This is a response to an essay by Ej Dickson that appeared on the site Romper on May 11, 2017. In the "About" section, the site describes itself as "a site for a new generation of women figuring out what motherhood means for us." Here is a link to Ms. Dickson's essay: https://www.romper.com/p/i-circumcised-my-son-i-dont-regret-it-one-bit-56855. For context, as well as giving Ms. Dickson the courtesy of hearing what she has to say in her own words, it is recommended that her essay be read before reading this reply to it.
I am addressing this post to you, Ej Dickson, in the form of an open letter, partly, because I want to respond to your post in Romper (I Circumcised My Son [and] I Don't Regret It One Bit, 11 May 2015) as directly and as personally as I can. Under the circumstances, for me that means writing as a Jewish person to a fellow Jewish person. Even more significantly, it means writing as a Jewish man to a Jewish woman. At the same time, I appreciate how personal and heartfelt your post was and I believe that it deserves a response in kind. Finally, it is my sincere hope that I will have a better chance of reaching you (in the sense of my getting you to understand the genital-autonomy point of view) by speaking from the heart, just as you did.
But while I want to speak to you on a personal level for all of the reasons that I have just given, I also happen to think that a public forum, such as this, is an appropriate place for me to do so. That is because this is a conversation that needs to occur not only between fellow Jews, as you and I are, but among all people who care about basic human rights. That includes not only the right to grow up in a world without anti-Semitism but the right to own and control one's own body. My perspective is simple: the second of those two rights is fundamental and absolute and, without it, the first right is meaningless.
I will begin by acknowledging that you and other Jews are perfectly entitled to be suspicious of the motives of those calling for an end to circumcision, particularly when such calls come from quarters that are known to have espoused bigoted, anti-Semitic, and Islamophobic attitudes. Notwithstanding the fact that here in the United States, as well as around the world, Jews constitute a tiny fraction of those who both perform and are subjected to circumcision, there will always be anti-Semites who are only too happy to have yet another cudgel - now in the form of opposition to "Jewish circumcision" - with which to beat up on Jews. But no matter what we do or don't do, you can be sure that the anti-Semites will hate us either for doing it or for not doing it: we are damned if we do and damned if we don't. But that does not mean that the goal of ending circumcision is itself intrinsically wrong or anti-Semitic, even if it is being exploited by bigots and being pursued, disingenuously by them, for the wrong reasons. After all, even a broken clock is right twice each day. In actuality, the overwhelming majority of those who oppose circumcision are not anti-Semites and many of us are Jews. Those who would hijack and exploit the genital-autonomy movement in furtherance of an anti-Semitic (or anti-Islamic) agenda must not be allowed to derail the genital-autonomy movement or to bring discredit upon it. As I see it, that is why it is especially important that Jews take the lead in the cause of ending the barbaric custom of genital cutting (and barbaric it is): not only for Jewish boys but for all children, and not only circumcision but all genital cutting, including female genital mutilation and the non-consensual sex-assignment surgery of intersex children.
This brings me directly to a central objection that I have to your essay. Namely, that you mischaracterize the genital-autonomy movement as being primarily, even intrinsically, anti-Semitic. Nowhere is this mischaracterization as deftly achieved as when you write: "I can't speak for my fellow Jews having a pro-genital mutilation agenda because, contrary to apparent popular belief, I don't belong to a shadowy cabal of hook-nosed, curly-haired globalists congregating in a secret volcano lair somewhere conspiring to control the IMF and cut baby penises." The implication here is that all genital-autonomy activists (or simply, intactivists) automatically embrace the entire kit-and-caboodle of anti-Semitic stereotypes and scapegoating as part and parcel of our objection to circumcision. You further reinforce the notion that intactivists are mainly non-Jews bashing Jews over circumcision when you write that "in the larger conversation about circumcision, Jews and Muslims are often left out of the conversation altogether." Both of these characterizations about the anti-genital-cutting movement are patently false. Jews have been and remain proudly in the vanguard of the genital-autonomy movement. This includes those who actively identify as Jews ethnically and culturally, religious Jews who identify as Jewish by virtue of their espousal of Judaism, and those who simply have Jewish roots and ancestry who, though no longer self-identifying as Jewish, acknowledge - without shame or apology - that Jewishness constitutes a part of their history and connects them to our collective past and present. This wide and diverse group includes writers, intellectuals, physicians, attorneys and, yes, even rabbis. People such as Leonard B. Glick (an M.D. with a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology and author of Marked in Your Flesh: Circumcision from Ancient Judea to Modern America), Mirriam Pollack (an educator and author of Circumcision: Gender, Identity and Power), Rebecca Wald and Lisa Braver Moss (co-authors of Beyond the Bris), Peter Adler (an attorney with Attorneys for the Rights of the Child [ARC] and author of a number of articles including Is Circumcision Legal?), Anthony Levin (also with ARC, an attorney and writer and author of House of the Collective Unconscious), Ronald Goldman, Ph.D. (psychologist, educator, lecturer, director of the Circumcision Resource Center and author of Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma and Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective), and Norm Cohen (director of NOCIRC of Michigan). All of these people have contributed groundbreaking and foundational (I'd say seminal but - well, you know) texts against circumcision on numerous grounds and in support of the right of all boys - not just Jewish ones - to own their own bodies and to grow up with their genitals intact. Many other famous Jews besides, from Alicia Silverstone to Dustin Hoffman to Sara Gilbert to Howard Stern also oppose circumcision and have done so emphatically and publicly. There is also an active movement among religious Jews to replace the brit milah with the non-violent ceremony of the brit shalom (see Beyond the Bris). And there is an active online group of Jews who oppose circumcision. On Facebook we can be found at Jews Against Circumcision. If you think that we are not part of the conversation it occurs to me that perhaps you simply haven't been listening. I sincerely hope that that will now change.
There are several other points in your essay with which I disagree and that I cannot let go unchallenged. Some of these are matters of judgement - where disagreement is certainly possible - but others are not, such as when you state, incorrectly, that metzitzah b'peh is "banned." Not only is this abhorrent and dangerous practice not banned but the New York City Board of Health recently watered down its already impotent (again, sorry) regulations concerning it. As a result, innocent Jewish baby boys continue to be infected with a strain of the herpes simplex virus that can lead and has led to brain damage and even death. (See my own essay on this shameful topic in which I discuss not only MBP itself but also the question of anti-Semitism as it relates to the genital-autonomy movement, On the Decision by the New York City Board of Health to Repeal the Metzitzah b'Peh Consent-Form Regulation, On Same-Sex Marriage, and On the Question of Anti-Semitism .)
Your post also misstates the current circumcision rate in the United States. This tends to give the erroneous impression that circumcision is far more routinely practiced now than in fact it is. The 81% figure that you cite actually refers to the percentage of males currently living in the United States who have been subjected to (or as adults chose to undergo) circumcision. The actual rate of neonatal circumcision nationwide is now at about 55% and falling. In some states, the rate of neonatal circumcision is in the low 20 percentiles range (and below 20 percent in Washington and Nevada). By making the current incidence of neonatal circumcision appear to be much greater than it is, your post subtly but falsely reinforces the notion that, because it is a norm, circumcision must therefore be normative, as though the very normalcy of routine infant circumcision were itself proof of its validity. Yet it is neither as widespread as you claim nor as medically justified as you might wish. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics, a trade organization the membership of which profits handsomely from performing circumcisions, concedes that infant circumcision is not medically necessary.
You also impart a gloss of normativity to infant circumcision when you generalize that most parents who subject their sons to circumcision do so "largely for hygienic reasons." In fact, far more significant is the anatomical status of the father. In one Canadian study (Parents' Rationale for Male Circumcision, published by The College of Family Physicians of Canada) it was found that, when the father had himself been circumcised, close to 82% of respondents supported circumcision for their son whereas, when the father had a full penis, only about 15% of respondents supported circumcision for their son.
Conversely, even allowing that "hygiene" is the most frequently-cited rationale given by parents for subjecting their sons to circumcision (this same study put the figure at close to 62%), believing that a circumcised penis is more hygienic than an intact one does not make it so. After all, consider, by way of comparison, a recent study published by JAMA Dermatology (Journal of the American Medical Association; Pubic Hair Grooming Prevalence and Motivation Among Women in the United States) in which it was found that, of the number of women who reported removing some or all of their pubic hair, close to 60% (the majority, in other words), reported doing so for hygienic reasons. This is in spite of the fact that there is not a whit of evidence that a vulva denuded of its hair is more hygienic than one that is not. In fact, "grooming" is actually harmful: dermatologists, gynecologists and even emergency department physicians (!) are reporting an increase in dermatological and other more serious health problems as a result of this practice. As the New York Times noted when it reported on this study (Many Women Prefer to Groom, Citing Hygiene, and Baffling Doctors, by Jan Hoffman, NYT, June 29, 2016), "Pubic hair functions as a protective cushion for sensitive skin, and has its own hygienic purpose, trapping bacteria and preventing it [sic] from entering the vaginal opening." Note, incidentally, that both those who opt for circumcision (of their children) and for female "grooming" (of themselves) specifically for hygienic reasons constitute about 60% respectively of the totals of these two groups.
Another reason that you offered for having had your son's penis circumcised was that "circumcising my child would likely decrease the risk of him being subject to locker room mockery, or, worse, to having his penis compared to a Sharpei by a cruel future sexual partner." The same New York Times article that I cited just above about female "grooming" reports that, "Anecdotally, gynecologists say they are seeing girls as young as 13 take up grooming. . . . The teenagers, doctors said, are influenced by locker room jeers [my emphasis]. . . . 'At least once a week I hear from a young woman that she thinks it's wrong to have pubic hair, that it's meant to be removed,' said doctor Jennifer Gunter. . . . 'Grooming has become so common that people think that's the norm.'" Sound familiar? And not only because of the locker-room mockery but, more basically, once a practice becomes normalized, its very normality makes it self-perpetuating as others succumb to the social pressure to conform to it.
Yet the notion that one should surgically alter a child's body as a kind of prophylaxis against that individual's being mocked later on in life for having a normal human body should be offensive to you not only as a human being but as a Jewish woman. It is to me, as a Jewish man, and this is only partly the reason why: It is no secret that many Jewish women have been body-shamed for having the classic Semitic nose and have therefore chosen to undergo rhinoplasty, either to pass (as not Jewish) or merely to conform to WASPish standards of beauty. My own sister was mocked in junior high school on account of her nose but she steadfastly refused to get a nose job, even when several of the young Jewish women among our acquaintance did. My sister, to her credit, deemed such a surgery an act of Jewish self-hatred. But in your son's case, you have chosen to validate those who would body-shame him on account of having a natural and normal penis, rather than teach him the values of self-acceptance and standing up for oneself. Is this really how you believe we should be raising our children? Are Jewish girls, then, to be subjected to nose jobs, proactively and without their consent, in order to spare them the jibes or mockery of others? And what about the current obscene, bizarre and profoundly misogynistic craze of labiaplasty? Notions of beauty, like its opposite, are fluid, ever-changing, and, probably more than we care to admit, socially constructed (hence their wide variation over the centuries, and even year to year). Now that the human vulva, in all its splendorous variation, is being subjected to the same sort of social pressures to conform to arbitrary and rigid notions of beauty much as the rest of women's bodies are, are we to begin proactively subjecting our daughters to cosmetic genital surgery in order to spare them the barbs or crude comments of "a cruel future sexual partner"? If you would not cravenly yield to such social pressure with respect to your daughter's genitals, why should you with respect to your son's?
Your post also significantly errs on the matter of the sexual ramifications of both female and male genital cutting and, in so doing, perpetuates the false distinction between the two as a purely malevolent act when inflicted on girls but a benign one when imposed on boys. The notion that female genital cutting "is explicitly intended to render women devoid of any sexual sensation whatsoever" is simply false. To be sure, modifying and controlling women's bodies and sexuality may be factors in the phenomenon of female genital mutilation, (as they are in the effort to deprive women here, in the United States, of access to contraceptives and reproductive-healthcare services) but FGM is also practiced for - and defended on the basis of - a variety of reasons, many of them identical to the reasons most commonly given for male circumcision here in the west, including hygiene, aesthetics, and, above all, tradition. In fact, exactly what you wrote of male circumcision - that "there are legitimate reasons why some people, particularly Jews and Muslims, would want to circumcise their sons, and they are much more complex than many anti-circumcision advocates suggest [my emphasis]" - could be said of "female circumcision."
The notion that male genital cutting is harmless and has no effect on male sexual sensation and function is likewise false. The male prepuce is the primary sensory apparatus of the penis. Once it's gone, all the sensation that it provides goes with it, never to return. Almost as egregious is the harm that befalls the glans penis as a sequela to circumcision after its protective covering is removed for, without the prepuce to protect it as nature intended, the skin of the glans desiccates and keratinizes, making it even less sensitive than it was to begin with. Indeed, that was the main reason that circumcision was practiced here in the United States during the nineteenth century: as a way to "cure" boys of their propensity to masturbate. (If that doesn't constitute controlling male bodies and inhibiting male sexual pleasure, I don't know what does.) Even the (otherwise) great twelfth-century Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, recognized that circumcision impairs male sexual sensation and he, too (like some notable Victorian circumcision proponents), regarded that as one of circumcision's chief virtues. The very mechanism by which circumcision is understood to confer a prophylactic effect with respect to STIs is the "toughening up" of the skin of the glans, making it less permeable to pathogens. Does anybody with a modicum of common sense seriously believe that after walking around barefoot for 30 years the skin on the sole of one's foot will be as sensitive as the skin on the back of one's hand?
Again - to keep this personal - while it is not my practice to discuss my sex life publicly, your blowjob comment, as well as the overall personal nature of your post, impel me to share with you something about my own experience and how I came to be an opponent of non-consensual circumcision. I was well into my 50s before it even dawned on me that men are supposed to experience significant sexual sensation during PIV intercourse. All this changed when I learned, to my horror and infinite envy, how good PIV intercourse feels for intact men. Up until that point, because I had seldom questioned my own circumcision and just assumed that my sexual sensations were pretty much like everyone else's, I thought that the only significant physically pleasurable part of intercourse for the male was the orgasm itself. That being the case, I could never understand what all the fuss about sex was. In terms of sensation, PIV intercourse is certainly inferior to masturbation and every other sort of act I have tried.
Worse than this loss of sensation during intercourse - which I now regard as a birthright that was stolen from me - is the loss of shared intimacy that PIV intercourse, when experienced between a man and a woman within the context of a loving sexual relationship, ought to provide. Again, I always thought that women were just more romantic, emotional, and sentimental than men and that it was to this that their emotional response to PIV intercourse must be attributable. What I did not realize was that, because women experience the full sensation and immediacy of intercourse (that is, those women who are fortunate enough not to have been subjected to genital cutting), they experience intercourse in the totality of its combined sensory, cognitive and emotional components. It is as if women experience PIV intercourse not merely with their vaginas (and to a lesser extent with their external genitalia) but with their whole bodies and even with their hearts and souls (if you believe in souls). In contrast, for me, when I have intercourse, I feel almost completely disconnected from my penis. The inevitable result of this is that I feel largely disconnected from the woman whose body my penis is in. In other words, I feel disconnected from her at precisely the moment that I should feel closest to her. I attribute this to the fact that my penis was circumcised and its normal sensation and function seriously and irreparably harmed. That makes PIV intercourse not a shared experience, then, but the exact opposite. It makes intercourse lopsided and unequal. Circumcision destroys the potential of PIV intercourse to be transcendent and unifying for a man and a woman and instead renders it something largely mechanical for the man (and, of course, it could be argued that that is largely the point of circumcision). This, incidentally, is yet one more reason that I am ardently opposed to male circumcision: that it inhibits true sexual intimacy between partners and reduces intercourse, for the male at any rate, to a form of masturbation in which he is essentially masturbating with the aid of a woman's body. (Indeed, anyone who opposes pornography on the grounds that it takes the intimacy out of intercourse and reduces sex to a mere means to an orgasmic end, as opposed to being meaningful in and of itself, ought to oppose male circumcision for precisely these same reasons.) How can it be otherwise, when the two partners are experiencing such unequal levels of connection to their own genitals?
I want to consider now, from several aspects, what seems to have been the overriding reason for your having subjected your son, Sol, to circumcision. Here is how your phrased it: "Ultimately, I chose to circumcise him because he is a member of a religious minority that has been persecuted for millennia and continues to be persecuted today, and I don't ever want him to forget that." So cutting off part of your son's penis without his consent is your answer to our history of persecution? That strikes me as ludicrous in the extreme. No - it's worse than ludicrous. From my perspective - that of a Jewish man who, probably like you, lost relatives in the holocaust and, probably like you, lost thousands more over the centuries in pogroms, crusades, and mass burnings over canards like well-poisoning and the blood libel - it is vile and perverse that your answer to our collective history of persecution as Jews is to irreparably harm your son's penis. Do you imagine that circumcision will act as a talisman to protect your son from future persecution? It won't. Do you, an agnostic, suppose that doing violence to your son's body will appease an unfeeling, unthinking universe? It can't. For the life of me I find it incomprehensible that someone as apparently thoughtful as you would reason in precisely the wrong direction: that because the world has been a cruel place for Jews (though not only for Jews, let us remember), you should welcome your son into the world with cruelty of your own, particularly given how utterly unnecessary it is.
I am absolutely in agreement that Jews must never forget our history and our forebears and that we have a duty to honor our legacy. I will even agree that it is imperative that we do so because our very survival as a people on some level depends upon it. But there is a difference between honoring our legacy and traditions and practicing a slavish, unthinking submission to them. After all, there are many practices that the Jewish people have abandoned: polygamy, animal sacrifice, slavery, death by stoning. And yet we didn't cease to be Jews when we abandoned those other ancient rites and practices. Circumcision in the 21st century is an anachronism that ought to go the way of animal sacrifice and stoning. If we don't have enough self-confidence in ourselves as a people to venture forth into the future without clinging to this ancient custom we are unworthy of the sacrifices that our forebears made for us. Yes, it's hard to let go of what is familiar, but that is how we grow as individuals, that is how we grow as a people, and that is how cultures, societies and civilizations progress. If the Chinese could let go of foot-binding, if European colonial powers could come to acknowledge the immorality of conquest and enslavement and recognize the rights of indigenous peoples, if the United States could fight a civil war to end the "peculiar institution" of slavery, then surely the Jewish people can find it in themselves to give up the ritual genital cutting of its baby boys. We can do it and we must do it. It is a moral imperative. Moreover, I believe that we will do it. For if anything at all can be said about the Jewish people, it is that we are forever adapting, forever reinventing ourselves, and forever striving toward greater enlightenment. We have never been a stagnant people. On the contrary, we were never permitted the luxury of getting too comfortable anywhere, so perhaps our peculiar history has pushed us in this direction. Or perhaps it is simply our nature. But, whatever the cause, this tendency is reflected throughout the entire trajectory of our history, from our humble beginnings through the accumulated body of Jewish thought, ethics, philosophy and scriptural interpretation throughout the centuries, to the Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment of the 18th through the 19th centuries), to Reform Judaism, with its emphasis on the evolving nature of religion and on the ethical- as opposed to the ceremonial aspect of religious practice, and right up through Jewish secularism. We have had, I believe, an influence on the world way out of proportion to our numbers (which may be one of the reasons we are resented so much). Indeed, it is regrettable but this also explains why we are blamed for circumcision by non-Jews when they cite the history of how circumcision came to be so common here in the United States. But it is because of our unique place in history that we can and must lead the way toward sanctifying bodily integrity and away from sanctifying bodily harm.
I understand completely your desire to give your son a sense of who he is and a sense of belonging to a people that has struggled and persevered. Beyond the positive aspect of this ritual - the induction of a new member into the bosom of a family and, collectively, into the bosom of a people - I accept that you had Sol circumcised not "for religious or hygienic reasons but for overtly political ones." But, speaking as someone who was circumcised, I can tell you confidently that being circumcised is not what makes one Jewish. If it did, 81% (to use your figure) of the men living in the United States right now would be Jewish. It pains me deeply, therefore, to think that your goal in having your son circumcised - that he will "look between his legs and know that he is a member of the Jewish faith, and that by virtue of his birthright, he will forever be permanently marked as different" - will not be realized. This is because, ultimately, having one's penis mutilated is not where Jewish identity comes from. You, yourself, are proof of that. You do not seem to lack for the positive elements of Jewish identification and yet you certainly never were subjected to circumcision. No - Jewish identification comes from one's upbringing, it comes from one's values, one's cultural and ethnic heritage and, with respect to Judaism, it comes from one's religious beliefs. When all is said and done, despite his having been circumcised, if you do not give Sol all of those other things, he will not identify as Jewish in any way that really matters and his being circumcised will have been in vain. On the other hand, had you not had Sol circumcised but inculcated in him a positive sense of his own Jewishness and inspired him to to take pride in and to affirm his own Jewishness, he would be every bit as much Jewish as you or I.
If having your son circumcised was intended to serve as an act of defiance against anti-Semitism, I maintain that the target of your defiance ought to have been the anti-Semites, themselves - not your son's penis. That, unfortunately, is how Sol is also is likely to come to see it. Rather than fighting anti-Semitism in the public sphere, where it really matters, you fought it instead upon the terrain of his own body, and it was his own genital integrity and bodily rights that were the only casualties. Do you really imagine that those anti-Semites who would exploit the genital-autonomy movement give a damn about your son's bodily rights and well-being? On the contrary - they are probably laughing up their sleeves at you. They are only too happy, I have no doubt, to see Jewish boys maimed. Is unsatisfying intercourse really what you want Sol to associate with being Jewish? Is his growing up with the knowledge that he was denied the fundamental human right of bodily autonomy - because he is Jewish - going to make him a more committed and a more proud Jew? Is the knowledge that he was denied the basic dignity of bodily self ownership - because he is Jewish - going to make him more likely to affirm his own Jewishness? Is denying your son ownership and control of the most private part of his body supposed somehow to instill in him a sense of dignity, strength, and worth? I think it far more likely that your having subjected Sol to circumcision will ultimately prove to have effects opposite those that you certainly want for you son - and what any parent would want for her or his child.
But let's consider this from another side, now. What if circumcision could mean for Jewish men what you wish it to mean for Sol? What if circumcision were a choice that your son had been allowed to make for himself? What if he could have chosen - for every one of the reasons that you have given and especially as an act of conscious, Jewish self-identification - to undergo circumcision when he turned 18 and was legally of an age to make such a decision for himself about his own body? What then? Would not circumcision have even more meaning for him? Giving up a part of one's body, after all, is a sacrifice. But it only has meaning for the one actually making the sacrifice. You can no more imbue the sacrifice of your son's prepuce with meaning for him than I could demonstrate my own commitment to veganism (were I a vegan) by depriving my child of meat while gorging on it myself. You can no more make a positive and defiant statement about Sol's place in the world by sacrificing a part of his body than a novice can make about her religious devotion by volunteering someone else to live a life of celibacy while she pursues a life of promiscuity. In order to have any meaning at all, a sacrifice has to come from the one willingly accepting the loss. Otherwise, it is not a sacrifice but a theft. As the Supreme Court held way back in 1943 (Prince v. Massachusetts), "Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow that they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children before they have reached the age of full and legal discretion when they can make that choice for themselves."
If you want to take a stand against anti-Semitism, stand up for the Jewish people. Stand up for our shared culture, our heritage and our history. Stand up for Jewish ethics as they have developed and continue to develop. Stand up for justice, freedom, and democracy in our name. Stand up for women's rights, LGBTQ rights, and immigrant rights in our name. Stand up for refugees and displaced persons in our name. And stand up for the bodily rights of all children in our name. That, to me, is what being Jewish means in the modern world: living out the imperative to try to leave the world a better place than we found it. None of these things - not a one - is advanced in any way by cutting off part of your child's penis.
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