What's Wrong with "Genital Autonomy"?
by Norm Cohen
That is, what is wrong with the phrase, not the concept.
Using the phrase “genital autonomy” to call for an end to infant circumcision is like using the phrase “labor autonomy” to call for the end of slavery. Technically, it is true and definitely a worthy goal, but as a name and as a message it suffers from several insufficiencies.
When it comes to spreading our message to the public, Intactivists often seem to make things more difficult than they need to be. After nearly 20 years of using “genital integrity” in the United States, a switch to “genital autonomy” was made without much discussion due to the influence of European and Australian activists.
Calls for genital autonomy are calls for preserving the choice to be circumcised until the child is an adult—as if non-therapeutic circumcision was a reasonable choice! It implies that choosing a circumcised or intact penis are both valid choices, and the only controversy is who is to make the choice.
For a movement that spends so much time speaking of, and rightfully praising, the functions of the foreskin, it is odd that “autonomy” has now crept into the name of our events. A choice is what one makes when there is something to be gained. We are trying to preserve a boy's genitals, not his choice. No one is proposing to deny autonomy to an adult, nor grant autonomy to a child.
Genital autonomy ignores the function and benefits of the foreskin in favor of a more innocent and abstract call for autonomy. The meaning of the word “autonomy” (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autonomy) is not clear to the average person. Autonomy can be defined as the ability of a person to make his or her own decisions. It is silent on the actual consequences of those decisions.
Autonomy is not used elsewhere in the context of genitalia and is limited in the context of children. Babies and children don't have--and are not in general capable of having--the same degree of autonomy as adults. Using autonomy in the context of children is confusing, even if what is meant by it is a choice delayed until adulthood.
Autonomy is also problematic because it highlights the potential conflict between parents and their children, religion and government, as well as doctors and their patients for 18 years before a child reaches emancipation. Genital autonomy calls for preserving a choice against those who have the power to take it away. The child is placed in opposition to his or her parents, caregivers, and culture.
The use of “genital autonomy” is somewhat deceitful because it pretends to be about preserving a choice that would never be considered if people understood the harm of circumcision in the way that we do. Autonomy is a ruse that hides our anti-circumcision motive on the assumption that it is a softer, more acceptable message than the sexual pleasures of the foreskin.
Demanding autonomy over a decision is only meaningful if the consequences of the decision are compelling enough, as they are in the case of circumcision. The public rightly concludes that choices without significant consequences don’t deserve their own protest movements. Preserving the freedom of choice of children is considered insignificant unless actual harm is involved.
We have a long way to go in convincing the American mainstream that harm is involved. Yet permitting a boy to have not just this particular choice preserved (autonomy) but also ensuring that the benefits of his foreskin are preserved (integrity) is a much more compelling message. This tangible, “do no harm plus benefit” message cannot be as easily dismissed as a plain “choice” message when pitted against calls for religious freedom and parental rights.
“Genital integrity” will always be a more relevant and accurate phrase for our work. It calls for maintaining the physical integrity of the penis. Genital integrity attempts to keep parents and children on the same side of the issue, at least in principle, by asserting the well-being of children and the undeniable state of normal genitals as having integrity.
Bodily integrity implies and includes the concept of bodily autonomy for persons capable of autonomy (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodily_integrity). However, autonomy does not imply integrity, and we have many examples of adult men using their autonomy to choose a very unnecessary circumcision. The root of our problem with genital cutting is not a lack of consent. If removing functional and beneficial tissue is no good for a child than honestly, it is also no good for a man.
We can’t win unless we dismember and trash the entire case for circumcision. Genital integrity serves this purpose far more closely than genital autonomy. Pain and trauma are issues that can be mitigated by our opponents. Loss of the function and benefits of the foreskin cannot. It will be the function and benefits of the foreskin that will win our case in the court of public opinion.
The concept of genital integrity can be challenging to explain, but our movement (and I myself) have been using this phrase for almost 20 years. “Integrity” sounds similar to “Intact” and “Intactivists”, so it has the advantage of helping people understand what we are really talking about.
The word “integrity” also implies the critical need for professional and parental honesty in how we think about, speak about, and treat the genitals of children. It implies the need for research studies that have integrity in their design and execution. It implies the need for professional integrity from healthcare providers free from religious conflicts of interest and other bias. Integrity requires beneficence--the doing of good for others.
Gloria Steinem stated in a recent interview on National Public Radio:
“… every person, male and female, has the right to control their own bodies from the skin in. I think we need a legal principle called something like ‘bodily integrity’ . . . Our skin needs to be the line of defense between our own dignity and will and any outside force.”
Calls for genital autonomy are not more convincing to the public than calls for genital integrity. Use of the name and phrase “genital autonomy” is a needless handicap in our difficult task of spreading our pro-foreskin message to the public. Ultimately, the collective consciousness of our culture will determine which phrase catches on in the minds of the American public and gains traction in the Media. But I cast my vote for making ourselves clear by always using our old standard: Genital Integrity.
I know what I’m working for, and I know that it’s called “Genital Integrity”.
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