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How intactivist’s anti-circumcision movement was co-opted by the alt-right

The campaigning has become a breeding ground for extreme thinking and misinformation, obscuring valid questions around male circumcision

When Dr Jennifer Bossio first published her study on penis sensitivity in 2016, she did not anticipate the barrage of abuse she’d come to receive from anti-circumcision campaigners, also known as ‘intactivists’. “I thought how could anyone get angry about this,” Bossio says of the study, which concluded that circumcision does not reduce feeling in the penis. “But they lost their minds.”

Bossio said that the ‘intactivists’ (a portmanteau of ‘intact’ and ‘activist’) found her phone number and work address and sent her death threats, with messages such as “I hope you get cancer” and flooded her University’s Facebook page with abusive comments “for years” after the study’s publication. They also sent messages to her partner’s number, with claims that she was “fucking other men”. “It was a really scary time,” she says. 

Beyond this dark corner of the Internet, intactivism is a legitimate, growing movement that has been fighting to ban circumcision for years, equating the procedure with female genital mutilation and a violation of human rights. It’s had some recent boosts, with Netflix’s documentary American Circumcision presenting the case against circumcision, and public figures like Howard Stern and democratic candidate Andrew Yang recently declaring themselves intactivists, drawing mainstream attention to what has widely been considered a fringe movement. 

This is despite the fact that one in three men across the globe has been circumcised, making it one of the most common procedures in the world. America has the highest number of circumcisions, with 62 per cent of the male population reported having been circumcised (however, this rate appears to be declining).

Parents might choose to have their child circumcised for myriad reasons: aesthetics, hygiene, but overwhelmingly, it’s a case of the dad’s circumcision status. There are also religious reasons: in Muslim culture, circumcision is mentioned in the Sunna – the practice of the Prophet Muhammad – and has been custom since the beginning of Islam. According to Jewish tradition, circumcision symbolises a covenant with God, and is one of the faith’s most significant rituals. 

While there have been some movements within religious groups to reject circumcision, with many Jewish parents now opting for Brit Shalom – a non-cutting naming ceremony – most high-profile intactivism has come from secular organisation. “The genital mutilation of children, boys and girls, is the major human rights issue of the 21st century,” says Brother K, founder of Bloodstained Men – the only anti-circumcision street protest group in America. Members of the organisation regularly gather on street corners, or outside medical conventions, clad in all-white aside from a conspicuous red stain around the crotch area, brandishing signs which read “FORESKIN THEFT!” and “NOBODY WANTS LESS PENIS”, in images subsequently proliferated across social media. 

Despite their efforts, circumcision still remains a taboo topic, which has allowed some intactivists to steer the narrative towards extremism – particularly online. Over recent years, the movement has become a breeding ground for antisemitism, Islamophobia, misogyny, and misinformation which threaten to undermine the critical conversations that need to be had around circumcision.

Eli Ungar-Sargon, a Jewish filmmaker from Los Angeles, became heavily involved in intactivism after releasing his documentary Cut: Slicing Through The Myths of Circumcision in 2007, which aimed to debunk myths surrounding circumcision. He quickly became aware of the antisemitism rife on social media and internet forums among some intactivists circles. It’s become so pervasive, he says, that a Facebook group has been set-up specifically for documenting instances of intactivist antisemitism, which is updated almost daily.

One post sees a Facebook user accuse Jewish people of “sacrific(ing) their Jewish children to their fake demonic Jewish god”, while other posts draw on a well-trodden antisemitic trope, by condemning Jewish rabbis for circumcising children purely for profit. Another Facebook user goes so far as to claim that circumcision caused the Holocaust. Ungar-Sargon believes that the hateful language coming from some intactivists was accelerated in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency, which gave rise to “a loosening of the reigns of what's acceptable to say”. 

When Ungar-Sargon tried to raise alarm about the antisemitism he’d encountered to senior intactivists, he claims he was swiftly shut down. “Sadly, there’s a kind of negligent insensitivity to these concerns in the movement,” he says. He cites the example of Georgeanne Chapman, leader of the largest intactivist organisation, Intact America, who once publicly stated that “over-concern about antisemitism (in the intactivist movement) is misplaced”. 

“I don’t think a good person of conscience who cares about things like homophobia, racism, sexism, can look at a movement like this and take it seriously, when there’s absolutely no type of sensitivity to those issues and those sorts of prejudices are just allowed to run rampant without any kind of official response,” Ungar-Sargon says. 

“One post sees a Facebook user accuse Jewish people of ‘sacrific(ing) their Jewish children to their fake demonic Jewish god’, while another Facebook user goes so far as to claim that circumcision caused the Holocaust”

Why has the issue of circumcision, specifically, become such ripe territory for vitriol? “There’s a lot of damage that people feel, especially as men,” Ungar-Sargon explains, “and as men, they don’t feel they have the space to express it, because they’re men, right? Men are supposed to be tough and not complain about physical ailments.” He adds that the movement has become bound up with ‘men’s rights’ activism – a place where misogyny often thrives as a form of “inverse feminism”.  

These vile sentiments have been detrimental to the movement as a whole, as has the refusal of some intactivists to accept any science that contradicts their beliefs. “The problem is there’s not a lot of high-quality research on circumcision,” Bossio says, who completed a PhD looking at circumcision in newborns. “In my opinion, the problem with the intactivists is that they go after researchers to the point where people don’t want to do the research anymore.” Bossio claims the harassment she faced is the reason she is no longer pursuing research in the field of circumcision, saying: “If I’d have known what I was getting into, I would not have done this important research in the first place.”

Most intactivists would adamantly reject this, blaming the medical industry for the lack of research and misinformation around circumcision. David Atkinson, co-founder of  Bloodstained Men, gives the example of a 2012 study published by the American Academy of Pediatric (AAP) which claimed that the “benefits“ of circumcision “outweigh the risks”, and the European Medical Community’s subsequent response, which denounced the AAP for recommending these procedures, and for their ignorance about the anatomy of the foreskin. The reason doctors mislead parents, Atkinson says, is twofold: firstly, it's the profit gained from the procedure (“every time the doctors cut off the penis, they and the hospital get paid for having done so by the insurance companies”). Secondly, it's because “they don't want to admit that they've been damaging the genitals of our children for the past hundred years.”

These same intactivists would argue that their anger is always directed at doctors, rather than any religious group. Organisations like Bloodstained Men and Intact America claim to have many Jewish members and leaders in their ranks, and that, as Atkinson says, “it would be antisemitic if we were to ignore the suffering of Jewish boys.”

However, when asked about antisemitism within the intactivist movement, there is, as Ungar-Sargon suggested, a general tendency to turn a blind eye. “I’m not particularly aware of such things, I just try to focus on human rights,’ says Atkinson in response. “Here and there I’ll see a comment, and I’ve banned people before,” says Brother K, “but I don’t see much of it.”

While their refusal to acknowledge the scale of the problem that pervades their movement is deeply unsettling, that many intactivists feel genuine anguish over their circumcision, and an ethical imperative to save future generations from trauma, is beyond doubt. “It was a profoundly destructive and soul-scorching experience,” Brother K says, recalling his circumcision as an infant as though describing events of just yesterday. He says he suffered recurring nightmares until the age of nine directly linked to his circumcision, followed by years of anger at the knowledge that “something vital had been taken away from me”. 

“A child subjected to genital mutilation is a victim, and has suffered profound physical and psychological damage,” continues Brother K. “Most of that damage lies buried, and that’s why there’s a default to deny or trivialise it. People say: ‘it can’t be that bad.’ Well, it’s worse than bad.”

For circumcision to no longer be ‘trivialised’, it will mean eliminating the shame and stigma surrounding men’s mental and physical health more broadly. Anti-circumcision campaigners need to take a stand against barbaric language and create safe spaces for men to air their grievances, without descending into hateful language. As conversations around masculinity come into sharper focus, with recent years seeing a shift away from rigid perceptions of male ‘toughness’, now is the time to reclaim and shape a new narrative.