Francelle Wax is the director of American Secret, a forthcoming documentary about Circumcision. In particular it focusses on how the practice became part of mainstream medicine in the United States and why it remains a favoured practice among the American secular population despite having fallen out of favour throughout the rest of the western world. Here, exclusively for the JQ website, she reflects on her motivation for making the film.
Q: How were you, a Jewish woman, first drawn to the issue of male circumcision?
FW: It was actually within a secular context that I was drawn to question circumcision. At age nineteen I went abroad for university and while at dinner with two new friends – both guys – I asked them whether or not they were religious, trying to get a sense of how common that was in England (turned out not very). When I mentioned having been raised Jewish, one of the guys made a remark about how I was lucky I hadn’t been born a boy, noting that had I been “you would’ve have had your foreskin snipped.” Upon hearing this, the other guy laughed in relieved agreement. I remember being surprised by that reaction because as I responded, offhandedly, “Well, sure, but even if my family weren’t Jewish I would have been circumcised.” The laughter halted. The guys were of course stopped in their tracks and asked what I meant by that. I responded, “Just because.” They didn’t let it go. Until that moment it had never occurred to me that perhaps this practice was unique to the United States. After a few seconds of absorbing these guys’ stunned reactions, I tentatively asked: “Oh…you’re not?”
They were both emphatic: “No!”
We began addressing the others’ surprise.
They really wanted to know why Americans did this en masse. Why were we all so eager to cut off part of a baby boy’s penis, they rightfully wondered. The “cleaner-healthier” mantra on the tip of my tongue, I hesitated, at that point wanting to choose my words carefully so as to avoid offending my new friends with an implication that I thought them dirty and gross. I phrased my explanation as diplomatically as I could, as a question: “Isn’t removing the foreskin supposed to make it easier to clean?” They found this hilarious.
Later that night back at the dorm I checked with my female friends. I asked about their brothers, their boyfriends present and past. I asked people from various walks of life, people who had private insurance in addition to coverage by the NHS. Regardless the variables virtually no one had been circumcised and everyone was opposed to the idea, and all were appalled to learn that in the United States of America, this sort of thing happened regularly.
Q: Do you think circumcision is equivalent to female genital cutting?
FW: Before I can tackle that question we have to answer: Do I think that female genital cutting is equivalent to female genital cutting?
Most people don’t realize that there are multiple forms of female genital cutting and that they’re not equally severe one to another, nor, I would argue, are some forms as severe as what we do to boys.
In the west there seems to be a dominant view that female genital cutting is always cripplingly severe, that it is always carried out with dirty instruments under unhygienic conditions, that it is always perpetuated by men, and always renders the women incapable of experiencing any sexual pleasure. In fact, the types of cutting vary tremendously in terms of invasiveness and repercussions.
To go over some quick anatomy, here’s something that most people don’t know. Both boys and girls are born with a prepuce (foreskin). The clitoral hood is anatomically equivalent to the male foreskin. In some parts of the world it is exclusively the clitoral hood that is removed, the clitoris and labia are left untouched. Again, I’m not saying that this should be permissible, but clitoral hood removal is essentially analogous to what we in America do to our boys. In still other parts of the world, the clitoral hood is not even removed, but is slit or sometimes pierced or pricked.
Also contrary to what Americans have been told, most female cutting is carried out at both the insistence and hands of women – men often play no part. On the health and safety point, throughout Southeast Asia, Egypt, and Oman, it is typically licensed doctors who perform the procedures, in clean exam rooms with sterile medical instruments.
As for diminished sexual pleasure? Many women who have undergone genital cutting will tell you that they indeed experience intense sexual pleasure and orgasm, and they are offended that uncircumcised western women who don’t know what it’s like to be circumcised insist otherwise. While you may be tempted to argue that the circumcised women simply don’t know what they’re missing, if you’ll again turn your attention to the anatomical facts, about seventy-five percent of a woman’s clitoral tissue is internal and therefore can be – and often is – stimulated during vaginal penetration. So it is entirely plausible that removal of the external portion of the clitoris could have little to no impact upon a woman’s ability to experience sexual pleasure.
Q: In what ways are all forms of cutting equally harmful?
FW: In both cases we are talking about children being held down and having unnecessary pain inflicted. In both cases the child is forcibly having a permanent change made to his or her body, in the case of all boys and some girls, that change is the permanent removal of normal, healthy, functional tissue. In both cases you are violating an individual’s rights to his or her very bodily autonomy, and you are placing that individual’s right to be safe in his or her person second to the religious choices or aesthetic preferences of the parents.
Furthermore, this isn’t a harm contest, and we shouldn’t look to a culture which sets the bar so low as a point of comparison so that we can say “see, we’re not so bad.” We should seek to be the standard bearer, not the perpetrator of a lesser evil.
To read a more detailed parsing of the female versus male discussion, I recommend Brian D. Earp’s recent post on the issue:
Q: Do you think there is a hygienic basis for circumcision?
FW: This just kills me because it is such a fact-checkable assertion. For a nation of people walking around with computers in our pockets, quick to look up a claim and pounce on any inaccuracy, oh my, the remarks that we don’t bother to Google but are all too happy to take on faith…
“You must remove part of your son’s penis or he’ll get sick and may even die!”
“Pay no attention to the majority of intact men in this world who have never found it to be a problem.)”
Intact men and boys the developed world over are completely healthy, as are their partners.
Just as women have naturally occurring moisture under their clitoral hood and on their inner labia, so too do men have a glistening moisture underneath their foreskins. This moisture plays a practical role during sex and masturbation. A moist glans is far less likely to cause chafing in a partner, compared with a dried glans.
In doing research for this film I discovered that many a classic scene from American teen comedies are getting lost in translation. Intact men are watching and wondering, “Why on earth is he using so much lube?”
With regard to hygiene, in the early years, the rule is “clean what is seen.” The foreskin is a protective covering that is fused to the penis at birth to protect the glans. In 80% of boys it doesn’t retract before age ten. The glans is meant to remain an internal organ until the boy approaches an age where he becomes sexually mature. When you circumcise a boy you’re essentially taking his delicate glans and repeatedly soaking it in urine and feces until he’s out of diapers. His glans should not be coming into contact with urine and feces, let alone marinating in it for the first two-to-three years of his life.
Once the foreskin begins to retract on its own the boy can pull it back while showering and wash the glans. American’s seem terribly concerned that their sons will need a Ph.D. in order to figure this one out. But honestly, if your son has to be told to play with his penis in the shower, you’ve got bigger problems.
Many parents are under the impression that if they keep their son intact they will have to clean underneath the foreskin. This belief is the result of misinformation spread by generations of American doctors who have hardly even seen a natural penis on a patient of any age and who were educated by professors about whom we could say the same. So our physicians are often completely uninformed about natural penile development. They look at a fused foreskin and perceive a pathology when what they’re actually observing is perfectly natural development. There is a great organization called The WHOLE Network that maintains a listing of ‘foreskin-friendly’ pediatricians. Their website is TheWHOLENetwork.org. Always accompany your intact child into the exam room and instruct your pediatrician not to retract.
Q: Circumcision plays such a big role in how Jewish boys are brought into the fold; do you suggest any alternative rituals?
FW: I do. As a ‘practicing atheist’ I am a big fan of creating rituals from the ground up rather than going through the motions of existing rituals which were crafted around beliefs that I don’t endorse.
I’m glad you’ve asked this question because I rarely get a chance to speak about the lone aspect of circumcision of which I actually approve. Circumcising your child is a pronouncement that you are placing something above your child, that there are certain allegiances which should supercede the parent-child bond. I actually agree with that. There are concepts and values that we should prize more highly than even our children; civilization depends on it. While I can’t get behind worshipping someone who thinks that a fitting display of loyalty is being willing to cut one’s innocent infant, I do endorse the concept of there being limits to parental love.
In a culture where many parents are loyal to their kids to a fault, I think that shortly after birth, when you’re head over heels for your baby, is a good time to be reminded that there are other people in the world whose needs must be considered. The welcoming ceremony seems a fitting time for parents to say to their child: “Welcome to the family. This is what our home is about, and this is what our community is about. We care about you but not to the exclusion of the health and well being of society at large. We love you very, very much. But there are some ideals that we love even more than you, there are some standards that we will not allow you to tear asunder.”
With this in mind, the act of cutting off tissue from the child’s penis could be replaced with a ceremony which dramatizes the various future paths the child could potentially wander down. The parents could use this ritual to mentally prepare themselves for the possibility that their child may one day venture off in a dark and unethical direction. Perhaps honored guests, congregants and family members could each wear or hold something symbolizing a particular path. They would each pass the baby along from one person to another, allowing the parents to catch a glimpse of multiple potential futures. When the baby is handed to the people representing an unethical future, the parents could symbolically turn their backs on the child or walk out of the room. This would be the parents’ public proclamation that should that child – despite his parents’ best efforts – grow into someone who is a menace to society, the allegiance of the parents will ultimately be with the community. I like the idea that with every birth or adoption the home is reconsecrated as a place to grow a citizen, not harbor a fugitive.
It is not uncommon for people to actively build social circles based on shared values and principles. And you grow to love these people because they live out those principles. These people become your community. Should members of your community begin to violate shared principles in a serious and / or repetitive way, it is time to withdraw your love or at least materially withdraw your embrace and cast them out.
I love my friends and family, but if they were to do something really insidious, I wouldn’t remain in their corner. “Principles-before-people”, is how I think of it.
Q: Tell us about the film and you hope to achieve with it.
I hope that after watching it, people will ask themselves: “Why am I so scared to admit that I’ve made a mistake?” Not even specifically about circumcision, but about anything. I really would like people to see that admitting to a misstep, that owning up to a wrong-doing doesn’t have to be the scariest prospect on earth. Saying the words “I’m sorry” and “I was wrong” do not have to mean the end of your world. I hope that people will come away more aware of universal cognitive errors and will feel less embarrassed about acknowledging that certain decisions they’ve made may not have been particularly deliberative or well considered.
That people will be more proactive, and generally ask themselves: “Am I doing X because X makes sense, or because X is established practice?”
That people stop outsourcing their moral judgment – especially to generations past who knew less than we know now. And along those same lines, that the film will change the way people think about tradition; that they will stop regarding it as an intrinsic good, a sufficient motive to either take or not take an action. Tradition may be relatively harmless in certain instances and people may indeed derive a benefit from daily, weekly, and annual rituals. But when the tradition calls you to do something which you would almost certainly find objectionable were the culture not already habituated to it, well, that is a strong indication that the time has come to part with said tradition.
It is intellectually dishonest to try and silence debate by throwing down “tradition” as your attempt at a trump card. Even the way that people say the word, with this kind of heady reverence, sets me on edge. Your life is not a Harnick and Bock musical. You need to actually think about why you do what you do. We demean the concept of tradition when we use it to justify cultural inertia.
Q: What has been the reaction to your work in the Jewish community?
FW: So many Jews have already come around on this, recognizing that cutting the healthy tissue of children is unethical and replacing “Brit Milah” with “Brit Shalom”. And as with most Social Justice causes, a disproportionately high number of those questioning or critiquing circumcision (from an ethical or legal perspective) are practicing Jews. This has been true for decades, in recent years there has been a more prominent online presence. Groups like BeyondTheBris.com (for whom I’ve written a piece) and Jews Against Circumcision. One of the more recent Jewish voices is the academic Rebecca Steinfeld. https://www.rebeccasteinfeld.com/2013/11/it-cuts-both-ways-jew-argues-for-child_28.html
There really hasn’t been much of a reaction to my film in particular, though of course, it’s still in production. About a year ago one woman emailed to “ask” (it was clearly an accusation) if I am an anti-Semite and if my film is intended to spread anti-semitism. Then during the Kickstarter there was an outraged Tweet by this blogger Frank Furedi. One of the film’s supporters responded to that tweet. I posted side-by-side screen shots of the exchange.
Some people have been defensive but not really more so than some non-Jewish American parents who circumcised their sons.
Anecdotally, I notice that people who have had only daughters as opposed to sons and daughters are generally more open to the information, about circumcision’s harm, but that’s unsurprising because it’s always easier to change your mind about what you would have done than about what you did.
Not specific to my film but regarding the issue at large, unfortunately some Jews try and stifle conversation with hyperbolic accusations such as calling bodily autonomy advocates “Nazis.” It’s a very dishonest, disingenuous way to engage. If it is a person’s foregone conclusion that what s/he believes God has said must be done, then nothing that a mere mortal attempts to counter will matter. Those people have already decided that they will start with the action and end with the reason. Bris first, post-hoc rationalization second. I don’t think that that’s a healthy way to approach life. I’m not one for apologetics. Not in my belief systems, and certainly not in my medicine. Don’t carry through on a violent act and then scratch your head trying to figure out how to imbue it with mystery and wonder in an effort to rationalize it. Come on, be better than that, be more honest than that.
Q: What’s next on your horizon?
FW: There is a great deal still to be done on the film, so I’ve got a fairly full plate with that. We still need to find outlets for distribution and we still need additional funding. After that? Lets see how impoverished I am… There are other films I’d like to make, including adaptations of plays. I also have a concept for a series and two shorter PSA style messages about ethics and exploitation in two particular industries. But for now, it’s “American Secret”, 24/7.