“This is winter wheat we’re sowing, and other hands will harvest.”
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, American Universal Suffrage Leader
For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved sunsets and impressionist oil paintings. The subtle interplay of color and light has always struck me as beautiful, even sublime. I couldn’t imagine anything being more lovely.
So much so, that I was dumbstruck to learn at the age of 18 that I was color blind. “It can’t be,” I insisted to the eye doctor. He matter-of-factly explained that I had failed the full Ishihara color-vision test. Out of a series of 38 polka-dotted circles, I could only see the embedded numbers in four of them. There was no doubt. I was color-blind.
My denial was complete. I didn’t believe him. “I can see colors,” I insisted. “My jeans are blue. My shirt is light blue. Your slacks are dark grey.” He tonelessly explained that yes, I could see some colors. But what I saw was not nearly as vivid or as complete as seen by people with “normal color vision.” My color vision was radically muted.
I still didn’t believe him. I showed the test to my sisters. They both passed, easily.
It took me a while to process this discovery and accept that I was one among the 20% of men who are color-blind because of a genetic defect. It was nobody’s fault. Nothing to be embarrassed about. Just bad luck.
But this discovery and my experience with overcoming denial enabled me to finally confront something else. I was able to confront another area where my perception of the world is significantly diminished. This area is diminished in a way that I never imagined possible. It is another place where my perception of the world is not nearly as vivid or as complete as “normal people.”
The area I’m talking about is my sexual perception – my physical appreciation of normal sexual contact. My sexual perception is radically muted, too. But this time, it is not a blameless, unlucky genetic defect. This was done to me by other people. My sexual perception was taken from me.
It was taken intentionally. It was taken by doctors. It was taken without my knowledge or consent. It was taken when I was a defenseless baby. And, perhaps most shockingly, it was taken with my parents’ approval.
This time the denial was harder to overcome. This time the denial didn’t just protect my self-image of being fully “normal.” This time the denial protected me from knowing that the people who I have trusted the most, who I loved the most – had betrayed me. The denial guarded me from fully knowing and feeling the painful discovery that I had been hurt badly, and forever, in the most intimate and personal part of my life. I was permanently sexually maimed. Intentionally. By the people who claim to love me the most – my parents.
This has been a very hard path of self-discovery to follow.
But, in confronting all of the feelings that were waiting for me behind my curtain of denial, I found more than just pain and anger and depression. They were there, certainly, in large amounts. But, I also found understanding and personal growth and some hope.
I understand now why I sometimes have difficulty maintaining an erection or achieving orgasm. This isn’t a shameful failure of my masculinity. This isn’t evidence of my physical and emotional disinterest in a sexual partner. This isn’t proof of my shortcomings as a man. I’ve learned that this is proof of the operation’s success. Erectile dysfunction and diminished sexual pleasure are THE desired surgical outcomes of circumcision. My operation was a success!
Many people believe that sex is wrong. They believe masturbation and recreational sex are immoral. Sometimes these beliefs are religiously motivated, sometimes not. Genital cutting is the intervention that directly addresses the evil of human sexuality. Medical textbooks used to be very specific about the effectiveness of male and female circumcision in preventing masturbation. That is what genital cutting is designed to achieve – undermining human sexuality by dramatically reducing sexual pleasure. I understand that now. I also understand that this intention was never explained to my parents.
I understand now that my radically muted sexual sensations aren’t the result of a botched, or extraordinarily aggressive, circumcision. They are greatly dulled because my circumcision went the way it was supposed to. I am more numb than a normal man, an intact man. The most sensitive parts of my penis are gone. The “lips” of my prepuce were taken. My Ridged Band was taken. My Frenulum was taken. My Outer Foreskin was taken. And lastly, my Glans and Inner Foreskin are desensitized from constant chaffing from contact with the outside world. I also understand that these exquisitely sensitive parts of my anatomy and their functions were never explained to my parents.
Effectively, the “eyes and ears” of my system of sexual perception are gone. I can still have sex and I can still conceive a child, but most of the fun and much of the frequency are gone. I know about the reduced frequency from my experience with failed efforts – and fear of failed efforts. The loss of pleasure, the fun, is something I can only try to understand about by reading.
But, I know about numbness and loss. The memories of being unable to maintain an erection with women who I loved, who I was deeply attracted to both physically and emotionally, are still very sharp. So too, are the memories of my feelings of inadequacy and their feelings of being undesirable to me. As are the memories of those relationships drifting apart and inexplicably ending. Now, I understand why. I also understand that these predictable results of my circumcision were never explained to my parents.
I know about numbness and disease. I was taught about safe sex and I understand how important it is. But I also know that when I’ve tried to use condoms, I become totally numb. For me, condoms equal abstinence. With a condom, I am rarely able to maintain an erection and I’m never able to achieve orgasm. I understand why that is now. But faced with the choice of unsafe intercourse or no intercourse, I chose to be unsafe. And I paid the price. Circumcision isn’t the only thing that lasts forever. Some diseases last forever. So too, do the memories and anguish of an unwanted pregnancy. I’ll carry both of these for the rest of my life. Now I understand why. I also understand that my parents never knew that circumcision would put me in a situation where I’d need to take those risks in order to share intimacy with a loved one.
I’ve undergone a lot of personal growth throughout this process of dealing with my circumcision. I’ve researched about my body – what I was born with and how it functions. I’ve researched about how the medical community has deceived generations of parents about the practice of circumcision. I’ve researched about the difficulty of overcoming denial and breaking the cycle of ritual abuse that can exist within families. And I’ve researched the changing trends in choices that families are making for their sons – and this gives me hope.
Hope isn’t a word that easily comes into my heart and mind when I think about genital cutting. I am a survivor of an abusive sexual assault that I don’t remember…but can never forget. I will never know what sex is supposed to be like for a man. I will never look in the mirror and see a complete male form. But, I have learned that I can forgive my parents for letting strangers hurt me so badly. I have learned that I can love them still, in spite of my pain and anger. And that gives me hope.I have hope because I know that I can love and forgive. I can love and forgive because my parents were misled and they didn’t know any better. They had no easy access to research through the internet. They heard no voices of child advocacy pleading on my behalf. They had no reassurance from a large and growing group of parents who were challenging and rejecting the horrifying violation of routine infant genital mutilation.
My parents weren’t unwilling to learn – unwilling to protect me. They were deceived. And I forgive them.
I have hope because I can channel my negative feelings of betrayal, anger, pain and depression into something positive. I can advocate protecting the newborns of today who will become a generation of men tomorrow. I can help in a small way to educate today’s parents and be the voice for them that I wish was available to my parents. I can help break the cycle of violence against baby boys in the same way that it has been broken for baby girls.
Hope won’t return to me what was taken so long ago. But if I can help even a few parents choose to courageously challenge their doctors and their families in defense of their sons, it will be worth enduring all of the pain that I found hiding behind my own curtain of denial.
A million baby boys a year are crying out for someone to help them. I cannot remain silent. I cannot collude through inaction. I must try to do my part to help them however I can. Please join me in this effort. Our generation can protect the next generation.
“This is winter wheat we’re sowing, other hands will harvest.” ~ ECS
In deep and sincere solidarity with my newborn brothers,