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.
Intact 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.
Now, 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.
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
May is Masturbation Month. If you missed it, you can always indulge belatedly!
Intact America followers probably know that circumcising boys (and even girls) by doctors began around 150 years ago as a “remedy” for masturbation. Victorian era doctors believed that onanism (another term for masturbation) could cause lunacy and many other diseases, both moral and physical.
Journalist David Gollaher, in his book Circumcision: A History of the World’s Most Controversial Surgery, writes about how cereal magnate John Harvey Kellogg “recommended performing circumcision ‘without administering an anesthetic, as the pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if connected with the idea of punishment.” Other doctors in the late 19th century advocated for the use of blistering fluids on the genitals (of boys as well as girls) to both deter and punish self-pleasuring.
Amazing, isn’t it, that this history has been lost on those who deny that circumcision harms boys and men?
If you’re over 50, you probably remember the brouhaha when Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders in 1994 talked publicly about masturbation as a natural and positive human behavior. She was ridiculed and eventually resigned from her post, but not without removing some of the stigma surrounding the subject. A year later, the sex shop Good Vibrations declared May National Masturbation Month. Put it on your calendar, but no need to wait until next year to celebrate!
Many people believe that parents should be free to make any decision for their children whatsoever. However, there ARE limits to parental decision-making, and many of these are inscribed in law.
· It is illegal to tattoo a child, whether the child’s parent approves or not.
· Parents cannot force their minor children to go to work instead of going to school.
· Parents cannot consent to a neighbor having sexual relations with their minor sons or daughters.
In medicine, parental consent is valid only for the treatment of conditions that threaten the life or health of the child.
· Parents cannot ask a doctor to amputate a healthy finger or leg from their child, so he will “look like” a parent who lost a limb in an accident.
· Parents cannot ask for or consent to the removal of their child’s healthy teeth to prevent dental caries.
· Parents cannot consent to the amputation or reduction of their daughter’s genital labia or clitoris.
Routine male child genital cutting (circumcision), which permanently removes a boy’s healthy, normal foreskin, occupies a strange place in American medicine: Because of the power of both religion and the medical industry, it is allowed to continue with de facto legal status so long as a child’s parents consent to it.
There is growing recognition that this exception makes no sense and violates children’s basic human rights. Feel free to use this information as talking points, or to refute anybody who tells you that “circumcising a baby is the parents’ choice.” Working together, we can change the way America thinks about circumcision.
Since Intact America’s founding in 2008, our organization’s stated goal has been to “change the way America thinks about circumcision.”
Our Vision statement says:
Intact America envisions a world where children are free
from medically unnecessary surgeries carried out on them without their consent
in the name of culture, religion, profit, parental preference, or false benefit.
The genital cutting of any child in the absence of life-threatening or seriously health-threatening pathology violates not only that child’s body, but also his/her/their autonomy over their own sexual future. This position is immutable. No parent or guardian has the right to waive a child’s right to be protected from any type of tortious interference, or physical or sexual assault, with regard to genital cutting. The right that governs is that of the child.
Intact America was founded in 2008 by a coalition of individuals and intactivist organizations who wished to see the intactivist movement grow into a mainstream human rights cause. The new organization, as well as its founders, were guided by widely-accepted secular bioethical principles adopted in Western human rights and political discourse in response to atrocities committed against persons of many religions, races, and cultures during World War II. Our position is also supported by common law and the objective fact that having normal genitals, including a foreskin, is not a condition requiring surgical intervention. Furthermore, intactivism places no inherent value in following a particular common or traditional practice nor in capitulating to the current (but always-evolving) status quo, if those traditions and practices compromise the physical integrity and sexual wellbeing of children and the adults they will become.
Thus, neither religion nor “culture” should ever be invoked to support child genital cutting. At the same time, opposition to child genital cutting is not rooted in anti-religious sentiments. To tie ourselves up in such accusations is to lose focus on the true intent of the intactivist movement, as expressed in the fundamental goal and vision of Intact America, restated from above: a world where children are free from medically unnecessary surgeries carried out on them without their consent.
As a human rights organization that respects all persons regardless of their race, religious or cultural affiliation, it is also our duty to refute expressions of bigotry when expressed by people outside or within the intactivist movement. To leave no doubt, in 2022 Intact America’s adopted a new position statement against bigotry and hate speech:
Intact America rejects all forms of ethnic, racial, and religious stereotypes and bigotry. We condemn any form of hate speech based on ethnicity, race, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or irreligion. The incorporation of anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim expressions into criticism of male (or female) circumcision only serves to undermine our movement and potentially derail our work to protect all children from genital cutting.
I fervently believe that adherence to the logic and principles outlined above will ensure our success in protecting future children and the adults they will become.
We cannot deny that the increasing violence being perpetrated in America today is carried out by boys and men. “Mental illness” is invoked as an explanation, and “more mental health services” are proposed as a solution. Bigotry and hate – perhaps even more complex than mental illness – are also cited as “motives” for many mass shootings and individual crimes against particular racial or ethnic groups.
We shake our heads and ask, “What is making these guys so angry?”
We posit answers like “broken homes,” “bad parenting,” “lack of opportunity,” social and economic disadvantage when compared to other groups or races or cultures… or we throw our hands up in the air and label the killers as “cowards” or “just plain evil.”
Maybe it’s time for us to look at the deepest roots of this violence. Why are boys and men committing mindless mass murder against people they don’t even know, and taking their own lives at unprecedented rates? Where does this all come from? How far back does it go?
For nearly eight decades, American doctors have been engaged in the routine sexual maiming of American boys, carried out (to emphasize the obvious) without boys’ consent, and without regard for their future wellbeing.
Furthermore, until recently, circumcision has been practiced with no pain relief for the child, despite the fact that it is mostly occurs in a medical setting where pain management is given for other surgeries. Even now, though the use of local anesthetic has become more common, it’s not obligatory or particularly effective. And even after the physical wound has healed, the boy must live with scars on his penis and his psyche, and dismissal of his concerns by the same establishment that violated his rights and his body.
The roots of this astonishing lack of compassion for the youngest and most vulnerable members of our society include extreme ignorance and denial (e.g., the assertion that “babies don’t feel pain”), greed (“I can do more circumcisions, more quickly, if I don’t have to wait for anesthetic to take effect”), and mindless disregard, if not contempt, for future physical and psychological consequences (“it’s harmless,” and “anyway, he won’t remember”).
And now, even as more and more boys are being protected from circumcision shortly after birth, they have become targets for another type of violation and act of physical violence – forcible foreskin retraction. Parents are increasingly reporting taking an intact son for medical appointments that have nothing to do with his genitals and being blindsided by a doctor or nurse intent on forcing back the boy’s foreskin, causing great pain and trauma.
Explanations for mass violence, as for all social phenomena, are necessarily complex, and we must resist the impulse to toss out overly-simplistic observations and solutions.
But we need to listen to the growing number of men speaking out about having been violated as babies when an essential (i.e., of its essence) part of their penis was forcibly severed. And we must ask ourselves whether the nearly ubiquitous violation of baby boys as a class of people and the assembly-line acts of violence carried out upon individual newborns might be responsible for at least some of the rage, pain and feelings of impotence that underlie the epidemic of mass killings we are witnessing today.
I will conclude with a quote from my dear friend and fellow intactivist Shelton Walden, who called me as I was writing this introduction:
“We need to treat each other well. We need to stop doing things that make people crazy.”
– Georganne Chapin
This essay was originally published on June 13, 2022, in the Intact America May/June newsletter.
It seems so clear, right? Cutting a boy’s genitals violates the U.S. Constitution, state and federal laws against sex-based discrimination, and statutes and regulations regarding the use of government funding for medically unnecessary services. It also meets definitions of assault and battery — because the child cannot consent — and the surgery serves no therapeutic purpose. And, as we know, both short- and long-term consequences are not uncommon, and some are severe.
So… Sue the bastards!! Right? Over recent months, I have reached out to personal injury attorneys from nearly a dozen states, including those with laws that most liberally favor malpractice cases. I told them that Intact America (as well as other intactivist organizations) are receiving more and more complaints from parents of boys with significant injuries that occurred either during circumcision, as a result of forcible foreskin retraction, or that appeared later. It was our hope, given the limited bandwidth (and resources) of our fellow intactivist who are lawyers, that we could identify a larger group of practitioners who would be willing to review and take on lawsuits from individuals wanting to sue.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple My conversations were uniformly sobering. Here are some of the comments from the lawyers I spoke with:
- The standard for evaluating a case is whether any other doctor would have done the same thing. Circumcision is so common, it’s almost impossible to find a situation that’s so unusual as to make one stand out.
- If we think the dollar value of the recovery is under $250,000, we can’t even consider taking it on. The expenses of preparing a case include research, hiring experts, taking depositions… It can take up to two years. And even though most cases settle, it’s the night before trial, so you’ve already invested all this money.
- Circumcision is considered normal in this country. It’s unremarkable. And a certain number of complications is normal. So…, you rarely have the facts needed for a lawsuit. [This same attorney let me know he is personally opposed to circumcision.]
But what about bodily autonomy and the child’s consent? When I asked about cases involving aggressive “selling” of the procedure to parents, misleading claims as to its benefits, and lack of informed consent, the lawyers brushed these facts aside with the same explanation. Ultimately, if nearly every hospital is circumcising, and if the parent signs a consent form, then there is no cause of action egregious enough to mount a lawsuit.
So, what now? At this point, as painful as it is to hear this message, counting on the courts to punish the participants in the circumcision machine is wishful thinking.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that we need to sit still as American boys are systematically violated. No, in fact, we need to document every case that comes to us and help the parties who were harmed by filing complaints with the physicians themselves, the hospital or other facility where the event took place (I call this “the scene of the crime”) and the professional (mis)conduct board of the state where it occurred. This is a massive task, but if we are able to amass and track enough cases, physicians will find it increasingly uncomfortable to continue to violate children by cutting off their foreskins and the promiscuous promotion of circumcision will decline.
If you would like to volunteer to help Intact America with this project, please write to us at [email protected]. Tell us what state you live in, and what (if any) experience you have with legal issues, customer service, or other activities that would help you to help us do this work.
In advance, thank you.