I don’t often think about circumcision, but I do often think about when I’m going to die. I try to imagine what I will look like. Will strands of grey hair grace my skull as I politely close my eyes for the last time? I hope someone will be holding my hand. More cynically, maybe, my skin will melt, my stomach will bloat and I will die on a dying earth, body floating next to piles of the same, my last gasp, full of far more carbon dioxide than my first, the killer of us all.
In this view, the state of my foreskin and those of my (proverbial) children and my children’s (proverbial) children feel comically small. The novelist Jonathan Franzen writes that fear of such a hellishly overheated tomorrow has led him to heed the advice of St. Francis of Assisi and direct his political interest toward “loving what’s concrete and vulnerable and right in front of us.” Franzen is, cryptically, referring to the birds, whose cause he has become notable for taking on. But a similar concern dogs the imagination of documentarian Brendon Marotta, whose American Circumcision depicts a lively debate over the fate of foreskins.
Marotta’s film opens on the wide face of a white child. The isolated absence of sound around him indicates something ominous is about to be performed and pages of glaring light flash across his face. He gasps innocently while we hear beeping noises. A device that looks like an infant-sized car seat, armed with Velcro straps and called a circumstraint, appears in a dark room under a light; dark music wells. While Marotta calls himself a journalist, I am convinced that he believes what he has shown is basically a guillotine. We hear the amplified sound of a blade being sheathed before the words “AMERICAN CIRCUMCISION” flash onto the screen, echoing very cheaply both American Psycho and American Sniper.
“Whether or not you choose to learn about it, it’s there,” Marotta’s introductory narration tells us, shortly after bringing the information to light that circumcision is the most common surgical procedure practiced in America today, a claim that Lauren Vinopal, writing for Fatherly, disputes. (But good news to any documentary filmmakers keen to tackle what’s really going on re: cataract removal.) A critic is supposed to decide if a movie is any good, I guess, and for the curious, American Circumcision is the perfect vessel to screen before your local gathering of anti-circumcision crusaders, who prefer to be called “intactivists,” chock full of did-you-know-that tidbits they can yell at strangers on the street. In fact, you can set up one of these on the film’s website.
So, who are these intactivists? The term is rather like “pro-life” or “gun rights” — part of a specialized political vocabulary. Circumcision is “genital mutilation,” the phrase “right to bodily integrity” uttered like dogma on these streets, etc. It will come as no surprise that it is a popular subject on the Reddit page r/MensRights. The writer Mark Joseph Stern, a legal reporter for Slate, compares them to anti-vaxers. “There are plenty of other loud fringe groups that flood the internet with false information, but none of them has been as successful as the intactivists at drowning out reasoned discourse,” Stern writes. At any rate, as a nature of their hobby, intactivists “obsess about sex to an alarming degree.”
From Grey Gardens and early-era Errol Morris to Grizzly Man, some of the best documentaries are about people commonly understood as weirdoes. In this degree, American Circumcision delivers the goods. While many adopt the rhetorical strategy of anti-abortion activists, such as the interior political vocabulary and the waving of disgusting photographs of infants at passerby, the absurdity of their passion makes them instinctively feel harmless, like the dreaming turkey hunters in Vernon, Florida. (Though some intactivists have taken to the seamy anti-abortion style of sending death threats to nurses and doctors performing circumcision. Marotta pointedly does not talk about this.)
Additionally, intactivists have been connected to anti-Semitism. A comic book made by Matthew Hess, an intactivist, called Foreskin Man featured a villain named “Monster Mohel,” an Orthodox Jewish sniper of skin. Marotta does bring this controversy up, mostly to give a chance to one Lloyd Schofield, identified by a local ABC affiliate as a “Circumcision Ban Proponent,” to dismiss it as the action of “one person” who was not even a member of any major anti-circumcision committees. “That’s what our opposition was looking for,” Schofield suggests conspiratorially.
One fellow, a white dude who looks like he lives in a cabin and is named Glen Callender, appears midway in a black t-shirt that reads “I ❤ My Foreskin,” Milton Glaser-style. He is the founder of something called the Canadian Foreskin Awareness Project and himself appears in a film called The Revolution Will Not Be Circumcised where he wears a black beret and delivers a PowerPoint presentation, some of which Marotta excerpts. “I really love my foreskin and this has nothing to do with politics,” he says. He claims to be a multiple orgasmic male (his words), capable of at least five in one go, and this is something he says, multiple times to Marotta, that he can prove.
Marotta, to his credit, peppers American Circumcision with doctors who think he is crazy. Brian Morris, a professor emeritus at the University of Sydney who fittingly looks like Rupert Murdoch on a safari hunt, appends Callender’s claim: “A claim like that is just in the imagination, I’m sure he believes it…but it’s not supported by any evidence.” Unfortunately, he does not mention if he has had the chance to peruse Callender’s evidence (“I have a video clip!” Callender exclaims). Morris himself, however, is an intriguing talking head, if only because he is equally in the sauce, likening circumcision to being as medically valuable as not smoking or drinking in excess, and believes that deaths from HIV/AIDS and penile cancer can be traced to a failure to circumcise. Marotta accompanies these claims with foreboding music that he interrupts only to challenge Morris, a la Michael Moore.
Also representing the pro-circumcision front is Edgar Schoen of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), who chaired a task force on circumcision in 1989. Schoen appears in a bowtie and old-man glasses and sounds like a Disney villain. The drama of this task force is that they appended an earlier proclamation made in 1975 by the AAP that circumcision was not medically necessary. This is a great betrayal in the account of today’s intactivists, who Marotta uses to evoke the feeling of a charged back-and-forth between the clueless Schoen and slightly younger angry people who have spent countless years reading up on the subject.
One of them, John Geisheker, director of a group called Doctors Opposing Circumcision, warns us of the path he has taken. “It takes over your life,” he says of the hours of his free time that he spends doing this, “You could spend a lifetime reading it all.” An example of the extensiveness of this literature is Leonard Glick’s three-hundred-page monograph Marked in Your Flesh: Circumcision from Ancient Judea to Modern America. In it, per his appearance here, he concludes that circumcision is distantly related to the tradition of child sacrifice.
Like most weird fringe political pursuits in the US, this is largely the province of the bored and privileged. Most of these people are white. One exception is Fuambai Ahmadu, a Sierra Leonean-American anthropologist known for voluntarily undertaking female circumcision as an adult and has, since, become an activist for female circumcision. (Female circumcision is more commonly known as “female genital mutilation” and is largely recognized as a legitimate human rights issue. Ahmadu has great disdain for whom she terms “FGM activists.”) While her stance is ostensibly the opposite of Callender’s, she also claims greater sexual satisfaction as a result of her life choice. “I realize it’s a very unpopular position,” she admits.
In Marotta’s eye-to-the ground worldview, the debate over circumcision is the great human rights issue of our time. Shots of anti-circumcision activists show them marching on Washington, a small collection of mostly middle-aged white men and strangely concerned mothers carrying signs that read things like “Occupy Foreskin” and “Circumcision Rates Are Falling. Find Out Why.” They liberally compare themselves to major social justice movements that have also marched on Washington.
Because all activists engage in similar platforms like Twitter and Facebook, the language becomes easily accessible. Any weirdo can skim Alicia Garza’s landmark “A Love Note to Black People,” originally published on Facebook, and mine from it phrases like “lives matter” and plug into it whatever is grinding their gears like an endless game of mad libs, destroying any connection between language and context.
It reminded me of something that came across my corner of the internet some time ago. James Bridle, a British writer, published a viral essay called “Something is wrong with the internet” on algorithmically designed YouTube videos. Much like the intactivists’ constant, weird focus on signifiers of sexual anxiety, Bridle touched on a signifier that I look out for— the evil of multinational corporations—and connected it to a clear, obvious and similar social wrong: hurting the children. The language of the essay, liked by some 14,000 people on the publishing platform Medium and widely shared by people I followed at the time, was as obscene as anything in Marotta’s documentary. YouTube algorithms are being used to “systematically frighten, traumatize, and abuse children,” the automatically created videos are “violent and destructive,” and they exploit “children because they are powerless.”
Because he preys on people like me, I tend to view Bridle as just another internet hack hunting for a book deal. I see Marotta more as a keeper of the strange and sexually repressed of Middle America, who at a distance appear affable because they have chosen such a literally small issue to dominate their lives with. (Someone like Bari Weiss thinks the same of neo-Nazis and MRA nuts because those issues are similarly quaintly small to Weiss. I feel slightly safer with my choice, however.) I see them as close cousins to that guy who likes having sex with dolphins or that other guy who likes having sex with horses. I suspect similar motivations or, if not that, a very similar sincerity dedicated toward a subject that is normatively weird but bothers them a great deal.
Toward the end of his film, Marotta details something called “foreskin restoration” that involves stretching the foreskin over the space where it was cut. That also looks weird to me, but Marotta explains all of this in excessive, too much, detail, and his subjects adopt the tone of mourners suddenly communicating with the dead from the great beyond. They look busy and, at times, happy. Maybe I am on the wrong side of history.