In this essay I want to raise an alarm about a web of seductive phenomena that I see infiltrating, undermining, and endangering the Genital Autonomy (GA) movement and its members. This web includes false conspiracy theories, bad therapies, pseudo-spirituality, antisemitism, false prophets, and social media influencers.
These phenomena are injuring members within our movement, undermining the messages we try to deliver to a broader audience, diverting energy and attention from actual emotional healing and effective advocacy, inciting violence and extremism, and damaging our epistemology.
I will discuss how these ideas and their histories are interconnected, and talk about ways that our movement and larger society are vulnerable to them. My hope is that, with a deeper awareness of these perils, we can reach people before they get sucked into these ideas and be better prepared to support people who are ready to question entities they may have fallen prey to.
Even a big tent can’t hold everything
The GA movement is not founded in a conspiracy theory or antisemitism, but it is particularly vulnerable to contamination and colonization from both for reasons I’ll explain further below. This is why I have co-authored a brief statement explaining what antisemitism is and how to be a GA advocate without falling into antisemitic tropes. I’m not Jewish, and still I feel this is a crucially important step for the wellbeing of the GA movement. Here, I want to tell some of the deeper story.
Most readers will know that we (the GA movement’s members) form a broad coalition: medical professionals shocked when they learned about circumcision; parents horrified after receiving a bloodied and traumatized baby back from “a simple procedure”; people suffering from forced genital modification and/or shocked at its existence; people from many nations, religions (and non-religious folks), and cultural backgrounds. In the US, our members are politically diverse. We may share few common beliefs, but among them is the conviction that forced genital modification of children is wrong.
Being a big tent movement is one of our strengths. However, we must say no to some things. Welcoming expressions of violent ideologies, false conspiracy theories, and discredited therapies undermines the credibility we have worked so hard to create in the face of a widely-held, dominant narrative that normalizes circumcision and other non-therapeutic child surgeries.
Forced genital modification isn’t orchestrated by a small, secret group
Whatever its name in a particular context — genital mutilation, infant circumcision, gender assignment for those born not matching local male or female normative ideas, etc. — these practices occur within a confluence of conflicting taboos, habits, cultural norms, and standards of practice that results in strained rationales and tremendous resistance to change — even to the point of direct, irrational denial of the injury to children.
The difficulty of the work to change these practices, and the ubiquitousness of resistance can easily conjure in the mind some singular group behind the scenes. Maybe it’s the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Task Force on Circumcision. Maybe it’s the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. (A destination of such musings is often Maybe it’s the Jews?) But it’s not any one group making this happen. It’s that large interweaving of practices and inertia that are in place across myriad institutions and taboos that make it hard to talk about.
I’ll give you a few examples of how the arrows of influence point all over the place: When activists speak against female genital cutting, the people attached to the practice in those cultures can point to the ill-advised selling of male circumcision by PEPFAR and the Gates Foundation. When Jewish activists want to push against Jewish circumcision, those attached to it can point to published medical claims that circumcision has some health benefits (incorrect and intentionally distorted as they may be). When I spoke with the Clinical Bioethicists and the Head of Obstetrics at Georgetown University Hospital, they pointed to parents wanting the procedure. When talking with parents, they point to doctors offering it. Everyone can point to supposed “reasons” for some variety of forced genital modification of children that are somehow accepted or encouraged by somebody where they are.
The seductive feeling of certainty can make us waste energy and do harm
It seduces kind and well-meaning people into a herd mentality and then drives them to hurt friends, family and innocent strangers. One feels like one belongs to a group that is doing something important, when one is really alienating the people who actually care and hallucinating nonsense into a false purpose.
The satanic panic of the 80s (which will play another role in this story) galvanized communities into a (tragically false) sense of shared purpose. Well-meaning people destroyed other innocent people’s careers and damaged the lives of children and the wrongly accused. Many children who weren’t abused came to believe themselves to have been ritually abused, and developed similar trauma responses. Being repeatedly told you were abused, even interviewing with leading questions about abuse, can eventually lead to having false memories and believing the abuse happened. In a haunting parallel, the #SaveTheChildren Q-Anon panic deflected time and resources away from actual efforts to prevent human trafficking, and it and related tropes led to false accusations and even some vigilantes to feel so much that they had to do something that they violently and criminally threatened innocent people.
Don’t do more harm than good
I want to try to do some tiny good in the world with my little time and energy left over after parenting. I think most activists do too. But we can do a lot more harm than good with quick takes. It took me about 10 years of reflection, research, and iteration to make “Child Circumcision: an Elephant in the Hospital”. And I still made some (thankfully minor) errors in the version that’s on YouTube. Along that path, I came to understand that there wasn’t some easy person, group, or even institution to blame. Sure, people with more power have more responsibility, but even the doctors doing it were conditioned by inappropriate educational abuse at vulnerable moments in their lives.
Demonizing doctors or the medical system is wrong. It’s abusive, it lacks humility, and it fails to recognize the size and nature of the problem. I cannot stress this enough: we’re all mixed bags, we all participate unknowingly in many harmful things. If we don’t start with this awareness we are prone to do tremendous harm to others all while feeling smugly righteous.
Most doctors, like most other people, in addition to whatever harm they’re doing, are trying to help others. If one thinks Jewish people or the Jewish culture are somehow an exception to this principle, then part of the point of this essay is to help everyone see why that’s dangerously wrong. (If that makes you want to stop reading, I’m asking you to keep going. I will be providing important information that you really need to know.)
Working to create more humane systems requires us to hold multiple challenging truths together at the same time: there’s bad and good in all of us and in all systems.
I’m worried about my colleagues
The habit of demonizing doctors has allowed medical conspiracism to take root among some beloved GA activists. I’ve received many direct messages and seen lots of social media posts about vaccines having microchips or being a Gates plan for population control, RNA programming your DNA, Ivermectin, and even cell towers creating viruses.
Frustration with medical bodies and physicians is relatable, but a massive conspiracy is too simple an explanation for the obscene expensiveness and mismanagement of our medical system. It’s a more mundane and challenging problem: compounding moral and practical failures of various sizes across the board from privatization of the hospital system, insurance, private equity firms, de-regulation, and anti-public health disinformation campaigns. Medical professionals are often sufferers in this system too.
False conspiracy theories take more than they give
If we aren’t disciplined enough to hold this awareness, things get out of hand and we become prey to ideologies that hurt us. For example, several mid-tier conservative radio personalities have died unvaccinated from COVID (some recanting their conspiracist positions on their deathbeds). Meanwhile, the upper echelon of conspiracy sharers (those making really big bucks) are often vaccinated or otherwise protected. For example, all of Fox News employees were required to be vaccinated or tested daily even as Tucker Carlson sermonized vaccine hesitancy. R.F. Kennedy Jr’s 2021 holiday party required vaccination among attendees while publicly he says “Even in Hitler’s Germany you could cross the Alps into Switzerland, you could hide in an attic like Anne Frank did” at anti-vaxx rallies, claiming that you can’t hide from the vaccine police.
Our mistrust of a medical system that harms many people, and our extremely necessary questioning of medical authorities, is being harnessed by people who crassly stoke mistrust to propel their political careers, or grow their social media personality. But our overtrust in our intuition above careful systematic observation (which in the case of medicine might only be available with sophisticated equipment or population-level studies) has also led some of my dearest colleagues to propagate hatred-stoking misinformation.
I felt such sadness seeing the bonobo3D YouTube channel go from interviews of real people engaged in GA activism to screeds against masks and “freedom convoy” propaganda, without James’ usual degree of awareness of systemic factors (such as the astroturfed nature of the freedom convoy). (James, you’re a sensitive and intelligent person, and I hope someday you realize you’ve been played and will want to talk again. I still like you, and also I’m obligated by decency to say that you’re deeply wrong and misled right now. You’re an influential creator, and you’re leading people astray.)
Our intuition is often wrong where we have no experience
Another habit that is dangerous to us: It is easy to feel confident in areas we know so little about that we’re unaware of our own ignorance. Let’s take an example relevant to the dual pandemic of disease and disinformation we’ve been going through.
Background: I have significantly more experience than most people in the area of how microscopic objects behave, including microbiology and the dynamics of small particles, because I spent 14 years working as a biophysicist. I dealt with microscopes, biopolymers, and cells. And even with all that experience I can make mistakes when I am not thinking carefully and checking myself. And we all fail to understand basic biological or physical realities outside our own areas of expertise.
So here’s the example: the common reasonable-sounding but totally mistaken assertion that masks can’t filter out particles smaller than the mask pore size. This assertion requires total ignorance about how differently things behave at tiny scales (below 10 microns or so) where momentum is tiny, where diffusive forces constantly bounce viruses and other small particles around, and electrostatic forces make things sticky. (Here is a nice quick explainer of microscopic filtration that is physically accurate.) Unfortunately, total ignorance about microscopic fluid dynamics is a natural state of mind. That knowledge requires study and isn’t easy to explain. One can fool oneself into not knowing there’s something to know because it’s simple to imagine that the microscopic world behaves similarly to how the macroscopic one does, and conspiracy-influenced moms, dads, even a few doctors and scientists like to think their intuition is right in places where they have no experience. All of us are vulnerable to this mistake; it too is seductive.
Nested origin stories part 1
This will seem like a tangent, but you’ll see how crucial it is shortly. Most of us feel down, depressed, many of us even suicidal at some moments in our lives. But did you know there are people looking to capitalize on this now-huge market of vulnerable, suffering people? I’m not talking about the thousands of therapists and social workers who work within strict ethical principles. I’m talking about people who are experts at making others feel helped, who mix good (though often superficial) ideas and practices with a lot of attractive, harmful material.
Teal Swan is one of those people. She’s successfully engaged millions of people with her online presences and now owns a retreat center in Costa Rica. In Teal’s universe, like many wellness influencers, she is a uniquely special person. Here are a few of her claims of specialness:
- Genius — “I’m a medical savant”
- Microscopic vision — “I’m watching the blood going through your veins. I’m watching the way your heart is pumping. I’m watching the digestive system. I can see your bones. If I zoom in, I can see specific genetics.”
- Infinite knowledge — She claims to be able to download from the Akashic Records (a fantasized collection of all thoughts and feelings from the past, present, and future).
- Uniqueness — “I am the most complicated person you’ll ever meet. I think my complexity is what makes me incredibly unique.”
These are all aspects of Teal’s self-established brand. She really says these kinds of things to people. She also tells them that illness is all in your mind, particularly that it “occurs when a person has been focused negatively, and that negative focus causes the energy flow through the body to become restricted.”
And her target audience is vulnerable people who come to her for help with their suffering. People who found her content because their internet searches suggested they’d experienced recent life tragedy or were contemplating suicide. Because she and her team chose associated phrases (things like “I don’t know if I can go on” or “My mom died and I don’t know what to do”) for search engine optimization and use other social media targeted advertising to send their messages to this demographic.
So Teal establishes a vulnerable audience and herself as an infallible source of mystic wisdom. Then, in a terrifying breach of ethics and reality, Teal pushes people to imagine memories of abuse from childhood. In one recorded example, she tells a woman who said she was predominantly happy at age 4, “What if I told you there was a hell of a lot more you don’t remember?… Your childhood would horrify most people.” Practicing Teal’s techniques, this woman and many others eventually “uncover” memories of having been sexually abused.
In addition to my biophysics background, I should mention I’m also a peer counselor. I left science to be a stay-at-home Dad and to more avidly pursue my passion for listening to people and supporting them through personal and relational challenges. I find it irresponsible — reprehensible even — to tell vulnerable people you’re psychic and then assert to them with the weight of that supposed ability that bad stuff happened to them. We know, because it’s happened in real life and has been examined in research, that even much lighter verbal suggestion can create false memories in un-stressed people. People in vulnerable situations or emotional states can only be more susceptible.
Nested origin stories part 2
Now Teal trains and certifies others to practice her psycho-babble techniques in her “Completion Process.” One among the flotilla of today’s snakeoil therapies and spiritualities made up by people who are making bank under the pretense of helping others. It’s entirely possible these practitioners have the genuine intention to help others. But their lack of humility, responsibility, and accountability is causing them to do tremendous harm.
What’s Teal’s origin story? Her therapist was Barbara Snow, one of the prolific culprits in the Satanic Panic. Barbara’s discredited techniques, which push clients to generate and recount false memories of abuse, resulted in multiple false accusations and damaged many lives. Despite her work being discredited, she continued to practice this way for decades, into this century. It’s likely that similar to the way people come to Teal, Teal came to Barbara in a vulnerable moment. And now Teal presumably believes the astonishing, horrifying, and physically and logistically implausible satanic abuse stories (including being “sewn into a corpse” (a procedure that medical experts don’t see as possible) that she shares as her kind of origin story. (For an in-depth investigative treatment of all of the above, see The Gateway: Teal Swan.)
Conspiracy theories, bad spirituality, and pseudo-therapy give people many of the same things, and they are often found mixed together, a phenomenon which has recently been coined Conspirituality. All of these things typically feel good at first and they often even lead with some tools of real value or nuggets of wisdom mixed in with all the nonsense. Teal, for example, includes many pieces of wisdom that any therapist could provide.
But Teal also makes claims of superhuman specialness which situate her in a unique and ultra-powerful way in people’s lives. To clients, this can make her seem infallible, like she’s the only person who can help them, and can lead people to replace their own judgment (and memories) with her ideas. Even as she says she’s empowering people, she’s subtly but profoundly disempowering them and may be cultivating their dependency on her. This behavior is the exact opposite of what a responsible counselor should do. In my practice as a peer counselor, I make it clear to people that I’m not special, that I’m not better than them, and that I can’t and should not make their decisions for them.
We are susceptible
Ok, so why is Teal relevant? First, her approach of focusing on childhood abuse is so spot on for circumcision. Were you cut as a child? (That truly was an abusive thing to do to a child.) Do the people around you deny it was abuse? (Quite probably, given contemporary society-wide ignorance about the topic.) So she could make a very attractive therapist/spiritual advisor for those of us who suffer emotional and physical pain from circumcision.
Second, some people in our movement are influenced by her. One particularly poignant and important example is Brendon Marotta. He says Teal’s teachings helped with his relationship, and he got trained in her “Completion Process” in 2019. I love Brendon’s documentary on circumcision, and enjoyed hosting him as a guest in my home years ago. When he launched his own platform I signed up to receive his missives. Some were insightful, but others contained messages that concerned me. I wrote to ask him for a conversation and he responded briefly by email but ultimately stopped corresponding and never had a conversation with me. (I’m still here asking for some conversations with you, Brendon.)
Over time, the nature of Brendon’s posts became more and more unsettling. Brendon seems to want to claim to be the first person to apply critical theory ideas to genital autonomy, though Lauren Sardi and Travis Wisdom are among those who precede him. While I appreciate the application of critical theory ideas, his construction and use of the term “systemic pedophilia” is functionally harmful and will further polarize people given the intensity of the language. His posts also made it clear that Brendon had absorbed and currently believes some conspiritualist ideas which I can’t help but partially attribute to Teal’s influence. Most recently and most concerning of all, Brendon is now referring to Judaism as an example of systemic pedophilia. This screams pants-on-fire antisemitism to me.
Here are some examples:
“If I had not experienced the violence of Jewish fragility and racial narcissism when speaking about this issue, I would not have included a chapter on Jewishness at all. There is no chapter on other circumcising identity groups because these groups do not inflict the same fragility and racial narcissism on survivors, nor have the structural, institutional, and social power in the United States to cause the level of harm to survivors that Jewish identity groups frequently do.”
“To become less Jewish is to become less pedophile.”
“Jewish genital cutting is more explicitly pedophile than medical genital cutting… Jewish circumcision is also more explicitly incestual.”
“To not see Jewishness is to turn a blind eye to systemic pedophile [sic].”
“Only once freed from the social construction of Jewishness will people be free from systemic pedophilia.”
Brendon must renounce these statements to even begin to address some of the damage he’s doing to our movement.
You can’t be rigorous alone or in a monoculture
It’s not just the lack of ethics in his posts that concerns me; it’s also the lack of intellectual rigor. It seems to me like Brendon’s trying to learn a lot at once, but stopping at a surface level of understanding before self-assuredly writing a new piece for his audience.
I think a lot of intellectuals go down that path, thinking that they’re so brilliant that a surface understanding gives them enough savvy to navigate complex waters alone and then write and talk about their ideas to a large public audience. Look, for example, at the trajectory of Charles Eisenstein. He became famous writing things like Sacred Economics which contained reasonable and worthwhile messages but over time, the quality of his ideas became mushier. He now conflates science and religion with childish and self-serving misunderstandings about both, expresses an epistemology of convenience that says “how can we ever know anything¹” as a way of dismissing decades of scientific work, and has also gone down the antisemitism conspirituality path.
I’m sure over-individualism plays a role in this behavior as well. The danger of being a lone intellectual or influencer is not devoting the time and energy to be part of a diverse community of practice. Working alone, any of us can go down deep rabbit holes where we convince ourselves of nonsense. I try to protect myself against this by talking with and showing my work to lots of people, many of whom come from different backgrounds, and I take their feedback as a learning opportunity before releasing it.
I’ll add that, in response to Brendon’s claims of being triangulated or slandered, many of us have reached out to him before writing publicly. Brendon has had my contact all this time and I would’ve happily talked with him about the subjects he’s posting on, and referred him to other knowledgeable people.
Perverse incentives are the dominant influence on influencers
We don’t need to demonize Eisenstein, Teal, Brendon, or anyone. I hypothesize that they have fallen into the trap of valuing their own sense of success over integrity, humility, and responsibility — a trap created by social forces and amplified by web 2.0 platforms.
Prioritizing this kind of success comes at great risk. Audiences and algorithms in web 2.0 platforms shape the people who build their lives around creating a brand and cultivating a crowd. What sells here, what sends you the signal of success, is predominantly rage, righteousness, quick-takes and hot-takes, all things that are anti-correlated with values of decency, integrity, responsibility, humility, nuance, and thoughtfulness. Signals of success are what ultimately influences influencers, and, I believe, what makes them the main way that conspirituality spreads.
There is always a risk of contributing to something harmful even when we’re trying to do good. That’s why values are important, for example:
- Integrity requires concern about accuracy and the moral strength to refrain from moves that may bring success but are manipulative or could do harm.
- Responsibility on a platform requires concerning one’s self with the likely and possible effects of one’s speech, taking full ownership of actions, and repairing mistakes.
- Humility requires both knowing that one is likely to make many mistakes, searching for information that challenges our notions and biases, and getting help with error-correction before sending one’s thoughts out into the world.
- Nuance requires not painting with a black-and-white brush.
- Thoughtfulness requires abstaining from quick-takes and being open to new and challenging information.
When we post, coach, counsel, lead, and influence in ways that are disconnected from these values, the likelihood that we will cause harm increases greatly.
Where influencers are taking us
I think these and other influencers like them are tragically mistaken and they are doing tremendous harm, so we must identify their behavior and oppose their activity and ideologies, while trying to leave the door open for them to address the impact of their actions.
Eisenstein is undermining our collective epistemology, selling trite and even nuanced sounding equivocations that lead in circles and can be used to sow doubt in all the wrong places.
Wellness influencers have made this pandemic (and our lives) worse. Most of the ocean of people involved in developing and producing vaccines are honest and decent people who create excellent products that the vast majority of the time contribute to the common good. And there are some risks. Yet many influencers cultivate money and audience reach by absurdly inflating the risks, distorting facts and published studies beyond recognition, and immorally comparing conditional vaccine mandates (you need to be vaccinated in order to do X) to the Holocaust or its buildup. This demonizes all the earnest people trying to help, and obscures how much better life is without fearing diseases like rabies, tetanus, smallpox, and polio. (And I find it personally offensive when people get science so wrong with such overconfidence.)
Teal is convincing people they were abused, which can cause them to upend their lives and the lives of people they’re connected to. (The cases of suicide and abrupt divorce among her clients are probably on the tip of a very deep iceberg.)
Brendon is undermining the legitimacy of GA activism, giving fodder to those who call the whole enterprise antisemitic, all while fanning the flames of real antisemitism. There is arduous work ahead of all of us to repair this damage.
This is about us
This is not just about Brendon, Teal, Eisenstein, or even influencers as a whole. This is about us. Influential people are merely serving as the amplifiers of sham therapies, false conspiracy theories, and older ideologies, all of which prey on two weaknesses we all share: 1) wanting an easy answer, and 2) wanting to belong so much that we’re tempted to give up on facts and honor to do so.
Antisemitism is one of the oldest conspiracy theories still alive today, and it is inbreeding with all of its conspirituality children.
We are the targets of this ill-begotten brood of ideologies that pass fictitious subtext and motivation as fact, rely on magical thinking and construct fake histories, alien documents, and secretive groups. Ideologies that conflate science with religion, religion with culture, and history with fantasy.
If we want to do good in the world, we have to be thoughtful and disciplined. We have to have some humility and not believe we have it all figured out instantly. We have to not get played by these constructs. There isn’t some evil group of Jews who are ultimately responsible for the US fascination with circumcising babies. It’s also not some secret group of doctors. There are no lizard people, and QAnon’s co-opting of #SaveTheChildren didn’t save anyone. It led to misery and, if anything, more trafficked children.
If we want to do good in the world, we also have to welcome people back. I believe that I — any of us — could have fallen into these traps, so all of us should be prepared to help people back into our movement when they want help orienting and making repairs.
The fact that nothing is perfect does not, in fact, suggest a secretive cabal (an antisemitic term implying the evildoers are Jewish). The fact that nothing is perfect is instead merely the mundane reflection of the nature of the world we live in and of our shared imperfection as people.
Genital cutting of children is a real, thorny social problem, and scapegoating will only make it harder for us to tackle it.
Further resources from people more knowledgeable than me:
: Any epistemology of any functional value will grapple with the fact that we humans face degrees of uncertainty. Eisenstein putting lines of thought such as ‘maybe COVID is related to 5G rollout’ and ‘viruses are real and cause diseases’ on the same footing is ill-conceived and irresponsible for someone with his reach. His sham mythopoetic storytelling doesn’t excuse it. Now that he’s selling for Aubrey Marcus, who makes millions from untested “health supplements,” Eisenstein’s decline is on display; it’s obvious how ‘how can we know anything?’ and ‘vaccines are untested’ contradicts with ‘try all these fake health supplements no one has tested.’