After Marilyn Milos witnessed her first circumcision in nursing school, she sat alone and sobbed. It was the 1970s and, years earlier, she had consented to having her son’s foreskin removed. A pediatrician had told her it was “safe, would, protect him for life, and only would take a second” before taking her son into a private operating room. But, after she saw the procedure first hand — “a ratchet squeezed the top of it lengthwise to crush the nerves and blood vessels so it wouldn’t bleed”–she knew that she had hurt her son. She could not forgive herself.
“That moment changed the course of the life,” says Milos, the executive director of Genital Autonomy America, formerly the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers. “If circumcisions were being performed in hallways instead of behind closed doors, they would stop tomorrow.”
Milos, who is regarded as a grandmother of the “intactivism” movement against circumcision, favors a visceral argument against the procedure to a logical one. She is far from alone. To watch an anti-circumcision video (there are hundreds on YouTube) is to finding oneself zoomed in on the other side of an abrupt jump cut. Videos have a tendency to hop from slogans and signage (“FORESKIN THEFT!”) to shots of freshly cut baby penises.
The visual-first rhetorical strategy of intactivists has been successful online, where the idea that circumcision is male genital mutilation has gained traction on subReddits (r/Intactivists, r/MensRights) and Facebook pages (Intact America, Saving Our Sons). But it’s limiting in real life. How to weaponize the visceral idea of dismemberment at a protest? There’s really only one way. Bring images and wear something outrageous. Which is why some intactivists now sport the rally equivalent of a bloody wedding dress — bleached white coveralls with a conspicuous red stain on the crotch that from a distance could be mistaken as a statement on menstruation awareness. The Bloodstained Men, a nonprofit organization formed by anti-circumcision activists, has made these suits a sort of uniform and they will be wearing them until the end of the month as they complete a 19-day mobile protest set to have them hit 18 cities and two campuses (UCLA and USC) in California. They are doing this because they believe circumcision to be a human rights emergency.
They remain a fringe group, but people are more receptive to their message than they once were.
“On the front lines we’re experiencing less hostility than we did five years ago,” Brother K, the CFO and co-founder of BSM told Fatherly during the first of the series of demonstrations on October 12. Brother K, who legally changed his name in 1986 to denounce his parents for removing his foreskin, says that in the past opponents have done everything from point their cars at them, to pouring diesel fuel on them, to giving them laxative-laced slurpees. “There’s more acceptance now — more people giving the thumbs up and V-for-victory sign.
Intactivists argue that the U.S. is one of a few barbaric countries where circumcisions are still performed as a matter of course and that circumcisions have little healthcare value. These claims are sketchy. The World Health Organization, which actively encourages successful circumcision campaigns in many countries, claims that circumcision reduces heterosexual male’s risk of contracting HIV by 60 percent. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention echoes these sentiments and adds that circumcision protects men from herpes and HPV.
Foreskins don’t give children measles and definitely don’t represent a public health hazard, but the distrust of healthcare institutions and scientific consensus among intactivists mirrors similar sentiment in the anti-vaxx movement. Supporters genuinely believe babies are being subjected to a painful and unnecessary medical procedure that causes irreparable harm despite evidence to the contrary. That said, intactivists are not driven by false information — kids are being circumcised — just by differing interpretation of what the facts mean.
An hour and a half into the first day of protest series, Brother K was joined by four other protesters, including a man he met at the airport, two mothers from San Diego, and one of 4-year-old son. Sirens blared nearby, but they weren’t for the Bloodstained Men. Things were going smoothly.
There’s little significance to the 19 days of protest — it was just the most days the organization could logistically manage. Past protests have ranged from 17 to 19 days in Minneapolis, Chicago, and all over Florida, with shorter runs slated for conventions like The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). The Bloodstained Men even made it to the Super Bowl in 2016. Like the one in Chula Vista, each of these rallies included women and children, but many men feel it’s a personal calling. One Minnesota man recently quit his job to attend protests.
Still, it’s challenging to figure out BSM’s goal for the protests. They claim that they’re trying to end circumcision in the U.S. completely, but know that they can’t pass legislation about that without violating religious freedoms. Other than pushing for institutions like the AAP and ACOG to reverse their stance on the matter, which is to let parents decide, the only thing intactivists can do is raise awareness. That’s easier than pushing a policy agenda, but still tricky.
“If we were out here protesting girls’ circumcision all the cars would be honking off the charts, but you protest boys circumcision and some people think that’s the exception,” K says. “It’s a double standard.”
But that’s not where all the rage directed at intactivists comes from, BSM director-at-large Dominic Barba told Fatherly. Barba believes people are battling “cognitive dissonance,” but what he seems to describe is shame. “For people to agree with us and internalize our message is to realize ‘oh, something’s been done to me. Am I damaged? Am I sexually inferior?” He suspects that’s why some people offer to hit him their cars.
The arresting image bloodstained jumpsuits also provokes a blunt reaction. It;s supposed to. Richard Duncker, a British intactivist and founder of Men Do Complain, told Fatherly he came up with the idea for the suits in a conversation with a friend in 2008 and made his first pair in 2009 with that intent. Duncker’s story is similar to Brother K’s and many in the movement: Men who lost their foreskin as infants and are furious they can never have it back. And for these men, they it’s possible could’ve lived happily and hygienically ever after is they had been given the choice, but they weren’t.
On an micro level, this logic makes some sense, but the more one zooms out on intactivism, the more it starts to resemble other forms of white male privilege. The trade-off is between safety and a sliver of pleasure. Brother K admits that’s what got him into intactivism in the first place. After having sex with a woman and experiencing some pain, he did some research and self diagnosed himself as “circumcised and hating it.” He looked to the Civil Rights Movement for inspiration and held the first protest at the California State Capital in 1980. Was it a men’s rights protest? Yes, albeit one based on facts rather than pure umbrage. Like millions and millions of other American men, K was circumcised against his will.
For Barba, the outrage isn’t about what’s between his legs. He is uncircumcised. Instead he seems driven by the same fear of medical norms as the anti-vaxxers. (Barba insists that their following isn’t all anti-vaccine, but admits some are.) Intactivism is driven by a culture of distrust. Intactivists tend to be men who feel that they were cut in malice or sliced down to size by a flawed system. For this reason, the movement’s rhetoric can sound like anti-feminist agita or penis-first populism though it is ultimately neither.
And it’s important to note that, extreme as their perspectives may seem, intactivists aren’t putting kids at any imminent risk. Theoretically, if intactivists got what they wanted and everyone voluntarily stopped circumcising their kids, there would be more UTIs among infants, more STIs among adults, and higher health care costs. But an uncut America would still be safe and healthy. Circumcision rates are going down so maybe that’s the endgame regardless.
Still, to intactivists like Milos, leaving the decision in the hands of parents is not enough. It’s a right reserved for the child once they’re old enough to make it. Her biggest concern is that this kind of acute pain in infants could result in generations of damaged and aggressive men . “This is all imprinting. We’re violently imprinting the brains of males when we do this,” she warns. But given the ample research that says otherwise, it’s more likely that most men aren’t dwelling on it.
In essence, Milos and the Bloodstained Men want to create a stigma and to convince millions of men that they were somehow wronged. The bloody suits lack scarlet letters, but the intent is the same, social shock and awe. But are the Bloodstained Men still shocking? In this current political environment and amid so many conspiracists on so many soapboxes, they really aren’t. Brother K may have some out there opinions, but his ultimate goal is to make sure no one gets hurt. It’s enough to make people think twice, sure, but likely not enough to catalyze a movement.