Monday, December 14, 2015

Intactivism and Feminism

by David Balashinsky

Like all social reform movements, intactivism follows logically from certain universal principles. That is one of the reasons why intactivists find it mind-boggling that our position is not shared universally. After all, how can anyone possibly disagree with the proposition that no one should have his or her genitals altered without his or her consent? Our adversaries look upon us as though we are crazy while we view them as morally inconsistent and perversely blind to their own moral inconsistency. This can only be explained by a cultural schism between the two sides in this debate. When intactivists look at male genital mutilation, we view it within a certain philosophical and moral framework that requires us to condemn it because the act itself is morally incompatible with the underlying (or overarching) moral framework. When proponents (or those who simply have never questioned whether male genital mutilation is consistent with the moral framework to which they probably already subscribe) look at genital mutilation of boys, it is not that they are not seeing what we are seeing but that they have placed forced infant male circumcision conceptually outside of the moral framework that governs most other aspects of their beliefs and conduct. It is as though male genital mutilation exists for them in another dimension beyond the purview of the principles of bodily integrity and basic human rights. Thus, intactivism has much in common with the abolitionist- and civil -rights movements. Jefferson and many other champions of "the rights of man," after all, saw no contradiction between their belief in basic human rights and slavery because enslaved Africans existed for them conceptually outside of the moral framework of those rights. Similarly, advocates and acceptors of MGM place male genital mutilation conceptually beyond the scope of rights and principles that they take for granted in all other respects.

That is why, when the abolitionist movement was gathering steam in the U.S. during the nineteenth century, the notion of human rights was not new but it took a cultural shift to expand the definition of "human" to include enslaved African Americans. The fact that the U.S. constitution was written by freedom-loving men, many of whom, like Jefferson, were at the same time slave-owners, represents a moral inconsistency in the foundation of our republic that could not even begin to be rectified until the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the passage of the XIVth amendment. (Indeed, the legacy of this moral inconsistency - our nation's history of structural racism - to this day has not been adequately confronted.) The concept of basic human rights was not new: both the French and American revolutions were based on the Enlightenment ideas of universal human rights. What the abolitionist movement and its heir, the civil rights movement, did was merely to apply the same principles universally so as to include African Americans. These movements did not invent a new concept of rights but merely demanded that diaspora African Americans be brought within the fold of humanity and within the ambit of those rights so that those rights might at last be applied universally to all humans and not just to white property-owning men.

The suffragist-feminist movement had similar origins and has had a similar history. When the revolutionary minds of the European Enlightenment and behind the French and American revolutions conceived of the inalienable "rights of man," what they really meant was the rights of white, property-owning men. And just as the abolitionist- and civil-rights movements expanded the compass of "human rights" to include humans who were not white, so the suffragist-feminist movement expanded the compass of human rights to include humans who are not male.

Intactivism owes much to the civil rights movement and to feminism. It is their natural heir and ally. The concept of bodily integrity and autonomy - the right not to have one's genitals altered without one's consent - is not a new idea. But, like our civil-rights- and feminist predecessors, it is our job to bring infant male and intersex genital integrity within the ambit of rights that are already accepted by most people as axiomatic.

The question arises from time to time to what extent feminism and intactivism share a common moral foundation and to what extent they are in conflict with one another. This question arises mainly, and regrettably, because there is a strand of anti-feminist thought and polemics that runs through the larger tapestry of the intactivist movement. I believe, however, that the anti-feminist-pro-genital-autonomy philosophy is based not only on a misunderstanding of feminism but on a failure to recognize the fundamentally sexist and patriarchal origins of circumcision itself.

Writing as a victim of MGM, as a male feminist and as an intactivist, it is my conviction that feminism and intactivism both stand upon a single philosophical and moral foundation. Feminists and intactivists should therefore be natural allies. After all, the principles of bodily integrity and autonomy, which are at the core of the intactivist movement, are also at the core of feminism. The feminist claims on behalf of women's rights, including the right to safe and legal abortion, the right to contraception, and many other specific rights that are important to feminism, follow inevitably from the principles of bodily integrity and autonomy. Likewise, the principle of genital integrity for members of both sexes follows from these same principles.

A critical feature of feminism that is often overlooked by its critics and detractors is that feminism has always been a movement intended to liberate both sexes from their rigidly prescribed (and largely constructed) gender roles. Although patriarchal and sexist culture harms girls and women differently than it does boys and men, it harms boys and men, too, and the ways in which it does have been explicated and argued by feminist theoreticians more than by anyone else. The very concept that men should be liberated from their traditionally constructed gender roles - as breadwinner, as stoic, competitive, aggressive, violent, and unflinching in the face of pain - are feminist ideas. The claims on behalf of boys and men to be free to experience their full humanity and free to explore the full range of human emotion and experience are claims that were being made by feminist writers and theoreticians on behalf of boys and men decades ago. That, incidentally, is one of the reasons that the anti-feminist and MRA criticism of feminism as being somehow "anti-male" or pro-women's rights at the expense of men's right's is not only baseless but perversely and preposterously baseless.

Yet if intactivism is the natural heir of feminism (and of the civil rights movement more remotely), why has it not gained more traction with feminists? I think there are several possible answers to this question.

First, it must be acknowledge that some of the most eloquent champions of the cause of genital rights for males are in fact self-professed feminists, so it is not as though intactivism has escaped their notice. Their analyses of how intactivism fits within the broader philosophical framework of feminism are readily available on the internet and I would urge the reader to follow the links provided to these several good examples of feminist intactivist thought.

But secondly, and to the extent that intactivism has failed to gain more traction with feminism than feminist-intactivists such as I might wish, I suspect it is probably due to the fact that power structures are adept at pitting against one another natural allies who, were they to make common cause, would make short work of their common enemy. Thus, the 1% adroitly makes blue-collar workers resent the poor, rather than the rich; it makes white-collar, middle-management and small business owners resent civil servants, rather than corporate CEOs with their bloated compensation packages. Poor whites are encouraged to resent blacks and immigrants.

So with women, men, feminism and intactivism. Patriarchal institutions adroitly foment male resentment against women for problems that affect men. And there certainly are kernels of truth within the MRA list of grievances. But the fact remains that the vast majority of these grievances reflect problems that have been created largely by men themselves. MRAs, for example, frequently complain about how our system of laws is tilted against men and in favor of women. Yet the U.S. has proportionally less women in government than almost half of all the other nations on Earth, so it is absurd to blame women and feminism for this state of affairs. The U.S. congress, after all, is not dominated by feminists. In fact, female representation - to say nothing of feminist representation - in congress is proportionally very low. As the Daily Kos reported back in 2012, out of the world's 195 nations, "the U.S. ranks 80th on the list of the percentage of women serving at the congressional level." This same source notes, incidentally, that even Afghanistan has proportionally more women in government than the United States has.

This is exactly the state of affairs with respect to circumcision. This ancient, Abrahamic practice derives from a fundamentally patriarchal religion. That a patriarchal religion should sprout from a patriarchal culture should surprise no one. Islam - adherents of which comprise the overwhelming number of males who are circumcised around the world, - likewise is a patriarchal religion and reflects the patriarchal culture in which it originated. Here in the United States, RIC was promoted during the 19th century by a medical profession that was dominated by men. Does anybody believe that the male Victorian physicians who advocated circumcision were feminists? And yet instead of looking to our patriarchal and sexist legacy as the obvious source of circumcision, MRA intactivists instead direct their wrath against feminists - the very people, in other words, who are working to dismantle the patriarchal culture that gave rise to circumcision in the first place.

Thus, feminists are not merely being kept busy fighting battles on behalf of girls and women but are contending at the same time with an unwarranted antipathy toward and a scapegoating of themselves by men which is fostered and facilitated by a pro-circumcision, anti-feminist power structure that is only too happy to see these natural allies turned into competitors and adversaries. I cannot speak as a feminist woman, of course, since I am a feminist man and my experience in the world is different, but I think I can imagine that the constant barrage of sexist attitudes and imagery - to say nothing of the anti-woman and anti-feminist invective being spewed daily by certain politicians and loudmouths in the media - might not leave women feminists particularly inspired to take up the cudgels on behalf of infant boys' genital integrity.

Another explanation for the failure of the intactivist movement to gain more traction among those who identify as feminists could be simply that the very word "feminism" has been skillfully vilified by reactionary anti-feminists. Thus, many people - of either sex - who, by inclination and principle might identify as feminists, are loathe to do so because of the success that anti-feminists have had in discrediting and misrepresenting feminism. For example, I have known not a few women who eschew the label of "feminist" and buy into the whole Rush Limbaugh feminist-bashing narrative and yet, if you ask them about particular matters of concern to them as women and as mothers, their concerns and principles for the most part reflect unabashedly feminist concerns and principles. This technique of prying women away from an organized feminist movement to which their social, legal, and economic interests should naturally make them gravitate has the effect of separating them from a philosophical organizing principle that would also be more likely to lead them to embrace intactivism. That probably holds for men, too. (Indeed, in my own case, my feminism preceded my intactivism and it was the former that prepared the ground, in my own philosophical development, for the latter.) Perhaps it is because women and men in our society are discouraged from looking at patriarchal power structures critically and deconstructing them through the feminist critique of power that an unquestioning acceptance of patriarchal authority and custom is fostered. But it is precisely this - an unquestioning acceptance of authority and custom - that has created a cultural environment in which routine infant male circumcision has thrived in the U.S. for over 150 years. Routine infant male circumcision, then, is an integral part - not an aberration - of the patriarchal power structure. We need more feminism, not less, in order to end both.

Still another explanation could be the phenomenon of attributing pro-male-genital mutilation attitudes to women who may - in contrast to women who shun the label "feminist" but in fact are - profess themselves feminists but in fact are not. After all, anybody can call herself anything she wants, but that does not make her what she professes to be.

On this head, I first need to question here, parenthetically, whether such a phenomenon is not merely an updated trope of the "castrating shrew." On numerous occasions now in online threads I have come across complaints by anti-feminist intactivists that feminists are indifferent to the plight of male victims of genital mutilation, and that this belies feminists' professions in support of bodily rights and equality. And yet, in my own experience and through my own observations, such a chimera is rarely to be found. On the contrary, as noted above, feminist women are in the vanguard of the intactivist movement.

But let us, in the interest of fairness and for the sake of being thorough, allow that there may be feminists who have not yet fully absorbed the fundamentally feminist principle of genital autonomy for all sexes, including intersex. For the most part, the major flaw of those feminists who are not animated on behalf of the cause of genital rights for all is merely that they labor under the same cultural prejudice in favor of circumcision in which its "benefits" are routinely touted and its harms as well as the human rights violation in which it consists are routinely minimized or discounted altogether. But this makes feminists who are indifferent to the wrongness of circumcision certainly no worse than anyone else who is equally indifferent to it. Of course, feminists, precisely because feminism strives for full equality among all sexes and genders, set themselves up to be held to a higher standard, and so it is fitting that they should be held to a higher standard. But holding feminists to a higher standard does not mean that they should be scapegoated and alienated from our cause. It is our job, as intactivists, to reach out to them and to win them over rather than to push them away. In the internet age, where invective and ad hominem attack have largely supplanted reasoned discussion, that will take enormous patience and self discipline.

At the same time, to the extent that there is a population of feminists which has not yet fully absorbed the fundamentally feminist principle of genital autonomy for all, of these I can only say that either they are not true feminists or they are not fully realized feminists. Male genital mutilation goes against absolutely everything that feminism stands for. A self-professed feminist who would exclude infant boys from her conception of universal human rights, including genital integrity, is analogous to a champion of "the rights of man," such as Thomas Jefferson - to return to that worthy - who is at the same time a holder of human chattel. The fallacy is not in the theoretical framework of the rights themselves but rather in their inconsistent application. Indeed, Jefferson's error was both a moral one and one of logic. His ultimate failing, though, was not that he was a champion of human rights but simply that he was an inconsistent one. The solution to Jefferson's inconsistency would simply have been a greater and more inclusive definition of humanity, hence, a more inclusive application of human rights. Similarly, a self-professed feminist who does not recognize both a moral and logical inconsistency inherent in a simultaneous belief in feminism and acceptance of male genital mutilation is laboring under the untenable burden of supporting a feminism that is not fully realized, and inconsistently applied. Thus, with respect to feminism and intactivism, when the former fails to embrace the latter, the problem is not with feminism itself but rather with its incomplete application to all humans. The solution is more feminism - not less. Intactivists, therefore, should criticize such incompletely realized feminists not for their feminism but for their want of it.

I began by observing that the divide between the intactivist community and those across the chasm is a cultural one. It is a difference in worldview. Routine infant male circumcision will only end when we have won enough hearts and minds to effect a cultural shift. The way to get there is not by alienating and scapegoating those who ought to be and probably are our natural allies. In this respect we need to take a page from the civil-rights, feminist-, and gay-rights playbooks. The successes that these movements have had thus far did not come about by their proponents' differentiating and segregating themselves from the rest of society but precisely the opposite - by demanding entry to the club: by demanding a consistent application to themselves of principles already embraced by society broadly. And just as the civil rights movement did not seek to create something novel but merely the application of universal human rights to blacks, and just as the feminist movement has not sought to create something novel but merely the equal application of universal human rights to females and males, so the intactivist movement should endeavor to call society to a better version of itself in which the principle of genital integrity is finally applied universally, protecting boys and intersex children as well as girls. In other words, we need to make unambiguously clear to those who have yet to join us that it is our side that is in possession of moral consistency and legitimacy. We need to do this, partly, because it is the right thing to do. But, more importantly, because our movement will remain consigned to the fringes if we don't.


  1. Very thoughtful discussion that places the debate over circumcision (i.e. non-therapeutic circumcision of male minors) firmly where it belongs - the field of human rights. It is of interest that Fox and Thomson have also argued that male circumcision should be a feminist issue:

    Fox, Marie and Thomson, Michael “Foreskin is a feminist issue”, Australian Feminist Studies, Vol. 24 (60), 2009, 195-210:

    While Robert van Howe situates the claim that boys have a right to their foreskin (i.e. not to be circumcised against their will) within the long historical process whereby rights have been extended to social categories that were previously thought not to possess them, such as slaves and women:

    Robert S. Van Howe, Infant circumcision: The last stand for the dead dogma of parental (sovereignal) rights. Journal of Medical Ethics, Vol 39 (7), July 2013:

    Steven Pinker has similarly located the development of a concept of children’s rights within the “rights revolution” that began with John Locke’s support for religious toleration and rejection of absolute monarchical power, and flowered with the American Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man arising from the French Revolution. The logic of this long historical trend is towards the principle that all humans have certain basic rights, and are entitled to equal moral consideration, by virtue of being human:

    "The prohibition of spanking [of children] represents a stunning change from millennia in which parents were considered to own their children, and the way they treated them was considered no one else's business. But it is consistent with other intrusions of the state into the family, such as compulsory schooling, mandatory vaccinations, the removal of children from abusive homes, the imposition of life-saving medical care over the objections of religious parents, and the prohibition of female genital cutting by communities of Muslim immigrants in European countries. In one frame of mind this meddling is a totalitarian imposition of state power into the intimate sphere of the family. But in another it is part of the historical current towards recognition of the autonomy of individuals. Children are people, and like adults they have a right to life and limb (and genitalia) that is secured by the social contract that empowers the state. The fact that other individuals - their parents - stake a claim of ownership over them cannot negate that right."

    Better Angels of our Nature, p. 527

    1. Thank you for your comment and especially for letting me know about the Fox/Thomson essay in AFS. I have revised my post above to include the link to that essay.

  2. "MRAs, for example, frequently complain about how our system of laws is tilted against men and in favor of women. Yet the U.S. has proportionally less women in government than almost half of all the other nations on Earth, so it is absurd to blame women and feminism for this state of affairs."
    Wrong. A government mostly made up of men can enact a family law that is biased in favour of women, and that is exactly what has happened in the USA and Canada over the past 40-50 years. How? Because women vote. Women can mobilise and organise. Women know how to couch self-serving arguments as appeals to our "better natures". Because gender feminism is fashionable in academic life, including in the typical law school.
    The anti-male tilt in family law also appeals to conservatives who want to shift the responsibility for childrearing from the public purse, to the fathers. Conservatives assert that deadbeat fathers are the major reasons for AFDC, TANF, food stamps and so one.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. The fact that women in the United States vote in greater numbers than men doesn't really signify all that much. A great many voters of either sex in the United States routinely vote against their own interests (see "What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America," by Thomas Frank). Blue-collar and middle-class Americans who vote Republican or for "corporatist" and blue-dog Democrats have, since the 80's, voted passionately and consistently against their own economic interests, motivated instead - distracted or duped, one might rather say - by hot-button "social" or "cultural" issues, such as abortion rights and gay marriage, by demagogic appeals to xenophobia or racism, and - when all else fails - by appeals to nationalism, religion, and war-fever. There is no reason to suppose that women voters are, as a group, any more immune to such manipulation than their male counterparts. Accordingly, that women voters should install predominantly male representatives who then methodically go about dismantling the legal protections for women's rights that were enacted throughout the 70s should surprise no one. The attempts to defund Planned Parenthood, attempts to make it harder for married couples (and women in abusive relationships) to divorce, attempts to legally punish and penalize single mothers, and the ever more restrictive laws that are making abortion effectively inaccessible for increasing numbers of American women - all of these things do not reflect the disproportionate influence by feminists over our nation's legislators but the very opposite.

      As for family law and the myth of anti-male bias - a favorite peeve of MRAs, - objective studies of parenting and divorce decrees and settlements simply do not bear that out. Following is a link to a good corrective for the notion that family law is biased against men.

    3. Outside of a handful of Jewish feminists more beholden to Dr Ruth than to an open minded examination of nontherapeutic circumcision, feminism has not obstructed intactivism in any way. Feminists rightly see that male doctors and medical school profs, and insecure fathers, deserve nearly all of the blame for RIC in the USA. I have been deeply moved by the shrewd common sense many women have written when mulling over RIC.

      The objectivity of a study is a matter of opinion. I reserve judgement on the quality of Meyer's article in HuffPost (which is not on my go-to list for careful social science). The MRA position strikes me as grounded in a number of anecdotes that are very troubling if taken at face value. Likewise, it is a number of troubling anecdotes that puts fire in the belly of BLM.

      The fact that a majority of voters are women, and the fact that upper middle class college educated America is very afraid of gender feminist anger, have distorted American public policy in an anti-male direction.

      I know of no serious efforts to make divorce more difficult in our lifetime. Single motherhood is tacitly accepted by public policy, as long as the mother names the true father on the birth certificate. Abortion is morally deplorable to millions of Americans, esp. devout Roman Catholics, evangelical Christians and orthodox Jews. Planned Parenthood has committed many PR faux pas.

      The USA is a very big country with many level of government. It is to be expected that some public policies favour men, others favour women, others are impartial, and yet others are nonsense from any well-thought perspective. This seeming inconsistency is not evidence that feminists lack power overall, but is evidence of the complexity and diversity of the USA.

      I have no difficulty believing that some Family Court judges are overconfident and domineering. I concluded that by following closely the ordeal of Heather Hieronimus and her son Chase.

  3. Great article! Your argument addresses any reservations that one might have to the Intactivist movement.

  4. So well argued - thank you, David.

    I think it is noteworthy that the LGBT community made great strides towards marriage equality when they adopted the human rights approach, Equality Now, across the state organizations. They also made a huge leap when the focused on "Marry the one you love", a notion that all married couples, and those wishing to get married, understood.

    Similarly, the Intactivist movement has made strides in "His Body, His Rights". Perhaps, a universal version of that, rather than gendered, would be helpful in gaining the attention of feminist allies. "Their Bodies, Equal Rights".

    I also think Saving Our Sons has done a great job on the affection and love response to photos of intact babies and toddlers.

    Equal Rights & Baby Love - a great combination!