Towards those who are against male genital mutilation, a common retort by males who had it done to them when they were infants is that they don’t remember it being done to them, and that they, supposedly, turned out fine.
A few years ago I had a conversation in person with a friend (a big pro-life advocate) in which I expressed my discomfort to him about a different mutual friend of ours who made light on social media of the fact that they were getting their newborn son circumcised. Actually it wasn’t him directly, but rather his wife, posting her baby boy’s photo and joking about how he’s about to get his circumcision. However it was clear that the father was absolutely in approval of this and thought nothing of it. Back to the conversation with my friend, I expressed my concern about that, and he told me that he may have somewhat understood where I’m coming from, he’s said that he himself was circumcised and he didn’t remember it, and he felt fine. When I tried to convey the helplessness of a baby boy when he has his body violated in this way, he proceeded to go into his own tangent about how fetuses don’t ask to be aborted, being a big pro-life advocate.
I will save my detailed thoughts on the hypocrisy of some pro-lifers who argue for the rights of the unborn but are completely ok with the tips of their baby boys’ penises knived off. Today I just want to zero in on the “I Don’t Remember My Circumcision and I Turned Out Alright” argument, and hopefully put that particular one to rest.
As I have stated previously, I myself was fortunately never circumcised, but would like to offer perspective based on a different kind of event in my childhood.
Trauma and Memory
When I was in the second grade during my time growing up in Japan, I was on my bicycle after school to head to baseball practice and was rather gleefully speeding down a light slope. Although I was about to go through a crosswalk in which I would have had the right of way, I should still have been much more careful and slowed down.
A car, said to have been in a hurry, ran over that red light and hit my bicycle. I flew off my bicycle across the car and hit my helmet-protected head on the pavement. I had broken my left collarbone. This had happened close enough to my own home, and in fact practically right outside the home of a school classmate whose family informed my mother and father who rushed over to the scene of the accident.
By the time my parents reached me and before the ambulance arrived, I had awoken from consciousness and was said to have been crying, wondering what happened to me. This basically continued all the way when my dad was accompanying me in the ambulance. Aside from my broken collarbone, my forehead was lightly swollen. The doctor had said that it was in fact a good sign that I actually regained consciousness so soon. I received a brain scan at the hospital and they detected nothing wrong with my head. I was asked questions by the doctor, such as whether I knew my name and whether I hurt, and I answered properly. I followed the light with my eyes, again properly. If I had not been wearing a helmet when it happened, the damage would have been much worse. I don’t regret wearing my helmet when it was not the norm among the Japanese to wear such a thing and I was in fact made fun for doing so. I of course also received an X-ray for the collarbone and fortunately it did not require surgery. I was able to return home soon and I escaped this with just a shoulder brace and a tiny scar on my forehead, which had faded in my adulthood.
From the vague memory of an oncoming car at the sidewalk at the end of the slope while I was on my bicycle, up until the moment I woke up in the dark bedroom on my futon after having slept for goodness knows how long, I have retained no memory whatsoever.
I don’t remember crying in the ambulance. I don’t remember answering the doctor’s questions. I don’t remember any moment of consciousness that I was said to have been in after the accident.
I had tried to imagine having undergone all the things that I was told I did. I tried to imagine being tossed into the pavement by a car. I tried to imagine the pain of having my collarbone broken. I tried to imagine actually being conscious to convey the pain. I would have guessed that it would have been excruciating for the roughly 8 year old me, perhaps it was. But it was so great at the time that I couldn’t retain any memory from the shock. Just because I don’t remember it, it doesn’t mean it was nothing, that it didn’t happen.
It is my understanding that this lack of memory of such an event is typical for anyone who has undergone it under similar circumstances.
I was not, however, an infant a small number of days old, who won’t have any kind of clear memory or acute perception as it is to begin with. The ones who inflict infant male genital mutilation and the parents high on traditionalism that abet it let it happen on the notion that babies won’t remember it, perhaps encouraged by the notion that you can do just about anything to a child and he won’t remember it. This is far from an effective argument for infant male genital mutilation, and instead betrays the willingness of the parties involved to prey upon on a baby boy because he cannot resist, stand for his rights and his bodily autonomy, nor retain the experience.
Of course the baby won’t remember his foreskin being knived off. But if he was being strapped down to have his fingers pried off one by one, assuming that doesn’t kill him, he won’t remember that either. It is still wrong. Speaking of killing, babies have died from neonatal cutting as well, by the way.
The baby’s lack of memory of the mutilation of his genitals is just a convenient excuse to perform it. It is not an indication that nothing traumatic had occurred.
If I cannot remember my own trauma caused in part by my own carelessness as an 8-year old but can still accept that it was actual harm that happened upon me, certainly we can recognize as harm the severe trauma and neurogenic shock of neonatal cutting as it happens to a days-old infant who had no say or understanding what would happen to him.
The Expectation to Cry
To add to the factor of the infant boy not remembering the shock of having his genitals cut, another factor that goes in tandem is the fact that we, as a whole, are so used to the idea of babies crying at any given situation at any given time. I wonder if this causes us to become relatively numb to the idea of an infant’s cries, and accept all circumstances as par the course when it comes to dealing with an infant… even certain ones they shouldn’t.
Americans in particular seem to be so used to the idea of male infant genital mutilation (which they euphemistically call a circumcision) that they regard it as standard procedure. The shriek that the babies emit as the knife hits the flesh is perhaps treated with no more regard than when a child trips, falls and scrapes his knee, or if they were to cry when getting their first shot.
On top of all of this, since the infant in question is a male, we are conditioned to treat his cry as less significant than that of a female. The response to an infant boy, even when he’s getting his foreskin cut without an anesthetic, seems to be something along the lines of “get over it.” Funny, how we (rightly) malign female genital mutilation when it happens to girls who reach a certain age as a sick “welcome to womanhood”, but a boy is barely out of her mother’s womb before he is basically told to “man up.”
Genital mutilation on infant boys is routinely done on the premise that the boy won’t remember it, and that he can get over it, that his cries as it happens mean nothing. Not being able to remember such trauma is not an indication that it was no big deal, but rather an opportunity for those who are malevolent at worst and unthinking at best to force their boy to conform to a completely pointless standard, oftentimes at the risk of his life.
Let us not airbrush the trauma of an infant boy just because it’s been traditional all this time to do so. This applies to recipients mired in self-denial as well as their complicit parents.