Don’t Boys Cry?

What if a majority of American men were unwitting victims of abuse from infancy?

Photo by Selenay Balkan on Unsplash

[Disclaimer: I am neither a legal expert nor a medical-ethics professional; this is simply a personal attempt to think through a troubling hypothesis. I am also using the terms “boys/men” to connect a procedure involving male-identified genitals with “toxic masculinity” and gender norms, not to imply that only men can have penises or be circumcised as such.]

[Trigger Warning: candid discussion of infant genital mutilation as a possible form of sexual abuse.]


Considering that this is the seventh essay I’ve written here on Medium about circumcision, there’s probably a point at which a professional therapist would say Stop: don’t become addicted to “niche” victimhood. Don’t identify abuse alone from an armchair at home. Don’t appropriate assault when your damage is merely a difference of public opinion over a common procedure.

That point might easily occur the day I find myself studying educational videos of actual circumcisions being performed on [non-consenting] infants by [consenting] doctors at the permission of [consenting] parents. I am studying these films in order to compare the different devices commonly used — truly terrifying tools with Acme or Ronco-esque names like the Gomco clamp, the Mogen clamp, and the PlastiBell — so that I can attempt to figure out which implement may have been employed upon my own helpless infant penis, once upon a traumatizing time. (How could I tell, you ask? The difference devices leave different types of “signature scars.”)

But even if the imaginary therapist were to condone this video hunt as an effort to provide closure through understanding, that still wouldn’t prepare me for the worst part. Because the first video I click on, courtesy of the Stanford School of Medicine’s “Newborn Nursery” website, not only shows the bloody, NSFW mutilation of another human being’s genitals to demonstrate Hiram Yeller and Aaron Goldstein’s eighty-five-year-old Gomco clamp in nightmarish action), but also very clearly shows something else nobody ever talks about: throughout the process: the infant’s tiny penis gets increasingly erect, until, at the end of the twenty-minute footage, as the doctor swabs the final smudges of blood away from the baby’s newly and permanently exposed glans, there is absolutely no question that they are handling a sexual organ that has been simultaneously attacked and aroused.

As I stated at the beginning, I’ve already written more than the hypothetical therapist would probably prefer about why I oppose routine infant circumcision performed for non-religious and non-urgent medical reasons. I oppose it because it’s largely unnecessary as a preemptive health/hygiene procedure. I oppose it because it has a scientifically, medically, and socially problematic history in America (still looking at you, John Harvey Kellogg). I oppose it because it’s a permanent violation of bodily autonomy. I oppose it because, without a foreskin, my penis is physically and sexually incomplete. I oppose it because it wasn’t my choice.

But I’ve never previously written about — or even considered — the possibility that infant circumcision could be considered as a form of sexual abuse.

Could it be? That’s a bold question, and an affirmative answer would be an even bolder claim. The instant I posed it, I started second-guessing myself. Who am I to dare use such a powerful term? What do I know about actual, intentional abuse or assault? (Fortunately, very little.)

But surely, I hypothesized, if the perpetrator of an act deliberately does not intend for it to be either sexual or abuse, then it counts as neither? I mean, let’s consider two parallel scenarios to the video incident described above:

1. A parent or caregiver for an infant is changing his diaper or giving him a bath, and, in the process of wiping him down or washing him up, his penis involuntarily responds to the adult’s physical contact by becoming erect. Is this abuse or assault? Certainly not (provided the caregiver does not proceed to handle the child’s aroused organ in a sexual way). A natural, normal, healthy physiological response has simply been triggered, and no harm has been done.

2. Now take the same child’s genitals to a doctor’s office thirteen years later: if the teenager, trapped in the raging hormonal grip of puberty, gets an accidental (and humiliating) erection while receiving a testicular exam, it’s again (hopefully) not because the physician encouraged or elicited such an erotic response from the patient. Penises simply respond to stimulation, erotic or otherwise. Not every erection is due to arousal: sometimes these things just happen. It’s nobody’s fault, and, as long as no harm is done, nobody’s crime.

And yet, regardless of motive, what does it mean when the result of an innocently or benevolently intended action is a person whose genitals are both involuntarily aroused and involuntarily damaged? Especially when that person is a helpless minor?

We should back up at this point, though, and clarify our terms. Matt Dolman, an Accident Injury lawyer, defines abuse as:

“behavior committed toward a minor child. In many states, children cannot consent to any type of sexual contact. If someone over the age of consent forces a minor into sexual interactions, especially if that crime continues over a period of time, that behavior constitutes sexual abuse.”

In comparison, Dolman defines assault as:

“typically [involving] an adult victim. Sexual assault often occurs as a one-time event and includes any sexual contact not invited or wanted by the victim…. Forced sexual contact can include rape, but may also involve forcing unwanted rectal or genital … grabbing, fondling, or touching… without consent.”

Okay: by these interpretations, doctors are still safe: circumcision is not a sexual act, regardless of whether it’s performed on a child or adult, regardless of how a stray penis may react to being handled. The “perpetrator” is seeking neither an erotic response or personal gratification; the “victim” is only experiencing genital arousal as an involuntary side-effect of an otherwise nonsexual surgical procedure. Case closed, right?

But these refutations of abuse/assault nevertheless privilege the intentions of the adult, not the repercussions for the child.

After all, unlike — and in stark contrast to — the harmless examples of a parent bathing a child or a teenager receiving a genital exam, by the time the infant’s penis in the Stanford video reached a visually undeniable state of erection, it had also been literally skinned. And since that skinning would continue to have a subsequent impact on the penis owner’s nonsexual and sexual experiences for the rest of his life (as I can attest from my own experiences of living with a circumcised penis)… well, doesn’t the victim get a voice?

If a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, it still makes a sound, right? If a person’s penis is simultaneously stimulated and ripped apart without their consent, especially while that person is literally tied down and screaming, isn’t that some kind of abuse, no matter how unintentional or involuntary? After all, we’re not talking about childhood vaccinations here: even if there were incontrovertible health benefits to circumcision that were universally recognized by all medical professionals around the world (which there are not), there will still always also be equally incontrovertible damage to the primary male sexual organ. Vaccines don’t save your life by cutting off an eyelid or ear. Circumcision is, first and foremost, penis reduction surgery, whether it ends up reducing the risk of disease later in life or not.

And what about the case of X, the adult partner of another Medium writer here, who was caught masturbating by his legal guardian when X was a teenager, and was subsequently forced to be circumcised in punishment? Wouldn’t this experience — forced nonconsensual mutilation of a minor’s genitals in response to an adult’s witnessing of the minor’s sexual activity — be a far more valid example of legally valid abuse, both from X’s guardian and the physician who performed the surgery (assuming X was able to openly express his lack of consent)? A doctor performing surgery in this particular situation would clearly be violating the principle of beneficence. But is there really such an absolute difference between this experience and that of a preverbal infant being circumcised because its father wanted its penis to match his own?

In his 1985 essay, “Circumcision as Child Abuse: The Legal and Constitutional Issues,” Dr. William Brigman, a professor “specializing in the relationship of law and society, public law, and the American judicial system,” cites the 1962 case of Kalina v. General Hospital:

“Malice in the sense of ill will or a desire to cause injury is not essential to sustain a recovery for intentional wrongdoing. It is enough for the plaintiff to show that the defendant knowingly and intentionally did the act which caused the damage and that damage was substantially certain to follow.”

Again: the issue is the damage done, not the omission or commission of intent to create it. As Brigman concludes,

“Since circumcision is not medically warranted, has no significant physiological benefits, is painful because it is performed without anesthesia and leaves a wound in which urinary salts burn, carries a significant risk of surgical complications, including death, and deforms the penis, it would seem that as a nonaccidental physical injury, it is properly included in the definition of child abuse.”

So: was the infant with the bleeding erection in the Stanford video a victim of abuse? Was the teenage X being forcibly mutilated by his legal guardian in punishment for masturbation a victim of abuse? Am I, as one of countless millions of American men who was routinely circumcised shortly after birth, a victim of abuse?

I’m not sure I want to claim the label, even if the legal or ethical answer could be yes. I’m not sure it feels fully justified in comparison with other, more deliberate and malicious crimes that earn this identity without any careful wrangling. I feel that the damage done to my penis was more a result of widespread cultural ignorance and apathy, and therefore I don’t want to sue for negligence: I want to educate for change.

After all, most men don’t see it this way: if routine infant circumcision was widely agreed to be an act of sexual abuse or assault, there’s no way it would still be practiced as widely as it is in the United States (he says, optimistically and naively, but still). Most cut men seem to be either apathetic or agreeable to their conditions: they don’t know what they’ve lost, or they don’t care. So far be it from me to seek to “create” a sense of victimhood where trauma isn’t already felt. I don’t want converts in my opposition to this experience; I want colleagues.

Also, to be crystal clear, I definitely do not wish to use circumcision to appropriate victimhood for cut men as a general identity, the way some “men’s rights” advocates, conservative reactionaries, or conspiracy rabbit-holers have done. As a proud feminist, I reject toxic masculinity, hegemonic patriarchy, rape culture, and the whole concept of obligatory gender norms. I don’t oppose infant male circumcision because men have rights; I oppose it because humans have rights. The penis should not be protected: people should be protected. Identifying abuse is not be a competitive act to see who has been “more hurt,” but I have to responsibly recognize that it can easily be used to sideline and gaslight deliberate abuse and assault (most often against femme folx) at the privilege of those who are already less likely to experience it (most often masculine folx).

But, by the same token, suggesting that circumcision doesn’t “count” or isn’t as “valid” as more explicit forms of abuse merely perpetuates the harmful myths that boys shouldn’t cry, men shouldn’t acknowledge pain, and oppressors can’t be harmed by their own systems of oppression. After all, it’s entirely possible that my reluctance to question (or conclude) whether the involuntary mutilation of my penis — an act which may have involved infantile sexual arousal, as the Stanford video’s evidence shows — should count as abuse is merely the affirmation of a system that doesn’t want me to admit such weakness. Maybe if people with penises can be encouraged to see them as vulnerable, not merely virile, less violence might eventually be inflicted on and by us all?

At least that’s what a therapist would encourage.

I hope.

Mild-mannered reports from below the belt and beyond. Cisgender/pansexual/medium-aged/Left Coast of North America.

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