Non-consentual, non-medically indicated genital cutting hurts everyone it touches. It causes mothers to set aside their fierce protective instincts, and often also causes intense grief and heartache. It often causes otherwise loving and intelligent fathers to insist their son’s ‘match’. It eats away at the consciences of medical professionals. It irreversibly damages the primary sex organ of over half of male, American babies.
A year or so ago I inadvertantly left a spice jar of cayenne pepper out on the counter one night after cooking dinner and didn’t realize it until the next day when my son’s screams caused my body to shudder. He’d found the cayenne pepper, opened it, and poured it into a pile on the kitchen floor and then played with/in it, and you guessed it-rubbed his eyes. I rushed him to the bathroom and rinsed him with water, I was so panicked, I rinsed his entire head and his look of terror from having water sprayed over his head and face as he held his breath still haunts me. I worried I’d damaged him for ever…worried he’d be blind…called the ped, whose nurse was reassuring. He didn’t require a trip to the ER, but he was traumatized by the experience and was fearful of even having his hair washed for many months.
Fortunately, he’s okay now. I don’t think he consciously remembers it. His vision isn’t effected, and he’s back to loving his baths and usually lets me wash his hair without freaking out. I know what happened was my fault. I acknowledge I was careless, even neglectful to have let him stray from my sight although it only took a moment. I still get a knot in the pit of my stomach thinking about it though. How much worse would I feel if permanent harm-true damage-had come to him? Thankfully, most of us can’t fathom that kind of guilt…but we can try to understand it and be sensitive to it.
Certainly, the boy is the one who suffered direct physical pain and loss and he deserves our sadness and compassion but there are moments and intensities of remorse, guilt, and grief that can make parents literally sick with heartache. I think they deserve our compassion too. What they didn’t know did hurt their child, and there is no way to turn back time, no way to take it back or reverse it.
The circumcision issue is wrought with cultural misperceptions, myths, and misinformation. Parents rely on care providers to be honest with them and to provide them with unbiased, balanced, and truthful information. Sure, they could have (and should have) researched the topic independently and more thoroughly…but circumcision is just so d-mn culturally engrained, still so automatic and assumed: “It’s more hygienic. Dad’s circed, baby should be too. Better now than later.”
Most contemporary pregnancy books have little if anything to say, and if they do they are more often than not moderately pro (written by Americans with circumcised sons themselves, or who actually perform the procedure) or extremely, confusingly wishy-washy. If a parent looks to the internet, they’ll find different types of websites depending on the terms they search for…and could easily end up on Morris’s or Schoen’s websites or Circlist. And, let’s be honest—pregnancy and childbirth are riddled with decisions and choices from what brand of carseat to buy, what interventions to avoid or accept, learning about feeding options, etc. A large percentage of mothers these days also work outside the home and the 40ish weeks of pregnancy can just fly by…
Consent forms for all sorts of things are thrust on women in the hospital, either during labor or afterwards, when they’re exausted, hormonal, recovering from blood loss and in many cases have pain medications in their systems. Circumcision may not even be presented as an option in some cases, more like, “Sign here for the circumcision.” or, “The circumcision will be done tomorrow morning.” Automatic. Assumed. Expected. Completely routine.
How many parents consent to allowing their child’s flesh to be punctured and chemicals injected (vaccination) without doing much-if any-research? That’s one routine parenting choice I made without being fully educated myself. When the standard American consensus is that the foreskin is just a tiny flap of skin and circumcision is a quick and virtually painless “little snip” it’s often not even perceived by parents as “surgery”…kwim? On mainstream boards, I’ve seen some ignorant parents go so far as to compare it to trimming fingernails or a haircut.
Those of us who learned about circumcision before the birth of our son(s) often take our fortune for granted; most parents know disturbingly little about the anatomy & physiology of the foreskin, the mechanics of normal intercourse, the circumcision procedure, it’s risks, and it’s long-term effects. Think back to how you stumbled across the truth. Were you shocked? Horrified? Outraged? Those reactions only result from learning something profoundly disturbing…a surprising, terrible, widespread secret.
Those of us who learned the truth in time to protect our sons are so, so, so lucky…because it easily could have been one of us who trusted our care provider and circumcised based on inadaquate or inaccurate information or ignorantly succumbed to pressures from other directions.
When I read the words of a regretful mother who’s hurting, that’s what I think: It could have been me. It could have happened to my son. When I think of it that way, I feel sadness rather than judgment and compassion rather than anger—for everyone, all the way around.
The entire situation is tragic.
When I finally came to understand the truth about circumcision-the anatomy & functions of the foreskin, the loss every circumcision entails, and the long-term damage that it causes babies and the men they become-I was angry. I was horrified. I was disgusted. I was outraged! I wanted to tell the world, inform the public, shout the truth from the rooftops until parents knew better and I was completely unprepared for the defensiveness and venom circumcision-minded parents shot back at me. They felt attacked, so they retaliated; it was a defense mechanism. I think the biggest epiphany-major, “uh huh!” moment-came when I stumbled across the Stages of Grief…
Suddenly, I saw all of the emotions being expressed by circumcising parents who had been presented with literally overwhelming information about what they’d robbed their children of for exactly what it was: GRIEF.
- Shock stage: Initial paralysis at hearing the bad news.
- Denial stage: Trying to avoid the inevitable.
- Anger stage: Frustrated outpouring of bottled-up emotion.
- Bargaining stage: Seeking in vain for a way out.
- Depression stage: Final realization of the inevitable.
- Testing stage: Seeking realistic solutions.
- Acceptance stage: Finally finding the way forward.
It’s probably important to note that it isn’t always wise to play the armchair psychologist in these dealings and announce to parents that they’re just grieving, that’s why they’re so angry and defensive; they tend to perceive that as condescending and patronizing, which only results in more anger and defensiveness. It is helpful though, from an intactivist perspective to know that these aren’t generally arrogant, heartless parents no matter how hard the struggle against the truth your sharing. Knowing they’re grieving increases our understanding, patience, and compassion. It helps us keep kind and calm even in the face of those who wish to ‘shoot the messanger’.
Anyway, I’ve shared all this because we all journey through these feelings-even as intactivists-at different pace and in our own time. It’s okay to be angry! It really, really is. Circumcision is a terrible thing, an awful, damaging practice that permanently harms vulnerable, unconsenting, defenseless children. It’s that horror, outrage, love of babies and the men they become and desire to protect them that fuels our passion and revitalizes our efforts. It’s not just okay-but essential-that we stay in touch with that and tap into it from time to time.
The challenge is to do our best to not alienate those who are truly ignorant or who are processing grief. We’re planting seeds, even when we don’t see the fruits and may never reap the harvest. Parents who circumcised and later learn the truth and process the guilt and grief make some of the most experienced, passionate, and effective intactivists.