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Cassie Jaye and Steven Svoboba
NCFM NOTE: Steven presented to the United Nations on male circumcision. He’s the National Coalition for Men’s (NCFM’s) Public Relations Director and longest serving board member. He graduated with honors from Harvard Law School and has published 40 peer-reviewed articles. His interview with Cassie Jaye for Red Pill/Raw Files is here. The article below is Steven’s presentation at this years International Conference on Men’s Issues in London. The video of his presentation is or will soon be available at their website.
Power of man and woman together. Every day is better than before.
I am privileged to wear two hats. I am both an activist to promote genital autonomy (to stop male circumcision) and also to promote gender equity (to create true equal rights for men and women). One key question we face right up front in bringing both issues to the world is how we relate to the reigning paradigm. Do we challenge it or accept it, or strategically do whatever seems best for a given situation?
Three words describing both issues are: Exceptional. Muddle. Discomfort. They are exceptional issues that exists because of all sorts of theoretical and practical muddles between different issues that sustain them. And consideration of the issues can cause discomfort. I feel some discomfort myself at raising issues affecting males, including genital autonomy, which surely must be less important. Genital autonomy is perhaps even more marginalized than men’s rights.
I joined the board of the National Coalition For Men (NCFM) in 1996, and I founded Attorneys for the Rights of the Child (ARC) in early 1997. Divorced, engaged, two kids. NCFM media project. 200 book reviews. NCFM Northern California chapter co-founder. Public Relations Director.
Often the issue of circumcision is dismissed because people feel resource overload. Excuses include that a son’s penis should look like his father’s, and that female genital mutilation (FGM), as they call it, is an incomparably more important issue so why waste your time on male genital autonomy?
Dr. Warren Farrell has written what may be the most powerful, succinct summary of the intimate association for males of genital autonomy and gender equity: “America’s reflexive continuation of circumcision-without-research reflects the continuation of our tradition to desensitize boys to feelings of pain, to prepare them not to question the disposability of their bodies any more than they would question the disposability of their foreskins.”
ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME
Why genital autonomy terminology? Want to be for something, not against male circumcision. The principle is the man whose body it is has autonomy, a core ethical principle, and can do what they like with their body upon reaching adulthood, and we have to leave their body alone so they have those choices when they get there. Why is female genital mutilation called mutilation and there’s this nice medical-sounding term for male genital mutilation?
WHY DO PEOPLE CARE ABOUT MALE GENITAL AUTONOMY?
The foreskin has three important principal functions–immunological, protective, and erogenous.
Lots of positive events have happened lately. We have a seat at the table.
In 2001, an ARC delegation went to the UN. In 2012, the UK Secular Medical Forum (SMF) and cooperating organizations met to discuss ritual male circumcision with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The UNCRC report on Israel in 2013 includes non-therapeutic circumcision under the heading “harmful practices’” and recommends that Israel monitor the short and long-term complications of the procedure.
In October 2013, the Council of Europe (CoE) passed a recommendation endorsing a child’s right to physical integrity and a resolution specifically supporting genital autonomy for children. Ron Goldman testified to the CoE. A Danish registry of damages of ritual circumcision was created in 2013. Norway passed a similar law in 2014. On December 2, 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a draft of proposed guidelines on male. Bob Van Howe was asked to be on expert panel.
The Royal Dutch Medical Association published an official statement opposing male circumcision. In November 2012, Germany’s official Paediatric Association, citing ARC, joined the Dutch Medical Association and supported males’ rights.
In February 2015, Peter Adler, testified at a hearing held regarding a then pending New Hampshire bill to stop Medicaid funding for male circumcision. The Massachusetts Senate considered a bill that would have outlawed genital cutting of males and females.
An international team has been working hard the last couple years at odd hours to move this agenda further ahead and has just now submitted a report focusing on Canada to the UN with more on the way.
LEGAL CASES SUPPORT GENITAL AUTONOMY
A German appellate court ruled in June 2012 that circumcision of boys constitutes an irreversible bodily injury and violates the child’s right to physical integrity and self-determination. Another German court in Hamm ruled in September 2013 in favor of a child’s right to bodily integrity and against a parent’s right to have a male circumcision performed on a child. In 2016, a French man won $38,000 from the surgeon who circumcised him as an adult for sexual harm and ethical harm. Not a botch and no lack of agreement to procedure.
Two important legal cases occurred in the UK in recent years. In 2015, in a case involving FGC, a UK judge for the first time described circumcision as a significant harm and said some forms of MGC are worse than some forms of FGC. In 2016, the UK’s High Court of Justice protected two boys from circumcisions sought by the father.
I debated and unofficially defeated a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) at the Medical University of South Carolina in 2013. In Charleston, Brady actually said twice to the medical audience, “Nobody knows the functions of the foreskin.” Two (!) of the five physician presenters who are not AAP Task Force members were completely convinced by our arguments.
There has been good news of late for those who favor gender equity too. Look at the folks here today. A film was made by Cassie Jaye, a young female filmmaker at which I met my fiancée and in which she takes the audience through her path of deciding she is not in fact a feminist as the term is currently defined anyway. From the other side, so to speak, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Gavin Newsom’s wife, made a movie, “The Mask You Live In,” that I saw at my son’s middle school with him. Addresses real issues males face.
The men’s movement has obtained changes in the law in California and elsewhere. The New Hampshire Men’s Commission is one familiar outgrowth of the men’s rights movement, established in 2002 and shut down (rest in peace) on June 30, 2011. Changing tables can be found in men’s bathrooms, the result of an NCFM lawsuit many years ago.
NCFM Vice-President Marc Angelucci filed a complaint against the Selective Service for sex-based discrimination since males and not females are required to register for the draft. The case has survived several procedural hurdles and is moving toward being decided by a federal district court.
We recently succeeded against the Selective Service’s 2nd motion to dismiss, and we are now preparing a motion for summary judgment in NCFM v. Selective Service. Meanwhile we’re representing several victims of paternity fraud pro bono, and we’re preparing several other lawsuits, including two lawsuits against local governments and a lawsuit against the State Bar happening this month, all for sex discrimination against men. We won a lawsuit against the state of California in 2008, which held it is unconstitutional for the state to exclude male victims from state-funded services.
Numerous victories in civil rights lawsuits. California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act provides a model for men’s rights. Clubs that let women in for free, organizations that give female-only networking events, rock concerts and strip clubs charging men higher admission or charging admission only to men or not admitting men. A gay man was not admitted to a female-only comedy show and brought suit for anti-male discrimination, feeling anti-male discrimination is analogous to anti-gay discrimination. “Man Tax.” Man who had to pay child support even though paternity test proved they aren’t his kids is fighting back.
Non-legal successes. Twin Cities tabling events at several hundred events.
Montana State University in Bozeman formed the first officially recognized men’s issues student chapter at a university in 2010.
In 2012, NCFM helped create the first official male survivors’ task force within the Los Angeles County Domestic Violence Council.
GROWING PRESS FOR GENDER EQUITY
Initially, I have to admit to a great deal of pessimism regarding both causes, but lately I find that both movements may be on the verge of, if not already achieving, some major breakthroughs. In recent years, well-respected and well-known media outlets such as MSNBC’s Donahue Show, CNN, NBC, Fox6 News, Newsweek, Time, the Los Angeles Times, California State Bar Journal, and the Los Angeles Daily Journal, have placed stories on the men’s movement. This month the New York Times had a lengthy piece on NCFM’s lawsuits over sex discrimination against males.
GROWING PRESS FOR GENITAL AUTONOMY
Lately the movement may also be on the verge of some major breakthroughs. Major films. In recent years, well-written pieces on the genital autonomy movement have appeared in, among other places, the BBC (interviewed a number of activists in a prominent August 2012 article) New York Times, Al Jazeera requested John Geisheker’s participation, MSNBC (Georganne Chapin and IA, here and seemingly everywhere), the Huffington Post, the National Post (Canada’s New York Times), Showtime’s Penn & Teller Bullshit!, Penthouse, the Wall Street Journal, Yahoo.com, Fox.com, Salon.com, the National Journal, the Washington Post, the Harvard Law Bulletin, and the San Jose Mercury-News.
A lot of European folks are coming to the conclusion that we should not be cutting our children without that rarest of things, medical necessity. Within the last few years, the Danish medical association issued a statement that ritual circumcision of boys is tantamount to abuse and mutilation. The Finnish Medical Association stated, “child circumcisions are in conflict with medical ethics.” In February 2012, the Swedish Paediatric Society has called infant male circumcision an “assault on boys.” In June 2012, a Norwegian political party, the Centre Party, called for banning male circumcision as an outdated and dangerous practice not consistent with a civilized society. In 2012 and again in 2014, Finnish members of Parliament tried to pass legislation to protect boys as well as girls from genital cutting. Similar initative is currently ongoing in Iceland to pass legislation to protect all children from genital cutting.
A book I co-authored appeared from Oxford University Press titled Does Feminism Discriminate Against Men?: A Debate. A book was published a few years back addressing differential perspectives on female and male genital cutting with parity. It includes a long article by me and Robert Darby addressing symmetry and asymmetry in views of the two practices, a first-person circumcision story as told to me, and an article analyzing numerous personal accounts of the psychological and physical impacts of male circumcision.
Started in the mid-nineteenth century, medicalized circumcision was introduced into Western medicine, ostensibly to stop masturbation and thereby epilepsy, psoriasis, and pretty much all other known diseases.
Justifications have continued since—venereal diseases, sexually transmitted infections, cervical cancer, penile cancer, and the latest one is HIV.
Re HIV, the three randomized controlled trials (RCT’s) are each deeply flawed. John Talbott (a retired “amateur”) debunked the RCT’s, showing that the level of prostitution, and more generally the level of sexual mixing, in a country is the real issue with regard to HIV. Suspiciously, the RCT’s were terminated just as the data was starting to become less favorable to pro-HIV researchers. Different treatment and experiences of the control and experimental groups was not minimized. Langerin, a substance occurring naturally in the Langerhans cells, has been shown to protect against HIV infection.
HIV infection has been in worldwide decline for at least a decade and a half. The epidemic is controlling itself in public health terms. Circumcision may work in some parts of Africa, or it may not. Even if it does, there is no reason to import to US with wildly different infection modalities and public health conditions. In Africa, public health clinics are one of the most common places people get infected.
The big legal cases have not yet played out as we hoped. At least three times, courts have avoided squarely addressing the legality of male circumcision by diverting the discussion into such peripheral, procedural issues as standing. The judicial view of standing is politically and culturally shaped. Thus, we have had a federal law against FGM since 1996 with only one recent use of it. In the Queens case, involving systematic discrimination against Spanish-speaking mothers from whom “consents” for circumcision were fraudulently extracted, a federal district court went to extraordinary lengths to prevent fair consideration of a wrongfully circumcised boy’s complaint.
WHY HAVEN’T WE WON YET?
Barriers to acceptance include the reigning paradigm under which men’s and women’s discrimination are viewed differentially, a lack of exposure due to historically meager press coverage (though currently media attention is growing), and court reluctance to affirm issues not yet socially approved. Also, the movement quite simply may cause some level of discomfort to individuals, institutions, and, indeed, society itself. Genital autonomy partakes of sex, religion, psychological denial, medical procedures, parental denial, and a variety of other uncomfortable issues.
A “hold back the floodgates” mentality may also be at play. If males are “in” as rightful claimants, the thinking may go, then nobody is “out” any more. The impulse to define one’s efforts in terms of insiders and outsiders is natural; it may be harder to visualize an enemy when everyone is potentially a victim.
One other factor in the rejection of genital autonomy as a proper concern is conscious or unconscious homophobia, whose powerful role among heterosexual American males should not be underestimated.
Barriers to communication are much lower with the incredible proliferation of the Internet, which of course is also bringing lots of misinformation and creating the phenomenon of people only reading news with which they already agree and which in fact is preselected to not ruffle feathers. Skepticism to authority has grown and old institutions including feminist institutions just don’t, ahem, cut it. Changes in perceptions of gender and sex may also be helping in the genital autonomy world. UN categorized genital cutting as torture.
Barriers to change regarding genital autonomy are several: Circumcision is profitable. We have a cultural/social predisposition to do it. There is an appalling lack of knowledge among doctors regarding the functions of the foreskin. Doctors claim to feel pressured by boys’ parents to perform the surgery, though this curious argument is again unique to circumcision. Resource overload.
Regarding men’s rights, there are BILLIONS of dollars that say men do NOT deserve equal treatment, whatever our Constitution may say. Laws have always—with one possible exception–been interpreted according to prevailing modes of thinking and not according to some abstract legal concepts. The one possible exception was the Civil Rights movement, the only time when lawyers may truly have led the people, but that was a one-time anomaly unlikely to recur. On the bright side, FGC and intersex both make it harder to justify MGC. While the path of justice is admittedly bumpy, I do believe it curves upward in the long run, and time is on our side. Paul Elam is right. We are in the game. New Age.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Genital autonomy is an exceptional issue, characterized by numerous muddles, and creating discomfort. Gender equity does much the same. We have a choice as to whether to follow the reigning paradigms or to challenge those paradigms.
Both issues, regrettably, are relatively neglected at this particular historical moment. The very resistance such discussions can raise may be representative of the difficulties and barriers faced by genital autonomy activism in gaining support for its cause of protecting the genital autonomy of males as well as females. But not so much any more.
The personal is political for us too.
Impacts can be subtle. Fear of PAS in my life.
Keep working – and breathe.
—and take care of yourself.
They will become irrelevant.
Led/midwived (!) by us, the world will pass them by.
The personal is political for us too.
NCFM PR Director and President of Attorneys for the Rights of the Child, GENITAL AUTONOMY, GENDER EQUITY, AND the WORLD
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