A few months ago, the following comment appeared in my news feed on Facebook. It was written by one of the giants and founders of the modern genital autonomy movement, Rosemary Romberg. (Ms. Romberg is the author of Circumcision: The Painful Dilemma [Bergin & Garvey; 1985]. Here is a link to some biographical information about her: http://www.intactamerica.org/iotm_september2015.) This is what she wrote:
I've wondered if for some there's this male, macho idea of, "He's a boy so he can take it" mentality that comes into play with infant male genital cutting/mutilation. "Toughen him up from day one 'cause he's a boy and has to face a tough world." (Ironically this is usually said by men who are total cowards about adult circumcision but think babies' feelings don't matter.)
Coincidentally, not long after seeing Ms. Romberg's post, I came across this column in the New York Times: Talking to Boys the Way We Talk to Girls by Andrew Reiner (NYT; June 15, 2017; here is a link: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/15/well/family/talking-to-boys-the-way-we-talk-to-girls.html?smid=fb-share). In it, Mr. Reiner discusses the phenomenon in which parents shape their male children's behavior through often unconscious words and gestures that are intended to toughen them up (to use Ms. Romberg's phrase), a process to which Mr. Reiner himself refers as the "manning up of infant boys." The essay points out that studies show that this process begins in infancy:
For three decades, the research of Edward Tronick explored the interplay between infants and their mothers. He and his colleagues in the department of newborn medicine at Harvard Medical School discovered that mothers unconsciously interacted with their infant sons more attentively and vigilantly than they did with their infant daughters because the sons needed more support for controlling their emotions. Some of their research found that boys' emotional reactivity was eventually "restricted or perhaps more change-worthy than the reactivity of girls," Dr. Tronick noted in an email. Mothers initiated this - through physical withdrawal.
So the "manning up" of infant boys begins early on in their typical interactions . . . and long before language plays its role.
Reiner also cites several studies that clearly suggest the extent to which gender - in this case, masculinity - is molded (if not created out of whole cloth) by the ways in which parents speak to little boys during their childhoods:
A 2014 study in Pediatrics found that mothers interacted vocally more often with their infant daughters than they did their infant sons. In a different study, a team of British researchers found that Spanish mothers were more likely to use emotional words and emotional topics when speaking with their 4-year-old daughters than with their 4-year-old sons. . . .
[A] 2017 study led by Emory University researchers discovered, among other things, that fathers also sing and smile more to their daughters, and they use language that is more “analytical” and that acknowledges their sadness far more than they do with their sons. The words they use with sons are more focused on achievement — such as “win” and “proud" . . . .
After visits to the emergency room for accidental injuries, another study found, parents of both genders talk differently to sons than they do to daughters. They are nearly four times more likely to tell girls than boys to be more careful if undertaking the same activity again. . . .
Even boys’ literacy skills seem to be impacted by the taciturn way we expect them to speak. In his book “Manhood in America,” Michael Kimmel, the masculine studies researcher and author, maintains that “the traditional liberal arts curriculum is seen as feminizing by boys.” Nowhere is this truer than in English classes where . . . boys and young men police each other when other guys display overt interest in literature or creative writing assignments. Typically, nonfiction reading and writing passes muster because it poses little threat for boys. But literary fiction, and especially poetry, are mediums to fear. Why? They’re the language of emotional exposure, purported feminine “weakness” — the very thing our scripting has taught them to avoid at best, suppress, at worst.
As boys mature into men, stoicism and reticence - two of the cardinal virtues of masculinity - can subsequently be reinforced by women themselves. What young man hasn't had the bitter experience of being told by a young woman to "stop acting like a girl" for being too emotionally demonstrative, or to stop being "so mushy" for talking too candidly about his feelings, or to "be a man" in the numerous other ways that men are expected to behave as men, rather than as just people? Reiner continues,
Women often say they want men to be emotionally transparent with them. But as the vulnerability and shame expert Brené Brown reveals in her book, “Daring Greatly,” many grow uneasy or even recoil if men take them up on their offer.
Indeed, a Canadian study found that college-aged female respondents considered men more attractive if they used shorter words and sentences and spoke less.
(Which explains a lot about my own sex life as a young man.)
This finding seems to jibe with Dr. Brown’s research, suggesting that the less men risk emoting verbally, the more appealing they appear.
The connection of all this "toughening-" or "manning up" of boys and men to the phenomenon of male genital mutilation as practiced in traditionally sexist and patriarchal cultures such as ours is inescapable, obvious and, to me, at any rate, indisputable. That is why I was instantly brought back to Romberg's trenchant comments (with which I could not agree more) when I read Reiner's piece shortly thereafter. It occurred to me, therefore, even as I read it, that, as enlightening as Reiner's essay is, it could have been even better had it not omitted any and all consideration of the equally important role - both symbolic and actual - of male genital mutilation in the "manning up" of infant boys which begins even sooner than all the other physical and verbal influences that are brought to bear on infants, boys and men that Reiner cites. Granted, Reiner focuses specifically on the ways in which boys are taught not to communicate their feelings. But it does not seem like a great leap to reason that the culturally (or religiously) imposed act of genital cutting is as likely, if not more so, to play a role in altering the male psyche (just as it alters the male body) as the various other acts of omission or commission that Reiner cites. (I say culturally- or religiously imposed because it is now universally acknowledged in the field of pediatric medicine that routine infant "circumcision" is medically unnecessary.) The pain alone that the infant must endure is now understood to produce significant and lasting changes in neural pathways in the as yet developing infant central nervous system. The American Academy of Pediatrics itself has acknowledged the "adverse sequelae" of exposure to "repeated painful stimuli early in life."
These sequelae include physiologic instability, altered brain development, and abnormal neurodevelopment, somatosensory, and stress response systems, which can persist into childhood. Nociceptive pathways are active and functional as early as 25 weeks’ gestation and may elicit a generalized or exaggerated response to noxious stimuli in immature newborn infants. ("Prevention and Management of Procedural Pain in the Neonate: An Update"; Pediatrics - February 2016; Volume 137 / Issue 2.)And what of the emotional trauma to the infant of being taken from the warmth, the nourishment, the scent and the embrace of his mother and strapped down, spread-eagle, and having the most sensitive part of his penis pried away and then cut off? Is it reasonable to assume that this is unlikely to affect that neonate's subsequent capacity for emotional bonding and communication?
And to what purpose? No one in our male-genital-cutting culture should delude him- or herself into thinking that male genital mutilation is not an intrinsic part of patriarchal and sexist gender construction in which a male must pass through an ordeal of unnecessary pain and sacrifice in order to prepare him to take on his role - in childhood and as an adult - as a fighter and a competitor. Reiner, himself, makes this point about how we masculinize our sons in order to prepare them for what lies ahead:
Why do we limit the emotional vocabulary of boys?
We tell ourselves we are preparing our sons to fight (literally and figuratively), to compete in a world and economy that’s brutish and callous. The sooner we can groom them for this dystopian future, the better off they’ll be.Reiner's thesis echoes, uncannily, Romberg's observations about the role of male genital cutting in "toughening up" the infant male in order to begin preparing him to face "a tough world." Here, again, we see the connection between the ways parents construct the masculinity of their infant sons in the earliest stages of their lives and the ways in which parents themselves are apt to regard the masculinizing ordeal of genital mutilation through which their infant sons must pass. It is not uncommon to hear parents who have subjected their infant sons to "circumcision" to speak in glowing terms about "how tough" their "little guy" was throughout the ordeal. (It is no coincidence that parents will often refer to their infant in this context as a "little guy" or a "little man." I wonder whether, besides the preposterous masculinizing going on here, it is not at least in part because it is easier for them to live with the idea of causing bodily harm and suffering to a "guy" or a "man" than it is to a baby, especially when it is their baby.)
Beyond literally "toughening up" the glans penis (thereby making it more "masculine"), there can be little doubt that, whether consciously or unconsciously, one of the primary purposes of male genital mutilation is the"toughening up" of the boy himself. That deeply entrenched notions of gender and masculinity are intrinsic to this custom are, if anything, demonstrated all the more by the ridicule, scorn and contempt to which men who publicly express their resentment about having had part of their genitals amputated (needlessly and without their consent) frequently are subjected. They are told to "stop whining." They are told to "get over it." (I, myself, was once told by a 20-something young woman on Facebook, in response to one of my posts, to "Quit fucking whining." This was followed up with "Check your bullshit, you whiny bitch.") But is this how we would talk to women who have been subjected to genital cutting and who courageously voice their objections to it? Indeed, that women who oppose their genital cutting are considered "courageous" while men who oppose theirs are considered "whiny bitches" tells us everything we need to know about the role of gender-construction in these practices. The double standard in the consideration that we accord victims of genital cutting based upon the sex of the victim goes to the very heart of the issues articulated in Reiner's essay and Romberg's observations.
Reiner's thesis is essentially that boys and men must be allowed to own their emotions. I would argue that they must also be allowed to own their bodies. That starts at birth.