by Lillian Dell’Aquila Cannon
The question I pose to all intactivists is this: Do you want to be righteously angry, or do you want to save babies?
When I first started learning about choosing to keep my son intact nine years ago, intactivism was not very strong or well-formed, and there was much more actual online debate of circumcision. It was common for there to be one intactivist against a sea of pro-circumcision debaters. Now, the situation seems to have reversed: I often see one pro-circumcision parent being attacked by a sea of intactivists. Though it may seem like progress for us and it may feel nice to be part of a group instead of being alone, we need to reign this in if we want to actually end circumcision.
It may sound heretical, but I can assure you that parents who had their sons circumcised are not actually bad people. We live in a culture where circumcision was normalized for nearly 80 years, and the intact penis was vilified as dirty, disgusting, unappealing to women, and associated with the lower class. Though we know these are all untrue, the many people in the U.S. still believe these myths. There is plenty of (mis)information to support them in this belief, and it is quite possible that an expectant parent could go the entire pregnancy and never hear anyone advocate for keeping their baby intact. Even if they do hear any intactivist arguments, they are likely to see the decision as a matter of taste, and thus will decide based on their perception of their child “fitting in” to some desirable group, whether that be his father’s family, or social group, or (God forbid) country club. You see, parents want to do what’s best for their child, and a lot of them think that circumcision is what’s best. To them, it’s a slam dunk: they believe that circumcised penises are cleaner, prettier and normal. They have never heard of a man being unhappy to be circumcised, or of a baby dying from it. Why would they NOT circumcise their child?
Parenting is terrifying, and we are often making it up as we go along. On top of that, we have our entire society scrutinizing mothers for evidence to pronounce them “good” or “bad” depending on the decisions they have made and their child’s behavior, even if much of the outcome is due to dumb luck. This is a tremendous amount of pressure to put on a new parent, given that she is hormonally-challenged, perhaps sleep-deprived, and pretty lost and confused. Some of these mothers even worried about the circumcision causing their babies pain, and felt terrible about it, though they also felt that it was necessary. Because of our cultural idea that men should be strong and not complain about pain, circumcision neatly fits into this cultural mold as the first in a string or painful experiences a man will have and during which is expected to remain “tough.”
We intactivists have our own difficult emotional journey. Once you know all the facts about circumcision, it is easy to become very angry. New intactivists often wonder how can people willfully and unnecessarily hurt their babies, damage their sexual response, and risk their lives for a pack of myths? If they chose to keep their child intact, they are often mocked and challenged by their friends and family. This makes new intactivists feel very alone, as though they are living in a crazy society, and they think that everyone is against them. If the intactivist is a circumcised man who has just learned about all he has lost, his anger is especially intense, and rightly so. The most sensitive part of his penis was torn from him when he was one day old, and he cannot get it back, and on top of that, he feels that no one cares. He cannot share his grief, because our culture promotes the idea that to do so would be unmanly, whiny and ridiculous. His isolation and grief is so intense that it can consume him for a long time.
What happens, then, when a parent who chose circumcision meets an angry intactivist? Often, nothing good. I have seen some horribly cruel online attacks on circumcising parents, and this disgusts me. For the parents who chose circumcision, the new information, if true, means that they inadvertently hurt their children. This is a very tough pill to swallow. They were trying to do the right thing, they likely worried about it, and now they are told that they did the wrong thing. These factors all combine to give the parent a very strong incentive to deny the harm of circumcision and continue to assert that circumcision is not harmful. This is because it causes cognitive dissonance in their brains, and the human mind always works to resolve cognitive dissonance. It works like this:
I would never hurt my child.
But they are saying that circumcision did hurt my child.
I cannot be a person who would hurt my child.
Therefore, circumcision did not hurt my child.
There is another alternative to resolve the dissonance, and that is to say, “I did not know that circumcision was bad, and had I know that, I would not have chosen it, but I did what I thought was right then, and I regret that, and I would not do that again.” However, this is a very emotionally and spiritually sophisticated piece of reasoning, and it is the rare circumcising parent who quickly resolves her cognitive dissonance in this honest and difficult way. We are all human beings, doing our best to cope with life, and we should have empathy for each other in our struggles.
If the intactivist carrying the message doesn’t just give facts about circumcision, but also calls the parent closed-minded or stupid, or calls circumcision child abuse, mutilation or torture, though these words may technically be true, he only makes the circumcising parent’s emotional process harder, and decreases the chances of changing his or her mind. Lading circumcision with such strong emotional judgments only increases the psychological pressure to resolve the cognitive dissonance in favor of circumcision not being wrong. Think of it: this parent is now being pressured to admit, “I am a child abusing, close-minded idiot who mutilated and tortured my child.” How likely do you think it will be for her to accept this? If it is the father who is himself circumcised, do you think he wants to say, “I am mutilated and sexually deficient and I cannot change it and I did it to my son?” Absolutely not.
The same process is at work when intactivists angrily confront doctors and religious leaders who perform circumcisions. Attacking them as serial mutilators who profit from deception and sex crimes only lets them marginalize intactivism as a crazy fringe element. On top of that, if we expect them to swallow such a statement, they fear being subject to potential lawsuits and ostracism by their colleagues who continue to perform circumcisions. After all, they have made money from circumcision, but not because they are evil liars. They, too, are part of our culture, and they think they are helping the children, or at least not harming them terribly. Doctors are socialized in their training to cut off their empathy for patients lest they become paralyzed and unable to function in emotionally-charged cases. Their medical training makes them this way – they are not naturally cold and uncaring people.
It is normal to go through a stage of furious anger in one’s journey through intactivism. I have yet to meet an intactivist who has not. I had to take a year-long break from intactivism because whenever I tried to advocate for babies’ human rights, I became so angry and bitter that I turned people off. Bill Moyer, creator of the Movement Action Plan for changing society, says that activists have to continually work on their personal growth in order to be effective in their advocacy. I have certainly found this to be true, and all the most effective intactivists I know have moved through their anger to a place of loving care for everyone, circumcising parents included. People will hear our tone before they hear our message, and if our tone is angry, they will ignore the message.
Intactivists, our view is not yet the mainstream view, and if we expect society to adopt our viewpoint, we cannot continually set roadblocks to this process. Rather, we should do everything we can to make it easy for the mainstream to accept our view. Expecting them to go instantly and easily from seeing circumcision as positive and normal to seeing it as sexual abuse and mutilation is foolish and naive. Some of you may have clearly and quickly seen circumcision for what it is, but you are in the minority. Many of the most dedicated among us took years to see circumcision as fundamentally wrong, and we need to allow others the same time to make this difficult journey.
The most effective intactivism meets people where they are, and if their child and spouse are circumcised, where they are is believing circumcision to be normal and beneficial. Educate them calmly and with facts. Teach them that circumcision is not painless, is not cleaner, does not prevent disease, and does not make sex better. Teach them about the babies and men who were harmed by circumcision. Teach them that most of the rest of the world rejects circumcision. Show them real people who reject circumcision. Expect them to get angry with you and even to attack you personally, but realize that they are not actually angry at you. Though their struggle is all internal, you can either aid or hinder it with your attitude. If you attack them, they will likely shut down, and you will have created a fervent pro-circumcision parent. If you support them in their confusion and impending grief, they are more likely to come around. Let them see how choosing intact is becoming normal, and forgive them for circumcising their children. No mother sets out to harm her child, and when she learns about circumcision, she will punish herself enough. Adding to it via shame and ridicule will only keep intactivism on the fringe.