Wednesday, March 31, 2010

My parents are both artists, and I grew up in a home with no TV, and a well stocked library- most conspicuous were two enormous volumes that always sat out because they could not fit on a shelf, one Michelangelo and one Leonardo. When I was not pouring through a ravaged pile of unshelved red World Book encyclopedias, I would sometimes browse through those works of those renaissance masters, the grandiose biblical scenes of Michelangelo, and the exacting draftsmanship of Leonardo’s scientific sketches. I don’t remember being sexually curious at that time, but it must have been there that I first saw and began to understand a little more about how men are put together.

When I was 11, my mother left my father and the two of us moved to Vienna Austria; where she studied sculpture. I used to visit her at the art academy after school and I got to see first hand how sculptors work, the charcoal sketches, live models, dusty studios, buckets of clay, stone chisels and the wonderful camaraderie of the students and the leisurely way they conversed, sharing bread, wine, cheese and hand rolled cigarettes.

Some of the time in Austria we lived in the country

When her year of auditing was up, she decided to continue her studies in Pietrasanta Italy. I was sent back to New Jersey to live with my father for the year of 8th grade… and then I enrolled in a boarding school in Massachusetts for high school. During those years I was back and forth to Europe several times. My sister married a man from the Canary Islands, a windsurfing instructor at a beach resort frequented by German tourists (bathing suits optional, sunburn- inevitable) It was in Italy that I had my first sexual experience.

I worked as an artist's model in Italy
This sculpture is now in Oslo Norway

During that time, I do not remember ever being introduced to anything about circumcision, the reasons why it is done, or any prejudices about it one way or the other. There were European vacation flings, and I also had my fair share of American boyfriends in high school. I remained indifferent to any variation I might have observed from one side of the ocean to the other.

I decided to follow my mother’s example and majored in sculpture in college, focusing on figure and anatomy. Interestingly, even at the school where the famous social critic and dissident feminist Camille Paglia was teaching, the topic of circumcision and the portrayal of the phallus in Western art (we did cover fertility objects some in African art history class) were ignored in my required and elective courses. My mentoring professor avoided the issue almost all together by only hiring female models for anatomy class.

This was a long story to get to the first lightbulb moment. I was friends with a European man who was living in the US and I happened to say something about how most American men are circumcised and his jaw dropped. He turned as white as a sheet and gasped. He seemed ready to faint. Finally, he stammered, “What are they all Jews?”

This was my first encounter with, what I now consider to be, the proper reaction to circumcision. Shock. Disbelief. Disgust. Horror. Confusion. I remember back in high school I had a radical feminist religion teacher (she was really quite a man-hater) who took it upon herself to tell us about female circumcision in Africa. In gory detail, she spoke of the cutting… I remember her raised hand carving an arc in the air holding an imaginary piece of broken glass. There were rusty razor blades, herbal coagulants and village dogs to eat the scraps. Sewing girls up with thorns and the horrors of the misogynist oppression these women suffered. How after marriage their scars would be cut open again with a knife so their husband could penetrate them. We squirmed in our seats, boys and girls alike. This friend of mine sitting before me, from a culture of genital integrity, reflected all the same horror over my revelation as I remember feeling that day- and suddenly, what we do here to infant boys… it didn’t seem so normal anymore.

So by the time that I was married and expecting my first child, you can imagine the strength of my conviction in regards to my own decision about circumcision. It was not a question, given my life experience that I could in my right mind entertain.

The second light bulb moment happened when I mentioned my feelings to my husband. He hates it when I tell this story. He wishes that he could take this all back and I’d forget it and never tell a soul about what happened to us… but this was really an important moment for me and my understanding of what is going on in our culture. I’m sorry honey, I just have to tell the whole thing. He flipped. He became enraged and totally irrational. He insisted that it must be done, that it would be done. He didn’t want to do any research and didn’t want to talk about it with me. He acted in a way I had never before or since seen him behave. He insisted that a boy had to look like his father. I have since learned that this actually has a name, Ronald Goldman calls it “the adamant father syndrome” and my goodness- it’s real and it’s very intimidating. Lucky for us (remember Mama Grizzly) This was not up for debate. I wasn’t asking his permission to not cut our baby… I was stating a fact- that no one was going to be cutting our baby. I now know, after many years hearing other people’s stories, that this was not the best tactical approach, in fact it was probably the worst approach I could have taken- but I had no idea what I was going to be up against until it all blew up in my face.

He did wind up eventually researching on his own, with the privacy to work through his feelings and come to terms with something he’d never let himself think about before, free from defensiveness. He quietly conceded without seeming too enthusiastic about the idea… until the night our son was born by emergency C section 5 weeks early. We had a really close call and my husband did an amazing job getting us to the hospital in the nick of time. When he was handed that newborn baby to hold while the surgeons put me back together- the beauty of the child and his personhood, his miniature perfection so new and tender, all those perfect parts, the eyelashes and fingernails finally revealed… the miracle, the gift, the blessing, the ‘get down on my knees with gratitude you, my son, are alive’- it all became crystal clear. So when the surgeon asked my husband while I was still under general anesthesia, “When are you going to tell me the bad news about the circumcision?” Pappa bear was ready with the answer. “We aren’t.”

It doesn’t end here. You see, now I understood what most of my female peers were up against, only they did not have the same foundation as I did when they finally had their turn to discuss this with their husband. Maybe they learned about what naked men look like from seeing porn. Maybe they never knew an intact man in their life. It’s possible that their sex ed book was illustrated with circumcised penises. Maybe the thought of whole continents of men going about their life with their anatomy intact, never having a problem or giving it a second thought, seems like a distant impossible abstraction, utterly unrelated to their American reality. All those myths being passed around and going unchallenged. Trusting in the men we know, who for their own peace of mind, accept the myths without wanting to break them down. The cloak of shame and silence, our sexual inhibition, our pride, and arrogance and the social pressure to conform… all these circumstances come crushing down on a vulnerable new mother and leave her unprepared to question or speak up for her child. In her wildest nightmare, no mother would invent this on her own for her newborn. If circumcision was not something already firmly entrenched in our culture, how else can we explain that she feels she must comply?

How did this become the standard in our culture? Today’s mothers may believe that circumcision is their family choice, the parent’s right… just one of the many decisions that parents must make on their child’s behalf. They may assume that the circumcision tradition in their family is the end result of lots of careful decisions by loving family members- but the fact is- only one or two generations ago- circumcision was not a choice given to mothers or fathers. It was just done. I have talked with some grandmothers who said they were given the impression that it was illegal to not circumcise- that it had to be done before you were allowed to leave the hospital.

I remember shortly after our son was born, while changing his diaper, my mother in law noted with some curiosity that we did not circumcise him. “Oh, here it comes.” I thought. Nope. She didn’t say another word. Years later my husband discovered that his father was intact. Remember how he’d insisted that a boy had to look like his father!? His own father was not circumcised and when my husband finally did discuss this with his mother he found out that the doctor in the hospital had just circumcised him as a matter of routine- that his parents had not requested it- and had they been asked- they would have said no! His family is of Native American heritage- so in his case this wasn’t just a violation of his own body- but went against his cultural heritage! But what’s done is done… and babies don’t remember it, right? His mother saw no sense in upsetting a little boy with the story of what had happened. So he, with his peers who were also routinely circumcised, grew up unquestioning, assured that circumcision was normal and just what was done.

I am an activist today because I am lucky to have had certain life experiences that left me trusting the beauty and the science of the human form, not fearing it. I was raised to stand up for what you believe, and defend the helpless. Even before I understood the circumcision situation in the USA for what it is, I was practiced as a rebel, willing to say “F-you!” to the status quo… I may not still outwardly look it, but that sparky punk rocker is still in me.

My children and I in our festival costumes

“Why do you care so much about our circumcision decision?
Why don’t you respect my right to do what is best for my child- just as I do for you?”

The answer is that I just don’t think American men and women are being given a fair chance to overcome this. When an “unbiased” trusted resource (like the Mayo Clinic) outlines the potential benefits of circumcision- and suggests we should balance them against the possible risks of surgery… but fails to enter the value or purpose of the anatomy which is lost in every case- If we don’t even have the correct equation in front of us- how can we possibly find the correct answer? I love this country, and I love the people who live here, but I feel humiliated to think that my peers accept infant genital cutting as cultural practice- an expectation even. Don’t we all have a duty to let our peers know that we do not expect them to do this? If we keep silent- they may operate on assumptions, just like the assumption that all circumcised men are happy and thankful to be circumcised. Many people have a very hard time accepting this information- it’s difficult stuff to stomach! I understand that- but that doesn’t mean that silence is the answer.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Today’s genital integrity post is going to focus on doctors. Several years ago I was able to join many other intactivists at the annual convention of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in Philadelphia. I was able to speak to hundreds of doctors in just a few days as I handed out a flyer that I had written.

Here I am with Marilyn Milos, co-founder of NOCIRC

It was very interesting to be able to be able to speak to the people right on the front lines of circumcision in America. There was one comment that was repeated over and over by the doctors:

“The parents demand it.”

That was so interesting to me because in my interactions with parents, they typically seemed to point to medical reasons for doing it. In speaking with doctors, a large portion of them freely admitted that there was no medical benefit to the surgery and they were simply performing a cultural service at the request of parents. They also tried to shrug off their own responsibility as if their hands were tied when they were faced with a parental request that they circumcise the baby. A vicious cycle with each player pointing to the other to justify what they do.

There were many doctors from foreign countries who were openly embarrassed for what their American peers were doing. Many others said that they refuse to participate in circumcisions. There were also doctors who were very enthusiastic about circumcision and mocked the Genital Integrity rhetoric. I can say that doctors are not immune to peer pressure, and many of the obstetricians, when passing by with a group of peers, would refuse to acknowledge the Genital Integrity protesters, but some individuals would return alone, to thank us for speaking up, and to express their hope that routine infant circumcision would one day end.

There were two doctors in particular who made such a lasting impression on me with what they said. One, a fit, petite woman with short curly grey hair and fashionable prescription glasses was crossing the street during the lunch hour. I offered her my flyer and without glancing at it- she took it and threw it on the ground. She snapped at me with a pride and arrogance that I have never encountered before and said,

“I have circumcised over 5000 babies and the ONLY ones I felt bad about were the Jews… because I was taking the money away from the mohel!”

I was stunned. I reached in my purse for a pen and with a shaking hand I wrote it down word for word.

For today’s blog entry I though it would be interesting to illustrate what 5000 people looks like. I did a google image search and had to laugh that I had forgotten about the artist Spencer Tunick who poses crowds of nudes in urban environments. I found a picture (I have blurred it out some) which contains 75 people, men and women. I used photoshop to patch that picture over and over till I had 5000 represented. Several years have passed, so I assume that her number has grown considerably since then.

click the picture to view larger

Now, I would like you to imagine that grey haired 130 pound woman, with a megaphone, standing in front of a group of 5000 men, whose genitals she had altered with her knife, and to hear her say it one more time:

“I circumcised every single one of you and the ONLY ones I felt bad about were the Jews… because I took the money away from a mohel!”

The other doctor was a man, at the peak of middle aged attractiveness, and I’ll confess as a 6 foot tall woman, he was even more attractive to me because he was about 6’4”. Protesters with banners and signs had been told to stay on one side of the street, but because I only had my flyer- I was able to stand close to the entrance, and slip my paper to people rushing by, many not even suspecting that I was part of the protest across the street. I saw this tall man coming, and I think he saw me too- I gave him my flyer and he paused to read the title. He became enraged and got even taller- leaned forward and backed me up against the wall. He took a tone with me like I was a belligerent little girl and he was a school principal, he snapped:

“You don’t even know what you are talking about! Have you ever seen one!!??”

I tried to imagine what sort of objective rational counseling a pregnant woman could expect to get from that arrogant (obviously) circumcised man. As an artist, a world traveler, a sexually experienced woman, a student of anatomy and a mother of a son, of course I had “seen one”… but I know that many American women have not.

In this world of activism, the fact that many- if not most of this generation of our male doctors in America is circumcised is a major consideration. Many of these doctors have no idea how to care for an intact child, and many children are harmed by bad advice coming from them. Many other children who have minor easily treatable problems are circumcised because their doctors see their foreskin, not the pathology, as what ails them. This interaction was my proof that even medical professionals are not immune to the loss of not only their foreskin, but the loss of objectivity that infant circumcision inflicts.

There is a movement to end routine infant circumcision from within the medical community you can read more about them here:
Doctors Opposing Circumcision Website

Here is the text of my flyer if your are curious:

Ten great reasons for Obstetricians to quit circumcising babies

1.To comply with ACOG guidelines of informed consent.
Being born with a normal male sex organ is not an emergency. A male can make this decision for himself if he chooses. ACOG makes a great effort to protect the physical integrity of female patients and to secure consent for all procedures, the willingness to ignore these guidelines in order to circumcise infant males highlights a sexist double standard. Males should also be respected as whole and embodied persons.

2. Circumcision violates the Hippocratic Oath. Participation in an invasive non-medical procedure is an indicator of a physician’s professionalism.

3. American circumcision is a global embarrassment.
Callis Osaghae bled to death after a home circumcision in Ireland. Many Irish doctors were incensed when it was suggested that they should preform circumcisions for the immigrants who requested them. They felt this was an abuse of their medical training and a clear ethical broach. American doctors are protected by law, from pressure to circumcise females, yet no such legislation protects doctors from the pressure to circumcise males. Their inability to stand up to that pressure, in the absence of state mandated legislation, reflects poorly on their ability to comply with internationally accepted medical standards.

4. Obstetricians are specialists.
Despite this, obstetricians have cornered a market outside their specialty by popularizing the circumcision of male neonates. High pressure tactics in the hospital and a service industry conveyor belt give indifferent or reluctant parents the opportunity to secure a circumcision without having to do anything. A circumcising OB will rarely do any followup and will also not encounter any of the common long term pediatric or adult issues of circumcision damage. This confusion of the role of an obstetrician as child circumciser reflects poorly on the obstetric profession and abusively forces maternity nurses to cooperate.

5. Soliciting elective surgery from women in labor is abusive and unethical.
There is an implied medical endorsement when hospital staff solicits in the course of admitting patients. The AMA circumcision policy states that a lack of information and deferral of the decision until after the birth contribute to the high rate of circumcision in America. This means that if parents were given more time and more information, fewer would circumcise their son.

6. Unnecessary surgery exposes a circumciser to avoidable liability.

7. The refusal to treat infant pain is well documented. The obstetrician circumciser is the worst offender of any medical specialty; with the most appalling record right here in the northeastern US. Despite the AAP admonition that children not be exposed to the pain of circumcision, many medical schools still teach circumcision without pain relief. (using living human children)
Circumcision Practice Patterns in the United States
Stang HJ, Snellman LW Pediatrics. 1998 Jun;101(6):E5

8. Circumcision in America did not spring from our culture, it came from our doctors.
Circumcision is now known to have no medical value, yet doctors inexplicably offer it as a cultural service, maneuvering consent from fathers circumcised in an era predating modern respect for patient autonomy.

9. Circumcision gains public acceptance at the expense of a physician’s professional integrity.
As long as physicians are willing to involve themselves in non-medical surgery, parents will be confused about the intended purpose of such surgery.

10. The best reason to say, "NO!" is your own.

This message to obstetricians comes respectfully to you from a survivor of Placenta Previa

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Today’s Genital Integrity post is about mothers. I’d like to start with an assignment for you. The next time you are in a bookstore, go to the pregnancy books and pick up a copy of “From the Hips” by Rebecca Odes and Ceridwin Morris. It’s a popular new book with edgy illustrations and snazzy graphics. You don’t have to buy it, just find the section on circumcision and at the end – there is a green word balloon with a mother’s quote. How do you feel reading her words? As always, I look forward to reading your comments.

I hope that you find the graphics I’m designing for these posts to be thought provoking and amusing. If I could take all my own words, ideas and feelings and express them with a single picture, today’s would sum it up for me. I did not become an “intactivist” overnight. I feel that various life experiences laid a perfect groundwork so that when the final light bulb moments occurred, I could not help but be changed.

"The biblical injunction to circumcise speaks to a man about men. But circumcision is also a woman's issue, for on a subtle, but very potent level it is, like the akedah, about the primary disempowerment of the mother. At no other time is a woman so in touch with her most elemental and powerful mammalian instincts as after a birth, When, her culture tells her that in order for this male baby to be a man, to be part of the masculine community and bond with the male God, the men must cut her male baby on his most sensitive male organ, this mother is inevitably in conflict with her entire life-giving feminine biology. And if a woman is made to distrust her most basic instinct to protect her newborn child, what feelings can she ever trust?"
- Miriam Pollack from Jewish Women Speak Out

Circumcision is not just a men’s issue, nor is it just a parenting issue. You don’t need to be pregnant, have a medical degree or have a penis to develop your own opinion. Unfortunately, I feel that many women allow their thoughts, feelings and instincts to be disregarded - even by themselves. I feel a deep sadness to think of the number of women who in their very first moments as a mother- feel they must submit to something that goes against a very deep instinct. I understand that not all mothers feel this way, and many have a deep conviction that circumcision is the right thing to do and reasonably they do not have many, if any, negative feelings about it. In my experience as an intactivist, when mothers are given a compassionate listening audience, free of the burden to defend circumcision or past history that can't be changed... a large portion of mothers do describe feelings that are not compatible with empowerment and peace.

This link will take you to a page of mother’s stories about circumcision, it will take some courage to get through more than just a few of these. Circumcision doesn’t just hurt babies. Circumcision hurts mothers too.

Mother's Stories

Reading stories is one thing, but I always find videos so compelling, to hear someone's voice and see their face. I've chosen two videos from youtube which show two different women, the first speaks of something long in the past and the second speaks of something only hours before.

Why don’t you take a walk?

Liz talks about her son’s circumcision that day.

I hope that one day soon, mothers can look forward to the birth of their baby without this anxiety; that when baby girls were wished for, that it wasn't just because that was the only way her mother thought she could avoid a baby circumcision.

To celebrate Genital Integrity Awareness Week, I will be writing a few blog posts about the subject, specifically infant male circumcision in the USA. I will be linking my blog posts from my Facebook page, and I welcome you comments here on Blogger or back at Facebook.

Yesterday I changed my profile picture at Facebook to the pink and blue Genital Integrity ribbon, and shortly after a female friend from Europe contacted me in a chat… astonished to learn that Americans frequently circumcise their sons. She had no idea. I feel happy that such a simple action could so quickly have such a positive effect on “awareness.” …but I will also confess that I have a lot of concern that some of the things I may say may upset some people. I have heard many stories about people who have been “de-friended” for making their feelings known, and have always found it curious that for something so allegedly socially acceptable, we have a lot of trouble bringing up the subject and discussing this openly and honestly with each other. I feel that an open discourse, regardless if it’s agreeable or not, is the first big step we have to take in understanding what is going on.

Today I am going to tackle the subject of hygiene. I will begin with this disclaimer: I don’t have a penis! Yes, that’s right, I have a vagina and I’ve been taking care of it for 40 years. Oh goodness… is my vagina 40 years old already? Where has the time flown?

Well, let me tell you- when I hear women say that they think male circumcision is a good idea because “it’s cleaner” I have to wonder if they would ever consider female circumcision for the same reason. I have urine, other fluids (including menstrual blood), folds of skin that are moist, hair (which I usually make an effort to remove) and just an inch or so away from that- there is my anus… and all of this is positioned on the underside of my pelvis so that if I bend myself around in my greatest contortion- I can only see about half of it. Yet I have been able to manage and no one assumes that I needed any surgical help to tidy up my anatomy and make my hygienic routine any easier. In fact, it would be illegal for anyone to make my genitals “cleaner” with surgery.

Well, “you know how boys are…” they say.

STOP. Hold the phone. Say what? This comment is nothing but sexism pure and simple. Men are perfectly capable and willing to groom themselves. I feel saddened to know that many circumcised men have found solace in this extremely common train of thought so insulting to men. They must feel comforted by the idea that they are considered “cleaner” by women. I think when the cleaner comment comes up, it’s probably a lot easier to feel a slight lift to the ego- than it is to take a step back and consider- “Why you sexist woman! How dare you even begin to pick about the cleanliness of a man as if I don’t know what you are up against in your own feminine hygiene routine? Don’t you know that my penis is hanging right there next to my hand in plain sight every time I take a shower, every time I take a leak? How lazy do you think I’d have to be to forget to wash my very favorite part of my body? Don’t you know it’s FUN to wash!? Don’t you talk to me about cleaner!”

Which brings me to the next thing; the qualifier. “Well, I guess it’s OK for boys to be uncircumcised as long as they are taught to wash properly.” Ugh. I hate that word “properly” … but I have more to say on this. This satetment is like saying, “Well, I guess breastfeeding is OK as long as you remember to change their diapers a few times a day.” One thing has nothing to do with the other! One thing (washing) has to be done regardless if the child is circumcised or not! And many people don’t know, but caring for an intact infant or child is actually easier than caring for a circumcised child. I won’t go into the specifics of this because there is already plenty of information available about how to care for babies- but I do want to take this one step further.

It’s this idea that maybe circumcision is obsolete in this day and age because we do have indoor plumbing and soap. To illustrate this misconception I offer this youtube video of Dan and Jenn who have a little Q&A series on sex matters. At the 2:07 mark pay attention to what Dan says.

Dan, I’m sorry- but you are wrong. The human body has had this design much longer than we have had soap and running water. Humans do not need to bathe the way we do today in order to keep our bodies from imploding- it’s a social nicety, it’s refreshing and relaxing to bathe. But it’s not necessary. How many centuries have hominids walked the Earth before we figured out germ theory? If the theory of evolution is correct, how is it that the very organ of reproduction could have evolved to this point with such a fatal flaw? I’m certainly not suggesting that we shouldn’t bathe- I’m simply saying, that the human right to genital integrity is not contingent on a person’s ability or willingness to wash themselves. I’ll stick my neck out an say it without a qualifier- A man has the right to be as stinking dirty as he darn well pleases and no one has a right to cut a piece of him off.