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.


Sharon said...

Sarah- I absolutely love this post! So very well articulated.

Wehdy J said...

Thank-you, Sarah - I have shared your blog on facebook. It is very well written, capturing many complex thought succinctly.

I was lucky (... certain life experiences) and my 3 boys are intact. Sadly, I'm not sure that I was educated enough to know that I had to fight when my first on was born.I was just lucky that I did not have to fight.

roger desmoulins said...

Sarah, your take on the social psychology and culture of American routine infant circumcision is unusually sophisticated, and unusually well written. You are a beautiful example of what I mean when I say intactivism is primarily a revolt of American and Canadian women of childbearing age. That revolt is ultimately grounded in their evolving understanding of male sexuality. You know more about the tip of the penis than the vast majority of American surgeons, obgyns, and medical school profs. That is to your credit... and their shame.

The American obsession to make the penis bald 24/7 is grounded in a seriously defective understanding of how the natural penis experiences and gives pleasure, and of how nature's design enhances sexual functionality. In the resulting darkness, you have lit a candle.