How Men’s Rights Activists Hijacked The Circumcision Debate

Everyone should have control over their own body, including — or maybe especially — their genitalia. That seems like a pretty standard feminist tenet. So how did the “intactivist” movement, which argues that routine infant circumcision is a violation of this consent, wind up with followers who spit bile like, “Feminist chauvinist sows. They can drop dead”?

On paper, intactivism is a legitimate human rights effort to end routine infant circumcision. But in fact, many branches of the movement have become sinister and downright ugly, because men’s rights activists have hijacked the cause as part of their mission. The MRA-fueled rhetoric is a bizarre amalgamation of sexist slurs paired with carefully calculated and co-opted feminist language surrounding body autonomy and consent.

According to World Health Organization estimates, 30% of the world population of men over the age of 15 are circumcised, most of them for religious reasons. In the United States, the rate is much higher: while rates have been declining, around 55 to 60% of infant boys are still circumcised. And here, most circumcisions are performed for cultural reasons — because circumcised penises are culturally viewed as “cleaner” or more “normal,” or because parents simply haven’t considered the alternative.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), in their 2012 policy statement, stopped short of recommending routine infant circumcision, but they did say that the benefits of elective circumcision of newborn males outweigh the risks of the procedure. The AAP cites benefits like reduced risk of urinary tract infections and reduced risks of STIs, including HIV, in those who are circumcised.

Intactivists aren’t all MRAs, by any means. They come in all stripes — many parents, birth educators, doulas, and advocates for body autonomy are in favor of ending the practice of routine infant circumcision. And there are plenty of individuals and collective groups doing good work to consciously and compassionately educate parents about the downsides of circumcision and the benefits of leaving genitals intact.

Mostly, intactivist arguments hinge on body autonomy — the idea that it is a human rights violation to have a highly sensitive and healthy body part amputated without medical indication and without consent. In regards to the benefits touted by the AAP, intactivists argue that proper education about how to care for intact penises and sexual education would go just as far — or further — in reducing risks of infection in boys and men.

As a parent to intact children, and as a former childbirth educator and birth doula, I can attest to the widespread misinformation and misunderstanding of the functions of the foreskin. Medical professionals should be educated about the functions of the foreskin and how to care for an intact penis; many are not. This means parents don’t have complete information when choosing whether to circumcise — and furthermore, the misunderstandings may actually be the cause of the higher instances of UTIs and other foreskin problems among uncircumcised boys.

But it’s harder for people like me to argue for rethinking routine circumcision when the movement is full of anti-feminist hate.

Intactivist Extremism

MRAs and their allies are anti-circumcision zealots who operate as extremists within the intactivist movement. This branch’s online “educational efforts” and protests are defined by the vicious harassment of health-care providers and mothers.

If you ever see an intactivist extremist protest, it’s hard not to draw the correlation between their efforts and anti-abortion demonstrations. Dressed all in white, their crotches stained with bright red “blood,” intactivists hold up graphic posters of screaming babies and bloody penises. Other visual props include a stop sign placard that reads, “Stop Cutting Babies,” a clear echo of the iconic “Stop Abortion Now” signs that have become a hallmark of anti-abortion protests. Other signs read “circumcision is a sex crime” and “sex abusers for hire.”

Like anti-abortion extremists, who frame their argument around the idea that abortion is murder, intactivist extremists contextualize circumcision as a sex crime to motivate a vigilante-style roundup of criminals.

Oddly, while mirroring tactics of the extreme right, they simultaneously co-opt marginalized narratives for their own ends. Phrases like “gender equality begins at birth” and “his penis his choice,” mimicking feminist slogans, can also be found sprinkled amongst intactivist protest signs.

Extremist demonstrators accost physicians at medical conferences and at hospitals and follow them around with cameras, screaming “PENIS BUTCHER!” They take video of this harassment and post it proudly on the Internet, Operation Rescue-Style. But doctors aren’t the only targets. You’ll also find intactivist extremists harassing mothers, both at public protests and online. And when they’re dealing with women, their vitriol gets even grosser.

Online Bullies

For intactivist extremists, “online activism” largely consists of stealing personal social media posts, including pictures of infants, and subjecting the unsuspecting parents — usually mothers, of course — to an onslaught of harassment.

Facebook admins for intactivist groups mine the Internet for posts and photos relating to a new child’s circumcision, then repost them as targets of mockery and abuse. Screencaps and humiliation are the weapons of choice for the circumcision police, and they are deployed liberally. Mutilation Watch, an intactivist “watchdog” page, shares parents’ personal Facebook posts, often via the “share” button from the original post, and pictures of their infants to a public audience of thousands. Members routinely justify their behavior like a middle-schooler dancing around the rules: “It’s okay, because they’re public posts! That means we’re not stealing anything personal or private!”

The targeted mothers become unsuspecting guests in a kind of online tabloid talk show ambush. I don’t recommend seeking out examples, but if you can stomach it, you’d only need to read a few posts to find out what I mean. I found the following in less than five minutes on a single post on Mutilation Watch: “Psychopath.” “Sick fuck.” “A bad lay.” “Selfish.” “Inbred twat who deserves to be cunt-punched.” “Special type of stupid.” “Bitch.”

As a writer who frequently addresses topics surrounding abortion, birth, and reproductive injustice, I’m no stranger to having misogynistic bullshit hurled like a Slurpee at my face on the regular. Even so, when I began naming these behaviors within the movement and calling for the group to check itself, the hate and aggression sounded more like what I’m used to from spit-frothing anti-choicers, not from human rights activists talking about “autonomy” and “consent.”

When I posted an article I had written detailing my experiences with the sexism in intactivism to my website’s Facebook page, the thread became filled with violent antifeminist rhetoric from the intactivist community:

“Leave it to a feminazi to turn a men’s rights issue into a ‘feminist’ issue.”
“THIS is why no one takes you seriously, feminists. You are a dying breed and you are the masters of your own inevitable extinction.”
“I am very anti-feminism because of people like you. Go to hell.”

Facebook became unmanageable; the post grew to more than 300 comments, and I eventually had to delete the entire thing in order to disentangle the troll traffic from my page. Which was a shame, because wedged between the sexist attacks were comments from people affirming their own experiences with intactivist extremists. A good number just said, “thank you,” or “I, too, had to stop associating with intactivism because of this.”

One woman, who said she had self-identified with intactivism for more than six years, recalled a time that she posted a supportive comment under a video exploring the rights of mothers to nurse their babies in public. In response, an intactivist popped in to remind her that she should just be glad her “tits weren’t cut off.”

Grown Men’s Oppression Or An Excuse To Terrorize Women?

A Voice for Men (AVFM) is pretty much the present-day hub where angry men’s rights activists fester. The website and conference organizer is a romper room of the privileged elite (read: white men) who (incoherently) paint themselves as the most castigated vestiges on the planet. Their plight? The universal torment of misandry. AVFM reconstructs oppression narratives as sort of conspiracy theories designed to keep men down. They are essentially a group of women-haters pretending to be human rights advocates.

AVFM lists eradicating circumcision as the first item in their bulleted list of mission items on their website. Even though routine infant circumcision is not evidence that grown men are oppressed in the Western world, in order for men to be able to legitimize the mythical problem of misandry, they have to co-opt infants’ pain and represent it as their own present-day victimization.

An intactivist protestor wears pants stained with fake blood

Credit: Elvert Barnes

Comparing men’s “mutilated genitals” to women’s “whole and protected genitals” is a default argument for intactivist extremists as a way to cast circumcision as evidence of men’s oppression. In the comment thread on the article calling out sexist tactics within the intactivist movement, one intactivist said, “I’d challenge you to find a single issue that affects women in the West as badly as genital mutilations affects men.” And on the Twitter hashtag, #shitintactivistssay, one person revealed that an intactivist told her, “Your female privilege of whole genitals is showing.”

It’s illogical, at face value, to suggest that infant circumcision erases all of the other oppressions that women, queer people, and trans people face — especially around issues that affect our genitalia and reproductive organs. But it’s also not even true that women’s genitals are “protected.” Indeed, even in countries that don’t practice female genital mutilation in childhood, the vagina is often a target of medical intervention — not all of it consensual.

While female genital mutilation is not legal in the U.S., grown women have their vaginas cut with frequency during childbirth. The procedure, known as episiotomy, happened in around 11% of births as of 2012 and has been declining over time, but depending on provider or hospital, it can be much higher than that. Some episiotomies are consensual; others are not.

Personally, I experienced an unnecessary and violent episiotomy during the birth of my first child, when my doctor insisted that I be cut rather than tear. Afterward, she stitched me so tightly that I had trouble walking for months. As a birth doula I witnessed women cut without their knowledge or consent, and I also witnessed women physically held down and cut amidst their screaming protests. The Listening to Mothers II Survey, a report of people’s childbirth experiences, found that “the great majority of mothers who had experienced episiotomy (73%) stated that they had not had a choice in this decision.”

Even so, it’s important for the MRA intactivists to maintain their sense of grievance, so they try to rewrite a narrative that paints men as victims and women as their oppressors — which is easy to do under the umbrella of men’s rights activism, since their platform already rests on this delusion.

MRAs apply their fantasy of misandrist oppression to intactivism by insisting that mothers are solely responsible for individually overcoming the cultural norm of circumcision. If a mother doesn’t stand up to the medical establishment, she’s not only failed her child, she’s committed malicious abuse. Some go so far as to say that women deserve to be cut — a sort of retroactive retribution. One intactivist, in a Facebook thread about a woman’s forced episiotomy, wanted to know if that mother went on to “assault” her newborn with circumcision, because, if so, “the hypocrisy would be laughable and disgusting.” Obviously.

You know: an eye for an eye, a genital for a genital. That’s the intactivist extremist version of victim advocacy.

#NotAllIntactivists

In response to the increasing challenges to their bullying, intactivists have lashed out in defensive anger. In between calling women “patriarchal robots” and “fembots,” they’re claiming that men are being “tone policed” and “victim shamed” — more terms they stole from social justice causes. By appropriating the jargon of the marginalized, they think they can deflect responsibility for their shitty behavior back onto the marginalized groups themselves, and excuse their continued abuse of women and other victims of actual oppression.

But it’s not just the intactivist extremists that don’t want to hear it. The larger intactivist community has resorted to dismissing the problem by shrugging that it’s just “a few bad apples.” We can file #notallintactivists in the cop-out folder, right next to #notallmen and #notallwhitepeople.

Yet the reality is that it’s not just a “few” — it is endemic and it is toxic. There may be no named leader of the intactivist movement, but the egomaniacs with large platforms and voices are the leaders by default. It is possible for women and parents to protect themselves: be extremely cautious about information that you discuss online, especially about circumcision; make sure that your privacy settings are not set to “public”; and know that intactivist extremists routinely troll birth and parenting groups and pages in order to dox and intimidate people. In other words, take the same precautions you take when you talk about or try to access contraception, abortion, and choices in childbirth. But if we’re going to protect the movement as a whole, non-extremist intactivists will have to speak out.

If the fight for genital integrity is ever going to be taken more seriously than a fringe group of MRAs masquerading as social justice campaigners, then the people with integrity within the movement need to speak up. Sexism is never a good look for a human rights campaign.

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Lead image: Caitlin Childs