Being Allies Against Male Circumcision

A few days ago Phenicks posted an article in the feministing community about the relationship between circumcision and feminism. She asked:

If one of our rallying cries is bodily autonomy and we’d raise all hell when AAP briefly decided to allow "nicking" of female newborn genitals, does being against male circumcision become a feminist issue on the grounds of bodily autonomy or is it the universal right of a parent to SONS to do with their child’s genitals as they please?

Feminists have been fighting hard for decades for the right to bodily autonomy. We fight for the right to control our fertility and we fight against sexual assault. It’s obvious that feminists should be allies against circumcision, and its downright hypocritical for us not to be. However, we have a long way to go towards being effective allies and ending circumcision.

We need to start by recognizing that cutting up a child’s genitals to make permanent bodily modifications is child abuse. Full Stop.

Once we recognize that circumcision is child abuse, we can start treating it like child abuse. In feminist spaces, we don’t debate about whether other forms of child abuse are acceptable or whether they should be legal. The fact that circumcision is even up for debate is highly offensive and can be triggering for victims.

From here, we can start supporting the Genital Mutilation Prohibition Act, which would prohibit genital mutilation of all children and non-consenting adults. This bill has been proposed to congress every year since 2004, but has yet to gain a sponsor.

We also need to make feminist spaces safe for circumcision victims so that they can speak for themselves. We need to recognize that circumcision debate, pro-circumcision comments, and circumcision apologia can all be triggering for victims, and we need to act by prohibiting these behaviors in feminist spaces.

We can’t honestly call ourselves allies until we start doing these things.

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71 Comments

  1. TD
    Posted June 9, 2010 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Probably because it disturbs people to think that they are in someway missing something. It is uncomfortable to consider ones own parents as child abusers and no guy wants to think of his genitals as abnormal.
    Circumcision was introduced as a way to prevent masturbation and for many guys its worked, and it makes them completely unable to masturbate without lubrication. For some guys so much of the foreskin was removed that they can’t even engage in any type of intercourse without being in pain unless they engage in a restoration process. For other guys the glans will continue keratinizing until they can hardly feel anything during intercourse.
    For a most guys they’re lucky and are only left without feeling as much pleasurable sensation during sex. But after all, they’re guys, they are only allowed to want sex all the time and to never admit any issue with their sex lives. Whats more, if there is an issue, we all know male sexuality is evil so really, why should you care?

  2. Jess Petty
    Posted June 9, 2010 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    Im not really sure, as a 20 year old male that chose to have the surgery at 16, I can honestly say that I would have rather had my parents opt for the surgery when I was an infant.
    1. The cleaning and dressing of it was not something I enjoy recalling.
    2. I was freaking 16, I could not go 30min without getting an erection. I tore 2 stitches that way.
    3. Even though the teasing I had to put up with before the surgery was unnecessary, it still happened. I can only imagine how much worse it could have been had I been unpopular. Because it was already bad enough to have me opt for surgery.
    So yeah, in my particular experience, I would have loved for my parents to just go ahead and get it over with. And im not trying to be dismissive of those who feel violated that the choice was made for them.
    But comparing it to FGM?!? that’s freaking ridiculous. maybe if the surgery had the whole head of my penis removed would the two be comparable.

  3. waterwithoutfish
    Posted June 10, 2010 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    Right off, as a circumcised man, I just want to say that I agree with the basic premise of the OP – that a permanently altering an infant’s body is a violation of hir rights. That being said, y’all have a lot of thinking to do about the way you’re tackling this issue.
    First: using the term “intact” in the context of “I am an intact man” (as opposed to describing an “intact” foreskin) is one of the most dehumanizing things I have ever experienced. I may be less a foreskin, but I am not somehow incomplete or less-than-whole. Would you use “intact” to describe yourself in opposition to someone who had lost an arm, or a leg? No, I didn’t think so. I recognize the need for a word that, unlike “uncircumcised,” describes the men and their penises who have not undergone that procedure without positioning them only as the “un-“ of circumcision, especially given the stigma often attached to them. However, I’m fairly sure you can think up less problematic language. Same goes for “mutilated.” Just roll the phrase “You have mutilated genitals” around your mouth for a while. It’s a pretty damn disgusting thing to say to someone.
    Second: the “which is better?” debate should just stop, because, frankly, it doesn’t matter. No proponent of infant circumcision can offer an argument that positions circumcision as medically necessary and not just desirable. If it’s not medically necessary, it’s a violation of the rights of the child. End of story.
    Third: Don’t be allies against circumcision. Be allies to the children who are deprived of their rights. Circumcision is a perfectly valid body modification when performed on a consenting adult, and any bullshit false consciousness arguments are just that.
    Basically, if you’re gonna be an ally, you need to stop using language that makes circumsized men (although obviously not all of them) feel like you’re telling us that our bodies are wrong. I am circumcised, but I am not mutilated, and I am not less than whole. Do I wish that this was a choice that I had been able to make for myself? Damn right I do. It’s absolutely infuriating that I was deprived of that right. But I have the body I have now, for better or for worse, and there is no way in hell I ain’t gonna love it.

  4. Sex Toy James
    Posted June 10, 2010 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    The market provides a lot of things, but certain things are serving larger demands than others. It’s a way to look at the way that people vote with their dollars. I’m pretty sure that the sales of clitoral sensitizers far outstrips the sales of labiaplasties and genital piercings. I’m not purporting that that justifies circumcising boys at birth, but that it’s not as pressing an issue as female circumcision. Whereas some men are angry about being circumcised, many many are indifferent, and some choose later in life to be circumcised, there’s not a lot of debate over whether women’s clits matter to them. So the issues are hard to equate.
    I’m sure that nothing I can say would make you feel okay about the situation.

  5. ElanaFulana
    Posted June 10, 2010 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    First: using the term “intact” in the context of “I am an intact man” (as opposed to describing an “intact” foreskin) is one of the most dehumanizing things I have ever experienced. I may be less a foreskin, but I am not somehow incomplete or less-than-whole.
    OK.
    “Intact” has become a pretty common word in the “intactivist” movement. Do you have a suggestion for another word?

  6. TD
    Posted June 10, 2010 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    Justifying it is exactly what you are doing, proposing that a small group of men purchase desensitizing products therefore there are no constraints on what doctors and parents can authorize done to their sons is absurd.
    And as it stands now, there are no limits considering parents have been allowed to authorize entire sex change operations on their children as the result of horribly botched circumcisions, and to justify that on the basis of a minority of men choosing to purchase a product for their sex lives is just downright asinine.
    The mere issue of consent does not even begin to occur or even matter to you because some men sometimes choose to buy a product? If anything close to that logic was used for any issue regarding women we both know it would result in a ban. Yet most of the ideals of feminism seem to disappear entirely if the question is about the rights of a man.
    To top it all off the circumcision is probably the reason why guys are in the market, the glans is responsible for triggering ejaculation, the foreskin is responsible for making sex more pleasurable. Desensitizers are sold to men under the ruse of making sex last longer, in effect a way to undo one of the effects circumcision can have.

  7. Tony
    Posted June 10, 2010 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    … Same goes for “mutilated.” Just roll the phrase “You have mutilated genitals” around your mouth for a while. It’s a pretty damn disgusting thing to say to someone.
    I have mutilated genitals. It’s pretty damn disgusting when someone tells me I don’t. I don’t say they have to agree that they are, but the definition (i.e. to cut up or alter radically) is easy to understand and apply. I apply it because it is true for me.
    That said, I get what you’re saying. I think it’s a foolish approach for anyone advocating for genital integrity to not only expect, but also require, a circumcised man to accept that he is damaged and a victim. He can be happy, no matter how misguided I may think he is about how he views his own body. I focus on the individual’s choice in such debates.
    The logical extension of “I have mutilated genitals” is “You have mutilated genitals.” But am I supposed to censor myself to avoid making someone think? Am I supposed to pretend things are fine, and place someone else ahead of myself? To me, that only perpetuates the myth that an individual’s rights and choices are only valid when filtered through the preferences of another first. (Here, the child through his parents, forever.)

  8. ElanaFulana
    Posted June 11, 2010 at 3:15 am | Permalink

    Feminism is an amorphous movement. It is ever changing and imperfect, and always will be because it’s a movement of ever changing and imperfect people.
    The mainstream feminist movement’s refusal to take seriously the non-consensual permanent genital alteration of male children is wrong.
    But to take that and then conclude “most of the ideals of feminism seem to disappear entirely if the question is about the rights of a man” is absurd hyperbole.

  9. cessen.com
    Posted June 11, 2010 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    I’m going second Tony on this one: my penis was mutilated. If that makes you uncomfortable, that’s your problem.
    But I’m not going to say that your penis was mutilated. If you don’t consider it to be so, then it’s not.
    And I think this is an important thing to acknowledge with body modifications in general: it’s not appropriate to hoist the term “mutilated” upon anyone that does not identify that way themselves. And I find the term “female genital mutilation” problematic for that reason as well. There are a lot of women that don’t identify that way.
    But by the same token, I think it’s equally problematic to do the opposite: refuse to acknowledge that someone who does identify that way is valid in that identification. And at least with regards to male circumcision, this is far, far more common, and has personally caused me a great amount of emotional/psychological anguish.
    I’m not really sure what to say about using the word “intact”. I don’t see it as problematic. My life does not revolve around my penis, and I am not defined by my penis, so I agree that inferring that I am an incomplete human being for being circumcised is quite problematic. But I’ve never interpreted the use of the word “intact” in the context of circumcision that way.
    But certainly, if you can propose a better alternative, I’m happy to adopt it. In the mean time, I still refuse to use the word “uncircumcised”.
    Regarding the so-called “which is better” debate, I really don’t think it needs to stop. I agree that circumcision is a violation of my body regardless of which state may be considered “better”. But I think discussion of the importance of the foreskin to sexual pleasure is still topical and informative, even if the question of bodily autonomy doesn’t hinge upon it.
    Re: “don’t be allies against circumcision”. That’s really pedantic, IMO. In western culture almost all circumcision is done to infants who cannot consent, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable for “circumcision” without further qualification to be read as “infant circumcision”.
    Of course people have the right to get circumcised themselves by choice, just as they have the right to cut off or modify any other part of their body. I don’t think anyone is denying that. Certainly I am not, at the very least.

  10. Sex Toy James
    Posted June 11, 2010 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    I’m sorry that you took my small anecdote to be an entire argument for a practice, when it was just a reference point for expressed male sexual interest. That was before I found dozens of accounts from a great many men who had circumcisions later in life, many of whom claim that sex is more pleasurable. So I might have been off on my assumption that there would be more pleasure uncircumcised.
    I have had disagreements with Feministing and their safe space / censorship rules, but I didn’t think that male issues were unfairly marginalized. I think that this issue might be similarly treated if female circumcision played out the same way. If a great many women were circumcised, and a great majority of them found that their sex lives were very satisfying, and most of those who had the procedure later in life found that it improved their sex lives, then feminists might not be so upset over it. While there is a male debate over the pros and cons of circumcision, I’m not seeing women standing up and telling us how much sexual pleasure they’re enjoying without a clit.

  11. ElanaFulana
    Posted June 11, 2010 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    Of course people have the right to get circumcised themselves by choice, just as they have the right to cut off or modify any other part of their body.
    This isn’t really true.
    It can be very difficult for any childless person under 30 to get sterilized.
    Surgical sex assignment is commonly performed on non-consenting intersex children, yet adult trans people have to go through all kinds of hoops in order to get SRS.
    There is a large political movement working hard to prevent women from controlling our own fertility.
    Bodily autonomy, especially reproductive bodily autonomy, is not widely respected in our culture.

  12. suckonscience
    Posted June 12, 2010 at 3:02 am | Permalink

    A very interesting point which had not crossed my mind before! Although I’ve always found the idea of circumcision very strange. As I live in Britain, it’s somewhat rarer here.
    I do have a thought though, and that is that boys should have to right to choose whether or not to have this operation or a similar one from about 16. The reason I say this is because I know at least 2 men who, for reasons of severe discomfort and their foreskin being too tight, performed some minor surgery on themselves at around this age, as they were too shy to see the doctor about it.
    I wonder how many other boys have felt the need to do this?
    I did a similar thing involving my hymen, (or what I now believe must be my hymen) when it began to get caught around my tampons and was very painful and strange. It’s difficult to see a doctor about these things, especially at that age.

  13. cessen.com
    Posted June 12, 2010 at 6:39 am | Permalink

    While there is a male debate over the pros and cons of circumcision, I’m not seeing women standing up and telling us how much sexual pleasure they’re enjoying without a clit.
    Umm… except that many women in those cultures actually do say exactly that. As noted by Mhórdha in a 2007 paper:
    Perspectives such as that of Hosken maintain that circumcised women can feel no pleasure – a view which may be due to notions of the clitoris as the ‘seat’ of sexual pleasure in a woman. This view fails to take into account the numerous testimonies from circumcised women that they achieve orgasm and have a fulfilling sex life.
    I think it’s also a really problematic myth that it is only the men in these cultures that perpetuate female genital cutting. As noted by Abusharaf in a 2001 paper:
    However… African women, not men, insist on circumcising their daughters.
    And for the love of god, don’t take this to mean that I support involuntary FGC, or as an absurd claim that male circumcision is comparable in severity to infibulation or the removal of a woman’s clitoris, or as an absurd claim that patriarchy is not a primary root cause of FGC in these cultures. I make no such claims, and agree with anyone that challenges such claims.
    But even just with regards to ending FGC (male circumcision completely aside) I think it’s extremely counter-productive to ignore the realities of women’s experiences and attitudes in these cultures. We come in guns ablaze saying, “You’ve been mutilated and violated! We’ll save you! Rise up!” and they say, “Huh? I haven’t had problems. Don’t you call me mutilated. And I’ve done it to my daughter. Don’t you dare say I’ve mutilated my daughter.”
    And then we fire a false-consciousness argument at them, basically denying their experience. And perhaps even more problematically, their experience simply isn’t represented to people in western culture at all, so most people don’t even know what these women’s experiences are. We like to selectively show the women that do feel violated and mutilated (which are important, of course!).
    If we’re really serious about ending FGC (which I am), we can’t just deny the experiences of the actual women in these cultures.
    And, to bring this round-circle, I find it extremely (though secondarily) problematic when all of this denial and ignorance of the experiences of these women is then also used to make “But it’s not the same as male circ!” arguments to justify male circumcision. First, male circ doesn’t have to be as severe, or have the same cultural context, as FGC to be a violation of my body. So I really don’t get why people keep bringing that up. And second, by silencing the experiences of these women in order to make that argument, you are also harming those women, and harming our ability to properly address FGC to actually end the practice.

  14. cessen.com
    Posted June 12, 2010 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    I think you misunderstood me. I am aware of the issues you mention. But I wasn’t using “right” in the legal/cultural “granted right” sense that you seem to have interpreted it.
    Perhaps if I rephrase it:
    “Of course people should be allowed to get circumcised themselves by choice, just as they should be allowed to cut off or modify any other part of their body. I don’t think anyone is denying that. Certainly I am not, at the very least.”

  15. cessen.com
    Posted June 12, 2010 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    Yeah, and that’s totally a problem with the vaccination, not with our culture’s absurd and highly limiting standards of beauty.

  16. cessen.com
    Posted June 12, 2010 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    Just to be clear, the foreskin restoration you refer to only recreates a faux foreskin from normal skin (either through surgery or through tissue expansion). The unique anatomical structures, the smooth muscle, and the numerous nerve endings cannot be restored.
    I’m sure you’re aware of that, but I wanted to state it publicly lest people get the idea that, “See! They can get it back if they want!”

  17. TD
    Posted June 12, 2010 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    Many women from areas where FGM is practiced, especially in the areas where type 1A is practiced do not consider themselves to be missing out on anything. And they have expressed the exact same opinions as are shown here. The only difference is that they are not in your frame of reference because it isn’t occurring in the United States because it is a federal felony.

  18. Posted June 24, 2011 at 5:05 am | Permalink

    Not to sound like a broken record but James you are generalizing FGM. There are 4+ types of FGM and the least invasive is only a prick to the clitoris. It is not removed.

    I’m an intactivist, use the term INTACT to describe my son and to politely describe INTACT MALES. The term “uncircumcised” is outdated, offensive and clearly an oxymoron. If that is offensive to you, I also would like to hear your suggestions for another term.

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