Public Opinion on Circumcision: Can Intactivists Hit A Tipping Point?

Public Opinion on Circumcision: Can Intactivists Hit A Tipping Point?

Few topics spark as much debate as circumcision. This irreversible surgery, with roots deeply embedded in cultural, religious, and medical traditions around the globe, is facing increasing scrutiny. At the heart of this scrutiny is a movement known as “intactivism,” which opposes routine circumcision on the grounds of bodily autonomy and human rights. This article delves into the injustices of circumcision, the rise of the intactivist movement, and whether shifting public opinion can reach a tipping point to influence policy and cultural norms significantly.

Understanding Circumcision

Circumcision’s history spans several cultures and millennia. In some societies, it’s a passage into manhood; in others, it’s viewed as a religious rite. However, the medical community’s stance is nuanced. While some health organizations claim potential benefits, they also recognize that these supposed benefits (even if they were true, which they are not) are not sufficient to recommend routine neonatal circumcision. In fact, the consequences of circumcision vastly outweigh any purported reasons. 

The divergence between circumcision as a medical procedure and a cultural practice is stark. In many Western countries, the procedure has been performed routinely without any legitimate medical rationale, leading to debates about necessity and consent.

The Rise of the Intactivist Movement

The intactivist movement, advocating against non-consensual infant circumcision, has grown from a whisper to a roar over recent decades. Its origins, rooted in advocating for bodily integrity and informed consent, reflect a broader societal shift towards questioning traditional practices and authority. High-profile legal battles, shifts in medical opinion, and the mobilization of communities online have marked the movement’s key successes.

Organizations and activists within this movement have diverse backgrounds but share common goals. They’ve employed education, advocacy, and legal challenges to advance their cause, aiming to shift public opinion and policy on a global scale.

Shifting Public Opinion about Circumcision

Current public opinion on circumcision is influenced by tradition, circumcision misinformation, and evolving attitudes. Surveys and studies indicate a gradual but significant shift, with more parents questioning the necessity of the procedure and opting to leave their children intact. This change is fueled by improved access to information, changing social norms, and the vocal advocacy of intactivist groups.

Personal narratives play a crucial role in this shift. Testimonials from individuals who have been harmed or affected by circumcision or who are grateful for the choice to remain intact resonate deeply, challenging long-held beliefs and sparking conversations about consent, autonomy, and bodily integrity.

The Role of Social Media and Advocacy

Social media has been a double-edged sword for the intactivist movement. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have enabled advocates to spread their message far and wide, connect with like-minded individuals, and organize events with unprecedented efficiency. Successful campaigns have leveraged viral content, hashtags, and online petitions to draw attention to their cause.

However, these platforms also present challenges, including the spread of misinformation and the polarization of discourse. Intactivists have had to navigate these waters carefully, balancing passion with accuracy and openness to dialogue.

Legal and Ethical Considerations

The ethical debate around circumcision centers on the rights of the child versus cultural and parental rights. Intactivists argue that non-consensual infant circumcision violates principles of medical ethics, including autonomy and informed consent. Legal battles in various countries have sought to challenge routine circumcision on these grounds, with varying degrees of success.

Comparing global legal standards reveals a spectrum of approaches, from outright bans in some regions to protected cultural practices in others. These legal battles highlight the tension between respecting traditions and protecting individual rights.

Can Intactivism Reach a Tipping Point?

The concept of a tipping point — a small shift in public opinion that leads to significant societal change — offers a hopeful framework for intactivists. Analysis of social movements suggests that, with sufficient momentum, shifts in public policy and cultural norms are possible. Intactivists are working to build this momentum through education, advocacy, and legal challenges, aiming to create a future where circumcision is performed only with informed consent and for legitimate medical reasons.

“According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the national rate of newborn circumcision decreased from 64.5% in 1979 to 58.3% in 2010. However, these rates can vary widely by region, with higher rates in the Midwest and lower rates in the West.”

The journey towards this tipping point is complex, requiring a nuanced understanding of cultural, religious, and ethical considerations. Yet, the potential impact of achieving this goal — protecting bodily autonomy and promoting informed choice — drives the movement forward.

The Path Forward for Intactivists

For intactivists, the path forward involves several key strategies:

  • Education and Awareness: Continuing to inform the public about the risks of circumcision and the importance of bodily autonomy.
  • Legal Action: Pursuing legal reforms to protect children’s rights and ensure informed consent for circumcision.
  • Advocacy: Building alliances with healthcare professionals, ethicists, and human rights organizations to amplify their message.

The vision for the future is clear: a world where circumcision is a choice made by informed individuals, not a routine procedure imposed on infants. By navigating the challenges of public opinion, social media, and legal systems, intactivists hope to turn this vision into reality, ensuring future generations have the freedom to choose for themselves.

Do You Know: About the “Tipping Point?”

What’s a tipping point? The phenomenon is well-researched and documented in sociological literature, but it was popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s book by the same name.

“The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire. Just as a single sick person can start an epidemic of the flu, so too can a small but precisely targeted push cause a fashion trend, the popularity of a new product, or a drop in the crime rate.”

What does this mean for intactivists?

Here is a graph depicting the circumcision belief tipping point. It was originally published on Intact America’s Facebook page, where it got a lot of interest and commentary.

With regard to Americans’ beliefs about the male body, a tipping point will be reached when having a foreskin becomes not just acceptable, but popular. Once we’ve reached that tipping point, the idea of circumcising a baby will be unpopular — even unthinkable.

How do we get there?

Reaching a tipping point requires a change in people’s beliefs — not just their behavior. People who have studied social change (including Malcolm Gladwell, mentioned above) have concluded that to reach a tipping point, you need 20-25 percent of the public to accept an alternative to the current status quo. Research conducted in 2014 by a respected polling firm hired by Intact America shows that, right now, about 12 percent of all Americans oppose circumcision, and 14 percent are undecided. We need to aim to convert that “undecided” group! Targeting those who adamantly defend circumcision is a waste of time — for now. Many of them will get onboard later, once the tipping point has occurred.

That’s why it isn’t enough for intactivists to target our advocacy mainly toward expectant parents. Currently, new moms- and dads-to-be are living in a society that is unfamiliar with — even hostile toward — intact male genitals. That’s not a conducive environment for raising an intact boy. Every trip to the doctor, every diaper change by the day care worker — or even by Grandma — invites raised eyebrows, negative comments and bad advice.

That’s why Intact America is reaching out to the general public, to convert those “undecideds.” That’s why we’re aiming our message — that intact genitals are healthy and normal, and that the foreskin is good — to people of all ages and backgrounds. That’s why our social media messages target young and old, gay and straight, and Americans of every ethnic persuasion.

Because everybody needs to understand that intact genitals are not just a human right — but that they’re healthy, normal and good ! That’s how we’ll reach the tipping point; that’s how we’ll change the way Americans think about circumcision.

Intact America Celebrates its 15th Anniversary

Intact America Celebrates Its 15th Anniversary and Gears Up Two New Initiatives to Fight Baby Boy Circumcision

The New ‘SKIN IN THE GAME’ Storytelling Campaign Will Feature the Victims of Circumcision to Show How ‘Circumcision Cuts Through Us All’

 The DoNoHarm.Report Project Will Make It Easy for the Public to Report Circumcision Solicitation, Harm, and More

‘Americans will never think the same thing about circumcision again.’

(Tarrytown, New York—September 29, 2023)…Fifteen years ago, the country’s grassroots anti-circumcision movement founded Intact America, a national, professionally run not-for-profit, to strategically change the way Americans think about the routine circumcision of baby boys. Despite Intact America’s notable progress—today, 22.5 percent of Americans think baby boys should be kept intact (uncircumcised), up from 10 percent in 2014—systemic forces continue to make the United States the only Western developed nation that routinely cuts the genitals of its baby boys, approximately 1.3 million baby boys a year.

One big reason circumcision persists is that, unfortunately, Americans erroneously believe that circumcision is harmless. Intact America plans to upend such thinking by putting a face to circumcision’s victims: parents who cannot forget their babies’ screams, men who live with scarred, desensitized penises, and women who suffer through painful, dry sex, to name only a few of the adverse ways circumcision affects lives.

“If we look at every successful social change movement, from the abolition of slavery, to the fight for women’s suffrage, to the Civil Rights movement, to the LBGTQ and same-sex marriage movements, to the more recent “MeToo” movement, we can see that key to effecting change was making public the personal stories, the voices, and the faces of the victims,” explains Georganne Chapin, MPhil, JD, founding executive director of Intact America.

“Intact America’s work has unleashed a groundswell of people aching to tell their stories, and we are going to ensure the public hears their stories,” Chapin adds.

This fall, Intact America will launch SKIN IN THE GAME: Circumcision Cuts Through Us All, a compelling storytelling campaign that uses photography and narratives to put human faces on circumcision victims—men and their partners, parents, and loved ones. The campaign features people of all ages, genders, ethnicities, and sexual orientations who are outraged, sad, angry, and determined to end a senseless practice that no medical society in the world—including the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)—recommends.

“These stories will hit a nerve with the American public,” Chapin says. “Soon, we will reach a tipping point when popular opinion turns against cutting baby boys’ genitals, just as we currently denounce cutting little girls’ genitals.”

‘This Penis Business’

Chapin will further spread the anti-circumcision message when her memoir, “This Penis Business,” is published in February 2024 by Lucid House Publishing. The book will be released together with “Please Don’t Cut the Baby,” a memoir written by Marilyn Milos, one of the country’s earliest intactivists (or anti-circumcision activists) and currently a member of Intact America’s board of directors.

Holding Doctors Accountable

Intact America also is breaking new ground by developing DoNoHarm.Report, an online tool that will let parents and guardians do three things: (1) report incidents of circumcision harm, such as excessive bleeding, fever, infection, and physical complications; (2) report whether doctors and nurses pressured them to have their sons circumcised; and (3) report that their intact son was a victim of forcible foreskin retraction by a medical professional, a practice that is not condoned by the AAP. Each reported incident will be submitted to both hospital management and the state medical board.

“We must hold doctors and nurses accountable for the harm they inflict on healthy baby boys and intact children,” says Chapin. “Right now, it is an arduous process for any individual to file a complaint with a medical board or society. Whom do they contact? How do they word the complaint? DoNoHarm.Report makes it simple. Parents will fill out a single form and we will direct the complaint to every place it needs to go.”

Chapin notes that no one knows how often circumcisions go awry, but DoNoHarm.Report will make that such information available. “We should know how often routine circumcisions harm boys, even when the procedure is not ‘botched’, but we don’t,” she says. “Hospitals commonly fail to cite circumcision as the cause of infant hemorrhaging or other complications once the child goes home.

“I predict DoNoHarm.Report data will shock the public,” Chapin says. “Americans will never think the same thing about circumcision again.”

About Intact America

Intact America is the largest national advocacy group working to end involuntary child genital cutting in America and to ensure healthy sexual futures for all people. It does this by challenging social and sexual norms and empowering supporters and volunteers through advocacy and education. To learn more about the issues involved in the current conversation about newborn male circumcision, visit IntactAmerica.org and CircumcisionDebate.org, and follow Intact America on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Intact America celebrates 15 years!

Intact America (IA) is celebrating our 15th birthday! “Celebrating” might sound like a strange word to use, when you consider that the practice Intact America is fighting – the routine amputation of baby boys’ foreskins – is still all-too-common in U.S. hospitals. In this introduction, though, I’ll talk about what 15 years of leading IA has meant to me, give you some updates about our new activities, and tell you why I am super-optimistic about the future.

Georganne and MarilynIntact America was created when Marilyn Milos, “mother of the intactivist movement,” brought together a group of people who for decades had been fighting for boys’ rights to keep their intact bodies. Marilyn introduced us to a Texas businessman and NOCIRC donor named Dean Pisani who had told her he wanted to see the movement grow and was willing to fund the creation of a larger organization that could hire professional consultants and staff, launch fundraising and media campaigns, and expand the rosters of supporters. After a months’ long planning process, Dean and others in the group asked me to serve as executive director on a temporary basis. Truthfully, I didn’t think about how long I might stay in that position. I was just enormously grateful that the people around the table believed I could lead the new entity.

Georganne and MarilynNow, 15 years later, I’m still here (with Dean and Marilyn) and I’m still grateful! I’m also totally fired up about the future. Earlier this summer, I completed my memoir, called This Penis Business. It is due to be released on February 20, 2024, together with Please Don’t Cut the Baby, a memoir written by Marilyn Milos. In these books, Marilyn and I have told how our (very different) life stories led to our involvement in the intactivist cause. The books will be available for pre-order shortly.

Just as Marilyn and I have told our stories, increasing numbers of men and the people who love them are telling their own stories about how male genital cutting has impacted their lives. In the early days of my own activism – indeed, in the early days of Intact America – very few people were willing to come out publicly to talk about circumcision. This is so ironic, because doctors promiscuously assault babies’ genitals – as many as 4000 times each day, but nobody wants to acknowledge the harm this custom creates. In the past, respecting the strange and conflicting taboos in our society that govern talking about sex and sexual body parts, even intactivists’ arguments were more intellectual and conceptual than graphic and deeply personal. We spoke of forced circumcision as a “human rights violation,” as “medically unnecessary,” or as “unethical.” All of these descriptors are, of course, true. But they don’t tend to move people; they don’t create compassion and empathy for the (nameless) victims or provoke the outrage needed to “change the way Americans think about circumcision.”

If we look at every other successful social change movement, from the abolition of slavery, to the fight for women’s suffrage, to the Civil Rights movement, to the LBGTQ and same-sex marriage movements, to the more recent “MeToo” movement, we can see that key to effecting change was making public the personal stories, the voices and the faces of the victims. But for the victims and the opponents of deeply embedded injustice, coming out and speaking one’s truth takes willingness to risk the disapproval or hostility of friends, family, and coworkers.

When Intact America launched our Voices series in 2017, it was difficult for us to find even one person willing to reveal their name and send a photo to publish with the story of the damage they had suffered from having their genitals cut as helpless babies or children. Just six years later, we are trying to figure out how to give exposure and justice to the torrent of inquiries and submissions from victims who (it is my view) are not so much brave, but rather have found the price of secrecy and self-repression too great to endure.

This groundswell of people aching to tell their stories paved the way for Intact America’s new story-telling photo campaign, called SKIN IN THE GAME: Circumcision Cuts Through Us All. The campaign is premised on the same elements of success as the other social movements mentioned above: revealing the human faces of injustice and amplifying the human voices of victims. The photographs for SKIN IN THE GAME were taken in a series of three photoshoots, two in Atlanta and one in Dallas. Most of the participants were unknown to Intact America before they responded to online ads inviting interested people of any race, ethnicity, sex, and body type to have their pictures taken for Intact America, identified as “a nonprofit organization working to end male child genital cutting (circumcision).” Over a period of nine days, those who came were asked why they had responded to the ad, and if they would like to share their stories. Some said they’d been thinking about the evils of circumcision for years; others said they had never consciously considered the harm until they saw the ad. We met men and women of all ages, of every ethnicity and sexual orientation. The atmosphere was magical.

As the hours and days progressed, it became clear to us that everyone in our country has a circumcision story. The resulting photos and quotes of participants in the photoshoots, as you will see over the coming months, are intensely emotional and will be used to promote the two new memoirs and the ongoing work of Intact America. THIS WAVE OF CONSCIOUSNESS AND OF CHANGE WILL CONTINUE TO BUILD.

DoNoHarm logo
Additionally, Intact America’s upcoming DoNoHarm.Report project will provide yet another venue for broadcasting the rampant solicitation of circumcision, the harms of “routine” genital cutting, and the epidemic of forcible foreskin retraction – all fueling the multi-billion-dollar American circumcision industry. Together, our activities, your voices, and your support for Intact America make it clear to me that we are moving toward a tipping point.

YOU, the person reading this newsletter, give me that optimism. The reasons we are still here today are, first, the justice of our cause and, second, the generosity of people just like you who have donated to the organization over the years. We couldn’t do our work without this financial support.

Even if you haven’t thought about it before now, you are likely realizing that you, too, have a story about how this heinous custom has impacted your life, your family, or the life of someone you love. And I hope you will tell your story before too long. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Georganne Chapin, Founding Executive Director

5 Signs We’re Making Progress

USA map - 1 in 4 Americans say circumcision is wrongThese are exciting times at Intact America. A rapid succession of developments is pointing to a breakthrough for the intactivism movement. Here are five indications that American public opinion is turning our way.

  1. Our latest national opinion survey, conducted this year, shows that 1 out of 4 people surveyed said they believe that baby boys should be kept intact. That means we’re approaching “The Tipping Point,” when we reach a critical mass of people who will tip the scales in our favor. Historically, Americans have been slow to accept social change. But once the ball starts rolling, it rarely stops.
  1. For decades, the mainstream media has ignored the truth about the harm and distress caused by circumcision. But on October 11, 2021, The New Yorker published “A Botched Circumcision and Its Aftermath,” an essay by the renowned fiction writer Gary Shteyngart. He wrote about the emotional and physical pain he has endured for decades since his circumcision at the age of seven. His essay was poignant and powerful, and ignited multiple conversations online and in person. That’s what we want—to get people to stop and open their eyes to what circumcision really entails.
  1. We leveraged the Shteyngart article to heighten awareness of the intactivist movement. Our letter to the editor of The New Yorker, one of just three on the subject posted on the letters page, further educated readers about the needless danger of cutting away healthy, protective, and erogenous tissue from a baby boy’s genitals. For example, the letter noted that 11 percent of pediatric surgical malpractice lawsuits involve circumcision. The letter also informed readers that doctors in the rest of the world do not circumcise male children and asked why Americans allow doctors to profit from cutting the genitals of baby boys while fighting to outlaw the practice of female genital cutting here and abroad.(One of the other two letters published was written by a urologist, who made several unfounded claims. Chapin wrote to him directly to challenge his assertions. You can read what she wrote here.)
  1. This fall, a definitive study was published in the Journal of Urology showing that in Western societies, there is no association between a man’s risk for acquiring HIV and his circumcision status. For years, doctors in the U.S. have used questionable African studies to justify cutting children’s penises to lower their risk of acquiring HIV. The new study repudiates that theory, with researchers finding that HIV risk is virtually identical between intact and cut men living in the West.
  1. Earlier this fall, intactivists Lisa Braver Moss and Rebecca Wald launched a group called Bruchim to foster inclusion of intact Jews and their families into organized religious life. Braver Moss and Wald say the need is great for their initiative because many Jewish people are choosing to welcome their sons into Judaism with a non-circumcising, naming ceremony called Brit Shalom, or “covenant of peace.”

We are encouraged by all this progress. You may see other signs of the difference we are making, and please tell us in the comments below.

But to really end male child genital cutting, we have to stop every participant who profits from or finances this $2 billion industry. Intact America is now crafting a multipronged strategy aimed at shining the light on all these actors: circumcision equipment makers;  hospitals that make the space, equipment, and medical professionals available for the surgery; doctors who do the cutting (and nurses who assist), as well as those who reap fees from repairing “botches”; and the insurers that waste the public’s money by paying for the useless and harmful practice of removing boys’ normal genital tissue.

With your help, we can change our society. Please consider becoming a monthly donor today.

Suggested Reading List

Many have asked for a book reading list for intactivists. Here are some of the books that we have found to be very useful for intactivism. You likely have read some of these titles. While there are many other useful books for us, and you may have some favorites of...