Nov 30 2013

Intactivists overstate the case

I am absolutely against circumcision of males, except where medically necessary or where it has a net-positive effect in curtailing sexually transmitted diseases in high-risk populations. But when I see some “intactivists” — activists protesting circumcision of males — making the case in such a hyperbolic and emotive manner, I can’t help but shake my head.

In a “colorful protest” by Brother K and his “bloodstained men”, men in white jumpsuits protest with large red spots on their crotches.

“The destruction to the male genitals is absolute,” says Brother K. “Total. You’re left with a fraction of what God and nature intended. It’s appalling.”

One could argue that since you do still have a penis afterward, the destruction is anything but “absolute” or “total”. In volume, percentage-wise, I would be surprised if the largest most voluminous foreskin on the smallest of micropenises would amount to 10%. There’s no way that’s anything like “total”.

With respect to God’s “intent”, an argument could be made that if you believe in God, you should believe in all the ancillary parts of the foundational text that serves as proof of that God — many of which suggest that God really despises foreskins and removing foreskins directly pleases him. But let’s assume for the moment that this guy isn’t trying to appeal to the naturalistic fallacy by invoking God’s name, and look at the rest of the argument.

“This is meant to shock the conscience of Americans,” says Brother K, referring to his attire and accompanying signs like, “CIRCUMCISION HORROR BLOODSTAINED MEN.” He pauses frequently to pose for passing cars. “They don’t understand that a man is carrying around a bloody wound for the rest of his life. It doesn’t repair. It doesn’t self heal. It’s as devastating as if they’ve done the same thing to a woman and removed her entire clitoral hood.”

I am circumcised, to my chagrin. But it is not a bloody wound. It has never been a seeping, unhealing blood-dripping part of my body. As long as I can remember, from my very earliest days, my penis has never bled. Not once.

People who are circumcised almost certainly do lose some sensitivity, where the glans is no longer protected by the prepuce and has a tendency of drying out. They also lose some not insignificant fraction of the surface area of the skin of their penis, and therefore have had some amount of nerves removed.

But to say that they are carrying an unhealing bloody wound is pure hyperbole, wrong on its surface, and will undercut these intactivists’ efforts. You could say it’s a PSYCHOLOGICAL wound, because I’m sure for some people it certainly is. But such hyperbole is unnecessary when the actual act is barbaric.

Additionally, trying to compare the act of circumcising a penis — done most often for atavistic religious reasons, rather than legitimate medical ones — with female “circumcision” requires great care with your language. Religious “circumcision” of women involves removing the clitoris, generally. It can involve the removal of the hood, but the clitoris is usually the target of this practice. The equivalent would be removing the glans entirely. That would almost certainly remove significantly more sensitivity ultimately.

I really do like the idea of protesting circumcision, because it is a backward and barbaric practice that has gone on too long unchecked. I am on board generally with changing the culture that suggests that circumcision is a normal and “standard” thing, when it’s really a ritual to appease a non-existent sky-god whose lust for blood is slaked, in the Bible, by removing the foreskin. I just wish the people acting as standard-bearers could do so without using emotive arguments that are unevidenced and hyperbolic.


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  1. 1
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    It is all sort of silly. There’s not really any big deal about the foreskin… outside of fetishists, I don’t think people really pay much attention to them. In my view, it barely qualifies as an issue besides that the idea of doing cosmetic surgery to infants is sort of weird. If you feel strongly enough about it to want it stopped, good on you and I’m not going to stand in anyone’s way.

    On the other hand, yeah! The arguments some people use are so over-the-top nonsensical that they’re really just shooting themselves in the foot. Being circumcised without complication didn’t ruin your sex life. If anything, sometimes the lack of a foreskin seems to be a scapegoat for people’s unrelated feeling of sexual inadequacy or dissatisfaction. Sad, really.

  2. 2
    John Morales

    Improbable Joe, I strongly disagree with your opinion in your first paragraph, tangential as it is to the main thrust of the OP and your second paragraph.

    I am uncircumcised, and I can assure you that my glans is most sensitive and it feels actually painful to be exposed to anything other than lubriciousness; that is, my foreskin protects a delicate part of my anatomy.

    Now, it is true that lacking that protection, in time the sensitivity of the protected area would decrease to such a degree that exposure to dry or rough surfaces (e.g. clothing) would not be particularly noticeable, but that would not make it “not a big deal” to lose that protection and that sensitivity.

    (I understand that the edentate can manage to chew with their gums, once they toughen up sufficiently, too — yet I would similarly not consider loss of dentition to be “not a big deal”)

  3. 3
    John Morales

    Improbable Joe: further to my previous, I note you concede that there is a possibility of complications (and, given the scale of the practice, the number of such complications despite their relatively low likelihood in any given instance, the total of such outcomes adds up); accordingly, to claim that a surgical procedure done without consent or medical necessity is “no big deal” is itself a remarkable claim.

  4. 4
    J. Simonov

    What John said.

    Also, are these guys really representative of intactivism generally? I read up on it in my spare time on a semi-regular basis, and I’ve honestly never encountered this kind of hyperbole.

  5. 5

    IMO, you can find some fringy people at the fringes of any organization. The fact remains that there is no reason to slice the foreskin from the head of a newborn’s penis (the two are fused at birth) over fears of sexually transmitted diseases. Newborns don’t have sex, and those studies that claim to prove that circumcised men are less prone to disease are mostly done in high-risk populations in sub-Saharan Africa. Cleanliness is not an issue to anyplace with access to clean water and soap. We don’t slice off a newborn girl’s labia to protect her from possibly, maybe getting urinary tract infections when she’s an adult.

  6. 6

    I was medically circumcised as a child, and I agree with Jason. I have never had any problems with my penis, and don’t even remember having it done. I do see it as no big deal for me at least.

    To my knowledge, routine circumcision for medical reasons is now discouraged, as it is unnecessary and may cause minor problems later in life.

    Religious circumcision is a barbaric practice. There is no anesthesia, and some practices can be unsanitary. With that being said, the hysterical reactions of the intactivists is extreme.

  7. 7
    John Morales

    I really don’t want to monopolise this comment thread, but I would like it if those reading would consider whether they think that the incidence of circumcision would remain similar to its current rate were non-medically indicated circumcision to be limited to those who, having reached the age of maturity, opt for it.

  8. 8

    Because the brain is much more plastic in infancy, loss of the foreskin in infancy is likely to be very different from loss of the foreskin during adulthood or even childhood, from a sensory perspective.

    So it would be nice if people would not assume without evidence that the experience of someone who is circumcised at birth is similar to that of someone who is circumcised as an older child or adult.

  9. 9

    I agree that overly hyperbolic language is counter-productive. The facts provide sufficient reason to be against the practice, so why go beyond? Moreover, the major problem of circumcision isn’t (in my opinion) the damage itself. There may well be some damage and it’s certainly not a good thing, but far more than that, I think the problem is the attitude revealed by this practice.

    Doing surgery for non-medical reasons on infants shows how people really view children; as property. Children get enough of that shit already. We should never intervene like that unless there’s solid, fact-based reasons for it.

    If you don’t get angry because you think a flap of skin is irrelevant, I don’t blame you. Instead, get angry about the blatant violation of the physical rights of a helpless individual. Just like the abortion debate, this is a case where suddenly a certain class of human beings are denied their rights. That’s not okay and it says some very unpleasant things about our culture that we allow it to happen.

    And, of course, in most cases, the supposed benefits raised by proponents are simply red herrings. The majority of circumcisions aren’t done for the medical benefits, whatever they may be. Mostly, they’re done for cultural/religious reasons and then people rationalize it afterward.

  10. 10

    Another thing is that if this hyperbole did become commonly accepted, it would set people up to feel traumatized when removal of the foreskin did become medically necessary. Especially since that procedure usually has to be carried out on boys old enough to understand what’s happening to them and men. They may be a minority but I happen to know one (8 year old at the time of the op) so I feel for him and for parents like his who have to see their child through an operation in a atmosphere that threatens them with lifelong trauma and the ruination of their sex lives.

  11. 11
    Alex SL

    That guy sounds like a more extreme version of the people who hijack every thread on FGM with “hey, why are you not talking about male circumcision, it is *exactly as bad* as FGM.” Or in other words, “why doesn’t every discussion revolve around me ME MEEEE?”

    Yes, I am also against unnecessary operations on infants who cannot provide informed consent; but it would only be comparable with FGM if the entire glans were cut off or something like that.

  12. 12

    The equating of female and male circumcision is ridiculous. The former is dangerous and traumatic, the later; usually insignificant. Even using the traditional methods without anesthetic it is, based upon the kids reaction, crying for a few minutes and then falling asleep, not exceedingly traumatic.

    Based upon the reaction of one adult friend who was circumcised as an adult for religious reasons, frightened pre-op, sore for days post-op but enjoying sex with his girlfriend after that, it doesn’t seem to be exceedingly mentally of physically traumatic. The account of how sex felt before and after, I paraphrase, it took him longer to get there (which was appreciated by his girlfriend) but the end result was the same. Given the level of his libido and continued interest in new and interesting partners during the years I knew him I can only conclude that he was still enjoying himself.

    Circumcised in a hospital shortly after birth I don’t feel I’m missing anything but without comparison I will never know. The one commentary from women I hear, if they notice any difference at all, is that circumcised men, referred to a “helmet heads” within the nursing community (as opposed to “turtlenecks”) was that we tend to last a little longer during sex. A good thing.

    I’m also more than a little leery about claims of the virtues of male sensitivity. Most males know what being too sensitive is like. For a time after climax the glans is so sensitive that any contact is interpreted as something resembling pain. If remaining intact means more of that, particularly if it happens outside the bedroom, at random times as clothing rubs the wrong way, I think I prefer life without a foreskin. Good riddance.

    As for the child’s rights and autonomy argument? Bunk. From toilet training to eating vegetables kids are forced to do stuff. That is what parents do. Male circumcision doesn’t rise to the level of importance of a potentially detrimental imposition upon the child so large as to force society to concern itself. Not if it is done in a safe manner by skilled persons.

    I see this as just another aspect of the left’s inability to stay focused. Wars going on, America becoming a banana republic, poverty and despair rampant across the nation, while enormous sacks of cash slip out the back door in the pockets of a very few, and here we are, debating the relative merits of having a foreskin and the viability of using the state as an instrument of coercion to control this time-honored, but trivial, practice. No wonder the left always gets rolled and can’t seem to win for losing. You can’t make progress if you can’t maintain a sense of proportion and priority.

  13. 13

    As for the child’s rights and autonomy argument? Bunk. From toilet training to eating vegetables kids are forced to do stuff. That is what parents do.


    Parenting isn’t about making kids do stuff. It’s about making the decisions that the child can’t make for themselves, in service of the interests of the child. Ideally, you should make the decision that the child would make, if they had the ability.

    Circumcision isn’t about serving the interests of the child. It’s serving the interests of the adults. Permanently altering the body of a person who is unable to either consent or understand, for the purpose of serving the interests of a completely different person is unethical, by any reasonable standard.

    When serving the interests of a child, we should do only as much as we need to. Any decision the child can make for themselves, we should leave to them and any decision that isn’t pressing should be postponed until the child is mature enough to decide.

    We force children to do things only when the alternative would be worse. We force them to potty train because basic hygiene is kinda important. We force them to eat their vegetables, so they don’t get malnourished or obese. We forced them to do many things, because there are clear objective benefits to doing it and the kid isn’t able to understand why it needs to be done yet.

    We force them to do it to avoid permanent damage. That cannot be used as an argument to cause it, however slight.

    This is exactly the kind of thing I was talking about earlier. I think parenting is (or should be) all about serving the interests of the child; acting as a guardian for the child’s rights. Parents have no rights, they only have the duty of safeguarding the rights of the child until it’s old enough to take over itself.

    If you don’t agree with that, then I’m sure we’re not going to see eye to eye. If you do, then I think you’ve got a major problem in your argumentation.

    Finally, this is not an insignificant issue, exactly because it touches in these core ideas. This is an expression of how we view our humanity and how we want our society to work. It ties directly into a load of other issues, like the subject of abortion I mentioned earlier.

  14. 14

    You’re tying being against circumcision with being pro-life?

    Are you a crazy person? You’re going to need to elaborate further or else you’re just a crazy person.

  15. 15

    Obviously, I was a bit unclear.

    What I’m comparing is the attitude of pro-lifers towards women and pro-circumcisioners (is that a word?) towards children. In both cases, they are disregarding the right of bodily autonomy for the subject.

    Forcing a woman to allow a fetus to use her organs is similar to forcing a child to let its parents use its organs. In both situations, the subject is having their body used against their will and best interests, to serve the interests of another person.

    So, I’m tying pro-life attitudes to being for (non-medically required, non-consensual) circumcision.

  16. 16

    I’m always of two minds on the whole anti-circumcision issue.

    On the one hand, there is no question that circucising male infants is a violation of bodily autonomy, and should not be permitted. Religions may have a tradition, but we have precedent even in the United States, known for protecting religious expression to a degree well beyond most other nations, for overriding religious belief when there is a compelling interest at stake: protecting the bodily autonomy of children would fit the bill. And non-religious reasons for circumcision in the general case do not exist; urethral blockage and infections that require it are rare enough that they can be done as-needed, not as a matter of course.

    On the other hand…well, two things. First, I was circumcised as a baby, since I was raised Jewish, and I feel no sense of shame or violation about this personally; indeed, the degree to which I could possibly care less, if it exists, can only be measured in Planck lengths. Apparently other men feel differently, and that’s fine; like I said, it’s still a violation of autonomy, and that’s a legit argument. But I personally have no stake in the argument, so that is one part of my “don’t go there” reaction.

    The other part, though, is more about when and where the anti-circumcision activist men show up to protest about it. I’ve noticed that, on the internet at least, they often show up to screech (yes, I said screech) about how circumcision is the WORST THING EVAR on posts and in threads where there is a discussion going on about women’s bodily autonomy, particularly to do with issues like female genital mutilation and abortion and the like. I have thus come to experience the male circumcision issue as mostly being a derailing tactic. My priors on this one are very strong.

    Now, I will still support the general banning of the practice of circumcision on the grounds of bodily autonomy, because that matters a lot in general. But hoo, boy, do the “intactivists” need to shut promptly up, or at least stop using their issue to derail others’.

  17. 17
    Guess Who?

    @Flewellyn: yes, fringy people are fringy. That doesn’t negate the fact that most of the world does not cut of the foreskins of newborn infants, and they get along just fine. @lorn; any surgery can be painful and traumatizing to children, but your one-off story of a child having to be circumcized for medical reasons is a bit ridiculous. Should we go in and rip out the appendix of all newborns because appendicitis leading to appendix removal can be confusing and scary to children? For that matter, testicular cancer is scary; should we castrate all infant boys at birth, so they won’t have to suffer the risk of testicular cancer? Breast cancer can be devastating; should we cut out the breast buds of all newborn girls, on the off chance that maybe possibly that newborn girl might have gone on to develop cancer as an adult? Of course not–those are ridiculous arguments, as were yours.

    As for the adult getting circumcised; he was an adult, with full understanding of and consent for what was going to happen to him, and he was no doubt given pain relief–something that’s not routine for infant circumcisions. I’m confused as to why you don’t think it’s wrong to perform unnecessary body modification on a newborn who cannot understand or consent to it.

  18. 18

    @Flewellyn: yes, fringy people are fringy. That doesn’t negate the fact that most of the world does not cut of the foreskins of newborn infants, and they get along just fine.

    I love it when people try to argue points with me that I’ve already conceded. It shows such great attention to detail on their part, really demonstrates that they actually read what I was saying.

  19. 19

    FLewellyn: “I love it when people try to argue points with me that I’ve already conceded. . It shows such great attention to detail on their part, really demonstrates that they actually read what I was saying.”

    Which point would that be? What you actually said was: “On the other hand…well, two things. First, I was circumcised as a baby, since I was raised Jewish, and I feel no sense of shame or violation about this personally”. Then you go on to say: “The other part, though, is more about when and where the anti-circumcision activist men show up to protest about it.”

    So, basically you seem to be saying that even though the civilized world believes doing unnecessary cutting of a newborn’s genitalia is wrong, hey, you don’t care about that because it doesn’t bother you personally, and besides, some fringy people are fringy, so you’re going to be childish about it because you’re butthurt about the one some people express yourself. Got it.

  20. 20

    The complaint about derailing is legitimate. Anyone who has payed attention knows that this happens frequently. It’s damn near impossible to have a discussion about FGM without someone coming along and wanting to make it all about circumcision. And I don’t just mean mentioning it in passing; I mean actually changing the subject. It’s frustrating as hell.

    Given that this thread is concerned with discussing possibly self-defeating tactics on this subject, I think it’s quite relevant to mention this particular problem. It not only sabotages discussions on FGM, but it also generates a very poor image for anyone trying to get something done about circumcision. As such, it’s doubly problematic.

    Just because a given subject is important doesn’t mean we should discuss it all the time, in any venue, especially if doing so derails discussions of other, also important, subjects. There’s a time and a place.

  21. 21

    OP says “these tactics are not helpful, and serve only to alienate.”

    People OP was addressing show up in comments to engage in those very same tactics.

    That *CLANG* you just heard was the impact of the MASSIVE IRONY.

  22. 22
    Guess Who?

    FLewellyn, yes, so sorry that your tactics are alienating. You’ve said quite clearly that you couldn’t care less about circumcision, but you’ll fight to the death anyone who says they do. Yes, it is ironic.

  23. 23

    @Guess Who?
    That’s not remotely what Flewellyn has said, nor is it a reasonable reading of his posts.

    From #16:

    …there is no question that circucising male infants is a violation of bodily autonomy, and should not be permitted…


    I will still support the general banning of the practice of circumcision on the grounds of bodily autonomy…

    The fact that Flewellyn (1) feels no personal violation from circumcision and (2) has some entirely legitimate criticisms of how this debate is often carried out on the internet doesn’t mean that he will “fight to the death” for the right to circumcise. He has in fact said the exact opposite.

  24. 24

    how can anyone overstate rape and sexual mutilation?

  25. 25
    Brother K

    I’m not going to address your personal attacks because they’re as childish as any that young men scream out their car windows on the street. You show your ignorance on Female circumcision rather openly. When you rewrite this article in light of the new evidence I’m posting here for you, give me a ring. Or if you ever show your face in public with a sign protesting circumcision.


  26. 26

    I think the method that Brother K and the Bloodstained Men use is similar to those of Madonna and Lady Gaga…it’s almost performance art. Circumcision is a barbaric and unnecessary practice, and the sad truth is that too many people either refuse to acknowledge it, or are downright complacent about violating a child’s right to his whole body. In a society that puts more importance on where the Kardashians are vacationing this season, it takes people like Brother K and the Bloodstained Men to use such dramatic means to draw attention to something far more important…the rights of these children. Instead of dismissing his tactics, perhaps you could try seeing them from a more open minded perspective.

  27. 27
    Jason Thibeault

    Oh, hello folks. Good to see you visiting now, and so suddenly, and so long after I posted. Where’d you link from?

    I absolutely agree that circumcision is a horrible religiously-motivated practice that should only be done if it’s medically indicated. But you people are just coocoo-bananas. Seriously. If you have a gaping wound on your penis that’s never healed since you were a child, you must have a hell of an immune system to not have died of sepsis all these years. What do you do about the pus? Do you regularly bandage your wound?

    Try being just a little realistic about your complaints.

    And that link… that link. Yes, some places have reduced female genital mutilation to a “mere symbolic cut”, which is also terribly cruel, but that ain’t the mode. And you’d continue protesting if circumcision was a “mere symbolic cut” too, so why are you trying to suggest that anyone here is pro-circumcision, or ignorant, or anything but rational and clear-minded for demanding accuracy in our complaints?

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