line, in my view, civility is always better than rancor and vitriol. What is missing so far is mention of how some advocates of genital integrity have been viciously attacked by circumcision proponents: then the former succumb to the urge to answer in kind. They should not, of course; but they should be understood in that context. We are in a transition era. The old cultural icon of the partially amputated penis is losing sway; stinging insinuations of inferiority directed at whole boys and men are slowly going away (but still here in full force in some venues). Those who advocate the cut are both afraid and angry (about their loss of dominance), a dangerous mix of emotions, so don’t expect them to always “play nice.” Finally, I’d like to say, as nicely as possible, that the imagined “health benefits” are delusional. One hidden fact is that at least 15% of circumcisions (and possibly as many as 30%) require surgical correction. Far less than 1% of males will ever require surgery to “correct” parental decisions to leave them whole.

  6. George Greene says:

    All this crap about civility is just that — crap. if you haven’t done this yet and are pausing to have this argument before doing it, then you ARE going to get demonized as having abused your son and there IS NOTHING you can do about it. The degree of damage here is nowhere near as extreme as with African clitorodotomy, but the difference is purely a matter of degree AND NOT of kind. You do NOT have any reasons for trying to do what you are doing beyond pure and mere cultural conformity, which is the same reason that the African genital mutilators of girls have. It is simply worthy OF NO respect whatsoever as a reason. That said, there is obviously a cultural and generational shift going on here, and if you were part of the preceding/PASSING (thank God) generation, nobody is talking about demonizing anybody retroactively for what was considered normal/hygienic/aesthetic IN THE PAST. But the POINT is, THAT was THEN. THIS is NOW.

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