You’re Not Cutting My Sons: Why Infant Male Circumcision is a Feminist Issue

Trigger warning: FGM and genital cutting discussed in detail. Some links in this post contain NSFW images.

Comments are no longer being published on this entry. Intactivists have not taken kindly to my post, and the commentary became deeply inappropriate, as one commenter detailed the mutilation he wished to inflict on my genitalia. If this is what they do to an anti-circer, I hate to see what sort of misogyny these men inflict on a woman who circumcised her sons. I’m no longer allowing a platform to encourage that sort of comment. It’s disgusting and shameful.

Circumcision is an issue I never invested much thought in before a friend of mine became pregnant with her first son. My child is female, and female circumcision isn’t just culturally abnormal in America, but also illegal, so it’s really not an issue that directly impacted my life. Still, as my friend shared intactivist resources, and as I read about the realities of infant male circumcision, I came to realize that this was a human rights issue that really pulled at my heartstrings, and I became committed to the cause.

There are a myriad of reasons why I am passionately anti-circumcision. It is a painful, dangerous procedure that runs the risk of serious complications for the baby. It causes permanent sexual side effects for males when they reach sexual maturity, including decreased sexual pleasure. Circumcision is not “normal” throughout the world, and the derision of intact males can be downright xenophobic. And when you learn that the so-called “benefits” of circumcision–such as decreased risk of STDs and a “cleaner” penis–are myths, and that even the religious reasons for circumcision have been misrepresented, it seems logically impossible to argue in favor of this elective surgery.

But there is an aspect of intactivism that is largely ignored, and one that is very important to me, as a woman arguing against the forced genital cutting of baby boys: Intactivism is a largely feminist battle, and yet women are constantly facing scorn for taking up the cause.

First, I’ll approach this from the most obvious standpoint: Biological motherhood. It is a mother’s legal right to advocate for the rights of her child, and that includes refusing consent for circumcision. In cases where custody is legally given to one parent or the other, the custodial parent is allowed to make the decision; for a mother having just birthed her son, the decision falls by default to her. Motherhood is the only legal parental role immediately determinable upon birth, and a mother has the right to refuse circumcision until/unless the child’s father proves paternity and has legal custody. If the mother acknowledges the boy’s father on the birth certificate, she is legally able to file an injunction against the father to prevent him from having surgery performed on the infant without her consent.

Why might a mother choose to go to such lengths? Aside from simply desiring what is best for her son, there is another biological factor at play. A mother who chooses to breastfeed her son will face increased difficulty if he is circumcised. The pain of the surgery can affect a baby’s ability to latch, therefore negatively impacting the mother’s milk supply, and causing difficulties nursing. Since breastfeeding is best for both baby and mother, every woman has the right to advocate for her ability to do so without outside interference.

But even if you adopt your sons, or choose to not have children at all, there are a multitude of reasons why male circumcision affects women, and why we have the right to campaign for male genital integrity. For one, circumcision decreases not only male pleasure during heterosexual intercourse, but also that of their female partners. The foreskin increases tactile sensation during sex, and helps provide lubrication which can prevent painful vaginal tearing. Male circumcision causes increased risk of pain and sexual dysfunction in hetero-, bi-, and pansexual women, and that is certainly a matter of feminist concern.

Yet perhaps the most compelling reason for feminists to take up the cause of intactivism is the negative reaction often presented by pro-circumcision males. We’re told that we have no place in the discussion, because we do not have penises. (An especially ignorant response, as most circumcised males arguing this case were circumcised at birth and are equally ignorant to the realities of an intact penis, or were the victims of forced retraction before they reached sexual maturity and suffered side effects directly from that violation that taint their own ability to understand how a normal, healthy intact penis works.) Our concerns are dismissed based entirely upon our sex–a feminist concern if I’ve ever heard one. How can any feminist woman stand by listening to an argument that boils down to, “I have the penis, I make the decisions”? We have every right to stand up for our sons, and we must not let men silence us.

All of this said, there is also a flipside to the movement that I feel the need to address through a feminist lens. I am troubled by the intactivist use of the term “Male Genital Mutilation,” and the constant comparison to Female Genital Mutilation. I believe circumcision to be amoral and unconstitutional, and I hope for it to someday soon be illegal, but the sweeping comparisons to FGM are outright appropriation. Yes, male circumcision is analogous to female circumcision (that is, the removal of the foreskin on a male is comparable to the removal of the clitoral hood on a female, though “female circumcision” is often used to refer to removal of the entire clitoris; this is why using the terms as direct comparisons without further detail is careless and unwise). Yet FGM is a term used to describe an array of horrors that are inflicted upon women and girls which go far beyond circumcision. For the term “Male Genital Mutilation” to be used, the acts would have to be comparable, yet no one is purposefully amputating the glans/head of the penis (FGM can include complete amputation of the clitoris) or amputating the entire shaft of the penis (FGM can include stitching shut the vaginal opening). This is why feminists balk at the term “MGM” to describe male circumcision, and it’s a fair criticism to make. Since all cutting of female genitalia is illegal in America, it is of course fair that the same consideration be given to males, but male circumcision simply is not comparable to the dark extent of FGM, and this comparison is used as a scare tactic, and the term used as buzzwords to attract attention. I far prefer the term “Male Genital Cutting,” as it is more accurate, and less inflammatory and offensive to those familiar with the horrors of FGM.

A real problem is that misogyny is rampant within the intactivist movement, even among those who call themselves feminists. Appropriating the oppression of women to champion your movement is misogynistic, and decrying women who support circumcision as misandrists is ignorant at best. Mostly, they’re women who have internalized societal misogyny so strongly that they demure to what the men and “experts” in their lives have to say, because surely, us little ladies can’t be smart enough to make these sorts of decisions for ourselves. And while internalized misogyny is a frustrating wall to hit, the answer is not to attack those women, call them “circumfetishists”, and scream about how much they must hate men, and how this “proves” that misandry is real and is a demonstration of how women oppress men. No. But the problem is, the real answer has no immediate gratification. Providing women with resources, information, and facts, all calmly and with a hand out to support them if they need help…well, that takes a lot more time and effort than it does to call them misandrist sickos and run off for back-pats from your intactivist buddies. Actually working to tear down the misogyny that prevents mothers from advocating for their sons is too damn hard for most intactivists, and that refusal to do what’s necessary, that laziness in the face of a true answer, it not only makes the movement inaccessible to the common person, it also makes it unappealing and downright oppressive. And as much as we should argue tooth and nail for the genital integrity of all children, we should not do it at the expense of an oppressed minority. We should not do it with misogyny.

I have personally championed intactivism, misogyny-free, with great results. Not everyone’s mind will change, but I can remain secure in the knowledge that there are people out there in the world, having babies, planning to have babies, some who even had sons they circumcised before we met, who have now decided to not circumcise any future sons, simply because of the facts I calmly and fairly presented to them. It’s not the flashy approach, but in an issue so steeped in female oppression, we are best to tread lightly, lest we win one battle while losing another war.

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About bunnika

shout at the brick wall; if it doesn't hear you, shout louder
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11 Responses to You’re Not Cutting My Sons: Why Infant Male Circumcision is a Feminist Issue

  1. Emma says:

    My take on male circumcision and feminism is more nuanced. A circumcised penis is less likely to harbor HPV, which causes a number of medical conditions in men’s female partners, including cancer of the uterus. It is also associated with reduced sensitivity, and hence greater staying power. Plus, the darkest secret of all: many women, myself included, find the cut penis sexy.

    So yes, maybe circumcision is a harm for men. But it may be preferable for many women.

    • I disagree with what you have said here based on my research and personal experience. I am convinced that circumcision often contributes to premature ejaculation and other sexual dysfunction.

      I appreciate your honesty that you find the cut penis sexy. On the flip side, I imagine many men in the world find a cut vagina sexy. So I ask you to please reflect on your preference. Especially since I believe most of the women in the world prefer whole male sexual anatomy since the foreskin performs many important functions that make intercourse more stimulating and comfortable for women.

      I want you to know that I am heartbroken that a normal, useful, and pleasurable part of my body was cut away without my consent. So when I consider that some women prefer it that way, I feel really upset. And again, I ask you to seriously look into this and please reflect on your preference.

  2. Thank you so much for this.

  3. kayne314 says:

    I sympathize with the author when she claims that infant male circumcision should not be compared to the dark depths that female circumcision can plunge to. However, I have to point out that that is little compensation to those thousands upon thousands of males each year who suffer catastrophic botches, only a fraction of which ever come to light in the public eye.

    A Johns Hopkins report placed the number of serious and catastrophic circumcision failures between .2% and 3%. This might seem like an insignificant number when over a million circumcisions in the USA take place every year, but that translates to somewhere between 2000 and 30,000 outcomes every bit as bad for male children as the worst of female genital mutilation. It became a large enough number that until recently doctors had a standard operating practice of forcing those mutilated boys into undergoing sexual reassignment when the damage to the penis was beyond repair.

    Even a quick Google search reveals several recent cases of babies losing their entire penis to a botched circumcision.

    True, the motive between male and female genital mutilations may be different, but for FAR too many children the ultimate outcome is the same. Feminists are rightly horrified by what happens to female children in the name of sexual control, and religion. If 2000 to 30,000 girls were forced to undergo this barbaric ritual each year in North America there would be marches in every street in the land until it ended. Yet, when the victims of this barbaric practice are boys, then they are happy to turn a blind eye.

    The reason intactivists call circumcision genital mutilation is because it IS genital mutilation. We want to stop this from ever happening to ANY child. We want protections in place for female children, intersex children, and yes, male children too. We ALL deserve to know our entire bodies as we were born to know them. Anything else is mutilation, pure and simple.

    • bunnika says:

      I am so beyond sick of this idea that FGM doesn’t happen in the Western world. Females in the United States suffer FGM, including having their vaginas stitched shut. Yet how often to you campaign for them, I wonder? Again men are the focus, because men are the only victims people like you care about. This is the entire point of this post. That what happens to girls and women is prevalent, horrifying, and an entirely different cultural activity than what happens to boys. There’s no reason they can’t both be discussed, but people like you insist on discussing only your own cause at the expense of those girls and women, and it’s misogynistic and disgusting.

      • kayne314 says:

        How many times do we campaign for those girls? Every time we protest we are campaigning for the genital rights of ALL children. We are equally disgusted by those who practice female genital mutilation. We want ALL unnecessary genital cutting to cease. We happily campaign for tougher sanctions against those who continue this abhorrent practice.
        Yet, we will not ignore one gender for the sake of another. That would be sexist, and an abandonment of those children who suffer as greatly. (It would also be counter productive.) Genital mutilation affects boys, girls, and intersex children. ALL children deserve to know their bodies as they were born to know them. THAT is what we campaign for.
        I have spoken with actual victims of female genital mutilation who have fled to North America for sanctuary. One told me that the American preoccupation with removing male sexual parts is confusing to her, when they openly condemn the removal of female parts. Here is an actual victim of this abhorrent practice, and she tells me we are hypocrites. We embrace one form of cutting with the right hand, while we reject another form with the left.
        As long as we continue to justify one version of genital cutting (male circumcision) then those who practice FGM will be able to argue that what they do is equally as justified. They will continue to view us a the hypocrites we are.
        Intactivists condemn BOTH forms of genital cutting (male and female) because to allow one while condemning the other leaves the door open to continue these inhuman and disgusting acts.
        You are correct on one front, though. BOTH must be discussed, and BOTH must be condemned. I suggest you actually ask some intactivists their views on female genital mutilation. Visit some of their sites, read some of their literature. I will hazard a guess here and suggest you will find to a man, and to a woman, ALL condemn FGM as vehemently as MGM.
        I would guess the only reason you hear more from intactivists about male circumcision is because we have so much further to go on that front. People in North America, like yourself, don’t view the damage done as mutilation. So they are much more willing to let it continue unchecked. The message that these forms of abuse are equivalent needs to spread.
        Also, there are already laws on the books that make even the slightest incision or drawing of blood from a girl’s genitals illegal. There is ZERO such protection for boys, not even for the ones who lose their entire penis, or suffer horrible complications that leave them incapable of any future sexual activity.
        There are laws to protect girls, but not boys. The real issue is, why are those laws so seldom enforced?
        One could argue that the reason we don’t see enough enforcement of the FGM laws here in North America is due entirely to the “Equal Protection under the Law” clause in the constitution. Why go after someone who cuts off parts of girl’s genitals, when we let every cutter of boy’s genitals continue to practice without limitation, standardization, or even oversight? If you want to cut your boy with a rusty top of an aluminum can, you are free to do so in North America, so long as you are doing it for “the boy’s own good.”
        If they brought a cutter of little girls to trial he, or she, could easily argue from this Equal Protection position. She was only doing what was in the best interests of her daughter. (With FGM it is predominantly a female upon female act.) The legal system isn’t motivated while over 55% of parents still practice genital mutilation on their children.
        Keeping these two acts separate leaves the door open for both forms of genital cutting to continue. We need to close the door on BOTH, or we will never be able to shut the door on either.

        • bunnika says:

          You preach a lot that hasn’t been in the mouths of any male (and very few female) intactivists I’ve encountered. You say I’d find that I’d find that “ALL condemn FGM as vehemently” as male circumcision, but that’s patently false. I had to purposefully remove myself from intactivist communities because the men running them wouldn’t stop saying that infant male circumcision is worse than FGM, that FGM doesn’t happen in the Western world. It’s already been implied here, in the comments from the intactivism board that led you here. Shit like this is what scares women away from the intactivist movement. If you actually gave a damn about little girls, you’d fucking focus on them for once, instead of taking every conversation about FGM and make it all about boys, yet again. And don’t even get me started on how the community ignores intersex children, that’s a whole ‘nother ugly can of worms.

          Editing to add that it was actually you who undermined the prevalence of FGM, stating that “If 2000 to 30,000 girls were forced to undergo this barbaric ritual each year in North America there would be marches in every street in the land until it ended.” If you actually gave a shit about FGM, you’d know that hundreds of thousands of North American girls are at risk of genital mutilation. But of course you can only quote statistics on boys because that’s all you really care about. So you throw girls under the bus to do it.

  4. JustTheMessenger says:

    I appreciate your heart is in the right place, but no, Intactivists aren’t downgrading or minimizing the violations done to anyone — but this argument you are making is doing just that.

    I’m really offended and tired of being lectured I’m not a victim of genital mutilation because I haven’t had my glans cut off.

    If forced glans prepuce amputation does not qualify to be considered “genital mutilation”, then tell me, (and this isn’t a rhetorical question) which 14 square inches of erogenous mucosa (and related structures) could I forcibly remove from YOUR genitals without it being considered “genital mutilation”?

    • bunnika says:

      The foreskin is analogous to the clitoral hood. Women who are victimized by female genital mutilation not only have far more than this removed, but they are mutilated for the purpose of oppressing them, removing all sexual pleasure, and simply as punishment for having female genitalia (such as stitching closed the vaginal opening, which happens in America).

  5. Fred says:

    I am in agreement with your views for the most part however infant circumcision is mutilation. I find it downright deplorable that you would trivialize the victims of this heinous and unnecessary procedure. Webster defines mutilation as: 1 : to cut up or alter radically so as to make imperfect 2 : to cut off or permanently destroy a limb or essential part of. To suggest that does not happen to the penis of an unconcenting minor is an outright lie. The sooner you feminists – as well as the rest of the world wakes up and sees this, the better.

    • bunnika says:

      This isn’t about dictionary definitions, it’s about cultural ones. Male circumcision is not performed to oppress men, deprive them of sexual pleasure, or to punish them simply for having male genitalia. It is not analogous to female genital mutilation, and that’s why people object to the appropriation of the term.

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