Every time female genital cutting is mentioned on Feministe — every time — someone from the “intactivist” community shows up to derail the conversation and make it all about the alleged horrors of male circumcision. Intactivists, for the unfamiliar, are men (and a few women) who oppose male circumcision. They claim it’s a violation of human rights, that’s it a physical mutilation, that it’s medically unnecessary and that it reduces sexual pleasure. They’re incredibly active online, and I was interested to see that they aren’t just trolling feminist blogs — they’re showing up in the comments of every article written on circumcision.
It’s not that intactivists are wrong about everything. There should be a debate about circumcision, and there is something to be said for the position that it’s ethically wrong to remove a piece of an infant’s body where not necessary to preserve that infant’s life or health. It’s an interesting and important bodily autonomy question. On the one hand, from the strictest perspective, it seems wrong to circumcise a child without his understanding and consent. Yes, circumcision may have some disease-prevention benefits, but it comes with risks as well. On the other hand, parents do things all the time that violate their children’s bodily autonomy; they regularly don’t get their children’s consent on issues that impact that child’s person, and they even directly override their children’s desires. That’s part of being a good parent. Your kid may not want to get a vaccine, but you should probably vaccinate your kid. Your kid doesn’t want disinfectant on that cut, but the cut should get disinfected. Your kid wants to only eat hot dogs every day for the rest of his life, but your kid should probably eat some vegetables.
Circumcision is more serious than a cut and hot dogs, but the vaccination piece is perhaps comparable — it’s an irreversible medical intervention. Personally, I’m sympathetic to the arguments that circumcision is an unnecessary violation of bodily autonomy. Yet if I lived in a place with a high prevalence of HIV, I’d probably circumcise my kid, as recommended by the World Health Organization.
The other problem with talking about this issue with the intactivists who parachute into random comment sections to debate is their nasty habit of playing fast and loose with the facts. Mark Joseph Stern at Slate explains:
The problem with these arguments is that they’re either entirely made up or thoroughly disproven. None of intactivists’ cornerstone beliefs are based in reality or science; rather, they’re founded in lore, devilishly clever sophistry dressed up as logic. The facts about circumcision may be hard to find on an Internet cluttered with casuistry—but they are there. And they prove that even as intactivists dominate the Internet, the real-world, fact-based consensus on circumcision is tipping in the opposite direction.
Take, for example, the key rallying cry of intactivists: That circumcision seriously reduces penis sensitivity and thus sexual pleasure. Study after study after study has proven this notion untrue. Some men circumcised as adults actually report an increase in sensitivity, while many report no appreciable difference; virtually none noted any notable decrease. Men circumcised as adults also almost universally report no adverse effect in overall sexual satisfaction following the procedure. (That fits with what my colleague Emily Bazelon found when she asked readers for their circumcision stories a few years ago.) And genital sensitivity in response to erotic stimulation is identical in circumcised and uncircumcised men. Don’t trust individual studies? A systematic review of all available data on circumcision came to the same conclusion. Intactivists, then, aren’t disputing a few flimsy studies: They’re contradicting an entire field of research.
So much for circumcision’s supposedly crippling effect on sexual pleasure. But what about its effect on health? Intactivists like to call circumcision “medically unnecessary.” In reality, however, circumcision is an extremely effective preventive measure against global disease. Circumcision lowers the risk of HIV acquisition in heterosexual men by about 60 to 70 percent. And circumcision reduces HIV risk over a man’s lifetime, unlike condoms, which must be used during each sexual encounter. It’s no wonder that the World Health Organization has pushed circumcision as a key tool in the fight against HIV.
But that’s not circumcision’s only benefit. The procedure also protects men against a variety of other STDs, significantly reducing their odds of contracting herpes and syphilis. Moreover, circumcision is highly effective in preventing transmission of HPV in men, which in turn reduces their risk of penile cancer. And circumcised men are far less likely to contract genital warts or develop urinary tract infections. Fewer circumcisions mean more STDs and infections—and billions more in health care spending.
As both a personal and public health matter, circumcision is clearly in men’s best interest. But intactivists, predictably, aren’t having any of it. Like anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists, anti-circumcision activists reject all science that doesn’t fit their angry, victimized orthodoxy. Does circumcision truly prevent HIV? Probably not, they say—but even if it did, it would ultimately increase risk of HIV by lulling men and women into a false sense of complacency. (Never mind that this is emphatically false.) Plus, they claim, circumcision has such high rates of complication that its benefits couldn’t possibly outweigh its drawbacks. (Again: simply incorrect.) Anyway, to intactivists, mutilation is mutilation; what does it matter if it’s for the greater good?
The whole piece is worth a read, because circumcision is certainly something worth discussing and debating. But all parties need to come into the conversation honestly. A philosophy or principle may be so correct that it outweighs a conclusion pointed to by the weight of scientific evidence. But then let the philosophy stand against that evidence. Twisting the facts and intentionally obscuring the truth doesn’t help in the parsing of difficult ethical issues.