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Against Intactivism

Anti-circumcision activists, also known as ‘intactivists’, are celebrating on the west coast. In November, San Francisco residents will consider a proposal to ban the circumcision of male children. If the measure passes, circumcision will be banned among males under the age of 18, and will be punishable by a $1,000 fine or up to one year in jail. There will be no religious exemptions.

The bill has a minuscule chance of passing, but the intactivist movement should be taken seriously, for their arguments represent a particularly egregious form of liberalism, one that runs counter to pluralist values, and encourages a conformism that is more typical of totalitarian societies (it is no coincidence that circumcision for religious reasons, and infant baptism, was outlawed in the Soviet Union in 1924) than multicultural democracies.

Intactivists argue that circumcision is unnecessary, abusive, lacks the baby’s consent, and reduces sexual pleasure. The evidence in favour of each of these claims is at best inconclusive. In claiming that circumcision is unnecessary, they ignore evidence that it is linked to lower rates of penile cancer, thrush infections, balanitis, posthisis, and phimosis. In Africa, it is linked to a reduction in HIV/Aids and Human Papilloma Virus.

Regarding abuse, intactivists like to tell horror stories, and will occasionally try to equate male circumcision with female genital mutilation. “You never forget the screams,” one campaigner said. “I was witnessing the torture and mutilation of a baby.” For what it’s worth, I’ve attended a few circumcisions, including that of my own nephew, and found it all a bit underwhelming. There were a few seconds of crying, but nothing to suggest that a brutal torture was taking place (incidentally, contemporary mohels like to use a few drops of wine to soften the blow). Babies under the age of two have a reduced sense of pain and memory; presumably if they can get over the far greater trauma of birth they are capable of getting over a minor procedure eight days later. Either way, the allegation that circumcision is brutal enough to be banned is at the very least disputed.

More convincing is the argument that circumcision irrevocably alters the child’s body without his consent. Intactivism is built upon the supremacy of human autonomy: nobody should do something to someone else’s body without their consent. This is why many intactivists are pro-choice regarding late-term abortions, despite the contradictions that accrue from supporting the killing of something that is to all intents and purposes human while at the same time opposing cutting that same human being’s penis three weeks later.

And what about a child born with an ugly facial birth-mark? If the mark could be removed through a simple but slightly painful medical procedure, would the intactivists call the parents who decide to have the birth-mark removed child abusers? And on what grounds? Intactivists are quick to allege that those of us who are opposed to banning circumcision are simply conditioned by our traditions, but couldn’t the same be said of those who want to remove ugly birth-marks? And are the intactivists immune to conditioning?

This leads us on to the issue of sexuality. Intactivists claim that both the circumcised and their partners experience less sexual pleasure than the uncircumcised, but this is also a matter of dispute. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that circumcised men had less sexual dysfunction (i.e. they are less likely to suffer from premature ejaculation) and more varied sexual practices, but also noted anecdotal reports that they had decreased penile sensation and sexual satisfaction. The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) states: “The effect of circumcision on penile sensation or satisfaction is unknown…No valid evidence to date, however, supports the notion that being circumcised affects sexual sensation or satisfaction.” Conversely, a 2002 review found that it did reduce sexual satisfaction. Regarding female satisfaction, some studies find a decrease in vaginal lubrication for those whose partners are circumcised, but no other statistically significant differences in general sexual satisfaction (I was not able to find any studies dealing with homsexual couples). And other studies have shown that women are more visually aroused by a circumcised penis. Has anyone seen a plastic penis with a foreskin?

At the very least, there is no consensus regarding the claims made by intactivists about circumcision. Given the centrality of circumcision to many cultures, the evidence should be overwhelming (as it is on the topic of female genital mutilation) before a ban is considered. Giving people, including babies, full autonomy over their body is a positive value. But so is tolerance of different practices, even weird ones. When these values clash, you should be absolutely sure that a ban is necessary before proceeding. There is no such surety here.

The intactivist movement is not overtly motivated by racism, but it must be acknowledged that banning circumcision would be both anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish. In the case of Judaism, the Hasmonean and possibly the Bar Kochba revolt were triggered by edicts prohibiting the mitzvah of brit milah. If making it illegal to practice Judaism is not Judeophobic, then the word has no meaning. And given that intactivists support libertarian policies when it comes to drugs, they must surely understand that criminalising circumcision will drive it underground, or that Jews and Muslims will simply fly off to the Middle East in order to perform the ritual. As someone wrote on a Facebook debate on the subject a month or two ago, “If that is the unavoidable outcome of such a law, then (according to U.S. law at least), it is presumed to be its intent as well…I can simply say that before you go about making unlawful a practice that virtually no one complains about, and which is foundation to a sizeable minority, there should be unequivocal evidence that it is egregious. There is none in this case.” When the bill fails to pass in one of the most libertarian-learning cities in America, I hope that the intactivists will draw the appropriate conclusions.

11 comments

11 Comments so far

  1. Gert May 30th, 2011 9:00 pm

    I’m not an ‘intactivist’ of course (I learned a new word today!)

    If making it illegal to practice Judaism is not Judeophobic, then the word has no meaning.

    The three monotheisms consider homosexuality to be against Divine Law (simply put). The State (of most Western democracies) makes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation punishable by Common Law. Is the State anti-Christian, Islamophobic or Judeophobic by doing so? Some believers would argue that but the State would argue ‘the greater good’ (of society). And I’m on the side of the State, no ifs or buts. Am I anti-religious in doing so?

    It seems to me the intactivists are making the same kind of argument (but overshoot the mark my miles).

  2. Alex Stein May 31st, 2011 5:00 am

    Interesting point. Practicing Judaism – even Orthodox Judaism – doesn’t require prosecuting homosexuals (according to Orthodoxy homosexuality is no different to not keeping the sabbath: there is no ‘punishment’ for it). So permitting homosexuality has no effect on the ability of Jews to practice their faith. I assume it’s the same for Islam/Christianity.

  3. eshu21 June 9th, 2011 6:34 pm

    The World Health Organization lists various forms of female genital mutilation­, some of which are the exact equivalent­s of male circumcisi­on. Usually, when someone wants to spend all their time protesting only female genital mutilation (“I don’t hear anyone fussing about that. That is what is sick”), they are implicitly minimizing the harm caused by male circumcisi­on, usually for the purposes of defending what was done to their own bodies, or defending what they are willing to do to the bodies of their helpless innocent baby boys. Of course, those practicing female genital mutilation are well aware of our double-sta­ndard in protesting female and defending male genital mutilation and call such beliefs as exactly what they are: rank hypocrisy.

    Many men die all over the world from circumcisi­on (including over 115 each year here in the nice sterile hospitals of the USA, according to Thymos, the Journal of Boyhood Studies). Africa alone is a horror-sho­w of death, mutilation and disfigurem­ent when it comes to circumcisi­on. But you’d have to read internatio­nal posts to find this out – it’s virtually ignored here in America because doctors (and men in general) have a vested financial and psychologi­cal interest in preserving the status-quo­. The circumstit­ions website tends to gather up the latest data, including recent horrifying stories of men castrated by gangrene after the mutilation­. Circumcisi­on of either gender is sick – whether for cultural reasons, religious reasons, “health” reasons, whatever – and it needs to be protested, banned and eradicated­.

  4. eshu21 June 9th, 2011 6:34 pm

    Freedom of religious beliefs does NOT equal freedom of religious practice. Can Christian Scientists deny life-saving medical care for their children? Can Mormons force their children into polygamous marriages? If I invent a religion that requires all baby girls to have their little toes cut off without an anesthetic­, do I have that right? Would it be okay with anesthetic­? Children have the right to have their bodies left whole and intact (unless there is immediate health need). The age of a religious practice (suttee, for example) is no justificat­ion for its continuanc­e.

    I have had this argument with family members, who believe in little about religion, except cutting their sons. The first objection to circumcisi­on within Judaism occurred in 1843 in Frankfurt. The Society for the Friends of Reform said that brit milah was not a mitzvah but an outworn legacy from Israel’s earlier phases, an obsolete throwback to primitive religion.

    According to modern scholars, circumcisi­on is not even mentioned in the earliest, “J”, version of Bereshith (“Genesis”­) nor the next three rewrites by other authors. Most importantl­y, the story of Abram is there in its entirety, except the part about the Covenant being “sealed” with circumcisi­on. The parallel Covenant story of “a smoking kiln and its blazing torch” passing between the halves of animals and birds sacrificed by Abram is in J. Many biblical scholars agree on this point, and it is in accord with the mitzvot against desecratin­g the body.

  5. Alex Stein June 9th, 2011 8:14 pm

    I agree with you re. freedom of religious practice: the point is in this case the evidence regarding male circumcision is not overwhelming either way. Would you say a child with an ugly mole on their face should not have it removed? On what grounds do you say this is different from circumcision?

    There is no hypocrisy regarding female circumcision: the evidence that female circumcision is damaging is overwhelming. It is not for male circumcision. Re. health – the US figures are statistically tiny; and the figures in Africa should make us demand proper hygeine etc etc. But you haven’t convinced me that circumcision is a terrible crime.

  6. Hugh7 June 15th, 2011 11:20 pm

    “Would you say a child with an ugly mole on their face should not have it removed?”
    Not necessarily. A relation of mine had a black mark on his cheek throughout his childhood. In his teens, it was removed – I think at the suggestion of the surgeon, a family friend. He certainly gave his informed consent.

    “On what grounds do you say this is different from circumcision?”
    (Assuming I had given the answer you wanted.)
    1. Not every child is born with an ugly mole on its face. (If it was, we probably wouldn’t think it was ugly.) Almost every male child is born with a foreskin.
    2. A mole has no conceivable function.
    3. A mole has a finite risk of turning malignant, just by virtue of being a mole.
    4. We can be virtually certain that an adult will be glad to have had an ugly mole removed from his face.
    And that’s only if you do remove it without waiting for the child’s consent.

  7. Alex June 16th, 2011 4:44 am

    Hugh7 – fair enough: I acknowledge the difference in the two situations. But I still don’t think the evidence is convincing enough to ban. Here’s another good piece on the issue – http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/2011/jun/15/male-circumcision-ban-health-religion-debate?CMP=twt_gu

  8. Justin March 15th, 2013 7:56 am

    Ummm, the body we are born with is what is sexually appealing. The image of the natural body is anticipated by human sexuality. Its only hegemonic dominance that can skew a culture’s preference to the foreskin/clitoral hood. By default attraction goes to what the brains of humans are wired to gravitate to.

    Circumcision deviates from what is NORMAL. EVERYBODY is born with a foreskin men/women. Not everyone has a mole, and still, what is attractive is relative (some women even like to have fake moles above the lip.) Since culture tries to popularize notions of culturally constructed “beauty” the comparison of the normal and natural existence of foreskins and moles is not valid.

    Actually almost all intactivists support a religious man/woman’s choice to get circumcised. I emphasize “man” that being a consenting adult. The only thing that is wrong is the merciless enforcement of genital mutilation on unconsenting minors (being strapped down worsens the crime) who have to live with the consequences forever. Also to note 100% of infants OPPOSE circumcision. No one wants to be cut in infancy, its just that the victims grow up and have to live with it and have no choice but to accept it. Theres NO turning back and the risks of deformity due to adolescent growth is much higher than that of a man who gets circumcised. A man who gets circumcised is allowed to choose what structures are removed (they usually cheat and keep the frenulum still retaining the most erogenous tissue) and the penis is already full grown so adequate foreskin removal is possible. Infant circumcision assumes the penis will not grow so many more morphological anomalies will occur as variable growth occurs after circumcision.

    And when those deformities get worse over time the child will grow into a man that has to live with it FOREVER! If he was allowed to be circumcised later in life he would be able to determine the conditions of the circumcision such as anesthesia and the amount of skin to remove (some men only get a partial circumcision leaving a satisfying amount of erogenous tissue intact yet still are recognized as circumcised.)

    As for sensation I exhibit the consequences of sexual dysfunction, dont take my word for it, hundreds of thousands of men are going through foreskin restoration and you get get their testimonies on those forums. Also studies like Sorrel’s fine touch study describe the foreskin’s high sensory resolution and how circumcision removes the best parts.

    I would very much like to see opposition reply to this as I would like to hear what comes in a response.

  9. Alex Stein March 17th, 2013 9:08 am

    Justin – first, there is no such thing as normal. The notion that the body we are born in is sexually appealing is also a construct, otherwise nobody would try various tricks to make themselves more sexually attractive (diets, breast enlargements, etc etc). And some people are born without a foreskin. It’s also absurd to say that 100% of infants oppose circumcision – how do you know? As for the rest of what you wrote, my sense is that studies are inconclusive, but on that I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree.

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