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Do You Know… The History of Racism in American Circumcision?

At a time when human dignity is under assault in our nation and institutionally sponsored racial violence is escalating, I want to say that Intact America stands with those fighting for justice. I also want to talk about how racist myths and stigma have been used to justify male genital cutting — male circumcision — both historically and today, in the United States and overseas.

We know that male and female child genital cutting has been a tradition in some cultures for thousands of years. But as a medical practice, it started in English-speaking countries relatively recently. Nineteenth century Victorian-era doctors believed that sex was dirty, and that the male foreskin was the cause of much disease and of out-of-control sexuality. They thought that removing the foreskin would keep boys from masturbating. Doctors also cut off girls’ and women’s clitorises to tame their sexual impulses and to “cure” hysteria and other maladies. No group was exempt, and poor immigrants and others at the bottom of the social scale came to be targeted as needing to be cut in the name of sexual control and “hygiene.”

Black people, especially black men, were (and still are) sexualized in the American imagination, with myths abounding regarding their sexual appetite, dangerousness, and the size of their genitals. Not surprisingly, then, these myths became justifications for making black men a specific target for circumcision by a medical establishment enthusiastic to carry out the practice. (Black women have also been victimized by the medical system for decades, subjected to medical experimentation, sterilization and other abuses.)

In 1891, a prominent physician named Peter Remondino began calling for “the wholesale circumcision of the Negro race.” Remondino described black men’s foreskins as combining “the extra vitality and proliferation of the preputial tissue with the strong animal vitality of the negro,” and proposed foreskin removal as “an efficient remedy in preventing the predisposition to discriminate raping” — in other words, the rape of white women — “so inherent in that race.”

Remondino was not an outlier. He had been a surgeon in the Union Army during the Civil War and was the first president of the San Diego Board of Public Health. His articles were published in prominent medical journals of the times. His book, “The History of Circumcision from the Earliest Times to the Present,” was published in 1900 and can be found today on Amazon.

And lest you think that circumcising black men as a means of keeping their sexuality under control has died out, look no further than the anti-HIV efforts largely funded by U.S. foundations and carried out by “reputable” American academics to circumcise millions of men in sub-Saharan Africa. (Keep in mind that U.S. cemeteries are full of circumcised men who have died of AIDS since the epidemic started here in the 1980s.) These African campaigns exploit and put at risk whole populations of men who are viewed as so driven by their sexual impulses that they cannot be relied upon to practice safe sex, and also threaten the health of their sex partners.

Most American men alive today were tied down and their foreskins brutally severed when they were babies and unable to resist. The fact that perpetrators of violence may themselves have suffered violence in the past makes our work as human rights advocates both complicated and extremely important. We must break the cycle and fight injustice in every corner, under every rock, of our society.

You cannot compartmentalize justice — you can’t fight to protect babies’ bodies from being placed in four-point restraints and genitally mutilated, but stay silent when you see unresisting men or women held to the ground, kicked and beaten or suffocated to death. You cannot compartmentalize equality. You can’t fight to protect girls and women from genital cutting and rape, but turn the other way when boys and men are assaulted because our social mythology tells us that males (and even more so, black males), cannot be victims or — even worse — that they deserve it.

I am proud to lead Intact America and represent a movement that fights for human rights, personhood, dignity, liberty, and a life free from violence. I hope you will join me in fighting for freedom, exercising compassion, and demanding an end to all forms of injustice and inequality.

Intact America defends the right of every person to bodily autonomy. We deplore all forms of violence inflicted upon people because of their age, their race, their color, their language or culture, their country of origin, their sex or sexual orientation, their mental or physical disabilities, their religion, or any other personal characteristic that makes them convenient targets of oppression.

 

Do You Know: Your voice is needed?

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)

Do You Know: Nurses are ranked the most trusted profession(als)?

For the 17th consecutive year, a Gallup Poll for the Most Trusted Professionals found that 84 percent of Americans rated the honesty and ethical standards of nurses as “very high” or “high.”

Medical doctors and pharmacists were next on the list, rated at 67 percent and 66 percent, respectively.

Of course, being considered trustworthy doesn’t necessarily equate with being knowledgeable. This is especially true when it comes to knowledge about the foreskin.

The pediatric literature is clear: An intact foreskin should never be forcibly retracted. Yet, a national survey conducted in 2018 by Intact America revealed that a staggering 43 percent of intact boys have had their foreskins forcibly retracted by an adult at least once by the age of seven. Close to half of these forcible retractions were done by doctors, and nine percent were done by nurses.

In a medical malpractice suit filed last year against Children’s HealthCare of Atlanta (a large pediatric hospital), it was a nurse who forcibly retracted Leon Parks’ foreskin, and who – when told by his mother not to do that – insisted that she was putting the baby at risk for infection if she did NOT regularly retract his foreskin.

These findings – about the high esteem in which American nurses are held, and the irrefutable fact that nurses are not well-informed about foreskin anatomy and foreskin care – tell us how important it is to get the right information into the hands of the medical professionals who treat our children.

Intact America’s Made to Stick campaign is reaching out to professional medical associations and asking them to educate their membership. We are telling pediatricians and nurses that their ignorance of the facts – and the AAP’s own policy – is harming the very children they take an oath to protect. Further, we are putting them on notice that if they continue to push for forcible retraction of intact boys’ foreskins, they are exposing themselves to the same kind of legal jeopardy currently being faced by Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, in the Parks lawsuit.

Stay tuned for more information about our Made to Stick campaign. In the meantime, download our “Foreskin Facts” and “Intact Care Guide” flyers. Bring this information with you to medical appointments and share them with your child’s caregivers.

Let’s help to give nurses (and doctors) the tools they need to truly merit the public’s trust.

Do You Know: Americans are changing their attitudes on circumcision?

In 2014, Intact America commissioned a national survey that asked (among many other questions) respondents; “Should baby boys be kept intact?” {the word “intact” was explained.} Only 10 percent of respondents answered in the affirmative, i.e., “Yes, baby boys should be kept intact.” In 2018, we asked the same question in a second national survey; fully 14 percent said yes, baby boys should be kept intact.

When Intact America was founded a decade ago, our expressed goal was “To Change the Way America Thinks about Circumcision.” The results of our surveys show that Intact America and the intactivist movement are moving public opinion in the right direction.

Many of you have read about our “Tipping Point” strategy. The strategy comes from decades of research about successful social change movements Put simply, a “tipping point” is:

an event or a stage (as in a social movement) where a critical mass of people accepts a new idea or alternative to the previous status quo.

Thus, for circumcision, the new idea/alternative to the status quo is the belief that the intact male body is normal and desirable, and that keeping a baby intact is also normal and desirable.

Social change experts know that behavior follows beliefs – not the other way around. People stop drinking sugary drinks after they hear about other tasty less-sugary alternatives that are growing in popularity.

That’s why the messages Intact America employs are designed to change public opinion, and popularize the foreskin and the intact male body. Here are some examples:

  • Three-quarters of men in the world are intact and have no problems with their foreskins.
  • The foreskin provides protection, lubrication and pleasure to a man and his sexual partner.
  • The intact penis requires no special care.
Our messages are working! Funds permitting (a reliable national survey costs $7,000-$10,000 to implement), Intact America will survey the public to measure progress toward the tipping point. In the meantime, we’ll continue to promote foreskin-positive messages so that every American begins to see the foreskin as normal and natural, and believe that keeping a baby boy intact is the natural thing to do.

Do You Know: Why intactivists need to speak out, and come out?

Not a week goes by without somebody asking me: “How did you get involved in this cause (intactivism)?” I tell them I cannot abide the injustice that allows doctors and parents to remove an important body part from their infant sons.

Similarly, not a week goes by without somebody saying to me, “I want to do everything I can to protect boys, but I can’t use my real name because ….” (the reasons vary). I think to myself: How do you expect to change things if you stay anonymous?

“An activist is someone who cannot help but fight for something. That person is not usually motivated by a need for power or money or fame, but in fact is driven slightly mad by some injustice, some cruelty, some unfairness so much so that he or she is compelled by some internal moral engine to act to make it better.”

— Eve Ensler

Last month, as I was marching with our Intact America contingent at NYC Pride, I marveled at how far one cause – equal right for people, no matter what their sexual orientation – had come. I realized this was only possible because people who had suffered in secrecy, shame and fear for so long decided to speak out, to come out with their real names, their real stories, and their demands for justice.

In my own lifetime, I’ve seen racial desegregation outlawed, and interracial couples become mainstream. I’ve seen same-sex couples, first having achieved the right to marry, adopt babies and create the families that would have been impossible only a few years before.

All social change movements began as unfamiliar or unpopular causes. To oppose slavery in the United States was once unthinkable. The injustice of enslaving other human beings is what motivated persons of conscience to speak out, to come out and demand the abolition of slavery.

When American women began demanding the right to vote (starting with the Seneca Falls convention in 1848), they were attacked as unladylike, ugly and unlovable – as man-haters, or unpatriotic threats to the American way of life. Women and men so motivated by the injustice of denying half the population the right to participate in the political system marched and wrote and spoke out, using their real names, incurring ridicule and for themselves and their families. (Not coincidentally, many also fought for women’s suffrage.)

Activists who oppose FGM in African and Muslim countries have been criticized, persecuted, and disowned by their families and cultures. But it hasn’t kept them from coming out –even, in many cases, fleeing their own countries in order to continue speaking out.

Granted, pockets of fear and hatred continue to exist, and we live at perpetual risk of backsliding. But progress on the human rights front continues, and the slow but growing acknowledgment by Americans that baby boys deserve justice is evidence of this progress.

Why are we making progress? Because people who believe in justice for all refuse to stay silent. They refuse to hide in the closet. They speak out. They march, they donate to the intactivist group(s) of their choice, and they spread the word to anyone who will listen.

Freed slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass was encouraged by many of his friends to hide his identity. They feared – not without reason – that Douglass would be re-captured and either killed or returned to the plantation where he’d been enslaved. Douglass realized, though, that keeping his identity a secret diminished his credibility, and conveyed fear and weakness – the antithesis of activism.

Here is what I say when somebody tells me they are committed to intactivism, but need to remain anonymous: If you cannot use your own name, who will believe in you? Who can see you as an example to follow, if they don’t know who you are?

As social justice advocate DaShanne Stokes famously said: “Only by speaking out can we create lasting change. And that change begins with coming out.”

Do You Know: Why intactivists need to speak out, and come out?

Not a week goes by without somebody asking me: “How did you get involved in this cause (intactivism)?” I tell them I cannot abide the injustice that allows doctors and parents to remove an important body part from their infant sons.

Similarly, not a week goes by without somebody saying to me, “I want to do everything I can to protect boys, but I can’t use my real name because ….” (the reasons vary). I think to myself: How do you expect to change things if you stay anonymous?

“An activist is someone who cannot help but fight for something. That person is not usually motivated by a need for power or money or fame, but in fact is driven slightly mad by some injustice, some cruelty, some unfairness so much so that he or she is compelled by some internal moral engine to act to make it better.”

— Eve Ensler

Last month, as I was marching with our Intact America contingent at NYC Pride, I marveled at how far one cause – equal right for people, no matter what their sexual orientation – had come. I realized this was only possible because people who had suffered in secrecy, shame and fear for so long decided to speak out, to come out with their real names, their real stories, and their demands for justice.

In my own lifetime, I’ve seen racial desegregation outlawed, and interracial couples become mainstream. I’ve seen same-sex couples, first having achieved the right to marry, adopt babies and create the families that would have been impossible only a few years before.

All social change movements began as unfamiliar or unpopular causes. To oppose slavery in the United States was once unthinkable. The injustice of enslaving other human beings is what motivated persons of conscience to speak out, to come out and demand the abolition of slavery.

When American women began demanding the right to vote (starting with the Seneca Falls convention in 1848), they were attacked as unladylike, ugly and unlovable – as man-haters, or unpatriotic threats to the American way of life. Women and men so motivated by the injustice of denying half the population the right to participate in the political system marched and wrote and spoke out, using their real names, incurring ridicule and for themselves and their families. (Not coincidentally, many also fought for women’s suffrage.)

Activists who oppose FGM in African and Muslim countries have been criticized, persecuted, and disowned by their families and cultures. But it hasn’t kept them from coming out –even, in many cases, fleeing their own countries in order to continue speaking out.

Granted, pockets of fear and hatred continue to exist, and we live at perpetual risk of backsliding. But progress on the human rights front continues, and the slow but growing acknowledgment by Americans that baby boys deserve justice is evidence of this progress.

Why are we making progress? Because people who believe in justice for all refuse to stay silent. They refuse to hide in the closet. They speak out. They march, they donate to the intactivist group(s) of their choice, and they spread the word to anyone who will listen.

Freed slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass was encouraged by many of his friends to hide his identity. They feared – not without reason – that Douglass would be re-captured and either killed or returned to the plantation where he’d been enslaved. Douglass realized, though, that keeping his identity a secret diminished his credibility, and conveyed fear and weakness – the antithesis of activism.

Here is what I say when somebody tells me they are committed to intactivism, but need to remain anonymous: If you cannot use your own name, who will believe in you? Who can see you as an example to follow, if they don’t know who you are?

As social justice advocate DaShanne Stokes famously said: “Only by speaking out can we create lasting change. And that change begins with coming out.”