Intaktiv: genital integrity and autonomy is a human right Conversation with Viola Schäfer and Shemuel Gerber
ProMosaik has interviewed Viola Schäfer and Shemuel Garber of intaktiv e. V. – a Voice for Genital Autonomy, a registered charity that promotes genital autonomy regardless of gender.
Viola Schäfer is a degreed psychologist, works in the job-related reintregration of people affected by mental diseases and has been the chairwoman of intaktiv e.V. since its foundation in 2013. Shemuel Garber is a member of intaktiv, was born in the United States and currently studies philosophy in Vienna. As a Jewish intactivist, he is personally affected by religious “circumcision”. In his bachelor thesis, he studied male “circumcision” – particularly with regard to the historical development of common justifications for foreskin amputations.
ProMosaik: What are the main objectives of intaktiv?
Viola Schäfer: Our organisation aims to support the human right to genital integrity and autonomy for all humans – independent of gender, religion, origin, skin colour etc. – and wants to sensitise society for it. Children are not the property of their parents, but persons with their own human rights. Therefore they must not be exposed to unnecessary operations on their body – especially not on their genitals.
We consider it as very important to clarify that not only female genital mutilation is traumatic and an enormous, irreversible violation of the personal rights, the private sphere and the sexual sensibility of affected persons. This is also the case with foreskin amputations (“circumcisions”) on boys and so-called feminizing/masculinizing surgeries on intersexual children. Our objective is for more people to become conscious about that and appreciate intact genitals as a universal human right.
Due to the international importance of our topic, we also cooperate with intactivist organisations and protagonists in other countries, like for example Genital Autonomy (England), NOCIRC (USA), Protect the Child (Israel) and the Turkish blogger Kaan Göktas. The latter has written and published an educational book about “circumcision” of boys entitled “Oldu da bitti maşallah” (Already done, mashallah) in Turkey. He is currently looking for translators to be able to publish his book in other languages.
But also German organisations like the Berufsverband der Kinder- und Jugendärzte (an association of pediatrists), profamilia, MOGiS e. V., terres des femmes and the Giordano Bruno Foundation are important contacts for us to build an expanded “intactive” alliance. Furthermore, we are a member of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Prävention und Intervention bei Kindesmisshandlung, -vernachlässigung und sexualisierter Gewalt e. V. (DgfPI), an association working to prevent and stop abuse, neglect and sexual violation of children.
Not least, our diverse team of ambassadors (https://intaktiv.de/wir-ueber-uns/botschafter/) serves as our partners and multiplicators. These are for example the lawyer and founder of a liberal mosque Seyran Ateş, the author and sociologist Necla Kelek, the psychotherapist and TV-moderator Angelika Bergmann-Kallwass, the author and cartoon artist Ralf König as well as the French and Jewish journalist and scientist Jérôme Segal.
Additionally, it is very important for us to raise awareness about aspects of sexual medicine, like for example by pointing out that also non-religious “circumcisions” for phimosis are almost always medically unnecessary, because a physiological phimosis – meaning the natural, innate and usually symptom-free narrowing of the foreskin – resolves in the vast majority of boys during the age of puberty at the latest. And even if a phimosis causes problems, there are effective, conservative and thus much “gentler” methods of treatment, like ointments and surgical methods that spare the foreskin.
Many of our members are men affected by a “circumcision” for phimosis who feel mutilated and deprived of their bodily and sexual autonomy due to the intervention. We want to give these men a voice and thus e. g. support the project of “Beschneidungsforum.de”, which shows photographs of affected men showing a self-portrait including a statement about their “circumcision” (https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.1637254339871031.1073741830.1594066167523182&type=3).
You see yourself as an organization that transcends gender boundaries. Could you elaborate on that for our readers?
Viola Schäfer: It is crucial to us to consider the right to genital integrity regardless of sex. Amputations on the genitals of infants and adolescents are literally incisive and should never be trivialized, which holds true in the case of boys too.
In Germany, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is prohibited, meanwhile the amputation of boys´ foreskins is allowed under almost any justification. The reason often given for this is that female “circumcision” is substantially more severe and therefore “worse” than male foreskin amputation. But, as a matter of fact, there is not only one form of female genital mutilation, but a wide spectrum of forms. There is the extremely mutilating “pharaonic circumcision”, wherein almost all of the outer genitals are cut out, followed by the suturing of the outer labia, leaving only a small opening. On the other hand, there are forms wherein “only” the clitoris or its prepuce are amputated or incised (for further information see e. g. https://www.frauenrechte.de/online/images/downloads/fgm/EU-Studie-FGM.pdf, page 4 or https://intaktiv.de/themen/fgm2/)
But the usual argumentation is a fallacy for more reasons than the disregard of the different forms of FGM. The legal acceptance of boys’ “circumcision” even results in an endangerment of girls: Supporters of a toleration or legalization of the “lighter” forms of female “circumcision” often argue that the amputation of male children‘s foreskins is legally permitted virtually worldwide, although it is more invasive than, for example, an incision of the clitoris without any amputation of tissue.
As an association considering genital integrity as a universal human right, it is not acceptable for us that even some lawyers apparently regard children’s protection against injuring interventions on their genitals as “negotiable by severity”. We are committed to ensure that all children have the right to be protected from such injuries independent of their gender.
How do you work together with liberal Jews? Are there groups in Judaism that only circumcise symbolically?
Shemuel Garber: I, myself, am Jewish and have proudly been an intactivist since I learned about the movement five years ago. And I’m far from alone in the Jewish community in being critical of “circumcision”, or in speaking and writing publicly against it. In fact, some of the people who have been most influential in opening up the debate on foreskin amputation have been Jews. Prominent among them are, for example, psychologist Ronald Goldman, filmmaker Victor Schonfeld, author Howard I. Schwartz, and anthropologist Leonard Glick.
Critical views on “circumcision” within the Jewish community are nothing new. They date back at least to the early days of the Jewish Reform Movement in the 19th century. The earliest recorded instance I’m aware of was in 1842, when the Verein der Reformfreunde (Association of Reform Friends) in Frankfurt circulated a position statement declaring that there was no longer an imperative to perform “circumcision”. This position was ridiculed at the time, but nonetheless it shows that the impulse to question the practice of “circumcision” within the Jewish community actually predates the contemporary intactivist movement.
In recent decades, though, Jewish intactivists have made far more headway than it was possible to make in the nineteenth century. Thanks to an increasing number of doctors, educators, and activists informing people on the harms of “circumcision”, a growing number of Jewish parents today choose to forgo the amputation of their sons’ foreskins. Some choose to have a Brit Shalom, a ritual in which the baby boy is welcomed into the community and named without being subjected to “circumcision”.
What’s the situation in the USA regarding circumcision of boys? What’s the history? What are the motivations and justifications?
Shemuel Garber: In the USA, a decreasing but still significant number of boys are routinely “circumcised” right after birth. This practice was started in the nineteenth century, when doctors began amputating children’s foreskins to “cure” and punish masturbation, which was seen as morally reprehensible and was blamed for a wide variety of physical ailments. Physicians persuaded American parents that “circumcision” would prevent their boys from masturbating, thereby sparing both their souls and their health.
Eventually, “circumcision” took hold as routine neonatal practice. The paranoia about masturbation eventually faded of course, but doctors have consistently come up with new pseudomedical justifications for the procedure. Since medicalized foreskin amputation began, the medical community has sought to justify it by claiming that it can cure, treat, or prevent various illnesses. The alleged scientific support for these claims was often based on simple confirmation bias: “Successful” operations and positive correlations were disproportionately likely to be written about in publications and this created the illusion of a miracle cure and protection. Infants, who are unable to speak for themselves, proved an easy target; and generations of parents and doctors comforted themselves with the idea that infants do not feel pain as severely as others do (which has been proven to be utterly false.)
Currently the most popular pseudomedical justification is the assertion that “circumcision” reduces the relative risk of serotransmission of HIV during heterosexual intercourse. This claim is aggressively put forth by much of the American medical establishment despite the fact that it is refuted by a wealth of demographic evidence that indicates that foreskin amputation is not, in fact, protective against HIV infection. This latest chapter fits well into the established trend – claims of medical benefits followed by refutation followed by new claims – that has characterized the entire history of medicalized “circumcision”.
There are at least three reasons why many members of the medical establishment don’t correct misinformation about “circumcision” or even actively spread such misinformation. One of them is psychological. For many medical professionals, admitting that “circumcision” is medically unnecessary and harmful would mean admitting to having harmed many children over the course of their careers, whether by performing foreskin amputations themselves or by recommending it to parents. Furthermore, many doctors are themselves “circumcised”, and are psychologically unable to accept they have been harmed. The second reason is financial. Foreskin amputations are lucrative for doctors, hospitals, and device manufacturers, so they have a direct incentive to make people think it has a medical purpose. And finally, being critical of “circumcision” is socially unacceptable in many circles largely because those who come out against it are often demonized as anti-Semitic or Islamophobic. Thus, many would rather say nothing than risk their social and professional standing.
In the meantime, “circumcision” has been so commonplace for so long that is has in large part been normalized in the American psyche. For many Americans, a “circumcised” penis is the only “type” of penis that they are familiar with. The intact penis is often either entirely lacking from the imagination or imagined as foreign, strange, and unhygienic. Thus it is often unnecessary for an American doctor to provide a medical justification in order to elicit the proxy consent of a parent to carry out the operation. The mere fact that the procedure is being offered in a medical setting combined with the general conception of normalcy that has been formed over time often leads parents to give proxy consent with minimal (or no) critical consideration.
Notably, neonatal “circumcision” also became commonplace for a time throughout the rest of the Anglophone world, but the incidence rates in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have all fallen sharply due in large part to the dissemination of accurate information. Thankfully, the intactivist movement is making real progress in the United States as well. So far, eighteen of the fifty states have eliminated public funding for routine infant “circumcisions” through Medicaid. And even more importantly, parents and doctors are increasingly aware of the nature and functionality of the intact penis. Because of this, more parents are choosing to keep their sons intact. This trend will certainly reinforce itself as more boys grow up intact and challenge the entrenched mentality regarding the “American penis”.
How do you fight against female circumcision? How can one contribute to this in the western world? How can one fight against FGM in the countries where it is common?
Viola Schäfer: In conclusion, I can only emphasise our view that both in the western world and worldwide, girls can only be protected consistently from any form of FGM when also the so-called circumcision of boys is ostracized as Male Genital Mutilation (MGM) and a serious human rights violations instead of being further trivialized. We therefore focus particularly on inducing this social shift in awareness on behalf of all vulnerable children and in this way, to fight against FGM as well. Incidentally, this attitude is now shared by women’s rights organizations against FGM, such as e. g. tabu e. V. (http://www.verein-tabu.de/mgm.php).
Basically, the same applies in all countries and to all forms of human genital mutilation: A legal ban is an important element, but not effective enough without sensitization and education about the value of intact genitals as well as the damage caused by their mutilation.