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Ten Keys to Success as an Intactivist – The Intactivist Circle
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Ten Keys to Success as an Intactivist

Some Lessons from NOCIRC of Michigan

by Norm Cohen, Director, NOCIRC of Michigan
NOCIRC of Michigan

This was originally presented as a talk on April 1st, 2001 at NOCIRC’s national conference, Genital Integrity: A New Awareness, in Washington, DC.


We all have the tough and thankless job of taking on the American cultural standard of circumcision. We have had to work hard against mainstream opinions and at times it seems like an impossible task.

My talk is half motivational and half strategic. This talk is not The Seven Habits of Highly Effective
Intactivists nor is it Chicken Soup for the Intactivists Soul, but it is meant to motivate and inspire.
There is no Guide to Intactivism yet, so we have to learn from the success of others in our
movement and in other fields.

Circumcision is by far the worst form of child abuse that is still widely accepted in the United States.
It is different than all other forms of sexual abuse because there are no societal taboos against it. Our
institutions and so-called “experts” endorse it rather than condemn it. Thus, we are in the unique and
unenviable position in this society of trying to convince a consuming culture not to consume a
product that is widely popular and easily available. We are confronting both personal and cultural
denial. In essence, we are “un-marketing” circumcision. This is more difficult than marketing a
product but requires similar tactics.

Human rights is the ever-growing awareness of respect for every individual. We have traveled along
this path much further than most in concluding that circumcision is a human rights violation, and
therefore we have few allies in the human rights field to help us. However, the whole history of
human rights tells us that circumcision as a cultural phenomenon will end sooner or later no matter
what. Our mission as Intactivists today is to end it sooner rather that later.

We are educating a new generation for the well being of all children. The public’s response to our
activism is evolving from viewing us as “crazy”, “wrong” and outside the mainstream to being a
rational reaction to a harmful surgery. The paradox of our success is that as we become more
successful, we will become more mainstream, both in the minds of the public and in the way we
operate as non-profit organizations.

We must combine our compassion with our intellect and our strength. Henry David Thoreau said,
“You must have a genius for charity as well as for anything else.” I hope my presentation today can
help make your work a little easier and more effective. I’ll be focusing on strategic points, not
tactical ones. Now I’d like to offer my ten keys to success as an activist.

KEY ONE:  The Importance of Being Earnest:
Your Attitude is Your Biggest Asset

1. We are the champions of children! We are the champions of sexual pleasure with
intact genitals!

2. Our goal is clear; but our path is not. If you insist on a certain path that your road
of activism must take, you may be surprised and disappointed by the twists and
turns up ahead.

3. Expect change, but don’t expect to know when or exactly how it will happen.

4. Activists come and go in this movement not because they fail, but because they run
out of steam.

5. There is no failure in this business, only less success.

KEY TWO:  Who are You?
Change Yourself Before Changing the World

1. Why are you here today? Why are you in this movement? What does your
activism give you that no other pursuit does? How has it affected your personal
life? Your professional life?

2. I suggest that you’re involved not because circumcisions continue to happen, but
rather because of a wonderful strength you have found inside yourself. The
decisive factor in becoming an activist was not learning something new about
circumcision, but learning something new about your own ability to contribute to
eliminating it. Continue to nurture that process!

3. What needs does activism meet for you? Has it enabled you to heal some of your
own pain or to simply avoid it? If circumcisions all stopped tomorrow, what
activism, if any, would you be doing?

4. We all have had to confront our own personal pain and obstacles when making
contributions to this movement. We must finesse our activism with our own
personal healing around our trauma of circumcision. Our wounded and defensive
side may be the side that energizes our activism, but if we let that side make
decisions on our tactics for activism, we cannot be effective in the long run.

5. How do your feelings about circumcision get in the way of your effectiveness as an
activist? How do you separate your own healing process from your strategy and
tactics as an activist?

6. Is your strategy effective or is it really just what you want to do anyway? Consume
a diet of rational thought when planning your strategy and tactics. Be willing to
change your thinking in order to change the world.

7. Successful organizations evolve just as people do. What keeps you from working
more closely with other individuals in the movement?

8. We all have our own approach. Just be sure that you define what yours is.

9. The only person I am responsible for is myself. Likewise, the only feelings I am
responsible for are mine. This frees me from worrying about offending other
people. However, to be effective, I must still be willing to choose my words
carefully so that people can understand my message rather than being forced to hear
the words that I think they should understand.

10. This work is a marathon, not a sprint. Be good to yourself. Care must be taken not
to re-traumatize yourself in the process of healing your world and yourself. Give
yourself permission to take off the activist hat whenever you want to. You will then
be able to return to this work refreshed and revitalized.

KEY THREE:  What in the World are You Working On?
Focus Your Energy

1. We are most productive when we are doing something that turns us on. Just think
about how humans reproduce.

2. How do you define your progress? Can you measure it?

3. Don’t confuse work with progress. Has your work been effective in bringing about

4. Stop fighting with people−start working! Are you changing people’s minds or are
you just arguing with them? An activist should write letters to bring about change,
not to argue with people.

5. What about the battles with institutions that disagree with us? Are you wasting
your time on them? Do you honestly believe that David killed Goliath?
Confrontation is not our goal. Are you expecting them to grant you permission to
do this work? Are you expecting them to do this work for you?

6. Make more friends than you do enemies. Find some part of yourself in your
enemies. The circumcisers, like the segregationists, will die old, alone, and

KEY FOUR:  You Ought to be Committed!
Are You in this for Life?

1. If you decide that you are in this movement for life, the setbacks are much easier to

2. You are worth more than you think. You made it here to this conference! Assets
are the things you have plus the things you do.

3. We all get lost in “the thick of thin things.” Social change is something that
happens before we really notice it. Some changes move much slower than we
expect, but other changes come much faster. We all worry about the wrong things
by expecting that small actions actually make big differences. This is rarely the

4. Yes, babies survive even when tortured. Accepting this may make your work
easier. It is a testimony of the human spirit.

KEY FIVE:  Continuing Education:
Making it Up as You Go Along

1. Bring your experience and learnings from one field and apply them to another.

2. Don’t let a lack of knowledge stop you. It hasn’t stopped incompetent people, why
should it stop intelligent people like you?

3. Learn what you need to meet your goals: Internet, desktop publishing, Web
publishing, bulk mailing, fund-raising, grant writing, bookkeeping, advertising,
exhibiting, etc. Find others in the movement that can help you.

KEY SIX:  What in the World are We Doing?
Marketing, Marketing, Marketing

1. We are in the business of marketing information. Marketing means reaching the
decision-makers and the decision-influencers (health care professionals) with our
message. As an activist, our social change marketing strategy includes education,
lobbying, and legal action.

2. Our effectiveness is related to the number of would-be parents and health care
providers we can reach with a meaningful message. Recently, it has also become
related to the effectiveness of our lobbying and lawsuits.

3. Marketing our message is the same as a business marketing a product. We can and
should adopt the strategy and tactics that any successful business uses to market.
Basically, this involves addressing the needs of the consumer (mother or father) as
well as current consumer trends. We can best market our product by creating an
understanding of circumcision in the mind of the consumer that is consistent with
their needs. They will “buy” our message when it meets their needs.

4. When presenting parents with an anti-circumcision message, we are actually
confronting three of their basic human needs. These needs, in order of immediacy
in their minds, are safety, belonging, and self-actualization. These needs apply to
parents, and by association, to their sons and to the men they become. To be
successful in promoting our message, a parent must accept that, in the end,
circumcision is undesirable for his or her son.

5. The safety of a circumcision certainly is an issue here. However, at the core of our
confrontation with their opinion is their fundamental need to belong. This need to
belong includes social conformity, religion, family tradition, sexual “purity”, or an
aesthetic sense. It is always a very strong personal need, and it should not be

6. The parent may use other people or institutions (medicine, religion, etc.) to justify
or disguise the need to belong as a set of “rational” beliefs. Unfortunately, human
rights (as self-actualization) is usually the last thought in the train of consciousness
about circumcision.

7. Are we “Coke” or are we “Vernors?” Our brand name is an important asset in our
work. Greater popular brand name recognition is important to gaining access to the
media, winning supporters and getting donations. Let’s try to avoid the duplication
and overhead involved in having multiple organizations.

KEY SEVEN:  Time is Not on Your Side:
Be a Clock Watcher!

1. Learn to say “NO.”

2. Reduce or eliminate tasks that are less effective in favor of those that are more

3. Are you in an information jam? Put a cost on acquiring and storing information.

4. This means abandoning some tasks, email, or data gathering you previously

5. Networking: Do You Know Somebody Who Knows Somebody?

6. This world runs on relationships. Make friends in order to influence people.

7. Build friendships with members of other groups who share our feelings about
circumcision. Find out about events they exhibit at. Give them pamphlets in bulk.

8. Find out what others are interested in helping with and give them the opportunity to
help you as an activist.

9. Build a mailing list.

10. Expand your horizons. We tend to view this debate as “us versus them.” However,
a circumcision unconsciousness still exists in America. We must focus on the huge
silent middle: the innocently ignorant people that just don’t know any better. The
circumcisers’ worse fear is that we will be able to reach this large mass of people
with our message.

KEY NINE:  Don’t Misplace Your Ethics Along the Way

1. We must always maintain the highest ethical standards. Do not misrepresent
yourself or the available evidence. Parents or doctors will seize on one poorly
chosen statement and ignore your message. It is counterproductive and has been

2. The end does not justify the means. Ethics is more than just not breaking the law.
It is being true to yourself as well as to others.

3. Avoid the temptation in the heat of the moment, e.g. name calling, lying, etc. Being
polite helps you because it helps you stay calm.

4. We don’t need any martyrs. Don’t sacrifice yourself.

KEY TEN:  How Can We Make Them Understand?
The Important of Effective Communication

1. We are the “Experts in Caring.” The circumcision controversy is not a cold and
impersonal debate. This debate is about babies, about children, about fathers and
mothers. Be sure to put faces on the debate. We must portray ourselves as the
world’s experts on circumcision and the champions with the moral “upper-hand”
when it comes to protecting others from harm.

2. We are defending the rights of the consumer to safe, compassionate, honest, and upto-
date health care for their baby boy. We are advocating for better treatment for
their children! We are promoting the intact penis as the new standard for genital
health and sexual pleasure!

3. The most important tool that we have is effective communication. It is the most
important skill for an activist to master. Any individual or organization serious
about creating lasting change must become experts in sharing their message.

4. We will attract more respect, donations and volunteers by being polished and
professional in all of our communications, printed materials, and web sites.

5. Put your name where your mouth is. You are our pitch-person. People like
donating money to talented and vibrant leaders, not to “causes.”

6. Do not let the medical community define the scope of the circumcision debate. The
issue is much broader than medicine.

7. Define the debate on our terms. The focus of our message is that we are protecting
the medical consumer (parents, children, and men) from the harm and from the
historical medical fraud of circumcision. For parents, it is the harm to their boys;
for men, it is the harm to their sexual enjoyment. Put a value on the foreskin and its

8. Ideology shackles effective communication. Vary your word use based on the
audience instead of forcing your audience to try to comprehend your word use. We
are too close to our subject matter to choose our words best. For example, why
would parents say “NO” to something beneficial? Ask a casual observer to
translate how a layperson would understand your language.

9. There is a synergy growing between intactivists and restorers. Foreskin restoration
has become the largest single indictment against circumcision.

10. Ensure that the issue of sexual desensitization dominates popular discussions of
circumcision. Exploit this issue as a means to warn parents about circumcision and
to steal the debate away from opposing doctors. A pro-foreskin message will be
increasingly effective for us.

11. When the historians write the final chapter on the history of circumcision, the end
of circumcision, like the cause, will be found right here in the culture itself.
Cultural attitudes about human sexuality were responsible for the rise of
circumcision, and, in the end, they will be equally responsible for its fall.


1. We do this work because we love it and because no one else will do it for us.

2. We have prevented the manufacture of misery and the very first abuse many
children would have otherwise suffered. We have made them happier and healthier
and most of them will never even know to thank us for it.

3. We are in the process of ending a 6,000 year-old man-made plague. We are quite
literally changing humanity. I’m proud to be associated with this movement and
proud to be doing this work. In doing this work, we are the luckiest people on

Norm Cohen, Director, NOCIRC of Michigan
NOCIRC of Michigan

This was originally presented as a talk on April 1st, 2001 at NOCIRC’s national conference, Genital Integrity: A New Awareness, in Washington, DC.

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