Birth of an Intactivist

Had someone told me (or my husband) ten years ago that I’d spend hours talking to complete strangers over the phone about penises – keeping them intact, circumcising them, cleaning them, restoring their foreskins etc – I’d have thought they were nuts. I would not have believed you if you had told me I’d be sporting a bumper sticker on my minivan that says “Today’s Parents Say NO! to Circumcision”. (You probably would have already lost me at ‘minivan’ to be honest!) Working a NOCIRC booth at a midwives’ conference, writing blog posts, handing out books and DVDs and brochures on circumcision? Surely not me.

Yet here I am, and I’ve done all of the above.

Circumcision was never even an option for us. To us, the whole body as it is born is perfect and normal. My husband was born and raised in England where it is normal not to surgically alter a baby’s genitals (In 2003, only 2.1 English boys per 1,000 were circumcised.). My parents were both born and raised in the Netherlands where they too wouldn’t dream of routinely removing a healthy and functional body part from an infant. As with many non-Americans, they were horrified to discover that Americans regularly did this to their babies. It became one of my mom’s biggest worries when she had her babies in the States back before routine ultrasound – making sure that we did not get cut if we turned out to be boys. (She had two girls.)

Fundamentally, neither my husband nor I believe it is our right to make such a drastic decision that will affect another human being for his entire life. We respect our children and their bodies and would no sooner subject our non-consenting infant boys to elective surgery than we would our girls. (Did you know female genital mutilation was commonly practiced in the United States up until the 1960s? Insurance paid for it until the 70s and FGM became illegal only in 1996.) We understand that the foreskin is a very sensitive organ containing thousands of nerve endings, which has an important sexual function as well as a protective one.

We believe the greatest gift we can give our children is an education and a choice. We know that circumcision surgery alone does not reduce the risk of HIV and that education about hygiene and safe sexual relations is far more effective in preventing STDs for both males and females. If our children wish to pierce their ears or other body parts, tattoo them, circumcise them, or otherwise surgically alter them for appearance’s sake, that will eventually be their decision to make. It’s not ours.

We also understand the very real risks associated with this surgery, such as hemorrhage, stroke, cardiac arrest and death. (Did you know some 117 boys die from circumcisions in the US every year? Circumcision kills more babies than auto accidents or SIDS.) We understand the risk of infection following surgery or forcible retraction, and simply cannot imagine intentionally inflicting severe pain on a baby. We know most circumcisions are performed without adequate anaesthesia (or any at all) – and like putting a dab of orajel on your gums before a root canal, that’s simply not acceptable for us.

I got into childbirth education because I wanted to help parents be fully involved in the birth process, to know their options, to be treated with respect. It was through this path that I was asked questions about circumcision and intact care, and that I realized some people did not understand what the surgery involved and had never stopped to consider the thought that genital integrity was a basic human right. And so that led me to becoming the “intactivist” I am today.

In fact, when I was pregnant with my third child, one woman in particular really affected me. A mom of one of my daughter’s classmates, she came in to pick up her daughter soon after giving birth and when someone asked where the baby was, she flippantly said he’d gotten “his little snip” that morning – “you know, it’s a boy thing” – and it seemed so incredibly callous to me, so horrifying, so unfair. I hurt for that child, the terror he must have felt at being strapped down, prepped, cut, shocked into this new world, and now wasn’t even at the very least finding comfort in his mother’s arms. I found it gut-wrenching.

I have never watched an entire circumcision procedure. I don’t need to see it to know with every fiber of my being that it’s incredibly wrong to subject a non-consenting child to this procedure for no medical reason. The photos I have seen, the descriptions I have read, the research I have done and the occasional video accidentally clicked on for a few seconds, are more than enough for me. They alone traumatize me. This is why I do not show a circumcision in my classes. I know some other educators strongly feel I should. But I simply cannot bring myself to watch that time and again every few weeks. I do, however, make DVDs available to anyone considering the surgery. Fortunately, most of my students do not circumcise so I do believe intactivism can be achieved effectively with information and discussion.

Some may dismiss intactivists as being on the wacky fringe, for some reason passionately defending some useless flap of skin, but really, what do we have to gain by promoting bodily integrity? We are not making any money off of your choice to keep your child’s foreskin on his penis. We are not using foreskins to make face cream, we are not charging money for performing surgery, we are not profiting from producing the circumstraints, clamps and other medical devices used in this unnecessary procedure. All we get is satisfaction from knowing a child was saved from pain and given a choice.

Why don’t more people see this multi-billion-dollar industry for what it is? Apart from being a lucrative trade in human body parts, it’s damaging to boys and to society on many levels.

I talk about circumcision because I want people to learn what it does. I want them to understand that although it may have been done to them, it’s a different time now: today, parents have a right to informed consent and informed refusal. Parents today can get way more information at the click of a mouse than their parents ever had access to. I’ve had dads in class tell me that they asked their parents why it had been done to them and learned it truly was just done – many parents weren’t even asked! It seems inconceivable to us now that someone could perform unnecessary surgery on your child without your knowledge and consent, but that’s exactly what happened in so many cases.

Why do I feel compelled to be a voice for those who aren’t yet able to use their own? I don’t know. But I do. I like the saying that peace on earth begins with birth. I believe we should work to welcome our children in the most natural and gentle way possible and that we should make their first weeks and months a loving, peaceful, gentle time.

That’s why I will continue to drive around with intactivist stickers on my minivan, chuckling whenever I see someone behind me hold their cell phone out the window to take a picture of my bumper. I will continue to include information in my childbirth class binders, to counsel people on the phone, to donate to organizations such as Intact America and The Whole Network that help draw attention to this human rights issue, to buy DVDs and books to lend to my students who research this issue. You too can help stop circumcision.

Why bother? Because every little boy who is saved from this surgery is a victory. Just like every girl’s rights to genital integrity are now protected by law in this country and in many others, every boy should be given the right to a choice, the right to have his body as it was born, the right to respect for his ability to care for and make decisions about his own body. He may thank you one day.

It has been a journey for me to be able to let it go when I know someone has chosen to subject their child to circumcision. I have lost hours of sleep worrying about other people’s babies, feeling sad that I could not help them, sharing in some small way the child’s tremendous physical and emotional pain, feeling that I failed him somehow by not finding that one reason that would help his parents see why they should give their child the gift of genital integrity. Sometimes it’s still very difficult and it puts my stomach in knots if I let myself think about it too much. It’s not a burden I’ve asked for but it’s one that’s made easier every time a parent proudly tells me they left their son intact, every time I see a student share an intactivist link on Facebook, every time I get an email or phone call about foreskin care.

And that’s how this intactivist was born.

One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean. Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?” The youth replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.” “Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!”

After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he said, “I made a difference for that one.”

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