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Rallying in the Name of the Unkindest Cut?
Sharp Rhetoric Abounds In Circumcision Debate

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 31, 2009

In the shadow of the nation's most recognizable phallic symbol, they gather and march. There are about 50 of them, all ages, both sexes, nearly all white, smiling, quiet, enjoying the sun as they make a slow loop in front of the White House with their signs of protest. Their mounted photos of pink squealing babies make the event look, at first glance, like an anti-abortion rally.

But look closer at the squealing baby photos and see why they're squealing.

On second thought, don't. Just read the big black sign with bold white letters:

WHOSE PENIS?

WHOSE BODY?

WHOSE RIGHTS?

These people are intactivists. As in, activists who want male genitalia kept intact. As in, people who want a federal ban on male circumcision for newborns.

A herd of eighth-graders on a class trip gets mixed up in the rally yesterday. The girls snap photos as the boys gawk and giggle.

"Freedom to protest, kids, freedom to protest," says their teacher, delivering the day's civics lesson.

A man walks by with a sign depicting a cartoon baby exclaiming, "You Want to Cut Off WHAT?"

To no one in particular, the teacher mutters: "It's gonna be their favorite souvenir. They got a picture that says 'penis' on it."

It's Genital Integrity Awareness Week, in case you didn't know, as well as National Child Abuse Prevention Month. Female genital mutilation has received worldwide attention and condemnation -- and was banned by Congress 12 years ago this week -- and now intactivists say it's time for equal rights for boys. In this case, gender equality enters a murky, impassioned area in which medicine, religion, culture, industry, sexuality, language and a bit of craziness collide over the most common type of surgery in America (56 percent of male infants were circumcised in 2006 in the United States, the only Western industrialized country to routinely practice circumcision).

It is a sensitive issue. Pun absolutely intended.

* * *

How intactivists define circumcision: a cruel, traumatic and unnecessary surgery (the American Academy of Pediatrics says the benefits are not sufficient enough to recommend the procedure) that causes enduring sexual and psychological injury to a helpless infant who can't give his consent.

How much of the medical community defines circumcision: a simple, nearly painless operation that removes an obsolete part of the body that can increase a man's susceptibility to infections and sexually transmitted diseases (circumcision reduces the risk of getting HIV by 60 percent, studies show).

How religion defines circumcision: as a covenant with God, as conveyed to Abraham.

It's a lopsided fight, but each side has doctors and lawyers. Each side has data. Each accuses the other of denial. One side is labeled as a bunch of baby-cutting sex criminals. The other is labeled as sex-obsessed, fanatical loonies who are duping the public.

"We don't want to understand this," says Van Lewis, who has protested infant circumcision in Tallahassee since the '70s and helped make Florida one of 16 states that no longer publicly fund circumcision. "We're living in denial as a nation. Of what we've done to ourselves."

"The anti-circs have a lot to answer for," Brian J. Morris, professor of molecular medical sciences at the University of Sydney, writes in an e-mail. "Only deception by their propaganda leads some gullible men into believing that their sexual problems have something to do with their circumcision as an infant. This is just not true. . . . Most are just ignorant do-gooders with a misplaced sence of political correctness, who get sucked into these organizations by believing the rubbish posted on their websites."

The arguments touch on human rights, bodily integrity and public health. Strong emotions are just the tip of the issue.

* * *

The rally departs from the White House about 2 p.m., headed toward Pennsylvania Avenue, on the breezy walk to the Capitol. The 50 people include the only man to ever file a lawsuit over a medically successful circumcision (and win), the woman who saw him on "Good Morning America" and later became his wife and joined the crusade, and a guy from Chicago who mass-produces (in his basement) an apparatus that he says allows men to grow back foreskin. He says he's sold 15,000 of the devices over the past five years. Men want to reclaim what was taken from them, he says, and they will pay $16 to $60 a pop to feel whole.

This is the 16th annual march. Numbers are down this year (dang economy), but everyone still seems to be from a different anti-circumcision group. And they will talk your ear off. Spend some time with intactivists and you will hear how circumcision is responsible for, among other things, the oppression of women, sexual disharmony, deforestation, militarization, the rise and fall of empires and the invasion of foreign lands for oil.

You will also hear some sensible things about condoms and cost-effectiveness and the pain of men who say they are struggling with the emotional and physical effects of circumcision. Then there's Soraya Miré, a speaker and activist who endured female genital mutilation in her native Somalia when she was 13. After witnessing a male circumcision in the United States, she broadened her message to include both genders.

"I understand women's circumcision is more severe but, to me, pain is pain," says Miré, who lives in Los Angeles and doesn't believe anesthesia for circumcision makes a difference.

A young guy sticks his buzzed head out of a white minivan as the marchers pass through a crosswalk on Pennsylvania.

"Circumcision increases sensation!" he shouts, in response to one of the protest signs.

"No, it causes premature ejaculation!" says Marilyn Milos, a former nurse and founder of the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers.

"That's never happened to me!" the guy yells back.

"Yeah, right!"

And everyone laughs. There seems to be a sense of humor about this, after all.

Next, the march passes a cluster of security guards in sunglasses.

"You know circumcision started in the 1800s to stop our boys from masturbating," announces David Wilson, who lives in Cocoa Beach, Fla., and is the director of the Stop Infant Circumcision Society.

"I'm blind," says a security guard, and the marchers discuss whether that's a poor, ignorant joke or a great, subversive joke.

* * *

There is, of course, a serious, disturbing side to this. Leading the pack are two 21-year-olds, Jason Siegel and Zachary Levi Balakoff, who are on Day 3 of a hunger strike. They say they won't eat until genital mutilation is exposed. Go ahead, ask them why. They'll tell you, for many minutes, about the "entire realms of exquisite feeling" they are missing by not having foreskins and the corresponding nerves. The "giant monstrosity" of circumcision "envelops" their entire lives.

"If we have to die, then that's what's necessary," Balakoff says. They say they'll sit in front of the Capitol until they starve.

The other marchers just want people to keep the clamps and knives away from infants. They just want society to respect the bodies of everyone, with no disrespect to any religion. They just want men to know what they're missing, so maybe they won't choose to do the same to their sons. They say their message is reaching a wider audience. Circumcision rates are way down from their peak of 85 percent in 1965. The foundation Intact America started six months ago to direct the message to the mainstream. The goal is a male genital mutilation bill.

The march nears the Capitol. An open-air trolley packed with tourists trundles past the signs. The tourists can't help but look. The guide's voice is audible over the speakers as the trolley rolls by.

"You know what? This is America," the guide says, and it's hard to tell if she means it as a celebration or an excuse.

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