The new documentary American Circumcision, perhaps the highest budgettake on the issue to date, points out early on that circumcision is the most common surgery in America and that America is the only industrialized country in the world to practice infant circumcision outside of a religious context. The problem is these two statements are not true (cataract removal is more common, and a number of industrialized countries, including Canada and Australia, practice infant circumcision,) Still, the film’s director and producer Brendon Marotta, who makes a number of specious claims while telling a curiously one-sided story, insists that he’s a journalist, not an anti-circumcision activist. That this is not quite plausible is indicative not just of the film’s flaws, but of the radicalized dialogue around what is a very common medical procedure with advantages and disadvantages.
“My role in this issue is to create dialogue and not to be an ideologue in any way,” Marotta says. “I don’t ever want to tell someone else how they should feel. We present a range of perspectives.”
Having said that, Marotta falls back (both in the film and in conversation) on the most common intactivist talking point: Circumcision is a human rights issue. In fact — and rather bizarrely — Marotta goes so far as to justify intactivist death threats against doctors and nurses, describing them as in line with tactics used by other social justice movements. The film is full of false equivalencies and seems more like a bellwether than an act of genuine inquiry. Specifically, ‘American Circumcision’ seems to augur poorly for the feature of dialogue on the subject. Like so many other political or quasi-political debates, this one seems to have become borderline incoherent.
Marotta spoke to Fatherly about his film.
So what brought you to this topic of circumcision and compelled you to make a movie about it?
There had been times over the course of my life that this topic had come up and I thought, ‘Well, there’s nothing you can do about it now so why think about it?’ And I didn’t because it made me uncomfortable. Then I was going through a time where I was changing my beliefs about a lot of things when I came across this topic called foreskin restoration, which is where men stretch the remaining skin of the foreskin and over time get a covering of that part of the body again. It’s not a complete reversal, but I had always been told there’s nothing you can do about it. Then that raised the question, ‘What else have been told that’s incorrect?’
So do you consider yourself an intactivist then?
No, I consider myself a filmmaker. I started making this film in my early twenties. It took about six years to make the film, which was a bit of a process.
So what was that process like, how have things changed over the course six years?
We interviewed every major expert on both sides of the debate: We have people from the intactivist movement, people from the American Academy of Pediatrics, and people involved in the HIV studies in Africa. When I first was telling people I was working on this film, they’d be like ‘Well isn’t that cleaner?’ Now, when I talk to people about the issue of circumcision they say, ‘That’s really controversial, I’ve seen people protesting that.’ It’s shifted. The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees that it’s now about a question of whose body, whose choice?
Wait, back up. What did you say the AAP agrees with?
When I interviewed a Jewish author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ latest policy statement on circumcision. What he told me on camera was that the ethical question of who has the right to make decisions about men’s bodies is the center of this debate. The member of the AAP I spoke to also acknowledges that the public health claims are not compelling and it’s largely a cultural or religious practice.
I mean, there are studies that suggest female circumcision reduces the rate of HIV, but no one on any side of the debate thinks those claims are worth exploring.
Well, that’s not true. There’s also ample research that FGM increases risks of HIV and STI transmission, and the idea that is reduces risk is based on the idea that it would make women enjoy sex less. Do you believe there are differences between male circumcision and female genital mutilation?
That is hard to quantify because there are different types of female circumcision. But I will say that the circumcised women I’ve interviewed for the film say there’s no difference.
I’ve heard the argument that there are different types of circumcision in response to that question before, but it’s not really an answer. It simply confuses the issue of male circumcision. The notion that male circumcision is the same as female genital mutilation is fairly extreme so I have to ask what evidence do you have to support that equivalency?
Everyone doesn’t agree on that because everyone doesn’t understand the value of the foreskin. When people push back on that claim, they’re assuming the foreskin isn’t 15 square inches of skin, or the most erogenous part of a man’s body, or that it doesn’t contain thousands of nerve endings, and it’s just a flap of skin. So it’s hard to have that conversation without first having a discussion about the value of the foreskin and what that part of the anatomy actually is.
Is that what this is about — men being robbed of a certain level of sexual pleasure?
The intactivists arguments are primarily three things. One, it’s a violation of human rights to remove a part of a person’s body without their consent. Two, the foreskin that’s being removed has value in sexuality and that is an experience that many men want and should be allowed to have. AThree, the procedure itself is traumatic and painful and harms the infant from the moment it occurs
What’s the proof that every circumcised men feel traumatized or robbed of a sexual experience?
There are circumcised women who say they’re perfectly happy with their experience and that they get just as much pleasure as intact women, and we actually interview one of those women in the film. If you were to go to cultures that practice female circumcision, those women would say the same thing. People tend to be biased towards what their experience is. There are studies that suggest men who know more about circumcision are more likely to be dissatisfied with it. I think if you were to interview men who say, ‘I’m fine, I didn’t lose anything,’ they probably don’t know a lot about the subject.
Isn’t it somewhat unfair to suggest that every man who’s not outraged by his circumcision is ignorant?
You have to acknowledge that some men are going to feel grief around this and we can spare them that by respecting their human rights when they’re a child. When people have been through something traumatic as a child they want to make sure it doesn’t happen to someone else. That’s the compassionate response.
Ok, but what about some of the less compassionate responses from the intactivist movement, like death threats made towards nurses and doctors performing the procedures? How does your film address that?
I haven’t seen anything from the intactivist movement that I haven’t seen from major social justice movements. When people feel wronged they often respond to that with anger. Whether or not you think the anger is justified depends on your perspective on circumcision.
That doesn’t answer the question.
Among the men I’ve interviewed, what I hear from them is a lot of grief. It’s grief anyone would have if they learned they had lost a part of their body. And I think for men in the intactivist movement that grief is amplified by a larger culture refusing to acknowledge those emotions as valid. If you don’t question circumcision, invalidate the emotions of people who do.
Have you heard the argument that circumcising boys as infants makes men more violent and even prone to committing sexual assault? That’s a fairly common refrain.
It doesn’t come up in our documentary. I’ve heard it from some people and there is research that suggests early life trauma affects people later in life. It’s also hard to draw a one to one correlation between something in early life and later life. So I can’t speak to that, because it’s its not the focus of the film.
I think it’s relevant to the film because the false connection between circumcision, violence, and sexual assault really hurt this movement. And I’ve heard it come up several times in my reporting on the issue. You’re admitting to hearing that and choosing to not include that in the movie. That’s your choice, but I’m struggling to understand it.
What I have heard many activists says is cutting a child’s genitals without their consent fits the legal definition of sexual assault. Because in order to do circumcision you have to forcibly penetrate the place between the glans and the foreskin. That fits existing legal definitions for sexual assault.
So is that where the claim that circumcision is causing a generation of violent men who sexually assault people, is that where that comes from?
Early trauma and early abuse makes people more likely to be abusers later. But that’s not something we cover. Does that apply to circumcisions? I don’t know.
That’s a dangerous claim for intactivists to make to parents without evidence, whether the movie addresses that or not. So what would you personally tell a mother or father in favor of circumcision or even on the fence?
I think they should watch my film before they make a decision.
American Circumcision will be available digitally August 31, 2001.