ON SPEAKING UP for Genital Autonomy
By Tori Caswell
My heart races, my face flushes. I can feel the adrenaline pouring into my system, typing into my phone the words, “You don’t have to do it.” My shoulders are tense and my thumbs poised, waiting for the reply:
“It’s cleaner tho. What about infections?”
Speaking up against the “Elephant in the Hospital” is emotional work. It has the potential to drain us and create tension within families and between friends.
Speaking out can be a very rewarding and positive experience, and healing for those of us who have regret about circumcision. It may seem like too personal a topic, not our business. However, it is within this cocoon of taboo and silence that terrible practices of genital cutting on both boys and girls continues throughout the world.
Making the choice to speak up can be life-altering, both challenging and rewarding. It’s a calling that can be difficult or impossible to ignore. As we learn the historical context of circumcision, the physiology of the foreskin, and the impact of genital cutting on children, our whole perspective shifts profoundly. Suddenly, we find ourselves surrounded by friends and family who are likely to go forward with the procedure. We may feel conflicted, wanting to share this knowledge with people in our lives, but knowing it’s likely to upset them.
I’ve found that there are things I can do to increase the likelihood that my message is heard and heard with love. Sharing facts and resources with a tone of respect helps open this conversation. If their response is irritated or hostile, which it often is, reacting with explicit respect and subtle compassion can keep the conversation open. Statements like “I can see where you’re coming from” or “Yes, it is a complex issue” can help someone feel heard and understood, thus opening them to hear and understand you. Anger, after all, is a secondary emotion, rooted in sadness and pain. Within this discussion involving institutionalized harm to our nation’s boys and men, it’s hardly a surprise that anger is evoked.
Patience is required to educate someone on this topic. It takes time. I find it helpful to open lines of communication well before the baby is born. The conversation can feel like a game of whack-a-mole, countering myth after myth with fact, often times repeatedly. One useful technique is to educate a mother and then support her in educating her partner. Focusing on how “good” foreskin is, as opposed to how terrible circumcision is, can be a great way to keep the conversation positive. Often, men who have been circumcised must grieve the loss of their foreskin and their choice before they are able to consider a different choice for their child. This grief will look different for different men. Reassurance and compassion from their partners is absolutely essential.
There will be times when you will not be able to get through to someone. It can be helpful to keep that in mind from the beginning of the conversation, and decide in advance what you need to do to take care of yourself emotionally in that event. For some, it may mean not visiting for a time, not changing diapers, not babysitting, or stepping back from the relationship entirely. However, speaking up doesn’t necessarily mean you must create distance between yourself and others. People who have their minds set on circumcision are likely to let the whole thing go and forget the conversation even took place, especially when you spoke kindly.
It’s only through our willingness to have this conversation that education can take place and enlightenment can occur. The issue of circumcision has immense power to motivate us to meet this challenge — speaking up even when it’s uncomfortable, taboo even. Every time we do, we create change that leaves our world a better, more peaceful place.