Since her days as a hospital floor nurse more than 35 years ago, Marilyn Milos, RN, has been at the front of the fight to end forced circumcision in the U.S. She founded the National Organization of Circumcision Resource Centers (NOCIRC), now Genital Autonomy – America, and is a co-founder of Intact America, a member of its Steering Committee, and also serves as its Clinical Consultant.
When I began my work in 1979, I naively thought it would take a couple of years to stop routine infant circumcision. It seemed so obviously wrong, and I’m outspoken and pretty determined. So, I figured if someone put a spotlight on it, rational people would see the truth.
I witnessed a circumcision for the first time when I was a nursing student, and it changed me forever. Before the doctor came into the nursery, the baby was lying on a molded plastic board, struggling against the restraints that held his arms and legs down. I asked the nurse if I could comfort the baby and she said to wait until the doctor arrived. I asked the doctor when he came in, and he said to put my finger in the baby’s mouth. The baby began to suck on my finger. I stroked his little head and told him what my doctor had said to me before my own three sons were circumcised — it wouldn’t hurt, just took a minute, and would protect him throughout life. As the doctor began, the baby let out a scream I’d never heard come out of a human before. It wasn’t like a baby’s cry when he’s hungry or needs his diaper changed. It was primal. He screamed for the next 15 minutes.
My chin began to quiver, and I knew I was going to lose it. I started to cry uncontrollably. The doctor looked at me and said, “There is no medical reason for doing this!” This baby was being tortured, and I was just realizing what had been done to my sons and that my own doctor had lied to me.
After witnessing a circumcision, I began learning everything I could about it. How could I have let this happen to my precious boys? I shared what I learned with other nurses working on the obstetrical unit. I thought, “We’re all learning together. We’ll be educating parents and changing things.”
But in the end, I was forced to resign. That was 1985, and that same year I started NOCIRC. It was the desperate screams of those babies that have driven me all these years. It was in my 30th year that a generous donor asked if his contributions were being as effective as they might be. I had learned that, after three decades, grassroots movements typically step it up a notch, and I suggested to him that I put together a group of the movers and shakers for this discussion. I invited Georganne Chapin to be part of that group.
Our conference call included the leaders of other organizations that formed after I founded NOCIRC — including Attorneys for the Rights of the Child, Doctors Opposing Circumcision and Nurses for the Rights of the Child. This phone call was the beginning of the formation of our new organization, Intact America. Georganne was the perfect person to lead this new level of intactivism. She ran a health care company and knew how to get things done. She was an attorney, a respected expert in the healthcare field and had a network of colleagues and media connections she could tap.
A core group of us continued to plan this new phase of activism in person with support from our donor. The third time we got together we met in Tarrytown, New York at Georganne’s Hudson Health Plan office. During one of our meetings that weekend, the consultants hired to help us organize went over the budget with us. It was based on more money than any intactivist organization had ever had or that I could even imagine having.
So when the donor offered that he planned to donate a million dollars, I burst into tears and cried for 15 minutes. I’d been challenged and discredited for more than 30 years, and suddenly I was being told the thing I hold so dear is worthy. It was overwhelming. And Georganne, bless her heart, was willing to step up and make it happen.
Intact America is the organization that is fighting on a level that none of us ever had been able to fight before.
In the early days of the work, we focused on getting accurate information about the normal penis and the harm of non-therapeutic genital cutting into the hands of parents, childbirth educators, midwives, doctors, lawyers, and concerned individuals. Today, with information readily available, we’re working to challenge those who profit from genital cutting and refuse to put their scalpels down, those who provide misinformation and disinformation to promote genital cutting, and those who advocate for the circumcision-to-prevent-HIV/AIDS agenda, which undermines the programs that truly will end the spread of the disease (for example, education about safe sex and condom use). Education continues to be key and the Internet has helped immeasurably. Intact America’s Internet outreach has been large, productive, and effective. And, now with more intact boys in the United States, our work includes educating parents and their sons’ doctors about proper care of the intact penis, about letting each boy be the first person to retract his own foreskin, and about treating foreskin problems medically instead of amputating them. Our work also includes helping men who have penile problems and dysfunctions resulting from their circumcision years before.
Medical organizations have to be very careful now. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control, hospitals and academics who are making their career from the bogus and unethical “African HIV studies” — Intact America is taking on all of them. Georganne has stood up to the powers that be — with strength, dignity, and experience. She is not afraid to ask the tough questions about ethics and human rights, and the medical organizations and the doctors who head them are unable to provide answers that would put them on solid ground.
This is not surprising. No excuse is good enough to allow cutting off parts of the normal genitals of minors. It is time for American medical organizations to join with Intact America, other intactivist organizations, and medical and ethics organizations in Europe — and elsewhere in protecting the bodily integrity and genital autonomy rights of infants and children.
—Marilyn Milos, RN
Interested in lending your voice? Send us an email, giving us a brief summary of what you would like to write about, and we will get back to you.
When I became an intactivist, I found that simply bringing up the subject with others provoked responses falling into one of two categories: disgust, horror, and disbelief; or entrenchment and defensiveness. If this person was a circumcised man, the reaction would be magnified – as though he instinctively anticipated that the topic would bring on strong and uncomfortable feelings better avoided than confronted.
I first learned this lesson in a place of learning and discussion. In 2003, I was working on the general education requirements for my college degree. As a freshman, the options weren’t impressive, but Introduction to Sociology is memorable as the first time I ever gave circumcision any thought. The instructor was new to the teaching world; being young and part of the liberal arts program, she seemed keen to tackle controversy. At this time, the 21st century still had that new-century smell. Liberal arts programs were really ramping up their social studies and analysis work, taking it upon themselves to solve the unsolvable. Three short papers made up the bulk of our grade for the semester, each on some topic of social taboo. Lectures included pre-selected readings meant to expose us to taboos in foreign cultures, to help us identify our own. The instructor had compiled a list of suggested topics, among them recreational drug use and driving restrictions for the elderly. We were not required to stick to the list, though, so long as our topic was approved beforehand and was not being written about by another student in the class.
In 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Court had handed down its landmark ruling legalizing same-sex marriage rights within that state. In my senior year of high school, we had staged an exhibition of The Laramie Project, introducing me to the equality struggle faced by my LGBT peers. Unfortunately, though, same-sex marriage as a topic had already been claimed by another student in my college sociology class.
So, I sequestered myself in the library for an afternoon, looking for inspiration. I don’t remember in which section I found it, but the spine of Ronald Goldman’s book Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma caught my attention. Perhaps it was how the sterile objectivity of the block typeface paired the word “circumcision”: with “trauma” in such a matter-of-fact way. At the time, I did not even know I had been subjected to circumcision.
Skimming the table of contents provided more than enough to convince me that circumcision qualified as a socially controversial and taboo subject, and thus a good topic for my first paper. I threw together an outline and e-mailed it to my instructor with the hope of having the A-OK two days later. Silly me. In an after-class meeting, the instructor told me I hadn’t understood what was necessary to meet the definition of controversy. In her words (as best as I can recall), a social controversy had to have heated debate over the merit of the topic, with fervent support and opposition that sees little progress because of the uncomfortable nature of the topic. Circumcision, she said, was simply an uncomfortable topic that lacked any disagreement over its merit. I provided her the book I found at the library; she suggested that the issues anyone might have over circumcision were rooted in a broader controversy of sex and sexuality, and that my efforts would be better focused there. During the talk, she wouldn’t even mention the word “circumcision,” and she never once laid a hand on the book I had placed on the desk. When I questioned the difference between disagreement with a premise and not wanting to learn a premise, she ended the conversation: Circumcision was not “in the scope” of the assignment, she responded. Period.
That was 16 years ago. Women’s studies, gender analysis, sexual paradigms… Liberal arts programs have flourished with conversations and examination of the women’s liberation and sexual liberation movements. Lines previously drawn in the sand were now meant to be crossed. Everything was opened to critique and analysis, and the structural supports of the pre-eminent social order were to be torn down to make room for a new order where appreciation for human identity and human sexuality prevail over the rigidly-defined spaces each person had been expected to inhabit unquestioningly. It was the emergence of an era promoting the natural beauty of the human body in its many varied forms. Every penis was the right size, every vulva perfect as it was. Every body part was great just the way it was made — natural and normal and something to be celebrated.
Every part but one – the foreskin. That part was just too uncomfortable, and it continues to be for many people today.
But in the 16 years since I was prevented from opening discussion about circumcision in a social sciences class, I’ve witnessed events and had conversations that convince me that this is changing. In 2011, the people of San Francisco collected thousands of signatures for a ballot measure that would have banned routine circumcision from being performed within the city. It was, of course, stricken from the ballot, but that it made the popular threshold for inclusion in the first place showed that support for intactivism was growing. The next year, a German court in Cologne ruled routine circumcision illegal within its jurisdiction. That decision was similarly unsuccessful – overruled by the German parliament. But again, legal footing for the intactivist position had been sought and accepted as valid.
When the San Francisco and Cologne cases were in the news, I read for the first time about David Reimer; a Canadian boy who — when he was a few months old — had been subjected to terribly botched circumcision. It was a gut-wrenching story to read because I knew that what happened to him could have happened to me, and it returned me to the topic I had not thought about for a decade.
Since that time, I been seeking ways to reach, inform, and educate those who see nothing wrong with circumcision, without making them want to tune out at any cost. I believe that to be effective, we must focus on the future and not hamstring ourselves by assigning blame for the errors of the past. We, as a society, got it wrong. The work before us requires that we commit to changing it going forward, for our sons. The first step is guiding society to a more complete understanding of what circumcision does, what it forever takes away, and most importantly, why that matters.
Fortunately, the tide is turning where it matters most: people’s attitudes. More and more parents are keeping their newborn sons as nature made them. More and more people are overcoming their discomfort that surrounds this taboo topic, and that is the beginning of the change we want to happen.
Finding that mission in Intact America encouraged me. In June, I attended New York City Pride, and witnessed the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. “Pride” is about refusing to be kept down by antiquated and oppressive social regimes, about standing up and proclaiming that there’s nothing wrong with questioning what society calls “normal.” I saw that proclamation in action at Intact America’s tent at PrideFest. The positive and inquisitive reactions of the many thousands of Pride-goers who stopped to take pictures at the tent, and the passion shown by the volunteers engaging with and distributing information to people from all walks of life, gave me greater hope that this work will be successful. We will overcome.
Interested in lending your voice? Send an email to us, giving us a brief summary of what you would like to write about, and we will get back to you.
Recently, a longtime friend confided that had his wife given birth to a boy rather than to their daughter, he would not have allowed his son to be circumcised. He had researched circumcision and found it unnecessary and unjustified. After hearing my friend’s revelation, I began to reflect on my own father. My father was intact and by no way or means were his sons going to be circumcised; I don’t believe this was a matter of ego — but, rather, because he understood the harm that cutting off the foreskin would cause. Therein lies a lesson to all fathers: Do what is in the best interest of your son’s future; not to make him look “just like you.” Give your son the rightful autonomy to make his own decisions about his own body.
Growing up as an intact boy put me in the minority. I did not feel out of place, but I do recall feeling happy and affirmed in my youthful mind when I saw other intact boys. Again, we were in the minority, but it wasn’t until much later in life that I discovered how being intact is common and prevalent throughout most of the world.
As I grew older, I became self-conscious about being intact, as a gay man. For me, Intact America was a watershed moment in learning so much about the value and purpose of the foreskin. For some time, gay men believed the intact penis to be dirty. They assumed “smegma” to be penis “dirt”. Only recently through Intact America did I learn that “smegma” is the Latin word for soap — and that it serves as a lubricant to allow the foreskin to retract easily.
The benefits of retaining the foreskin far outweigh the negative myths that are posited by the poorly informed or less informed.
Intact America is an excellent resource of information on why males should be kept intact. After learning more about the procedures for circumcision, I have concluded that circumcising males is barbaric; as if to “punish” the penis. Here, again, Intact America raises awareness about what I deem the horrors and brutality of circumcision.
Another aspect of male circumcision that raises questions, at least for me, as a Christian minister: Why is it that certain Christians insist on having their sons circumcised? The Apostle Paul makes it quite clear: Those who have accepted Christ (the Anointed Jesus) do not need physical circumcision because they have been circumcised “through Christ”. I consider circumcision committed on religious grounds to be a vile form of butchery. Even some modern Jews are opting for different Mitzvahs for their newborn sons in order to avoid circumcising them.
I have yet to understand the American obsession with circumcision. Circumcision is an abomination; that’s why I follow Intact America — for advocacy, for support, and for information.
In closing, I will use a phrase often applied to other matters: “If it isn’t broke, don’t try to fix it”. Think about that! It is not trite. It is right.
—Rev. Vincent Turner
Interested in lending your voice? Send an email to [email protected], giving us a brief summary of what you would like to write about, and we will get back to you.
Each year, the month of June marks the national celebration of LGBTQ+ Pride in the United States. This year’s Pride celebration in New York City is anticipated to be the largest ever, in commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising.
Despite how far the LGBTQ+ rights movement has come since the 60s — and the triumph of marriage equality in 2015 — this social change movement is far from over. So often you’ll hear stories from LGBTQ+ people recounting experiences of “hiding” themselves from others or, worse, hiding any trauma they may be carrying.
What’s unique about the Pride celebration is that it empowers millions of people to take a public stand, to be vocal, and to claim their identity. The importance of standing up for those who don’t have a voice, to proclaim the right to bodily autonomy and to healthy sexual futures are just some of the reasons why the LGBTQ+ community embraces the intactivist message — and why Intact America supports Pride.
We understand how powerful and influential a voice can be, especially when lent to a righteous and moral social change movement. This understanding is what motivated the Intact America team to launch our “Voices” series last year.
Just recently, the BBC published an account about a young, intact man who took his own life after being circumcised. Part of what makes this story so tragic is that his family and friends were unaware of his circumcision, and of his suffering.
In the weeks following the article’s publication, men started to comment publicly, sharing their own circumcision experiences.
For some, this was their first time opening-up about their struggles; many said that even their intimate partners don’t know the feelings they’re harboring.
Unfortunately, this paradox is common. So many circumcised American men … and so many others aren’t able to share their feelings about having had their genitals cut when they were children.
If you’re reading this and feel that child genital cutting has negatively impacted your personal life, or your sex life, you are not alone. Every day 3,000 baby boys have their genitals cut in the United States.
Your own experience with child genital cutting is unique to you, but these stories share a common theme. What we want our community to know is that there’s power in your story — power to encourage, power to educate, power to heal, power to influence, power to mobilize — but that power is relinquished once you refuse share it.
We cannot hope to change the way America thinks about child genital cutting — about circumcision — if we’re unwilling to talk about why a change is needed in the first place. Our allies in the LGBTQ+ community would have never claimed their rights if they hadn’t spoken out — loudly.
“Hiding” from our circumcision experience(s)…
• gives this abhorrent practice the appearance of normality/compliance.
• is unhealthy and prevents the healing of emotional trauma.
• will not help the intactivist movement to reach the tipping point.
Without your support and your voice, the intactivist movement will languish. Take pride in your identity and your beliefs. Use the power of your story, the power of your voice.
(If you or someone you know is feeling depressed or suicidal please seek emergency care, consult a licensed therapist, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255)
Inspired by the “Me Too” movement, I would like to voice my own victim’s impact statement.
For years, I have written to legislators, the courts, and to other “rights” organizations about the genital slicing that was forced on me shortly after my birth. I have written to tell them that cutting the genitals of little boys is exactly the kind of age and sex discrimination they pretend to be against. I have been ridiculed, ignored, and “thrown under the bus.” “MeToo” never answered my letters. My letters to politicians and to Human Rights Campaign, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Anti-Defamation League, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Amnesty International all have been met with silence. I had thought they supported all humans equally, but it seems I was wrong.
Do boys like me have 13th Amendment protections? Tissues excised from my private parts and those of millions of other similarly situated and objectified infants not only violated laws prohibiting involuntary tissue/organ “donations” (made without consent), but rather than discard the “unusable” tissues, doctors and hospitals used the prepuces (including mine), and profits have been made on male penile “spare parts.” When do we “donors” share in those profits?
Why am I not protected under the 14th Amendment to the U.S Constitution, which states “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall… deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws”? Am I not a person?
Why am I categorically excluded from equal treatment under 18 USC, Section 116, which prohibits genital mutilation – but only of girls?
Apparently, for boys the Constitution means nothing. It’s not about the excuses (or intent), but the lifelong impact. Even though I am a male (born a boy), I am a person.
I support, respect and appreciate all the work Intact America is doing. If our legislators and bureaucrats were as heroic and hardworking as you are, we’d all be happy.
Interested in lending your voice? Send an email to [email protected], giving us a brief summary of what you would like to write about, and we will get back to you.
Georganne Chapin, MPhil, JD
March 17, 2019
The state of Washington has a pending child protection bill before its legislature. While we share legislators’ condemnation of the activity this bill seeks to regulate, we also wish to point out the fact that the bill violates the Constitution of the State of Washington.
Senate Bill 5257, introduced January 15, 2019, would prohibit the practice of “female genital mutilation” or FGM – i.e., the culturally-based practice of pricking, incising, or cutting a minor girl’s genitals. The bill arose, in part, as a response to the November 2018 dismissal by a federal court in Michigan of a case against a physician prosecuted under a similar federal law (18 U.S. Code § 116, also known as the Federal Prohibition Against Female Genital Mutilation Act of 1996) for operating on the genitals of three young girls. In dismissing that case, the judge said that despite the heinous actions of the physician (a woman from an Indian sect that practices female genital cutting), the federal law under which she was charged was unconstitutional because the behavior it proscribed falls under the rubric of “local criminal activity,” which is properly regulated by states.
So, what is wrong with this Washington State bill prohibiting medically unnecessary genital surgery on girls? In three words: it is unconstitutional!
Washington’s Constitution contains a “equal protection” clause which states: “No law shall be passed granting to any citizen, class of citizens, or corporation other than municipal, privileges or immunities which upon the same terms shall not equally belong to all citizens, or corporations.” In other words, Washington’s laws should never favor, protect, or privilege one group over another. While the anti-genital-mutilation law summarized above rightfully protects girls from medically unnecessary surgery on their genitalia, whether carried out in a “cultural” or medical context, it denies through omission such protection to boys.
Should not all children be protected from the medically unnecessary surgical modification of their genitals? Are boys not entitled to the same rights to bodily integrity, autonomy, and self-determination as girls?
“Routine” infant male circumcision – like “female genital mutilation” – entails the removal of a normal, natural part of a boy’s genitals in the absence of any medical necessity. Sometimes – as with female genital mutilation – male circumcision is performed for “cultural” reasons (I purposely draw no distinction between “culture” and “religion,” as there is simply no justification to favor the practices of groups who can point to a written text over those with a long oral tradition). And sometimes – just as with intersex surgery – male circumcision is performed simply as a social or cosmetic procedure, justified as in the child’s best interest, helping him to “fit in,” “be normal,” or “avoid problems in the future.”
It is not known how many girls are subjected to FGM in the United States, but the number is certainly less than one percent. By contrast, more than half of U.S.-born boys – more than one million babies each year – are subjected to the brutal removal of their their healthy, normal foreskins within a few hours of days of their birth.
Until the mid-19th century, surgical amputation of the foreskin was practiced only by Jewish and Muslim people, and by some tribal cultures. Victorian doctors introduced the practice in the United States and other Anglophone countries to stop boys from masturbating. By the mid-20th century, “routine” circumcision had become embedded in American medicine, and still today, the United States is the only non-Jewish, non-Muslim country in the world where doctors routinely remove baby boys’ foreskins (South Korea and the Philippines also have high circumcision rates because of the influence of U.S. military hospitals.) In the United States, the incidence of routine infant circumcision varies widely by region. At approximately 10 percent for in-hospital circumcisions, Washington’s current circumcision rate is well below the national average.
American men of all ages are expressing indignation about having undergone the removal of their normal, functional foreskins when they were too young to either consent or resist.
Legislators from Washington and every other state seeking to redress the ethically and medically unjustifiable practices of genital surgery performed on girls must take notice, to ensure that any new laws be consistent with the “equal protection” clauses of their constitutions, and to protect all children.